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Hiking Panama's Las Cruces Trail:

Las Cruces Trail runs 50 miles from the Pacific to the Caribbean Sea
Through Tropical Rain Forest and Across the Continental Divide

"The jungle is very good at defending itself . . ."

We were like kids on a backyard campout. But instead of dragging mom's fabric-softened blankets onto a lawn populated with garter snakes and lightning bugs, three of us trekked 50 miles on the Las Cruces treasure Trail. The 16th century route of the Spanish Conquistadores took us fifty miles from the Pacific Ocean, through rain forest, across the Continental Divide and down to the Caribbean Sea.

Las Cruces Trail was a caravan route for mules lugging Inca gold, silver and pearls to the king's galleons waiting for them at Portobello. When the Spaniards imported African slaves to lay the cobblestone trail, they made one critical mistake; capturing warrior stock. Many escaped into the jungle. The infamous Bayano, and his band of African renegades, delighted in capturing a straggler, dragging him off the trail, spread-eagling him on the ground and pouring molten gold down his throat. What was the symbolism of such cruelty? Simple. To cure his thirst for gold.

Surprisingly intact after nearly five-hundred years, the cobblestone trail, begins near Panama City, The Republic of Panama. Along certain stretches, you can run down the path. But more typically, it's rough-going through the triple canopy rain forest. Calf muscles grow weary from lifting the knees high enough to step over fallen tree trunks speckled with the shiny, white sap of rubber trees. Then it's duck down low onto your haunches so the top of the pack frame clears the grabbing branches.

Strung across the trail are "wait-a-minute vines" with the nasty reputation of looping around ankles. You either wait a minute, and shake off the vine, or yank your way through. Make that mistake and you'll trip. To break your fall, the natural reaction is to reach out and grab the nearest tree. Invariably it's a black palm: One of God's nasty creations, its trunk is porcupined with long, black needles that jab deep into fingers and palms and then break off flush with the skin. The next day the sliver festers ugly and hurts. The jungle is very good at defending itself from mere humans...

Where 170 inches of rainfall a year has washed out the cobblestones, the going gets even rougher. You'll climb straight up and down the sides of the mountains thick with trees, brambles, bushes, vines and slippery rocks. It can take an hour to cover 100 yards on the map. Appetite fades and thirst becomes all consuming. Our most precious commodities were water and quart cartons of pink lemonade we had backpacked in. Quite literally, we measured our progress in gallons per hour.

Some of the stream beds crisscrossing the trail were as dry as a desert rock, others flowed slow-moving, crystal clear water with leaves floating lazily on the surface. Even though it looked pure, we boiled the water. Contrary to what you'd expect in the middle of a rainforest, not a single mosquito buzzed our ears. This was likely due to the fact that we trekked during February in the middle of dry season. That meant no big or small puddles of water for the larvae to grow in. Another product of the dry season: The jungle was tinged brown instead of lush green.

We spent the first night perched on the side of a mountain, sleeping at a 45 degree angle. Bare feet braced against the tent floor apron, we fell asleep to the sound of little coatamundi and peccary scurrying around outside the tent. Every couple of hours we'd groggily come to with our knees jammed against our chest, gravity having pulled us to the bottom of the tent.

During water breaks, we sat down with our backs against sky tall trees and listened. Besides wildly colored birds scolding our intrusion, we could hear the outside world. U.S. Army helicopter gunships whop-whopped overhead, presumably with the intent of terrifying the troops training at Fort Sherman's jungle warfare center. We heard the distant roar of fighter planes swooping low followed by an ominous whump as bombs exploded on the practice range south of the Canal. Another aural landmark: The faraway whine of tires on a highway, the squeal of brakes followed by silence, then a big engine slowly running up through the gears. Perhaps a bus stopping to let off passengers? The highway traffic sounded deceptively close. After consulting the topographical map we figured it to be the Boyd Roosevelt highway ten miles to the north.

The trail ends near the little town of Gamboa where we had pre-positioned a pair of inflatable boats and outboard motors. At the convenience store we filled canteens, and laid out American dollars for canned spam, bacon, cheese and fruit juices. One special find was a flavorful and refreshing fruit juice called maracuya. Alfredo, the manager said maracuya was like a watermelon, only smaller, like lemons. Further North, it's known as passion fruit.

Once provisioned, it was down to the water to raft through the middle of the Panama Canal. We shared the first couple of miles in a narrow cut, with oil tankers, containerized freight ships and tugboats. Some tugs slowed. Others threw the throttle wide open just to throw a bigger wave. No problem. Just before the wake swamped us, we steered head on into it. Once the turbulent waters calmed, we pointed the bow back on course.

When we turned the corner out of the canal into Gatun Lake proper, we bumped into a 20 mile an hour North wind. Big waves soaked our gear and filled the boats with buckets of water. We bailed with water bottles and baseball caps. Wind and waves slowed our progress to 2-3 knots per hour. But the sky was clear and the sun warm. It was a good day to be out on the water.

