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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I wish I could say as much for Darién insects. Into the rainforest I have brought reckless optimism, a book on native birds and what I had hoped was enough bug spray to exterminate Mothra. I miscalculated. As I slog through the leaf litter on the forest floor, the entire crawling army of the jungle seems to be guarding it: Mosquitoes nip at my bare arms; botflies try to burrow into them; fire ants strut up my socks and ignite four-alarm blazes. Bullet ants are equally alarming. Of all the world’s insects, their sting is supposed to be the most painful. Arauz’s secret to knowing when marauding soldier ants are on the move? The sweet bell tones of antbirds that prey on them fleeing a swarm.

Darién wildlife is spectacularly varied. We chance upon an astounding array of mammal tracks: tapirs, pumas, ocelots and white-lipped peccaries, a kind of wild hog that roves in herds of up to 200. In case of a peccary charge, Arauz suggested that I climb at least eight feet up in a nearby tree since they reputedly have the ability to piggyback. “I know of a hunter who shared a tree with a jaguar while a pack passed beneath them,” he told me. “The hunter swore the worst part was the smell of the cat’s intestinal gas.”

At a Chocó encampment, we dine on peccary stew. I remember Arauz’s yarn about a campfire meal his parents had with the Chocó on the National Geographic Society’s 1960 trans-Darién expedition. His dad looked into a pot and noticed a clump of rice bubbling to the surface. He looked a little closer and realized the rice was embedded in the nose of a monkey. The Chocó chef confided that the tastiest rice was always clenched in the monkey’s fist. “Too late,” Arauz said. “My father had already lost his appetite.”

Through a translator, I recite the tale to our Chocó chef. He listens intently and, without a tickle of irony, adds that the same monkey would have yielded three pints of cacarica fruit punch. It turns out Chocós have a delicious sense of humor. I know this because one of our Chocó porters laughs uproariously whenever I try to dismantle my tent. I laugh uneasily when he shows me the three-foot pit viper he has hacked in half beside my backpack.

The jungle air is heavy and moist; the tropical sun, unrelenting. When the Darién gets too dense to chop through with machetes, our guides navigate like sailors in a fog, with a compass, counting their steps to measure how far we’ve gone and when to change directions. We average seven or eight miles a day.

During the homestretch I cheat a little—OK, a lot—by riding in a piragua. With Navarro in the prow, the motorized dugout cruises past the patchwork of cornfields and pastures that have supplanted Balboa’s jungle. Sandbanks erupt in butterfly confetti as our canoe putters by. Balboa foraged through this countryside until September 25 (or possibly the 27th—the facts in the travel records don’t match), when his procession reached the foot of Pechito Parado. According to legend, he and Leoncico clambered up the rise together, conquistador and conquistadog. From a hilltop clearing Balboa looked south, saw a vast expanse of water and, dropping to his knees, raised eyes and arms heavenward. Then he called his men to join him. Erecting a pile of stones and a cross (“Balboa would understandably build something the size of his ego,” allows Navarro), they sang a Catholic hymn of thanksgiving.

No monument marks the spot of Balboa’s celebrated sighting. The only sign of humanity is a circle of stones in which a Bible, sheathed in plastic, lays open to the Book of Matthew. Having summited the historic peak, I, too, raise my fists in exultation. Rather than commend myself to the Virgin Mary, I peer at the cloudless sky and repeat a line from a 20th-century Balboa: “Yo, Adrian!”

If Balboa had a rocky start, he had a Rocky finish. On September 29, 1513­—St. Michael’s Day—he and 26 handpicked campañeros in full armor marched to the beach. He had seen breakers from afar, but now an uninviting sand flat stretched for a mile or more. He had muffed the tides. Obliged to at least stand in ocean he was about to own, Balboa lingered at the sea’s edge till the tide turned. “Like a true conqueror,” Navarro observes, “he waited for the ocean to come to him.” When it finally did, Balboa waded into the salty waters of the gulf he would name San Miguel. Brandishing a standard of Madonna in his right hand and a raised sword in his left, he claimed the whole shebang (not quite knowing exactly how big a shebang it was) for God and Spain.

My own party skips the beachhead. Hopping aboard the piragua, Navarro and I head for the backwater settlement of Cucunati. For three years Navarro has been canvassing voters across Panama, from the big, shiny cities to frontier outposts where no presidential hopeful has gone before. At an impromptu town meeting in Cucunati, residents air their frustrations about the lack of electricity, running water and educational funding. “One out of four Panamanians live in poverty, and 90 percent of them live in indigenous comarcas,” Navarro later says. “The conditions in these rural communities are not unlike what Balboa encountered. Unfortunately, the Indians of the Darién are not on the government’s radar.”

On a boat to the Punta Patiño reserve, Navarro points out the gumbo limbo, nicknamed the turista tree because its burnt umber bark is continually peeling. Nearby is a toothpaste tree, so named because it oozes a milky sap that has proven to be an effective dentifrice when used in a conscientiously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care. Twined around an enormous cuipo is a strangler fig. “I call this fig a politician tree,” says Navarro. “It’s a parasite, it’s useless and it sucks its host dry.”

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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