El Real, Panama
Fishing is a major source of food and income for the indigenous people of Panama’s Darien provence. We joined them in an attempt to catch our dinner.
My buddy Gabriel and I had just finished trekking for a few days through the rainforest in Darien National Park, and were now staying with a local Kuna family in the village of El Real.
The rainy season was in full swing. But after a few days of it, you soon get accustomed to wearing wet clothes all the time.
Hand-line fishing in the rain now sounded like a lot of fun.
So our Kuna guide Isaac, his brother Alberto, and Isaac Jr. handed us a pair of hand-carved wooden paddles for the journey down-river. Our transportation? A Piragua. This traditional wooden canoe had been used in the Darien for hundreds of years.
Crocodiles Like Gringos
Walking down to the dock in the rain, we passed a cantina full of drunk Colombians. It was 2pm. They spied our paddles and called us over to warn against falling into the river. Didn’t we know the water is full of hungry crocodiles?
After displaying our expert piragua paddling skills in an attempt to ease their fears, they unanimously agreed we were goners. They forced us to have a last dance with them before we became crocodile food…
Thanks for the vote of confidence guys.
Navigating the Turia River
Piragua canoes are very long and skinny. They tip easily. All my life I’ve been told not to stand up in a canoe because it will tip over. So I was more than a bit nervous attempting to maneuver our craft the traditional indigenous way — standing up.
The water was murky and brown. It seemed impossible to tell how many man-eating crocodiles were lurking under the surface, just waiting for me to make a mistake.
But soon Gabriel and I got the hang of it. We paddled our way down a tributary that would eventually push us out to the mighty Turia river. The rainfall began to increase, but because of the heat, it was very refreshing.
A shower from heaven in the middle of the wilderness, with the smell of rainforest humidity in the air.
Now the Turia river came into view, swollen and moving fast. It’s powerful current propelled us forward. Concentration was needed in order to avoid floating trees and other debris in the water.
Isaac pointed out a favorite fishing spot on the far bank.
Fishing Without A Fishing Pole
The people of the Darien fish with nets or simple spools of fishing line. No one uses fishing rods here. They are expensive and unnecessary. A heavy-duty line, a few lead sinkers, a sharp hook, and wiggling worms are the only tools needed.
So after securing our boat to a tree so we wouldn’t float away in the fast-moving water, we baited our hooks and tried to cast the lines without ripping each other’s eyes out in the process.
This involves whipping the line over your head like a rodeo lasso, releasing at just the right moment in order to reach a good distance.
After many sad & embarrassing attempts, we were eventually able to cast without triggering bouts of hysterical laughter from our Kuna Indian friends.
Having Some Trouble…
In the beginning, everyone was catching fish but me. Over and over again they’ed pull them out of the water. This river was absolutely filled with fish! Some were beautiful looking too. Shimmering rainbow colors and fins that moved in a hypnotic sine-wave type fashion.
Suddenly I got my first bite! Firmly setting the hook, I began pulling it in hand over hand…
Damn. More hysterical laughter erupted from the boat as I proudly displayed the 6-inch long monster I’d managed to wrestle on board.
Redeeming My Manhood
I threw the baby fish back into the river, and loaded my hook with a big fat juicy worm. Determined to catch something of value, I whipped the line back out on the water. It wasn’t long before I received another bite!
My excitement grew as I began to real it in.
This was no minnow, I could feel it was big.
Everyone cheered as I finally pulled up a large Macana. This strange looking fish with a constantly waving bottom fin was around 18 inches long. Much more respectable.
I could now return to the village with pride and hold my head high. :D
Into Dark Waters
We tried a few more fishing spots, spending about 3 hours out on the Turia river. It was peaceful and quiet. The rain continued on & off over the course of the afternoon.
Isaac started to pull a new fish into the boat, when suddenly one of our previous catches tried to make a break for it! He flopped out of the wooden canoe in a last-ditch effort to escape…
Trying to grab at the slippery animal before it went under, Isaac inadvertently knocked Gabriel’s pair of $200 sunglasses into the water. Shit.
Isaac quickly jumped into the brown river that reached about neck-high, motioning for Gabriel to join him in the search for his glasses. “We can only be in here for 15 minutes” said Isaac. “After that, crocodiles will come and investigate the splashing”.
I decided to let the two of them search the zero-visibility water without my help. After all, someone needed to have a video camera ready to record their last words.
End Of A Good Day
Exactly 15 minutes of nervous underwater searching attempts later, they gave up. Oh well. It was just “stuff” after all. In my opinion, stuff is overrated. Since I began traveling long-term, I’ve been trying to get rid of as much of it as I can.
I’d happily part with fancy sunglasses to experience this adventure. Gabriel agreed.
We headed back in our traditional piragua using a small outboard motor this time. Gas is over $5 a gallon down here, but trying to paddle up the powerful Rio Turia current would have taken us all night.
Returning to the village victorious with a boat full of fish, and all our arms & legs intact, Isaac’s wife fried-up a portion of our catch for dinner that night.
I slung my hammock in a back room, drifting off to sleep with a full belly. ★
Location: El Real, Panama [Map] Useful Notes: I’ve collected a ton of detailed information on the logistics of my trip into the Darien Gap, and will be putting together a guide for anyone else who is interested in visiting. To learn when the guide is complete, make sure to sign up for my email list below.
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Have you ever fished with a hand-line before?