Tag Archives: Jungle Expedition

Our Day with Mario in Zapata National Park, Cuba

The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience continues in Zapata National Park, Cuba…

Our new host, Dayami, used to work for Zapata National Park until her and her husband opened their casa to visitors. Now it’s full time at home. I pulled out my map and showed her where we planned to explore and hike in the park, and asked about transport. Little did I know this plan wasn’t possible without an official guide, and she didn’t think there would be any guides available during our stay. An official guide was needed not just to enter the park lands but to veer us away from the military stationed around Zapata. Really? This pretty important point was unfortunately not made clear during the planning stage by any of our hosts or contacts or research. Now our team was on the cusp but not allowed to enter. How could we come all this way but not complete my so-carefully outlined itinerary? It’s in these moments we’d learn about Cuban openhandedness. There is no lack of generosity in Cuba. Dayami seeing my stricken face immediately began to brainstorm possibilities and a friend she could call to get us in the door and satisfying our scientific goals.

Zapata National Park, Cuba Julia Thomsen, Copyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Dayami Hostal in Playa Larga, Cuba

Unfortunately the friend she had in mind to guide us was already booked for the week by a Chinese couple interested in birds. Did they know the migrating bird season had come and gone? Maybe we should switch itineraries. Not to be deterred, we walked through town to the park’s visitor office, a small understated cement block building you could walk right passed if you weren’t paying attention. We hoped to turn our luck.

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Zapata National Park Visitor Center, Playa Larga, Cuba

Inside I finally found a shelf of pamphlets and maps, and excitedly began to look through them, only to realize they were from everywhere but Cuba. There was even a pamphlet about saving the redwoods of California. As I’m a native Californian, I’m all about protecting our redwoods but shouldn’t the Cubans be promoting their own homeland campaigns? There’s been no money for such luxuries. A tall man wearing a cap and canvas vest both displaying a logo for Zapata National Park greeted us. After some moments of discussion with my rough Spanish and his bits of English we miraculously found a guide would be available in about an hour, and would give us a ride into the park. Of course there were no park maps or booklets, and we had to pay an entrance fee and a fee for his guidance and a fee for the car and driver, but that was expected and truly worth every kook.

zapata national park, Zapata Insects Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

About an hour later our guide Mario arrived at our casa in an old jeep with a driver. He has worked for Zapata Park Service for over 22 years, and was yet another Cuban willing to share all his knowledge and make sure we were more than satisfied with our experience. We could not explore the area to the west as planned, including the unpaved road to Santo Tomas due to flooding. I felt thwarted. But Mario’s plan saved the day and saved my face from being stricken again. He had us driven to another stretch of the park definitely less traveled by tourists and locals alike. We walked the forest floor in search of Cuban insects, turning over rotting logs and large rocks and inspecting the underside of leaves hanging down from the canopy. We dressed in head-to-toe protective gear and a thick layer of Deet. And somehow escaped the onslaught, coming away with photos and jotted notes and discussions of all the wonderful diversity we’d seen. I even photographed a pygmy owl.

Zapata Insects Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

We arrived back at the jeep to find its driver shirtless, hot, sweaty and burnt red leaning over the engine with a frustrated, apologetic expression. Something was apparently wrong with the vehicle, and we were out in the park a good hike from any used road and without cell phone reception. In fact, for the Americans there is no cell reception in Cuba. And despite the news of Internet cafes opening, we never found one. After some moments of discussion between Mario and our driver, and a definite word that sounded like “broke”, a plan was hatched. The ladies would get in and the men would push and jump in once the engine got going. I had to wonder if it would get going. To everyone’s surprise with a hard push the engine started. The men jumped in and off we went on the bumping dirt drive back to Playa Larga. We were dropped off at Dayami’s casa, paid Mario for his services and with a push and a wave the jeep was on its way. Once again fresh cold juice was awaiting our arrival, and with a cold shower and clean clothes, all was right in the world. Our day with Mario was unplanned and perfect.

