Santa Cruz de Cana
Cana sits in a forested valley up against the eastern slope of the 1,615-meter-high Cerro Pirre. Given its extremely isolated location in the middle of dense, uninhabited forest, it’s hard to believe Cana has been a major player in the history of the isthmus for at least 500 years.
Even more astonishing is that at various times in that period it has hosted large, important settlements. During the Spanish colonial era it grew to be a town of 20,000. Later, it became the first place in all of Panama to have electricity, not to mention an ice plant.
The reason for all this attention was gold. The early conquistadors founded a settlement here and named it Santa Cruz de Cana, but it wasn’t until 1665 that they discovered the area’s fabulous gold deposits. “The richest gold mines ever yet found in America,” the buccaneer historian William Dampier called them in 1684. You can almost hear him drooling.
The Spaniards forced slaves to work the mines, which came to be known as Las Minas del Espíritu Santo de Cana. At their height, they produced 100,000 troy ounces of gold a year. But repeated attacks by English pirates, rebellions, and disease forced the Spanish to abandon the mines in 1727.
They were lost to the jungle for many years before they were reopened in the 19th century. Their most productive period was 1887–1912, when they were run by an Anglo-French outfit called the Darien Gold Mining Company. During this era there was a railroad linking Cana with Boca de Cupe, and from there to the outside world.
The mines were abandoned once again, and once again the jungle swallowed up most traces of human habitation. But in 1962 the last survivor of the Anglo-French operation, a hearty 73-year-old named Medardo Murillo, guided an expedition to the mines. He had started working as a mule driver in 1904, when he was 15, and he still remembered the way. The whole place was overgrown, naturally, but they did find one house still completely intact and still stocked with viable dynamite.
Though mining was revived once again for a spell starting in the 1960s, today Cana is treasured for different kinds of natural riches: amazingly diverse and abundant flora and fauna. Two of Murillo’s grandsons now work at an ecological field station at Cana, which, except for a tiny border-police post, is the only inhabited facility of any kind in the entire region.
Though in the middle of Parque Nacional Darién, Cana is operated by ANCON, a nonprofit environmental organization, and the tourist concession is operated by Ancon Expeditions, its for-profit tour-operator sister. Other tour operators can use the facilities, but arrangements have to be made through Ancon Expeditions.
Cana’s rustic wooden structure contains six basic rooms with little in them besides a bed and a few shelves. Fresh linens are supplied and there are screens on the windows. There are shared bathrooms and showers with running water.
A generator provides electricity 7–9 p.m., after which everyone switches to candles and flashlights. A plan to upgrade the facilities is on indefinite hold because there are not yet enough visitors to justify the cost.
The imposing abandoned mines (do not try to explore them; for one thing, it’s the perfect lair for jaguars and other beasties) and rusted mining equipment overwhelmed by vegetation give the place a slightly spooky Heart of Darkness feel. But for the most part it’s an open, airy, and inviting spot that doesn’t square with stereotypes that the uninitiated may harbor about the forbidding jungle.
Getting to Santa Cruz de Cana
The easiest, though by far the most expensive, way to visit Cana is by airplane, since only small chartered planes make the trip. Visits are generally arranged through tour operators, who offer package deals that include airfare. The trip over takes about 1.25 hours. The view is incredible. Planes land on a grass landing strip that ends in the mountain, which makes takeoffs and landings adventures in themselves.
Ancon Expeditions (tel. 269-9414 or 269-9415, fax 264-3713, www.anconexpeditions.com) offers a five-day all-inclusive package to Cana, “The Ultimate Darién Experience,” for US$1,495 per person. Larger groups pay significantly lower per-person rates. Prices do not include sales tax, currently 5 percent. A visit to Cana is sometimes included as part of other packages.
A far cheaper, though far more strenuous, way to visit is on foot. It’s a two- to three-day trek from Boca de Cupe, following the route of the old railroad. Most get to Boca de Cupe by river from El Real or Yaviza. This is a popular leg of many multiday Darién treks and definitely something to be tried only with well-equipped, knowledgeable guides.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition