sexta-feira, 15 de janeiro de 2016
A State of Nature
Life, death, and tourism in the Darién Gap.
The Pan-American Highway runs sixteen thousand miles, from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego, with one significant interruption: an expanse of rain forest along the border of Colombia and Panama. The road ends abruptly on the Panama side, just north of a national park, and picks up again as a dirt path, sixty miles southeast, in Colombia, in the floodplain of the enormous Atrato River. The region in between, which spans two coasts with jungles and mountains and a confounding web of rivers, is known locally as the Tapón del Darién—the Darién Plug—for its seeming impassability.
In English, it’s called the Darién Gap, the legacy of a nineteenth-century scramble to cut a seafaring channel from the Caribbean to the Pacific. The Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt speculated that the Darién isthmus harbored a river passage that need only be expanded to be navigable. In 1850, an Irish physician named Edward Cullen claimed to have walked such a passage without trouble, and his fraudulent assertion—supported by detailed phony maps—sparked a series of expeditions. Four years later, a twenty-seven-man team, led by Lieutenant Isaac Strain, of the United States Navy, set off to find Cullen’s mythical east-west passage. The team got lost within days and was forced to divide; seven men ultimately died. Strain refused to believe the indigenous Kuna who told him that he was going the wrong way, and months later he was found naked and sick, reduced to seventy-five pounds. He deemed Darién “utterly impracticable” for a canal, and engineers looked north to Panama City.
A century later, work stalled on the Darién link of the Pan-American Highway, and the gap came to mean something else: a breach in a road running north to south. American tourists arrived eager to hike it, and backpacking guides offered routes through the Serranía del Darién, the mountain range on the Colombia-Panama border. To automobile companies, the gap became an irresistible venue for publicity stunts. In 1961, a caravan of three red Chevrolet Corvairs took on “the world’s worst roadblock on the world’s greatest highway,” with support teams hacking trails and building bridges. Two of the cars managed to cross the gap; one was left to rust under a ceiba tree.
Scientists were equally attracted to the Darién. For millions of years, the isthmus has filtered the exchange of plants and animals between the Americas, and, as sea levels rose and fell, its mountains isolated populations, resulting in an extraordinary number of unique species. A fifth of its plants occur nowhere else. In 1981, after decades of intense study, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared that “thousands of species remain to be discovered.”
But in the late nineteen-nineties the left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, began fighting right-wing paramilitaries for control of the area. The only people to cross the gap with any frequency were combatants, illegal migrants, and drug gangs. Missionaries and orchid collectors were kidnapped, and, as the gap became synonymous with danger, science and tourism dried up. Los Katíos National Park, on the Colombian side, has been closed for years, owing to clashes among armed groups, who have seeded land mines there.
For a certain type of person, this is all very appealing. In 2003, Robert Young Pelton, the author of “The World’s Most Dangerous Places,” prepared for his own hike through the gap by e-mailing the FARC guerrillas and the region’s dominant paramilitary faction. He got no responses, but he was undeterred. At the last minute, he invited two young backpackers to come along, and all three ended up being kidnapped, when they stumbled on Colombian paramilitaries ambushing a small town. The fighters, armed with guns and machetes, killed four Kuna men, but after ten days they released Pelton and his companions unharmed. Pelton credited his wits for their survival. “It’s not really luck,” he told National Geographic News. “You’re in a certain mind-set when you’re kidnapped. You want to win the respect of your captors, so they drop their guard.”
Travel conditions in Colombia have improved since then. Demobilization of paramilitaries, waning FARC influence in the countryside, and better Army control of highways have made opportunistic roadblocks rare; kidnappings have decreased dramatically. In 2007, the government began advertising Colombia’s cultural and ecological wonders with the slogan “The only risk is wanting to stay.” Birders were among the first to take up the challenge, keen on adding the country’s seventy-six endemic species to their “life lists” of birds spotted. But even the promise of sooty-capped puffbirds and Tacarcuna wood quails has not enticed them into the roadless Darién Gap.
