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Outer San Blas Islands. Photo by Birgit Hackl
Outer San Blas Islands. Photo by Birgit Hackl

The Darién: In the Wake of Discoverers and Pirates

 

After Columbus’ discovery of the ‘new world’ in 1492, the Spanish conquistadores subjugated islands in the Caribbean and then focused on South and Central America. The first colonies were founded in the Darién—a region between today’s Panama and Colombia. Instead of thriving cities, modern maps only show sparse settlements there. The jungle proved to be stronger than the conquerors, the interior of the Darién remains largely untouched. By boat it is possible to explore the coast along the tracks of explorers, colonists and pirates.

The Golfo de Urabá (Colombia) is the southernmost point of the Caribbean. Here Alonso de Ojeda—a Spanish nobleman who accompanied Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci before his own expedition—founded the first Spanish settlement on the American mainland in 1510: San Sebastián de Urabá. Hunger, diseases and poisonous arrows soon decimated the settlers.

Before Vasco Núñez de Balboa became a famous explorer, he lived in the colony of Hispaniola (Haiti/Dominican Republic) as an unsuccessful pig farmer. To escape his creditors he hid as a stowaway on a ship sent to San Sebastián. Balboa was soon discovered and only his knowledge of the region saved him from being marooned. When the ship reached the settlement it had already been abandoned and Balboa suggested relocating to the western shore where he assumed he’d find fertile soils and friendlier indios. The Spaniards were opposed by a cacique (chieftain), but they won the battle, founded a new colony and named it Santa María la Antigua del Darién, in honor of the Virgin of Sevilla whose protection they had invoked during the fight. Nothing remains of the first two colonies; the lush jungle overgrew the ruins.

Sailing north into Panama we entered the autonomous Comarca de Kuna Yala and found more traces of Balboa who kept exploring the land eager for gold and slaves. Attracted by myths of riches in the south, he organized an expedition. One hundred and ninety Spaniards and 1000 warriors of the cacique Careta (probably the village Carreto) set out into the mountains. Many were killed in attacks, or died of exhaustion and diseases, but Balboa continued and on September 25 1513, he was the first European to see the legendary ‘south seas’ (the Pacific). Balboa discovered and named the Golfo de San Miguel and the Las Perlas Islands, and returned later with a second expedition exploring and conquering more of the Pacific coast. Despite (or because of) his success he made influential enemies, was accused of treason and beheaded in 1519. Regardless of his inglorious death and his cruelty against the indigenous population, Vasco Núñez de Balboa has become Panama’s national hero. Parks and streets throughout the country carry his name, as well as the currency and the most popular Panamanian beer.

In the mangrove-fringed bay of Puerto Escocés (Scottish Harbour) a few miles north, ruins of another colony remain. In 1698 the Kingdom of Scotland sent out 1200 settlers in an attempt to become a world trading nation. The Scots built a fort, a watchtower and a village, and called their new home ‘Caledonia’ (a nearby Kuna village still carries that name). Farming proved difficult, the Kuna showed little interest in trading bibles, combs and woolen clothing. Devastating epidemics and hunger led to mortality rates of ten settlers a day. After eight months they gave up and only 300 survivors reached Scotland. Another fleet with 1000 settlers found only abandoned huts, disputes followed and after a Spanish siege the colony was abandoned. The ‘Darien disaster’ is rated as a factor that led to the end of Scotland’s independence and the founding of Great Britain in 1707. Wandering through the lush gardens of Puerto Escocés it’s hard to imagine the starving settlers. According to the Kuna, the colony did not fail because of bad planning, weak leadership and epidemics; they simply failed to appease the bad ghosts that dwell in the bay.

Sailing on to Isla Pino, we crossed the tracks of a fascinating adventurer: William Dampier (1651 – 1715). Dampier was an English buccaneer and explorer, but also a naturalist who chronicled his experiences in extensive journals. In the late 17th century the Spanish Empire had conquered large parts of America and exploited the resources, attracting English and French pirates and buccaneers—among them William Dampier. When buccaneers landed in Isla Pino, the Kuna, who had suffered under the Spaniards, offered to lead them over the isthmus where they raided the rich cities on the Pacific side.

Cruising along the Colombian and Panamanian coast and venturing into the rainforest you can still see the world through the eyes of the 16th century discoverers. The Golfo de Urabá nowadays has a bad reputation concerning drug trafficking and guerillas, but yachts can anchor off Turbo. The bay of Sapzurro at the entrance of the gulf offers a very attractive and much safer anchorage and a starting point for jungle walks. In Kuna Yala, cruisers can choose between hundreds of anchorages in front of traditional villages or off remote islands. The Darién jungle still covers the whole isthmus between Panama and Colombia. No roads lead here—even the Inter-American Highway connecting Alaska with Chile is interrupted in the ‘Darien gap’. The Darién is home to the indigenous groups of the Kuna, Emberá and Wounaan and comprises an exceptionally high biodiversity in its mangrove swamps, rainforests and rivers. However, despite conservation efforts in a national park, the ecosystem is threatened by farming and illegal logging along the advancing road.

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