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Backpacking across Panama on the TransPanama Trail

Updated on June 3, 2012

TransPanama Trail

The TransPanama Trail is a new long-distance hiking trail across the length of Panama from Columbia to Costa Rica. Hike from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean - almost anyone can do it using the narrow isthmus of Panama. Panama is a short flight from the USA - easily accessible. And it's safe and welcoming to tourists. Now you can use it as a destination for long-distance hiking also.

Rick Morales â the first TransPanama Trail thru-hiker.
Rick Morales â the first TransPanama Trail thru-hiker.

The First Thu-Hike

Every long hiking trail begins with one person's dream, followed by the ceaseless labor of a small group of volunteers. To become reality, that small group must grow into an army of volunteers. It sounds impossible, but it has been done. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail are two examples in the USA. You can hike the Coast to Coast Trail across England, and the Trans Canada Trail is in the works, spanning the width of Canada.

The vision and the labor of building a long trail are well underway in the small Central American country of Panama. A small team of volunteers is dreaming of building a trail from Columbia in the east, lengthwise to Costa Rica in the west - the TransPanama Trail.

The western half opened to hikers in June 2009. It spans mountainous regions with gorgeous scenery. Maps and photos can be found at www.transpanama.org.

Now, to begin mapping the eastern half, Rick Morales has set out on the first ever TransPanama Trail thru-hike, beginning at the Columbia border. Others will join him for sections. Rick left from the Colombian border on June 26, 2011 and plans to take 3 months to hike the 800 KM to Costa Rica. His journey is being documented on the blog: http://teamtranspanama.blogspot.com. A digitized SPOT track of the journey is at www.transpanama.org/en/envivo.

A branch of the TransPanama Trail will leave Panama City in the center of the country and veer toward the Caribbean Sea, following the Camino Real, a route developed in the 1400s by the Spanish to carry their pillaged gold and silver across to their galley ships. But, that's an endeavor for the future. Right now, Rick and the other volunteers are focusing on the lengthwise route.

Of course, as with any trail building endeavor, the Panamanians have to deal with land rights issues. It's never an easy or quick process. In Panama there are regions that are populated by indigenous tribes such as the Kuna and Embera. Part of the lure of hiking the TransPanama Trail will be the cultural experience of hiking through indigenous communities. In return, low impact tourism will help these communities remain self-sustaining.

Other allures will be the varied scenery, including views to the Pacific Ocean, plentiful crystal clear streams and waterfalls, and hiking through the tropics with its unique vegetation and animals.

As the first thru-hiker, Rick Morales is a true pioneer in the spirit of people such as Earl Shaffer (AT) and Eric Ryback (PCT). He is building a legacy that those of us who enjoy long-distance hiking will benefit from in years to come.

Map of the Camino Real & Camino de Cruces Routes
Map of the Camino Real & Camino de Cruces Routes

Hiking the Camino Real in Panama

Trains and hiking - our two loves. That's what drew us to the Camino Real Trek in Panama hosted by Ancon Expeditions. The description sounded fun and challenging, and the trip certainly didn't disappoint us.

(Click in the links below to view this story will a full complement of photos & a video)

We started in Panama City where guide extraordinaire Rick Morales took a small band of 6 of us to a museum and then to tour the ruins of Old Panama City to get a solid foundation in the history of the area we would be experiencing. Then we headed by small van to the end of a dirt road at the Chagres River. Here, we piled into long dug-out canoes powered by motors and screamed up the river with water flying. We turned onto a smaller river and headed upstream as the current became stronger and stronger. At the first set of small rapids, two Panamanians appeared from the riverside with long poles. They stood in the bow and helped push us through rapids. At times pole men and engine men from each canoe all got in the water and together the four pushed a canoe up the rapids against the strong current.

Our destination was an Embera village. Thankfully there was no commercialism or "show" for the tourists. The Embera people went about their daily lives and welcomed us with smiles and warm greetings. We took over one of their homes for the evening - a platform on stilts with a metal roof, and outer walls only partially around the exterior. For dinner, two Embera women cooked us a delicious dinner of chicken, rice, and fried plantains over an open fire. We swam in the river, explored the village, and watched a soccer match.

The next day 9 of the Embera men became our porters and another led us into the jungle with machete in hand. The first day our path was a muddy trail through the jungle. We followed paths that the indigenous people use to travel between villages and single dwellings. For the next 4 days we hiked through the jungle, sometimes on trails, sometimes through a swath the Embera guide cleared for us. We went steeply up and steeply down, crossed sharp gullies and balanced on slippery rocks. We sloshed across rivers and creeks at their shallow points repeatedly each day. Hiking poles were a must.

A special treat was that we became used to swimming during most breaks and at the end of the day by finding a deep pool of water and swimming - fully clothed, including our boots. Clothes dried quickly as we hiked and being wet kept us cool as we climbed mountains and traversed streams. Hiking this way was new to us but it was thoroughly enjoyable.

As we hiked our guides and porters stopped often to point out animals, plants, and insects. Rick particularly had an extensive knowledge of the local flora & fauna which he shared with us. We saw a sloth, several venomous and non-venomous snakes, poison dart frogs, and panther tracks, to name just a few. I commented on how most of the flowers in the green jungle were red.

For a while we followed the remains of an old railroad that was built by the French in the first attempt to build the Panama Canal. It was then used in manganese mining. Erosion has left the rails hanging over gullies, washed down streams or propped high in the air by tree roots.

The previous December, Panama had massive rains and floods, so we routed around and traversed a multitude of fresh land slides.

The guides were amazing in their ability to locate historical remnants of the Camino Real. This was a cobble road built by the Spanish in the 1500s to transport the gold & silver they plundered in South America by mule cart across the isthmus to their waiting ships. We saw cobbles laid in neat rows, steps chiseled into stone beside waterfalls and trenches cut in the earth by mules and their carts. All of these spread out in a vast jungle that had tried hard to erase all evidence of history.

Each night the porters set up a camp for us with tarps as floors and roofs and hung ropes across to support our net tents. Evening only cooled off a bit, so we stayed comfortable with only a sheet for cover. We'd fall asleep as dark fell at 7PM to the sound of the porters talking and sharing jokes under their tarp roof. It was nice knowing they enjoyed the trip too.

We lucked out with weather. It sprinkled a few times in the night but the only rain we had was on the day we reached Portobello on the Caribbean Seaside and stayed in a cute motel with lush vegetation and a fish theme. We toured the Fort Santiago ruins in Portobello and eat hearty restaurant meals, including tasting octopus for the first time.

Our final adventure was a ride on the train running parallel to the Panama Canal. We saw crocodiles swimming, spider monkeys, expanded locks being built and ships plying the canal.

We enjoyed a final feast of Panamanian food at a fancy tapas restaurant in Panama City and had to say farewell to our trekking companions.

This was a fun adventure of variety, history, and strenuous hiking. For anyone healthy enough to make the hike we strongly recommend they check out the Camino Real Trek by Ancon Expeditions.

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    • Expat Mamasita profile image

      Expat Mamasita 5 years ago from Slovakia

      Excellent lens. I have included it onto my Visit Central America lens