Central America | Panama – Hiking Chami to Kankintu!
October 9th, the six of us (me, Laura Squire, Rebecca, Zach, Uriah, and Cha) woke up before sunrise to get to the San Felix piquera by 7am. We did, to catch the 7am chiva to Chami, like we had been told the night before, but of course, there was no 7am chiva. We had breakfast of empanadas and coffee, and played cards as we sat around on the concrete steps. Finally, around 9am, a chiva left. We could have slept so much later, but you just never know when the chivas will go. Laura was the only one who had been to Chami. Once we past Guabo and got off the paved road, the people who live in Bocas (they travel by boat, not chiva) said they couldn’t believe how bad the road was, and they would never complain about their boatrides again. This is the worst time of the year, because of all the rain. Several times, for muddy uphills, we all had to get out and walk while the empty chiva struggled up the hill. It took around 4 hours to go the 21 kilometers.
Once in Chami, we got food in Delmira’s restaraunt, and everyone was impressed. Yes, Chami is remote, but big, over 400 people, and has some impressive things smaller sites dont: two restaraunts, and even a hotel! They stayed at Delmira’s hotel, in two rooms. It is really nice, it has concrete floors, beds with matresses, sheets, blankets, and pillows! And a wierd thing happened- we saw a white person! It must have looked funny, we all just stood there and stared, surprised and scared, like we were Ngabes. He came over, an older German Canadian who was traveling the world, and trying to get off the tourist path. Somehow he had found his way to Chami! It was so crazy! He said he had traveled everywhere, India, South America, etc, and had never seen such a bad road as the road to Chami! He said he liked the people Chami, but it was too rainy and cold, and he was going back downhill to the beach as soon as he could (well, what did he expect, it’s the height of the rainy season?) And he left us as bewildered as he found us.
The next morning after a hojaldre and torta de huevo breakfast, we started early hiking uphill. Chami lies at about 3000 feet above sea level. I immeadiately regretted my stupid decision to bring such a big pack. I should have followed the philosophy of others: skip comfort at nights to carry less. O well. A few hours of uphill later, the scenery was getting amazing. We were over 5000 feet high, and could see the ocean below. Climbing climbing climbing. I was already tired. We ran into some Ngabes walking downhill for the cosecha. They told us of a shortcut to Hacha. (Actually, they told Cha in Ngabere, and he translated for us. Its so easy, even the women can do it! they said. Grrr) It should take us to Hacha in an hour, they said. So we got off the main road, onto a mud path, sinking into the mud. We crossed several streams that almost came to the tops of our rubber boots.
Two hours later, we were actually in Hacha! We were happy and tired. Five hours of hiking uphill! It is a cute little village nestled in the mountains, green from all the rain, and sitting next to the Rio Cricamola, just down from its source. This was the river Rebecca’s site, Kankintu lies on. At 6000 feet, we were at our highest point! Does this mean its all downhill from here? If this is the river, won’t we just follow it easily downhill to Kankintu? (I thought so happily, to be proven terribly wrong later.) Houses were alot like Chami houses, board and zinc roofs, or round huts with dirt floors. Women wore nagwas and said “?a Tori!” to greet us. The air was chilly and damp.
We found the Centro de Salud, which was being staffed by a Ngabe promoter Rebecca knew, and we had lunch on the porch: tuna, crakers, granola bars. Lots of water. We were getting water from streams, and treating it with iodine.
During lunch, the sky turned black and poured rain, but even as we debated staying the night, even tho we hadnt gone as far as we wanted to. The health promoter said we could sleep there on the floor. But we had incredible luck that day. Even as we debated, the skies cleared and clouds fled. I was surprised, because this weather was very unlike Chami. In Chami, once it starts raining around noon, it rains hard until nightfall or after. But not here, a promising sign that we really were crossing the cordillera to the Carribean side!
It was two and a half easy hours, all downhill to Tolode, our destination. We followed the Rio Cricamola down, a clear, rocky trickle. The trail crossed it several times, and we tried not to slip on mossy rocks. The water was deeper than our boots, soaking my socks on the inside. We would have to empty the boots each time we got to the next side. We also crossed by a few bridges that looked so precarious they even scared me. Usually, I dont mind sketchy bridges in the jungle, I’m even the kind of person that jumps on them to scare others. But these were sometimes single slippery logs just sitting over deep channels, or wire as skinny as toothfloss, holding up chicken wire that we walked on, and got my heart going.
