At the end of the road and into the jungle
13 – 22 July 2014
The Pan-American Highway starts to deteriorate in the town of Aguafría as you cross from Eastern Panamá Province into Darién Province. From the provincial border east you dodge pot holes, speed bumps and sleeping dogs for another hour or two. These are not just any ordinary pot holes though; some of them consume half the road, making driving on the wrong side of the road standard fare, and the smaller ones could still swallow your entire wheel if you are not careful. Driving this section of the Pan-American Highway is almost like playing a driving game at the arcade except this one comes with real time bumps and neck snapping thrill. The Pan-American Highway ends in Yaviza, a small, somewhat dingy port town approximately 60 miles from the Colombian border. The road literally just ends, that’s it, no more. If you want to travel from there you must get in a dugout canoe and travel by river.
The Darién has always been a mythical place for me, in part because of its remoteness but mostly because of the astounding diversity of amazing birds in the region and the immense amount of healthy, primary rainforest. More than 530 bird species have been reported in Darién National Park, which sits on 575,000 hectares, including Harpy Eagle, Crested Eagle, Choco Tinamou, five species of Macaw, Black-tipped Cotinga, Beautiful Treerunner, Pirre Warbler, Pirre Chlorospingus, Pirre Hummingbird, Tacarcuna Wood-Quail, Crimson-bellied Woodpecker, Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper, Dusky-backed Jacamar, Gray-cheeked Nunlet, Viridian Dacnis, and so many more tantalizing birds. Is your mouth watering yet? The list of possible birds goes on and on and there are a number of species that are either outright endemic to the Darién or are nearly impossible to find elsewhere. Unfortunately one of the best places to see a couple of these species, such as Dusky-backed Jacamar and Viridian Dacnis, is at Cana, which has been inaccessible for several years due to FARC activity in the area. With Cana now closed the most accessible area to visit if you want to get deeper in to the Darién is Pirre Station (otherwise known as Rancho Frio) in Darién National Park. Essentially, the only way to go to the park is with a guide. You of course could try to go on your own but you probably will not get past SENAFRONT (Panamá’s version of border patrol and national police) near Lake Bayano (116 miles from Yaviza). We hired Isaac Pizarro (email@example.com, 6907-8050 or 6242-5220). Isaac knows his way around the Darién better than just about anyone and nearly everyone knows him, so dealing with SENAFRONT permits and jumping through hoops at the park office are made easier but they still take time.
We made arrangements to meet Isaac in Yaviza bright and early, but arrived in Yaviza the afternoon before. We rolled into town just in time to join the locals for the World Cup final game, which was certainly a festive way to pass a Sunday afternoon in a town at the end of a road. We had far fewer than the 12+ beers that our tablemate enjoyed but still had a grand time! We were both so excited we could hardly sleep and were all packed up and ready to go at 6:00 am sharp. I was dying to get into the forest and start birding which could be why the next 8 hours felt like eternity. It took us nearly the entire day to get to the actual park. Paying our fees and getting our permits at the park office in Yaviza took us nearly 3 hours. Apparently the only person who could give us a permit was not working that day despite a full office of park employees. The copy machine was also out of order so we had to run around and get copies of our documents. By the time we had our permits in hand it was already mid-day and boats to El Real were less frequent which meant we had to wait another hour for a boat. You can hire a private boat for the better part of $185 (round trip) but why pay the extra when you can take a regular boat taxi for about $5-7 per person. The trip to El Real takes about 45 min and is pleasant and much needed break from the stifling heat and humidity. Finally we were on our way! On the way to El Real we spotted Capped and Cocoi Herons along the shores as we zipped along in our motorized dugout. We arrived in El Real starving so our first stop was the only restaurant in town for a quick bite to eat. We scarfed some lentils and rice, drank our last beer for the next six days, and headed to yet another SENAFRONT station to check in and get clearance to enter the park again. We waited around the station for 30 minutes or so, for what I’m still not exactly sure, but soon enough we were waived through and away we went. It is about 10 km from El Real to Pirre Uno and most people will elect to take a pickup instead of hiking with all the food and gear. We took a 4×4 truck to Pirre Uno, and then another km or so beyond that. The fee for this was $35 (we had been told $25). We were told the extra $10 was for the extra km. Either way, it’s highway robbery and we would highly recommend that anyone going negotiate the fee and not trust Isaac to have your best interest at heart. But at last we were on our way and started the 2.5 mile hike to Rancho Frio/Pirre Station. The places names in Darién National Park are confusing to say the least. The locals call the station Rancho Frio while others call it Pirre Station. George Angehr and his birdfinding guide state that originally Rancho Frio was the campsite halfway up Cerro Pirre, and Rancho Plastico was the campsite atop Cerro Pirre. These days, however, everyone else refers to Pirre Station as Rancho Frio, to the halfway camp as Rancho Plastico, and to the summit as Cerro Pirre.
