Darien Gap--Panama-Columbian Border
Flew into Tocumen Airport (PTY). They had everyone stand in front of a infra-red camera of sorts to check to see if anyone was carrying the swine-flu. Was told taxi’s to get across the city to Albrook Airport (PAC) was $25US. The local buses were dirt cheap but it would have taken a long time to get there and it was late at night—the place looks seedy. Anyway, I started walking out of the airport down the main exit, thinking I would get attention to some taxi-driver. Finally did. I paid $18. The ride across the city is long. Driver took me to a local hotel $15/night that was 10 minutes from Albrook Airport.
Next morning, took taxi to Albrook Airport ($2). Paid Air Panama for round-trip ticket to Sambu ($129). Also paid $5 for extra luggage weight (They’re limit is about 30lbs). These flights are never on time. Scheduled flight at 11:15 left at 1:20. Arrived at Sambu at 2:00 (Neat roller-coaster drop to Sambu airstrip). It’s not an airport--just a runway with weeds growing in it. Once off, walked over to the police station to register. Tell them what you plan to do, show them your passport, act appropriate. Then, walk over to see Elizabeth (an old hag) to reconfirm return flight. She is in charge of the AP operations there. Then walked over to see Hector at the Fiesta Sol hotel. He arranged my trip to the Comarca--Embera Gap. His hotel is right in front of the airstrip, so it is conveniently located. He charges $20/night with AC. I told him $15 with no AC (I recommend this to get used to the weather).
Hector explained all the costs to me for a 4-night excursion up river to Pavarando. He also arranged for my guide (Aurecio). With what information I previously gathered from the Internet and what I was hearing, I sat down and started thinking about whether I wanted to pay this amount or just forget it and “adventure” my way back to PTY.
You need to go with an Embera Indian guide to get permission to enter the territory. Do this ASAP as the tribal chiefs are hard to track down. Your guide will take you across the bridge to the Puerto Indio village offices where they will ask for your plans and your passport. They will type up a letter that you will take with you to present to the village chief requesting permission to visit and stay.
Also, get the gas for the trip the afternoon before you leave so that you can get an early start.
You must ask for explicit description of EVERY cost and charge for the trip. Like any other tourist excursion, you are ripe for picking if you don’t get it down in writing and agree or bargain with EVERY charge. Also, unless you are willing to forget the entire trip and return, or take a boat to EL Real, you don’t have much bargaining power. I did. This trip was secondary to climbing the mountains, and this proved helpful. Hector wrote down everything for me.
Here were the costs for a 4 night excursion: Total $440
Comarca entry permit = 15
boat/engine = 70
gas = 80
boat guide/captain = 160 (40/day)
boat guide/captain food = 20 (4 days/5 each)
boat guide/chauffeur(helps) get boat past low areas = 40
Chauffer food = 20 (4 days/5 each)
Lodging in village = 60 (4 nights/15 each)
What I paid in the end: Total $375
Comarca entry permit = 15
gas—$50 (We bought $80, but we did not use all the gas, so what we had left when we returned I subtracted from the total purchased price ($80-$30-left-over = $50 used)
boat guide/captain—$100 (Too much for a guy who just steers a canoe and sits in the village picking his ass every day. I told them $100 total).
boat guide/captain food –20 ($5/day was too much, and the meals sucked, but I paid this as I didn’t want to start arguing with tribal chiefs in the middle of a jungle).
boat guide/chauffeur(helps) get boat past low areas—50 (This seemed like a lot but I thought it okay as the captain was getting double).
Chauffer food—20 (Same as above)
Lodging in village—40 (If I paid $15 for a hotel room, why would I pay the same to sleep in the village?—so I explained. There was no overhead cost to sleeping in a palm-leaf hut).
My food—20 (I brought my own, but decided to eat some meals)
The only way I got this price was because I told them from the start that if they didn’t agree with my asking price, I would catch the Saturday flight back to PTY or take a boat over to El Real. I had no vested interest (other than my flight) in “having” to do this part of the trip, so I told them to take it or leave it, either take the cash or walk away with nothing. Also, the gas purchase always rips tourist off as they forget in the end that they paid for it. Knowing, this, it took some strong debating to get my point across--I paid for what we used--nothing more.
