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

Juan Carlos Navarro delights in pointing out that John Keats got it all wrong in his sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” The Romantic poet, he says, not only misidentified the first European to glimpse the Pacific Ocean, but his account of the mountain looming over a tropical wilderness in what is now Panama was, by any stretch, overly romantic.

Navarro, an environmentalist who served two terms as the mayor of Panama City and is the early favorite in his country’s 2014 presidential elections, notes that it was actually the Spanish conquistador Vasco Núñez de Balboa who did the glimpsing, and that countryman Hernán Cortés—the cutthroat conqueror of the Aztec Empire—wasn’t even in the neighborhood during the 1513 isthmus crossing.

Nor was the peak—Pechito Parado—technically in Darién, the first permanent mainland European settlement in the New World. “Today, the Darién is a sparsely populated region of Panama,” says Navarro, the only presidential candidate who has ever campaigned there. “In Balboa’s day, it was just a town—Santa María la Antigua del Darién—on the Caribbean side.”

Of all the inaccuracies in the sestet, the one Navarro finds the most laughable is the reaction of the expedition party after spotting the Pacific, which, to be persnickety, Balboa named Mar del Sur (the South Sea). “The look of the men hardly could have been one of ‘wild surmise,’” Navarro says, disdainfully. “Before starting his journey, Balboa knew pretty much what he’d discover and what he could expect to find along the way.”

The same can’t be said for my own Darién adventure, a weeklong trudge that’s anything but poetry in motion. As Navarro and I lurch up Pechito Parado on this misty spring morning, I realize it isn’t a peak at all, but a sharply sloped hillock. We plod in the thickening heat through thorny underbrush, across massive root buttresses and over caravans of leaf-cutter ants bearing banners of pale purple membrillo flowers. The raucous bark of howler monkeys and the deafening cry of chicken-like chachalacas are constant, a Niagara of noise that gushes between the cuipo trees that tower into the canopy. The late humorist Will Cuppy wrote that the howl of the howler was caused by a large hyoid bone at the top of the trachea, and could be cured by a simple operation on the neck with an ax.

“Imagine what Balboa thought as he hiked through the rainforest,” says Navarro while pausing beside the spiny trunk of a sandbox tree, whose sap can cause blindness. “He had just escaped from the Spanish colony of Hispaniola—the island that comprises present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic—an arid, spare place with a rigid system of morality. He lands in a humid jungle teeming with exotic wildlife and people who speak a magical, musical language. He’s told that not far off are huge amounts of gold and pearls and an even huger sea. He probably thought, ‘I’m gonna be rich!’ For him, the Darién must have been mind-blowing.”

This month marks the 500th anniversary of the exploration that not only blew Balboa’s mind, but eventually caused him to lose his head. (Literally: Based on false charges brought by Pedro Arias Dávila, the father-in-law who had displaced him as governor of Darién, Balboa was decapitated in 1519.) The occasion is being celebrated with great fanfare in Panama City, where the crossing was a theme of this year’s annual carnival. Nearly a million people took part in the five days of spectacles, which featured a 50-float parade, 48 conga-dancing groups and 10 culecos—enormous trucks that blast music and drench spectators with (somewhat inaptly) tap water.


While conquistadors like Cortés and Francisco Pizarro are reviled throughout Latin America for their monstrous cruelty, the somewhat less ruthless but equally brutal Balboa (he ordered native chieftains to be tortured and murdered for failing to bend to his demands, and gay indigenes to be torn to pieces by dogs) is revered in Panama. Statues of the explorer abound in city parks, coins bear his likeness, the currency and the nation’s favorite beer are named for him, and the Panama Canal’s final Pacific lock is the Port of Balboa.

As depicted in Balboa of Darién, Kathleen Romoli’s indispensable 1953 biography, the Spanish-born mercenary was as resourceful as he was politically naïve. Balboa’s greatest weakness, she observed, was his “lovable and unfortunate inability to keep his animosities alive.” (He underestimated Dávila even after Daddy-in-Law Dearest had him put under house arrest, locked him in a cage and ordered his head to be chopped off and jammed on a pole in the village square.)

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.

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.”

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.

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