This March, I travelled with Sergio Tamayo, one of a very few guides offering tours in the gap. He began four years ago, when he was a twenty-four-year-old backpacker—“not a European-style backpacker but a Colombian-style backpacker,” he said, meaning that he worked as he travelled. He cut wood, mostly, and slept in a hammock. One day in San Francisco, a town on the Gulf of Urabá that its residents call San Pacho, Sergio heard some Medellín accents on the beach, and offered to take the visitors to an outlying island. He wrote up an itinerary, charged them twelve dollars apiece, and scrambled to find a boat.
Back in Medellín, he founded his own firm, Ecoaventurax, in an alcove of his mother’s apartment, and designed posters, T-shirts, and cell-phone charms with its logo. He got his chest tattooed with Maori-style designs and recruited customers on Facebook. He prefers people attracted to the gap despite, rather than because of, its dangers, but danger-seekers find him anyway. Two German men recently demanded that he take them to “where the guerrillas are,” and he said that he would take them close enough. The men painted their faces with jagua-fruit ink and posed for photographs in the woods. The majority of his clients, though, are, like him, young Colombians from modest backgrounds eager to experience parts of the country that have long been off limits.
Sergio has no politics to speak of—he was perhaps the only person in Colombia with no opinion about the death of Hugo Chávez—but he seems to have tapped into a broader strain of patriotism; last year’s ad campaign for Suzuki showed urban adventurers driving into the Colombian countryside, maps spread. Our itinerary included all the stops in Sergio’s weeklong gap tour, which he offers twelve times a year. The gap’s highlands remain under guerrilla control, so he takes visitors instead to the jungles and rivers that surround its few settlements: frontier towns, with varying degrees of lawlessness. We would travel northward along the Caribbean coast, through the clustered towns of San Pacho, Triganá, and Acandí, making our way to Capurganá and Sapzurro, at the border.
We started in an open boat from the port town of Turbo, crossing the Gulf of Urabá and heading west over the wide brown mouth of the Atrato River. Turbo is, for commercial purposes, Colombia’s last stop on the Pan-American Highway, and giant banana plantations and cattle ranches flank the road. Police and Army stations are everywhere, a legacy of clashes between paramilitaries and guerrillas. Billboards advertise shopping malls and model homes.
As we approached the western side of the gulf, our boat heaved and smacked along a shoreline probably little changed from when Vasco Nuñez de Balboa first saw it, in 1501: waves exploding against basalt boulders, a drab green curtain of forest broken up by the pink of guayacan trees in bloom. At our first stop, the town of Titumate, there was no dock, and men waded out to collect parcels. Three teen-age girls in tight sparkly tops—prostitutes—were being delivered in a fishing boat, and the men slung them over their shoulders like bags of cement. San Pacho, where we arrived twenty minutes later, did have a dock, and from it the town looked as though it had been built by pirates. Wooden houses jutted erratically from the hills, some of them shaped like ships and bearing tattered flags. Men and boys rode horses along the beach, waving up at Ruthie Laguado Zafra, the owner of a general store whose porch overlooked the sea.
Ruthie, elegant in a satin tunic and sandals, made us tree-tomato juice in a blender powered by a stationary bicycle, churning up a peachy-yellow slush. She dismounted, strained the juice, and served it in glasses. On the shelf behind her bicycle blender sat a pile of books by the Peruvian-American mystic Carlos Castañeda, which she encouraged customers to borrow. Ruthie had arrived here in 2002, with her six children, from a suburb of Medellín. San Pacho, she told me, was only as old as she was—forty-five. It had been colonized by Colombians from the interior, attracted by the forests and the isolation. “We had a dream of our own land,” she said. Now she owned a few acres.
The town had never prospered, she said, only survived. Its hundred and fifty families grew yucca and fished and waited for mangoes to ripen in the trees; some smuggled drugs. “We are so isolated,” she said. “But it’s miraculous to live here. The most amazing things happen.” One day, she was desperate for groceries, about to send one of her boys off with a list of foods to borrow, when a young man arrived leading a burro laden with “the very same items that were on my list!” It was a gift from a friend living over the mountain.