As soon as we left the dirt road and finally entered the forest, I felt like we were entering the land of make believe. I could hardly believe that I was finally in Darién National Park and might, just might, be able to see a Harpy Eagle. Despite the oppressive late afternoon heat, the birding was actually quite good. Along the way we spotted Black-chested Jay, Russet-winged Schiffornis, Orange-crowned Oriole, White-tailed and Black-tailed Trogon, and had an amazing look at a Gray-cheeked Nunlet (see our complete list here). Wow!
We arrived at the station just as it was getting dark and quickly dropped our gear and tried to get settled in the bunkhouse. The bunkhouse and the station have both seen better days and accommodations are rustic at best. Well, honestly, they are pretty terrible. The bunkhouse is a hot stale cement house with several bunk beds sporting lovely antique, moldy mattresses without sheets. Very little air moves through the windows but there are plenty of gaps in the screens to allow mosquitos through J. If it wasn’t for the rain and our leaky tent I think I would have preferred to sleep outside, and if we ever return I think we will certainly come with more gear and just tent camp for our entire stay.
We were expecting the station to have both solar electricity and a stove but when we arrived we found out that the solar panels were not working and the stove doesn’t work and has been out of gas for months anyways and no one was going to bring more. It was a good thing we brought a small camp stove and a few little gas canisters as otherwise we would have been unable to cook. We cooked up a simple meal of pasta with the few fresh vegetables we brought and headed back to the bunkhouse to pack up our packs for the big hike up to Cerro Pirre the next morning.
Before heading up the hill we birded out around Rancho Frio to check on the Harpy Eagle and Crested Eagle nests which are nearby. Yes, I said that right a Harpy Eagle AND a Crested Eagle nest! We stopped by the monstrous cuipo tree where a pair of Harpy Eagles have been nesting for quite a few years first. We waited around for a while but no one was home, darn! I did not want to leave the tree but we needed to move on. When we arrived at the nest tree of the elusive Crested Eagle it seemed that no one was around either, drat! But right when we were about to leave I saw a massive bird fly up to the tree, holy $#!t a juvenile Crested Eagle! The thing was huge! It was way bigger than I expected and so absolutely stunning! Once Josh had gotten his fill of the eagle, he walked around the nest tree looking for just the right angle for pictures, eventually taking hundreds of shots of the Crested Eagle. Nothing short of amazing! On the way back to the station to pick up our gear we came across not one but three Crimson-bellied Woopeckers foraging in a family group. Josh has lusted after this bird since our first trip to Panamá, and we have spent the intervening years staring longingly at Woodpecker plates in neotropical field guides so seeing a family group of these guys, at close range, just moments after our lifer Crested Eagle was just spectacular!
Later down the trail Isaac spotted a Choco (Western) Sirystes, another bird we were looking forward to seeing. Early morning was fading into daytime heat and that meant that we needed to start hiking up to Rancho Plastico if we planned to get there before dark. We donned our packs, weighted down with three days of food and all of our gear, and hit the trail. It is true that I have not been backpacking in quite some time and this trip hasn’t exactly gotten me into shape, but man did my pack feel heavy and an hour later all of my clothes were soaking wet and I was dripping with sweat. It is more than just a little warm in the Darién! The heat plus the 90 plus percent humidity was definitely slowing me down. Thankfully there are just a few good birds around to take my mind off the stifling heat. Along the 6 or 7 or so mile walk from the station area to Rancho Plastico (base camp) we saw/heard 79 species and we were not even birding that hard because the hike and our backpacks were keeping us busy enough. At some points along the hike we could not even lift our binoculars because we were huffing and puffing up the hill. However the species we did manage to have enough energy to see were quite amazing; Yellow-eared Toucanet, Great Green Macaw, White-headed Wren, Scarlet-browed Tanager, Yellow-backed Tanager, Tody Motmot, Spot-crowned Barbet, Red-throated Caracara, Red-and-Green and Great Green Macaw, Black-crowned Antpitta, Blue Cotinga, Slate-colored Grosbeak (one of our nemesis birds, this was actually our lifer after more than six months birding in Central America!), Lemon-spectacled Tanager, Yellow-green Grosbeak, Great Jacamar, and more (complete eBird list here).
By the time we reached camp it was already starting to get dark and I was spent! All I wanted to do was rest for a bit, but we needed to get water for the next three days. So down the hill we (well they) went to the stream. The hike down to the stream is extremely steep and if you have any favors to cash in, I suggest cashing them in to avoid hiking down to get water. Josh and Isaac hauled up gallons of water while I worked on setting up camp. As dusk settled in we heard Marbled Wood-Quail, Tawny-faced Quail and Choco Tinamou all calling near camp, the Tawny-faced Quail actually fairly close. Josh briefly tried to round up lamps and binoculars and interested parties but it was getting too dark and we were too tired so his effort was short lived and we missed out on the closest we’ve ever been to that elusive species. Instead we cooked up a simple meal and crashed hard.
The next morning we had planned to hike all of our gear up to the summit on Cerro Pirre but given how much the hike just to Rancho Plastico had killed us we decided to hike up to Cerro Pirre and back to Rancho Plastico in one day. The hike up to Cerro Pirre, while shorter than the hike from Pirre to Plastico, is extremely steep and very muddy. The trail is called the strangler trail (for a reason) and much of your time is spent grabbing vegetation, roots, and rocks to make upward progress. Hauling up a loaded backpack did not sound fun at all! We were here to enjoy the birds after all.
We woke before the sun, scarfed down a quick breakfast and hit the trail. The first bit of the trail is pretty mellow but that does not last long, the trail quickly goes up and not just a gentle sloping up but really up! At certain points along the trail we both found ourselves practically on our hands and knees grabbing roots and trees to pull ourselves up the mountain. The bad part about grabbing roots and trees in the rainforest is that you never know what is lurking on the other side. Eyelash pit-vipers are known to slyly hang out on tree branches within your reach. Don’t worry no eyelash pit-vipers for us, but I did look at everything I grabbed (generally a good rule of thumb in the jungle). As soon as we gained a bit of elevation we slowed down a bit, ok, we were already going pretty slow but, we started to actually look for birds instead of focusing on dragging our butts up the mountain. The first new bird we heard was a Russet-crowned Quail-Dove. It was distant and muffled sounding and at first we tried to convince ourselves that it was an Olive-backed Quail-Dove, but after hearing more Quail-Doves calling closer to us it became clear that it was a Russet-crowned Quail-Dove and we were just being hopeful since we still have not managed to see a Olive-backed Quail-Dove. In fact, Russet-crowned Quail-Dove was surprisingly common on the hike up; we conservatively logged 8 but it could have easily been twice as many.
A bit further along we came across a giant fruiting tree and with it a huge flock of tanagers and others bouncing all over each other in a feeding frenzy; Gray-and-Gold Tanager, Black-and-Yellow Tanager, Sharpbill, Emerald Tanager, Pirre Chlorospingus, Lemon-spectacled Tanager, and more. Unfortunately the clouds that were swirling around us closed in quickly, obscuring our view. Though we could hardly see through the mist, we continued enjoying the amazing show. Suddenly, appearing out of nowhere, a Tooth-billed Hummingbird flew up close, hovered just long enough that we all managed to get on it before it disappeared into the mist again! Awesome! Right after the Tooth-billed Hummingbird flew off a Pirre Hummingbird flew in, danced around, posed a bit, and away it went. Two amazing hummingbirds within minutes!
