RIO CHAGRES, PANAMA

The Rio Chagres, one of the most important rivers in the world, remains relatively unknown in spite of its colorful history and current global significance. It is the river that has transported the wealth of nations in precious metals, jewels, commodities and manufactured goods, the river that has witnessed an extraordinary level of man's greed, agony and ingenuity, and the only river in the world that empties into two oceans.

The Panama Canal
The mountains from which the Rio Chagres and its tributaries flow receive up to 200 inches of rainfall each year. Unlike the jagged peaks of the Rockies and the Andes that run along the length of the Americas, these mountains are dome shaped with steep sides. It is a fast flowing river that courses through primary rainforest between sheer limestone cliffs to deliver eighty billion cubic feet of water annually to the man-made Lake Alajuela whose waters are confined by the Madden Dam. Here, the waters of the Chagres are controlled to maintain appropriate levels in the canal lakes, to fill the locks and to generate the electricity that operates the canal. Below the dam, Rio Chagres continues to the town of Gamboa where its waters separate to flow into the Atlantic to the northwest and into the Pacific to the southeast.

The Panama Canal was started by the French in 1880 who eventually abandoned the project leaving in its wake an almost bankrupt French nation and thousands of deaths from tropical diseases, mainly malaria and yellow fever. One of the main reminders of the French role in the construction of the canal is the scattered remains of their equipment and a train still submerged beneath the waters of Gatun Lake. Later, it was acquired by the Americans who overcame the challenges presented by the engineering, environmental and health problems that defeated the French. It is a modern engineering accomplishment and no visit to Panama is complete without cruising the canal and viewing first hand the functioning of the locks. Chambers are filled and emptied by gravity and Rio Chagres provides the fifty two million gallons of water needed to move each ship through the canal.

Nature Reserves
The US overcame the problems associated with the French attempt to dig a canal from ocean to ocean by flooding the Rio Chagres to create the man-made Gatun Lake and numerous small islands that were previously hilltops. Barro Colorado is one of the larger islands (3700 acres) whose protection is administered by The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute along with five adjacent mainland peninsulas. This area of moist tropical forest is home to almost 400 species of birds, more plant species than can be found in all of Europe, and comprises the 13,400 acre Barro Colorado Nature Monument.

The Soberania National Park (54,600 acres) is located in the Canal watershed and is best known for its World Record bird counts established by the Panama Audubon Society along the Pipeline Road. Its renown among ornithologists overshadows the fact that it is one of the best and most accessible tropical forest reserves in Panama with an abundance of tree species, blue morpho butterflies, howler monkeys and other wilderness creatures. Because it is usually difficult to see these creatures in the forest, the Summit Gardens and Zoo at the southern end of the park provides the opportunity to view some unusual animals and there is also an extensive collection of tropical plants. Trails follow winding streams through lush forests: El Charco trail crosses Rio Sardinilla a number of times and there is a large waterfall to be seen on the Agua Salud river. The Las Cruces Trail was the primary route across the isthmus of Panama from 1530-1855. It linked the city to the town of Ventas de Cruces where boats would continue the journey down the Rio Chagres to Fort San Lorenzo on the Caribbean. Ventas de Cruces is now under water but most of the trail remains.

Chagres National Park was established to protect the Rio Chagres watershed which supplies 80% of the water needed to operate the Panama Canal as well as the consumption requirements of the city. It is the wildest of the reserves near to the canal and this area is home to many animals including jaguars and ocelots. El Camino Real, the trail used by the Spanish to transport gold, passes through the park and it is possible to retrace the path in a four day hike. However, local people say that the path is haunted by the slaves who built the trail and transported the undreamed of wealth of the Incas and the Aztecs across the Chagres valley.

Best Times to Go: January to April is best for hiking and lowland areas are cooler. Still, the experience of a Chagres adventure will be rewarding at any time.

Getting There: This is one of the most accessible regions in Panama and all areas described are reached from the Panama-Colon road. The only exception is the Barro Colorado National Monument which has very limited access. Visits may be made with the Smithsonian but reservations are required several weeks in advance. A more convenient option is the boat and walking tour offered by Ancon Expeditions.

Call Argo Tours (507-228-4348) to make your own arrangements for partial transit tours of the canal. There is a minimum passenger requirement so call as soon as you arrive in Panama. Departures leave from the Balboa Canal Zone Pier.

Clothing/Gear: No special clothing/gear is needed unless you plan to go rafting, scuba diving or to hike overnight in the rainforest. Bring insect repellent and sun tan lotion. For rafting and scuba diving, you will need a swim suit, towel, a change of clothing and a light jacket in case the weather turns chilly. For overnight hiking in heavily forested areas, you will need a hammock, mosquito netting, raingear and an extra change of clothing.

General Information: Hiking trails are numerous in the canal area parks. Some are of historical significance while others exhibit an extraordinary ecological diversity. Short, self-guided trails are available but for longer hikes, INRENARE (Instituto Nacional de Recurson Naturales Renovables) Tel 232-5853, 238-6601, requires the use of park guides and a permit is needed.

Organized tours to the area are numerous and interesting with an excellent variety for the adventure traveler. The canal offers an unusual scuba diving opportunity to view the submerged French train and eqipment while rafting on the Rio Chagres provides a different perspective of the forest.

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copyright 1996 Adventures Great and Small