Panama Exped in action

Down in the Darien

expedition snapshot

Photography by Secret Compass

Teammate Mark took part in a recent adventure to trek the depths of Panama’s infamous Darien Gap jungle…and returned to tell us the tale. Fresh from the wild, Mark reveals his motivations for joining the team, the reality of life in the jungle and his top tips for those hoping to experience it for themselves.

Panama's Darien Gap

The impenetrable Darien Gap

“We can camp here but if you guys can push a bit further, there is a beautiful spot ahead” our expedition leader Rick told our group as we took a break for some much needed water. We had been bushwhacking for the last five hours through the thick, double canopy rainforest and came to a clearing for our water break. Looking around, it’s easy to see why the Darien has such a notorious reputation for being impenetrable. All you can see is a kaleidoscope of green. The jungle just swallows you up, reminding you just how small you truly are.

At this water break all anyone could think of was cooling off and drinking every last ounce of water left in our camelbacks before filling them up again. The headaches began to subside after we laid down into the flowing stream nearby. The river carried away all the heat and revitalised everyone, giving us the energy to push forward to our campsite.

Camp at last

Rick was not lying when he told us about this spot. They had passed it on previous expeditions but had never pushed farther to get here for camp. We set up next to a series of pools that are fed by cascading water flows, a true paradise in the middle of nowhere.

It didn’t take long for our team to set up camp and promptly strip down and jump into the pools. Sitting under the mini falls felt sublime after the first of many long sweaty days making trail through the jungle. You would think that we were a bunch of children as there was one canon ball after another into the pool. Swimming around and washing up, we found out that there were some fish which would nip at you. For the most part, they tickled as they took away bits of dead skin but every now and then, a big one would give you a jolt. As we sat in our jungle spa, it was hard to believe that we were actually here.

What spurred this adventure?

Four months prior to arriving at this campsite, I had no plans of being in the middle of the jungle. The fateful moment was at a Calgary Flames hockey game with some coworkers and after several beverages, we started talking about upcoming adventures. I had already joined up to go back to the Himalayas for a first ascent attempt, but my work was gracious enough to grant me some additional time off without pay, with which I was already eyeing another adventure. It didn’t take much convincing to get my colleague Pete geared up to spend two weeks in the Darien too. While Pete ultimately would not be able to join us (instead I brought my buddy Alex), he did managed to come along to the Eastern Congo a year later.

Jungle life

Life in the jungle isn’t quite as you would imagine. It sounds luxurious to be under palm trees, in a warm climate and sleeping in a hammock. The reality of it is, while the enclosed hammocks are the ideal shelter for this environment, it can be difficult to find a comfortable position to sleep in when your feet are elevated (especially for a slide sleeper such as myself).

Staying hydrated in the hot, humid jungle means that there are at least a couple runs to the loo at night. Using a small carabiner made it easy to keep my headlamp in a locatable position for those midnight runs into the woods. Going to the loo in the jungle in the complete dark is possibly one of the more paranoia inducing experiences of the whole expedition. It’s not like in the Himalaya or camping in the Rockies where you have clearly marked, designated areas to do your business. You have to balance going far enough into the bush for privacy and being able to find your way back. In a jungle as thick as the Darien, this poses a real safety risk.

It is pretty easy to get turned around when everything surrounding you is some shade of green. These risks; however, are mitigated with protocol at the arrival briefing and never became an issue. What you can’t make a protocol for is how everything that moves at night is drawn to the light of your headlamp. This is where the paranoia comes into play. Keep the headlamp on and things are drawn to you, turn it off and be ready to become hyper sensitive to every leaf and sound. There isn’t a proper choice, just one that you make in the moment.

Scorpion, Panama

A typical day of trekking

A typical day in the Darien involves getting up with the sun, packing away camp, eating breakfast, getting sorted and making trail. Breaking every hour or so for rest is a much needed reprieve to eat some snacks, re-stock your water supply and take some weight off your feet. Good foot care is imperative on every expedition and this is no exception.

