Amazing Panama: Living with the Embera Tribe in Darien Jungle and Vagabonding Around Coastal Islands.

Published: May 31st 2017
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Manuel motioned to me strongly and blurted out in Spanish "dig, Vicente!". Alfredo gave me his fishing mask and said "dive for it". As I wandered through the remote Panamanian Darien Jungle days from any town in search of gold with a half blind 60 year old and hyperactive 19 year old Embera tribesman, it became clear that I had a story to tell.

On a cold Seattle day in February, I was off for one month in Panama. Bags packed, headed for Seatac, heart beating as usual before I travel. This was going to be a very special trip so it was really thumping. As we took off on the first leg to LA, the ground and all my worries seemed to melt away below me. Nice chat on my flight with a Korean woman, 2 Seattleites and a guy from California. I had a celebratory beer and was on my way.

I dozed off for a few minutes, which must have turned into an hour as the captain came on the intercom and said we were landing in LA quite shortly. I was met at baggage by Seth, one of my oldest and dearest friends from university. He had lived in LA for sometime and I had meant to visit him. Big bear hugs, smiles, he took me right out to the Cheesecake Factory in Brentwood, went back to his pad in North Hollywood, met his cute dogs and picked up in conversation just like we had never missed a minute, even though it had been years. We took a walk in the warm evening air, so nice. Lots of talking and reminiscing, we went to bed late.

Had a nice breakfast with Seth in Santa Monica, went to a hilarious dog walking park that was very "LA", seemed like a place single people go to meet. Later this day, I was able to connect with an old friend named Kelly I met years earlier in Ecuador and later went over to Bert Lies's house, a good friend of my sister Kathy, who lived in LA and was going to join me on this journey. After a great catchup visit with Bert, my sister and I headed for LAX for our midnight flight to Panama City.

It had been some time since I saw my dear sis. The 6.5 hour flight flew by in a flash, before we knew it, we were on the ground in Panama City, having circled in low over the fascinating Panama Canal and this interesting looking city. We grabbed our bags in a mad rush of people, hopped a cab over to Casco Viejo, the old town. People had told us to watch out for this part of town, bad elements lurking about. It was broad daylight, we thought we would be safe. We found a simple room with view of the ocean for $7, lots of local smiles, settled in for a nice fish lunch.

The next day would start our amazing adventure to the jungle, we had some errands to run today. We hopped a ride over to the domestic airport to solidify our ticket, very glad we did. Without telling us, the airline had canceled our return ticket from the jungle because it was the same day as the huge country wide Carnaval festival. Clearly, all the captains would be drunk so no flights would happen. We were very lucky to get a flight back a day later. I was going to meet another buddy later in the trip and we thankfully were able to get the message to him.

We went back into the vibrant center of the city, loud brightly painted buses honking, playing amped up salsa music and all trying to outdo each other with their crazy paint jobs. I slept on a park bench while my sister Kathy bought a hammock and other things in a market. She seemed really happy, it was fun to watch her excitement. Kathy is easy to be with. Kathy decided to stay in, I was tired but excited to look around Panama City at night. Kathy crashed early, I headed out about 9:30P to some little pub, a local's place not far away. It was quiet, a Monday. Beers were $1, the music was spinning loud. I sat outside with a few locals, they were very curious about the jungle journey we were taking and a bit mystified that we were headed to that part of the country without a guide. I watched some soccer with the local guys on TV, home to the room at about midnight and crashed hard. Our flight to the jungle is at 9:30AM tomorrow.

Feb 20: It was amazing today. Kathy and I got up, had a big plate of fresh fruit and walked to the point of the old city. We passed interesting buildings and an elevated promenade with distant views of the Panama Canal. We walked on through little archways covered with bougainvillea flowers then by accident walked right through the national police academy in full riot gear exercises for the raucous annual Carnival that was to come. We were scurried away from here by some top brass, dumped unceremoniously out a side gate, had to run from a large pack of aggressive dogs. The fun and adventure had begun, Kathy and I were smiling!

We were late, grabbed our things and headed for the domestic terminal. An hour later, we lifted off in an 8 seater plane for a one hour ride. We quickly left the Panama City sprawl and headed out over jungle and a massive bay on the Pacific side of the country. We dropped from the sky onto a little dirt runway in a town of about 5000 people called La Palma and the entry point to the crazy adventure Kathy and I had hatched. This town of La Palma felt weird, there were some scammers about, kind of a wild west town. We moved through quickly, got over to the little port and hopped on a local boat for what would be a 4 hour ride to Sambu', on the edge of the Darien jungle.

On the boat journey, we had a blast. We passes many rocks, beaches, mangroves and few fishermen. We had no fixed plans, only a dream to go deep in the jungle. Upon arriving in the little settlement of Sambu', we walked up the muddy bank and were greeted by a nice woman and child. After a quick chat in our not very good Spanish, we discovered there was no real place to stay in this village, travelers almost never came here. This woman introduced us to another woman (who turned out to be the local preacher's wife) with a small guest house used by visiting missionaries and a few others now and then.

We sat our tired bodies down, this was the first time my sister and I had ever done something like this together in our adult lives. We tossed down our bags, the little house had wood plank floors, walls and bed. We were home for the night and it felt good.

This town was a combination of some indigenous people and quite a few Hispanic Panamanians, fishermen, gold miners and interesting characters. The stern-looking village policeman came soon to see us and asked gruffly for our passports. Fearing bad things as you often can before you know the lay of the land, I was quite hesitant to part with mine. Kathy and I spoke some Spanish to the guy, loosened the guy up and actually got him to smile. He took us over to meet his police chief, our Spanish was flowing pretty well. The police chief seemed jovial. We told him about our plans, he explained to us that it was standard practice for our own safety to have a record of our passport and our plans. he explained to us that there were some dangerous elements in these parts and that the FARC (rebels) of Columbia weren't too far away.
They had been known to kidnap so he recommended we plan well and watch our backs.