But spirits were high as we arrived in Tolode. It was so beautiful! It was at the confluence of another mountain river and the Cricamola. Houses were round huts with stick wall and dirt floors, and penka roofs, a sign we had dropped in elevation quite a bit. Chami is too high in elevation for penka to grow. Green mountains rose sharply on each side of the river. Little girls in nagwas stared at us as we got permission to sleep at the school. The teachers were gone, so it was locked, but we could sleep on the porch. This is the time of the year when teachers, who are mainly from urban areas and latino, can apply for translados, or transfers. Many, assigned to these remote villages, were gone, asking for transfers. Many local people in town were also gone, to the cosecha. Backpacks on the porch, we headed to the river to bath. It was cold, but felt so good to wash off the layers of sweat and mud.
A family cooked for us that night. We bought two big bags of rice in the tienda. It didnt have anything else. The man in the tienda asked what we were doing. We said we were Peace Corps, a development organization from the US, and we were getting to know different places in the Comarca. He said development was needed here. They didnt have any latrines.
The family cooked the rice, and a bag of lentils Uriah had been carrying. They didn’t speak much Spanish, and Cha had to translate. He introduced Rebecca loudly as “Medi tikwe” and everyone laughed because we knew that means “my woman”. The family also offered us some pifa. This is really dry fruit that I don’t like, but keeping with Ngabe culture, you can’t turn anything down. It’s very rude. I had one, and smuggled the rest out in pockets. Rebecca likes it, she said she’d eat them later. Before we left, the mother said we were the first merigeris her children had ever seen, which means outsiders. We left tons of rice and lentils, enought to feed the whole family another day.
We slept that night on the concrete floor of the school porch. Uriah brought a sleeping pad, Zach a hammock, the rest of us right on the concrete. We were exhausted and legs aching, but it was a beautful view of the valley from the porch. The whole valley turned pink as the sunset.
Awakening to aching muscles, we had been told it was only a three hour hike to our next destination, Quebrada Negra. So we lingered over breakfast and packing up. We’re on the Cricamola right? Three hours hike downhill? Should be a piece a cake! I was in for such a rude awakening. It was not all downhill.
We started climbing out of the valley Tolode was in. Why didnt the trail follow the river!? Oh no. We climbed and climbed and climbed. Up to about a thousand feet above the river! It was beautiful, but I was dying! My legs were killing me and my pack was so heavy! We descended into little sidestream draninages and climbed out of them again. The trail took us over more unsteady bridges and straight up little waterfalls. Some hills were so muddy, I would take a step and slide down a little, take a step and slide down a little. Sometimes the trail went along slippery sheer rock faces, where I was praying the traction on my rubber boots wouldnt fail. The rock faces had little ledges or cracks we made our way along, high over the river.
I was at the back, cursing my heavy backpack, and wanting to just forget it, throw it off a cliff! Then I heard a crash. Rebecca’s backpack was flying thru the air! It came from the right, crashed down on the trail just in front of me, bounced, and flew on down hill to the left. Apparently, Rebecca felt the same way about her bag! But then Cha came sprinting straight downhill after it, followed by Rebecca. She had stopped for water and knocked it off on accident!
The trail was so steep in some places, it was right in front of our faces. We were often bouldering up rocks. We climbed until I didnt think the hill could possibly go any higher, but I’d round a corner, and it did. It just kept going up.
Some downhills were actually hard, too. They were so steep, you had to pick your steps carefully, and walking down made your legs pound hard on the ground.
We ran into pleasant Ngabe men carrying big chakras full of pifa or bananas for their families. Pifa grow everywhere around here, in bright red bundles, high on trees that look like palm trees, with spikes. The trees are so spiky, people use wooden square devices to avoid the long thorns as they climb the trees to pick pifa. Stories abound of times people reach the fruit, drop the square on accident and get stuck. Up by the pifa, they are too high to jump down, and the tree just a straight trunk covered with six inch spikes. They say people get stuck up there for days, yelling for someone to come rescue them.
