Tuesday, May 11, 2010


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PANAMA’S KRICAMOLA JUNGLE TREK
If any town could be considered the capital of the Ngäbe Indians of Panama, it would be Kankintú, located up the Kricamola river in one of Panama’s most remote regions, where the mountains of the cordillera meet the vast swampy plane that stretches to the Caribbean. Despite its remote location and difficult access, Kankintu is almost a city, with generator supplied electricity, a huge high school, a hospital, and thriving businesses, including a hostel and restaurants. Everything is boated in from Chiriquí Grande, two hours away by sea. Kankintú, which I had never before seen, was the planned end point for our hike- instead of visiting by boat, we planned on hiking three days down from the highest point of the cordillera on Panama’s Pacific side until we reached this beacon of civilization, which to me had taken on almost mythical proportions because I had heard so much about this Indian metropolis but never seen it.

The trek passes through a forgotten, ancient Panama, tracing the Kricamola River from its headwaters, where it leaves the mountains in tiny streams, to where it grows into a mighty river. It would be inaccurate to say that no one lives there- people do, and they have for hundreds of years. The trail passes through many small Indian villages, and in many areas the hills are stripped of trees and dedicated to subsistence agriculture. But the area is remote- here there are no roads- not even horses or mules can pass the treacherous and narrow trail that winds down from the cordillera, nor can they cross the foaming rivers that break the trail in numerous areas.
On Saturday, August 1st, I set out with four companions: my friends Jim and Ryu, Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Panama’s indigenous sector, and two of Ryu’s friends from the States, Matt and Tim. We went without a guide because Ryu had done the trip before and was confident he could remember the trail well enough that a guide would not be necessary. We brought lots of food- two loaves of bread, hard boiled eggs, tuna, cookies, granola, peanut butter and honey. I brought a bag of cereal. For sleeping I brought a sheet and a warm sweatshirt. My hiking clothes included comfortable, loose fitting pants I had tailored by the Ngäbe Indians. I had been told that jeans are the absolute last thing you want to wear on a long hike- they are heavy, they dry slowly, and they chafe horribly. This is true. You should never wear jeans on a long hike. For walking I brought my rubber boots in the expectation of walking through deep mud and fording streams. My companions went in hiking shoes. In hindsight, I can say that most of the streams we had to cross were deeper than the height of my boots, and most of the trail was very rocky and not so muddy. If I hadn’t already hardened my feet by traipsing around in boots for three years, a three day hike in rubber boots would have been very painful.
The first day we took a truck up to the end of the road, at the top of the mountain range. This was an adventure in itself- the road is barely passable with a 4-wheel drive vehicle, and the truck was definitely being put to the test. We were fortunate that on the Pacific side of the country it had been relatively dry, and there was little mud. I find it incredible that the truck makes that trip once a day, weather permitting. The wear and tear must wear it out after just a year. The Pacific side of the country is much different than the Caribbean side, the side in Bocas. It is drier, and the hills have been stripped bare generations ago. At the heights we reached, one can see an endless stretch of brown and olive mountains, outlined in sharp, jagged ridges that descend down toward the Pacific. The air was crisp and even cold. The journey was very bumpy, and we were tossed endlessly around the truck bed- you can get calluses on your hands just from holding on. At one point, where the truck enters a narrow 100 foot passage carved in soft clay more than ten feet deep by previous trips, the truck got stuck. The driver and his assistant hopped out and dug us out with a pickaxe and a shovel. Ryu told us that during the wet season, the truck could spend up to an hour stuck in this ravine. And of course, the digging just makes it deeper and deeper. Fortunately, this time we only spent fifteen minutes getting out. We were encouraged by our luck with the weather, ignorant of massive thunderstorms that were rolling toward the Caribbean side of the cordillera, which we would have to face head on.
We departed on foot around 11:00 from the town of Río Hacha, the last point accessible by vehicle. The trail began wide and easy, and the cool, crisp air kept me from even breaking a sweat. The trail switched back and forth across the small creeks that form the headwaters of the Kricamola, but they were shallow and easy to ford. The trail was for the most part a slow descent. The weather began to turn and it began to drizzle. We passed through villages, cow pastures and corn fields. The indigenous houses we passed by in that area resembled teepees made constructed of bamboo and palm fronds. They are round, with dirt floors and walls only about four feet high made of bamboo or branches. The rest of the structure is made from a steeply sloping circular roof thatched from a species of palm tree. There are no windows or rooms, and the inside of the house is perpetually dark. A fire pit is built in the center, letting smoke escape from the very top. Despite this, the inside of the dwelling is often pretty smoky. As we drew closer to Kankintú, and deeper into the jungle, the housing style changed, giving way to rectangular wooden buildings constructed with uneven wooden boards over wooden posts sunk into the ground, topped with thatch roofs. The difference in style is due to the thick jungle that grows on the Caribbean side, forests long since cut down on Panama’s Pacific coast. We ate lunch in a remote store, which, despite its isolation, was surprisingly well stocked.
As we progressed, it began to drizzle, and the rain slowly increased. The rivers became faster and more difficult to ford, and the trail passed along narrow ledges, large boulders and slippery rock outcroppings. We were surrounded by high peaks, and the growing rivers formed deep valleys with very steep, rocky banks. The valleys are so rugged that the trail can’t stay on one side of the river and constantly crosses back and forth. I can only imagine how difficult a road would be here, considering how treacherous and narrow our footpath was. At one point, about four hours in, we came across cement stairs going up a huge boulder in our path- at the time I was quite impressed by fortitude of whoever had carried the cement clear out there to improve the trail. In one area we had to cross the river in a swing seat pulled across on a cable with a pulley. The operator charged us each a dollar.
We soon began to see evidence of massive mudslides, great brown grooves cut out of the steep green hillsides. Only two weeks earlier, a torrent of rainfall in the region had caused terrible flashfloods along the river, and entire hillsides had fallen. We had come during a bad time for the inhabitants of the region, because so many had lost nearly all of their crops. The deforested hillsides simply couldn’t keep the soil together underneath so much rain. The trails was obliterated by feet of mud in many parts, but we kept going.
At 5:00, after walking for five hours, we arrived, wet and tired, at village called Tolothe, wedged between two steep, towering ridges. Only the very tops retained trees- nearly vertical slopes hundreds of feet above the village were planted with bananas. Tolothe was the first town we encountered with a concrete school, where we intended to spend the night. Even in these remote regions, the Panamanian government has asserted its authority with the constructions of cinder block school buildings, establishing a permanent infrastructure far from any roads. To build the schools, Indian laborers are paid $10 a day to haul cinder blocks and 100 pound bags of cement, on their backs, for hours down the same slippery trail we were hiking, bag by bag, cinder block by cinder block. And schools have been built miles further out than Tolothe. The strength and endurance of the Indians is still impossible for me to comprehend. The human body, even malnourished, is capable of amazing feats of strength. The Indians who live in these mountains are hard as rocks, pure muscle, and they live almost exclusively off of plantains, rice, peach palms and the rare morsel of lentils or even rarer still, chicken. By choice they live in a land so rugged that it is rare to find a spot of flat ground larger than a tabletop. The school in Tolothe had a solar panel array as well, but I discovered that this had been brought in by a helicopter.