The afternoon consisted of games of soccer with the locals, jump rope and chase with all the village kids. The young people weren't used to visitors and flocked around us. The original policemen and my sis and I began talking about our desire to go way up the river to a little native Embera settlement called Pavarando we had read about and visualized finding. He seemed skeptical at first but then told us that he had lived near this place and knew people who could help us. After much talking, meeting a number of people, learning about how the journey would look, we began together to lay the plan in motion.

We would go the next morning with two boatmen in a piragua, a dugout canoe. A six hour trip would take us to the little village we dreamed of. We would present a note from to the parents of the policeman. We would stay with them for 6 days and come back with a brother. There was no phone line or radio working. We would just go, trusting that it would work. The policeman confirmed that it was amazing there, a place where few visitors had come, monkeys caimans and jaguars around.

We met the village preacher and were invited to the evening service, nice singing voices, lots of back slaps from the locals. We joined the preacher and his wife in their simple home for a yummy meal of fish, fried bananas, orange crush and our contribution of nuts and fruits that we had brought. We had lots of laughter and learned more about where we were going. We leave at 7AM, time to sleep.

Feb 21: Today was unbelievable, but now I believe it. We left at 7:45AM, after much of the little town turned out to the riverbank to wave goodbye to us. We promised to see all of them when we emerged from the jungle, they were planning a town celebration for the last night of Carnival.

We gathered our things, sat by the swift moving Sambu River until the dugout canoe and our two boatmen got to us. We loaded our things, stayed low so we wouldn't tip the dugout, left upriver chugging with a little motor, destination Pavarando, the last Embera Indian settlement on the river. This was to be a 6 hour boat ride, turned into an epic adventure.

It became apparent very quickly that the river was very low and passage wasn't going to be easy. A piragua is a canoe carved from a tree, about 30 feet long. A very small motor inserts into a board that is attached to the back of the canoe. Our two boatmen stood on each end of the boat, steering us past snags and debris. Kathy and I sat in the middle of the canoe with our packs. We tried to stand up but balance was very tough, our boat guys laughed and told us to sit down before we tipped the boat. Even though our Spanish was not so good, it was nice to be able to communicate.

So we went along okay for an hour or so and then it got tough. There hadn't been much rain, the river was very shallow, our propeller scraped bottom many times, even though the boatman was very good at lifting it at just the right time and using bamboo poles until it got deep enough to use the prop again. The man on the front navigated the water depth and with hand signals expertly told the guy on the back where to go and when to lift the motor. It was quite a dance.

All this time, our boat was taking in water. Kathy and I were baling it out as fast as we could using a plastic container. As we passed villages, things started getting more remote and traditional. We learned that no other gringos had been to the end of the line for one year and that it rarely had happened. Things started getting wild. It was getting clear that our 6 hour trip was going to be an all day affair and test our resolve greatly. Kathy was strong and determined, we looked at each other and grinned. We were in this together, for better or worse.

We broke many pins holding the propeller on, the boatman seemed to have done this many times and was able to replace them or fix the ones that broke almost magically. The river at this point got really shallow. Every few bends we had to get out and push, wading through knee deep water. On each side of the river, the jungle was getting more and more dense. We were miles away from any village. Many times the boatman asked me to get my fat ass (compared to his) out of the boat and run along the river bank so the boat could be lighter. Kathy did the same. She had done some hard core big wall climbing in her life so was ready for anything.

Our boat was in bad shape, with the wood piece in the back breaking because the motor had been pulled up so much. Our boat was shot, we stopped at a traditional village and borrowed another piragua boat from a man wearing nothing but a strap around his wee-wee. On we went, it was cool to see my sister in her power. We were a bit deflated to learn that we had a long way to go and it was soon to be dark. We pushed hard. By the way, earlier I dumped myself backward into the water, it was good for a group laugh.

The boat stalled, it was getting really dark, dark comes fast near the equator in the jungle, probably was 6:30PM. One of the boatmen just caught a baby caiman, spooky because this is the same water we had been running through for hours. I honestly thought we were going to have to pitch camp on this dark riverbank in the middle of the intense jungle. After almost giving up hope themselves, the boat guys got the motor started, we equipped them with our headlamps and we puttered on. At this point, loud jungle sounds were all around us. Kathy and I smiled through the dark, I felt exhausted but very much alive.

Finally at 8PM after 12 1/2 hours on the river, we rounded a bend and the guys said "Aqui estoy", we are here. We had reached the mythical Pavarando, home of the last Embera settlement on the river. We walked up the path, exhausted into the village, with our boat guys leading us. We could see fires and hear faint voices in the distance. We were met by a few people as we got near the village. They were amazed that a boat with gringos had come out of the night. By the time we reached the little village center, a crowd had gathered in the dark. People were enthralled, seemed taken aback at first.

We produced the note that the policeman Humberto had given to us, we found his brother and gave it to him. It was basically a "welcome these people and take care of them" letter. Within 15 minutes, the tribe was all laughter, they set us up in a pretty little bamboo hut used for visiting teachers. We strung up our hammocks and collapsed. We will talk tomorrow with these good people, see this beautiful village. I am thankful.