At around 9:00 am we finally made it to the top, where the real work began. Here we had to keep our eyes peeled for all of the Pirre endemics and two other high elevation specialties because we had just this one chance to see them. Thankfully, the ridge line undulates only gently in comparison to the grind up the hill, and we could enjoy leisurely birding without huffing and puffing. The first bird that grabbed our attention was a bright and cheerful songster, the Sooty-headed Wren. Although not endemic to the Darién, it was a nice find and another new bird for us. We soon came across a group of Pirre Chlorospingus and this time got much better looks and photos, and were able to see the distinctive pale eye and darker crown. I never like it when I get an unsatisfying look so I was pretty happy to have seen this one better. Further along Josh spotted a hummingbird that we did not immediately recognize. It certainly didn’t look like anything we were familiar with, but it lacked the prominent white breast depicted for Greenish Puffleg in our Panamá field guide (G. Angehr and R. Dean). Josh took a bunch of photos, and kept commenting that it really looks like a Greenish Puffleg minus the white breast. The only thing we thought it could be was a Greenish Puffleg but due to the angle it was perched we could not see the distinctive white pufflegs. It was not until we returned to Metetí and could look at our photos and some photos online, that we realized that it was indeed a Greenish Puffleg and apparently the legs are not as obvious as the guide makes them out to be, nor is their such prominent white on the breast.
The morning started to fade away and we were doing pretty good on our targets but still needed to see the Pirre Warbler, Choco Tapaculo, Beautiful Treerunner (yeah, right), Green-naped Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, and Varied Solitaire. Particularly important in that list due to restricted range are the Warbler, the Treerunner, and the Tanager. We continued along the ridge and headed to the one spot where Isaac has seen the Beautiful Treerunner. This gorgeous, small furnarid, closely related to the Pearled Treerunner of the Andes, is somewhat of a mythical bird. There are no publically available recordings of the bird, very few photos, and it has a tiny range, apparently being local and either rare or at least quite uncommon on top of just a couple of mountains in eastern Panamá. Along the way to “the spot” we had caught up with and had great looks at Varied Solitaire and Orange-bellied Euphonia. As we got closer to the area we were on high alert when we found some activity. We spotted a couple Lineated Foliage-Gleaners that got our blood pumping. With mist closing in again but with the flock very close, we continued picking up a few new birds here and there and seeing the Foliage-Gleaners over and over, each time causing brief excitement. After several minutes, Josh blurted out that he had a Beautiful Treerunner. Really Josh, are you sure? “Yes, I’m sure, I saw it well!” Boy was he ever sure. It took a very stressful minute or two to find the bird again but there it was, we were all staring at a Beautiful Treerunner! Now the competition began between photographs and recording. Josh sneaked a couple of mediocre photos. We heard a new to us call coming from the flock that we presumed could be the Beautiful Treerunner’s call but we only heard the call twice and try as I might I could not get a recording. This little guy was kind enough to make a few peeps for us but I was always in the wrong spot or there was too much noise, unfortunately. Still, though, wow! How lucky I felt to have actually seen this bird. Apparently Isaac sees the Beautiful Treerunner now and again, in this one spot. George Angehr told us that he has only ever seen it twice, once on his first trip to Cerro Chucantí, and once on Pirre above Cana. Isaac has probably seen it more than anyone, but so much of the information that local guides have is never shared with the outside making it difficult to fully assess species distribution and status.
After the shock of the Beautiful Treerunner wore off we were on the hunt for our last three targets, Choco Tapaculo, Green-naped Tanager, and Pirre Warbler. We heard a Choco Tapaculo not far off and headed in that direction. We played the song once and heard nothing in response and figured that this shy little bugger was skulking around us, smirking at us from the understory. Standing silently, and all assuming that we weren’t going to lure this guy in, Josh saw something move a few feet from us and the little Choco Tapaculo came in completely silently. Not a word was uttered as he quietly moved closer, giving us all great looks no more than 1.5 meters in front of us, quite in the open. Soon enough he stuck himself back in the tangles and moved away, but was obliging enough to sing his epically long song so I pulled out the recording gear and waited for him to start again. Poised and ready I pressed record, but then I had to stand stone still and silent for the length of his 2-3 minute song. It’s harder than you might think, particularly with bugs buzzing in your face!