In Panama, teachers are a lot like Peace Corps volunteers- they are often young, in their early twenties, and travel from the cities to live in the remote communities where they work. In the case of Tolothe, the teachers, all Latinos, three women and two men, have no choice but to spend almost all of their time in the village. Although all of them, even the one chubbier teacher we met who was trying to curl her hair with tin sardine cans and toilet paper rolls, can walk impressively fast, the trip out is just too much effort to make a weekend excursion worth the trouble. I was impressed by their dedication. They were more than happy to see us as well- visitors are very rare for them. We talked for a while, and they mentioned to us that the bridge north of Tolothe that crossed the river had been washed away two weeks earlier by a flashflood. Another makeshift bridge had been constructed, but it was “dangerous.” They agreed let us sleep in one of the classrooms, but first we took an icy shower and then joined them in watching a movie with Liv Tyler in it on their 16 inch TV, powered by the solar panels. It was ironic end to a strenuous day, watching an American movie far from any kind of civilization. We bought rice and lentils and ate dinner with a local family in their smoky hut. Tim and Matt had their first taste of boiled bananas, and the hot sauce I had brought came in handy. Then we returned to the school house, where I bedded down on a long wooden table, which is infinitely preferable to the cement floor. I was the only one who had not brought a sleeping bag, to cut down on weight. It was cold, and I slept in two pairs of pants and two pairs of socks with my sweatshirt on, using my t-shirts as a pillow. Only in the morning did we discover, to our dismay, that there were mattresses the entire time in a closet.
We set out at 8:00 in a chilly drizzle, just as the first students were arriving at their classrooms. The trail followed the rocky banks of the river to the north of Tolothe, and the going was slippery and treacherous- several times we had to climb over steep rock embankments, feeling for handholds. The farms fell away and were replaced by dense jungle. Finally we reached the bridge mentioned by the teachers. Here the wide river was pressed through a deep gorge twenty feet wide, formed by great vertical stone cliff faces. Twenty five feet below, the water was a boil of white foaming water, churning through the opening with an awesome roar. The bridge had been a suspension footbridge- during the flood, the river at this point had risen 25 feet! In the destroyed crossing’s place were three long tree trunks, lashed together with vines, and a flimsy bamboo railing that served more as a psychological reassurance than an actual support. Nonetheless, here we crossed, with great trepidation, one by one. And we all made it.
After the bridge, the trail headed up, away from the river to cross over the valley in which we found ourselves. It steeply went up and up and up, a calf destroying ascent. This was one of the most difficult and exhausting section of the hike. But the scenery was incredible- we were surrounded by jungle covered valleys and green mountains shrouded in clouds. Finally we reached a lookout point from which we could see, far far below but still a good deal above the river, the fabled village of Piedra Roja.
Piedra Roja means “Red Rock,” but from our vantage point I could not make out the red rock for which the town is famous. Indeed, it didn’t seem like much more than a cleared out spit of flat land with thatch huts, built on stilts in the Bocas style, and a long concrete school building. Piedra Roja is famous among Indians in Bocas del Toro as one of the original villages that gave birth to their people. In anycase, it is the halfway mark of the trail- walking at the pace we were making, it would be a day and a half either to Río Hacha or Kankintú.
We bypassed Piedra Roja to the west and made the very steep descent back to the river. After filling our water bottles at a bubbling brook, we entered the river valley once more, but this time the river had slowed somewhat and entered a narrow but flat plain. The walking became easy, neither hilly nor muddy but a pleasant straight sand course. For the first time we saw rice fields, a crop impossible to grow at the higher altitudes where we had begun. Some of the rice was planted on the mountainsides, other varieties were planted in flat muddy paddies. It was long and vibrantly green, very close to be ready to harvest. The Indians had made scarecrows throughout the paddies by hanging brightly colored indigenous dresses on posts. The sun came out for the first time since we had begun, and, walking among palms, banana trees and rice paddies, hemmed in by high green mountains with a beautiful river before us, I felt like we could have been in Vietnam or Thailand. We reached a smaller river joining the larger one, and here we encountered another cable crossing. The young teenager who operated it tried to rip us off however, so we simply forded the river on foot and discovered that at its deepest it was not more than waist deep. We stopped and made tuna sandwiches on the far bank, a pleasant sand bar, and swam for a while in a calmer section of the river. We probably spent 40 minutes resting here, basking in the sun. Then the sun disappeared and it began to rain again, and we saddled up and hit the trail.
