All the darienitas we asked about Sambú said that it was beautiful, renowned Darién-wide for its relaxing pace; the opposite of a bustling town like La Palma. Many in the non-darienita world hold Sambú to a more precarious reputation. It is often explained as a place too raw for foreigners. Most equate it to less of a vacation destination than a contemporary setting for Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The latter group is wrong. Though they may have been correct that the town is an oasis in a hellishly mangled (though strangely beautiful) jungle, Sambú is certainly not too raw… it is just raw enough.
The town is cut in half by a rudimentary runway for the semi-weekly Air Panama flights. The concrete stretch also serves as a decent surface for bicycles, horses, and impromptu soccer games on its off days. Most of the houses in the area are thatched-roof huts built by the Emberá, the local indigenous tribe. Needless to say, there is a stark cultural duality in Sambú.
The Emberá hold tightly to their indigenous heritage. Many of the females walk around without shirts, wearing only the bright, multicolored skirts known as Uhua. Another example can be seen during the evening hours, when the elder women construct a series of fires around their families’ huts in order to keep the evil sprits from entering their homes as the sun sets and they prepare for bed.
Consistent with our nature as travelers, we made no lodging
arrangements prior to our arrival. All the local recommendations led
us to a man named Juan Loco, a regionally famous Sambú resident who
certainly lived up to his moniker.
Juan Loco was a stocky man
with fingers and toes swollen from 65 years of adventuring in the
Darién jungle. He made his living by renting out rooms and serving as a
guide to the occasional visitor. He got his name as a child in Colombia
because he loved to pick–and win–fights. It was said that he always
seemed to have a menacing smile on his face, even when he fought.
Although his fighting days were long since over, he still kept his
smile–and his fearlessness.
Once Juan Loco set us up, he
offered to take us out on his piragua (dugout canoe) to go fishing and
hunting on the Sambú River. When he spoke of the river, his eyes lit
the room and his mannerisms became uncontrollably animated. Juan Loco,
though, is no juvenile guide.
Exhausted, we sought the local
watering hole for a cold Soberana (a refreshing Panamanian lager). It
was a two-minute walk from our guest house.There we met Marco, the
town’s English teacher, and one of only two people on our trip with who
we spoke any English. (The other was a Polish traveler in La Palma,
After a few Soberanas, Marco humbly offered us
the opportunity to teach an English class at the primary school the
following morning before we began our Sambú River trek. We eagerly
accepted and headed straight to bed to get some much-needed rest.