By Andrew Kolasinski
The trail ascended through the dense jungle of Panama. As we neared the peak a ruined fortress came into view. My guide, Jason cautioned me to avoid the main doorway and led me in through a cannon port. From a safe distance we checked out the doorway. Four different types of stinging insects, including the forebodingly named Cicada Killer Wasps, had built their nests in the lintel of the door. Someone unaware might trigger a lethal swarming.
Jason is locally known as “Jungle Boy”. An American who grew up in Central America, Jason spends most of his time roaming the jungle. He always carries a machete and a hammock tent.
“I might be following a butterfly or a birdcall, and wander into the bush until it gets dark,” he explained.
Jason’s lives outside of Portobelo, a town of 2,500 on Panama’s Caribbean coast near the Panama Canal. It was Spain’s principal port for shipping out the gold of the Americas. It was targeted by pirates, and consequently became heavily fortified. These fortifications are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Another of the Portobelo’s attractions is the San Felipe Church, home to Cristo Negro, the Black Christ. This alter statue attracts thousands of pilgrims during the October festival, and a steady stream of worshipers all year.
The town is on the edge of the sparsely populated Darien Gap. This link to continental South America is deliberately isolated. When American authorities constructed the Panama Canal they prevented the spread of bovine hoof and mouth disease by not building any connecting roads. After Panama gained control, they made the same choice to prevent the infiltration of Columbian narco-criminals.
Portobelo also offers pristine environments for activities like jungle trekking, scuba diving, sea kayaking and river rafting. Jason, Jungle Boy, offers hiking, kayaking and snorkeling trips, and gives his guests an educated commentary of plant and animal species.
My trip started crossing Portobelo Bay by kayak. Halfway across a sudden rain squall cooled us off as we paddled. We landed at the base of the Spanish fortress.
It was reinforced with blocks of coral reef after the notorious British Privateer, Captain Henry Morgan, took the town hostage in 1668. The Spanish paid his ransom after two months. The fortress overlooks the bay and the entire coast.
After inspecting the old rusted cannons and the armory we hiked up to the next level. The trail was originally the supply road, but is now overgrown with vines, shrubs and thorny creepers. On our way up Jason pointed out toucans, leaf cutter ant trails and a rare blue butterfly. Tiny geckos sunned themselves on the rocks. They’ve evolved their colors to match the coral building blocks.
Further along Jason’s dog, Chica, a multi-colored mongrel froze in a pointing posture.
“She has detected monkeys,” he said.
A moment later we heard the unmistakable call of a howler monkey, between a bark and a scream. At 120 decibels it is one of the ten loudest animals on earth. We caught a brief glimpse before it scrambled off in the treetops having warned us to stay away.
Before the next bend the dog stopped again and assumed the position in front of a massive Ceiba tree. In the crotch of the branches was a group of four tiny owl monkeys. Their name stems from their nocturnal lifestyle. Our presence had woken them, and they stared at us with peeved but curious expressions.
Finally, we reached the highest fortress with its commanding view of the coast. Here, we were rewarded with a brief view of the entrance to the Panama Canal, ten miles north, before it was lost in the mist of another squall.
Born in The Hague, Andrew Kolasinski arrived in Canada as a small child riding in the luggage rack of a DC-7. Since then he has felt at home anywhere. As the publisher and editor of Island Angler, Andrew spends half the year fishing for salmon and trout, and in the off-season he travels the world looking for a story. This article was written on behalf of Tucan Travel, specialists in adventure tours to Panama and throughout Latin America.
Interesting read the mosquito coast by Paul Theroux take a look on AMAZON The book is great the film as always less so.