We pitched camp on Barbacoa Island. During the night, the lake would be quiet for a long spell, and then a tanker transiting the canal would rumble past. A few minutes later the waves smacked into shore, perilously close to the campfire.

At false dawn we unzipped the tent and tiptoed to the water's edge. Gatun Lake holds some of the purest water in the world, up to your armpits in the stuff, you can wiggle your toes and see the sand cloud at your feet. We lashed the two inflatables together for stability and comfort, one of us could steer, the others could rub on tanning oil, or wet a fishing line. Peacock bass bit on bare hooks, shreds of fabric, beans, and of course jigs.

After transiting the lake, we portaged across a half-mile wide, well-manicured lawn, down short, sandy bluffs and into the tempestuous Chagres river. We drifted eight miles downstream to the Caribbean, and Pinas beach. From the mouth of the river we could look across the bay and up the 100 foot cliffs to the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo. Some of Sir Francis Drake's cannons still stand guard behind the remarkably well-preserved castle walls.

We pitched our tent on the site of Chagres City. During the California gold rush, 2,000 hookers populated Chagres, elbow to elbow with legions of sailors, criminals, saloon keepers, and chocolate-skinned natives. 49ers used the Las Cruces trail as a shortcut to the gold fields, it was weeks faster than sailing around Cape Horn. Chagres City has fallen to dust. All you'll find is jungle, a magnificent beach, sand fleas and my Swiss Army knife. Somewhere in the sand. If you find it, oil the hinges and think of those who have gone before you.

On The Trail. Because of heat, humidity, rocks, mud and mountains, choice of footgear is of the ultimate importance. The first consideration, the boots need to be lightweight; rocky mountain style boots are too heavy. Best bet is a hybrid with leather lowers to protect the feet from rocks, and canvas or nylon uppers to both cool and support the ankle. A good choice: Army surplus jungle boots cost about $35 new.

F.Y.I., the Vietnam style jungle boots feature what's called a Panama sole: Essentially cleats that provide traction on slippery trails without letting mud clods weigh down the boot. We outfitted with Coleman boots, (the same guys who make the coolers and lanterns) manufactured by Wolverine. The high top, lightweight hikers supported our ankles on the lumpy, uneven trail. Another positivism, their mud grabbing traction so necessary for going up and down the hill after hill.

American Dollars Convert To Panamanian Balboas. One to One. Panama's unit of currency is the Balboa. To convert Dollars to Balboas, multiply American Dollars times One. Balboas and Dollars are interchangeable. Also worthy of note, Panama rivals Costa Rica in both political and economic stability.

Further, the problems of Nicaragua and El Salvador would seem a world away except that U.S. troops stationed in Honduras pull R&R in Panama City. On some weekends the downtown is reminiscent of Saigon's Tu Do street in the 60's. Except that there are no Viet Cong waiting to lob a grenade into a sidewalk cafe, and it's easy to spot the friendlies. They're all friendly. And Panamanians are easy to read, whatever they're feeling, it's painted on their faces.

We did run into a problem upon our arrival at General Omar Torrillos airport. Our Yamaha outboards were still-in-the-box brand new. And because we hadn't alerted Panamanian customs we were bringing them, regulations required the motors held at the airport pending paperwork: Typically a 1 to 2 week period, and disaster for our expedition.

We stayed calm. No ugly American strong arm yelling, screaming, demanding or threatening. Instead, we simply contacted IPAT (The Panamanian Institute of Tourism) and read off the serial numbers. We had our motors 24 hours later. No mordida. These guys want to help, they want you to have a good time.

Further testimony to the friendliness and helpfulness of the Panamanians was exemplified by Sargento Murillo of the Fuerzas de Defensa (Panama's combination police force and army). Murillo, is a tall, solidly built black man with a nasty scar perilously close to his right eye. Could we store our gear in the FD Gamboa headquarters while we were in the jungle, we asked him? Murillo gestured, first pointing his index finger to his eye and then to us. "I see you, you look like stand-up guys. No problem...."

Sargento Murillo and his associates upset the stereotypical image of a Latin soldiers in banana republics. All of the FD troopers, were immaculately groomed in starched fatigues and spit-shined paratrooper boots. To the man, they were polite, courteous and competent. The L.A.P.D. should take note.

Considering hitchhiking in Panama? After the trekking was over, we decided to thumb a ride across the isthmus to Isla Grande, a relatively undiscovered Caribbean island resort. Legions of the Toyotas and Ladas whizzed past until we held a five dollar bill up. A 4WD braked, pulled over to the side of the road and delivered us to our destination. Jose, the driver, refused the $5 bill, but seemed to take delight in sitting with us, in a roadside cafe drinking a bottle of grape soda pop and telling us why Panamanians like Americans. "Americans have vision," said Jose. "They see a native island resort that's struggling to get by. An American buys it, cleans the beach, paints the cabanas, teaches the maids and waiters how to make the customers happy. Soon everybody in the village has a job and is prosperous. Americans have vision."