Darién River Adventures
Because there are (thankfully) still few roads in the Darién, most travel within the province is done the old-fashioned way: on the river. Spend much time in the Darién and you’ll become intimately familiar with piraguas, 30- to 45-foot-long dugout canoes that are still the best way to get around on the rivers.
Their shallow drafts and tough bottoms allow them to skim over water that’s just a few centimeters deep or be dragged across rocky bottoms without springing a leak. The only concession to modernity is the outboard motor, to make upriver trips much easier. Making a piragua is a long, labor-intensive job, which is why they can sell for as much as US$1,500.
The indigenous people also use cayucos—small, paddled dugout canoes—for shorter trips and rafts made from lightweight balsa wood. The rafts are one-way, makeshift affairs used to travel downriver with the current, after which they’re abandoned.
Travel by piragua is nothing fancy. You sit on a wooden plank along the bottom, often in a puddle of water. They’re completely exposed to the elements, which means it can be broiling hot and humid in the sun and startlingly chilly in the rain.
Some sort of cushion to sit on and, in the rainy season, a poncho with hood will make long piragua trips more comfortable. Consider bringing a life jacket; flashfloods are possible on some rivers. Don’t forget to wear sunscreen on the open river.
And stay alert: Tree falls and other obstacles can suddenly appear on a fast-flowing river, requiring a quick limbo to avoid getting knocked out of the boat.
It’s possible to arrange a river trip on your own, but it will entail a great deal of planning and hassle, particularly for those who don’t speak decent Spanish. Life will be a lot easier and safer if you go with a qualified guide who knows the good boatmen and can make all the arrangements.
How much a river trip costs depends primarily on how far you want to go, as the main expense is fuel. Expect to pay at least US$100 one-way per group for a solid couple of hours of motoring, which will take you pretty far, probably as far as you’d like to go in a day. Note that this just covers the cost of the boat, fuel, and crew.
The crew will consist of at least a captain and a poleman. The latter stands up front with a long pole, on the lookout for snags and shallows. Food, supplies, guides, porters, and tips are all extra, as is lodging for those who plan to spend the night.
The best “cultural” rivers, which give a taste of Emberá-Wounaan village life, are the Río Sambú and the Río Balsas. The farther upriver you go, the more traditional the villages are. Other possibilities are the Río Mogue and Río Marea.
The sparsely inhabited Río Pirre is a good bet for sheer natural beauty; those venturing up to Pirre Station in Parque Nacional Darién can take the river most of the way to the station in the rainy season.
Rivers to avoid because of Colombian guerrilla and paramilitary activity include the upper reaches of the Río Jaqué and the stretch of the Río Tuira upriver from Boca de Cupe. As with all travel in the Darién, the closer one gets to the Colombian border, the greater the risk of coming across a dangerous situation.
Because the Río Balsas starts so far from any population center—it’s between La Palma and El Real—a trip up the Balsas is considerably more expensive than on many of the other rivers. Normally, visitors fly into La Palma and then travel by boat up the Río Balsas to the Balsas ranger station, about 4–5 hours upriver.
Those traveling between La Palma and El Real might consider a trip along the Río Tuira as an alternative to flying, though a longer and more expensive one. It takes about two hours and can cost up to US$200 per group to hire a boat, though it may be possible to hitch a ride for considerably less. It’s a different kind of river experience, as the Tuira is quite wide for most of the way, especially the closer you get to La Palma. Being out on open water near the ocean is incredibly refreshing after the heat and humidity of the forests and towns.
The Tuira is the longest river in Panama (with the possible exception, depending on who you ask, of the unbelievably tortuous Chucunaque) and carries the greatest volume of water. It’s easy to imagine you’re on the Amazon on this stretch of the river. The water is brown with sediment and the river too wide to see much wildlife, though when I took this trip we spotted a four-meter-long American crocodile sunning itself on a sandbar.
That may suggest this is not a place to go for a swim (few rivers in the Darién are in any case, especially those near human settlements, because of the risk of disease). Because the wide mouth of the Tuira opens into the Golfo de San Miguel, saltwater animals including hammerhead sharks also venture pretty far up the river. Tides affect the river as far east as El Real.
Note: Be sure any boat you take on the Tuira between El Real and La Palma has an extra outboard motor. There is virtually nothing and no one on this part of the river, so it’s not a great place to get stranded.
Spending the Night in a Village
It’s generally possible to spend the night in an Emberá-Wounaan village, though I don’t recommend it. Malaria is endemic and you’ll probably be sleeping in an open-sided hut without screens.
If you do stay in a village, sleep in a tent, no matter how hot it gets, stay indoors in the evenings (or as close to indoors as feasible), and douse yourself with insect repellent.
Also, plan to start taking antimalarial medicine well before a visit; it takes several weeks to kick in. You must ask permission to stay in a village, and you’ll probably have to pay. Ask to speak to the dirigente (leader, pronounced dir-ee-HEN-tay); US$10 per night for a couple should do it.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition