A Kalu Yala hike turned into high adventure

The starting point of the hiking trip was at Kalu Yala - a sustainable community in the
Panamanian jungle. (Grace Wade/Medill)

By Nadine Daher

Fifty miles over four days, from the jungle to the Caribbean Sea. Seven hikers left Kalu Yala, a sustainable eco-town in the making located in the Panamanian jungle, and began their trek to the Caribbean coast. These hikers soon found out that, at some points, this untested trail did not even exist.


The destination of the hiking trip was the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean Sea. (Alex Schwartz/Medill)

Bushwhacking through the jungle was never on the agenda for the seven hikers, interns and directors developing sustainability projects at this experimental community. But they had to improvise to reach their destination safely – or at all.

Kalu Yala intern Carter Angel, one of the explorers on the trip, didn't even know much about hiking. “I think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life and it was as rewarding as it was challenging,” said Angel, 31, a Kalu Yala resident from Virginia. The challenges they faced ranged from language barriers and physical injury to a treacherous climb through the mountains that took them in a circle – back to their starting point a day later.

The Kalu Yala hikers were accompanied by local Panamanian guides, “two farmers that knew their way but didn't know the trails,” Angel said. At some points the hikers saw that they were going off-trail but communicating the ideas in Spanish to the guides, who were looking for shortcuts with well-trained eyes, was difficult.

Nevertheless, the guides proved essential to the group’s survival. “We walked by a wasp nest and (the guide) just took his hand and plugged up the hole so they couldn't get out,” Angel said. The locals’ knowledge of the area and the environment allowed them to “hear and see things that anybody else wouldn't be able to hear or see,” she said.

Marie Stringer, co-owner of Tres Brazos Outfitters – an outdoor adventure recreation business at Kalu Yala – helped plan this trip, and described the trail as the “supreme jungle” meant for adventurous tourists who want to explore the way to the ocean rather than fly by it in a 1.5-hour truck ride. She tracked the hikers as they took this trip and saw that they were walking in the wrong direction at points. But Angel and her companions had to circle back, and as a result, fell far behind schedule. “We were in such a time crunch that there were points where we were literally running,” Angel said. They had to make it in four days – or their supplies would run out.

In the midst of this adventure-gone-wrong, the travel team diminished from seven to four. “Jess, who did the filming got injured, and then Jimmy’s shoes fell apart,” Angel said. Another hiker, Bailey, also had to return to Kalu Yala. “Luckily though, it was kind of a blessing in disguise because they gave us their food and some of their clothes,” Angel said. Carter continued on this trek with Kalu Yala staffers Tara McLaughlin, Sasha Papich, and Wes Stiner.

These risks did make this experience unforgettable for the hikers, but so did the rewards. “There’s some really beautiful points on the trail and I think the four of us really really bonded,” Angel said, and then she went on explaining how they saw bioluminescent plankton during a boat ride.

Although the trip did not go as planned, this is what happens when the trail is untested, “they’ll be doing it again next semester,” said Stringer, from Tres Brazos Outfitters.  

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