The town had no medical care, phone lines, or Internet. Education was bad, and electricity ran only in the evenings, if it ran at all. Ruthie spent much of her time agitating for elected officials to help San Pacho, or prodding its residents to help one another. She was organizing a bingo fund-raiser for an eight-month-old boy with a kidney tumor.
There were never any police in San Pacho, and Army boats passed its dock without stopping. The local authority was an organized group of drug traffickers, many of them former members of right-wing paramilitaries, who had wrested the coast from FARC control in the mid-nineties. When the paramilitaries demobilized, a decade later, their lower ranks regrouped to form mafias. The government gave them a new, apolitical name—bacrim, for bandas criminales emergentes—but everyone in San Pacho still called them paramilitaries.
Ruthie insisted that there were few conflicts. “We don’t hear bullets,” she said firmly. “If there’s a monopoly of one armed group, it’s not a problem. Here, as a single woman, I can walk around any hour of the night without being bothered. I am free.” I asked her why, then, she didn’t go to the paramilitaries for what the town needed. She said that some of her neighbors suggested asking for help for the boy with the tumor, but the child’s father forbade it. When she arrived in San Pacho, it was governed by a paramilitary chief called El Alemán, who was approachable: “Everyone went to him when they were sick.” El Alemán was in jail now. As for the current group, she did not want to owe them any favors.
Advocates of the Pan-American Highway have claimed that it would bring order and prosperity to towns like San Pacho, and, even though Panama and the U.S. long ago lost interest, Colombia has never given up on completing the road. Its government has studied thirteen proposed routes to close the Darién Gap, the most direct of which would tear audaciously through Los Katíos National Park and a park on the Panama side. More likely routes would skirt the parks, running just west of San Pacho. Ruthie didn’t want anything to do with a road. “It would ruin our way of life,” she said.
Sergio and I collected our backpacks and followed a horse path to the concrete-block cabins we were renting for sixteen dollars a night. He felt the way Ruthie did about San Pacho. “It’s like the beginning of life here,” he said, after darkness fell and the cooking fires started. That night, we could hear, over the crashing sea, a hollow popping sound: the hulls of drug boats hitting waves at high speed. I later learned that one of Ruthie’s daughters had been murdered. An investigation turned up no suspects, but people in town said it was the paramilitaries.
The shoreline connecting San Pacho to the small cove town of Triganá was heavily eroded, and as we walked a fragile path above the sea we saw families digging for gold in the exposed cliffs. One man clutched a toucan to his breast as he dug. The miners looked up at us warily; no one is friendly when digging for gold.
Approaching town, we met a fluffy-haired, bare-chested man reclining in an old wooden boat that he’d transformed into a thatched-roof bar. His name was Juan Guillermo Pérez, or Juangui, and Ruthie regarded him as one of the area’s most desirable bachelors. Juangui designed houses and hotels, of which there were several fine examples in Triganá. Some of them were owned by paramilitaries, who were unmistakable once I learned to recognize them. In San Pacho, there were always one or two by the dock, mounted on good horses, keeping an eye on things. In Triganá, they lay in hammocks under mango trees, wearing bright new Nike and Adidas clothes, with cell phones and two-way radios on their chests. Their hair was invariably close-cropped, in contrast to the shipwrecked look of nearly everyone else, and their bodies were different: thicker, better fed.
Sergio introduced Juangui to me as someone who’d crossed the Darién Gap, but Juangui corrected him—he’d tried to cross and failed. He started his journey in 2008 with four friends from Triganá, including a twelve-year-old boy. “We were just doing it for the experience,” he said. They’d left from Panama City and followed the Pan-American Highway to a town called Santa Fe. A Kuna friend had told them how to cross from there, travelling east and south, and they provisioned for three days. In a place called Mortí, they met more Kuna, who were rougher than the Kuna he’d known; there was garbage surrounding their settlement.
