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Upon a Peak in Darién

Posted on March 21, 2017


We landed in Panama on February 10, twelve of us, for a birding trip that would take us into the Darién Gap, the only stretch of the 30,000-kilometre-long PanAmerican Highway to remain unconstructed. The Gap, which lies between Panama and Colombia, is an all but impenetrable tangle of rainforest, and one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. There may be no true wilderness left in North or Central America, no piece of geography that is still untrammeled or untrashed, but the Darién Gap is about as close as it gets. No television, poor Internet, and only sporadic cell-phone coverage. We thought if there was anywhere on Earth we could get away from thinking about Donald Trump for a few days, the Darién Gap was the place.

We were wrong.

The government of Panama wants to keep the TransAmerican Highway incomplete. Dividing the Gap in two is the border between Panama and Colombia, and inhabiting the rainforest are the Choco and Emberá, indigenous peoples who, until very recently, lived pretty much as they had been when Vasco Nuñez de Balboa first encountered them in 1513. Note: Balboa, not Cortez. The currency in Panama is officially the Balboa. One Balboa equals one American dollar. There are several monuments to Balboa in Panama City, there’s an Avenida Balboa, and Balboa beer. Keats got it wrong when he wrote, in his poem “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

“…Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.”

Cortez, the conqueror of Mexico, was never in Panama: it was Balboa who climbed the peak near the mouth of the Chucunaque River, in 1513, and became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. And it wasn’t called the Pacific Ocean in 1513, it was called the South Sea. In 1513, Cortez was in Cuba, demanding that Spanish colonists there be given more slaves. Keats was apprised of his error the day he wrote the poem, but he liked the sound of “stout Cortez,” and thought “stout Balboa” didn’t scan. So he left it.

Which means the Darién Gap is familiar with historical inaccuracy. It thrives on it.

No one could get WiFi at Canopy Camp, our base in the Darién. Which is to say, there was WiFi, but no one could get it. Strange things happened: we could receive notice of emails, but not the emails themselves. We could send emails, but they didn’t go anywhere. They disappeared into the Gap. Only two among us (not me) had a cell-phone plan that included Panama, and every morning we gathered around them for news of fresh disasters. Trump was allowing anyone with a history of mental illness to buy handguns. Trump was denying entry into the United States to any Muslim from a Middle Eastern country in which he did not own a hotel. We were incensed by news that, a propos of Justin Trudeau’s visit to the White House, Trump had said, “We never should have given Canada its independence.” Our indignation was not lessened when we later learned that Trump had not actually said that. It was the kind of thing he would have said if he’d thought of it. It was historically inaccurate, but in a post-truth world, even fake news is news.

The Panamanian government is opposed to completing the TransAmerican Highway through the Darién Gap for three reasons: it thinks, no doubt rightly, that such a highway would become a major drug route from Colombia; it fears that refugees from the ongoing war between the Colombian army and paramilitary groups like FARC, who now hide out in the Darién Gap, would flood into Panama; and it worries that increased access to the Darién rainforest would bring the undesirable effects of modernization to the Emberá and Choco peoples.

On the day we spent getting to a Harpy eagle nest, we drove three hours to Yaviza, the town at the Panama end of the TransAmerican Highway, then took three traditional dugout canoes, called piraquas, eighteen miles up the Chucunaqua River, and stopped on the way at an Emberá village called Nueva Vigia. The Spanish word vigia, cognate with the English “vigilance,” means lookout, and the village itself seems to be the official outpost where visiting foreigners like us can buy native crafts without having too much truck with the indigenous peoples of the interior. There were wooden houses, bottled water, the women wore blouses and skirts, and families took piraqua-loads of bananas to the market in Yaviza.

But the roads into the rainforest are deliberately kept almost but not quite impassable. We had three flat tires in ten days. On the day of the Harpy eagle quest, we disembarked from the dugouts and jolted in 4x4s over boulders the size of bowling balls for another half an hour until we arrived at a trailhead, from where we hiked a further seven kilometres to the entrance to Darién National Park. Another half-hour and we were climbing a peak in Darién, perhaps not the peak, but a fairly high one, to the base of a huge cuipo tree that had an eagle nest in a fork so far up we had to move a hundred metres away to see it.

But there it was. The nest contained a fledgling Harpy eagle, a ball of fairly irritated white fluff; the adults take turns incubating the eggs, but rarely visit the nest once the chick has hatched. The Harpy eagle, the national bird of Panama, is rare. It is one of the most powerful raptors in the world. Its legs are as thick as a human’s forearms, and its talons are as big as grizzly-bear claws and can enclose a sloth’s or a monkey’s skull and crush it like an egg. In a nicely rounded bit of natural selection, Harpy eagles prey on howler and capuchin monkeys, both of which prey on birds’ eggs and have been responsible for local extirpations in some parts of Central and South America. Harpies have been known to take red rocket deer fauns and even some domestic livestock, but their main diet, about fifty percent of it, consists of two- and three-toed sloths, probably because sloths are so slow an eagle can land beside one and wait until it gets hungry to make the kill.

