Rain slants in, thin and nasty, as Juan Carlos Navarro and I
clamber over the banks of Panama's mighty jungle river, the
Membrillo. We're a third of the way through a 10-day, 75-mile
expedition to retrace Vasco Nunez de Balboa's historic trek
across the Darien Gap. It's dark and drippy, and palm fronds
that feel like hot compresses keep slapping us in the face. In
the rising mist Navarro crouches beside a fig tree. "Look at
these ants," says Panama's gonzo conservationist. "They march
along like Balboa's soldiers."
I stop and trowel sweat from my brow. Leaf-cutter ants bearing
banners of purplish-pink membrillo flowers parade across the
tangled mush of forest floor in a caravan 175 yards long. All
daughters of one queen, the leaf cutters live on fungi found on
petals dragged into their anthill. "They're working stiffs who
toil hard to live in poverty," Navarro says. "They work from sun
to sun and have very little fun, making the forest run. That is
until a tamandua--a collared anteater--comes along and sucks up
three million of them for lunch."
Balboa tramped through this ferociously dense forest almost 500
years ago at the head of 1,000 Indian warriors and porters and
190 sweat-drenched Spanish soldiers in full armor. ("A can
opener! A can opener! My kingdom for a can opener!")
Twenty-three days after setting out from the Caribbean coast of
the isthmus, Balboa waded into the muddy waters of a gulf he
named San Miguel, thus becoming the first European to dip a toe
into the Pacific Ocean. "Of all the conquistadors, Balboa was
the one most willing to learn from and listen to the Indians,"
says Navarro. "Despite his sins, he brought an attitude of
discovery and empathy and wonderment."
Navarro is following in Balboa's bootsteps as a "reality check,"
he says. He wants to gauge his effectiveness as a greenie. In
1985, this Ivy League-educated scion of a wealthy Panamanian
family bummed $75,000 from local businessmen and launched the
National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON).
Based in Panama City and armed with more than 3,000 volunteers,
the privately funded, nonprofit ANCON has become one of the most
aggressive and effective environmental outfits in the Third
World. Navarro has lobbied the Panamanian government
successfully for the creation of five national parks; faced down
the country's powerful lumber barons, getting tariffs on
imported lumber eliminated; and discouraged poaching in the wild
by establishing community agroforestry farms on which iguanas
and beagle-sized rodents called pacas are raised in pens for
meat. ANCON occasionally takes heat for soliciting donations
from corporations such as Texaco, which fouled one coral-reef
biological reserve in Panama with an oil spill in 1986. But,
Navarro says, "We are very up-front with corporations. Giving us
money doesn't give them a license to pollute or turn them from
frogs into green princes overnight. All it does is help us do
our job. They give us money, and we still come after them if
they screw up the environment."
Navarro believes the biggest threat to the Darien jungle, which
is in eastern Panama near its border with Colombia, is the
Pan-American Highway system. Running 17,000 miles from Alaska to
Tierra del Fuego, the road is broken only by a 65-mile strip
through the Darien. Navarro fears that the road's proposed
completion would affect the region's ecological balance,
endanger indigenous cultures and encourage Colombian drug
dealers to use the highway for their brand of Pan-Americanism.
"Panama's wilderness is disappearing fast," Navarro says. "We
lose about 125,000 acres every year."
Championing preservation has come at a price: Navarro has been
the target of death threats. But for all his activism, he is no
Greenpeacenik. This 35-year-old alumnus of Dartmouth and the
John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard is an avid
reader of Hunter S. Thompson. "In college I laughed at the
eco-weenies," he says. "Why do conservationists have to be
ineffectual earth muffins who smell like log cabins and feed on
moldy granola bars?" Navarro favors single-malt whisky and Romeo
y Julieta Havanas, both of which he has forgone since the start
of this journey. Eco-trekking demands sacrifice, after all.
While sacrifice ain't what it was 500 years ago, we do suffer on
our journey. On Day 1 the prop planes that bring us from Panama
City to Puerto Obaldia on the Caribbean coast have a battered
look. Everything is nicked, worn or torn. The cabins are packed
with people and provisions and are sweltering until the air
conditioning comes on, breathing vapor like a wheezing dragon.
