Lost in the Jungle

Trip Start Jul 21, 2009
Trip End Apr 28, 2010

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Flag of Panama  , Darién,
Friday, November 20, 2009

This story, Iīm afraid, requires a bit of background first.  As you may know, John and I are passing through Central America, and planning to head to South America (Colombia) soon, via a sailboat.  The reason for this is that there is no road connection between Panama and Colombia.  The Pan-American Highway, which starts in Alaska, passes through the western USA, Mexico and all of Central America, down into Panama, takes a brief break before it picks up again in Colombia.  From there, it continues through the western edge of South America straight down to the tip of Argentina.  All the way from Alaska to Argentina, but it canīt pass through a small stretch connecting Panama and Colombia.  This area is known as the Darien Gap, and is named after the area of Panama, called the Darien Providence.  There are several reasons why they canīt (or now, perhaps, wonīt) connect the two pieces of road, but the biggest ones, historically, have been the jungle and the guerillas.  This stretch is home to a very dense and very wet rainforest which is not conducive to land travel.  More recently, stretches have been extremely dangerous due to activity from drug trafficking, etc.  To pass through overland and come out in Colombia is still considered to be, essentially, suicidal.  Which is why John and I will be going around, by sailboat (perfectly safe).

That being said, there are sections of this providence that are perfectly safe and open for tourism.  The advantage of visiting is that you get to see untouched rainforests and non-westernized cultures in a way thatīs not possible anywhere else in the world.  Originally, John and I had not been planning to visit, as tours are typically very very expensive.  However, one of the employees of our hostel is originally from this region, and was advertising tours to the area.  As we started talking to him, we realized that a less formal tour would be possible and potentially very interesting.

On the downside, this employee speaks Spanish at a very very rapid pace, and extremely broken English.  As a result, our pre-trip discussions were detailed enough for us to know we were interested, but vague enough that we didnīt quite know what we were signing up for.  At the end of the discussion, we knew a price, transportation plans, and the names of the cities we would be visting.  We knew that we shouldnīt expect modern luxuries, like showers or toilets or beds.  We booked a flight to a place called Sambu, with the understanding that this guyīs brother would be meeting us at the airport.  And with that, we were off to the jungle.

Day One:  Lost in the Jungle

Tuesday morning, we woke up, packed everything into our daypacks, and headed for the airport.  The domestic airport, the bus terminal, and the mall all share a common space, so we were familiar with the area we were going, but we werenīt quite sure how to access the airport.  As we asked the bus driver,  he pointed to the far corner of the mall and indicated that we just walk over there.  It didnīt quite seem right, so we checked at the information desk inside.  ĻWalking?Ļ  they asked "itīs very close" and gave us directions to the same corner where the bus driver had pointed.  Well, if two people point you in the same direction, itīs typically right, so we started walking.  Sure enough, we made it to the corner of the mall, where the road turned.  Taxis were coming from that direction (a promising sign) so we continued following the road.  Which lead, not surprisingly, to the backside of the mall.  From there, we could see something that looked like an airport.  The only problem was, there was a parking lot, a highway, and an airstrip between us and the possible airport.  Flagging down a mall cop, I explained that we had been told it was possible to walk, but I couldnīt understand how.  The cop looked at me, then explained things very slowly, using pretty small words.  You cross the parking lot, then cross the highway.  Walk along the side of the highway, parallel to the airstrip, until you reach the end.  Then turn around and walk back the other side.  Then youīre at the airport.  The "duh" was implied, but Iīm still convinced there must have been an easier way to connect the two popular transportation hubs rather than walk a half an hour along a busy highway.

Eventually, we reached the airport, and we were off on what was destined  to be a lost sort of trip, where we never quite knew what was going on.

As the small (15-person) plane touched down in Sambu, the guy sitting on the other side of me leaned over to explain that he had first come here as a missionary and a linguist in the early 60īs, and had been personally responsible for installing the airstrip we were about to land on.  He was coming back to celebrate the translation of the Bible into the local languages -- the final result of 50 years of his lifeīs work.

When we landed, we were relieved to find that our guide was, indeed, waiting for us.  Our plane had departed and arrived 30 minutes late, which apparently factored into our plans for the day.  After checking in with immigration (safety reasons, apparently), we went to grab lunch in a local resturant and go over, briefly, our plans for the next few days.  I should clarify, at this point, that this did not answer all of our questions that we had.  Our guide spoke three languages, but not English.  The best we could do is to work with my quasi-Spanish, and hope for the best.  This should explain why we never did exactly figure out what we were doing in Sambu.  We knew the plan for that day was to go to a town called La Chunga, but we didnīt appear to be going.  After lunch, we stopped to buy purified water, then started to wander around the town.  Sambu is a relatively large town, with a population of nearly 1,000.  We walked up and down the streets (sidewalks, to be more accurate) and had a look around, not clear if this was a tour of the town or if we were waiting for something.  Eventually, it started to rain, so we popped up into one of the houses.

In this area, the houses are all built on stilts, so we climbed up a slippery wet wooden staircase to enter this familyīs house.  The family seemed to know our guide, so we sat and talked a bit in broken Spanish, trying to understand as much as I can.  One of the older kids climbed out their kitchen into the orange tree, and picked a bunch of oranges for everyone.  (The houses donīt necessarily have walls on all four sides, and this one was lacking a wall where the orange tree was growing through).  The standard in this area seems to be to use a knife to cut the (green, not orange) peel off in a single spiral, leaving behind the bitter pith.  They then slice a bit off the top, and eat it by squeezing the thing into your mouth, or taking bites through the top.  When I started to peel my orange, the entire house stopped to watch and, surprisingly, to laugh at me.  So, why not -- I tried it their way.  As it turns out, itīs messy and it seems wasteful, as you donīt actually eat the orange, only the juice and some of the pulp. 

After about 15 minutes in this house, our guide looked a little bored and decided that we were going to the bar.  It hadnīt stopped raining, so I guess we werenīt just there to wait out the rain, after all.  At the bar, we sat down and had a beer with our guide.  When we were about half way through, the guide announced that it was time to go again, and we walked across town to what appeared to be a small office.  We walked in and sat down for a while, still not at all clear what was going on.  After about 15 minutes in this office, someone waved us over to the building next door, which turned out to be the office we were looking for in the first place.  There, a somewhat official looking person wrote down our passport information in a very informal notebook.  This stop, as it turned out, was to gain official permission to visit this area of the country.  A few places in Panama are opperated to a degree as a separate country under local control, and this is one of them.  Thus, with our official entry into the area, it was apparently time to leave Sambu.  We walked back across town, where we met up with our boat captian and found our boat. 

Our boat for the next two days was a traditional dug-out canoe, with a whole single seat, which John and I shared, and a engine propped on the back.  We loaded up, and set out for a very scenic trip down the river, watching the jungle and many birds as we passed by.  Eventually, we turned up a smaller branch of the river, and the trees closed in above us to create a fantastic jungle feeling.  Not too far up this river, we reached a bridge, and a small sign welcoming us to the village of La Chunga.  A little ways up the path, we reached the beginning of the village, which consisted of  a few traditional houses up on stilts, and a school.  Towards the end of the village, we stopped to talk to a man working outside the school.  Our guide explained that this was "the boss" of the village, and we presumed that we were notifying him of our presence there.

At the end of the village, we reached the house that would be our lodging for the night.  A set of stairs led up to a square wooden platform, that made up the living room/dining room.  On each of three sides was a rectangular platform, elevated about 6 inches higher than the main room.  Two of these, as it turns out, would be used for sleeping.  The third was the kitchen.  The bedrooms had short (3 foot?) walls along the outside, and the entire house was covered by a thached roof, but otherwise everything was open to the outdoors.  Parallel to the fourth wall, separated by a gap of perhaps 5 feet, was a second platform of approximately equal size, that was used as a bedroom and extra space.  This one had a ladder-type access and no walls.  The furniture in the house was limited to a single dining table and two benches.  The latrine/outhouse was placed across the yard, and the shower (a faucet of running water and a bucket surrounded by low bushes) was out back.

In the remaining time before dinner, John and I opted to explore the town.  With a population of approximately 100 people, this didnīt take particularly long, but within the first few minutes, we had attracted a following of several kids.  The kids seemed quite attached to us, grabbing hold of us, and frequently fighting amongst themselves to see who got to hold our hands.  As we walked, they gave us a tour of their own sorts, by pointing at trees and naming them.  Thus, our tour went something like this:  "Mango!  Orange.  Mandarin.  Mango.  Orange.  Orange.  Orange.  Palm. Orange" with slight variations depending on where we were walking.  In addition to naming trees, their next favorite activity was having their picture taken, then scrambling around to see themselves on the screen of the camera.  This provided enough entertainment to nearly wear out the batteries on my camera. 

In addition to the trees and pictures, an adult guide we picked up along the way pointed out some of the features of the town, and explained a bit about the people and culture.  This particular town was Embera, one of the seven indiginous groups in Panama, and the language spoken was both a local language, and also Spanish.  We saw some of the materials used in making baskets (the most common traditional craft in this area), and the process of turning green plants into little grains of rice.  Each house has bags full of the raw plants, and the equipment (essentially, a large mortar and pestle) for separating the grains. 

