It had not rained like this in Panama since November of 2014. In fact, the drought that El Niño brings every seven or so years has been particularly unforgiving in 2015.
So on the flip side of that, we’re on a roll of great expeditions in good weather conditions. Or so we thought until last week. As it turned out, the very day we took to the jungle was the day that the skies unleashed their fury on us and the rest of the region. That evening we arrived at the small village where we usually spend the first night, under a heavy shower. It stopped raining for 5 minutes and then resumed.
The Boqueron River, whose course we had to follow the next day was high and murky. That night, the rain subsided, and it all seemed like the worst had past, but no, at 3 am the rain came back in full force. The river rose even higher and we considered the possibility of delaying the trek for one full day, or just calling it off altogether.
Then some time around 10am the flood pattern changed and the water level began to go down. We decided to continue our walk at least up to the point of the first major crossing. There we would reassess the situation and determine whether it was safe to cross and continue. It was so we made it safely to our first jungle camp 10 Km up river, but it was too late, everything was too wet, and we were all too tired to enjoy the surroundings. We barely had time to set up camp and cook dinner, and suddenly it was time for bed.
That night it rained off and on. The thought of having the river flood again kept nagging at me. In such situations there’s really nothing to do but wait for nature to run its course. The river always goes back to normal, it’s only a matter of when. However, when you get delayed there are other concerns lurking around the bend. One is the administration the supplies of clean water and food. Another one is the constant danger of having a landslide or a tree fall occur right at the campsite. Both situations are very common in the jungle during rainstorms. The ground gets saturated with water, and at some point it just lets go. Tree roots also get loosened up and trees topple over. That simple, really. It’s one of the ways the rainforest regenerates itself. There’s nothing sinister in this process, except when you’re in the middle of it.
The next morning the rain continued inconsistently. To our relief the river had not turned brown yet, and we safely assumed that it was Ok to move on. This day in particular is crucial because there is really no trail. The route follows the river up to its head waters. So having a clean river is very reassuring. That is not to say that the walk was easy. For some being wet all day is almost too much to ask. Humberto at one point voiced his frustration and said “Me siento como un paticuervo. Me mojo, me seco, me mojo, me seco.” (I feel like a cormorant, get wet, get dry, get wet, get dry).
It rained off and on that day, but we made it over the mountain pass following the trenches left by the erosion that thousands of mules caused on the forest floor as they transferred the Peruvian bullions to Portobelo in the 16th and 17th centuries. We continued to the next camp with little difficulty. After dinner we finally had the time and energy to enjoy a bottle of rum with some lime. It was really the first time on the trek that we were at leisure. The next day would be a long and strenuous journey out to Portobelo, so we might as well enjoy the moment. Right at that time, we heard a crack in the jungle canopy, not even 50 meters away from camp. It was the heavy branch of a tree that had come down with a big blow as if severed by a giant and invisible machete. Loaded with vines, ferns and epiphytes, here again is a way the jungle finds to be in a constant state of change and reinvention.
The night was uneventful, thank goodness, and the next morning we packed our soaked equipment and began our long journey out. Again, it drizzled for most of the morning, but nothing serious. The good thing was that at least the skies remained overcast, blocking the scorching sun that can be really unforgiving on the final stages of the trek. There are six major hills to negotiate on a open dirt road before getting to safety. Doing them under a gray sky is a blessing.
Finally, we arrived at the local fonda where cold beers were chugged down before a hearty lunch was in order. Not long after leaving for Panama City, the rain began again. By the time we had made it to downtown the torrents of water were overflowing the streets. The rush-hour traffic that on a normal day is already hectic, on this day had effectively collapsed. We dropped the last client at a hotel at 5:30 pm and made it home just 20 minutes shy of 9 o’clock.
Later I saw pictures in the news of people on kayaks and jet skis negotiating traffic at roof level of the other vehicles. Some neighborhoods got hit pretty badly, and people lost their homes. And I thought “compared to that, our jungle escapade was literally just a walk in the park!”