Following in the Footsteps of Balboa

The first European to glimpse the Pacific from the Americas crossed Panama on foot 500 years ago. Our intrepid author retraces his journey

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 Darién. —John Keats (Alexander Arosemena)
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Navarro argues that Balboa’s relatively humane policies toward indigenous people (befriending those who tolerated his soldiers and their gold lust) put him several notches above his fellow conquistadors. “He was the only one willing to immerse himself in the native culture,” says Navarro. “In Panama, we recognize the profound significance of Balboa’s achievement and tend to forgive his grievous sins. He was consumed by ambition and lacking in humanity and generosity. Was he guilty of being part of the Spanish power structure? He was guilty as hell. He was also an authentic visionary.”

Navarro has been following in Balboa’s bootsteps since the summer of 1984. He had graduated from Dartmouth College and was about to begin a master’s program in public policy at Harvard University. “Balboa was my childhood hero, and I wanted to relive his adventure,” he says. “So my older brother Eduardo and I got some camping gear, hired three Kuna Indian guides and started from the Río Aglaitiguar. When we reached the mountains at dawn on the third day, the guides warned us that evil spirits inhabited the forest. The Kuna refused to go farther. For the final nine days we had to muddle through the jungle on our own.”

I accompanied Navarro on his second traverse, in 1997. He was then 35 and running the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (Ancon), the privately funded nonprofit he started that became one of the most effective environmental outfits in Central America. In defense of the Darién, he prevailed against powerful lumber barons, getting tariffs on imported lumber abolished; lobbied successfully for the creation of five national parks; and discouraged poaching by setting up community agro-forestry farms. On his watch, Ancon bought a 75,000-acre cattle ranch that bordered the Gulf of San Miguel and turned it into Punta Patiño, Panama’s first and still largest private nature preserve. Now 51 and the presidential candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD), he’s a bit rounder around the middle and his face has some well-earned lines, but his enthusiasm is scarcely diminished. “Despite the atrocities Balboa committed,” Navarro says, “he brought to the Darién an attitude of discovery and empathy and wonderment.”

The leader of our last Darién Gap trek was ANCON naturalist Hernán Arauz, son of Panama’s foremost explorer and its most accomplished anthropologist. Affable, wittily fatalistic and packed with a limitless fund of Balboa lore, he shepherds hikers through ant swarms and snake strikes while plying a machete the size of a gatepost. Alas, Arauz can’t escort me this time around, and Navarro is unable to join the expedition until Pechito Parado. As a consolation, Arauz leaves me with the prayer a dying conquistador is said to have chiseled in rock in the Gulf of San Miguel: “When you go to the Darién, commend yourself to the Virgin Mary. For in her hands is the way in; and in God’s, the way out.”


Ever since Balboa took a short walk across a long continent, the swamp forests that fuse the Americas have functioned as a gateway. They’re also a divider, forming a 100-mile strip that’s the only break between the northern section of the 30,000-mile Pan-American Highway, which starts in Alaska, and the southern part, by which you can drive to the Strait of Magellan. Half a millennium later, there’s still no road through the territory.

When Balboa made his 70-mile slog through this rough country, he was governor of Darién. Sure that he would provide the Spanish a faster passage to the spices of the Indies, he had petitioned King Ferdinand for men, arms and provisions. While awaiting a response, the conquistador—having crushed a plot by local natives to burn Santa María la Antigua del Darién, and held a settler insurrection at bay—not-so-wildly surmised that intriguers in Seville were scheming to have him recalled. He set off on September 1 with a force of 190 heavily armed Spaniards and hundreds of Native American warriors and porters, some of whom knew the way.

Today, Santa María no longer exists. The colonial town was abandoned soon after Balboa’s beheading, and, in 1524, was burned down by the indigenous people. The area is now a refuge for Colombian guerrillas known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Which is why we launch the trek in Puerto Obaldia, a tiny village some 30 miles north, and why the frontier police that accompany us wear bandoleers and shoulder M-16s and AK-47s.

Our small retinue is drawn from the three cultures of the region: Chocó, Afro-Darienite and Kuna, whose village of Armila is the first along the trail. The Kuna are notoriously generous and hospitable. They hold a spontaneous evening jam session, serenading my party with maracas, pan flutes and song. We all join in and toast them with bottles of Balboa beer.

The following morning I befriend a scrawny, tawny junkyard dog, one of the many strays that scavenge the Armila streets. I wonder if he could have possibly descended from Leoncico, the yellow mutt that, in 1510, famously stowed away with Balboa on a ship bound for the Darién. Sired by Becerrillo, the warrior dog of Juan Ponce de León, Leoncico was so fierce that Balboa later awarded him a bowman’s pay and a gold collar. This pooch doesn’t look lively enough to chase a paperboy.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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