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.