Hector is very nice. He allowed me to leave my big backpack with the extra stuff in his house (first floor of hotel). This allowed me to take my day pack plus rain gear. Pack everything in water-proof bags or Zip-lock baggies). Walked around the villages (Sambu/Puerto Indio) across the bridge. Met a guy and we drank a few beers at a bar and watched Columbian music videos on the TV).
Early morning—7AM, left Sambu with Aurecio up river (3 hours) to Jingunudo Met Merci. Went hiking with him. There are many snakes in this area (In the river, in the trees, on the trails. Later on, ate a delicious fish and egg dinner. Bring some mosquito netting as bats fly about at night, and there are no screens in this part of the world. Many roaches (found some dead ones in my bivy bag the next morning (I soak it in permathin before I leave). Something made a dog bark wildly during the night. 5 minutes later, the dog was whinning in pain for about an hour. After that, nothing else. So that's why they sleep in lofted huts! There's a lot of living crap in this area.
Went hiking with Merci in the AM. Hiked up into jungle and hills, came back around noonish. Left Jingunudo with Merci and Aurecio up river 3 hours to Pavarando. Went hiking with him. This place was WET and the jungle was thicker than thick.(It rained hard every day in the late afternoons). There was a phone booth that was solar-powered. Any incoming call was big news here. The meals sucked here (Skinny chicken leg with 2 cups of rice). Bring your own so you don’t dry up. Stayed in another open-air lofted hut with the guides. Evenings are nice, but cover up for the bats. I saw them, but the guides said they're not a problem...don't take chances in the middle of nowhere. Slept in my bivy bag with netting over it.
NOTE: Go to the bathroom before sleeping,as climbing down a wooden pole in the middle of the night and climbing back up is tricky, as I had to experience.
Went on a long hike. Many Fer-de-Lances, water snakes, and other shit. Ate some junglr fruit. Hiked toward the border til the river bent away and the mountains (hills) came before us. Circled back. Walked in the rain. Boots soaked as you need to walk through some stream-lets. Got back about 5 hours later. Bathed in my underwear under a spicket. Chatted the rest of the day and evening. They had a B-movie night where everyone in the village gathered under the communal shelter, hooked up a generator.
Went hiking with a guide to see the ancient stone, but never made it due to rain. About half-way there, it got too wet and deep, so we returned to the village. Rained all day. Showered under water-picket. Organized stuff for departure.
FARC: The village chief said that in February, 4 months previous, a groups of Colombians came to the village in February. They asked to stay because they said they were "running from the bad guys" (their cover excuse). They didn’t cause problems and respected the villagers. After a week, they returned back into the jungle to Columbia. Just after that, 70 Panamanian forces (police-soldiers) came and occupied the area. The chief said that the Colombians who came were scouting the area for future FARC trips, and that the villagers were concerned that the area would soon be troubled. This could also explain the beefed-up police force I observed in Sambu while there). I told them that since the other passage ways through the El Real routes were open for inspection by the Panamanian forces that the Narco-Farcs would now seek their way through the Sambu-Pavarando waterways.
(NOTE: My guess is that the FARC will eventually buy off the Embera Indians here to secure their routes. The Indians are ripe for being bought out as they have no attractive economy).
Departed village and set off down river to Sambu. Dropped Merci off at Jingunudo. Took a break. Paid Merci his share. Departed down river to Sambu (The time going down river was much quicker, especially with all the rain in the river). In Sambu, paid Aurecio his share and the used gas—he kept the rest. Checked into Hector’s hotel—Fiesta Sol for the day. Took a long warn shower. Cleaned up and walked around the village.
Walked over to see Elizabeth to reconfirm the flight. Told me to be ready at 9AM. I told her the flight was scheduled to arrive at about 11:30. She said the times always change, and the last one came in at 1PM. I went back to the hotel and laid around for the morning. Like I said, his hotel (my room) was about 30 yards from the airstrip. So at about 12 Noon, I heard a plane coming in, and within 10 minutes, it was taxiing up in front of the hotel. I scurried and walked on over to the plane. Waited for 40 minutes until the captain returned from eating. Boarded and took off back to Panama City--Albrook Airport.
