Finding Rio Congo

Rio Congo

I have made it to Rio Congo. Soaked, Riana and I waked thru the water to shore. It is low tide and our feet sink in the mud. The shore is all mud, rocks and driftwood. This is not the white sand beach of travel magazines. Perhaps if it was there would be a hotel here.

Arriving at Rio Congo

Here is a nice shot of the boat with the clouds and water. This is such a beautiful place.

Rio Congo

The shore is filled with little boats that sit dry until the tide comes in. You can see a boat being built and the ever present dogs walking around.

Rio Congo

The Boat captain took us to his house to wash the salt off and hang our wet things to dry. He has a small simple house and a wife and kid. Their only luxuries is a small TV and a DVD players. Riana and I was the salt off in a rain barrow and get ready to hike to the site of the sawmill. I was putting my backpack on and the boat captain grabs it from me and insists on caring it himself.

Rio Congo

People here are really poor.

Rio Congo houses

Along the way we run into the man that I booked the boat with. He joins us along with a friend of his. We are taken to the local police post. The national police in the remote parts of the country is the army. They are soldiers. Usually they are very very well dressed. Their clothes clean, shoes polished and pants always tucked into their boots. The army outpost here is not up to the usual standards. There are 3 guys that guard this little part of panama and they are in boxer shorts and t-shirts. They have flip flops on. They ask for Riana’s and my passport to log in their book. They use a pencil to write or info in a spiraled bound notebook. The kind you used in high school. The pencil they used has been sharpened down over and over and was barely 2 inches long. It looked like the little pencils you see in a church pew or at a golf course. The notebook and the pencil are the only office equipment in this remote outpost. I asked to use the restroom and it was a tiny bathroom without running water. A bucked of rain water sat on the floor and you pored that into the toilet to flush it.The bathroom was off of the bed room. The police station was just 3 room. The office with the desk, and little jail cell and the bedroom and bathroom. The bed room was thee cots and a locker for their clothes. A AK-47 leaned up against the wall. I could of simply grabbed the gun. I told Riana that later and she thought the same thing when she used the bathroom. On the wall is a map of Rio Congo. Well, not a map but a faint pencil drawing of the village and the location of all the buildings. I took a photo. Perhaps the only map of Rio Congo on the entire internet. I have an enhanced copy that I did in photoshop to show the details better.

Map of Rio Congo on police station wall

Map of Rio Congo on police station wall (Photoshop enhanced)

We are all official now, part of the permanent record and we say good bye.

Our little party of 5 marches thru the jungle and up a hill. The views are amazing. Riana holds back looking at flowers and birds. It is very hot and humid. Welcome to Panama. The bugs are not bad. I got no mosquito bites my entire trip. Perhaps they don’t like me or perhaps the DEET works that well.

View of Gulf from Rio Congo

Every step is getting closer and I am so excited. I have no idea how much farther it is or even if I am in the right place. All my research says I will soon see what is left of the saw mill. But I have not proof. This is all still an leap of faith.


Its nice people are coming along. I did not invite them. I asked them about the american company and they knew nothing about it more than it was 30 minuets from Rio Congo along the beach. Rural Panamanians have an odd attitude. If they don’t know about it or its out of site it does not exist. They never answer “I don’t know” or “I assume so”. They answer “No.” Id ask “what is the next village like?” They would answer me “there are not any more villages.” I looked at goggle earth and it shows a village 20 miles west along the coast. I asked again and I am told there are no more villages. Plus they like to make up things to or just always answer yes to any question. You can asked them if this is where Obama was born and they would point across the village. May be a little extreme, but you get the point. Either way my guides are useless and I hope they don’t expect to get paid. I just wanted passage across the Gulf. I’m glad Riana came along. Its a comfort to have someone that speaks english. And we are becoming friends.



The jungle is getting thick and the path is hard to follow. The little


This is the beach of Rio Congo where the boat landed. It is low tide.

View of Gulf from Rio Congo

View of Gulf from Rio Congo

View of Gulf from Rio Congo

We are at the top of a hill and I can’t wait to see what is just out of sight.


And it is more jungle.






I turn around to help Riana across a creek and up a hill. I’m glad Riana come along. I took thousands of photos but it hard to take pictures of your self. So most of the photos of me here are from her.




Our new friends point me down to the beach. I am so close.

trekking thru the Jungle

Walking on the beach I ask how much further. I am told the place where the american company was is just a little further. You never know with Panamanians about time and distance. They have no sense of time. And distance is always father than they say.

A little more walking and off in the distance I see some something off on the shore. Its big and it did not grow here. Its the mill. I have found it. I am so happy. I stop and take a dozen photos and our friends keep walking. Up to this point I really had no idea if this was a wild goose chase. I had no proof that this is where the sawmill was. I don’t know if this is the right Rio Congo. I can find no other on the map, but then again map for this area are so bad and incomplete. But there is something big and mad made just ahead of me. The landscape looks like the photos. This has to be it.