Our hut is awesome. It is raised about 6 feet off the ground to protect from animals and water flooding. We enter by climbing a notched steep tree serving as a ladder. The hut has some wood but is almost completely bamboo. Inside there are two sleeping platforms of split thin bamboo and bamboo sticks laid across each other above the beds to provide drying racks. Even though the sleeping platform looked decent, I decided to string my jungle hammock I had gotten in Ecuador a number of years before. It was my security blanket and little familiar chamber.

This next morning I woke up and decided to get acquainted. I sat outside, started blowing up a few balloons I had brought for the village kids. I ended up being surrounded by kids, all who wanted balloons. What was I to do, I blew up about 30. It is good to travel with a few little gifts, nice way to start a conversation. My Spanish is about 5 grade level, I was able to carry on a basic conversation with almost anyone I met. I noticed that many of the kids around me were covered with tatooed lines that looked like it came from a natural jungle plant die.

After awhile, some adults wandered over, starting their days of fishing and gardening.It felt like some kind of dream here. The brother of the policeman was to be our host, his name was Ariel. When we made this plan, we offered and arrived at a sum of money for our visit, that was to include a place to sleep, some food and just to honor the tribe. Ariel sorted out some of this with us. he was nice, welcoming, shy and a bit cautious.

He invited us to breakfast in a little hut across the way. The fire in the hut was fed by large logs, with an opening in the top of the hut to let out the smoke. The hut had lots of strong bamboo and a large common area, perfect for sitting and visiting, which was clear they did a lot of. Above the fire was a pot for cooking and bamboo smoking and drying rack (ground meat and corn wrapped in corn husks like tamales were placed on). Breakfast was very good, lots of the corn things and bush meat from the jungle. Kathy had joined me, it was great to see her. We watched little girls expertly weave baskets and I talked with Ariel a little more.

The balloons are everywhere, kids have decorated their huts with them. It is pretty hot already, today will be a chilled out day. There was a basketball hoop that had been put up by missionaries who had come to the village. Somehow a basketball appeared and I shot some hoops with the kids, taught them "gato" (which means cat) in place of horse. Kathy joined me and we headed off with the kids for a swim in the nearby lovely river. We dove off a log, tussled, hunted for clear geode rocks and had a blast. The water was clear and cool, very refreshing. Upstream was only nature so this water was great. While getting out of the water, I just saw a six year old chop the head off a chicken and walk by with blood pouring out of the neck.

We got invited over to same other hut for food, people seemed to be happily passing us around. After more of the same kind of food (which we would have lots of this week), we watched old women expertly weaving baskets. They were beautiful, dyed with plants from the jungle. The women were quite proud of them, told us and showed us that their weaves were so tight the baskets could hold water. We asked if we could buy some before we left, they smiled and agreed. We also discussed with another guy trading him a Swiss army knife for a jaguar tooth necklace he had. It was very cool.

The women we had been sitting with were covered with dark plant tattoos, fairly intricate designs. They explained that they were temporary, lasted about two weeks. They used something called jagua juice, invited us to be painted later. I got a fully body tattoo job and loved it. It took two women about an hour to do it. They chuckled when they were done. Kathy brushed and braided the girls' hair, the girls were flocking to her of course.

It was neat to be here with Kathy but be doing our own thing. We would see each other now and again, both of us just going with the flow. I was called over for a delicious meal of a chicken like thing that I was told later was parrot meat. They also had fried bananas and delicious fresh coconut juice. I just saw a tiny kid climb a huge ladder. The jaguar tooth necklace trade just went down, I traded him a nice shirt and a bungee cord, he seemed pleased with the deal. He is making the necklace from the jaguar tooth right now and also bringing over some baskets to trade. When traveling, it is so fun to trade rather than purchase.

I'm sitting motionless in the shelter, trying to avoid the harsh tropical heat. Kathy is eating parrot meat and just got her whole body painted. The women here sit in colorful skirts and are usually bare-breasted because of the heat. One wife per man her, I was just told. I am suffering from the heat and have just been invited for another swim. I think they do a lot of that here. So, picture it. We are in a remote place in the densest jungle of Panama. We have been painted, accepted, embraced. It is beautiful here, more about that later.

I did some trading that was fun and successful, trading for baskets, necklaces, platters, all of exceptional woven quality. I am painted very tribal. I had a nice cool off swim, dove off the log again the way the kids in the village do. I juggled a hard fruit with them, hunted for rocks and finally walked back with two young men doing bird calls together. These two want to go everywhere with me. More trading partners showed up on my porch when I got back. I told them gently I was out of business, didn't want to be thought of just in this way.

We were called over for dinner of deer meat, bananas and the corn tamale thing with coconut milk. I had a good chat with a local man, putting a few plans in place while we are here. They got out some hand drums, I pulled out a little harmonica I brought along and played badly.

Wow, the juice dye stained me almost black. This is cool, I don't think I'll need another layer. I went to sleep last night at 9PM, without lights that is just what you do. I'm sitting outside my hut in the early morning watching the kids who know us now go by with huge smiles. I had broken sleep but a lot of it. Around me are loud calls from birds, insects, faraway animals and the sound of the flowing river. A little boy just ran by, showing off his pole vaulting skills with his prized stick.

The roosters here are not so loud, kind of mellow jungle roosters. So, I was writing in my journal and a flock of kids gathered again. I brought out my Panama travel guide book and showed them pictures of other areas of their country, they had never left the river and the jungle. It must be interesting to hear of the outside world but also to have your whole world right next to you.