We make a beachhead in Puerto Obaldia, a tiny town about a
sniper's shot from Colombia. Waiting at the airstrip are scores
of frontier police, nicely turned out in bandoliers, M-16s and
AK-47s. They're on alert due to a recent incursion into the area
by Colombian paramilitary forces. A month before our arrival,
Panamanian soldiers rounded up half a dozen guerrilla
sympathizers, also Panamanian, and unsympathetically executed
some of them. One of the sympathizers was one of our prospective
guides, an Obaldian called Black Dog.
Puerto Obaldia is believed to be near the site of Santa Maria la
Antigua del Darien, the starting point of Balboa's expedition.
Balboa sailed from Santa Maria, which no longer exists, on Sept.
1, 1513, and made friendships that would last a lifetime, which
turned out to be pretty short--he was beheaded by Pedro Arias
Davila in 1519. His company sailed up the coast in brigantines
and piraguas (dugouts) before penetrating the Darien just north
of Obaldia. Our own roster is considerably smaller, 26 in all.
Included are Panamanian soldiers, U.S. eco-tour promoters
testing the ground, cybernauts from Microsoft's adventure-travel
magazine Mungo Park and a dozen porters drawn from the three
cultures of the region: Cuna, Choco and Afro-Darienite. Leading
the way is Hernan Arauz, a burly naturalist who was to the
jungle born. Arauz's anthropologist parents conceived him during
the National Geographic Society's 1960 trans-Darien expedition.
We pick our way through a wide Sargasso Sea of plastic: detritus
jettisoned by westbound cruise ships entering the Panama Canal.
Spread out at our feet are thousands of fabric-softener bottles,
shampoo containers and the remains of broken dolls. They gleam
in the sun, which is at least as oppressive as the rule of New
World conquistadors. We latter-day Balboans scale a hill that
seems to go up as straight as the monolith in 2001.
Toward evening we arrive in the Cuna village of Armila. The Cuna
are extremely watchful of outsiders. Until recently, they would
trade with passing ships but wouldn't allow the crews to debark.
Indeed, some say the name Panama derives from the Cuna phrase
panna mai, which means "far away." That's supposedly what
Spanish soldiers were told when they asked where the gold was.
The Cuna hoped the conquistadors would go panna mai.
In our case, though, the Cuna of Armila are downright
hospitable. Kids offer us cherry sodas. Men serenade us with pan
flutes; women, maracas. They assemble in the town square and
enact the barefoot, circle Dance of the Grandmother, a
down-tempo number not panna mai from the one my own granny used
to perform at bridge parties. Arauz has enlisted Cuna as porters
since his maiden Darien crossing in 1991. One of the first
porters was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl. Cuna law
dictated that the killer be tied up and buried neck-deep in the
sand facing his victim until the killer died. "That's what you
call looking death in the eye," Navarro cracks. "It's the Native
In truth the Darien has very few actual natives. The Cuna and
all the other indigenes in the area migrated there over the last
several hundred years. "Through colonial wars and diseases
brought by the Europeans," says Navarro, "the resident Cueva
Indian population was basically exterminated." The tragic irony
of the Spanish conquest is that because the Cuevas were wiped
out, the region's rain forest was saved. "The Cuevas had
stripped much of the Darien to plant corn," says Navarro. "So,
in a perverse way, the human holocaust that Balboa set in motion
let the jungle flourish again." And in a grotesque way, Balboa
was an unwitting environmentalist.
Pretty much everything aggressively malicious that you can find
in a tropical jungle flourishes in the Darien: vampire bats,
poison arrow frogs, caimans, huge pit vipers (the bushmaster and
the fer-de-lance), the smaller but no less venomous jumping tree
viper, coral snakes, a tree (hura) whose sap causes blindness,
tiger-claw spiders, flesh-burrowing botflies, chiggers, fire
ants, inch-long bullet ants, yellow fever, encephalitis, amoebic
dysentery, cholera and malaria in two flavors: regular and
The Darien is home to diseases so virulent that even the bravest
antibiotics run for cover. Around the campfire on Day 3, Navarro
ticks off his top three illnesses:
--Mal de Chagas, an incurable, fatal malady spread by the
chinche, a distant (but never distant enough) cousin of the
stinkbug. Scratch your skin and the parasite's feces enter your
bloodstream. "Then your vital organs--heart, liver,
kidneys--expand until they explode," says Navarro.