Mid-day had by now come and gone and we still had not found the Pirre Warbler, one that we had thought should be pretty easy. It was make it or break it time now, we need to track down the warbler. We were a bit anxious but soon enough we came across some twittering in the understory. Sure enough we found a group of Pirre Warblers, not the best looks but identifiable at least. Isaac went ahead of us and wanted Josh to hand him his camera or take photos before Josh had even gotten on the bird. He spent so much time trying to make us take photos that it actually prevented us from seeing the Pirre Warbler well. Isaac is often more focused on getting photos of birds instead of actually seeing and enjoying them. Frequently Isaac will ignore birds that are not the iconic or endemic species. Josh tried to tell him it wasn’t all about taking pictures but Isaac did not seem interested in listening.
We figured the Green-naped Tanager was kind of a long shot but we were still hopeful. Josh asked Isaac several times throughout the day about the Green-naped Tanager and he said that he sees it on the ridge from time to time. Later we were quite frustrated when Isaac told us that he saw a Green-naped Tanager on the ridge but never pointed it out to us, as he was off ahead of us. We were pretty miffed considering the number of times we told him that we were looking forward to seeing it. (Later, given the number of times he claimed to see Viridian Dacnis in a mixed flock through his completely broken binoculars, we were left unsure of whether he had really seen a Green-naped Tanager or not). The Green-naped Tanager has a really restricted range, occurring only on Cerro Pirre, Cerro Tacarcuna and the Serannía de Junguruda, so Cerro Pirre is pretty much our only chance to see it. Needless to say we were pretty bummed, but we should have been more on our toes. Isaac is a good trail guide, and is very good at spotting birds in the understory, but he is not necessarily a bird guide and he has no formal training. He knows many of the songs and soft calls (though not all of them correctly, be very wary of his heard only IDs), and can identify the endemic and frequently sought after birds in the area quite well, but he is not really interested in the other passerines. Several times Josh and I would find a mixed species flock and Isaac would be down the trail playing with his phone. Isaac was also frequently far ahead of us because we would stop to bird and he would just carry on. Not exactly the qualities of a bird guide, but if you put in the time to learn birdsongs on your own you will not have a problem finding the majority of the specialty birds. In the end we were satisfied with Isaac, though felt that he charges too much relative to his service. Moreover, though, we wish that he could have been more professional and courteous.
I thought the way up the mountain was hard, but I think going down was far more miserable, and just as slow. We climbed down slowly, being very careful not to fall because after all we were in the middle of nowhere, we were both carrying expensive equipment, and we’ve both already had knee surgeries! At some point going down, I grabbed a walking stick, which helped immensely. I wish I would have picked one up earlier in the day! We made it back to camp just before dark and cooked another simple meal and headed to bed. Josh and I debated for quite some time whether we should head back up the hill tomorrow for another shot at the Green-naped Tanager. In the end we decided that we should enjoy our time in this beautiful place rather than spend a second day doing that climb and descent, and instead let our chance of seeing the Green-naped Tanager go for another day. Perhaps Josh will talk me into an insane plan to climb Tacarcuna from Colombia, but don’t count on it.
Instead of climbing back up again, the next morning we birded around Rancho Plastico and had a fabulous day of birding. We were able to enjoy a ton of good birds without heavy packs and mostly without Isaac around as he was off playing with his phone almost the entire time. We had a great mixed species flock with Rufous-winged Antwren, Spot-crowned Antvireo, Slaty-winged Foliage-gleaner, Russet Antshrike, Buff-throated Foliage-gleaner, Stripe-cheeked Woodpecker, and so many more. We also had a couple of great tanager flocks with more Gray-and-Gold Tanagers, Sharpbill, Speckled Tanager, Scarlet-browed Tanager, and Lemon-spectacled Tanager.
