Over the Mountain, Thru the Darian Jungle…Kuna Yala, Panama…

A post from our days cruising the San Blas Islands, Panama….

Leap day only happens once every four years (more or less)!  So it HAS to be a reason to celebrate, right?  🙂  What were YOU doing on the last Leap Day?  Let’s see, that would have been 2008 …. February 2008…. One of the biggest adventures of our cruising life…   A bit of background.  We needed a 60 day extension on our passports to legally stay in Panama. Unfortunately we were “stuck” in paradise, Kuna Yala, also known as the San Blas Islands, with no way to get to Panama City, where we had to go to to become legal…. this is long shows what some cruisers (us) will go through to stay legal.  (Note:  I think now there may be a road through the Darien Jungle so Kuna Yala is no longer so isolated…. too bad really….)


Playing In The Mud, February 29, 2008

Here’s Grande’s Nissan Frontier pickup ... we should have known from the mud inside & out that this was not an easy ride!

Here’s Grande’s Nissan Frontier pickup … we should have known from the mud inside & out that this was not an easy ride!

There are no roads leading to Kuna Yala, the official name for the group of 377 islands and the corresponding 226 kilometer mainland strip of jungle and steep mountains. No roads means no way to get to either Panama City or Colon to get a tourist card and a 60 day extension on our passports to legally stay in the country. Our logic was that it would be safer to take the jeep trip over the mountains to Panama City than face the 10-12 foot waves on a lee shore in a 2 day sail to Colon.

These are the ancestral lands of the Kuna Indians. The only way to travel is by boat or commuter plane to isolated landing strips. Despite influences from the outside world, the Kuna continue to be one of the only indigenous tribes in the world with their culture largely intact. They limit interaction with the western world and allow no roads into their strip of Darien jungle along the mainland.

There is a 4 wheel track that cannot be considered a “road” beginning at the end of the Carti airstrip. It winds through the river and over the mountains 40 kilometers later intersecting the Pan American Highway, the strip of paved road that runs from the top of Alaska thousands of miles to the tip of South America. The Pan American Highway is unbroken except for a 150 kilometer gap in the Darien Jungle – partially due to the wild terrain The 4 wheel track through Kuna Yala traverses a vast virgin rainforest and wilderness mountain ranges. In years past, the Kuna have disrupted the track, but currently they use the track for economical transportation to and from Panama City where several thousand Kuna now reside.

Through the river, up the mountains through the jungle to play in the mud....

Through the river, up the mountains through the jungle to play in the mud….

Thick slick gooey Georgia red clay mud characterizes the roughly 20 miles that took over three hours to traverse in our trusty Nissan Frontier king cab ¾ size pickup with a tarp frame “house” covering the bed. The driver was a capable Colombian named Carlos, but nicknamed “Grande” for obvious reasons … Grande is ex-army and still routinely does 1500 pushups a day and can squat lift 700 pounds … plus he makes the “drive” from Panama City where he lives with his family daily in the dry season … he told us it is not possible in the rainy season. He regaled us with stories of jaguars, panthers, almost all the large cats, wild boar and all manner of jungle snakes he routinely sees while traversing this track after dark. Luckily we were doing it during the day.

At the Carti airstrip, five cruisers climb into the Nissan … four of us squeeze into the back seat – a space meant for 2 adults comfortably or three crowded and we are four! Luckily none of us is as big as Grande! The back of the pickup not only has all our luggage, which is empty in anticipation of all the goodies we plan to bring back from Panama City, but also two Kuna. Three hours later, finishing the trek, somehow there are five Kuna in the back … none of us are really sure how or when they got there, but if our ride was a challenge, theirs must have been really rough! They sit on wooden bench seats laid over the luggage on each side of the tarp enclosed pickup bed! The back is totally open and I imagine they’re glad it’s muddy just so they’re not suffocated with dust! Of course, not only the inside and outside of the open back of the truck is totally covered in dry red mud, but also the inside of the truck and Grande himself. This should have been a clue!

Except we had to stop after fording the river for Grande to cool off the engine with river water ... no he’s not peeing!

Except we had to stop after fording the river for Grande to cool off the engine with river water … no he’s not peeing!

