Tales of Travel in Panama Without a Car

GoNOMAD Book Excerpt

Tales of Travel in Panama

The cover of Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama Without a Car by Darrin DuFordDarrin DuFord, a contributor to GoNomad, ventures through the tropics of Panama. In his recent book, Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama Without a Car, DuFord mucks through muddy trails, encounters native tribes, samples local delicacies and becomes immersed into the thriving culture of Panama. Read more below for a taste of DuFord’s adventures at the infamous Darién Gap. — Kylie Jelley

Chapter 15: The Little Goat

THE PAN-AMERICAN HIGHWAY meanders over 25,000 kilometers from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, except for a break — the only one — at the mountainous jungle between Panama and Colombia.

On the Panamanian side, the party town of Yaviza celebrates its distinction at the end of the road with its troupes of salsa-stepping storeowners and humping stray dogs strewn about its walkways. For more communal recreational pursuits, the town’s open-aired cockfighting palace holds seating for 80. Yaviza is the rowdy border town without the border.

Kids running around the ruins of a Spanish fort-turned-playground greeted me, ignoring the police choppers that thumped above. Without roads, the police and their AK-47s require the helicopters, along with small, agile boats, to travel further east into the lawless bonanza known as the Darién Gap, where an assortment of Colombian guerrilla factions have trickled in and hunkered down.

Despite over half a century’s talk of extending the highway all the way to the boundary with Colombia (30 miles away), recent Panamanian concerns about the accelerated influx of drugs, Colombian civil war elements, and hoof-and-mouth disease, not to mention the inevitable ecological damage, have thus far kept the Darién Gap an unforgiving jungle.

As willing boatmen abounded, I was able to reach a few nearby indigenous Emberá villages in the comarca north of the town to examine their recovery from a recent flood — my main objective.

But without the requisite AK-47, I wasn’t prepared to venture eastward into the Gap. And since I had reached my fill of dancehall beats bounding out of the open concrete walls of Yaviza’s bars until 3 a.m. and starting up again at sunrise (as was the case with the venue right below my fan-cooled, hostel-style room), I was left with no particular eagerness to remain in town.

An old Spanish fort in Yaviza.
An old Spanish fort in Yaviza.

Did that make me a party pooper? Was I supposed to warm up to the crudely painted pictures of women in their underwear on the walls of the bars?

Yaviza thought so. I must have offended her, for as I was to discover, she would make it difficult to leave.

Planning my escape, I first looked to Panama’s fleet of diablos rojos, the ex-American school buses painted as gaudily as the drivers’ personalities dictate.

Shrouded in airbrushed cartoon characters and names of girlfriends, the buses provide public transport to and from some of the most far-reaching villages across the isthmus, including Yaviza, nine hours from the capital, down a road still lacking pavement for the last four hours of the trip.

Then again, three-fourths of Panama’s people do not own automobiles, lavishing great importance on the country’s buses that dutifully prowl a road system remaining two-thirds unpaved.

I have logged many an exhaust-festooned hour inside diablos rojos and other permutations of Panamanian public buses while speakers mounted in the ceiling kept the passengers groovin’ to salsa, Panamanian típico, or even American classic rock. Legroom deficiencies aside, I was actually looking forward to the ride.

But by the early afternoon, the bus drivers’ workday was done. After nine hours, the diesel engines of diablos rojos that had already arrived from the capital earned a break, their combustive gnarling silenced for the rest of the day. Their vivid paint jobs would fade in the sun of Yaviza until the next morning.

The capital-bound buses, likewise, had all left hours ago, before the sun had risen. The afternoon was time for the bus drivers to enjoy a few cold beers and place some earnings on one of Yaviza’s badass cocks. So how, at that balmy hour, could I return to the capital without a car?

An hour’s canoe ride south could have taken me to a rustic airstrip, but a crash of a local commercial flight a month ago elsewhere in the country and the subsequent shortage of planes had shoved schedules down an abyss of futility. I decided to pass on the frequent flier miles.

I still had one option. But it would only carry me part of the way back. Enterprising farmers, keeping with the idea of recycling ancient automobiles that should have been melted down into scrap, have been converting trucks into buses by constructing passenger cabins on the backs of the trucks’ flatbeds. Panamanians refer to the franken-vehicles as chivas, or little goats — an appropriate label considering the type of unsavory, all-dirt terrain they were designed to ply.

As the afternoon blazed unhindered, Yavizans sucked the sweat off their lips and promised me in between unrushed grins that a chiva would turn up soon.

One of the diablos rojos that constitute the principle form of transportation in Panama
One of the diablos rojos that constitute the principle form of transportation in Panama

Over the next couple hours, several burly trucks arrived, circled around, and left. All were transports shuffling heavily armed Panamanian policemen to and from their base in town. But where was the bus for unarmed civilians?

“There’s the chiva,” a vendor gestured to me from his reclined paunch, sinking behind his table of batteries and plastic toys. He was pointing to an approaching truck, a pickup truck.

Five bucks would get me two and a half hours back up the highway to Metetí, the driver of the 4×4 told me, as I climbed in to the truck bed adorned with a tarpaulin atop two wooden benches that he didn’t bother to fasten down.

There were no speakers, hence no típico. Joining a half dozen passengers hanging onto the tarpaulin posts, I straddled a spare wheel and a scattering of wanton corn kernels from a past rider, just before the Yaviza-Metetí local turned around and jostled back onto the Pan-American Highway, in all its single lane, unpaved glory.