Howler monkeys begin their Gregorian chants at four a.m., just before sun-up. The first morning I heard one, lying in my tent, I thought it was a jaguar, or, in my semi-awake state, that I had somehow awakened on the set of Jurassic Park. Howlers make deep-chested, low-pitched, vibrational howls that echo through the forest for miles. I imagined their call as being close to the sound a tube-headed dinosaur like Lambeosaurus might have made. One afternoon, we stood in a torrential downpour, up to our ankles in mud, and listened to howler monkeys approaching, finding it hard to believe that all that roaring could come from animals little bigger than cats. (You can listen to one on You Tube by clicking here:

But it was the birds that most amazed us. With the aid of our guide, Carlos Bethancourt, we saw 225 species in 10 days, including the Harpy and a Crested eagle, toucans, parrots, birds with such euphonious names as the Yellow-crowned euphonia, 15 species of hummingbirds on one memorable afternoon, and a Dusky-backed jacamar (a kind of insect-eating hummingbird) that wasn’t supposed to be there. Think of Panama as the middle of a very large hour-glass, through which all migrating birds must pass on their way between and South America and Central America.

Martin Mitchinson, in The Darién Gap, writes that “a rainforest closes in. Mangrove swallows you. Mud sucks the boots from your feet and everything thrives and grows. Why does that frighten me?”

He’s right about most of it, but I don’t know why it frightened him. The rainforest does close in around you, and when it rains the roads turn to gumbo, bridges are abandoned, and mangrove swamps can seem like infinite, predatory mazes, like something out of an unknown and alien mythology. That certainly seemed to be the experience of one of the first European colonies in Panama. In 1598, the Kingdom of Scotland, then unallied with England, established the colony of Caledonia in Panama, sending 1,200 people to settle on what was then known as the Isthmus of Darién. Their task was to conduct a trade route across the isthmus to the Pacific and, eventually, to Cathay, but the colony, beset by disease and starvation, lasted only a few months, despite being helped by the indigenous people whose land they had claimed for themselves. Only 300 made it back to Scotland. A second group of 1,000 settlers was sent to Caledonia in 1599, before the remnants of the first got back, and the leaders of this second expedition decided to go into the amateur slave trade. This ran them afoul of some professional pirates, who burned their ships, and the settlers were not heard from again.

Folly often has long-lasting and unexpected consequences. In this case, it has led directly to the recent bid for Scottish independence. More than half of all the available capital in Scotland had been invested in the Caledonia venture, and its failure so weakened and demoralized the country that, five years later, in 1707, there was only feeble resistance to the Act of Union, which made Scotland part of the United Kingdom and put the fiercely independent Scots under the rule of the King of England. Repercussions are still resounding in Scotland where, in the wake of Brexit, there are calls for a second referendum on separation.

Before he became president, Donald Trump visited Scotland, where he owns a golf course and is pressuring the Scottish government to scuttle an off-shore wind farm because it would spoil the view from his clubhouse. Scotland would benefit from having him in the White House, he added, “emphasizing,” according to the Guardian, “his Caledonian heritage.” Which means, perhaps, that he is descended from one of the 300 Caledonians who made it back to Scotland after their business failure in Darién, or else from one of the 1,000 who disappeared into the Gap.

During his visit to Scotland, Trump expressed his view that the English prime minister should not allow Scotland to hold a second referendum, because, he reasoned, “it’s crazy.”

Expanding on that, he said that if he became President he would not only “unite the world,” but also strengthen ties between Scotland, the UK and the United States. “I love Scotland,” he said, “so I think it would be a good thing, because I love Scotland.”

Why do I find that more frightening than the Darién Gap?



More blog posts:

Banff, Dec. 10, 2016

Taking The Test, Nov. 6, 2016

Roderick Haig-Brown, Feb. 29, 2016

Slavery and the Beginnings of the Greatest Show on Earth, Dec. 10, 2015

Heart of Oak, Sept. 22, 2015

Figures in the Night…Passing, Dec. 23, 2014

Click Home, Aug. 7, 2014.

The Dogs of San Miguel, Apr. 10, 2014.

It’s All about the Climax, Mar. 19, 2014.

Who Do We Think We Are?, Dec. 6, 2013.

So Much Jazz, Sept. 10, 2013.

Discover, July 29, 2013.

Tiresias, July 2, 2013.

Resurrecting the Dead, or, Writing about Family, March 20, 2013.

Writing True Stories, January 6, 2013.

Back to Blood, November 13, 2012.