After a quick negotiation, three Kuna men agreed to take them into Colombia for a hundred and fifty dollars. The next morning, Juangui’s group was surprised to be met by three different men, who spent the day guiding them through “pure jungle,” Juangui said. The guides then pointed them to a settlement called Mulatupo, told them it was a two-hour walk, and left. This was the same route, albeit in reverse, that Isaac Strain and his men had taken in 1854, and Juangui fared only slightly better. “Mulatupo was actually more than a day away,” he said. “They had tricked us.” The group got lost, and Juangui used his compass to try to get them out, following rivers. They encountered jaguar tracks and a tapir and were chased by peccaries. The boy fished, and they cooked and ate what he caught, but it wasn’t much, and they began to starve. Finally, a Kuna passing by in a boat rescued them. They had never made it out of Panama.
Juangui laughed, and told me that he’d never do it again. He had a friend in Acandí, though, just a kid, who guided Cubans across the gap all the time. Everyone—paramilitaries, guerrillas—was paid off in advance. “You have to be careful talking about that, though,” he added, looking around.
Back in San Pacho, the taps had run dry. This was one of the wettest parts of the world, and yet the town depended on a fickle creek for water. People used kiddie pools as cisterns, dumping bleach in them as a nod to mosquito control, but within a day they were depleted. The weekly merchant boat had yet to arrive with its cases of water and soda, so there was little to drink. We had to find a river if we wanted to bathe, and so we hiked to the closest, fifteen minutes into the jungle.
“On my home planet, I was a deity."
In a clearing near the banks stood five thatched-roof cabins that looked a good deal posher than the ones we were staying in. They cost sixty dollars a night, Sergio told me, and had been constructed with a United Nations grant to promote ecotourism. They looked vacant. The river beyond them was low, full of tadpoles in isolated pools. Green-and-black poison dart frogs hopped about in the litter, and leaf-cutter ants carried tiny flowers. As we walked, we noticed at a bend far ahead some impish forms disturbing the surface of the water: cotton-top tamarins. Only six thousand of these dainty primates are said to remain in the world, and here a dozen of them had descended from the trees to drink. We edged closer, causing them to steal further upriver. An older male, his splendid, wiglike white crest framing a dubious black face, hung back to assess us.
An hour later, as we left the forest the same way we’d come, we were met by a thickset man with a two-way radio, demanding to know where we’d been. Sergio told him, he nodded, and we passed. A pair of toucans flew by.
How do you promote ecotourism, I asked, when you’ve got thugs standing fifty feet from the eco-cabins? Sergio, usually relaxed and gregarious, grew taciturn. With his clients, he sought to characterize the paramilitaries as you might a snake in your path: harmless unless molested. He knew them, and they left him alone. But he discouraged taking photographs of them, looking at them, or even discussing them. “How incredible were those tamarins!” he said, when he finally spoke.
We left with our packs and climbed twelve mountainous miles toward Balboa, in the interior. The peaks of the Serranía del Darién were shrouded by clouds as we walked along cattle trails, passing into jungle full of dangling heliconia flowers and the macabre calls of howler monkeys. The plan was to follow a river called the Tolo, but on the slick and rocky trail a couple heading the other way warned us that the Tolo had risen and that it was impassable. Though it had barely rained in Balboa, the topography of the region is so varied, and the rainfall so localized, that you can’t predict the state of a river only a few miles away.
We changed course and came to an Emberá settlement, which consisted of a round, thatched, elevated common house, surrounded by rectangular wooden homes with metal roofs. The indigenous Emberá, along with the Kuna and Wounaan, have historically lived on both sides of the border; for centuries they have shared the gap’s rivers and forests with the descendants of Africans who escaped from Spanish slave ships. An Emberá man named Luis Ángel Chavarrí, dressed in jogging clothes, greeted us and invited us to climb up a notched log to his house. There, Sergio stood, his bare chest covered in Maori tattoos, and announced that he had always felt a “particular closeness” with indigenous peoples. Luis Ángel received this politely. He did not mind visitors, he said, as long as they weren’t paramilitaries or guerrillas.