After our tour, we returned to the house for dinner with the family, and settled in for an early night.  Without electricity, once the sun goes down, there`s a limited amout you can do.  Our bed consisted of a thermarest covered with a sheet, topped off by a tent-like contraption of partial old sheets that served as a mosquito net.  It wasnīt quite long enough for John, so we figured out a way to sleep diagonal across the tent to fit in.

Day Two:  Going With the Flow

Wednesday morning, I woke up when the roosters started making noise, which is well before dawn.  There are simply too many of them to ignore them completely.  By the time we actually got up and ate breakfast (which I can only describe "fried stuff"), it was pouring down rain.  The day before, we had been under the impression that we would not be doing any walking in this area, but heading to the next town.  However, at breakfast, there was suddenly an option on the table to go for a hike.  The goal, apparently, would be to seek out the endangered Harpy Eagle.  Since we didn`t really know what to expect when we signed up for this trip, John and I had agreed to try to just go with the flow.  And thatīs how we some how ended up smiling and agreeing that a 3-4 hour hike through the mud and rain to see a bird sounded like a great idea.

When we left, we set out with two people from the village, but not our actual guide.  Apparently these guys knew the trails much better and would make better guides for the hike.  We had hardly gone 20 feet when I was called back to get the water bottle.  When I returned to where John was waiting, he informed me that he was already soaked through -- it was going to be a long hike!

The first portion of the hike took us through the fields that were used by the village for farming.  The first contained numerous plantain trees, and the next contained corn and rice.  Eventually, we turned off into the rainforest and headed up the "mountian" (a term they use very liberally in these parts).  The trail was interesting and not too terribly difficult, except for the mud.  Ankle-deep in many places and slippery everywhere, it made for fairly slow progress.  Several places were deep enough that a log had been placed to cross, but multiple crossings had left the logs wet, slippery and muddy and therefore challenging to cross.  Although we passed a number of large trees, the hike didnīt have the same sort of giant plants and leaves that weīve seen other places, and the wildlife was limited to a few butterflies.  Eventually, though, the guide announced that we had arrived. 

We were at the top of a hill, and there were several giant trees where the eagles can be found.  The trees are massive, perhaps 15 feet wide and 100 feet tall, and perfectly smooth almost all the way up with a nice round top.  After a minute or two of looking, the guide announced there was an eagle at the top of one of these trees.  After I had been squinting and searching for several minutes, the bird moved and suddenly the giant eagle was obvious in the tree tops.  The Harpy Eagles are about 7 feet from wing tip to wing tip, so even at the top of the tree, it made for an impressive sight.  The rain had slowed (but not stopped), so the bird was continually spreading itīs wings and flapping just a bit to try and dry off.  We stayed to watch the bird for quite a while, then eventually headed back.  We arrived back just 3 hours after we had left, soaked through (even through the raincoats) and covered to the knees with pure mud.  Lovely.

After a quick lunch, it was time to head to the next town.  First, however, they offered to paint us.  I canīt say this sounded like a great idea, but hey -- we were going with the flow.  I ended up with a temporary tatoo in geometric patterns that covers most of my right arm, and looks... odd.  Rushed, weīll say.  John has a smaller one that only covers his right bicep.  They assured us that the ink would last 3-5 days and not smear.  As a side note, 4 days later, it hasnīt started to fade, but has left smears and ink marks all over our arms, chest, back and even my face. 

Back in our dugout canoe, we headed the remainder of the way up the river (Rio Sambu) and out into the ocean.  We followed the coastline a while until we came to our next destination, Tametei.  The trip took about 2 hours, and the wider river and ocean provided less scenery than the previous day.  The rain and the sea spray made for a rather wet journey.  This is the town where our guide was from, so we headed straight through to his house, where we met his wife, three kids (ages 3, 4 and 6, roughly), his mother and two other men living in the house.  (Possibly his father and brother?  Communication became an issue here, as at varying times our guide said he had anywhere from 3 to 8 brothers, so I know I lost something in the translation).  The house setup was similar to the last one, with a small barn in place of the second platform.  Once here, we opted to stay under the dry roof and try to air out some of our wet clothes and shoes before dinner.

Dinner was at the local resturant, which had one table, and John and I as the sole customers.  There was a tv on the floor, which was surrounded by kids watching a rather violent movie in English.  We eventually determined this to be a seafood resturant, as we ate 4 consecutive meals here, and every single one contained a new type of fish or mysterious thing from the ocean.  Breakfast, for example, was a small clam collected from the beach, and lunch was something that the guide could only explain as "seems like calamari, but itīs not".  It was interesting, and the food was good.  Seafood made for a great break from the chicken-rice-beans combination that has been following us for months.