Walking towards where the American Factory was

I turn around and take a photo down the beach I have been talking along. There is a shot of what Grandma would of seen every day. Nothing has changed here in 100 years. I am looking at exactly what she saw. It is such an odd feeling. Like a time warp. But also a special connection to the land, sky and sea. I feel like Grandma is here.

View of Gulf from Rio Congo

I’m getting closer. The landscape still looks like the old photos and there are huge metal things on the beach. Every step I am more excited and confident.

Rio Congo

When I get close it is two ship wreaks. Two large old iron boats. Nothing much remains of the first one. I ask if they know anything about the boat but they don’t. Just they have been hear as long as anyone can remember.

Rusted ship wreck

Rusted ship wreck

Rusted ship wreck

The second boat has a boiler, piston and a propeller.

Rusted ship wreck

Rusted ship wreck

There is a boat in the old pictures. Could this be that boat? It looks like the right size. But why would they been left behind?

Is the boat in the distance the wreck on the beach?

A close up of the I think is a piston for the steam engine.

Rusted ship wreck

I look for some kind of markings on the boat or boiler. I can’t find anything. I wonder is this was part of the mill. Odd to find two boats beached and abandoned. I ask again but the locals don’t know anything about them, except they are very old. That I can figure out for myself.

Rusted ship wreck

Rusted ship wreck

We continue walking and I start finding metal objects on the beach.

Iron object left from the sawmill

Another 100 feet down the beach and I am told there is where the american company was. I look around and compare it to the old photos. It is low tide but it looks right. All the photos look like they were taken at high tide. I start looking around. There are lots of rusted metal on the beach. I start picking up things.

Where the sawmill once stood

The Rio Congo Panama sawmill

Me standing at the waters edge, think my grandmother stood here too.

Is there were the houses where?

The beach my grandmother must of lived on

The houses grandma must of lived in

Standing where my grandmother lived 100 years ago

The sawmill - Not sure how they got high enough to take that photo

What my grandmother saw, 100 years ago

I move away from the waters edge. It is low tide and this would be where the beach water would come at high tide. I start looking for concrete footings for the buildings. My friends sit down. They do not quite get what I am doing. Riana walks around taking pictures. She is having fun. Her spanish is very good and she talks to the men trying to explain again what I am doing, walking around the jungle looking at rusted metal and taking pictures of a beach and jungle.

Where the "old American factory" was

My guides in Rio Congo

There they are. The concrete footings. This is it. This is where the rio congo sawmill was. I have found it. There is no longer any doubt.

View of where the sawmill stood 100 years ago

Concrete pylons from the sawmill

Concrete pylons from the sawmill

You can see the land in the distance matches in the next two photos.

Where the sawmill once stood

Old photo of the sawmill and a boat in the distance

Site of the sawmill

Concrete pylons from the sawmill

Here is a old cut log from the mill.

Old sawed log

Site of the sawmill

Site of the sawmill

A ask for a group photos. Me, our boat captain, the guy the arranged the trip, and the guy on the right, not sure who he is or way he came with us. Maybe he as board or wanted to join our adventure.

Me and our guides at the sawmill site

We are all friends and its is time to go. What an amazing journey. This is where Grandma lived, and where the stores of the jungle came from. And except for time not much has changed.

The guy we booked the boat with, the guy in the Demo shirt above tell Riana that he needs $125 dollars to take us back to La Palma. She tells me this and I tell here I am not going to worry about it until I am back to the Village. For now I just want to imagine C.A. Gates and his family living here 100 years ago.

I now have a good collection of metal objects. Old bolts, pieces of a chain, maybe part of a pipe. Some people come home with beautiful hand crafted clothes and jewelry, exotic shells from the beach. I have rusted nondescript iron. About 10 pounds. I ask the guy caring my backpack for my bag and put them all in the back pack. I take a lot of photos and walk around looking for anything else that has survived the decades. I would like to stay here and explore more. But Riana is bugging me that they guy want to get paid. I decide to carry my own pack back. With a depute coming up, I want my pack on my own back. There is nothing more to see on the beach. Id like to get up in the jungle and see more. Perhaps there are more things in the jungle I don’t have photos of. One of the the men tells me there is a swimming pool up in the hill. Id like to check but I decide to head back to the village. The vibe has changed and I want to get back near people. I am a little uncomfortable.

