Exploring the Darién gap
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Albrook Darien Stop
As I found it I purchased my ticket and used my limited Spanish, to ask when and how long does it take he immediately opened the door and shouted to another bloke, who ushered me over to a shiny metallic bus. I asked if it was headed to the darién he replied yes so I am sure I am headed in the right direction I asked does it go to Agua Fria then metetí he again said yes. I was more than convinced now as I got comfortable on the bus I got the necessary paperwork out and by paperwork, it was a letter of permission from the Panama consulate in London to present at the first security check point which is known as Agua Fria which translates to cold water in English. As we arrived after an hour or so of driving we where all told to leave the bus with everything we had brought, me being the only westerner on the bus all SENAFRONT staff turned and looked at me all serious looking until I was ushered over and I was again pleasantly surprised with the warmness of the Panamanian people albeit security personal who are in essence an elite force which is trained to face all manner of issues from narco-traffickers, people smugglers, and the FARC rebels.
Not Agua Fria but it looks extremely similar.
So as I braced myself for a beasting and 21 questions sort of situation, I was greeted with ‘US’ I replied no señor Inglaterra they all laughed and rang a number which on the other end was a well spoken English lady. Who would repeat in English what they asked I showed them my letter of permission read it out to the person on the other end of the phone again she, in turn, repeated to them. I was then asked what is your reason to travel I replied explore animals, fauna and flora they again laughed and looked at a field guide book from my already emptied rucksack, which I was worried about i had a few funny looking electronic devices such a SPOT device a Garmin GPS device and most cryptic in their eyes was a remote wildlife camera from Bushnell they manhandled this mainly opening it up searching it on there phone as one flicked through my passport also a military type hammock I then got asked if I was military I, of course, replied no, but this will turn out to be a trend over the next few days. So as they seem satisfied they helped put my belongings back in my backpack dirty socks an all, I was then pointed over to a separate kiosk where only I was summoned. They took my passport again by this time all the local people had returned back to the bus and I became a nuisance, they asked similar question just out of curiosity I felt while jotting passport details down one asking why do you come here in ok English I tried to respond but was beaten to it by a SENAFRONT soldier ‘fauna y flora’ he laughingly said, I agreed and laughed it off. So all in order I was headed back to the bus and had passed my first checkpoint with a few more to come, we had passed a few smaller settlements none of the picture I had seen in books or posts online I was expecting to see Embera and Wounan settlements but no look yet I was patiently waiting in excitement.
So we finally arrived in metetí, which was the last stop on this journey for now. Which was a town with jungle surrounding it, with one main road and basic amenities where I had noticed a lot of people of African descent who spoke some language other than Spanish. I believe these are people who had paid to be smuggled into south America which then paid even dodgier folk, to cross them over into central America and to do this, they would have to take part in an extremely dangerous endeavour by crossing mountain ranges and swamps through the Darien Gap. A few seemed to make a small living here by selling handmade jewellery or clothes of some sort. We were dropped off outside a big warehouse which sold everything you could think of it from phone top up to pot noodle, where most people seemed to get their necessities. So I went on the search for a hostel I had researched again online previous to coming here, where few people had stayed and then spoke of it online which was called Hotel Felicidad where there was also a small cafe place below it. Where not many people used as this was about 5 minutes outside of town the hotel itself was nice and had a nice flower garden walk where I had found countless bugs and lizards. Where I found this guy so metetí I spent 4 days went and explored the town on 2 of the evenings and ate out once People again was shocked to see a gringo in this part of the world but always pleasant. As the days went on I was researching when and how to get to Jaque my Spanish not up to scratch I was told to head to Puerto Limon and then catch a boat so on the 5th day I headed to Puerto Limon on the back of a taxi which was once a robin reliant car. So me and all my gear and to bags headed to where I was dropped off a few days ago, so to Puerto Limon it was around a 45 minute journey and must say the bumpiest ride I have ever had but it went through some of the first evidence of the Emberas and Wounaan way of life a few houses on stilts which now had me even more excited. So I am on my way to the port for a boat toJacquee, as we arrive I kept asking Jaque I even tried to show them on my GPS device which decided to not work at all I went to a small kiosk where mainly kids and an individual man was there pointing out the boats, and two young lads by them I then approached them repeated Jaque they agreed. As in Jaque, I had pre-arranged from a lady named Beatriz who use to live there who is the partner of rick morales who works in the Darien on expeditions which I came across by chance in my planning by emailing the Biomuseo. So I got on my first pirogue canoe and yes daunting was the best way to describe it two lads evidently younger than myself, a most likely not able to drive a car but was more than comfortable going down a huge river.
Woo All I thought
So as I got onto the canoe I was under the impression I will be meeting a friend of Beatriz named Floralba in Jaque so double checked my GPS and still no good so I just went for it you are only here once right. So I just got on the pirogue. As I was enjoying it a lot the journey took about 15 minutes, and then my maths started to kick in my distance to Jacque, metetí was vast and 45 minute taxi maybe an hour and then a 15 minute canoe journey just was not working out to where I needed to be I should of started to panic and worry, most individuals would have. But these guys were pointing out fish to birds to all other wildlife for me to get the best possible shots. The whole journey on the river bank in Spanish of course. As I could see land fast approaching and finally an actually indigenous village where I had come across other people travelling on canoes and houses on stilts I was so excited to take a picture I lent a little too far over and almost capsized the boat and us 3 along with my computer camera, as well, as I probably would have ended trying to swim for my life but luckily the guys saved the moment, but got my picture I must add.
So we carried on for maybe another 500 metres and we disembarked I was in awe, and presumed we were not in Jacque, but another village up the Rio Jaque I believe so one of the young lads my escorts to this beautiful spot on the globe showed me around his village waved to people, people waved back I was happy and could of stayed there for as long as needed if I had shelter and food. So after an hour or two with me following this free tour guide around I then tried my GPS again it worked. I approached the young man went down to Jaque on my GPS he said in a rushed voice la Palma el Barco with my limited Spanish I figured it is another long day of travelling. So we got back on his pirogue he took me back to Puerto Limon I thanked him offered him some money he point blank refused, I replied for Gasolina he again refused he waved me on. So I then got back on the bumpy taxi and headed back to Meteti and then got some food, and restocked on water and fruits of all kinds. I then had to catch another taxi it was a more traditional cab looked like an NYC cab and we arrived at the bus depot, maybe 2 minutes up the main road. I asked around for Puerto Quimbo bus a well-spoken individual with an American accent shouted out 50 minutes here I replied with a tired thank you but I was still recovering from seeing my first traditional way of living but getting lost to see it.
So the bus arrived all air conditioned so was pleasant rest-bite, but was full to the rafters again the only westerner. The journey went quite high in the mountains then down again maybe an hour or so long journey. When we arrived at Puerto Quimbo there were a few people hanging around for other boats to places on the other side of the bay. I went to the ticket office again the security noticed me and immediately called me over asked very similar question to Agua Fria. I tried in Spanish but in the end, gave up, gave them my passport they then radioed, I presume agua Fria all ok I was told to wait here and then shouted about 30 minutes later saying ‘not Jaque la Palma then la Palma to Jacque this boat.’ Asked when would it be here, they did not know as most boats are independently manned so we got on the boat headed to la Palma. But Puerto Quimbo was beautiful although very small dense jungle each side of the bay. Enjoyed my time in La Palma with carnival in high spirits in just a few days I stayed no more than 5 days. And then went on the hunt for a boat toJacquee, I was greeted by a brother and father team stating when they will be headed off I agreed on a time and my place on the boat. So all partied out focused again of to Jaque the closest town on the Panama side of the border on the western side of the Darien. My boat companions were 3 men and an elderly woman all government bodies warn against this type of travel this part of the world, but I say to myself how do you immerse yourself in a country and its culture if you do not use it, as the local people use and rely on? Of course there are risks associated with this kind of travel from people and their integrity or even the upkeep of there vehicles, nevertheless it was truly an experience as I was far out in the pacific ocean being rocked side to side on a small speedboat where the captain stopped to just watch local fishermen as he, himself had never seen these boats only the elderly lady had. I sadly never got any images of this as the salt water would have had my camera in all sorts of trouble. But take my word for it they where a number of colours and there was about 5 of them all had there individual personal flags. A sight I would more than likely never see again. We arrived in Jaque with yet another security check this time it was intense they asked the questions, again and again, made it harder as the language barrier was obviously there. Myself and another guy was taken to the offices guarded by two men with AK47 Assault rifles and sandbag type fort, a young guy took me in their office took my bag apart checked and re-checked everything again I was asked if I was military which I replied no they then requested my passport, until the following day I tried to refuse and offer a photocopy, which was not enough. So after trying to argue my case they just said to me mañana señor and showed me the door, I had to oblige and then went on a search for my friend Beatriz who’s friend lived herein Jaque. Who maintains two houses which due to their location are in a bad way but a small house in the jungle outside of the main town was just what I wanted. But I could not find them so I found a small hotel again in a bad way but I am not a picky bloke. I arrived after a few helpful individuals at a house where the owner rents her rooms out for a small fee of 6-8 dollars I opted for the 8 dollar room there was one or two, ten dollar rooms but nevertheless I wasted no time to have a look at my new pad for the following week or so I had a few uninvited guests I had to shew off first of all which was a vampire bat, yes it terrified me as well. But it was very rustic and I loved it, so Jaque was cleaning up after its own mini carnival yes all the way down here they had a carnival also, so wherever in Latin America specifically Panama you cannot escape carnival. So the following day I retrieved my passport and finally found Floralba the lady who takes care of the houses, By asking the SENAFRONT bloke who had my passport, for whatever purpose. I was introduced to the ladies as there were a few missionary type girls also doing work down there who had the other house much nicer I may add. But they helped me clear the house I was staying at which was a full days job. I surely appreciated it and then I was left alone so I explored and set up my hammock on the balcony.
After this I went down the beach and into the rainforest on a search of all kinds of animals, the beach was clear and abandoned. For the whole time I was there it was blissful which I enjoyed the most out of my whole trip was the absolute emptiness of the place, but the people again. In and around Jaque there was an Indian side to it and afro Caribbean side which was sad but true that they lived complete different ways of life. But each culture was changing the other ever so slightly, which they openly accept and see life no different so a few images of my time in Jaque. But on my last day quite far up the beach after speaking to a local turtle conservationist he said there was a small trail I tried looking for but what I came across topped my trip off
Small kid and feral dogs
This young lad was climbing up trees and jumping down he was as shocked to see me as I was to see him which actually shocked almost scared me at first, he then followed me up the beach and as far as his special tree on the way back down, I felt it was a humbling experience.