A Cross-Continent, 70-Mile Trek
by Charles Shirley

August 1998

As many years as I have been in Panama I never seemed to have enough time to complete one of my goals - crossing the Jungles of Panama from the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea.

Here I am living in a country with one of the most important, yet unknown, trails in the hemisphere - "Camino de Cruce." This trail stretches from Nombre de Dios and Portobello to Panama City, some 70 miles in distance, but the trail itself has very few straight or flat areas. Waiting on the banks of Madden Lake overlooking calm waters with just a little smoke rising from cooking fires, I could only imagine what it was like over 400 years ago when the Spaniards crossed wearing their customary wargear of the era, pushing and pulling horses, mules, and slaves through double canopy jungle fighting all manner of insects, thirst, hunger, and fear.

My adventure began at the village of Pararu Paru, a Choco Indian village situated on Madden Lake. The village is more or less centered between beginning and end of the walk. I was escorted by good friends Win Rice and Ivan Herrera, who had already walked the trail once and was a great source of information. Ivan had to borrow a local dugout canoe to go to the village and find our transportation across the Madden Lake to our drop off point some three hours away. He returned within thirty minutes with Tonio, the village chief, towing him. We loaded our gear onboard and headed off across the lake with a cooling breeze blowing our already sweating bodies dry.

During our ride we observed several common activities of the lake - peacock bass schooling and chasing smaller pray, turtle getting the first rays of sun, small caiman lazily sunning on the banks, birds of pray clutching just caught fish. Meanwhile, we were continually scooping water out of the boat - just part of the adventure. We rode as far up Rio Boqueron as possible and exited the boat next to a dirt road, rucked up and started our warm-up walk to our first rest area.

At this point we picked up a horse and our guide Juan a 59 year-old Panamanian farmer who knew the way across to Nombre de Dios. We gladly placed our rucks on the horses back, grabbed some walking sticks and began the second part of our walk to the next drop off point read "point of no return", this is where the horses can't go any farther and if you have already had enough walking on trail/jungle road you turn around here also.

On this four or so hour walk I had a lot of time to really enjoy some much needed freedom from the office. The jungle can be so relaxing on one extreme and so humbling. We already were at least a day from any cell phone, beeper, PC, email, cars, smell of the city, the typical hustle and bustle of modern life, and I wouldn't have it any other way. We were in an area where day to day living consists of fishing, or growing what one needs to survive. Out here the horse is the mode of transportation in and out.

We encountered a sack of meat laying on the side of the road. Questioning Juan, he said one of the locals carried it as far as he could from the city and left it there and would probably return with family to recover the meat. Here we were in an area with no cars, no refrigerator, no cooler with ice. We hadn't seen anyone ahead of us the entire route. Who knows how long this meat had been cooling off in the shade of the jungle? Juan took the sack and we continued on about an hour farther we came upon a shanty and mentioned the sack to the occupants and they stated it was theirs, so much for fresh meat. We continued uneventfully to the point of no return, left the horse for Juan's son to recover. We crossed our first of many streams into what I considered my toughest, most challenging two days on this earth.

I'm 39 years old; Win 51, Ivan 52, Juan 59. I thought I was in reasonable shape not superman but maybe his Clark Kent side, how wrong could I be, I rucked, Army for hiked 12 miles in under two and a half hours, never a blister. My god! What did I get myself into, we paralleled the river for a short while going up, down and through some of stuff I only read about, it was getting close to dark and in the jungle it doesn't fade out it just gets plain black. We started looking for a good spot to setup for the night, hell! I was ready to stop anywhere, just to get this trailer off my back.

We found a suitable spot in-between two slow running rivers on a sand spit, dropped gear and began camp setup. I brought along a mat, poncho liner (yes, it does get cold in the jungle) mosquito net, and a change of clothes to sleep in dry, all of us had our own personnel gear. We made coffee, ate our rations and settled in for the night, I did the old bath in the river thing, nothing like little fish biting your butt to make you hurry along. This is where I found out I had some interesting blisters on my feet, and I had a decision to make - go on or follow the river to civilization, I decided nothing short of something broke would cause me to turn around, and knowing what hell I would take from my older counterparts, pride kicked in. I made mention of the blisters doctored them as best as I could, and slept like a baby. Prior to dozing of you can't help but here all manner of night life, bats swishing by, birds settling in, ground animals moving about, ants moving, your buddies complaining of every ache and new pain in parts of the body that haven't been felt in years.

Ah! civilization never seemed so far away. Morning came too quick. We packed put on our clothes from the previous day. Yes! Still wet, and we marched on. We had a time line to meet and had to be in Nombre de Dios by the end of the day or spend another night in the jungle. Our trip was for pleasure and business, Win is CEO and president of Panama Discovery Tours and Ivan is for lack of a better term his Panamanian right hand man. As I told Ivan the night before, "I would walk with him anywhere."

This day we had to cross some 25 kilometers through not trail marked double canopy jungle and either over or on the side of Cerro Bruja over 900 meters high. Our GPS couldn't punch through the jungle canopy to get a fix, so Juan was it, our guide to the other side.

We continued on seeing no evidence of man for hours and then coming across some old railroad tracks Juan had said were over 80 years old when there was a magnesium mine in operation. This track was to help guide us on part of our journey, but by no means could we walk on these tracks it was either over or beside them.

In actuality we couldn't walk the entire Camino de Cruces. It just wasn't there for us to see, having fallen inro disrepair. After the Panama canal railroad was built, the trail came into hard times. The trail not well traveled in most areas because of the jungle overgrowth. However, you can walk many parts of the trail from Panama City in and around Madden Lake, and some in Portobello and Nombre de Dios.By the way, the wet weather route branches off and goes to the Chagres River where the Spaniards boarded river craft and push/pulled themselves to the entrance/exit on the Caribbean side next to Ft. San Lorenzo near Colon City The train has immense historical significance - this is where Captain Morgan trod. President Grant, then a young officer walked here. The gold that was looted from South America made its journey make to Spain across this path. Countless numbers of people crossed the continent on this trail for over 400 years.

To experience part of the trail doesn't require tremendous hiking skills. Old Panama City has the beginning or the end of this trail in good shape. It's well-maintained around the church ruins. Once you venture further, it becomes a blur. There are no markers and the undergrowth has literally shifted the stone trail. Personally, I have been interested in finding crosses inlaid on the trail by Spanish slaves, they are suppose to be placed on the trail throughout, but as yet I haven't seen any evidence so. If you want to explore part of this trail, come on down and let me take guide you on a short and beautiful walk across Panama.The best time to make any jungle trek is during the season - from December through March - when there is less chance of flash floods and better footing.

Charles Shirley is a veteran of the U.S. Army and resides in Panama where he and wife Shirley run Shirley Eco Tours. He can be reached via email: or by phone: (507) 613-8223; fax: (507) 434-0428.

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