At the mouth of the Río Chagres on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama all that remains of what was once a thriving indigenous community and critical point of defense are the crumbling walls of the fortress of San Lorenzo. Rainforest has overgrown the coral rock fortifications. The edges of the jungle echo with riotous flocks of green parrots and the unearthly guttural roar of howler monkeys.
Flying Fish is staged at the entrance to the Panama Canal, waiting for transit. We are not alone. Dozens of ships are queued offshore including massive Post-Panamax container ships, some of which are longer than 1,200 feet. The Canal operates 24/7, every day of the year. The Canal pilots and advisors, however, do not. Many have cancelled their transit assignments over the holidays. One Canal agent today said that it has caused “chaos” at the Canal Authority.
Chaos is not a good way to start a new year. Which is why I chose to spend my downtime in the Río Chagres rainforest.
The Río Chagres is one of the most important rivers in the world and yet it remains relatively unknown despite its history and current global significance. Some 80% of the water that is needed to operate the Panama Canal originates from the Río Chagres watershed. Each boat that crosses the locks needs about 52 million nonrecoverable gallons of fresh water and the Chagres provides it.
Despite its industrial use to the Canal, this watershed is rich in biodiversity. The Río Chagres National Park includes 320,000 acres. In a 1996 Audubon Society annual census there were 525 species of birds recorded here on just one day. There are said to be more species of plants here than in all of Europe. Jaguars, anteaters, coati, and troops of monkeys inhabit this dense, dark, and wet environment.
The river and its habitat have borne witness to an extraordinary history of human greed, agony, and ingenuity. The Río Chagres valley contained rich veins of gold until it was removed by Vasco Núñez de Balboa in 1513. When the Chagres gold was gone the Spaniards turned their attention to Peru and shipped that treasure back to the Old World along a trade route that included the Chagres. More gold fever came centuries later when a nugget was discovered in California and thousands of miners transited the Chagres as they crossed the isthmus to the Pacific.
Today water from the Río Chagres carries the bulk of the world’s trade goods–another form of gold–across the 50 miles between two great oceans.
Tomorrow the Río Chagres may carry Flying Fish from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
For this moment I am content to sit in the solitude of this jungle and listen to the song of a toucan.