The sleeping arrangements for that night were simialar to the previous night, but without the thermarest type mat.  Just a very thin blanket over the wooden floor.  In addition, this particular town is more of a Latino population, and slightly more modern.  They do have, for example, electricity and potable water.  As we found out that night, while trying to sleep, there was a bar not too far away that was quite hopping for a Wednesday night, and stayed that way late into the night.

Day Three: River Shrimp

On Thursday, we woke up to find that it was, for once, not raining.  Our guide, along with his wife and two older kids, took us down to the beach where we had left the canoe the previous night.  From there, we walked up and down the beach for quite a ways in each direction.  Along the way, our guide pointed out an amazing number of different types of tiny clams and crabs that live in the tidal zone, all of which are used locally for food.  We walked past mangroves in some parts, and in others, the jungle extended right up to the beach.  Although the tide only changes by a few feet here, the shallow zones drop slowly enough that, at low tide, the ocean was perhaps a 100 meters out from where it had been before.  The zone in-between was covered with birds searching for little things burrowed in the sand.

After lunch, we were greated with another complete downpour.  The plan for that afternoon had been to visit a small indigenous community, about a 10 minute walk away, and John and I decided that we would still do it, despite the rain.  As we were about to leave, our guide announced that he would not be going with us, but that his brother would be our guide instead.  We set out, and about 40 muddy minutes later, arrived at the village. 

This town, population 150 or so, was composed of a second indiginous group, known as the Wonnan.  Our guide for the afternoon continually explained how different this group was from the Embera, in language and culture.  When pressed for details he explained again that they had a different language, a different culture, and things like that.  To John and I, the style of the village, the traditional dress, the crafts and the people seemed strikingly similar. 

A slow lap around the village took about 20 minutes, and unlike the other town, here the kids ran away as we approached, then stared from behind a wall or door until we passed.  We headed outside of town to a stretch of the river with a shallow pool.  Here, John changed into his swimsuit, hopped in, and took a much-needed bath.  (I opted for the stinky but dry approach, as the rain had temporarily stopped.)  While John was swimming, our guide pulled the shell of a jumbo shrimp out of the river.  He explained that there were numerous shrimp in this river, and that they were quite tasty.  Returning to the village, we still had time before dinner, so our guide took us to his friendsī house for a bit.  Here we sat and had a somewhat interesting conversation as they explained a bit about their town, and asked us questions about the US.  They seemed fascinated by the fact that our city (Chicago) had more people than their entire country. 

Eventually, we headed back to the house for dinner and another early night.

Day Four:  Pacific Sunrise

The last day of our trip centered around getting back to Panama City.  Our departure was based strictly on the tides, which made sense after having seen the bech the previous morning.  As a result, we left the house at 4 am, and started making our way to the beach.  Along the way, we made multiple stops through the town, to pick up things like a captian, a motor for the boat, and a wheelbarrow to carry the motor.  By the time they had everything assembled and ready to go, nearly an hour had passed.  As we climbed in to the boat and headed for the town of La Palma, about two hours away, John and I discussed some of the seemingly basic things that had been missing from our boat trips -- things like life jackets, or lights for the boat while traveling in the pitch dark.  To be fair, though, the night wasnīt pitch black -- there were an absolutely amazing number of stars up in the sky, and John and I sat back and watched them until the sun came up.  As we headed into La Palma, I was watching something off the side of the boat.  At first I thought it was a piece of wood with a branch, but as I watched, it was clearly swimming along the surface.  I glanced back at the guide, who simply said "shark".  Very cool!

From there, our journey to Panama City was long and uneventful.  A water taxi from La Palma to Puerto Quimba, a collectivo to Meteti, and a very long bumpy bus ride to the city.  Along the bus ride, we stopped twice for immigration checks, where military men wrote our passport information in notebooks with cartoon characters on the front -- very official looking.  We also stopped at a agricultural checkpoint, where a guard boarded the bus and started feeling through the hand luggage in the overhead compartment.  When he came to one box, he ripped it open, and pulled out a squash.  Announcing that the squash could not pass, he finished searching the bus, then left with the squash, followed by an unreasonably distraught woman, apparently the owner of the squash.  A long series of paperwork ensued, but eventually we were on our way, squash free.

Arriving back in Panama City, John and I stopped off at the bus station mall for a late lunch, and it was surprising how quickly, after 4 days of rain, mud and basic conditions, we could be back in a mega modern world of oversized malls and huge food courts.  It was an interesting couple of days. 

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Kathy (mom) on

I don't know where to start! What an incredible journey! You and John are having experiences very few people will ever have. I admire your willingness to "go with the flow", and I really enjoy your great writing! Keep safe-
love, mom

Dad on


vivacious09 on

Sounds like an amazing leg of your journey! Wow!!

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