The men we ran into said we were five hours from Quebrada Negra. How does it keep getting farther away? This was so discouraging!
We at last cleared a hill, and saw the village of Cremante below. It was nestled in a very steep valley, with a few round huts with penka roofs surrounding an open field. It looked right out of National Geographic, so remote and exotic. This turned out to be my favorite village, and the most remote. We had been walking two and a half hours, and we were only at the half way point of the day. Why did we listen when they said it was only a three hour day? No one has a watch here! As we descended into Cremante, fog rolled in and the rains began. We made it to another school porch, legs so sore and stiff it was hard to climb the three steps. We collapsed there, watching it rain.
Lunch, and then some curious men and little boys came by. We told them we were getting to know the Comarca, hiking from Chami to Kankintu. “Lejos!” they exclaimed (far). In the rain, we debated staying the night here. But that would leave us so many miles of hiking in the next couple days! They offered to make us daichin, a sweet fruit I have never had, because it is only on the Bocas side. They sent a kid to look for it, but there was none ready, they would have to go find it and pick it. So they offered us pifa instead.
We were here a couple hours resting, while it rained. Luck was with us again, as we were about to set out in the rain, it stopped! Three hours to Quebrada Negra, the men had told us. Since they gave us pifa, I gave a Nature Valley fruit and nut granola bar as I left the porch. I looked back to see them in a circle around it, turning it over and over. I wondered if I should go back and show them you open the colorful wrapper and eat what is inside. But I was too tired to go back.
They had told us we were three hours from Quebrada Negra, with just a “lomita” at the end, a little hill. The “little hill” was so steep, and took me almost a half an hour to summit, exhausted and legs ready to give in. But from the top we could see Piedra Roja! Just below it, down river and not quite in view, Cha assured us was Quebrada Negra. It was a steep downhill to the river. We were back at the Cricamola, that was now muddy and wider. We were able to cross by foot, but it was wide, and flooded our rubber boots again. But once on the other side, it was a nice even trail that gently sloped another twenty minutes down to Quebrada Negra! As we arrived on the outskirts, we passed a Adventista church. A big group of Ngabe men waved at me as I passed, smiling so genuinely and kindly. I’m amazed at these rural areas. This was one of the times in Latin America I could run into a big group of men and not feel at all threatened.
Quebrada Negra was in more of a plain, in a valley wider than we had been in for a while. You could tell we were definatley on the Bocas side now, because the women weren’t wearing nakwas, and the people said “?a toro” instead of “?a tori”. The dialects are just a little different. And the house were now squares, made of boards, with penka roofs, but raised off the ground on stilts. Due to all the mud and rain in Bocas, they can’t have dirt floors here.
We met someone who let us stay in Health Center quarters. No teachers or health staff were there. Like the Ngabes do to start fires, I went to a nearby house to ask for a burning branch from the family’s fire. The women inside didn’t really understand Spanish, but we communicated with gestures, and I left with a smoldering branch. We had boiled bananas and cooked tuna for dinner over an open fire. It was the second night sleeping on the floor for me.
I awoke more sore and stiff than I imagined possible. The board floor seemed harder than the concrete the previous night! We got up early and ate and packed fast, and got on the road early, unlike what we had done the morning before. From here to Kankintu, Rebecca knew the way because she had been here once, and Cha, numerous times.
We hiked out of Quebrada Negra up a subida that threatened to kill me from the start, but there was more downhill this day, and the day was supposed to be shorter. We did this on purpose, doing the hard days first. We went down more gentle downhills than the previous days, and tho there were hard uphills, they were not as long as before. It rained a little, but we were low enough in elevation and it was so hot it felt good.
After a couple hours we descended into a town called Caracol, that Rebecca and Cha were shocked to see had been completely altered by a mudslide. At least one house had been taken out, and they said the river had totally changed location. We climbed out of this town, and continued downhill for another couple hours, thru streams up side canyons and down rocky hills, and were estactic when we laid eyes on the Cricamola once again. Then we were hiking thru a trail so overgrown we should have been hacking at it with machetes. Its was so dense with folliage.
We were at Curonte! After only a few hours of hiking! The Rio Cricamola had grown so big and deep we needed a boat to cross it. While we waited for a boat to get us, we jumped into the river. It felt so good! We were low enough now the heat and humidity were terrible.