--Picada de bejuco, a sickness caused by a tiny worm that eats
you from the inside out. It's transferred from sloths to humans
by way of a sand fly called Phlebotomus.
--Dengue hemorragico, a debilitating fever carried by the
mosquito Aedes aegypti.
Navarro revels in the dangers the jungle presents. "I like a
challenge," he says. Before picking a college, he spent a month
in the States, busing from campus to campus. Dartmouth was the
most daunting destination. "It was cold, which I hated," he
recalls. "There was all this snow, which I thought was
disgusting. The people were difficult--I couldn't figure them
out. With all that against me, I thought, This is the perfect
place for me. Hanover, New Hampshire, and Panama City are at
opposite extremes. This is where I will learn the most."
He's still learning. On Day 4 he wades into the Membrillo to
study otter dung. "Otters feed on fish and crayfish, and they
excrete on flat rocks surrounded by water," he says. "When I
first crossed the Darien in '84, the rocks were full of their
signatures. This time around, I haven't noticed any otter dung.
That steals my heart away."
Otter dung wouldn't affect me that way. In fact, the rank rot of
the Darien has begun to wear me down. There's a fungus among us
that has enveloped everything I own. It's beginning to envelop
me. My soft, festering gringo feet are so liberally breaded with
antifungal powder that they resemble veal cutlets. Rain did a
10-hour merengue on my tent last night. By nine o'clock the
walls had broken into a flop sweat. At midnight I began
rummaging for snorkel and fins.
Until now, my idea of hell has been four blank walls and a radio
that picks up nothing but A Prairie Home Companion. But the
Darien makes such a fate seem almost endurable. Navarro informs
me that Balboa made his trip at the height of the rainy season.
"I bet he got pretty skanky," he says. Skanky but godlike.
Balboa and his companeros believed the Cuevas worshiped them as
deities. Why else, they reasoned, would the Indians burn incense
in their presence? Little did they know.
The Darien forms a biological bridge between the Americas. Pumas
and rattlesnakes extended their range south; jaguars, monkeys
and tapirs moved north. Most people and diseases that reached
the rain forest got no farther, which is why Panamanians called
the region el Tapon--the Stopper.
"Panama has more than 10,000 species of plants and trees," says
Navarro. "Of those, over 1,250 exist nowhere else on the planet,
and most are found only in the Darien." The Darien harbors
creatures I've seen only in crossword puzzles: guan, crake,
jacamar, jabiru, trogon, tamarin, potoo, tody motmot and
A half roar, half bark--the raucous call of the howler
monkey--splits the jungle air as we cross the continental divide
on Day 5. I look up and see macaws and toucans and an endless
chaos of branches covered with ferns, orchids and other
epiphytes. A morpho butterfly as big as a dinner plate zigzags
across our path, its iridescent wings flashing like mirrors. The
understory of the forest is festooned with the blistery, fanged
leaves of the pringa mosa, which cause a burning sensation when
they come into contact with skin. Arauz compares it to being
jabbed with a lit cigarette. "To punish a rapist," he says, "the
Cuna rub pringa mosa into his private parts." For what it's
worth, the plant also cures headaches.
People are scarce in these parts. Though we stumble on a couple
of jaguar traps, we don't encounter any humans until late in Day
6. A Choco family awaits us with fresh provisions. An old woman
is hawking strands of beads. Dangling from each one is the tooth
of an endangered animal: a jaguar, a tapir, an ocelot. The woman
drapes the jaguar necklace around Navarro's neck. He thanks her.
"She gave it out of friendship," he explains. "My task is to
convince these people that conservation is in their interest.
