Otter dung wouldn't affect me that way. In fact, the rank rot of the Darién has begun to wear me down. There's a fungus among us that has enveloped everything I own. It's beginning to envelop me. My soft, festering gringo feet are so liberally breaded with antifungal powder that they resemble veal cutlets. Rain did a 10-hour merengue on my tent last night. By nine o'clock the walls had broken into a flop sweat. At midnight I began rummaging for snorkel and fins.
Until now, my idea of hell has been four blank walls and a radio that picks up nothing but A Prairie Home Companion. But the Darién makes such a fate seem almost endurable. Navarro informs me that Balboa made his trip at the height of the rainy season. "I bet he got pretty skanky," he says. Skanky but godlike. Balboa and his compañeros believed the Cuevas worshiped them as deities. Why else, they reasoned, would the Indians burn incense in their presence? Little did they know.
The Darién forms a biological bridge between the Americas. Pumas and rattlesnakes extended their range south; jaguars, monkeys and tapirs moved north. Most people and diseases that reached the rain forest got no farther, which is why Panamanians called the region el Tapón—the Stopper.
"Panama has more than 10,000 species of plants and trees," says Navarro. "Of those, over 1,250 exist nowhere else on the planet, and most are found only in the Darién." The Darien harbors creatures I've seen only in crossword puzzles: guan, crake, jacamar, jabiru, trogon, tamarin, potoo, tody motmot and bright-rumped attila.
A half roar, half bark—the raucous call of the howler monkey—splits the jungle air as we cross the continental divide on Day 5. I look up and see macaws and toucans and an endless chaos of branches covered with ferns, orchids and other epiphytes. A morpho butterfly as big as a dinner plate zigzags across our path, its iridescent wings flashing like mirrors. The understory of the forest is festooned with the blistery, fanged leaves of the pringa mosa, which cause a burning sensation when they come into contact with skin. Araúz compares it to being jabbed with a lit cigarette. "To punish a rapist," he says, "the Cuna rub pringa mosa into his private parts." For what it's worth, the plant also cures headaches.
People are scarce in these parts. Though we stumble on a couple of jaguar traps, we don't encounter any humans until late in Day 6. A Chocó family awaits us with fresh provisions. An old woman is hawking strands of beads. Dangling from each one is the tooth of an endangered animal: a jaguar, a tapir, an ocelot. The woman drapes the jaguar necklace around Navarro's neck. He thanks her. "She gave it out of friendship," he explains. "My task is to convince these people that conservation is in their interest. When we have a program that can truly improve their lives, I'll come back and talk to them. Even if it's the right medicine, they won't take it if you force it down their throats."
In bowls woven from a long, leafy palm called chunga, our hosts have set out food: fat, juicy seed-pods displayed in pinwheels; green and gold bananas; fresh oranges and pineapples and tagua, a plum-sized fruit whose seeds look like oysters and taste like coconuts; red and green and yellow chilies in an amazing variety of shapes and hotness; peccary in every imaginable, and some unimaginable, cuts; and tawny and checkered chickens, handsome when alive in their palm-wood hampers but tough old birds on the plate.
"If you're offered stew," cautions Araúz, "you'd better look in the pot first." During the 1960 expedition, his father looked and lost his appetite. Bubbling to the surface was the head of a monkey with rice embedded in its nose. "My father was told the best-tasting rice was always clenched in the monkey's fist," says Araúz.
As gentle and courteous as the Chocó are, their insults would make even Balboa blanch. You know you've been slurred if in the unwritten language a Chocó tells you, Xu opu tukabu, which means, "You're as ugly as a howler monkey." You've been doubly slurred if you hear, Xu mamá dande jino jimbukabu, roughly, "Your mother's nose looks like a tapir's foot." Worse still: Xu mamá jiro dande jimbukabu—"Your mother's foot looks like a tapir's nose." But the most devastating of all Chocó insults involves the peccary, a runty warthog. Xu eso sonsebu means, "You smell like a peccary." Aw metawe minyaju means, "You smell like a dead peccary."
Araúz looks like something the peccary dragged in. A Chocó teenager has temporarily tattooed him from the waist up with a blue-black pigment derived from the seeds of the jagua.