Zapata National Park, Cuba Julia ThomsenCopyright © XplorMor Inc. [Cienega Occidental de Zapata;Cuba;Cuba 2015;Cuba Entomology;Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;Cuba Expedition;Cuba Expedition 2015;Cuba Matanzas;Cuba Peninsula de Zapata Playa Larga;Cuba Photo;Cuba Research;Cuba Rising;Cuba Zapata;Explore Cuba;Matanzas Province;Parque Nacional Peninsula de Zapata;Peninsula de Zapata;Playa Larga;Playa Larga Cuba;Republic of Cuba Photo;UN Biosphere;United Nations Biosphere Cuba;XplorMor;XplorMor Cuba;XplorMor Cuba Entomology Research Expedition 2015;XplorMor Republic of Cuba;Zapata Peninsula]

Zapata National Park, Playa Larga, Cuba

Explore insects of Zapata National Park, and look for The Cuba We Are All Waiting to Experience to continue…

Tucuti: Gateway to the Perilous Darien Gap

Continued from Xplorer Journal: Navigating the Impenetrable Darien Gap...

As our expedition team finished breakfast, Vidal, a leader in the Tucuti community invited us to visit the town’s school and observe the children at study in its classrooms. I was an English teacher in South Korea for a term, and Tucuti reminded me very much of the small town where I was located. I jumped at the offer and stepped in with his brisk pace.

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Tucuti Primary School, Darien, Panama by Julia at XplorMor

We arrived at a building with architecture that I recognized: simple cinder block construction painted white, with the bottom half and roof edge, blue. I knew we were at a Panamanian School. The C.E.B.G. Inocencio Quintanar Blanco, is the main primary school for Tucuti. According to Vidal, the youngest students use the classrooms in the morning, and then the older students come in the afternoon as there are not enough classrooms to accommodate both at the same time. The other problem is the desks; only the small children fit on the seats, so the older must push them out-of-the-way and have class while sitting on the floor. Do they complain? No. They are happy to have their books and a school with teachers to explain the subjects.

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Panamanian Students at School by Julia at XplorMor

I toured each classroom, surprising the students with my unexpected entrance. They responded similarly to the Korean children I taught, fascinated to see a tall white blond-haired girl. Their stares varying from excited to scared, made me smile. I speak some Spanish, so was able to introduce myself and communicate enough to put them all at ease. And, they were able to respond in English with a few phrases such as “hello, how are you?”, “I’m fine” and “goodbye, nice to see you.” They also eagerly gathered around their teachers for me to photograph them. What a wonderful experience… I believe they thought so too.

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Discussing the Day’s Expedition Plan by Julia at XplorMor

I rejoined the others, and was back to the business at hand: the Darien Archaeological & Terrain Research Expedition. We reviewed the day’s goals and headed to collect our gear from Vidal’s home. Tucuti is a gateway into the Darien Gap, so here we would say goodbye to civilization and enter the perilous jungle to continue our search for the mysterious Yarre Mongara and to document unchartered territory.

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Packing Up and Heading Out of Tucuti into Darien Jungle by Julia

At Vidal’s house we repacked and organized our gear to be as condensed and light-weight as possible. My backpack was at its 42 liter capacity. The porters thankfully carried our food along with their gear, otherwise with water and my camera I would have felt overloaded. I debated on gear choices during the weeks before departure, especially camera equipment which tends to be heavy. In the end, I opted to take a workhorse: my Nikon D7000 and Nikkor lens 18-200mm, in a small over the shoulder, easy-access bag. No tripod and no wide-angle, though if I was to go again, I would carry the extra lens and possibly a telephoto to capture the wildlife.

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Outdoor Bath House and Laundry in Tucuti by Julia

We took turns using the primitive corrugated metal washroom shed in the backyard before taking our leave into the jungle. From here out, it would be biodegradable toilet tissue and a shovel, and streams for bathing. The joys of exploration. We said our goodbyes to Vidal and SENAFRONT, and began our long jungle trek to Playa de Muerto. The expedition continues in the dense forest as we head to Quebrada Guina, known simply as “Wina”…

Watch our Darien Gap Expedition slide show, and read more about Panama’s Darien Province. 