The eyes of the kids are beautiful, some of the kids seem to have chicken pox. I'm surrounded by about 12 kids, just went into my little hut to get some water. The kids left, a cool 60 year old guy named Manuel (originally from a tribe in Columbia) poked his head in for a visit. He had been aware we were here and wanted to say hi. he told us he had been working hard and resting since coming up the river like we did but with no motor, it took him 3 days.

He invited me over to his hut, his wife made me deer meat, bananas and coffee. I shared pictures. We talked of life here, politics in Panama, soccer of course and GOLD. He just told me out of nowhere that a German comes here to look for gold. An hour from here, it is panned for and found sometimes under muddy silt. Manuel told me he helps the German but doesn't do it very much as his vision isn't very good and the water is cold for him.This is fun and interesting, I guess he will take me in a couple days.

Wow, a second hut just opened up and I moved over. Kathy and I each have our own place in the village, amazing. I moved into my little hut, unpacked, had some food with the guy Manuel again. Kathy decided she was going to go a little farther into the jungle with a guide, I decided to take this guy up on his gold panning adventure. It was neat to be traveling with Kathy but doing our own thing. I was happy for the adventure she was going off to and excited about mine.

Later that day, some kids named Adi, Estiluia, Jonathan, Lucilda, Isolina and Eleuterio are at my little hut drawing pictures. I am so glad I brought markers and drawing paper for the kids, this is fun. We are on the porch in the late evening, candles burning to provide light. The kids are between the ages 6-12 or so, they have done some vivid drawings, ran to show their parents and then gave them to me. I also splinted and taped a girl's broken or sprained wrist today and climbed a coconut tree like i did when i was young. So far at night, I have seen and heard fireflies, toads, bats, cicadas, woodpeckers.

I had started off in my new hut on the split bamboo bed but my city boy back was aching in the night, I strung my jungle hammock by candlelight and felt better. I woke, slowly, lying in my hammock reflecting on the past day and enjoying the sounds of the morning: roosters, the sawing of wood, a radio on and the laughing words of the native dialect being spoken.

It is very hot one today. Up, visited on my porch with the guy who really likes to come by and trade with me. He had brought more things. I told him more clearly I was done trading for now. I gave him a pat on the back and a smile, I think he got the message this time.I just had a nice breakfast with fresh eggs and lots of bananas. I borrowed someone's mirror and had a shave in a bucket.

Every guy in the village is getting their hand held, rubber propelled short spears ready for fishing. It is fishing day and we will eat well tonight. Manuel and I are off to hunt for gold, an hour hike, maybe two. The kids just came by, they stare and stare at me, when I do it back, they look away quickly and giggle. I think the drawing last night was bonding.

I've described this little village a bit but will do it better. There are about 20 huts on stilts, bamboo and palm frond roofs. Kids wander around. People vacillate between hard work (boat carving, weaving, land clearing, planting, harvesting of food, house building and hunting) and sheer laziness and relaxation, important when the sun is beating down hard.

Chickens run around, the place has a sweet fragrance in the air and all around are coconut trees, palm trees, flowers and the lush jungle just at the end of village.These people make almost everything they use and are expert fishermen. It seems very friendly here, it seems that the river and jungle give them enough food to get by fairly well.

Okay, I've been gone all day and am reporting in now. Kathy went off on her trek, I took off on mine with my half-blind Colombian tribal guy in search of gold. We never found the river it is purported to be in but we had an excellent tromp through intense rain forest (we used a machete to bushwhack all day). We climbed over big trees, lots of vines, had fresh water and fruits from the jungle to eat. I am back in the village and exhausted, the heat is really taking the energy out of me. I think I'll hop in the river and chill out.

Wow, I just found a beautiful little spot on the Pavarando River where baths are taken. A few kids and moms were cleaning fish from the day's catch. To get there, you walk to the end of the village then down some steep stairs carved in the dirt hill. It is shielded from the sun and has some beautiful rocks and places to bathe, wash clothes or just chill. I cleaned and swept the inside of my little hut, some kids just came by, we blew bubbles I had brought and looked at photos, nice way to wind down from a long day. I REALLY wish i had a cold beer.

Had a hearty dinner at yet another hut of loads of fish and bananas, I sat in front of my hut until late hours, with a group of kids that has swelled to about 20, not sure where they all came from, maybe the next village. Tonight the kids are drawing pictures and very nice ones. They hesitated at first then got busy. They insist on giving me all their drawings, how could I say no? We talked together about life, drawings, distance, geography, costs of things. Their drawing were incredible, of the jungle, village and river, jaguars, the things they know.

This village of Pavarando is a place that few Westerners have been, it feel magical. reachable only if you are moved to find it. Most of the huts have wide open expanses of thinly split bamboo, under palm frond roofs to escape the jungle heat and serve as a place to visit, lounge, cook, weave and live. there are sleeping quarters in the huts.

There are a few things that are modern in the village, acquired by trading amazing woven baskets and gold that they find. There is a concrete walkway through the village, a basketball court. the Embera people mix some western clothing with traditional garb.

This is a land of abundance. The two rivers that surround the village flow clean and pure from the mountains. There is food, meat from deer, chickens, rabbits, caiman, wild pig, jaguar, birds, fish and many other things that move. There are also bananas and corn that are cultivated. The village is ringed by coconut palms, the coconut meat and milk are used in many dishes. There are sapodillas, limes and a variety of wild fruits.

This life doesn't come without toil. There is work, lots of it. There are baskets to weave, fires to tend, cleaning to do, laundry, hunting, fishing, gathering of bananas, house building. The roughhewn log boats are expertly carved from huge hardwood logs of the jungle, it is a painstaking process. The boats are used for transportation, fishing and fun. There is loads of laughter here. Saturday is fishing day. The men fish with long barbs with rubber slings attached to them, the women clean the fish, they catch a lot but explain that they don't fish every day because it wouldn't be good for the supply. Amazing, they get it.

