Rain Slants in, thin and nasty, as Juan Carlos Navarro and I clamber over the banks of Panama's mighty jungle river, the Membrillo. We're a third of the way through a 10-day, 75-mile expedition to retrace Vasco Núñez de Balboa's historic trek across the Darién Gap. It's dark and drippy, and palm fronds that feel like hot compresses keep slapping us in the face. In the rising mist Navarro crouches beside a fig tree. "Look at these ants," says Panama's gonzo conservationist. "They march along like Balboa's soldiers."
I stop and trowel sweat from my brow. Leaf-cutter ants bearing banners of purplish-pink membrillo flowers parade across the tangled mush of forest floor in a caravan 175 yards long. All daughters of one queen, the leaf cutters live on fungi found on petals dragged into their anthill. "They're working stiffs who toil hard to live in poverty," Navarro says. "They work from sun to sun and have very little fun, making the forest run. That is until a tamandua—a collared anteater—comes along and sucks up three million of them for lunch."
Balboa tramped through this ferociously dense forest almost 500 years ago at the head of 1,000 Indian warriors and porters and 190 sweat-drenched Spanish soldiers in full armor. ("A can opener! A can opener! My kingdom for a can opener!") Twenty-three days after setting out from the Caribbean coast of the isthmus, Balboa waded into the muddy waters of a gulf he named San Miguel, thus becoming the first European to dip a toe into the Pacific Ocean. "Of all the conquistadors, Balboa was the one most willing to learn from and listen to the Indians," says Navarro. "Despite his sins, he brought an attitude of discovery and empathy and wonderment."
Navarro is following in Balboa's boot-steps as a "reality check," he says. He wants to gauge his effectiveness as a greenie. In 1985, this Ivy League-educated scion of a wealthy Panamanian family bummed $75,000 from local businessmen and launched the National Association for the Conservation of Nature (ANCON). Based in Panama City and armed with more than 3,000 volunteers, the privately funded, nonprofit ANCON has become one of the most aggressive and effective environmental outfits in the Third World. Navarro has lobbied the Panamanian government successfully for the creation of five national parks; faced down the country's powerful lumber barons, getting tariffs on imported lumber eliminated; and discouraged poaching in the wild by establishing community agroforestry farms on which iguanas and beagle-sized rodents called pacas are raised in pens for meat. ANCON occasionally takes heat for soliciting donations from corporations such as Texaco, which fouled one coral-reef biological reserve in Panama with an oil spill in 1986. But, Navarro says, "We are very up-front with corporations. Giving us money doesn't give them a license to pollute or turn them from frogs into green princes overnight. All it does is help us do our job. They give us money, and we still come after them if they screw up the environment."
Navarro believes the biggest threat to the Darién jungle, which is in eastern Panama near its border with Colombia, is the Pan-American Highway system. Running 17,000 miles from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the road is broken only by a 65-mile strip through the Darién. Navarro fears that the road's proposed completion would affect the region's ecological balance, endanger indigenous cultures and encourage Colombian drug dealers to use the highway for their brand of Pan-Americanism. "Panama's wilderness is disappearing fast," Navarro says. "We lose about 125,000 acres every year."
Championing preservation has come at a price: Navarro has been the target of death threats. But for all his activism, he is no Greenpeacenik. This 35-year-old alumnus of Dartmouth and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard is an avid reader of Hunter S. Thompson. "In college I laughed at the eco-weenies," he says. "Why do conservationists have to be ineffectual earth muffins who smell like log cabins and feed on moldy granola bars?" Navarro favors single-malt whisky and Romeo y Julieta Havanas, both of which he has forgone since the start of this journey. Eco-trekking demands sacrifice, after all.
While sacrifice ain't what it was 500 years ago, we do suffer on our journey. On Day 1 the prop planes that bring us from Panama City to Puerto Obaldía on the Caribbean coast have a battered look. Everything is nicked, worn or torn. The cabins are packed with people and provisions and are sweltering until the air conditioning comes on, breathing vapor like a wheezing dragon.
We make a beachhead in Puerto Obaldía, a tiny town about a sniper's shot from Colombia. Waiting at the airstrip are scores of frontier police, nicely turned out in bandoliers, M-16s and AK-47s. They're on alert due to a recent incursion into the area by Colombian paramilitary forces. A month before our arrival, Panamanian soldiers rounded up half a dozen guerrilla sympathizers, also Panamanian, and unsympathetically executed some of them. One of the sympathizers was one of our prospective guides, an Obaldían called Black Dog.
Puerto Obaldía is believed to be near the site of Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the starting point of Balboa's expedition. Balboa sailed from Santa María, which no longer exists, on Sept. 1, 1513, and made friendships that would last a lifetime, which turned out to be pretty short—he was beheaded by Pedro Arias Dávila in 1519. His company sailed up the coast in brigantines and piraguas (dugouts) before penetrating the Darién just north of Obaldía. Our own roster is considerably smaller, 26 in all. Included are Panamanian soldiers, U.S. eco-tour promoters testing the ground, cybernauts from Microsoft's adventure-travel magazine Mungo Park and a dozen porters drawn from the three cultures of the region: Cuna, Chocó and Afro-Dariénite. Leading the way is Hernán Araúz, a burly naturalist who was to the jungle born. Araúz's anthropologist parents conceived him during the National Geographic Society's 1960 trans-Darién expedition.
We pick our way through a wide Sargasso Sea of plastic: detritus jettisoned by westbound cruise ships entering the Panama Canal. Spread out at our feet are thousands of fabric-softener bottles, shampoo containers and the remains of broken dolls. They gleam in the sun, which is at least as oppressive as the rule of New World conquistadors. We latter-day Balboans scale a hill that seems to go up as straight as the monolith in 2001.