Cookies

At Journey Latin America we use cookies to give you the best experience on our website. By continuing to browse, we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies on our website.
Find out more


2013 and earlier

Journey to Extremes

It's Monday morning in Panama and I’m kneedeep in the Boquerón river, trying to stay upright against the current. Trail guide Rich Cahill is retracing his steps up a nearly sheer slope of vicious acacias, poisonous hogweed and yellow, boot-sucking mud.3

Half an hour ago seven of us entered the jungle. Only Rich and I emerged, and as I watch him struggling to regain the ridge I’m praying that it’s the others who are lost and not us. I’d thought Panama’s Camino Real, the long lost treasure trail of the conquistadors, would be a reasonably straightforward five-day hike along a cobbled trail from the Pacific to the Caribbean. The possibility that I could end up lost in some of the world’s deepest, least explored rainforest, never crossed my mind.

Started in 1571 and completed 20 years later, El Camino laid cobblestones over ancient Indian footpaths to create a shortcut for loot plundered from the Inca Empire. Wide enough for two carts to pass, it ran from Panama Viejo on the Pacific, following the watershed of the Chagres River northwards and over the continental divide to Portobelo. The snakes, the fever and the bloodthirsty insects were clearly an acceptable price to pay for the convenience – the only alternative routes to the Caribbean for the Peruvian plunder were either a high-risk traverse of the Andes or a trip south around the as yet undiscovered Cape Horn.

The thread by which North and South America are conjoined is remarkably slender. Only 48 miles wide at its narrowest point, Panama was the obvious choice for the Canal, the Trans-Isthmus railway and Camino Real, and for the latter it was perhaps too obvious. It didn’t take long for the pirates of the Caribbean to notice the river of gold, silver and jewellery pouring from the jungle’s green mouth at Portobelo, and they lost no time in diverting the flow. Portobelo became known as the "White Man’s Grave" as first Drake, then Morgan and finally Vernon trashed the place - Henry Morgan even followed El Camino back to the Pacific coast to sack Panama Viejo - and by the late 17th century the Royal Road was closed.

Now Rich Cahill and Journey Latin America are opening it up. The only problem is keeping to the straight and narrow, for, while the line of the trail is an obvious, and monumental relic in Panama City’s eastern suburbs, it disappears as soon as it enters the jungle.

"I’ve followed this route two, three dozen times," says Rich, "and I’ve never been the same way twice." Such is the nature of exploration. Like us, the Spanish used the shallow tributaries of the Chagres River as their highways, wading along these sparkling trails through sheer canyons of green. Their litter, and perhaps a little of their loot, remains. Fragments of pottery and shards of green glass mark where they rested and we search the sites of old encampments in vain for lost treasure. Recent finds include a pair of silver crosses, a hoard of golden doubloons and a bejewelled dagger. Find a spot where the going was especially treacherous, high above the river, and you might find one of the legendary viper pits.

"Every now and then a treasure-laden mule would slip from the path and fall to its death in the river, hundreds of feet below," explains Cahill. "The Spanish believed the deepest pools were breeding grounds for snakes, so whatever fell in, stayed in. All we have to do is find the pools..."

Looking beyond the vipers, shine your torch around you by night and thousands of tiny eyes twinkle like stars in the darkness. Scorpions, tarantulas, enormous cane toads and tiny tree frogs lurk all around, but none pose much of a problem. The local Embera Indians take a pragmatic view of all the creepy crawlies and slithering things, treating their bites and stings with the same weary fatalism we Westerners reserve for such urban hazards as RSI, IBS and ME. We’re only thirty miles from 21st century Panama City and yet we’re already so deep into the woods that the GPS and the sat’ phone won’t work. Toucans, three-toed sloths and Capuchin monkeys work, rest and play in this claustrophobic paradise, but it’s the jaguar who is boss.

By daybreak the critters have retreated into the forest, leaving just El Camino’s twisted topography to be dealt with. Portobelo, a hammock on the beach and a cold beer are just two days away, but as Cahill disappears over the ridge in search of the others, I’m now quite alone, except for the pygmy heron, stalking the shallows, and the hummingbird hovering by my shoulder. The riverbed glitters, and as I crouch down to pan a little with my hat, I spot the opaque green neck of a long-abandoned bottle. It’s clear evidence that conquistadors passed this way, but as I yell for Cahill another thought crosses my mind. Maybe they were lost too.

Chris Haslam


Post a comment

Upcoming Events

See full Event Listing

Other articles you may like

Browse our inspiration area of the site. It's packed with insider travel tips, Top5s, competitions, events, recipes and holiday ideas for Central and South America sure to whet your travel appetite.

Journey with the UK's NO1 specialist in travel to latin america

Experience

  • The pioneers in travel to Latin America since 1980
  • The UK's no.1 specialist – nobody knows it better

Knowledge

  • All our staff are in-depth Latin America specialists
  • Get the inside track with expert advice based on first-hand experience

Passion

  • Our love of Latin America runs through all we do
  • We take pride in providing a genuinely personal service

Protection

  • Unbeatable and secure financial protection
  • Book with confidence, knowing every penny is secure

Flexibility

  • The widest range of travel options to Central and South America
  • The journey you'll love, in a style to suit you

Expertise

  • Award-winning holidays, endorsed by our clients and the press
  • Exclusively dedicated to 
    Latin America – it's all we do


Wanderlust

Food and Travel Magazine Readers' Awards - Tour Operator of The Year 2016

Selling Travel Agents Choice Awards - Best Tour Operator to Latin America 2016

Sunday Times Travel Magazine - Editor's Award 2013

Guardian and Observer Travel Awards - Top Ten Small Tour Operator: 2012

Sunday Times Travel Magazine Awards - Best Value Tour Operator 2011

Condé Nast Traveller Readers’ Awards - Top Ten Specialist Tour Operator 2016

Wanderlust Readers' Travel Awards - Top Ten Tour Operator 2015

British Travel Awards - Best Small Tour Operator to Central and South America 2012

Latin American Travel Association - Award for Customer Service 2012

Sunday Times Travel Magazine Awards - Best Specialist Tour Operator 2011

Page Full Path: /sitecore/content/JLA/Home/travel-inspiration/travel/journey-to-extremes

Page ID: {70A0F2AE-2733-41AD-BBFB-29FE050FFA9D}

Page Name: journey-to-extremes

Page Display Name: Journey to Extremes

Page Template Name: T031-PapagaioBlogPost

Page Template ID: {ECC6A232-9784-4CC7-BA26-18421546B8F5}

Parent ID: {DC65CFB2-D81C-4A04-A7F8-0A1B3D88E7EB}

Parent Name: travel

Parent Display Name: Travel

Parent Template Name: T029-PapagaioCategoryListing

Parent Template ID: {4D163066-ED7E-48E6-AF31-34B6C47536CD}