Yaziva is so far away from the rest of the country that the loggers and farmers who have shorn most of the land surrounding the highway clean of anything round and tall haven’t completed clearing all the jungle near the terminal town. But the loggers are getting close. Just a few wiggles of the bench later, we eased past open cattle ranches.

Even the jungle of the distant mountains, miles away from the roadway, had been converted to pasture. Some of the slopes rose so sharply, I wondered if the grazing cows had to wear crampons just so someone could enjoy a filet mignon, just about the only cut of a Panamanian-raised cow not normally requiring a meat grinder to attain edibility.

At least the animals were getting their exercise. In the end, however, the destruction of the habitats of hundreds of tropical birds, reptiles, animals, insects, and plants has only resulted in producing chewy steak — perhaps nature is laughing last after all.

Neither the bouncing of the rear axle nor the roving bench prevented a mother across from me from opening a bottle of Squirt soda, filling a baby bottle with it, and promptly serving it to the infant straddling her thigh. The baby, wearing nothing but a diaper and a bumpy rash on his neck, slurped down the soda without losing a drop to the vehicle’s convulsions. Lucky mother — the chiva must have burped the baby for her.

Since the tarpaulin only covered the top and sides of the cabin, the open front and back allowed in anything the highway decided to send our way. When a vehicle passed, shooting a jet of fresh dust under the tarpaulin, everyone in the chiva instinctively tucked in helpless grimaces.

Like the spreading of an unchecked disease, the dust of the dirtway painted everything within 20 feet of it with its pale auburn likeness — fence posts, leaves of palm trees, grazing cows, everything.

The dryness of the road proved pestering, but I was fortunate the rainy season had not yet begun. If it had, the daily afternoon drenchings, according to Yavizans, turn this part of the highway into a sludge monster, passable to only the most talented chiva driver. The much heavier and less nimble diablos rojos often become stuck up to their axles in the mud.

A straw-hatted passenger rapped on the roof of the cab — the chiva equivalent of “it’s my stop.” Each side of the roof donned a shallow, fist-sized indentation, the hallmark of a well-used chiva. At the same stop, a few saddle-faced farmers climbed aboard with their machetes, and another hoisted a tank of kerosene into the pickup bed. Knees bent with innovative topology to accommodate.

The coveted passenger seat inside the pickup cab, reserved apparently for either mobility-restricted grandmothers or comely young ladies, acquired a passenger fitting an appropriate criterion of the latter variety. We lost a little off our pace until she was delivered a mile down the road.

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But she mattered not compared to our regular yielding for crossing caravans of dogs, oblivious chickens, goats, and frogs the size of softballs. Freshly cut spoils of loggers lay along the side of the road, sometimes spilling onto it, providing additional fodder for brake pads amid the concrete churches and saddle repair shops on a stretch of farmland that, just 25 years prior, was a canopied jungle.

The mother was sitting near the pickup’s back door. Atop her lap, a pudgy leg of her infant flopped over the open edge. As the mother gripped the infant with one hand and the bottle of Squirt in the other, the baby appeared to be one savage bump away from becoming the load that fell off the truck.

When the frogs gave us the right of way, the driver demonstrated his prowess for clinging to the dirt at ample velocity (a grandmother was sitting in the front passenger seat, nonetheless). A mob of rocks perturbed by the pickup’s tires attacked the vehicle’s underbelly with a chorus of pings, lushly fitful, a hailstorm from the ground up.

Inter-passenger chatter relied on quick bursts of yelling, usually something like “are you all right?” followed by levity-reassuring laughter. The remains of the suspension system sent the passengers — 12 of us now — up against the support beams of the tarpaulin, as the beams flaunted talent for finding the tender meat between one’s spinal discs.

Meanwhile, the baby, a wiggling jelly puppet, had employed its own defense system against the inclement environment: a nap. It was enough to make a grown man envious. Just how can babies do that?

After a fellow passenger knocked on the roof for the mother, she safely climbed out of the pickup, losing neither the baby nor the bottle of Squirt from her clench worthy of a rugby player.

The path swelled wide enough for two lanes, save the occasional stretch where a landslide had dispensed with half the road. A stop sign, impaling the middle of the highway itself, failed to delay our chiva, the driver actually speeding up at the sign of red.

The pebble ensemble responded by improvising a crescendo, as the piercing smell of slash-and-burn farming — the official scent of the Panamanian countryside — swam through the chiva.

With a few newly acquired, 50-pound bags of rice as ballast, the driver finished delivering his passengers and cargo, dusty but intact, to the cowboy town of Metetí, his last stop. We only traveled 30 miles, but the chiva—part bus, part grain silo, part baby-burper—had bucked me two and a half hours closer to the capital.

From the earthen lot doubling as the drop-off point, an unmarked pickup passed me and bounced back towards Yaviza. A few farmers stood vigilantly in the back. Their 4×4 being just a regular, private truck, it sported neither a tarpaulin nor benches. Second-class travel, I tell you.

Excerpted from Is There a Hole in the Boat?: Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, by Darrin DuFord.

Read more GoNOMAD stories by Darrin DuFord:

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Beyond a Shadow of a Snout: A Saturday in Otavalo, Ecuador