Eastern Panama includes some of Panama Province and the whole of the largely impenetrable Darien Province plus Kuna Yala.
MetetiThe last big town on the interamericana before you reach Yaviza. This is a good kick off point if you plan on going anywhere by boat from the Golfo de San Miguel. Meteti has two or three hotels such as the Crown Darien ($25) where you can stay the night before waking up early to catch a bus to Puerto Quimba.
La Palma :The Crown of Darien", La Palma is the provincial capital. Only accessible by boat from Meteti by way of Puerto Quimba. A great kick off point if you're trying to make trips up to Mogue.
Sambu This is the Latino village near the mouth of the river Sambu where you'll start your trip to visit the Southern half of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan. Great example of a "Darienitas" village unique with its own Afro-Antillean culture mixed with that of the colonialists from the interior.
Darién is the easternmost province of Panama. The area is heavily forested and undeveloped, and it is literally the end of the road for the northern section of the Pan-American Highway, which ends in the village of Yaviza. The wilderness that follows until the road starts again in Colombia is known as the Darién Gap, and is an extremely dangerous area plagued by Colombian narcotraffickers and guerillas.
Kuna Yala is limited in the north by the Caribbean sea, in the south by the province of Panama, in the East by Colombia and in the west by the province of Colon. The area it covers is 3206 km2 and stretches over 373 km. The coast is lined by an archipelago of 365 islands, 49 of them inhabitated. According to the census of 2004, Kuna Yala had 36,487 inhabitants. The region enjoys a certain degree of sovereignty within Panama, as constituted by the 'ley organica 16 de 1953'. The Congreso General Kuna, which meets twice a year, is the highest political authority of Kuna Yala. The economy of Kuna Yala depends mainly on agriculture, fishery and tourism industry. Farming is mostly for subsistence; the traditional crops are guineo, corn (maiz), sugarcane and some coconut.
Comarca Embera-Wounaan Sambu While the Northern half of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan has had many reports of violence with narco-traffickers, the Southern half of the Comarca is one of the best places to travel for those who want to get off the beaten path. The Sambu half of the Comarca consists of a dozen villages accessible by either boat or on foot. However, as there are still narcotraffickers in the area, in order to explore the villages up river permission and a guide must be arranged through office SENAFRONT in Panama. However, the villages around the port village of Sambu can all be accessed easily and guided trips can be arranged to take you further in land.
It is highly recommended that you know basic Spanish before you attempt to head out to Sambu. While people will be patient with you and are eager to help whenever they can, your experience would be greatly diminished if you couldn't communicate with the incredible people of the region. If your feeling extra bold then try to learn a few basic words in Embera. It'll mean a lot to the locals.
Mena: Hello Bia buka?- Como esta? How are you? Bia Bua- estoy bien. I am fine
The Darien Gap is the one break in the Pan-American Highway, meaning that overland travel across Central America is pretty much impossible. This 60 mile gap without roads has been successfully crossed a handful of times - usually by expeditions equipped with off-road vehicles and staffed by special forces types. Attempts to bridge the gap with a road have stalled, partly because of environmental protest and concern that an overland route may expose North America to foot and mouth disease from South American cattle.
Crossing by a combination of foot and boat is not only possible but relatively easy - as long as you stick to the Caribbean side and "hedgehog" from resort to resort, thus avoiding the dangerous inland zone.
Comarca Embera-WounaanWhile it is pretty straight forward how you can get out to the village of Bayamon, it is a long journey with many stops in between. To arrive in the area of Sambu where Bayamon is located you'll need to catch a boat that only leaves on M,W,F,S around 6 am, so plan accordingly.
If you're leaving from Panama City then you'll need to catch a bus from the Albrook National Bus Terminal. There you'll catch the bus to Darien ($9, 5 hrs). The bus will take you all the way into the terminal in Meteti, Darien. In Meteti you'll most likely have to stay the night in a hotel ($20+/-) in order to get to the boat in Puerto Quimba (20 mins away) by 5:30 the next morning. Another option is to take the overnight bus from Panama which will get you into the Meteti terminal by 4 am.
