The notorious ‘Gap’ between the Americas has long been a stronghold of guerillas and druglords, now its puma-padded jungle is opening
Suddenly, without warning, Hernan raised his hand, silently grinding to a halt – a pile of puma droppings at his feet. They were fresh – alarmingly so – and bore signs of a large peccary kill. Hernan scrutinised the leafy depths, ears pricked and eyes narrowed, while I held my breath. Puma are more likely to attack a human than, say, a jaguar is, so when we discovered new tracks on the forest floor we marched on in eerie silence, flinching at every snapped twig or birdcall.
“I reckon it weighs about 70kg,” Hernan guesstimated as I scanned the jungle, picturing the sleek cat’s powerful forequarters and grasping jaws – the ultimate ambush predator. Hernan quickened the pace, his senses heightened, striding purposefully under 1m-high spiders’ webs and a dense canopy of palms. Here, in Panama’s Darién province, I felt small, insignificant and rather low down on the food chain.
The wild expanses of the Darién have defied explorers for hundreds of years. A 17th-century attempt by the Scots to colonise the region was doomed to failure, and pushed troops to the brink of madness as they trudged deeper into the jungle. Wholly unprepared for the area’s incomparable harshness, they battled wild animals and infection, their bodies macerated. Eventually they surrendered to despair.Today, 300 years later, the Darién is still a relative unknown. Vast swathes remain a lost, uninhabited, unspoilt world that time seems to have forgotten: gnarled, tangled, dark and impenetrable.
FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) guerrillas retain a stronghold in large areas of the Darién, rendering the dense, eastern stretch along the Colombian border off-limits. Drug-runners also operate out of the forest, swallowed up by the shadows. But parts of the Darién are open to – and safe for – visitors, like me.
I was still a little apprehensive as I began my journey to the regional capital La Palma. We bounced around in a plane the size of a podgy mosquito, skimming a landscape of thick, green, broccoli-like vegetation. My five fellow passengers, all dark-skinned Afro-Dariénites, were fingering beads and mumbling prayers, their foreheads beaded with sweat.
In suffocating heat, the plane lurched violently as the pilot struggled to drag the aircraft downwards. A tiny clearing appeared below, no bigger than a cinnamon stick, and we all breathed easier once we’d bumped down onto the tattered concrete. Tangled vines, swamps, waterfalls and mountain peaks surrounded us in an utter remoteness that has been the Darién’s salvation. Few places on earth boast such impassable knots of jungle.
I was accompanied by the region’s premier guide, naturalist and jungle survival expert Hernan Arauz. A veteran pioneer of Darién expeditions, Arauz knows the region like no other and boasts an extraordinary pedigree: he’s the son of Panama’s leading anthropologist, Reina Torres de Arauz, and legendary jungle explorer Amado Arauz. In a two-decade career, Hernan has sweet-talked FARC commanders, halted stampeding peccaries and pounced on striking fer-de-lance snakes. Stocky, strong and assured, he packs a gun – legally – and wears a machete the size of a gatepost. By his side, I was in safe hands.
Together we clung to a tarp-covered boat during the choppy 90-minute journey from La Palma to our jungle camp. At Playa Patiño’s dark-sand ribbon we jumped ship into warm knee-deep water and waded ashore.
Our base was Punta Patiño, a jutting spit high above the historic Gulf of San Miguel, where Spanish discoverer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa became the first European to set eyes on the Pacific Ocean in 1513. The larger Darién region encompasses more than 8,000 sq km of protected areas, including Darién National Park and two Emberá indigenous reserves. At 263 sq km, Punta Patiño is Panama’s largest private reserve, owned by ANCON, an environmental non-profit organisation, and run by its for-profit sister company, Ancon Expeditions. ANCON has spent a decade nurturing large swathes of the reserve, to better preserve its red and black mangrove.
