Known by everyone simply as El Real, this sleepy town (pop. 1,185) sits on the edge of the Río Tuira and is mainly of interest to travelers as the staging ground for trips into Parque Nacional Darién  or up and down the enormous Río Tuira. The town is friendlier and more laid-back than nearby Yaviza . Still, few visitors use El Real as anything other than a stepping-stone to someplace else.
The Spanish founded El Real in the early 17th century. Today it boasts little more than an airstrip, a small hospital, a couple of places to stay, three utterly basic restaurants, a few bars, and one billion roosters, all of which are eager to rouse exhausted travelers insanely early.
A big party day around here is August 15, the festival of La Virgen Santa María la Antigua. It’s a good excuse for cockfighting and drinking.
El Real’s ramshackle houses are connected by a short network of streets and footpaths. It takes maybe 10 minutes to see the whole place. All the places listed here are within shouting distance of each other. If any are closed when you arrive, ask around: The owner is probably nearby and would be happy to open up for a potential customer.
Cana Blanca (no phone) is the most attractive and interesting of the town’s bars. It’s a 60-year-old cantina with a thatched roof and cane walls, a local institution that’s a popular place to begin or end an expedition.
Hotel El Nazareno (tel. 299-6567 or 299-6548, US$10 s, US$12 d) is an old wooden tinderbox of a place on what passes for the main street in what passes for downtown. If you stay here, don’t light a match, and pray no one else does, either. It’s rustic and the plumbing doesn’t work well—one flushes the toilets by dumping a bucket of water down them. Rooms are equipped with fans, and some have private baths. The “best” rooms are on the balcony facing the street. Reception is at the small general store next door.
A better though not more attractive lodging option is the very basic rooms rented out by Narciso “Chicho” Bristán (tel. 299-6566, US$8 pp). However, these are generally only available to those using Chicho’s expert boatman services. Rooms have foam mattresses, plywood walls that don’t extend all the way to the ceiling, fans, and that’s about it. Showers and toilets are down the hall. This is basically a rustic barracks, but it’s about as good as it gets in this part of the Darién .
The most appealing of the three hole-in-the-wall eateries in town, Fonda Maná (no phone) consists of a few tables in what is essentially someone’s living room. The food is pretty good, considering, and as in all fondas (taverns) consists of whatever’s on hand that day. Nothing costs more than a buck or two.
The general store next to Hotel El Nazareno and a similar store just up the street carry the bare necessities for a Darién adventure, from machetes to dry noodles.
Those heading into the national park, including Pirre Station , must pay the US$5 park entrance fee at the ANAM office (tel. 299-6965, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri.) in town. The entrance fee is US$3.50 per person. A bed in the dormitory at Pirre Station costs US$10 per person per night. Make that US$5 if you just want to pitch a tent on the grounds. It may be possible to hire an ANAM forest guard to guide you for about US$10 each way.
There’s an office of the Servicio Nacional para la Eradicación de Malaria (SNEM, tel. 299-6299) in town. It can supply antimalaria pills for free if you’re running low.
Thanks to the improvement of the road from Panama City  to Yaviza , there are no longer flights to El Real, at least by now. Most visitors now travel by four-wheel-drive or bus to Yaviza and then travel by boat to El Real.
El Real is the closest transportation hub to Pirre Station , an ANAM ranger station in the most accessible part of Parque Nacional Darién . There are two ways to get to Pirre Station from El Real: by boat up the Río Pirre and on foot along a forest trail.
Most transportation around here is by river . It shouldn’t be tough to hitch a ride on a piragua (long dugout canoe) to or from Yaviza, where the Interamericana begins (or ends, depending on one’s persective). The fare is US$5 a head.
Longer river trips require more planning and considerable expense. Fuel costs a lot in the Darién , shallow waters take a toll on motors, and the rivers are often blocked by logjams that have to be cut through with chainsaws.
Narciso “Chicho” Bristán (tel. 299-6566) has a well-deserved reputation as the most able boatman in the Darién. He’s a sharp, serious guy who shows up on time and hires a top crew. He lives in El Real; everyone knows him. Chicho charges US$75 each way for a trip up the Río Pirre to Piji Basal, the closest village to Pirre Station. A day trip up the Río Tuira to visit the villages along the river costs US$160 round-trip to go as far as Union Chocó. A voyage down the Río Tuira to La Palma , the provincial capital of Darién province, costs at least US$200 one-way (expensive because he has to go back to El Real at the end of the trip). All prices are for up to five people and do not include tips (a good guide will advise whom to tip, and how much; at the very least, tip the hard-working poleman).
Caution: The steps leading down to El Real’s “port” are incredibly slippery.