The trail was straight and easy for several kilometers, until we reached the cable crossing of Quebrada Negra. This time we would have no option but to cross on the cable- the far bank was a hundred feet away, crossing another mighty river that at this junction joined forces with the Kricamola. The junction itself formed a large and inviting languid pool of water, surrounded by massive yellow boulders. If we had more time, it would have been a great spot to stop for a swim, but as it were, we still had many miles between us and Punta Piña, our destination for the day.
We waited half an hour for a man to arrive from the village to send the cable car – a small metal square made of rebar - across to our side. There we mounted one by one- I went second. After I was seated and my companions pushed me off, the seat rapidly accelerated until it reached the middle of the cable and their it stopped, thirty feet above the water. From here the operator had to pull me in with a rope.
This last section of the hike was very difficult. Soon we left the river bank and forged upwards once more, away from the river. It wasn’t as steep as before, but it just kept going on and on, and at the end of the day, we were already pretty exhausted. We expected the community to spring up before us at any turn, but instead we encountered just more hills. Ryu, who had hiked this way before, couldn’t remember exactly how far we had to go. We crossed a creek many times, and then went up some more. The ground became muddy and it began to rain again. We began to trudge, demoralized, and night was quickly following when finally we crested yet another hill and arrived at the community. Punta Piña in the twilight was a somewhat sad looking group of huts arranged around a marshy pasture, with a muddy creek running right through it. We had walked from eight to six, 81/2 hours if you count out rests.
This time we sought refuge with an Indian family in their wooden hut, paying them for lodging and for a dinner of rice, boiled bananas and sardines. We chatted with the men and told them of our journey, warming around the fire while the women and children mostly avoided conversation. We slept soon after eating, on an elevated wooden platform made from the bark of a palm tree. In lands where there is no electricity, people sleep early, and as tired as we were, we were glad for it.
It poured down all night. When we awoke at first light, ready for the last day of walking, the little muddy creek separating the house where we stayed from the other half of the community had turned into a raging torrent. I found that my legs were somewhat stiff, but not really sore. We waited until 8:30, after the rain had subsided some and the creek had gone down a little, before attempting to cross. Shortly afterward it began to pour again, and Ryu mentioned for the first time that we would have to actually cross the Kricamola, and with this rain, the thought was worrying. But since we could hardly turn back, we forged on ahead.
The walking was easier that day. There were some steep uphill climbs, but most of it was down hill, not up, back toward the river Kricamola. The last descent was incredible- if the second day was hard on the calves, this day was hard on the knees. On the trail we met some travelers who had departed from Kankintú. One man was walking barefoot, which amazed me- the trail is alternately covered in sharp rocks or slippery mud, and he had been walking without any shoes or boots for many hours. Most of the Indians we had encountered, even the children, wore boots. We were overtaken by another party of Indians, a family heading to Kankintú. One of the women was carrying her small daughter in a chakara, a woven bag carried with the strap around the forehead. This became more remarkable to me when we came to the first river crossing, a boulder strewn rush of rapids and rushing water. They must have crossed it with the child in tow. It was difficult for us to cross, not because of its depth, but because of the strength of the current. At a little more than knee deep, I could hardly stand. We had arrived in a small village called Caracol, just a few houses. Scarcely after crossing the first creek, we had to cross another of even greater intensity. But we made it and headed on.
Upon telling other travelers on the trail of our plans to reach Kankintú before nightfall, we were informed a couple of times that our plans would have to wait, because there was no crossing the Kricamola River that day because it was too high. We began to grow concerned, but we kept up the same pace. For the most part, the going was easy, with gentle ups and downs. When at noon we finally reached the river crossing at Koronte, we found that the rumors were true. To cross the river one has to pay a boatman who poles travelers across, one by one, in a dugout wood canoe. However, with the river running high and fast, he insisted it was too dangerous. On our side of the river waited the family that had passed us earlier. On the other side, several families patiently waited under tall trees to cross while others fished with nets, hoping to catch fish brought down by the flood waters.