As jungle huts go, the Punta Patiño Lodge was positively comfy and blessed with jaw-dropping views across the Gulf. Its ten wooden cabins have private rainwater bathrooms, hammock-slung verandas and mosquito-netted bunks. Humpback and pilot whales can be spotted from the lodge’s treetop terrace while caimans lurk in the swampier mangroves. As the light faded on our first evening, we searched for owls and night monkeys, deluged by the sound of cicadas, mosquitoes and red-eyed tree frogs.
As Hernan introduced me to the tropical dry forest along the Sendero Piedra de Candela (Flintstone Trail) – so named because of the sparks created when a machete strikes the reddish quartz along this stretch.
“Quick! Wow, listen – listen,” Hernan hissed in rapture as the maniacal call of a snake hawk resonated in the trees above. “He’s been in the Darién too long,” Hernan joked, twirling an index finger close to his head to indicate the bird’s madness.
The trail meets a rough coastal path after 2.5km, which gives way to a five-hour slog past the small Afro-Colonial town of Punta Alegre (Happy Point) – a gloomy outpost, despite its sunny name. We took a sticky two-hour loop that snaked through bird-filled secondary-growth coastal forest, gloriously alive with woodpeckers, toucans and hummingbirds.
Back at Punta Patiño we spread our maps on the terrace to plan our next muddy foray, simultaneously scouring the seascape for bottlenose dolphins along the coast. Sweating profusely in heat like Hades, a sudden downpour from the glowering skies promised respite, but merely turned the air to steam. No matter – we set out along a squiggly trail to primary forest, which became darker, tougher and more foreboding as we pressed on. We pushed through grasses at chin height and struggled over moss-clad tree trunks, marvelling at huge, lunar-like termite mounds, razor-sharp thorns and ocelot prints.
“Imagine jaws so powerful that they vibrate in a slicing motion at a thousand times a second,” Hernan stated, plucking a leaf-cutter ant off the ground. “This guy can carry 20 times his own bodyweight and is part of a colony that will harvest over 20 tonnes. These jaws can cut through leather, no worries.”
The next day’s dawn alarm call saw us hitting the right tide on the Mogué River in a motorised dugout canoe. A profusion of sharks feed around the fertile, sediment-rich waters at the mouth of the river, where a strong current gathers power after heavy rains. Along curvaceous inland river stretches, framed by creepers, giant ferns and tree trunks sprouting with orchids, the mood was mellow and leisurely as we spotted roseate spoonbill, ibis and osprey, as well as Emberá tribesmen spear-fishing in the shallows.
The Emberá migrated from the Amazon to Colombia’s Chocó region in the 16th century, then crossed into Panama’s Darién forests to escape the Spanish conquistadors. Semi-nomadic, they moved through the Darién’s impenetrable mass, erecting small riverside settlements, and hunting monkey, peccary and wild boar with blowpipes, poison darts and 3.5m-long spears. In recent years the number of Emberá in the Darién has dwindled to around 15,000. Logging and road construction continues to push them further into the wild.
This extraordinary mangrove forest is also the domain of the harpy eagle (above). Panama’s national bird, the endangered harpy is the most powerful bird of prey in the Americas, a mighty, prehistoric beast that stands 1.5m tall with a 2m wingspan. Long-lived and slow reproducing, these primitive raptors are doing well in Panama: the country now has 200 wild breeding pairs – 25 of which are in the Darién.
We had hoped to see a harpy nesting site, but sadly it had been destroyed, so instead we took a trail into its primary rainforest habitat – with fingers crossed.
We pushed through the trees, keeping our eyes and ears peeled, Hernan ever alert to the sounds of the jungle. But there was nothing in sight this time.
The harpies may have eluded us, but the Darién is never dull. As we stumbled homewards through the wilds, we traced anteater and tapir trails, marvelled at Aztec ants, picked medicinal plants and berries – oh, and kept a very sharp eye out for that 70kg puma...
The author travelled with Reef and Rainforest tours