15.06.2011 28 °C
I had heard many times before of the famous waterfall called Salto Dorado, hidden deep in the jungle outside of Cerro Esperanza, inside of the Palo Seco national park in the Indian reservation called the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé. But hardly anyone I knew had actually seen it. Only one friend of mine had been there, a former Peace Corps volunteer who served in Cerro Esperanza and has since gone back to the States. She called it the “Angel Falls of Bocas del Toro.” So when my Andrew asked me to join him on a mission to find this legendary waterfall, I jumped at the opportunity.
Five of us piled into the car – Andrew, myself, and three of the guests at the Lost and Found hostel www.lostandfoundhostel.com , the hostel is located in the cloud forests of the Fortuna Forest Reserve in the mountains of Chiriquí. Their names were John, Amy and Shawn. An hour later we had crossed over the cordillera and were in the province of Bocas del Toro. We left the vehicle in a small clearing in steamy stretch of jungle near the Río Esperanza and started up the trailhead which I had been told led to Cerro Esperanza. Only five minutes in we came across a giant volcanic boulder in the river marked with ancient Indian petroglyphs, symbols carved into the stone. Some were obviously animals, but others were more mysterious. An expert on the Indians in the region had once told me that the river had three sites of such carvings, spaced three kilometers apart, all facing the southern bank of the river. The Indians who carved them pre-date the Ngäbe Indians that currently occupy the banks of the Río Esperanza, and their identity, as well as the purpose of the carvings, remain a mystery.
The jungle here differed from the cool montane cloud forest around the Lost and Found- here the trees were massive, with broad dripping leaves and roped with strong woody vines. We saw a species of tree that actually walks up to a meter a year, and during the first ten minutes of walking we had already seen a sloth and a keel-billed toucan. The sound of insects and jungle frogs permeated the air.
We soon arrived to a fork in the path, with one crossing a simple bridge and the other climbing steeply up a hill on the left. We chose the path heading up the hill, because I had heard that Cerro Esperanza was on a high hilltop. Later we regretted this decision, as we walked steeply uphill for an hour on the wrong trail. We passed through banana and peach palm groves and forest before reaching a Ngäbe settlement of a few thatched huts built on posts above the ground, with no walls. The women there told us we were on the right path, but then we were corrected by a man who said to our dismay we would have to go all the way back down to the beginning! I’m not sure why the women lied to us- I think it was because they knew we were searching for the waterfall and didn’t want to disappoint us. The Ngäbes have an interesting concept of truth- it isn’t based on facts but on what they think you want to hear. Fortunately, the way back downhill was quite easy, and we flew down in only twenty minutes. And we did see some beautiful things, including a massive tree laden with dozens of hanging nests, marvels of nature constructed by the oropendula bird.
We took the other path along the river, and soon this path began to climb steeply as well. Here we left the dense jungle and passed through cacao and peach palm groves. We saw plenty of pineapples as well. The trail went up and up – Andrew and the rest were really struggling. I was bathed in sweat myself, but I have a lot of mountain hiking experience, so I soon pulled ahead. I wanted to be the first to arrive in the village so that I could announce our arrival without alarming the Indians. I speak some of the Ngäbere language, which always helps me in these situations.
I arrived in Cerro Esperanza a full half hour before the others. I was in awe of what I saw. The village was comprised of a concrete school, a couple of dozen thatch and zinc roof huts that occupied one towering hilltop. The view opened eastward to the Caribbean Sea- I must have climbed 500 meters, because I felt I was on the top of the world. Everything was spread out before me in a spectacular panoramic vista- I could see the Peninsula Valiente, more than fifty miles away. The mountains continued up to the west, and to the north and south extended a verdant green carpet of rugged jungle. If only I could have been there at sunrise!
I was in luck- the villagers were already having a meeting in their communal house, so they were all in one place. They had seen me arrived, so they stopped their meeting and stared at me. I took advantage of their attention and did the same gimmick I had done a hundred times before when I was in the Peace Corps. I marched up to the communal house and in Ngäbere announced to everyone present my name, that I was a friend of Chevi, their old Peace Corps volunteer, and our purpose for coming, along with a few formal niceties. Then I switched to Spanish, requesting their help in visiting the waterfall and delivering some personal messages that the ex-volunteer had asked me to deliver. While the men conferred, the women offered me some food- rice with boiled green bananas and a tuber called dachín. Bland, but a much-needed energy boost.