Luis Ángel was in his early thirties, with a calm and earnest manner. His open-sided, single-room house was empty but for two tables and a hammock. From it, we could see the river dragging whole trees along with its force. Twenty-two families lived in this community, he told us. In the nineteen-nineties, all but four had been displaced by guerrillas. In recent years, no armed groups had approached them, except the Army, which they could deal with.
I asked about the Pan-American Highway, whether he thought it would ever be built. His eyes widened. “It’s supposed to go right here!” he said, pointing toward the back aperture of his house. I looked outside and saw only two small thatched-roof sheds. The Emberá didn’t want the road, Luis Ángel said, because their kids, who played on the grassy riverbank, could get hurt or killed. The cattle ranches would expand, and his community would have to move farther into the forest. I’d often heard it argued that a road would help curb drug trafficking; Luis Ángel believed that it would bring the traffic straight to them.
The last overt push for the highway’s construction had come from Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe, who left office in 2010. The following year, representatives from UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational, scientific, and cultural arm, came to check on Los Katíos National Park, and reported that even they could not discern whether Colombia intended to build. But the Emberá saw surveyors working. When the government claimed that it was improving an existing road to Acandí, lawyers for Luis Ángel’s community pointed out that there was no existing road to improve; the highway project was being carried out surreptitiously, they argued, in order to evade environmental-impact studies and consultations with indigenous groups. Luis Ángel showed me a lengthy legal document, its pages spotted from the jungle air. It was a writ for protection of constitutional rights. In May, 2011, a court in Bogotá ruled in favor of the Emberá and ordered the plans halted. Luis Ángel received threats. No one believed that this was the last of the road, he said—all the cattlemen wanted it, and the larger towns did, too.
We bought jewelry from the Emberá women, who use tiny glass beads to create delicate collars that lie flat on the skin. One prodded Sergio to bring beads with him on his next trip from Medellín. She tied a string around his wrist with samples of the colors she needed. They had to be Czech beads, not Chinese beads; she was adamant about that.
The high river forced us to backtrack to the coast, and from there we went on to Turbo. We were going to visit the offices of Los Katíos, two hours across the gulf from the park itself, which was off limits. Passing east over the Atrato, we spotted northern screamers, rare marsh birds with goose-like bodies and curved beaks, sitting atop the labyrinthine mangroves. Northern screamers were first recorded here last year, by a friend of Sergio’s, an ecology student from Medellín. The Colombian conflict has kept most international research institutions away from both sides of the gap, leaving intrepid young people to carry out field studies and surveys. Biologists who braved the gap in recent years have made remarkable findings. Some six thousand leatherback-sea-turtle nests—from a huge and previously unknown nesting population—were discovered on a stretch of coast from Acandí into Panama. Researchers in the highlands of Tacarcuna, west of Balboa, discovered nine frogs new to science, including one with orange legs and spikes all over its body.
This year, Juan Sebastián Mejía, a twenty-nine-year-old mammalogist from Bogotá, published results from the first major wildlife study in Los Katíos since 1990. Mejía slept in the park for seven months, using camera traps to track the highly endangered Baird’s tapir. “It’s a beautiful place,” he told me. “When I went to collect my data, I could see spider monkeys, cougars. Every day I saw tracks of jaguars, birds of every kind.” He avoided a section known to be mined. “Obviously, we came in contact with armed groups,” he told me. “But being a Colombian researcher helps—they don’t see you as a target. Someone from the outside, they think there could be money.”
It turned out that the tapirs were thriving in Los Katíos. Photos of the animals, looking stunned by Mejía’s flashbulbs, hung in the park’s offices. Outside, a faded road sign advertised jaguars and waterfalls to a public that hadn’t been allowed inside the park for a decade and a half. Los Katíos, created in 1974 under a joint agreement between Colombia and the United States Department of Agriculture, was originally intended as a kind of barricade. A completed highway, the U.S.D.A. scientists said, would help turn the jungle into a continuous chain of cattle farms—an ideal conduit for foot-and-mouth disease. Breaking the chain would prevent its northward spread. The U.S.D.A. hired biologists to investigate the park’s ecology, and their surveys found more than four hundred species of birds living there. Los Katíos’s human inhabitants, meanwhile, were exiled beyond its borders.