There are fires in each home, tended and used daily, which have created blackened interiors of the lofty bamboo beams. There are drying racks over the fires for meat and corn. The kids in this village play a lot, with little balls and things from the forest. The villagers have wonderful imaginations and great senses of humor. The people here certainly take time to warm up, the kids obviously throw their heats out faster. I began to develop some nice connection with a few people in my time here. The kids seem intelligent and very curious. Honesty and respect for elders seems the norm.

There weren't tons of mosquitoes in the village, probably because the water flows through well and isn't stagnant. They seem aware that they shouldn't have things full of water standing around, almost like some health worker had taught them that. A number of dogs and pet deer roam the village, frogs come out at night. There is no electricity, oil lamps and candles are used at night. Most go to bed early and wake up the same way. Smells of cooking food drift through the village. The houses are all in a row on 2 sides of a central walkway.

There is a school, teachers come for three months at a time from farther down river. The kids don't have books, paper, markers but were very creative when I brought out mine. If my Spanish were better, I could communicate with some adults who are a bit more reserved and traditional.

People seem peaceful, aggressive noises don't really exist. The health in general seems to be good, the whole foods diet and water must help. There is good clean water brought into the village through a faucet I can't really figure out, I think they have devised a holding tank.
The kids wear jaguar tooth necklaces, stories of wild animals abound. Off to sleep again.

The next day the 60 year old guy got a slightly hyperactive local 19 year old to join us and we were off in search of gold again. They told me that what they found they would keep, I was just in it for the adventure. After and hour hike, up and down a little mountain, we finally found the place we had been searching for yesterday. I was excited, had visions of golden nuggets, didn't exist.

What did exist was an amazing jungle stream with deep pools draped with vines right out of a Tarzan movie. I used a mask to look for gold underwater, none. We then used a stake, shovel and a bowl to dig dirt out of the riverbank. We worked hard, found a little chunk of gold, not big but it was bright. It felt like the prospectors in Alaska must have years before.

After 5 hours working, we found about 2 grams of gold. I'm not sure what that was worth to them, they seemed very happy though. I slept on a rock by the river for one hour when they were digging, awake and tried my hand a little. I stumbled home with them, very tired. It was a brilliant day. As we got home, I ran into Kathy who had just come back from her journey.
We had a nice dinner together of eggs and bananas, used my water filter to pump some drinking water. Off to sleep soon, will sleep well, lulled to sleep by the jungle.

The next morning, up and realizing that this is my last day in this village. My list in my funny journal of things I wanted to do this day:

-get basket from alfonso, get fox mask from woman, get tiger tooth necklace finished, shoot photos, give away a few mote things i have for kids, pack up.

I woke up, had some breakfast, and went back to sleep for 2 hours. I awoke, amazing, it is finally raining in the rain forest. Kathy and I just got back from a great romping swim in the Sambu River with 11 village kids who were very playful, jumping on us, pecking at our feet underwater like little fish. It is beautiful as rain feeds this gorgeous land.

This morning I was able to get some good photos of the people here, years later as I am writing this i seem to be missing quite a few. We are one of the only "tourists" who have ever made it here, i am sure in the 12 years since more have come. Lonely Planet guide says "parts of Panama feel like places that haven't been discovered, it is truly amazing the rest of the world doesn't know. In a big world with many people, those fleeting experience are great.

We picked up a few more amazing baskets, Kathy and I ended up signing songs in one of the common houses with about 40 Embera people, the kids sang loudly and the elders did some traditional chants as a gift to us and blessing for our return journey. We leave tomorrow.

Well, here it is 6PM the next day and we are back in Sambu'. This morning we started off with some last minute trading, some breakfast, many goodbyes and toting our bags to the river. We had boatmen who were excellent,. going downstream was a painless 6 hours in great sun and scenery. Kathy and I caught up on what we each had been doing the past couple days. We got back to Sambu', had a nice visit and big slaps on the back from the police friends, some good food and a cold BEER!

It was nice to see Margarita and the preacher again, we moved back into our hut for the night. It was time to scrape off the jungle dirt and get ready for Carnival tonight! I kicked back for a few hours, went out shopping at the village store and got potatoes, garlic and onions for our hosts.
The village parade just went by, a rag tag but fun group of people celebrating the biggest night of Carnival with all the color and flair they could muster. They somehow had drums and sounded rather like what you would imagine in Brazil.

We met some of the Embera tribe from Pavarando, who had come down for carnival. We had a nice meal with the preacher and his wife, my pants were all dirty, Humberto brought me some police uniform pants to wear, funny. We finally were ready to go out, not sure the preacher liked us leaving but it was carnival!

We found out that this little village by the river was a bit bigger than we thought. We went out to Puerto Indio, the indigenous part of town, to a little hole in the wall for a few beers. Then we actually were taken into a salsa bar, very surreal in this little town of 500 on the edge of the jungle. It was hopping and fun after being out of civilization. At some point, stumbled home.

Got to bed late last night and was awoken at 4AM and kept awake by the roosters from hell. In Sambu', it seems as if thee roosters never stop crowing, macho Spanish birds! What to do, it is 6AM and I still can't sleep, a little doggie came by and hung out with me. I walked out to a big mango tree by the airstrip we didn't know existed when we first came here. Already at 6AM it is hot, the mango tree is heat relief. The roosters are crowing in the background, sound like they are competing to be the most obnoxious. Then they set the dogs off barking. I give up.