We spent some time at the mirador, hoping for a Red-and-Green Macaw flyby. We heard many Macaws but the only ones we saw were Great-green Macaws. Arriving back at camp, we decided to head down to the stream to cool off and to look for the Sharp-tailed Streamcreeper that hangs around down there. This species is purportedly very rare in Panamá with only a couple of official records, but part of that has to do with how completely inaccessible the steep watercourses in ravines that it prefers are, and part of it has to do with underreporting as apparently this species is seen somewhat regularly below Rancho Plastico. Luck was with us that day and we soon found a pair of Sharp-tailed Streamcreepers! Pretty cute little bird that likes to hang out on the ground under dense foliage in dark ravines. But these guys can be difficult to see even when you are looking right at them. We thought that the white spotting on the breast was far less obvious and striking than illustrated, due in large part to the absurd lack of light in the understory down there. We celebrated this fantastic species with a much needed dip in the creek. Finally, I was able to cool down a little bit and stink a bit less! No worries, though, as you are guaranteed to sweat profusely climbing back up to camp! Back at Rancho Plastico, just as dusk arrived, at least five White-cheeked Nunbirds flew in and perched right above our tents. A fantastic way to end a really amazing day of birding (see our complete eBird list here).
The following morning, we started the hike back down to Pirre station in total darkness as weather obscured almost all of the morning light in the dark forest. The clouds came rolling through, with a storm in tow, making it a little eerie as we hiked down the trail. It rained lightly a few times and threatened worse but luckily we managed to dodge heavy rain. Needless to say we did not see too much until we got down, out of the clouds. We stopped for a bit of bird activity here and there, spotting White-necked Puffbird, Black-crowned Antpitta, Tody Motmot, Ocellated Antbird, and more (see our complete eBird list here). We also flushed, tracked down, and unfortunately flushed again, a solitary bird that was most certainly either a Marbled Wood-Quail or, based on size, more likely a Tawny-faced Quail. Bummer we didn’t get on it before it exploded away from us both times.
When we got back to the station, other guests reported having seen the Harpy Eagle in the morning. Wow! Maybe today would be the day! I’ve been dying to see a Harpy Eagle for quite some time now and have had reoccurring dreams about them for years. Fingers crossed, we headed back to the massive Cuipo tree and this time the juvenile Harpy Eagle was there! No way! I was jumping for joy, finally a Harpy Eagle. I was so excited and overjoyed to see it that I actually started crying. Yes, it’s true! There is even a video but I don’t think I will be sharing that. Harpy Eagles are huge and their legs are massive! Little known facts from the Peregrine Fund website state that Harpy Eagles rear talons are 3-4 inches long and their upper legs are as big as your wrist. With feet and legs like that they can readily take sloths and monkeys (their main prey items). We even found a bit of sloth fur below the nest tree. Harpy Eagles lay one or two eggs (although only one chick will hatch and survive), and care for the young at least two years after which they kick juvenile out of their territory and they begin anew. Some juvenile eagles, however, will hang out in their parents’ territory for 3 years or more. Harpy Eagles mate for life and can live 25-35 years although they do not reach sexual maturity until 5 years of age. We watched this juvenile for at least an hour, eating, preening, and just being. Wow, just wow! WOW! There is not much else you can say when you have the fortune to see a Harpy Eagle.