The trek starts on the level grass landing strip at the airport and soon gets more exciting, up and down small muddy knolls and then down a fairly steep one lane path to the river, the Rio Carti. The truck is slipping & sliding but has no trouble navigating and I’m having a great time, my window down, leaning the camera out the window to get photos.  The water was tire deep crossing the river and Grande takes a somewhat circuitous route to stay on the river rock to maintain traction. After crossing, we pull aside while three vehicles going the other way come down the single lane path. Grande uses the delay to get out, find a trash plastic bottle and cool down his engine with river water. We all look at each other wondering if the engine is hot 15 minutes into the trip, what will happen up & over the mountains!

After driving for another 15 minutes, the trek turns to the steep grades of the mountain terrain. After a couple of muddy foothills, Grande gets out of the truck, taking off his flip flops to wade in the muck, locking in the hubs on his all-terrain tires … no use ruining a perfectly good pair of flip flops in this muddy morass! Now the track turns steadily uphill and sitting behind our fearless driver, I’m starting to get some small muddy splatters coming in the window. At the base of what appears to be an insurmountable track, the truck pauses to get up momentum to begin our first big climb. The first 100 yards, the tires have traction to pull us through thigh deep ruts, spinning and sliding. Then the track makes a sharp curve and continues it’s upward 20 degree grade (you won’t find a 20 degree grade on any public road in the U.S.!). By this point the back of our truck fishtails sideways (luckily TOWARD the mountain and not away), the engine is screaming and the tires are spinning wildly in their quest for traction. There are red muddy chunks the size of baseballs flying and I wisely decide to roll up my window, although not before the camera takes a muddy hit on the lens! Now it becomes more tense and Grande grips the window frame just above the rearview mirror, literally using his force of will to pull the truck up that mountain. I’m feeling like we’re riding in the “Little Engine That Could” if you remember the children’s fable! “I think I can, I think I can….” the chant fills my brain like sometimes you can’t get a song out of your mind. As the tires spin and the mud is flying everywhere, I happen to glance out my now closed window – I’m looking straight down into a huge abyss! Someone tell me again WHY we decided to try this trip???? The truck spins to a stop, losing momentum and traction, sitting sideways halfway up this stretch. Grande gets out, retrieves his shovel tied on the top of the truck and cleans off the tires for another try. Same result. At this point, he asks the five of us to get out and WALK up this part of the mountain! Actually though, after looking straight down over that mountain road with no guardrail of any kind, I was more than happy to get my plastic crocs (shoes)muddy and propel myself up!

7 “difficult” parts on the trek up

7 “difficult” parts on the trek up

Twice on the way up, Grande asked us to get out & walk so that he could claw the truck up the track. Just getting out of the truck was like stepping onto a mountain grade covered in ice, slick with no traction. We quickly discovered that the edges of the road with grass or pebbles provided somewhat better traction – once we could get from the side of the truck to the side of the road! No one told us before the trip that we’d be wading in mud so thick that it created a suction bogging down our shoes, making each step a challenge! But the scenery … what we saw of it … was worth the adventure. It’s not often that it’s possible to journey through such untouched territory. Grande told us that there are seven difficult areas going to the city and only two returning. Several times we had to back down a muddy trail to get enough momentum for the truck tires to carry us through the ruts. Several times Grande had to get out and use his shovel to keep us from sliding into the deepest ruts
that wouldn’t let us continue. By the time we reached Panama City the truck was COVERED and I do mean covered, with mud… there were chunks of mud inches thick on the windshield despite the rain that kept washing it off in streams. I was afraid the truck would roll or slide over the edge of the road and down the steep incline, but Doug informed me after the fact that laws of physics say it would be almost impossible for a truck that’s a foot to two feet deep in muddy ruts to slide sideways over the edge of those mountains!

Grande would ask us to get out & walk and we’d wait anxiously to hear the growl of the truck engine clawing it’s way up that mountain!

Grande would ask us to get out & walk and we’d wait anxiously to hear the growl of the truck engine clawing it’s way up that mountain!

