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You Can Call Me Papa: Waterfall Hunting in San Blas

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Written by Matt   
Friday, 09 March 2007 11:16
A good day for me in the states would usually start off with a call saying that a snow storm had closed school. In Panama though, patient I gets calls at four AM like the one from my friend Ivan, malady adventure extraordinaire. “Matt, what are you doing?” he asked. “Ivan it's four AM, what do you think I'm doing?” “Well, get ready Papa because in one hour we are going to pick you up for go hunting for waterfalls.” He showed up in the kind of vehicle I reserve for military movies and videogames: this massive off-roading machine with winches, telescope exhaust, and some of the meanest looking tires this side of the equator. The engine was thick and growling, as if it was running off a team of jaguars on a treadmill. In the front sat Orlando—an extreme sports guru who knows Panama's jungles better than he knows the back of his legs. I climbed into the cabin of the Land Cruiser and was immediately put on the spot by Ivan: “Hey Papa, where did you put your helmet and your harness and your headlamp?”

Ivan had taken to calling me Papa since the first time we met, and in addition to the fact that I didn't have any of the equipment, I realized my appearance—being Banana Republic shorts, an EMS backpack I bought in 5th grade, and a t-shirt bearing Panama's Special Olympics emblem—was probably not off to a good start. Completely embarrassed, I declared that I was a writer and the closest thing that I had to a headlamp was an old-school oil lantern and that, I had left in the USA. My frankness seemed to charm them and I was allowed in.

We headed east towards Lago Bayano, a gorgeously rustic region just an hour outside of bustling Panama City. The conversation in the caravan only strengthened my belief that men who hunt for waterfalls will be single all their lives. Orlando and Ivan wore matching shirts with the image of a man bungee jumping off a cliff, below which read something like, “it's the only way to die”. They talked about hiking boots the way most men talk about breasts: as if someday, they might find the ultimate pair.

We made it to Chepo and hung a left at what appeared to be only a small opening in the brush. This “road” as they would call it, resembled no more than a gravel pit, and I figured it a good reason to ask just where the hell we were going.

“We are driving to San Blas Papa.”

“I didn't think people could drive to San Blas” I questioned.

“Most of them can't.”

The path to San Blas is known as the Carretera Llano-Carti and winds up and down through enormous mountain ranges, at certain points on a clear day, offering views of both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. We crossed the Continental Divide which I would have missed had Ivan not pointed out a small sign camouflaged in chicken poop. He was wearing his repelling helmet in the back seat because he wears it everywhere, including the first time I met him: in a supermarket aisle. “Are you planning on scaling that wall for a can of tuna,” I asked him, “cause I could just grab it for you”.

Since no public transportation is willing to drive out this far, the hills of Chepo observe an amazing sense of countryside calm: one without the sounds of neighbors, or car alarms, or even cars at all. Kids ran in and out of the street dragging tin cans on leashes, as if they were little metal paraplegic dogs. Tiny tennis ball-sized chicklets scampered in and out of huts. I saw one woman skinning a large iguana and presumably her husband, a hunter, aiming a rifle as we passed and firing a deafening round into the brush. This reminded me a little bit of New Jersey.

Eventually we reached the limit of San Blas. Most people, when they picture San Blas, think of islands and beaches, but in truth, much of the Comarca Kuna Yala is inland, consisting of dense rainforest and—as we would soon find out—some of the most magnificent waterfalls in Panama. The Kunas rule over this region and you'll need their permission to explore: a permission we were luckily granted by a friend of Orlando's who lived in this thickly-veiled compound overlooking the ocean. We wandered up to his porch where a lone Lazy-boy chair sat overlooking miles and miles of rainforest, and after gifting him a package of 24 dinner rolls, he smiled and allowed us to pass.