Not much could top our Harpy Eagle experience, but we were in the Darién and there were still birds to be found. Off we went to search for more birds along the Antenna trail where birding was of course none other than stellar. We finally had a fair look at Stripe-throated Wren (very common, very vocal, but as a furtive, arboreal wren, can be hard to actually see decently), Scarlet-browed Tanager, Golden-headed Manakin, Great Jacamar, Crimson-bellied Woopecker, and heard a Saffron-headed Parrot among others (complete eBird list here). We never managed to get a glimpse of the Saffron-headed Parrot, but we plan to track it down in Colombia. We eventually ended up on a ridge with good views of the forest below and a perfect spot to scan treetops. Isaac heard a Blue Cotinga calling in flight and within seconds it was perched right above our heads in amazing light. That blue is nothing short of stunning and no photo ever does it justice. The Blue Cotinga hung out and entertained us for a while, and we decided to rest a bit before heading back. Just as we got up to leave we saw a largish white bird atop a snag. Given the probabilities we initially assumed that it would be a Tityra, but it did look large to the naked eye. We moved a bit to get better light, picked up our bins and boom, that could not be anything other than a Black-tipped Cotinga! We continued shuffling around to get better light to verify our sighting and indeed we had a male Black-tipped Cotinga, another quite rare bird, particularly on the Panamá side of Pirre! Black-tipped Cotinga had of course been on our wish list but we never thought we would see it. Completely satisfied we headed back to the station for our final night at Rancho Frio.
The next morning we packed up our gear and tried to negotiate transport back to El Real. We arranged for one of the park guards, who was headed back to Pirre Uno, to take our gear out on his atv then meet us in Pirre Uno and continue back to El Real. We negotiated a price of $35. We hiked out to Pirre Uno, birding along the way without turning up anything new though we did have more nice looks at Choco (Western) Sirystes and other nice birds. Arriving at Pirre Uno, we intended to meet our gear and catch a ride back to El Real. Apparently the park guard changed his mind and did not want to go to El Real, despite having agreed to do so earlier. He now wanted $25 just for hauling our gear out. We paid him less and told him to take it or leave it. We would have been stuck in Pirre Uno or with a long walk to El Real but fortunately another truck was leaving for El Real and we were able to catch a ride back with them for a much smaller fee. Once back in El Real we headed back to the Doña Lola restaurant to enjoy some nice cold beers. Fortunately we had a bit of food of our own that we had hiked back out, as the cook was out of town, there was no running water, and there was not much going on around town beyond drinking beer (not sure it’s too different when the water is on and the cook is in town). But man were those beers refreshing in the 100 plus degree heat and we had a laundry list of amazing birds to cheers!
We wanted to bird around El Real for a day so Isaac arranged a place for us to stay for a nominal fee. (If you are overnighting in El Real, definitely stay in the private house he can arrange instead of the falling apart “hotel” in town, where the bathroom last worked in the early 90’s). In the morning we walked around the old air strip, searching for the last few specialty birds in the area. Birding the airstrip was easy and the birds came quick, Striped Cuckoo, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Large-billed Seed-Finch, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Greater Ani, and more (Complete eBird list here). Isaac told us that Spectacled Parrotlets are usually found feeding across from a little garbage dump which is just past the cemetery on the road that heads to the main dock. Just like he said, we found two Spectacled Parrotlets feeding in a fruit tree across from the garbage dump. These guys are tinier than I thought and are really easy to overlook, being perfectly leaf shaped and colored.
Completely satisfied with our time in the Darién, we headed to the dock to take the boat back to Yaviza. What an amazing trip! We saw some super incredible birds. The Darién truly is a magical place and I will never forget it. If you are planning a trip to the Darién, below are more detailed trip logistics.
Contact Isaac (firstname.lastname@example.org, 6907-8050 or 6242-5220) in advance to arrange permits and other logistics. He does not speak much English so you will need to speak at least some Spanish to make arrangements. He is usually pretty prompt with email. You will need to send him copies of your passport so that he can get you the initial permit from SENAFRONT. Alternatively, you could take care of this step yourself by going to SENAFRONT in person in Panama City, but it’s probably easier to have Isaac take care of the permit. You will need a couple copies (take at least 3) of the SENAFRONT permit in your possession when driving down to Yaviza in case SENAFRONT wants to keep a copy. You should also bring several copies of your passport to give to SENAFRONT if they ask and for the park office in Yaviza. There are at least two SENAFRONT checkpoints and they will want to see your permit and ask you a few questions about what you are doing. The officers are generally pretty friendly and are not out to make you have a bad day, just smile and be polite and you will be on your way in no time. Once you get to Yaviza ask around for a hotel. We stayed in a little place with no sign outside called Maestra Leticia that was simple, clean, and air conditioned. Apparently this place is quieter and nicer than the hotel along the main street, and Leticia was very kind and let us cook in her kitchen that evening.