I seriously considered flying back, except for the fact that there are no airplanes that fly to Carti anymore and Carti was where Winterlude was anchored with Rayene on Kristiana keeping watch. Returning, I almost backed out again when I realized that there was a 50 gallon drum of gasoline in the back of the truck… now not only are we going to slip slide down the mountains, the gasoline in the back makes us a sliding bomb!!! The Kuna’s need the gasoline for their outboard boat engines. Oh dear, what to do…ultimately against my better judgement, I resumed my same position behind Grande while we set out to do the reverse trip. Despite his assurances that the trip down the mountains was easier than the trip up, we had to get out and walk up one ridge – in the rain. The second “difficult” part, the mud sucked the little pickup down so far that we had to have another truck pull us out with a rope attached to both bumpers. This process was somewhat time consuming and at one point we were all wondering if we could walk the rest of the way back and make it before dark! But the tow was successful, other than Grande had to cut the tow rope because the mud was so thick he couldn’t get the knot untied (how many Kuna does it take to tie a tow rope knot???). Luckily the rest of the way was uneventful, even crossing the river . Safely back on the dock, we could see Winterlude waiting for us across the bay … I was never so glad to get home in my life!!! We won’t do that adventure again, but I am very glad we did it when we did. I’m sure in the future, the Kuna won’t be able to stop progress and the track will become a road, which will totally change Kuna Yala, the Kuna culture and everything we love about this place that time somehow forgot!

Doug & David enjoying the hike

Doug & David enjoying the hike

While we were in Panama City, our big adventure was checking in with Immigration. All because we THOUGHT we had to get a tourist card and a 60 day extension to stay legally in the country for 90 days… read on…

Immigration … after walking 6 blocks from our hotel, we discovered that there’s a dress code for immigration … your shirt has to have SLEEVES, no sleeveless blouses allowed. And, of course, mine didn’t. Luckily I had a longsleeved shirt back at our hotel. We walked the 6 blocks back, got the shirt, repeated the 6 blocks to Migracion. This time the guards at the door let me in fine, but told David no shorts. David was right beside me when they initially wouldn’t let me go through, why didn’t they tell him then? Unfortunately David didn’t BRING long pants with him, so I went inside to see if I could figure out where we needed to be & what the official deal was. In the meantime, while I’m pushing my way through throngs of irritable people, David is accosted by a tall man in a nasty brown leisure suit who speaks perfect English and says he’ll handle everything for us & it’ll only cost us $25 each. He’s helpful, but no thanks. I find out that to get an extension of 60 days on our tourist card, which we don’t have, all we need is to wait in line in the stuffy back room forever & pay one dollar each, but David can’t get in. So off to an almacen …department store … we go and David buys a $8.95 cent pair of dress pants….. donated to some Kuna guy as soon as we returned to the San Blas! Finally the guard at the door admits us both to the confusing noisy hot environment with lines & unhappy people everywhere…. Think of the worst bureaucracy you’ve endured lately … maybe the license branch in Indianapolis would be a good example … and triple it for a third world country!

“Only” THREE “difficult” parts going down … I must have lost my MIND!!!

YIKES!!! So we’re finally in the correct line, we think, with the correct documents & photocopies, David in his new navy dress pants donned directly over his shorts in the department store & me in my long sleeve shirt when we realize the line isn’t moving & Mr Tacky Brown Suit comes back to tell us we have to take a number. OK, so where do we get a number? You have to get them from the man in the corner in black & but the numbers aren’t good for today, you have to come back tomorrow. We’re NOT going to be in Panama City tomorrow!!! So we go talk to the nice man in black in the corner, explain our predicament & he tells us we don’t need to “register” as long as we leave the country in 90 days there’s no problem. Our passports are stamped January 17, we’re flying out April 15 .. that’s 90 days and since this is the third authority figure that’s told us the same thing … the Port Captain in Porvenir, the young lady in migracion and now the infamous man in black, we take their word for it & vamoos, leaving two hours later with nothing more than we started with … oh, except for David’s new long dress pants!

That’s all from me … for another perspective on our 4 wheel trip over the mountains, check my website … Directly under this update in the Current Log section (www.sailwinterlude.com), I’ve posted Doug on Kristiana’s version of the same trip. It’s interesting to see our differing accounts!

Jan & David
s/v Winterlude, anchored Nargana 9 26.449N 78 35.123W

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