When we have a program that can truly improve their lives, I'll
come back and talk to them. Even if it's the right medicine,
they won't take it if you force it down their throats."
In bowls woven from a long, leafy palm called chunga, our hosts
have set out food: fat, juicy seedpods displayed in pinwheels;
green and gold bananas; fresh oranges and pineapples and tagua,
a plum-sized fruit whose seeds look like oysters and taste like
coconuts; red and green and yellow chilies in an amazing variety
of shapes and hotness; peccary in every imaginable, and some
unimaginable, cuts; and tawny and checkered chickens, handsome
when alive in their palm-wood hampers but tough old birds on the
"If you're offered stew," cautions Arauz, "you'd better look in
the pot first." During the 1960 expedition, his father looked
and lost his appetite. Bubbling to the surface was the head of a
monkey with rice embedded in its nose. "My father was told the
best-tasting rice was always clenched in the monkey's fist,"
As gentle and courteous as the Choco are, their insults would
make even Balboa blanch. You know you've been slurred if in the
unwritten language a Choco tells you, Xu opu tukabu, which
means, "You're as ugly as a howler monkey." You've been doubly
slurred if you hear, Xu mama dande jino jimbukabu, roughly,
"Your mother's nose looks like a tapir's foot." Worse still: Xu
mama jiro dande jimbukabu--"Your mother's foot looks like a
tapir's nose." But the most devastating of all Choco insults
involves the peccary, a runty warthog. Xu eso sonsebu means,
"You smell like a peccary." Xu metawe minyaju means, "You smell
like a dead peccary."
Arauz looks like something the peccary dragged in. A Choco
teenager has temporarily tattooed him from the waist up with a
blue-black pigment derived from the seeds of the jagua.
With Arauz in the bow, we cover the final 20 miles of our
journey in a motorized piragua. At the end of his journey,
according to legend, Balboa waded into the Pacific and raised
his sword heavenward. We, on the other hand, will putter into
the ocean in our dugout and raise bottles of Balboa beer.
It's a long, slow ride through an empty landscape. The banks,
once richly forested, are now a low cow pasture. "We have left
the past and entered the future," announces Navarro. "It breaks
my heart. ANCON has come so far and done so little."
At a bend in the Membrillo, we spy a tractor reinforcing an
illegal log bridge over the river. Huge, fat felled trees--each
hundreds of years old--wait in rows on the bare ground to be
rolled into the river and rafted downstream. Juddering off the
swirl of eddies, we clear the bridge by a few inches, touching
our heads to the piragua's floor. "This bridge is the most
poignant metaphor for the deflowering of the Darien," Navarro
says. "It's a monument to corruption, to greed, to the moment.
For the privilege of chopping down a lot of trees, a lumber
company usually bribes the local chief. And the state
authorities conveniently look the other way."
Progress marches into the wild like this: Loggers chop down the
big trees, then farmers burn down the rest and plant rice or
corn. "Birds will eat half the crop," says Navarro. "The farmer
stores what little he can harvest beneath his house, thereby
feeding the entire rodent population for 20 miles around. To
take the corn to market, he'll spend more on gasoline and an
outboard motor than the corn is worth. The whole thing is an
exercise in absurdity and futility." After the thin soil is
nearly exhausted, in a year or two, the land is turned over to
cattle, which exhaust it even more. "I'm not suggesting the
Indians must practice extreme austerity," Navarro says.
"Conservation is not about suffering, it's about taking only
what you truly need. The real tragedy is that the cost of
cutting down this forest is enormous, and the benefit just
As the Darien darkens into pitch-black night, Navarro brightens.
"Americans have this romantic, patronizing notion of indigenous
peoples," he says. "They see Indians as noble savages who live
in perfect communion with nature, saintly but exploited
spiritualists who say sweet nothings to the hummingbirds on
their fingers. The reality is that the indigenes are just like
us, have the same material ambitions as we do and fall prey to
the same temptations. They want to eat Big Macs and drink
Glenlivet. They want to kill nature and sell it. When Balboa
walked across the cornfields of Darien, he saw these same
destructive impulses. The challenge for us is to teach others to
harness our destructive power before it's too late."