Toward evening we arrive in the Cuna village of Armila. The Cuna are extremely watchful of outsiders. Until recently, they would trade with passing ships but wouldn't allow the crews to debark. Indeed, some say the name Panama derives from the Cuna phrase panna mai, which means "far away." That's supposedly what Spanish soldiers were told when they asked where the gold was. The Cuna hoped the conquistadors would go panna mai.
In our case, though, the Cuna of Armila are downright hospitable. Kids offer us cherry sodas. Men serenade us with pan flutes; women, maracas. They assemble in the town square and enact the barefoot, circle Dance of the Grandmother, a down-tempo number not panna mai from the one my own granny used to perform at bridge parties. Araúz has enlisted Cuna as porters since his maiden Darién crossing in 1991. One of the first porters was stabbed to death in a drunken brawl. Cuna law dictated that the killer be tied up and buried neck-deep in the sand facing his victim until the killer died. "That's what you call looking death in the eye," Navarro cracks. "It's the Native American way."
In truth the Darién has very few actual natives. The Cuna and all the other indigenes in the area migrated there over the last several hundred years. "Through colonial wars and diseases brought by the Europeans," says Navarro, "the resident Cueva Indian population was basically exterminated." The tragic irony of the Spanish conquest is that because the Cuevas were wiped out, the region's rain forest was saved. "The Cuevas had stripped much of the Darién to plant corn," says Navarro. "So, in a perverse way, the human holocaust that Balboa set in motion let the jungle flourish again." And in a grotesque way, Balboa was an unwitting environmentalist.
Pretty much everything aggressively malicious that you can find in a tropical jungle flourishes in the Darién: vampire bats, poison arrow frogs, caimans, huge pit vipers (the bushmaster and the fer-de-lance), the smaller but no less venomous jumping tree viper, coral snakes, a tree (hura) whose sap causes blindness, tiger-claw spiders, flesh-burrowing botflies, chiggers, fire ants, inch-long bullet ants, yellow fever, encephalitis, amoebic dysentery, cholera and malaria in two flavors: regular and cerebral.
The Darién is home to diseases so virulent that even the bravest antibiotics run for cover. Around the campfire on Day 3, Navarro ticks off his top three illnesses:
•Mal de Chagas, an incurable, fatal malady spread by the chinche, a distant (but never distant enough) cousin of the stinkbug. Scratch your skin and the parasite's feces enter your bloodstream. "Then your vital organs—heart, liver, kidneys—expand until they explode," says Navarro.
•Picada de bejuco, a sickness caused by a tiny worm that eats you from the inside out. It's transferred from sloths to humans by way of a sand fly called Phlebotomus.
•Dengue hemorrágico, a debilitating fever carried by the mosquito Aedes aegypti.
Navarro revels in the dangers the jungle presents. "I like a challenge," he says. Before picking a college, he spent a month in the States, busing from campus to campus. Dartmouth was the most daunting destination. "It was cold, which I hated," he recalls. "There was all this snow, which I thought was disgusting. The people were difficult—I couldn't figure them out. With all that against me, I thought, This is the perfect place for me. Hanover, New Hampshire, and Panama City are at opposite extremes. This is where I will learn the most."
He's still learning. On Day 4 he wades into the Membrillo to study otter dung. "Otters feed on fish and crayfish, and they excrete on flat rocks surrounded by water," he says. "When I first crossed the Darién in '84, the rocks were full of their signatures. This time around, I haven't noticed any otter dung. That steals my heart away."