Text and Photos: Javier Pinzón
I’m standing before Los Cajones de Chame and my gaze drifts toward the focal point. My eyes rest upon the lines left by each one of the layers of sediment slowly deposited, one on top of the other, to form this exquisite sculpture, so beautifully designed, softly sculpted, and delicately colored.
From this sculpture gallery, no one would imagine the tumultuous waters that await upstream or the placid curves of the river that slide through mangroves before emptying into the sea downstream. Barely twenty-five miles long, the Chame River offers contrasting landscapes, unexpected sounds, and contradictory experiences.
One of the most extraordinary stretches of scenery must be Los Cajones, midway along the river. You can reach it by taking the Pan-American Highway from Panama City and heading west to the town of Bejuco, an hour away (48 miles). This will be followed by an adventurous trip up the mountain that takes you under the forest canopy amid rugged peaks, either in a four-wheel drive vehicle or on foot.
At the entrance, you’ll want to catch your breath to fully appreciate the landscape. Every seam in the rock formations of Los Cajones de Chame reveals the past: the composition of the soil, the effect of the wind, and above all, the covert work of water as it steadily carves its way through the mountain. Visitors to this spot choose their approach: jump straight into the water from the terraces of varying heights, or make your way slowly down the slope to the water. Both will give you the same feeling in the end: you’re a tiny human, a speck, swimming between these enormous walls.
Our guide, José, is patient. He understands that the ritual must unfold step by step. Before settling down to have fun, visitors need to understand the landscape and allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the imposing sights, recognizing the incommensurate power of nature over fragile humans. Penance is followed by pleasure: competitions, dives, meat grilled on the shore by local residents.
The afternoon brings the next challenge: heading upstream under the dense canopy. This journey shows the other face of the river, the tumult. The waters rush down the mountain, creating a succession of waterfalls before they reach Los Cajones. Twenty minutes in a 4-wheel drive vehicle will take you to the first waterfall, known as La Cortina (The Curtain). Visitors can pass through and stand behind it, admiring the landscape through a veil of water.
The walk continues up the mountain along a rough path. Visitors ascend with the help of ropes installed by the community. A few minutes brings us to the Filipinas Waterfall, named for the town of the same name in Chame. This spot features deep wells that provide refreshment for the rest of the journey. Farther up the mountain lies El Encuentro, from which the third and fourth waterfalls can be seen through the intervening forest; they provide a background of falling water for the walk. The fifth waterfall, known by local people as El Tobogán (The Slide), is rather unusual, since it falls onto a flat rock from which people slide into the water. It is small and a lot of fun. The ascent continues to Las Gemelitas (The Twins), so called because one waterfall becomes two smaller waterfalls that meet down the mountain in El Encuentro.
The real reward comes at the end of the hike, at El Edén. Here, cold, turbulent water crashes into a well in the middle of a picturesque valley. This is a perfect spot for a picnic, a moment of meditation, and surely, a ritual encounter with Mother Nature.
This humid Panamanian paradise changes throughout the year because the terrain is heavily affected by the rains. During the dry season, the waters are calm and limpid, while during the rainy season, the waters turn turbulent and murky. The driest month is March, when there is less than half an inch of rain. During that time, the river drops to its lowest level, and the slow-flowing water is crystalline. In contrast, during the rainy season —between April and December— when rainfall generally measures some eight inches per month, the force of the water convulses the waterfalls, lending the rushing water a unique sound.
In this paradise, the river changes, but there is always adventure to be had; while it is easy to ascend to the waterfalls in summer, during rainy periods, tourists ride inflatable boats through the high sedimentary walls that testify to the passage of the Chame River.
How to Get There
Take the Pan-American highway toward Bejuco; use the Bejuco-Sorá turnoff. After about 10 miles, a sign on the right-hand side marks the entrance to Los Cajones. From there, the road is unpaved, so it is best to use a 4-wheel drive vehicle or leave your car at the entrance, where members of the community will watch it. On foot, the trip is a twenty-minute walk through magnificent scenery. During the rainy season, we recommend traveling light, since the return trip is not so easy owing to the slope of the stone path. The community requests a fee, which helps pay for conservation and cleaning. For further information, contact guide José Morán (+507 6792 5511).