40 minutes later, landed in Albrook. Make sure you claim your luggage off the plane. Had to go through a quick customs check. Needed to get to the main bus terminal on the other side of the airport. Was told taxi’s cost 1.50. The taxi’s in front of the airport exit charge 2.00. I walked until a taxi accepted the 1.50. Got to the bus terminal and bought a ticket to David for $13. I bought another one for my backpack so that “it never got off at the wrong stop.” Half way to David we stopped in Santiago for a dinner break. These stops offer great dinner selections for cheap prices. 8 hours later, arrived in David. I split a taxi with a couple to the Bamboo Hostel($3--usual price would be about $1-2.00). The Bamboo Hostel is noisy but cheap ($8.00/dorm bed).
Mt Totumas-Panama-Costa Rica Border
Next morning, took taxi to David bus terminal. On one side of the terminal, there are multiple lanes for mini-van buses heading to every little place in the province. I wanted to go to the “Mt. Totumas Cloud Forest Preserve” that backs up to La Amistad National Park. The name of the bus was "Rio Sereno." This bus route passed through Volcan, and the chauffeur stopped it for me where a road sign for “Los Pozos” stood on the road side. I hiked this rough road 5 miles to the entrance of Mt Totumas Cloud Forest, and then hiked another mile up to the residence. I had previously arranged this trip with the owners (see their Web site--http://mounttotumas.com/wordpress/). The caretaker, Roberto, was the host. I paid $25/day to stay and hike with him. Later that day, we hiked around the forest on the property trails. There are a lot of cows up in the hills and I found ou that they are used for dairy and mowing the grassy hill sides. This place is a very natural and isolated area--beautiful for hikers who want to get away from it all. I stayed in a large room. The shower had only cold water, so be ready to practice hyperventilating. There is a kitchen to cook food, but I only had fruit, granola, and power bars.
Early, we hiked the main trail that leads into La Amistad. Once in, the trails are difficult to see since the vegetation goes waist high. In fact the side trails are not really trails, but foot paths. You get lost here, and good luck. Roberto has hiked and lived up here for many years. Without him, there’s no way I could have found my way around. In fact, he even mentioned that he wouldn’t go out alone, for two reasons: getting lost, and big “kitty cats.” We hiked off the main trail through jungle area. Lots of monkeys, tracks, and animal sleeping roosts to see—not much more during this time of the day.
Early, we hiked Mt Totumas. This was tough as there was no official trail—only hunter paths. So Roberto and I decided to cut a trail. 5 hours later, we managed to summit, about 7K. It’s a hairy climb, but the summit is a flat, neat area still shrouded in the forest. There are small paths to wander through. To me it felt surreal because of the vegetation, mist, and isolation. We rested, ate, then slanked our way back down.
Early, I leave the house to return. I hike down to the bottom of the preserve where there is a hot spring. I am the only one here, so I take an hour break and relax in the hot water. There is a stream next to it, so I went back and forth from the cool water to the hot. Clouds started to roll in so I set off to the main road, only to be showered on for the next 5 miles. Once there, no buses seemed to be rolling along, so 30 minutes later, me, an old farmer and a boy jumped up onto an open-air fruit truck going to Volcan. From Volcan, I took a bus toward David but I got off before that at a small town, I think the name was La Concepcion, because they had great fruit stands, and I was dying for some tropical fruit. I bought a whole mess of fruit and sat down and had a great meal. Spoke to some people. An hour later, with the rain still pouring, I got another bus to David. At the station, I bought my bus ticket to San Jose, Costa Rica, for the next day. From the bus station, I took a $1.50 taxi to the Bamboo Hostel and washed up for the day. This place is friendly, but it is noisy, with dogs and music sounding off into the night.
Left the hostel and boarded my bus from David to San Jose ($15). My departure destination was Costa Rica (goofy part of my travel itinary). This ride took about 9 hours, with a lunch break (those good meals joints), and a road accident that delayed us for 30 minutes. Once in San Jose, I walked with 2 other backpackers to a hostel called “1110.”/ 11/day. This place was very small and in the middle of the city. Good kitchen to cook food, though.
Next morning, took a taxi ($1.50) to bus terminal near a church (Sorry-can’t remember specifics now). From here, took bus (.50) to airport. From here, I had another crappy flight to Miami via American Airlines. I hate this airline.
If you have any questions about anything, feel free to e-mail me.
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