A man came over to get us in a cayuco, a long wooden boat hollowed from a tree truck. It was only as wide as a person or a backpack. He stood in the back, with a long branch that he guided the boat across with by pushing off the bottom of the river. We climbed in, soaking wet, and were on the other side in no time! Then it was just a couple more minutes to Curonte. There was only one teacher in the school, she had just got back from applying for a transfer, the other two teachers were still away applying. She said we could stay in the school, or, since she was alone in the teacher housing with several beds, we could stay there with her! She would take us there after she finished teaching. So we crashed on the porch of the Centro de Salud.
This is also when Cha said he wanted to go home. He said Rebecca knew the way from here, and left almost at a sprint for Kankintu, still over ten miles away.
Quickly, a Ngabe man appeared, and asked why we were there. Many people saw us come into town, and were curious about us. In fact, they had gathered at the community building, and were waiting for us to come give a presentation.
So tired, sore, hungry, soaked with sweat and river water, and splattered with mud, we walked over in our rubber boots, and gave a talk on Peace Corps. There is a dress code we are supposed to follow to look professional when representing Peace Corps, and I’m pretty sure we violated it this day. We all introduced ourselves, said what Peace Corps did, and what we did, and where we lived. They were pleased we spoke Ngabere. They said they were glad we were doing what we did, but there was definately a note of, “what are you going to do for us?” They wanted development, latrines and running water. It is the hard question we face everywhere. Everywhere seems to need so much help, there are just not enough development workers, and Peace Corps Panama has specifically said many times they won’t put volunteers above Kankintu, because it is just so far. Too remote for health or safety measures, they say. We managed to get away by saying we loved their community, we were sorry we couldn’t work there directly, but if they ever had specific topics in mind and came to Kankintu, someone could return for a few days at a time. They then told us a little about Curonte, and that the word meant traps, named after the fish traps they put in the river. We thanked them again, and ended our presentation.
We bathed in the river again, just upriver from the fish traps. These stores had more food, so we had flavored fried rice, and I’d never been so happy to eat Spam (here called Jamonia). We cooked for the teacher too, who was letting us stay with her. Jumping in that first river had left me coming down with a head cold, I was sneezing and had a runny nose, so I went straight to bed after dinner.
The sleep had chased away my head cold, but the bed had been infested with bedbugs, and I was covered with bites. The last day! We were only a few hours from Kankintu! We said our goodbyes to the teacher. We climbed out of the Curonte valley. It was a few more hours of hiking. This was the easiest day, and ironically, now that the walking wasn’t hard, I wasn’t even sore anymore, my body was used to it. There were a few more uphill rock scrambles, but mostly gentle downhill, and we were able to walk together, not out of breath, and have normal conversations. We passed little towns more frequently. Pigs rooted around the towns, and piglets near the trail scattered when we came near. Unfortunately, the outside influence showed. Men were trying to hit on the white women more. But this couldn’t bring me down, we were so close!
About at the half way point was a village called Mununi. It was cute and small, humid, and right on the river, a town of palm trees and huts on stilts with penka roofs. We stopped here because Rebecca and Uriah knew the teachers. They were a cute young latino couple from Panama City, who were actually not seeking transfers. They were very happy here, they said. They were proud of their garden, and wanted Rebecca and Uriah to help put latrines in the town. They wanted to teach there a couple more years.
We stopped at a tienda at the top of a hill. It was well stocked- we all bought an apple flavored soda. Rebecca was happy because she knew right where we were. The woman in the tienda said we were an hour walking fast, hour and a half walking slow. We downed our pops and were determined to make it in an hour. I don’t know where the energy came from, I can’t believe how fast we went, but we made it in less than an hour! It was a great moment when Rebecca proudly said, “welcome to Kankintu!” We had made it!
It was a short walk to her house, a beautiful one room house with a porch, high on stilts. Rubber boots came off, and we made our last climb, up her steps and collapsed on the porch. Four days, 25 hours of hiking, 50 miles. We had crossed the isthmus, from Chami, within view of the Pacific, to practically the Carribean! In the future, we plan on finishing the coast to coast by hiking from Lajas to Chami, and Kankintu to the coast, three more days total, we think, but for now, are so content accomplishing this hike!