It doesn’t seem like trekking 8-12 km per day with rests for water, snacks and lunch would wear you down but this is the jungle. Frequently trekking in rivers, in mud, over and under obstacles means that any small hot spot can quickly develop into a serious issue. Add to the equation the required awareness of what surrounds you (from bullet ants to hog nosed vipers), being constantly drenched in sweat, covered in mud and you can begin to get a clear picture of how the jungle can wear you down.

We often joked that Guns and Roses had it right with “welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here every day”. After five to seven hours over variable terrain the team stops near a water source in order to make camp and prep dinner. It’s important to make camp with time to spare since being so close to the equator means there is little to no dusk.

Words of wisdom

One bit of wisdom for camp living in the Darien is to keep things sealed and hang them up at the moment you make camp. If you don’t, you’re sure to have a few new “friends” in your boots (always shake them out before putting them on), on your pack or elsewhere in your gear.

Just as the days had a similar tune, so did the evenings. After making camp, there is time to get sorted, and have a bit of a wash before dinner. You still need to be smart about timing however as once the sun hits the horizon, darkness takes hold.

Survival in the Jungle 101: Eat termites

As we plunged further and further into the jungle, we asked Rick how one would survive if lost in the jungle. After learning that eating palm nuts will soften the enamel in your teeth and cause them to wear down, Rick informed us that termites would be a good means to stay alive. It turns out that termites taste exactly like you would expect… a sort of woody dirt taste. Fortunately for the group, Rick had prepared amazing dehydrated meals for the expedition. It also helped that we often had river fish and crayfish from the nearby streams to supplement our meals.

Thousands of years of history

While the Darien may seem to be some modern version of the labours of Hercules, the funny thing is how quickly the bullet ants, scorpions, snakes, mud and perpetual sweat become mere trivial tidbits the moment you come up to the petroglyphs. Trudging up the river with a hundred vertical feet of greenery on either side, the team approached this unassuming mossy boulder that had been partially covered with deadfall. With a couple machetes, the team hacked away the deadfall to reveal the hidden petroglyphs. Saying that the highlight of the expedition didn’t disappoint would be a severe understatement. We spent hours cleaning off the moss to reveal the petroglyphs true beauty and examined all the markings. You can easily get lost tracing all the lines carved into this unassuming boulder. It’s an incredibly odd feeling to see these stone carvings that civilizations felt were important enough to put there some 5000 years ago.

 The Embera people

Today, the inhabitants of the Darien are the Embera people. At several points along the expedition, the Embera hosted us and welcomed us into their homes. Sharing their recent hunts and harvests, we were treated to red brocket deer, paca, plantanes and a densely packed, long cylindrical rice baton. Attempting to be good guests, we tried our hardest to eat as many of these bland, dense logs in a sitting only to see our porters sharing a single one for several days later. Meals were prepared on the Embera stove, a sandbox placed inside the hut with three logs that continually get pushed together as they burn down. The huts themselves are kept off the ground in order to keep the water and all the creatures out.

Crossing nature

As is the case for most expeditions, the days tend to blend together after a while, however, it is the unique experiences that create a lasting memory of the journey. On our particular expedition, one of the more unique events was when we were crossing a river and came face to face with a cougar. It was the first time any of us had seen one in the wild and as we fumbled for our cameras, it vanished into the wall of green.

On the final days of the expedition, we climbed over a mountain range and saw our first glimpses outside of this alien world that held us in constant awe. The sounds of the crashing waves from the coast could be heard and for a brief moment, we caught a glimpse of the coastline before it went back into hiding behind the veil of fog. We descended the mountain and the light began to shine brighter through the trees.

Land meets sea

Without realizing it, the group pace began to pick up again and again. By the time the trees gave way to the coast line, we were nearing a run. We ditched our packs and boots and without taking the time to take off any other gear, ran into the ocean feeling free…only to find out that we still had another hour to go up the coast once the tide dropped.

An experience to remember

After a day of R&R, it was time to head home. As we took off on the motorized boat the next day, we took in our last views of the Darien knowing that the memories would be with us forever.

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