Ivan lent me a pair of gloves and a machete: the gloves I knew how to use, but the machete, not so much. In an effort to look semi-experienced, I jabbed my machete into the moist earth and leaned upon it like a lamppost, watching as Ivan and Orlando gathered the serious equipment. My version of gathering serious equipment consisted of me reaching into my pocket to find a scented candle which I had been given the day before and forgotten to take out. I decided not to reveal it to my friends as it would have ruined that primal, hunter and gatherer mood that's commonly associated with cutting one's way through the forest. “You ready Papa?” Ivan called out.

Ivan and Orlando are experienced guides, having practically grown up with compasses around their necks. They're the kind of guys who could take a look at a fresh dropping in the trail and tell you who's going to win the Yankees game that night. They'd respond to calls from monkeys and birds and insects as if the jungle was their institution. They'd walk effortlessly over slippery rocks and under thorny branches, all the while pointing out to me relevant and interesting wildlife. “This is a samia palm”, Orlando commented as he rubbed a leaf between his fingers. “They're rumoured to cure prostate cancer and constipation.” "Give me that!" I screamed. Reaching into one bush, Orlando pulled out a poison dart frog that, to the novice in me, looked like a poison dart twig.

We had reached one of the highest points when Orlando thought he heard something and Ivan agreed; a waterfall was not far away. We trudged through the jungle further, anticipating what was about to be revealed. As you near a waterfall, the rushing sounds get louder and this mist gets stronger until, at last, there it is. One of the most spectacular waterfalls I've ever seen in my life. This massive beast, maybe 50 meters in height, thrashing down into this mysterious steaming pool below. For the first time in my life, I wanted to sacrifice something, but I was dissuaded by Ivan. “Papa, this sort of thing is why makes life is so beautiful”.

We spent a few hours there, swimming in the icy-fresh water and collecting valuable wild orchids that grew in the caves below. I watched as Ivan and Orlando repelled down the majestic falls using the belaying harnesses they had packed away in their rucksacks—the way most people pack lunches. “Hey Matt, you want to give it a try?” Ivan shouted to me, about half-way down the rushing waterfalled cliff.

“Maybe in a little while Papa” I responded. “I gotta tight hamstring.”

Several beautiful parrots and quetzal birds flew overhead as if to remind us of just how lucky we were. The birds also reminded me that I was hungry, but because my bread had gotten soggy throughout the course of events, I was reduced to putting a dollop of peanut butter and a spoonful of jelly into my mouth at the same time and then just waiting for something magical to happen.

Orlando and Ivan discussed offering official tours to the spot but commented that although we were accustomed to that sort of hiking, tourists might not be. “Yeah, we really are used to this stuff” I added, firming up the fact that indeed, I was part of the group. I hadn't by any means hiked through the jungle with grace or proficiency, but much like a marathon, making it to the end without injury was what counted. It was what earned you respect.

On our way back we ran into a small Kuna family, and I pulled out 24 pairs of children's underwear and handed them over, feeling a tingle in my heart. (Side note: I recently purchased four packs of underwear, figuring that a Medium would fit. But when I realized they were children's sizes, the woman at the register innocently pointed to a sign above reading “no returns or exchanges EVER”—thus leaving me with 24 pairs of useless boys underwear. I brought them on the trip assuming we'd run into some Indians and we did.)

During the ride home, we stopped and ate watermelons and mangos which were almost supernaturally juicy. As the Land Cruiser retraced its steps over that bumpy boulevard , the sun was starting to set. Once we were within cell phone signal, my phone began to buzz off the hook with tens of missed calls and messages from the workday I had so voluntarily skipped. Calls asking me where I was, why I had missed my meeting, why I wasn't calling anyone back. I would call them back eventually, and I'd be at work the next day. But for now, after a day like that, Papa needed some sleep.

Here you can find all the Waterfall hunting in San Blas Pictures.

Comments (1)Add Comment
Sounds Great!
written by Jim Kendrick , July 17, 2007
Matt, your waterfall hunting excursion sounds like just what we are looking for when we travel to San Blas in November. If you would like to email me, I'd enjoy picking your brain about guides and destinations. Thanks, Jim.
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Last Updated on Monday, 11 August 2008 22:19