Some people we were having beers with last night just walked by, they had been out all night. I'm glad I slept some. Light is barely starting to show over the jungle, this town will slowly come to life. Did I mention that Panamanians are very nice dressers? It is fun to sit here and watch the well dressed night party crowd come home in this sleepy little town. I'll sit by the river. Next stop, I have an old university friend flying in, I will meet him later today in Panama City. I have just the right amount of native tattoo dye to give him a shock, I'll use the jaguar necklace too.

A bird is floating gently over the morning mist on the Sambu' River. There is a small mountain in the distance behind the jungle on the other side of the river. A harmless drunk guy just sat down next to me. I thought I got almost no sleep, he really needs some. Wow, i am talking in Spanish with a drunk guy on the edge of the jungle. Sometimes, reality is unbelievable.

Okay, enough drunk guy. Just walked over to a little dock, frogs croaking, bats swooping by, light is coming quickly now. I'll be out of here soon, thank you jungle for a wonderful trip.
Just visited with 3rd in command of police here, then nice breakfast of rice and pork. I walked around the village with Humberto, said goodbye to Ariel and the other guys.

And just like that, it was time to go. A little plane fell out of the sky, landing at our improbable airstrip. After unloading a few local passengers and supplies, we hopped on amidst many waving people and were off. The plane ride was gentle, I slept to Panama City, awoke to see the big metropolis before we landed. My buddy Peter had flown in from Boston and spent the night before in Panama City, Kathy and I caught a quick ride over there, she knew Peter from past years too.

It was great to see Peter, sad that my sis was leaving. She headed to the international terminal, we were off to the domestic one for a flight up north. We hopped our plane to David, a town near the Costa Rica and our launching point for the next leg of the journey. We got off the plane in the stifling heat, caught and epic two hour ride (after waiting an hour caught in a goat traffic jam) on very rutty dirt roads to the little seaside ramshackle village of Boca Chica, then a little local boat ride to this little slice of backpacker heaven called Isla Boca Brava. We got into some cold beers, talked with Patrick and Quincy from Idaho, had dinner and met the very unique owner Frank, a German guy who had a dream years ago. Good dinner of seafood soup, we will snorkel tomorrow.

It is early, Peter and I are sitting on a little dock by the bay. We just saw a lone dolphin jump out of the water. I didn't say much about the trip here, now I will.

We left little David airport and got a ride for what we thought we be an hour to Boca Chica, by the sea. It would become much more. After getting to the little town of Horconcitos, the road turned nasty, the guy who was driving us had never been on this road, was overwhelmed by the ruts. He gave up, we took our bag, hitchhiked with a guy we met down the hill. We finally pulled in at 8PM to little Boca Chica. As we drove through, it felt old school and salty like the Florida keys when I was young. The landscape was fairly arid.

The guy who was driving us honked to a buddy who brought his boat around and for $2 took us to Isla Boca Brava. We got there, walked up a dock, up about 100 stairs and into this little bizarre fantasy island. Frank Kohler, a guy from the German Alps, has created his little paradise. An amazing bamboo cozy spot restaurant greeted us. We sat, dinner was long over but Frank found us, got us beers and seafood soup with lobster ans prawns. We met a few other people who had made it to this remote place, went to sleep in hammocks about 11PM and crashed hard.

We woke in the morning to the sound of howler monkeys, very loud and spooky sounding if you have never heard them. We got down for a refreshing swim in the salt water and then up to breakfast. This place feels like some kind of little place in Greece, we are under a big thatched building with white stucco walls. There are terraces overlooking lovely islands and we are sitting with a guy named Werner from Austria.

I have been eating a lot since emerging from the limited choices of the jungle, cool it a bit. After a great breakfast with eggs, bacon, toast and papaya juice, we are out on a little boat today, sitting in one of the prettiest beaches I had ever seen in the Golfo de Chiriqui. Great snorkeling this day, huge schools of fish. These little islands are some kind of remote paradise. The beaches have white sand with coral pieces, coconut trees on the shore, little hermit crabs running here and there.

The water is warm, the sun blazing, I love Panama. Peter is in the mood for adventure, we have made a vow to keep going, no matter how nice a place is. I woke the next morning and felt way too good for the amount of beer I had last night. After our ride back from paradise, we had dinner with a motley collection of travelers and then started having beers. Some time in the late evening, we walked down to the water, dove in into a sea of marine phosphorescence, heatless light generated chemically by marine plants and animals. If you never have done this, it is pretty cool to swim in the night in this, moving your arms and legs
and generating light underwater at night. We came back, had beers with hilarious Werner and Frank and then off tired to the hammock.

Here we sit on Playa Las Lajas. Early yesterday, we jumped at the chance to catch a ride in the back of our temperamental hostel owner's truck (Frank) to the Panamerican Hwy. We did, so did two other German guys with us. We got dropped unceremoniously in a little dusty town, caught a ride with the Germans into Las Lajas. Many had decribed this as the nicest beach in all of Panama. I had done my jungle time, I wanted the sea.

It certainly is beautiful, 20km long, white, sandy, gentle wave break into the sand. We slid into a little place called Las Lajas Cabinas, run by a marvelous 25 year old named Roy. He was instantly welcoming, this place had a very chill, beachy vibe. We had hope to get a cheap beachfront hut, Roy had us throw our stuff in another one off the beach and see if one opened up. This place is sweet, ten little thatched huts on the beach. The sun is a fireball that will sink into the Pacific. The water is warm and the traveler vibe good, right now some Danes, Canadiennes and a Scotish guy.