Navigating the Impenetrable Darien Gap

Continued from Xplorer Journal: Darien Gap Trek to the Monkey Stone, aka Yarre Mongara...

Leaving Puerto Quimba, Darien Province, Panama our expedition team traveled by motor boat along the Rio Turia passed Isla Mangle, and on to the river’s southern fork, Rio Balsas, or “River of Rafts”. Rio Balsas journeys through the heart of Darien Gap all the way to the Colombian border. Most settlements and villages in the Darien lie along its rivers as these are the main arteries and highways for travel, communication, medical attention, and to transport goods and livestock. The only other means to reach these remote locations is by foot, though some primitive dirt roads are in place for motorbikes and even off-road vehicles. However, where our expedition trekked, there were usually no trails, and the only means to venture forward were by bushwhacking and wading rivers.

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

The water level of Rio Balsas was lower than expected, and our boat was marooned many times along the snaking, switch backs of the river. As a result, our voyage took hours longer than expected and forced our first night’s stay at Camoganti, a small village nestled between the Chepigana Forest Reserve and the river’s edge. To get our gear to dry land we had to form a human chain, passing each piece of luggage from one to another off the boat and up on to the riverbank.

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Human chain on the banks of Rio Balsas by Julia at XplorMor

The Camoganti townspeople were very accommodating to our unexpected arrival. A shelter made from a simple concrete slab and beamed roof with three open walls became our “hotel” for the night, and enough hammocks were hung between beams in the ceiling to fit our entire group. Once our sleeping arrangements were in place, and while we waited for dinner to be cooked, a small one room general store opened to serve us ice-cold drinks. What a wonder in the tropical heat! A short time later, we were escorted to a nearby wooden cottage on stilts, and asked to take a seat in the living room. A lovely, smiling Embera woman brought out plates of typical Panamanian fare: meat, tostones (fried plantains) and rice. Hearty, filling and delicious.

We arose before dawn the next morning to get back on schedule. Our headlamps barely illuminated the pitch black veil still enveloping the village. As the river was so very low, our team left the motor boat at Camoganti and switched to several piraguas (dugout canoes made for navigating shallow river waters). Getting into the canoes was an adventure in itself due to the lack of light, low water level, steep slippery bank and muddy shore. We moved one at a time, holding on to poles and stepping aboard. Then one by one our canoes continued on Rio Balsas into Darien.

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

Tucuti homes with unexpected power lines and satellite dishes by Julia at XplorMor

Despite having switched to the dugouts, we continued to be marooned and forced to jump in the water and push. Even with the setbacks we arrived at Tucuti on the right side of noon. From the river bank, Tucuti looked like a very small village with a cluster of homes and a cemetery with few graves. However, upon closer look, there were power poles and lines in the trees and satellite dishes on roofs, even on the thatched stilted huts. So much for getting away from it all!

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

SENAFRONT, our escorts through Tucuti by Julia at XplorMor

Our dugouts were pulled on shore by some locals to be picked up later by their owners, as from here our expedition team would trek through the jungle all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We disembarked, heaved on our heavy backpacks and headed into town. Soon we found ourselves once again accompanied by SENAFRONT (Servicio Nacional de Fronteras de Panama), Panama’s border patrol. Fortunately they were warned by guards from the previous checkpoint that we would be arriving. While paperwork was sorted, we found more hospitality and a warm breakfast of fried eggs, tostones, and thick black sugared coffee.

Darien National Park XplorMor Inc

Breakfast of Darien Champions by Julia at XplorMor

The expedition continues in Tucuti and then heads into the Darien Jungle… Tucuti: Gateway to the perilous Darien Gap

Watch our Impenetrable Darien Gap Expedition slide show, and read more about Panama’s Darien Province.