However you get to Meteti you'll need to be in Puerto Quimba to catch your boat BEFORE 6 am. To get there from Meteti you can either pay for the a taxi in order to guarantee that you arrive in Puerto Quimba in time for your boat or, the cheaper but less reliable method, take a large van ($2) from the Meteti bus terminal. Be sure to get on this van by 4:30-5 am in order to get to Puerto Quimba with plenty of time. Once you get to Puerto Quimba you'll need to check in with the local frontier police to report your whereabouts. If the boat still hasn't arrived then grab some food and coffee in the local fonda while you wait. Be sure to keep an eye out for the boat and always ask the locals which ones are going to Sambu to be sure that you don't get left behind. Plenty of boats are coming and going from this small port so be sure you take one of the ones heading to Sambu. The Sambu boat costs $20 and takes between 3-4 hours to arrive. Once you get off the boat in Sambu go wait under the mango tree for any vehicle heading up to Bayamon ($1, 10 mins).
If for some reason you miss the Sambu boat you can take a boat to Garrachine though transport from there to Bayamon is less reliable.
Puerto Quimba This is the mainland port to catch boats heading out for La Palma, Sambu, Garachine and the handful of other villages that reside on Golfo de San Miguel. To get there you need to take a bus (20 mins, $1.85) from the terminal in Meteti to Puerto Quimba/Kimba/Qimba (they spell it a dozen different ways)
La PalmaBoats from Puerto Quimba leave almost hourly for La Palma. Expect to pay $4 for the 30 min. trip
Sambu Boats leave from Puerto Quimba for Sambu every Mon, Wed, Fri, and Sat between 5:30 and 8 am. There are only 2 boats so its best to get to Puerto Quimba around 5:30 to ensure that you get a place on the boat. Ask people at the port to tell you when the boats from Sambu arrive because otherwise you wouldn't know the difference. Boats cost $22-24 and the trip can last between 2.5-5 hours, depending on the sea and your driver. When you arrive in Puerto Quimba check in with the police checkpoint to let them know your itinerary and so they can copy down your passport info. You can also catch a boat to Garrachine and then catch a ride from there to Sambu. Expect to pay $4 for a ride in the bed of a pick-up truck or up to $40 if you need to arrange a private trip.
Garrachine Boats leave from Puerto Quimba almost daily but, like the boats to Sambu, always early in the morning to catch the high tide and calmer seas. These boats usually end up costing around $18. If you're trying to get out to Sambu or the Comarca Embera-Wounaan this is another good option but you could end up getting stranded in Garrachine for a night if no cars are heading towards Sambu. For bigger groups or if you've got the money there are always cars or motorcycles for hire that will make the drive on special request.
Bayamon Once you arrive in Sambu or Garrachine Bayamon is easily accessible by chiva(a shuttle, $1, 10 mins from Sambu, 1 hour from Garrachine).
Cerro Naipe From Guarachine, catch a chiva to Calle Larga for one dollar and begin a fourty five minute hike to Cerro Naipe during the dry season. Sometimes cars drive in, and you can pay a private car 20 dollars to drive in during the dry season. During the wet season, no cars can be had and the hike in is anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half. Cerro Naipe is a beautiful village tucked in the mountains alongside the Darien National Park. There is a hostel there and activities from spear fishing to waterfall hikes, painting, dancing, and storytelling. The most notable activity is a 4 to 6 hour trek through the virgin rainforest of the Darien National Park to the breathtaking beach of Playa Muerto. During the wet season expect the hike to be a couple of hours longer and slightly tougher due to muddy conditions. A guide from Cerro Naipe to Playa Muerto is available.