Fortunately, it has stopped raining, so we waited in a little shack and ate lunch. Most of Koronte was on the opposite side of the river, so at the very least we wanted to be able to reach the school if night began to fall. We waited for three hours when the boatman agreed to pole us across, in exchange for $2 a person. A little steep, but I’m sure he would not have even attempted to cross if we were not there (the locals pay much less). It was a risky endeavor- we entered the boat up the river, and as we poled across, the current quickly took the small boat and dragged it downriver. The pilot had to pole quickly and skillfully to cross the 75 feet of water and get his canoe to the other side before it got smashed in the rapids downstream. The river was at least 10 feet deep. Then, after depositing one of us, he poled back up the bank, picked up a passenger from the other side, and repeated the procedure tirelessly until we were all across.
It was now 3:00 PM. We were informed that it would take at least five hours to reach Kankintu, if we walked fast. A walk in the dark seemed unavoidable. Still, I had to work on Thursday, and the only boats leave Kankintu at 6:00 AM- we had to get there. So we quickened our pace, crossed another Indiana Jones bridge, a hanging bridge with a lot of the floor boards missing, and continued. The hike was not as tough as before, but our pace was grueling because we wanted to take advantage of as much daylight as possible. We began to see a lot more traffic on the path as well, a good sign we were drawing near to our destination.
The trail was for the most part flat and sandy, hugging the banks of the Kricamola. At this point, the river was majestic, wide and strong, at least as wide as the Potomac. We passed through two more towns before night fell and we unpacked our flashlights. We were on the final stretch.
But then our luck changed for the worst. As soon as night fell, around 7:00, it began to pour. Curtains of rain fell, punctuated by booming thunderclaps and lightning bolts so close that the entire sky turned dayglo and we could see everything. The rain made all the creeks flowing into the river become rushing waterfalls, and each crossing became more difficult, compounded by the darkness. Sometimes we had to stop to search for the trail because the water flows were changing the landscape. We began to walk slower in order to keep together. The rain kept coming down. I felt like we were in a jungle movie about the special forces. We crossed some hills and forest, went back to the banks and cow pastures, and then back into the jungle. Some of the crossings became scary. One creek was so swift and wide we crossed by linking our arms together, forming a human chain. My feet, which so far had resisted three days of walking in rubber boots, now began to hurt, and this wasn’t helped by the fact that my boots were constantly full of water. We walked and walked, but Kankintu didn’t seem to be getting any closer. Finally, we reached a river 25 feet wide. It didn’t seem too swift, but it looked deep. Our flashlights did not illuminate far enough to see the other side, but a strike of lightning revealed the trail ahead of us. We stared at it with dismay. Jim, a swimmer in college, volunteered to test the depth, leaving his pack at the bank. He started across and . . . the water was only waist deep! We were greatly relieved. We had to cross the same river again about 300m up the trail, our last major river crossing.
At 9:00 PM, a sidewalk appeared in the jungle and we knew we had arrived. We walked, very tired and very wet but very happy, into Kankintú, a city of lights and sidewalks and densely built, modern looking houses. A city where you can buy a cold soda and there are restaurants, where the highschool has two floors with arches and columns. We found a hostel, where we ate a hot meal and spent the night. The adventure, the most rugged and amazing trek I have undertaken in Panama, was over.
Nico Armstrong has lived in Panama for four years and is currently a tour guide at the Lost and Found Eco-Hostel in the mountains of Chiriquí. The Kricamola jungle tour is the most extensive tour that he leads. For further information, contact him at marvinlenke@gmail.com or check out the Lost and Found jungle hostel website at www.lostandfoundlodge.com

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