The Pan-American Highway was scheduled to be completed within two years of the park’s creation—President Richard Nixon badly wanted the Darién link done in time for the United States’ bicentennial—but it was dogged by fresh opposition from conservation groups. A federal court halted the construction and demanded impact studies, while conservationists, with the help of UNESCO, secured better protections for the forests on both sides of the border. The United States, which had paid the bulk of the highway’s construction expenses, ceased funding it in 1979.
In the nineties, the U.S. stopped funding Los Katíos, too. Its staff of thirty rangers had been cut to just a handful by 1997, the year that right-wing paramilitaries entered the Cacarica River, on the southern border of the park. For weeks, they fought FARC guerrillas and terrorized the residents, forcing four thousand to flee. The paramilitary leader Freddy Rendón Herrera—“El Alemán,” the patron of San Pacho—set up an illegal logging concern on the Cacarica. The paramilitaries occupied the park, tearing up its structures and burning its library books for cooking fuel. For a decade, they clashed violently with guerillas there. During the worst of the fighting, a ranger was killed by combatants, and the remaining park staff decamped to Turbo. By last year, the paramilitaries had left, and the FARC had retreated to one small corner, but the legacy of the fighting remained; in February, 2012, a land mine exploded next to the most spectacular of its waterfalls, killing a man.
Throughout all this, remarkably, Los Katíos has remained in fairly robust ecological shape. The FARC, rather than cut its trees, made use of their cover, and recent aerial surveys by the World Wildlife Fund found its vegetation mostly well preserved. The park’s director, Santiago Duarte, a reedy, serious man in silver-rimmed glasses, described for me a variety of ambitious-sounding plans. For years, park staff ignored illegal logging and fishing. Now they were conducting catch studies and monitoring timber extraction. The rangers moved freely in the park again, and Mejía’s tapir study had proved that science could be done there, at least by Colombians.
Duarte said that regional universities were planning more field studies this year. Even though reopening Los Katíos to the public was out of the question, he felt confident, for now, that a highway would not run through the park. “But it could all change tomorrow,” he said.
Acandí’s port was sleepy, full of small fishing boats and dugout canoes, but there were soldiers at its dock, checking papers. The land crossing from Acandí into Panama is by no means easy, but it is relatively short. Illegal migrants on their way north arrive here by boat; in January the drowned bodies of ten were found off Acandí’s coast, where the leatherback turtles come to nest. The dead that could be identified had travelled from Bangladesh, Cuba, and Ecuador. Nepalese immigrants pass through increasingly often, and are said to be among the toughest of the crossers, making the three-day journey without complaint, sustaining themselves on raw rice.
Sergio and I headed into the forest, to an intersection of two rivers that created a deep blue pool which he liked to throw himself into. “Ecotourism” can mean a lot of things, and to Sergio it meant taking an almost spiritual pleasure in geographical wonders: rivers, waterfalls, peaks. We hired two teen-age boys on motorcycles to get us down a long cow path, and they hiked with us contentedly the rest of the way.
The boys and I sat on rocks as Sergio hoisted himself up a cascade. It was here, they told me, that the illegal crossings started, always at night. The migrants walked a day and a half to the border, and another day and a half to meet the Pan-American Highway near Yaviza. The Colombian coyotes hand the immigrants off in the middle, they said; there are Mexicans involved on the other side. These were fast kids, with soccer Mohawks and reggaeton videos on their BlackBerrys, but they could identify all the jungle birds: yellow-rumped caciques, a green kingfisher.
