<font size=3.5px>In the rivers of Darien</font>

In the rivers of Darien

By Hernan Arauz

“One of the most interesting field trips my father Amado Arauz ever did was the exploration by dugout of some of the main rivers and watersheds of Darien.

Amado Arauz (1956) surveying the upper Bayano River.

To know them in their entirety, allowed him to comprehend the topographical dimension of an area that had been the focus of many failed studies and surveys.

Its rivers were the only highways into Darien’s vast domain. In the rainy season you could reach by dugout the higher sources of these waterways, and continue into adjacent ones by crossing the division of its head waters.

This was the first official expedition by the Darien Sub –Committee to consolidate information aimed at defining a route for the building of the Pan – American Highway through the Darien.

Back then in 1956, as it still precariously remains today, the Darien was a vast region covering the entire eastern half of Panama and then spilling into Colombia in what is known as the Chocó. These regions shared similar cultural traits, human groups, history and superlative biodiversity. Back
then, the Darien began in Chepo, just an hour east of Panama City.

Their trip began there; going up one of the greatest rivers of Darien: the Bayano. What today is a placid lake, was then the region’s most beautiful river. Beauty was measured by the power of its flow; the river was fed by the western half of the Darien cordillera and the massif of Majé.

The Expedition enters the Bayano high waters. Kuna and Afrodarienite boat men pole the dugout into the mist.

The Expedition enters the Bayano high waters. Kuna and Afrodarienite boat men pole the dugout into the mist.

To start navigating it up river offered the most pristine views of primary rainforest flanking both sides. In some parts the canopy attempted to cover the river itself. Mantled Howlers roared as the Evinrude engine fought the current. Blue and yellow, Red and green, and Great green Macaws were then a common sight all along the Bayano.

As the expedition entered this unexplored biosphere, they were also entering the world of the inland Kuna. Keepers of their most ancient traditions, these indigenous people lived in self-imposed isolation.

The expedition soon passed the river Icantí, or river of the clear water, then came the Diablo and finally they reached Piriá. At each village they stopped and met with the Sahilas (1) to ask for their permission and support.

The inland Kunas live in the higher part of Darien rivers (Bayano, Chucunaque and Tuira). This isolation was the product of their displacement from other rivers and lower regions, as the Chocoes (Emberá & Wounaan) pushed into their territory from the Colombian side in the 1700s.

The Kuna’s fierce anti-spanish attitude was strengthened even further from here, and they became the Buccaneers’ best allies. Not far from where my father’s expedition started crossing into the birth of the Chucunaque, a stoic and observant English medic named Lionel Wafer had lived among them back in the late XVII Century. His written memoirs about them became a best-seller and made them known to the world.

The Expedition covered a considerable distance on this first stage (1 week).

To join both the Bayano and the Chucunaque, had taken them into two thirds of Panama’s Darien. Meandering rivers delayed their linear progress, but kept up their alertness as each bend offered a new visual perspective into the different shades of green and riverine life.

In the 1950s the Chucunaque was at its highest pristine state. Jaguars, Tapir, herds of White-lipped Peccaries, Harpy Eagles, all icons of remote tropical forests, were present in great numbers. Great Curasows flew over the river and provided much of the expedition’s food, next to Sabaletas, Guacucos (2) and plantain.

The Expedition on the Chucunaque River. They are about to enter “El Martirio”.

The Expedition on the Chucunaque River. They are about to enter “El Martirio”.

Where the Membrillo river spills into the Chucunaque, they stopped to overnight at a logging camp called “El Martirio” (the martyrdom).

Very soon they found out the reason for the name. To live in this river is to be constantly exposed to the worst of the biting insects of Darien: the dreaded Morrongoy; a viscious sandfly whose bite creates a small welt and mild bleeding. Imagine this times 100; its only function in life is to suck your blood all day and night.

In the lower Membrillo river when the piragua stops at a village swarms of Morrongoy descend on you and soon everyone is hollering at the boatman to
get going.