You will need to pack in all your food for your time in the park. We recommend you stop in Panamá City to pick up supplies for the trip. While there are a few stores in Yaviza and Metetí, there is not much in the way of good produce, or good food for that matter. There is a pretty amazing grocery store in Panamá City called Riba Smith. They carry all sorts of gringo-tastic foods and have some pre-cooked packaged foods that are excellent for backpacking. You won’t be sorry you stopped, although your pocket book might be (trust me though it will be worth it). You will need to pick up food for yourselves and for Isaac for the entire length of the trip. Isaac has a small gas burner that burns the 1lb propane bottles with screw tops (commonly Coleman brand in the US). You will want to pick up a couple bottles while in the Panamá City, they are available at hardware stores and some outdoors and boating/fishing stores.
Be sure to bring sheets and towels as none are provided. Also be sure to bring cooking gas, pots/pans, bowls and cutlery, particularly if you’re going to overnight up at Rancho Plastico. There are often not enough pots/pans and dinnerware at the station to go around, and most of what is there isn’t appropriate for carrying up to Plastico, so be prepared. If you are planning on hiking up to Cerro Pirre you will need to bring all of your camping gear. The water is almost certainly safe to drink both at Pirre Station and Rancho Plastico, but we brought our SteriPen along to sterilize the water just to be on the safe side. There is no electricity at the station so bring a headlamp and enough batteries. Better would be to bring a small solar panel (Goalzero or the like) to keep a phone/iPod and speaker charged if you will be there more than just a day or two Isaac had a small portable battery pack that can charge a phone and other small usb devices once or twice if needed. The station has solar panels but the batteries are shot so you can also charge off their inverter when the sun is actually shining (we managed to do this just once in a week!).
Below is a breakdown of the costs. Keep in mind that you will have to pay for Isaac at every step of the way in addition to his guide fee, and you will be required to purchase and cook food for him as well. Not only do you have to cook all of his meals for him but you also end up cleaning up too, not exactly what I have in mind when I hire a guide. We would highly recommend negotiating with Isaac on his guide fee. For the service he delivered, we felt closer to $50 per day would be appropriate given that trail guides in Central America tend to earn $10-$30/day and a bird guide perhaps $100/day, independent of party size.
- Boat to and from El Real – $6-7 per person each way (or $185 for a private boat round trip)
- Truck from El Real to Pirre Uno – $25 or $35 one way (depending on if you go the last km)
- Horse to carry your gear to Rancho Frio/Pirre Station – $25
- Park entrance fee –$5 per person per day
- Bunk house fee – $15 per person per day for the nights you stay in the bunk house
- Camping fee – $10 per person per day for the nights you camp
- Bunkhouse/camping fee for Isaac – $6 per day for either camping or the bunk house
- Isaac’s guiding fees – $50 per person per day
- House in El Real – $20 (should be priced per bed, not per person)
I absolutely loved this! I still need to spend more days in Darien National Park. Agree totally with you about Isaac… I understand that he is a trail/hiking guide more than a bird guide (in fact, I found most of the Darien specialties and endemics without him, missing only Pirre Warbler and Beautiful Treerunner)… but certainly is THE guy you need to contact. In the other hand… your shot is, by far, the best Beautiful Trerunner photo I had ever seen!!!
Drooling. Thanks for sharing that amazing experience and providing the best information to make this trip happen. Need to go some day!
Thank you Jan and Pat! Jan we are bummed that we missed connecting with you in Panamá hopefully we will be able to meet up with you somewhere down the road.
I agree with Jan Axel and Pat–I pored over every detail of this. It’s the best description of the trek I’ve read, thanks for all the detail! I’d give anything to do it, but I’ve always been a bit intimidated and wonder if I could actually manage it. Someday, I hope!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for all the details of this amazing adventure. Really well written and very descriptive. Hope to be able to see a harpy one day.
LikeLiked by 1 person