It is a fun scene, we all prepared food and ate together, cooking fish bought from a fisherman very closeby. Afterward, we all piled in the back of Roy's truck and went to a little town as a group to shoot some pool. We had some beers, then came back, made a bonfire, played guitar and sand songs under the moon.

Peter got me up early for once, usually I am first up. We caught a ride in the back of another truck to get some supplies and meat. Met some more great people at our place including a young woman who lived in Durango Colorado and was moving to Boston. So great and fun to be back around traveler culture, everyone has an interesting story to tell.

We woke this morning in our little hut by the beach. Mitch from Canada ran over and pointed out dolphins jumping off shore, playing in the waves. We got ribs in town to barbeque for lunch, walked 5 km down the beach, hadn't seen this lad in awhile, great to catch up. I was finding Peter very easy to travel with, a lifelong friend to be sure. The evening dinner was excellent, all of us pitched in, barbeque, fresh fish, potatoes, fruit salad, bread and beers. We had another deep pit bonfire, told a few tall tales, took a late night swim and off to bed.

The next day Peter an I planned to have a mellow, chill by the beach type day. We grabbed breakfast, had an early morning swim in the ocean, used some boogie boards. I had been reading a little Kerouac this morning. We could have chilled but were itching for adventure. We packed our bags, said goodbyes, got a ride with a guy and headed back out to the Panamerican Highway. We hopped on a bus headed south at the last minute before it left.

On the road again! Our bus ride turned into 8 hours of loud, hot driving, music blaring from our bus. We settled in the best we could, chickens, sacks of grain all around us. We finally rolled into the main bus terminal in Panama City and after a quick phone call, were picked up by Jorge, a retired pediatrician who Peter had befriended on the flight down from the states. The doctor had been quite amused when Peter told him that he was going to Panama City himself, speaking not a word of English and his buddy (me) was with a tribe in the Darien Jungle.

So, Jorge came to the bus station with his son Gus, a great, gentle guy. Soon we had connected with family members Vivian, Lillian and Cheleta. The family took us out to a great Argentinean restaurant. Talk was lively, lots of laughter. Their English was quite good, they all wanted to know details of our journey in their country. They kept shaking their heads and smiling when we told them of our adventures.

After dinner, we were taken back to the family estate, in the hills overlooking Panama City. After a tour of the gorgeous house and gardens, we sat on the veranda at Jorge's private bar outside and traded tall tales until late.

In the morning, the family picked us up for breakfast, took us to see the actual Panama Canal, learned plenty about the way it worked and its history. We saw some huge boats passing through the locks, amazing that boats are made specifically to the dimensions of the canal.

We kept having these experiences of comfort that were hard to let go of. It was time to go. We hit the road hitchhiking and by bus, rolled into town of Portobello at 2PM. This was a neat town, one of the original settlements of Panama, a natural harbor that had been easy to defend from pirates as the Spaniards brought gold and silver back from Peru and Columbia.
There were the ruins of three old forts. We rolled down the steamy coast in a tiny, fly ridden bus and finally into the little village of La Guayra, the place to catch boats to Isla Grande.

We chilled by the harbor for about an hour, hopped on a heavily laden boat out to the island, which was supposed to be packed with Panamanian people on holiday and a lot of fun. The island was fun, but turned out to be almost empty. We got a three bedroom suite with ocean views for about $10/night. We heard monkeys outside our room, decided to look around.

We were a bit bummed, this place was pretty dead, not really much in the way of things for travelers. We had a good hike around the island, some exercise because it was a bit hilly. We had a drink at a reggae bar and learned of setups that happen for drug conviction here, same all over the world. A traveler is offered a bit to smoke by a "friendly" local, the police swoop in and throw cuffs on the unsuspecting visitor, the "friend" disappears. You know how it goes, jail or about a $2000 fine. Most people pay. We just wanted beer.

We sat and sat and just enjoyed this place, hazy sunshine fading at the end of the day. A few characters and expats started coming out, it was small so we talked with most of them. It turned into a great night, drinking rum and sharing stories with a motley group of people.

The Caribbean side of Central America seems to attract interesting folks. Who knows what their real stories were but our funny group included Gringo Joe, a salty 60 year old ex airline pilot here to develop a bit of land. There was Brian, a slightly neurotic, brilliant, psychologist dropout, Cal, the funny Canadian from Manitoba. he was an ex prison guard down here doing non profit work and just chilling out. Lastly, there was Mike, a 20 year old surfer coming down from Costa Rica and on his way to the west coast of Panama. We sat, in the blustery rain shielded under coconut palms and had a fantastic night, everyone was full of stories, the good rum was flowing. Once, Brian made a playful comment at Mike's expense, a coconut almost dropped on his head. To bed late as usual, woke with blaring sun after 4 hours sleep.

We grabbed a big plate of morning fruit, got a small boat back to La Guayma, walked and hitched for an hour then hopped on a bus we thought might be going our way. Our bus wasn't really the right one but got us to a crossroads town called Sabanitas, transitioned to another bus that took us all the way right outside the domestic airport in Panama City. Our thought was that we would show up and take whatever plane was available.

At the airport, there were exactly two seats left on a very cheap -small plane flight to a place called Isla Contadora, in the Islas Perlas, supposed to be beautiful. We took off for our one our flight, started learning about where we were going. The islands are famous for dome of the biggest pearls in the world, also where the Shah of Iran lived for a time after the revolution. I had developed a bad earache, need to do something about it.

