The Darien Jungle and the Wounaan

Darien is the easternmost province of Panama; it is a remote, roadless swath of jungle on the border of Panama and Colombia. The area is heavily forested and undeveloped and known as a drug smuggling corridor between the two countries, it’s rarely seen by outsiders. The Darien has an almost mythical quality to it — a mysterious land full of exotic plants, rare wildlife, indigenous people, and dangerous paramilitary groups. Largely untouched by the modern world, the Darien is one of the least visited places on the planet.


After our San Blas adventure we headed south to Darien on the Pan American Highway, 6 hours in bus. Loud latin music eventually send us to sleep in the heavy airconditioned bus. In Agua Fría we had to disembark and go through a police check point. Because of it’s proximity to Colombia, frequent weapon smuggling and drug trafficking. Everyone going in and out of Darien these days is registered and all luggage checked. Since the police check points were set up recently, the area has become safer. It’s described as the last frontier. The Panamanian highway stops, shortly after Metetí, which was our stop.  The wilderness that follows where the Panamericana stops before it starts again in Colombia is known as the Darién Gap. 


It is illegal to venture out into the jungle as a tourist without a guide. I did extensive research and picked our guide with great care. I wanted a genuine experience, I wanted to go deep into the jungle to an inaccessible village for an authentic stay with an indian tribe. I picked Michel, a Frenchman that has lived in Panama and worked in the Darien for over 40 years and who is running Panama Exotic Adventures.

We only had three nights to spend and wanted to pack as much as possible into those days. We arrived in Metetí in the afternoon and were picked up by Oscar from Filo del Tallo. We were taken up to the lodge, a cluster of 5 staw houses sitting on a hill with views of jungle and mountains. Janiza served us some food; omelette and spaghetti with a sauce that would be come my dad’s favourite and our trusted companion in the jungle over the next few days. We waited for Michel, the Frenchman. He returned exhausted and on foot from a small Kuna mountain village, deep in the jungle. He had been the first non indian to be invited to the village and the first tour operator to be granted permission to take tourists to the village and all the way to the border of Colombia. He took time to share some Añejo with us and kept us company over dinner.



We got up early the next morning and set off while it was still dark. Hammocks, tents, water and food was loaded onto the truck. We offloaded the truck at Puerto Kimba and waited for our boat. To Michel’s annoyance the boat was late. As the sun came up the boat arrived and we drove on the river into the Gulfo de San Michel and watched the sun rise and past La Palma and out into the Pacific. The journey took about three hours and we arrived in the small village of Taimati. A village of mainly latino people, extremely remote, only accessible by boat. To the west is the Pacific and to all other sides – the thick jungle.


In Taimati Michel hired two horses to carry the food and the water. We set off on foot to our destination village of Semaco. Then, there it was. A Wouunan village. No other tourists. Just us. For two whole days. It was amazing to watch, observe and take part in village life. I relished every minute of it.


It was extremely hot as we walked into the village. Michel and his guides had been here a few times before and were greeted lovingly. The women and children were sat doing beadwork in the shade of the comunal. A concrete, tin and wood structure in the middle of the village. The women showed us their intricate and beautiful necklaces and bracelets that they were making.


The village chief was not precent so the stand-in village chief greated us in his place and offered us to stay in a stilt house. The owner was away working somewhere else for a few weeks and we were invited to stay in his house. It was a simple square wooden structure with a straw roof and open walls. It had a tiny little plank table and two stools. A jungle branch served as wardrobe for all clothly posessions left behind; a shirt, a pair of underpants, some trousers. There was a tap of wich came no water and a sink. Some plastic plates and cups, water purify saches, an aluminum pot. And a hammock.


We sat in the shade of the house and took our walking boots off. The horses were offloaded and we hung another hammock. As I brought out my camera my eyes locked with a little girl’s, across the street. A tiny little thing with pink skirt and a lovely bead necklace. I took some photos of her and she walked up to me, climbed up onto the steep wooden ladder into our house and from then on she didn’t leave my side for two days. This was Lucy. Lovely little Lucy. More curious children joined her, pulled me down the stairs and started dancing with me. Some more children came home from school and joined in. Soon I had six little children that kept asking me to take them to the river for a swim.


It’s not the done thing to take six children that you have just met to the river and I kept telling them to go ask their mothers but they didn’t understand the question. The mothers were no where to be seen. I can only assume that they were not in the habit to ask permission for anything, they were used to roam freely. So I took them to the river. To get there we had to climb down a steep wet mud bank. Two of the children were under two years old. I was wondering what I had gotten myself into, I couldn’t let anyone be hurt. With a child under each arm I made my way down to what was left of the river. It hadn’t rained in over three months. We swam in our clothes, the two littlest clinging to my hips. We splashed about until the grown ups called us; they had all known where we were all along. It was time to make the ink for the temporary tattoos. Someone had gone into the jungle to chop down some jagua fruit and now they were ready to show us how the ink was made.


Seledonia, the stand-in chief, invited us into the house of Ersilia Penja, one of his daughters. Four women set to work chopping and grating the jagua fruit. Once ground to a pulp it was mixed with water and boiled, then strained. This took four hours. Quite a crowd gathered. Special pens were made from bamboo. Children were fed and took naps on the floor amongst all this going on.


We watched the women paint each other in symbolic patterns. Milsa, known for her painting skills, was amazingly talented and laughed so much when she saw the “beard” all over my dad’s upper body. -Everyone look, this man’s got a beard, ALL over his body! She painted a huge butterfly on my dad’s back.

I had a go and “tattooing” the children and some of the adults too and got my hands covered in the back ink. It’s quite faint on the first day and the next morning after oxidation it’s black and lasts for about 2 weeks.


We talked and laughed. The women asked about my dad, why was he divorced from my mother? Had he been unfaithful to her? Found a younger wife? Or had my mum found a richer man? What that why? Their roaring laughter made the little stilt house move.

The day after the painting, the family were ready to preform. Everyone dressed up in traditional clothes. Seledonia plaid the flute and the women of the family, as well as Lucy, danced their ceremonial dances for us.


During our stay, Ersilia Penja and her sister, Lucy’s momma, prepared the most delicious food. Fish from the river, lentils, grilled meat and rice. We did a  jungle trek with Seledonia as our guide, walked through secondary jungle to primary jungle and learned about medicinal plants. For snack we picked fruit and nuts along the way. wounaan_girl_jagua_hands

The Wounaan have their own language but speak Spanish as well. No one smoked. No one drank other than at special celebrations when they made chicha from sugar canes.


I was told that in rare cases of domestic abuse or violence, the villagers only interfered if the woman was outside the house, in that case they would grab her and take her away into another house where she would stay for a week before returning home, as punishment for the man. But if she was inside her house whilst the fight went on, the rule was that no one could interfere. There were about 400 people living in Semaco and there was an extraordinary amount of young children running around. The school was so over subscribed that they had to make two shifts; kids either went to morning school or afternoon school. Women had children very young; I chatted to one 20 year old girl, she was breastfeeding her 4th child. It was not uncommon to have your first child as young as 14, or even younger.lucy_wounaan_village_darien

Seledonia explained that on the rare occasions they had visitors, each family took turns to look after them. This time it had been the Penja’s turn, so they would get to keep the money and also give some to the communal pot. Next time it would be a different family. They charged for cooking each meal, performing the dance, making the jagua. How much I never knew as this went through the Frenchman. I would love to go and visit the Penjas again, bring my kids and stay longer. Much longer.


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