Playa Muerto Every week or two the Playa Muerto boat comes into port in Garrachine. If you're lucky enough to catch this then a ride back to the village should cost you around $10. However, it's more likely that you'll need to either A) hire a private boat and expect to pay over $100 for this or B) Walk. If you have a guide then you can get to Playa Muerto easiest from Bayamon. The hike can take anywhere from 5-13 hours depending on your fortitude. You'll cross the river flatlands before climbing up and over a mountain range to descend to the beach village of Playa Muerto on the other side. Guides are available from Bayamon through the village's women's group which is trying to expand into tourism. Expect to pay $20 a day for a guide or if you want to hire a porter or two to carry your bags. Remember that if you want your guide to lead you back you'll need to make arrangements to pay for the days that he'll be waiting for you in Playa Muerto.
More information on Playa Muerto can be found on the village's website, playamuerto.com
Sambu/Comarca Once you make the long trek over to Sambu getting around is easy enough if you speak Spanish. A ride runs from Sambu to Garrachine, crossing the villages of Rio Jesus, Dai Puru, Calle Largo, and Bella Vista before ending in the coastal fishing village of Garachine. The local bus may make a trip to Garrachine but there's no consistency to when he'll go. Normally private cars will make the trip between the two and they'll let you jump in the bed fro a few bucks to help with gas. The same road also branches off heading from Sambu to the latino village of Colonia and into the Embera village of Bayamon inside the territory of the Comarca Embera-Wounaan. Bayamon is a great starting point if you're looking to walk towards other Embera villages overland or farther up river, such as Villa Keresia (2 hrs), Boca del Trampa (3 hrs), or Playa Muerto (6-10 hrs). Guides are available from Bayamon's women's group if you're looking to make the trek.
There's plenty to do in the area of Sambu, however the highlight of any trip is a full immersion visit to an Embera community. Two villages, Bayamon and Playa Muerto, have women's artisan groups which are attempting to expand into tourism in order to share their culture with the outside world. During a visit with these groups you'll get the chance to hear the Embera music called chinbombom, watch traditional dances, learn how to prepare local foods and get your full body painted in traditional designs based on animals and landmarks with a local fruit called jagua. Other excursions can be arranged to visit local farms, go spear fishing in the rivers, bird and wildlife watching or hikes to neighboring villages.
If you have the time and bravado then the most adventurous excursion you can do is the 15 mile hike from Bayamon to Playa Muerto. Depending on your stamina the hike will take anywhere from 6-12 hours upriver through Embera farm land before reaching pristine forests as you make the climb up and over the mountain range to the isolated Embera beach village of Playa Muerto. To arrange this trip, you can contact a guide.
Another trekking option is Cerro Naipe to Playa Muerto, which is shorter than the Bayamon route. During the dry season the hike takes anywhere from four to six hours, and longer during the wet season. You can either trek to Playa Muerto through the Darien National Park, or hike from Playa Muerto into the forest and stay in Cerro Naipe before leaving through Guarachine. The village of Cerro Naipe is ready for tourism and eager to share the Embera culture.
There aren't too many options for places to stay once your the area of Sambu. A hotel in Sambu is available for $25/night if you need a place with a bed frame. Otherwise go native and stay in one of the Embera villages that have guest houses available for travelers passing through. The villages of Villa Keresia (aka Tigre), Bayamon, Playa Muerto and Puerto Indio all have traditional grass roofed, stilted houses where you can stay. Mattresses, sheets and bug nets are included in the small fee that you'll pay for their use.
Darién is a spectacular destination for anyone interested in pristine rainforest. That said, this is absolutely not a place to go unless you do your homework first. The Darien Gap is a haven for drug cartels and paramilitaries, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world. Attempting to cross the Gap on foot will most likely get you into more trouble than you can handle.
The areas of interest for tourists are not in the Gap zone but be aware that the entire province is a rough place and you should definitely hire a guide if you decide to explore the forests here.
Sambu Boats leaving from Sambu take off Mon, Wed, Fri, Sat at 3 am. Reservations should be made with the drivers a few days before to ensure you have a spot in the boat. You can either speak with Ricardo or Tole to make your reservations. Both men own tiendas in Sambu and your reservations can be made with them.