Peter is sleeping, It is the next morning at 7AM, I'm sitting holding my very painful ear in front of the tiny little clinic on Contadora, hoping to get some medicine. I am supposed to meet up with a dude named Alex, who works in baggage for Aeroperlas, the little plane we just came in on yesterday. Alex found us a $25 room on short notice when we got here, not easy because there aren't many rooms and things are more expensive here. I met Alex after being told by the Aeroperlas agents at the airport in Panama City to chat with him when I got to Contadora.

Our room is simple, at a guy named Henry's house. He is an expat from France living here with his wife, also has a niece from Brittany staying with him. This is a funny little island, some shacks and simple structures and then villas here and there, surrounded by coral reefs with the bluest of water all around.

After we tossed down our packs and gathered our road weary bodies, we wandered to a little local pub to meet Alex, who spoke of taking a boat out tomorrow and maybe a fishing trip later in the week. All the speaking was in my limited Spanish, i was doing okay. We went to have a little seafood at a place by the water called Gerald's, actually quite a cute spot. A sunset, a few drinks and then off to a well earned sleep.

I woke early, got in a little boat with my new buddy Alex, his wife and the captain. Alex lives on an island nearby, about an hour boat ride. My ear is killing me, i need help. As we took off from shore, it was beautiful, white sand beaches, pelicans, rocky coast. We are passing little island with people of African decent on them, have learned that "Contadora" means counting. The particularly ruthless Spaniards used this island for counting their pearls, the black people were the descendents of slaves brought over to work the pearls after the Spaniards killed off all the indigenous people in this area.

We are off to Isla del Rey, no travelers there, going to my buddy's little village. Peter stayed back on Contadora today, I almost did with my ear but couldn't pass this boat ride up. I got a little too much sun on the boat ride, got to Isla del rey and walked up the hill to my buddy's family home. It was a really nice family day in their little hut by the water, chilled out with them about 4 hours, we shared food, dried yucca, fish, met all kinds of grandparents and kids.

They new I was in pain, told me that a local doctor was going to be in his little clinic (that doubled as the island store) for 2 hours today. I felt bad because there were others who had cuts and more pressing issues. I sat there while the doctor helped them and then visited with me. The doctor charged me $4.50 for an office visit, 50 cents for the medicine for my ear!

I popped some of the medicine instantly, bought a big fish to share at dinner and cooked it
on a little stove with butter and garlic. the family thought it was funny that I was cooking in their hut. As it got dusk, we pushed into the water for the ride back to Contadora. We had no, light besides a flashlight, the waves were very big on the way back. I actually was pretty worried, we limped into port just as it got really dark. Dinner was good, we have been meeting people from all over the world on this little island.

After a good night's sleep, I woke early and decided to explore a bit and ended up circumnavigating the whole island of Contadora, hiking, rock climbing and swimming a bit when the way was blocked. The sea shells were beautiful, i got lost in the colors while beachcombing. The rock formations, birds and waves were excellent. I got back about 4 hours later, had some cold sangria with Peter, then a nice meal of pork chops and potatoes at Peter the Frenchman's place. We are off tomorrow to fish and perhaps even trade for a pearl or two.

We packed up, headed out for another day on the water. We got supplies, gas, a cooler and bread, the tide was very low so we along with a bunch of locals had to push the boat into deeper water. We set off, circled islands. We caught three good sized fish, big enough to eat and tell stories about, at least. Peter looked so happy to fish, he seemed so very relaxed compared to the first day I saw him from in from Boston to Panama City. He is a natural with people liking him, spreads humor and laughter wherever he goes.

We got back, got dinner supplies, cooked up the fish and headed out to an open air music place we had noticed the other day. We saw all kinds of people we had met on the island.
This morning we wandered the tide pools only 50 meters from shore. Ringed by coral reefs, Contadora is one of the best places in the world to snorkel right from shore. Beautiful coral was exposed with the tide low for full moon. We met up with a group of Canadians and found out there was a place that rented jet skis here. I had never done it, Peter wanted to so we did.

It was a blast, cutting across bright blue bays, up channels and around islands. We beachcombed in little hidden areas, ripped through the waves on the jet skis, jumped wake and had a definite blast. We were pretty sore when we got back, mended with sangria. Saw lots of new friends this night, time to go tomorrow after some more hammock time.

The next morning, we went down to the little runway, got on the plane for a quick flight to Panama City. Back in the bog city once again with its color, noise and energy. Panamanians are so happy and know how to enjoy life. I took off and found Dr Della Togna, head of prosthetic dentistry at University of Panama and also a practicing dentist. I have a thing with liking to get my teeth cleaned in other countries. It is affordable, often about $10, but also a fun adventure. The dentist spoke English very well and talked about fishing, life and our trip.

I wandered many markets, bought a hammock, had a sandal maker make sandals custom to my foot, shopped for Panama hats. The fruits and juices in this town are just spectacular. I was walking along the shore near our room and ran into our Austrian buddy from a couple weeks ago, took him back to the room and surprised Peter. Spent the afternoon looked at wildly painted buses and drinking every juice in town in the tropical heat.

Later that day we reconnected with the lovely Panamanian family we had visited before. It was our last night in town and they really wanted to give us an evening in their town. We learned that really Panama doesn't receive loads of visitors and it is an honor when they come.

The family took us all around Casco Viejo, the old part of town. Jorge and his daughter seem quite fond of the historic architecture, I am too. They showed us dungeons, views, old ruins and even where Manuel Noriega hid in a dress when the US was searching for him.

They took us out to a vibrant and tasty typical Panamanian restaurant, during dinner there was a folkloric show with dancers from the Chitre area. And then, just like that, the trip was over. Peter and I caught a lift to the airport, got on different planes and were off. Good trip!


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