By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos: Carlos E. Gómez
The alarm goes off at 3:15 in the morning because we need to leave the house at 4:22 a.m. We arrive at the Sheraton Hotel at the Atlapa Convention Center at 4:56 a.m. Today we are rafting down the Chagres River, setting out from the Cerro Azul mountains east of Panama City.
Taking the Corredor Sur, we head out on the highway that leads toward 24 de Diciembre, and then we turn our 4×4 truck to the left near a Super Xtra. This is the road to Cerro Azul, a mountainous area of the city that is still covered with rain forests.
Shortly before six in the morning, we reach a small roadside restaurant. The sun is not yet up but the kitchen lights are already on and the smell of fried food wafts toward us. Breakfast is hojaldre (fried bread) with chicken that is probably locally produced because the area is home to several chicken farms.
Having satisfied our appetites, we climb back into our 4×4. Up to this point the road has been smoothly paved, but it grows rougher as we move farther away from the “developed” urban area. The road turns to gravel and then dirt, becoming narrow, wet, slippery, and unpredictable. The car leaps, stutters, and gets scratched; despite the discomfort, my companions are excited and shout “Adventure!” My own thoughts turn to the so-called highway to the Ngäbe Buglé district: a mere trail battered by winter storms. It is passable only by the most skilled drivers, who still cannot avoid dizzying skids and violent bumps.
At last we reach the San Cristóbal community, where a Chiriquí man, two horses, and a child await. The boat, pumps, life jackets, helmets, ropes, water, and food are all unloaded from the 4×4. The one and a half hour walk begins while the equipment is loaded onto the animals.
As I approach the age of 41, I feel like I can’t handle long hikes anymore. Don’t get me wrong —I love walking. But every ascent is painful, and after several uphill climbs, I gasp for breath and start to fade. The guide waits for me at the top of a crest with three of my four companions in adventure, and as if I didn’t already feel it in my chest, my eyes, and my thighs, he says, “Ana Teresa, you’re all red…”
On the last —and perhaps steepest— slope, I nearly faint. Fortunately, all things eventually come to an end and this walk ends at the bank of the Piedras River. The horses are late in arriving, giving us time to catch our breath. Forty minutes later, we learn that one of the horses slipped, uninflated boat and all. The horse was helped to its feet, but its owner had to return home for another horse, since the first one was now too skittish to proceed. After the equipment was reloaded, the horses came back to meet us at the Piedras River.
Someone starts to inflate the boat; it’s just like blowing up a balloon, but with a bigger pump. We deal with life jackets, helmets, and safety instructions. One of the guides explains the commands: forward (paddle forward); back (paddle backward); three whistles (listen up, something is happening); a head pat (everything is OK). He tells us how to swim if we fall into the water and orders us to never let go of the paddle. Any questions or doubts? I note in passing that this all assumes we will stay calm and not panic, an observation that is greeted with indulgent smiles. Did I mention that I don’t know how to swim?
The expedition sets out at 10:45 a.m. We paddle and paddle. “Forward, back.” We paddle some more. The Piedras River is dry and we struggle to free the boat. “Jump, jump!” says one guide. But most of the time, the three guides get out of the boat and pull and push to force it free. The water level rises a bit when the Piedras meets the Chagres. Not only does the river swell, but the green walls stretch upward. Immense crags covered with trees, palms, and ferns rise on both sides of the river. We spot kingfishers, cormorants, eagles, turkey vultures, and white-necked herons. A toucan calls from the forest.
Our adventure takes us through gentle white water and pools of calm water. Instead of braving class III or IV rapids, the guide admits that we will be lucky to hit class II. Slightly after 12:30, we lunch in the middle of nowhere; there are no settlements here, just jungle. We eat sandwiches, fruit, and chocolate, putting a rocky sandbar to use as a table.
We clamber back into the boat. Not surprisingly, our rear ends are starting to notice that we have spent several hours on the river. The effects of adrenaline keep us going. Someone points to the water and shouts, “A shad!” A magical sight greets us around a river bend: hundreds of yellow butterflies fluttering against the leafy background. Might this be a butterfly nesting site? We have little time to appreciate it, however, because the guide orders us to paddle.
River rafting seems to have its own type of fans. My fellow travelers yell and lean into their paddles when the current is strong or when they steer the boat clear of rocks and tree trunks. I suppose this is the mindset of conquering nature. When we approach a waterfall splashing against the rocks and foaming fiercely, my companions get out of the boat to carefully analyze the movement. Back in the boat, they remind the beginners of the initial instructions: “Don’t let go of the paddle for any reason whatsoever. Here’s what you do if you fall into the water. Follow the guide’s commands. Don’t panic; someone will help you.”
The blue boat begins to fill with water as we head toward the waterfall. The guide reiterates, “Forward, forward, forward!” The water roars and explodes; I tense my legs. I paddle and paddle, harder and harder. I keep the warnings in mind: if the guide yells “Down!” get down inside the boat immediately —the rest of the time we sit on the edge of the boat— to avoid falling into the water.
Now that we are almost in the white water, the guide keeps energetically repeating, “Paddle, paddle, paddle!” At the cry of “down, down!” I throw myself into the bottom of the inflatable boat and grab a rope that had been used to tie down our lunch.
My mind harkens back to childhood. When something scared me, I would make myself close my eyes because I imagined that it would be less frightening if I couldn’t see what was happening. I close my eyes. The water flows over my head once, twice, three times. I hear the rush of the water and feel its coolness. I make sure to keep my mouth shut. We flip over and over. After what seems like a long time, I open my eyes and the guide makes a sign —meaning I should stay still?— and then apologizes for going into the white water the wrong way. Two of our group members are in the water, hanging onto a paddle. I never let go of the rope.
Several hours later, the literal pain in the rear becomes unbearable. Even though the boat is inflatable, the sides are hard. It is now 4:40 pm, but since the Piedras River is dry, we have spent more time on the Chagres.
At last we spot smoke on the shore. Some children are playing in the river as their mother watches nearby on the bank. We have reached the Emberá Drua community, the end point of our paddling trek. A canoe has been waiting for us for an hour. We deflate the boat, pile all the equipment into our new mode of transportation, and begin the last part of our journey under motor power. Our destination is Puerto Corotú in the Las Cumbres area.
This last leg will take us through the communities of Parará Purú and Emberá Tusípono. From the river, we can barely discern a few farms, cut grass, and a few fires burning. It is six in the afternoon and night is falling. We leave via La Cabima in northern Panama City. We are greeted by traffic jams and loud music. A cement factory throws its gray bulk up on the horizon. In less than 30 minutes we are driving down the Trans-Isthmus Highway, which links Panama City to Colón. Car horns honk and an ambulance siren shrieks. Right now, a third lane seems like a good idea.
I close my eyes again, but from tiredness rather than fear. This is not simply physical exhaustion. I am thinking about how two hours ago I floated through an earthly paradise and now, wearing still damp clothes, I find myself in a crowded hell.