I still wonder how people can live there. Only a crocodile could put up with such torment; and even only when submerged.

On the 10th day the Expedition reached Yaviza and El Real. Two great rivers had just been navigated in their entire range.

Then came the Tuira (River of the Devil in Cueva tongue – 3). The largest river in Darien, mother to a thousand legends, home of the antumiá (4).

The first Christian name of this great river was Rio de mi Suegro (father-in-law). In 1514, under orders of Balboa, Cpt. Martin De Garabito had started out of Antigua (5) and reached a Cueva settlement on a large river beyond the pass of La Trepadera (6). The village chief had given Cpt. Garabito one of his daughters and upon his return to Antigua he spoke of the River of my Father-in-law.

The watershed of the Tuira would one day be the largest National Park in Panama and declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO: Darien.

Today on the Tuira live all four of the human groups in darien: the Kuna, the Choco, the Afro-darienite and the colono (settlers from Panama’s western region).

Into the Tuira empty the Chucunaque, the Pirre and the Balsas rivers – that’s enough water to create a one mile wide mouth beyond La Palma.

But the Expedition now headed for the Tuira’s higher waters and the river Paya; their aim was its inland Kuna village.

The inhabitants of the sleepy village were used to seeing foreigners pass the region. From the times of Antigua, gold thirsty conquistadors, dashing Buccaneers, explorers and more recently, heavily armed guerrillas, have used this pass to go back and forth.

From Paya a short march took the Expedition to the border point at Palo de las Letras (Tree with letters), a most candid Darienite interpretation of the monument bearing the two National emblems of Panama and Colombia.

Once across the border another full day of marching took them to Sautatá and
the shores of the mighty Atrato, also known in the XVI Century as Gran Río del Darien, and later on as the Forbiden River (Atratus). From this point, the river formed extensive swamps and bogs, which drain into the Gulf of Urabá through 16 mouths.

This delta and its lagoons form an extensive wetland and present the greatest barrier for the building of the Pan American Highway. Good for them.

Its reputation as one of the most primitive places on Earth was forever imprinted in my memory when my father told me what had happened to him there. After several days of grueling jungle marching, they entered the village of Cacarica.

The natives, all descendants of runaway slaves or Cimarrones, offered him a “special drink”. When he inquired where it came from, they showed him. To his astonishment, a living Black Spider Monkey was killed and its stomach and esophagus removed. The natives immediatly proceeded to suck the contents of the monkey’s belly. At that time of the year the primate fed on a special fruit that once fermented in the animal’s insides provided a much demanded “liqueur”.

These people were still known to hunt with blowguns whose darts were dipped in the remains of boiled Bullet Ants. The pain caused by any wound was enough to kill prey in a very short time. Such was the primitive state of this swampy labyrinth called the Atrato.

From the abandoned sugar mill of Sautatá, The Expedition embarked down river, exited the delta, entered the Caribbean and reached Turbo on the eastern side of the Gulf of Uraba.

They had travelled From Chepo, Panama to Turbo, Colombia in 15 days using the rivers of Darien. Hiking was necessary to connect the great rivers, yet it was only 8% of the total distance covered.

The expeditionaires had become quite familiar with the rivers of Darien and the usefulness of the region’s main mode of transportation: the dugout Piragua. This experience allowed Amado Arauz to comprehend even better from the field the intricacies of Panama’s greatest wilderness.

Many other expeditions followed, including the Trans-Darien Expedition of 1960 and the Human Ecology studies of 1966, but this one had become a milestone in my father’s legendary career as one of Darien’s most important explorers of the 20th Century.


1- Kuna Village Chief.

2- The most popular fish of Darien rivers.

3- Indigenous culture found in the region at the time of Spanish arrival.

4- Spirit of the river according to Emberá traditions.

5- The first European sttlement in the mainland of the New World: Santa
María La Antigua del Darien

6- Literally means “climbing zone” in reference to the steep trails of
the Darien Cordillera. This name goes back to the times of Balboa.