Whew! What an Adventure! (Darien Jungle, San Blas, Panama)

Friday, February 29, 2008

Doug on sv Kristiana’s version of our 4 Wheel Adventure on Leap Day four years ago.. for my version, see yesterday’s post… Feb 29, 2012.

One of the problems here in the San Blas Islands of Panama is that there really are no stores where you can buy anything. And there are no banks or ATM machines where you can get more money. For that you have to leave the San Blas and sail west two days back to Colon. Or you can seek out an alternative. While visiting the Carti Islands last week we met a man. He said that he knew a man that had a boat that could take us to a man that had a 4 wheel drive truck. And this man knew the way though the jungle and could take us to Panama City through the Darian rain forest. It sounded simple enough and like an adventure in the making, so we set it up.

I went to the city with another man and his wife (David and Jan – our buddy boaters) and two other women from other cruising boats that we know. We anchored our boats well and left Rayene in charge of watching the boats while we were gone. All of my traveling companions were flat-landers (Mass., FLA, and ILL,) with no mountain experience, actually not even any experience riding on dirt roads. They were a little nervous about the trip having never gone down the road less traveled. One said that they had a gravel road that lead from the highway to his marina out in the plains of Ill. I said yeah, it will be just like riding on that. No problem.

We loaded into a 40 foot dugout early in the morning and headed off towards the coast. There we met Carlos who did indeed have a truck. Carlos is locally known a Grande, mostly because he is a very big Columbian man. He had a 4 wheel drive Nissan king cab pickup with canvas covering the pickup bed in the back. At first glance it looked like a mud ball with wheels (that should have been a clue). Everything about the outside and inside of the truck was covered with dirt and mud. The same was true of Grande. So with a bit a trepidation we loaded up our things in the back and headed our for a ride through the jungle. We were initially stopped along the road by the Panama army who inspected everything in the truck and our papers. It turns out this is a popular route for the drug trade. Oh great.

Anyway, off we went through the jungle. We started off by having to ford the Carti river which was exciting because the water was deep and the river wide and fairly swift. Then we got down to the serious part of the journey. We started to climb the mountains. The soil was a red/brown clay that had the tendency to turn to grease when wet. Everything was going well until we got to the bottom of the first real climb. We looked up at a very steep rutted hill that was a quarter of a mile in length. Grande stopped to lock in the hubs and get set for the run. After four tries he shouted out the window and 5 Kunas walked by heading up the hill. It turns our that at the last minute, after we got in the truck, Grande picked up some extra passengers (muscle)to ride in the back. It turned out good because they ended up pushing that truck half way to the city. After a few more tries Grande asked us to also get out and walk to the top. The first step out of the truck was a trick. The mud was so slippery and the hill so steep, you had to hang on to the truck for fear of slipping back down the hill. So while we got good and muddy on out little hike to the top, we could hear Grande backing down to take another run at the hill.

That’s when it started to rain. We were kind of hoping that being the dry season, the road would be dry or at least not so wet and muddy. But they don’t call it a rain forest for nothing. So there we were standing in the rain, in knee deep ruts, with mud everywhere, listening for any good sounds coming from the hill below. You could hear the engine working hard and then it would stop and there would be nothing for a while. During those moments we wondered if Grande might have turned around and left us there, but no. He was out with his shovel trying to fill in some of the deeper ruts that were giving him such trouble. The Kuna men headed back down the hill to lend a hand and after a while we were pleased to hear the truck coming along. The wheels were caked with several inches of mud. Grande stopped at the top and had to scrape this extra mud off the tires to expose the treads.

When we loaded back up and I asked Grande how many more hills like that one and he said six. Oh Great. Although Grande spoke no English we chatted with him in Spanish and found out that he is 40 years old and spend much of his life as a solder in the Columbian army. During the dry season, which is only about four or five months in the winter, he makes this truck run to and from the city whenever the road is passable. He said that he once made the trip three time in one day. He said the road is a lot more exciting in the dark. Yeah, I bet.

The hills got steeper as we went further through the jungle. Each time we got to the bottom of one of the real steep ones, we would stop, look it over, and you would get this feeling in our stomachs that made us wish you were back on our boats. Then the mud would start flying everywhere. And this being a tropical jungle, it was plenty hot inside with the six of us. We tried to keep the windows open when ever possible. Then a big chunk of gushy mud would come flying in the window and we would re-think the open window policy.

We had to hike up several of the tougher hills. We would stand at the top and look off through the rain forest and admire the beauty. There were birds and monkeys, and according to Grande, pumas, panthers and lots of snakes. But we never had to push the truck which I figured was a very good thing, because the Kunas were looking a bit on the muddy side after a while. So, all in all, walking to the top was not so bad. We cheered Grande on and started to admire him and his truck, the way he worked on those hills. And we counted down from seven until we were at the top of the last hill, when Grande smiled and said “No Problema”. We cheered and it was all downhill from there to the city.

Actually negotiating the City roads turned out to a problema. Apparently the street workers chose this day to protest and they had started big garbage fires in the center of all the major routes into the city, effectively blocking traffic everywhere and bringing the city to grid lock. So we spent another three hours trying to finish what should have been the last 20 minutes of our trip. But true to his word Grande delivered us to our hotel safe and sound, although a bit muddy. Actually, we were amused by the looks we got from the city motorists in their shiny cars as they checked out our mud ball.

Two days later we did the ride again. But we knew what to expect this time and the ride was actually easier. There were only two really bad hills in that direction. Unfortunately we got totally stuck on one of them and we only had two Kunas on the ride back. Luckily Grande had a toe rope and there was another truck that pulled us to the top of that one. We re-crossed the Carti River and ended up back at the edge of the sea where our 40 foot dugout waited for us. Rayene was on the boat and happy to see us, and that we were no worse off for the wear.

We bought produce, engine parts, eyeglasses and lots of other things while in the city. One of the ladies went to a dentist and had a root canal. We all hit the ATM machines and bought lots of stuff. We filled the back of that truck with boxes and bags of everything. We were fortunate that everything made it back safely and in good condition, except for a few tomatoes that got sat on by a Kuna. But what the hey. It turned out just fine. But we now know that sometimes the road less traveled, is less traveled for a good reason.

We are still in the San Blas Islands and plan on heading north in a few week to the islands of Columbia and on towards Honduras and back to Guatemala. – Doug and Rayene

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