The ride from Acandí to Capurganá, in a narrow boat with fish blood spattered on the backs of the seats, was rough enough to make Sergio—who practiced a rare syncretism of Catholicism and tree hugging—finger through his wallet for his prayer card to the Archangel Raphael. Capurganá and Sapzurro, at the Panama border, are the only towns on the Colombian side of the gap that are mentioned in the Lonely Planet guidebook. After the violence of the nineties, Panama and Colombia began policing them jointly, creating a pocket of safety. Now, twenty miles from the privations of San Pacho, there were hotels with swimming pools and mixed drinks. Bohemian girls from Bolivia and Argentina sold hemp-fibre bracelets to keep themselves in hostel beds and weed. No one had to think twice before taking a photo, and the town’s gaily painted merchant boat, bucking in the surf as men unloaded beer into rowboats, seemed like evidence of the isolation that its barefoot visitors sought, at least for the weekend.
Capurganá and Sapzurro were linked by a forest path, which we hiked to meet a naturalist named Andrés Upegui. He’d directed us to go over the hill and ask for el peludo, the hairy guy. Upegui, whose gray dreadlocks reached his waist, owned a private nature reserve of sixty acres, and had surveyed its bird and plant life himself. In 2010, he’d led an eight-day expedition to the cold and rainy Tacarcuna highlands with ornithologists from Bogotá. Such work required diplomacy; Upegui informed paramilitary chiefs personally, and guerrillas through intermediaries, before embarking. Even so, the trip had to be cut short when guerrillas entered the area, but not before the group located two bird species never before recorded in Colombia.
The Tacarcuna peak, the tallest in the gap, sits just over the border in Panama. It is believed to contain a wealth of unknown species, but, because armed groups have occupied the mountain, it hasn’t been surveyed since the seventies, when the American botanist Alwyn Gentry named several plants there. “I still aspire to climb it,” Upegui said, drinking coffee on his porch, barefoot and shirtless like every other man for miles around. His house was built in the same primitive style as those in San Pacho, but with incongruous touches: windows made of wine bottles, a fresco copied from Gauguin. He had arrived here from Medellín in 1988, in part to escape the city’s escalating violence, and in part because he was inspired by the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. The Darién Gap, he said, had existed as almost a myth to him—something that suited his youthful philosophy of self-reliant anarchy, of a life that “obliges us to recognize that we are animals, another element of the ecosystem.”
Sapzurro had no docks then, or any commuter boats. Its two hundred inhabitants communicated with the outside world by radio. Upegui dove for lobsters, conch, and crabs, bartering them for yucca and plantains. He carried water from the creeks and built a house. “We were the darlings of the gods,” he told me. Now Sapzurro had twice as many residents, working at hotels, manicured campgrounds, a German restaurant.
Upegui opposed building a road, of course. The Pan-American Highway, he said, is an antiquated dream, a relic of a time of hopeful expansion, of progress and connectedness, that had run smack against the burgeoning environmental movement, against people like him. “But for the people here,” he said, “the road is synonymous with quality of life, and it can be hard for me to argue with them.” The region depended on boats that were expensive and dangerous, sometimes running out of gas, sometimes capsizing from heavy loads. He expected that a road would one day just appear. “The reality of this country is that they will do it when they find it opportune,” he said.
We humped back over the hill to Capurganá. From its highest point, we could see La Miel, the first cove town in Panama. We passed men panning for gold in a stream they’d dammed up, and nobody said hello. That afternoon, we met a couple from Canada, fit trekking types in their fifties who spoke no Spanish at all. They said that they were going to Acandí to watch the turtles nesting, if the sea calmed down enough for their boat to leave. They’d seen sea turtles nesting before, in Costa Rica, and thought it was wonderful.
Sergio was taken aback: these were real ecotourists. He gave them the business card of Acandí’s port hotel and called on their behalf, telling the owners to expect two Canadians and to take them to the turtles. “Speak very slowly,” he admonished them. He called the hotel again that night, to make sure the guests had arrived, and the next morning, to make sure they were alive. They’d seen a turtle, he was told, and they were happy. ♦
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 19:44