The El Llano–Cartí Road
Shortly before reaching Lago Bayano there’s a turnoff to a road that leads all the way down to the Comaraca de Kuna Yala. This is the 30-kilometer long El Llano–Cartí Road, which heads north over the Continental Divide to the Caribbean coast, ending at the Kuna town of Cartí. It is the only land access to the islands.
This road has finally been paved. There are still some rough spots and it shouldn’t be attempted without a high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle and a competent driver. But the road has opened up the islands to a whole new group of travelers who either couldn’t afford or were too scared of the plane journey to Kuna Yala. (Enterprising Kunas have set up a low-cost transportation service from Panama City to Kuna Yala via this road.)
The road has encouraged squatters, cattle ranchers, and poachers to invade Kuna land. To try to stop this encroachment, the Kuna established a nearly 100,000-hectare forest reserve in this area called the Área Silvestre de Narganá.
With funding from international organizations, they built a rustic lodge along the Continental Divide in an area called Nusagandí, hoping to attract ecotourism. The Kuna ecotourism project never quite got off the ground and the lodge is pretty much abandoned.
However there is another ecolodge, Burbayar Lodge, along the road that attracts birders and other nature lovers.
There is one appealing place to stay along the road. Burbayar Lodge (tel. 393-7340, cell 6674-2964, www.burbayar.com, US$190 pp for the first night, including all meals, transportation from and to Panama City, and a guided hike; US$155 pp for subsequent nights) lies along the San Blas mountain range 14.5 kilometers north of the Interamericana and 22 kilometers south of the Caribbean coast.
An experienced naturalist guide who has made many Darién expeditions calls it his favorite rustic nature lodge in the country. It’s at 375 meters above sea level, high enough for cooler temperatures, pleasant breezes, and, apparently, no mosquitoes.
There is electricity and running water, and the accommodations are simple but comfortable. The lodge can accommodate just 14 people at a time, in shared rooms. Meals are served family-style on a terrace in the main lodge. The lodge appears to be making a genuine effort to be as eco-friendly as possible.
The lodge borders the Narganá forest reserve and offers six forest trails of varying degrees of difficulty. The lodge also offers tour packages. These include visits to Lago Bayano and the Bayano caves as well as a tough all-day hike to Cartí, in Kuna Yala. Once there, hikers can spend the night in a Kuna hotel on one of the islands.
Tour packages generally include transportation to and from Panama City, boat transportation, a local guide, and meals.
This area has the finest birding in eastern Panama after Cana and Pirre Station. This is the best place in Panama, for instance, to see the speckled antshrike, black-headed antthrush, and black-crowned antpitta. An estimated 400 bird species pass through the area, of which birders at Burbayar have so far counted about 300. The dry season is the best time for birding.
Those who choose not to stay at the lodge can also do some exploring along the road on a day trip. The view from even a few kilometers above the Interamericana is sweeping and lovely, though the sight of hill after deforested hill now covered with teak plantations on the Pacific side shows just what the Kuna are so worried about.
It’s also possible to trek from the highway all the way to Cartí, but this means two long days of hiking. Hikers can arrange to spend the night either at Burbayar or strike a deal with local Kuna to crash at what’s left of the Nusagandí lodge.
Plan to arrive at Cartí, on the Caribbean shore, early in the morning; after the morning planes come and go, there probably won’t be anyone around to take hikers to the islands until the next day. It’s possible to do this hike without a guide, but it’s not a good idea. In any case, the usual mantra applies: Do not hike alone. Only truly fit people should attempt this one.
Getting to the El Llano–Cartí Road
The unmarked turnoff to the El Llano–Cartí Road is about 15 kilometers east of Chepo, just before the flyspeck town of El Llano (pop. 2,839). There’s a rice field on the right. Turn left onto the unpaved road. It’s possible to pick up some provisions in El Llano, but Cañita, eight kilometers farther east, is better stocked.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition