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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Five hundred years after Balboa led a straggle of Spanish colonialists from the Caribbean across to the Pacific, the wilderness he crossed is imperiled by logging, poaching, narco-trafficking and slash-and-burn farming. “The biggest obstacle is 500 years of neglect,” says Navarro, who, if elected, plans to seat an Indian leader in his cabinet, transfer control of water treatment and hydroelectric plants to local government, and form a new agency to guarantee sustained investment in indigenous areas.

None of the native peoples Balboa encountered in 1513 exist in 2013. The current inhabitants migrated to the Darién over the last several hundred years. “Diseases and colonial wars brought by the Europeans basically wiped out the Indian populations,” says Navarro. The tragic irony was that the Spanish conquest helped preserve the rainforest. “The Indians had stripped much of the jungle to plant corn. In a strange way, the human holocaust Balboa unleashed was the Darién’s salvation.” The conquistador, he says, was an accidental greenie.

Nested inside Arauz’s home on the outskirts of Panama City are the weird and wonderful oddities he and his parents accumulated during their travels in the Darién. Among the bric-a-brac is a tooth from a giant prehistoric shark that once cruised the channels, a colorful mola (cloth panel) bestowed on his mother by a Kuna chief and a Spanish soldier’s tizona (El Cid’s signature sword) Hernán bought off a drunk in the interior. Arauz particularly prizes a photo album devoted to the 1960 trans-Darién expedition. He was, after all, conceived during the journey.

On the walls of his living room are 65 original maps and engravings of the Caribbean from five centuries; the earliest dates to 1590. Many are as cartographically challenged as a Keats poem. Some show the Pacific in the east, a mistake that’s easy to make if you think the earth is flat. Others ignore all inland features, focusing entirely on coastlines. One rendering of the Gulf of Panama—which Balboa once sailed across—features a grossly oversize Chame Point peninsula, an error perhaps deliberately made by Dutch surveyors feeling heat to come up with something fresh to justify their expense accounts.

Arauz masterfully applies his jungle know-how to antique maps of the Darién. Three years ago the Library of Congress awarded him a research fellowship. While in Washington, D.C., he spent a lot of time gazing at the Waldseemüller Map, a 12-section woodcut print of the world so old that the intended users’ biggest concern would have been sailing over the edge of it. Published at a French monastery in 1507—15 years after Columbus’ first voyage to the New World—the chart casts serious doubt on Balboa’s claim.

The Waldseemüller Map was the first to show a separate continent in the Western Hemisphere and to bear the legend “America.” It suggests that Portuguese navigators first explored the west coast of South America and ventured north as far as Acapulco. The shoreline of Chile is rendered so accurately that some believe it must have been based on firsthand knowledge.

Even if it were, argues Arauz, the navigators didn’t discover anything. “Discovery implies uncovering and making the world aware,” he insists. “Had the date been correct, the Spanish Crown would have certainly known about it. They were quite good at cartographic spying and ferreting out the geographical knowledge of rival nations.”

The Spanish kept a large secret map called the Padrón Real in Seville that was updated as soon as each expedition returned. This master schema of the known world was used as a treasure map to the world’s riches. “As late as 1529, the Chilean coast didn’t appear on the Padrón Real,” says Arauz, with the most mischievous of grins. “That tells me Balboa really was the Man—that, atop Pechito Parado, he spied the Pacific before any other European.”

The conquistador had left his mark. He had—one could safely say—put himself on the map.

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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