Our friends on “Freya” helped us organize a river tour on the Rio Sidra with Master Mola Maker Lisa. Originally, we were going to have 12 people: 2 from Sugar Shack, 6 from “Itchy Foot” and 4 from “Wandering Rose.” But “Itchy Foot” had to head West so it was just 6 of us plus 4 girls from a different charter. Lisa and her helper, Fernando picked us all up before 0900 and we had an hour panga ride to the river opening. It was a bit wet, bumpy, and uncomfortable. Our bums were hurting from the wood planks we were sitting on, but we endured.
Image: Top is panga (with “Wandering Rose” and 4 guests from another charter) coming to pick up Sugar Shack, middle is “Wandering Rose” and Sugar Shack; and bottom is an image of the charter girls.
It quickly shallowed as we entered Rio Sidra so our guides had to lift the outboard and paddle the panga to get through. It was very lovely and serene as we paddled up the river with low overhanging trees, birds chirping, and the soft lapping of the water on the boat. The Rio Cedra means mermaid river in Kuna. Which is so appropriate as I bought a mola from Lisa with a mermaid on it several weeks ago. Lisa is in the top left corner and doesn’t look as scary as the photo (just a bad photo with the wind catching her hair funny).
At one point, our guides actually got out into the water and took our panga for a walk.
Once we got to our destination where the panga ride ends and the hike begins, we all hopped out and started the walk in the jungle. Before we started on our hike, Lisa informed us that we can take pictures of everything except when there are Kuna present. And we would not be able to take photos at the cemetery if a ceremony was taking place. As luck would have it, there was no ceremony at the cemetery.
After about 20 minutes we came to the first cemetery used by the Kuna community. Kuna have very strong cultural beliefs when it comes to the burial of their people. They are buried in hammocks just below ground level (not deep like in the U.S.) Lisa informed us that the first burial site was for children. The Kuna had brought several children to Panama City for simple ailments like asthma and yet they perished in those hospitals. So the Kuna no longer send their kids to Panama City. Very sad.
Along the way, Lisa pointed out one of the special trees used for creating their dugouts (pangas or Ulu). It is an immense tree and so very beautiful. The one she showed us is protected because of its location by the cemetery.
We continued on our journey through the jungle as Lisa pointed out plants, the Kuna mountain, and a few animals. She is very informative and speaks English pretty well!
Ten minutes after we walked through the cemetery, we had the good fortune to pass a medicine woman, or “Shamen” or “Nele” as they are called. She was accompanied by a male helper who was also a medicine man, but lower in status, in training. He was not her husband, but a assistant. The Nele was lovely, pleasant, and courteous. She stopped and looked us all in the eye as she shook our hands. She also gave Lisa a Kuna cross to protect us from any dangers on our adventure. We were not allowed to take any photos of her which is a shame as she was beautiful.
As we continued to walk along the path, a beautiful, majestic mountain peaked out between the clouds and fog. Lisa told us that this was the border between the Kuna land and the Panamanian land. She said that the Kuna believe there ancestors hid precious stones, gold, and silver in those mountains from the conquistadors during the revolution. Their treasures are protected by giant animals including pumas and serpents. The Kuna Indians do not go to this mountain at all. The mountain was covered in a dense fog and did not come out well in my photo.
Lisa and her guide found local flowers and handed one to every female guest. We proceeded to put them in our mouth for a fabulous photo op. Left to right: Lisa, me, Karen, Laurel (charter), Mary, Jen, Anita, and Bonnie (last 3 charter).
The entire hike took about 90 minutes to walk up to the Rio Sidra waterfalls, not but because it was a hard hike. Rather because we were enjoying the scenery and commentary. When we arrived at the Rio Sidra waterfalls, our guide showed us how to jump off the 12’ cliff into the very deep, fresh water pool. After his demonstration we all ate lunch and decided who was going to hike back the way we came or who was going to swim and hike back along the river. Only 2 of the charter guests decided to hike back the way we came – everyone else jumped in and did the river route.
It was brisk, but refreshing – especially after our hike through the jungle. There were two rocks you could leap off of into the Rio Sidra pool just past the small waterfalls. One was higher than the other and you had to navigate a really slippery edge, leap over rocks below before landing in the water. The other was closer to the water, not slippery and went straight down. Guess which one I took and which one Matt took?
Our guide surprised us by swimming under a rock and popped up on the rapid side (going against the current). It was a huge rock. He then repeated the process going with the current. Pretty remarkable. Mary and Dave followed behind him, but the rest of us just admired. Evidently, you had to swim down about 3-4’ below the rock, open your eyes and swim on through.
After a relaxing swim, we decided to head back. Two of the charter guests walked back with one guide and all of our belongings that needed to stay dry. The remaining 8 of us followed Lisa down the river. We each had really tall walking sticks to assist us across the rocks, stones, logs, and small rapids. The journey was a combination of walking over rocks and boulders, swimming, and hiking.
Fifteen minutes in to our swim/hike we came to a waterfall. Lisa proceeded to pitch all of our walking sticks down the river and told us to follow her as she jumped off a rock. WTF! She didn’t tell us this was in the plan. I pointed to shorter walks and she said “no” and pointed to where she just was. Crimey! This time, I weaseled my way to the front to jump before the charter guests as they made me nervous with their hemming and hawing. I looked once, plugged my nose, and took a giant leap off the rock. Whew! Exhilarating and terrifying all at once!
Down the Rio Sidra river, we came to a small rapid and Lisa showed us how to go down them. Not around them, but down them. She laid down, put her arms across her chest, head down and let the water taker her down to the next pool. We all followed and it was thrilling! You are gently carried along with the water until you go over and then you are plunged into the deep water before popping up.
As we were walking down the river, Lisa had stopped at a large rock just above the water. She had written the date and her name with another red rock and instructed us to write our name which we did. Of course, this will wash off with the river water. Sugar Shack is in the upper right corner just above the red rock we used to write our names.
We had the pleasure of going down another set rapids which were a little bigger and it was just as fun! But before we were to go down the rapids, Lisa took some red dirt and gave us each a blessing. First the ladies, she wiped a stripe down our noses and a mark across each cheek, then the men received a stripe down their nose.
She said that this was a blessing in Kuna culture that was washed off as you descended down the rapids.
It was an incredible day, beautiful weather, spectacular scenery, and fun adventure. Spending most of the day in fresh water was invigorating, but the panga ride back was wet and salty.
When we returned to the boat we rinsed everything off, showered, cleaned up and had our friends from “Wandering Rose” and their guests over for sundowners. Matt cooked up some fresh basil mozzarella pizzas for everyone, Mary brought a tasty spicy corn dish over and enjoyed libations until almost midnight.
New Experiences on the Rio Sidra:
- Jumping off a cliff
- Going down a rapid
- Walking in a jungle in Kuna territory
- Putting a wild flower in my mouth
- Being blessed by a Kuna
- Swimming in Rio Sidra as a mermaid