|Rio Chucunaque, Darien|
Panama is an amazing country for naturalists, conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts alike; it has over 2.6 million hectares of land protected under the National System of Protected Areas, over 34% of its total land mass, comprised of 65 officially designated protected areas. The largest by far, and one of the largest National Parks in Central America, is Darien National Park. Located in the Darien Province in eastern Panama and bordering Colombia, it covered 579 000 hectares of lowland, foothill and highland tropical forests, including large expanses of primary forest, and is home to some very majestic wildlife, flora and fauna alike, including Jaguar, Harpy Eagle, Baird's Tapir and some of the largest Ceiba and Cuipo trees I have ever seen! For years I have been dreaming about visiting this incredible place, and finally my dreams came true! My good friend and naturalist guide, Jose Perez, invited me to join him in a trip to the Darien, I couldn't pass it up!
So last Sunday night, we met at the gran terminal in Panama City and boarded a bus to the Darien. When the first bus was loading up at 2:30 am to make the 7-hour journey to Yaviza, the end of the road here in Panama (as no roads pass through the "Darien Gap" into Colombia), we were still dozing in the terminal lounge. When we realized this was the bus we wanted to be on, we grabbed our gear and waited in line. The little coaster buses hold maybe 20-25 people and we just missed the cut. The bus filled and we were the next in line. Promptly, a 2nd bus pulled up and we were the first ones in. In no time, we were on our way to the Darien!
Everything happens for a reason; because we were snoozing in the terminal, we missed the first bus. That first bus, however, did not make it to the Darien. Somewhere along the way, in the wee hours of the morning, that first bus had an accident with a rather large cow on the Panamerican Highway, a few hours into its journey. I believe everyone was alright thank goodness, other than being a little shaken up, but from the photos I saw taken by the bus attendant on our bus, it was quite smashed up on the front and side. Must have been a big cow! I'm glad everyone was alright, except for the cow.
|Port in Yaviza along the Rio Chucunaque, Darien|
Darien National Park is not an easy place to visit. Traveling there takes a good deal of time, if you want to save some money. You can fly into El Real from Panama City, but we took the more 'adventurous' (or rather, economical) route by taking the bus. The bus will go as far as Yaviza, and we actually changed buses in Meteti along the way, where the road worsens from there to Yaviza. Upon arrival in Yaviza, we met our guide, Isaac Pizarro, at the boat docks. After doing some running around in Yaviza, we boarded a piragua, a long dugout canoe used to navigate the rivers through the Darien. We traveled for approximately an hour by boat to the town of El Real. We spent approximately an hour in El Real, walked around the town, and bought some water and food for the next few days. What a beautiful place! From there we were transferred in a pick-up truck to Pirre Uno, which took approximately 40 minutes. There we bought plantain and a live chicken to take with us to the station. Then we hiked for 2 hours, with our gear and food, to Pirre Station, also known as Rancho Frio. Our journey from Panama City to Rancho Frio took 15 hours total but we were happy and excited to make it there!
|Plaza en El Real|
The other difficult part about traveling to the Darien, anywhere in the Darien, is that you need permission from SENAFRONT, Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (National Border Service). Knowing this, Jose acquired the permission in Panama City a week prior to our trip. On route, we were stopped at various SENAFRONT check points, in Aguas Frias, Meteti, then needed to visit the offices in Yaviza and El Real to get all checked in. Even after checking in at El Real, the officers drove behind us on our way to Pirre Uno to confirm, I suppose. What an experience! It was also necessary to visit all those check points again on the way out.
|Young Harpy Eagle, Harpia harpyia, Darien National Park|
The highlight of the day by far, was during our fast hike into Rancho Frio. We were excited and tired at the same time, but we continued on to make it to the station before dark. It this time I was being powered by the weight on my back and just the urge to get to our final destination, when Isaac said "llegamos al aguila arpia". We have arrived at the Harpy Eagle nest! We put our packs down and started scanning the branches of the gigantic Cuipo tree to the right of the trail. In moments we found it, the year-old chick, perched in the open on a large branch of the crown of the tree. My heart skipped a beat as I watched this beautiful pale young Harpy Eagle stare back down at me from 25 metres up in the canopy. Incredible! We watched the bird, took photos & video and simply enjoyed the moment. After tracking these magnificent eagles for 7 months here in Soberania National Park years ago, seeing one truly in the wild for the first time was a magical experience!
|Made it to Rancho Frio!|
We carried on for 30 minutes more and arrived at Rancho Frio, finally! It was a long day but a great one, and we couldn't wait to start exploring the foothills of Cerro Pirre. We settled in, set up the tent, ate some dinner and fell asleep to the calls of Crested and Spectacled Owls in the surrounding dense forests.
Sorry for a rather lengthly account, but there's more to come from the Darien!