When Andrew and the others arrived, the villagers had already assembled an ad-hoc “tourism committee” and we haggled for a guide to take us to see the waterfall. After reaching an agreeable price, we walked through the village toward the jungle. Women stared at us from their huts, but the children, less reserved and shy than their parents, followed us, shouting and laughing, in a troupe to the village’s edge.
Although we had requested only one guide, four men accompanied us. We walked for more than an hour down a narrow trail through a combination of boulder strewn rainforest and banana groves. Here I felt that we were really entering a vast wilderness- we would occasionally climb commanding hilltops, and see nothing but mysterious dark jungle below us. To the west there was literally nothing but rainforest covered mountains, the vast expanse of the La Amistad International Forest which stretches well across the border into Costa Rica. We walked and walked until finally our guides all stopped to confer. Then they turned off the trail and began to hack through the wilderness with their machetes. They told us that the trail to the Salto Dorado was no longer there! Apparently our guides were not sure how to get there. But we followed them, slapping away vines and avoiding thorns as they bushwhacked a trail through the jungle. We crossed a clear brook and then began to descend steeply.
We were about to give up when we heard it, first as an ominous rumble and then as a booming roar. All of a sudden, the thick foliage came to an abrupt end and we found ourselves peering over a sheer precipice. More than thirty meters below us we could see a dark pool of foaming water, churned by a white curtain of water right before our eyes. The waterfall was right in front of us- we had arrived at the very top. Every second, thousands of gallons of water poured from the headwater of the Río Esperanza and fell to the bottom of a long, narrow canyon. Vines and tree branches extended over the edges, and hundreds of smaller waterfalls poured over the sides. Everywhere there was sparkling water and lush flora disappearing into the darkness. The sun had begun to set in the west, and the lighting was perfect- I felt that we had stepped into a primeval world from Jurassic Park or National Geographic. We all just stopped and stared, awestruck by the incredible view.
We insisted on going to the bottom of the canyon, so after refilling our water bottles from a crystalline stream going over the cliff, our guides took us down the steep and slippery path to the point where the cliffs ended, the opening of the canyon. We were a good 300 meters from the waterfall, but we had to get closer. We stripped to our underwear and began to swim up the canyon. Our guides, excited by our enthusiasm, followed suit. The water was deep and cold, but immensely refreshing after our long, sweaty journey. We tried to swim as close as we could. Amy had brought a waterproof camera, and finally the moment had arrived to justify its existence. But as we swam under the cascading mini-waterfalls that poured over the cliff sides to the monstrous Salto Dorado at the end of the canyon, the water became choppy and treacherous, like the sea on a stormy night. The imposing cliffs blocked the sun and the canyon became dark and foreboding. The waterfall was massive enough to create its own wind, which whipped through the canyon churned the water. Swallows darted from their cliff side nests and road the draft though the canyon, zinging over our heads. Behind us, the opening of the canyon seemed to be a beckoning beacon of light, away from this chaotic, watery furnace. We didn’t dare to swim under the actual waterfall – the force of the falling water would have sucked us under in a vortex and crushed us at the bottom. But we got as close as we could. It was like we had discovered on of the few really secret places in the world. We had discovered Salto Dorado, the Angel Falls of Bocas del Toro.
The sun was waning when we left, and we had to hurry back as fast as we could to the village. Our guides got lost again and we were delayed. At the village even more children ran out to greet us on our return, and the cute photo ops delayed us even more. By the time we got back down the massive hill and passed through the forest to the car, it was night. We were all exhausted, and Andrew and Amy, who had hardly eaten anything during the day, were almost ready to pass out. Including the time we were lost, we hiked a total of eight hours. But we all knew it was worth it, that the hardships somehow added to the experience of seeing one of Panama’s hidden diamonds.
If you are interested in following in my footsteps on an adventure such as this check out the Lost and Found Eco-hostel and Adventure Tours www.lostandfoundlodge.com