Riana is getting bugged about the money for our passage back. She tell me that its a special trip across the gulf for them. I told her to tell them we agreed on $3. If it was a special trip they should of told us. I told her if she wants she can tell them I hired her as my translator if she want to play neutral in the negations. She is german by birth and has lived in the US for many many years. But she still has this tuff german attitude. She tell me she does not want to pay $125. I tell her I have $25 on me. I tell her that they made a mistake if they want extorts me, they should of made sure I had money. And La Palma does not have an ATM. I joked with her if they took visa? I tell her we will go to the police and report this. I take more photos walking back. Riana asks if we can trust the soldiers. I tell her I don’t know. But its our only option. The police in Panama can be bribed. In Panama city $20 will get you out of most trouble. I keep in the back of mind that will be my last resort of things go bad. I doubt the locals have more money than I do. And they are the law here. The locals seem to have a lot of respect for them. And tourism is important to this country. So far all the cops here have been helpful and I think they can be trusted or at least bought.

We get to Rio Congo and the men go their own way. I guess they are not worried we are going to leave. There is not place for us to go. We walk around and look for the police building and go inside. She tells them that they want $125 to take us back and that we agreed $3 each way per person and regardless what they want to get paid we don’t have much money on us. She talks to them for about 30 minutes. I interrupt and ask what is going on. She tell me they are going to get the men and ask them what their story is.

In a little while one of the soldiers leaves to get the men and I walk over to the little store and ask get a ice cold bottle of coke cola. Its amazing, it does not matter how remote you are in the world, you can always find ice cold coke.

Little store in Rio Congo with Cold Coca-Cola

The women that runs the store asked me if I am taking the 3:00 pm boat back to La Palma. I shrugged my shoulder and told her my spanish is poor. We smiles and I walk back to the police station. I told Riana that she should talk to the store owner about another boat as her spanish is really good. Some comes back as tell me there is not boat, but that a boat should cost around $40 back to La Palma unless there is a group of people wanting to go and split the cost. She say there might be a boat tomorrow. But no one is sure if there will be enough people to justify a boat. They are poor and $3 is a lot of money. Boats only come and go when there is enough people that want to go to La Palma. In between you just wait. It might be a day or two before a boat will take us as part of a group. We tell the soldiers if we have to wait on the next boat we will spend the night.

We wait at the police station.

A solder returns with the men and the senior solider in charge ask them questions and Riana argues with them and the soldiers. I have no idea what is being said. I get the feeling from body language and what Riana is telling me that the guy that set up everything lied to our boat captain and to us and caused the entire mess. We ask about a road and are told there is a road. But on no maps I found any road or even villages between here and the main highway some 40 miles away. There is no marking of a road on the map of the village on the police station wall. Then we are told the road is a not a road but just a path wide enough for a truck and it is not passable right now. I am not convinced about the road option or even if there is a road. The village has no evidence of a car or truck ever being here. Their are no roads here only paths between houses and those are not big enough for a vehicle.

We buy the soldiers cokes and continue to talk. Riana offer a lesser about to our captain to take us back. But he refused to budge on the price. They guy has no job, nothing better to do. Other than pride, I can see any reason he will not negotiate with us. It is explained that we were told $3 and regardless if we are rich Americans, we don’t have the cash on us to pay him nor is their an ATM within ours of where to get money. The truth is, I had $300 in $50 in my money belt which was my emergency money if I got in trouble or had to bribe someone. But I did not tell anyone. I just let Riana do her thing and let it play out. About an hour later it is they came to an agreement and decided that I am to pay our captain the agreed $6 for she and I for the passage here. And the solider’s would find us a new boat. Its a little large boat, that is is was hollowed out of a bigger tree and had a larger motor. We had to pay him $40 to take us back and which was fine with me. I was happy to get of here. We are told it would be a little bit while he readied the boat and got gas. Rio Congo is a tiny village of no more than a couple of hundred people. They all know each other. It seemed off the captain was not very angry about getting stiffed out of his money. I am told we would pay the new boat $40 to go back to La Palma and the captain that brought us $6 for Riana. I get the feeling that it would be split among everyone. They said the gas would be at least $30 which seemed reasonable. And $10 for his time seem fair. Everyone seem happy. Riana thinks the first captain’s stubbornness is partly his macho pride having to deal with this tall blond women.

The soldiers have been wonderful everywhere I have been in Panama. Very fair, friendly, and helpful. I can’t say enough great thing about them. They have allot of check points in the Darien, and always record my passport info for my safety and ask where I am headed next and how I am leaving to make sure I make it back.

Riana and I walked over the the local cemetery to wait on the new boat. Its on a hill with a nice view and it was a place we could sit, watch and its felt nice to get away from them and be by ourselves. She and I both like cemetery. They are great way to see how people live and treat their dead. There was only 5 marked graves. I guess they are too poor to afford markers and must bury their loved ones in unmarked graves.

We sit on the graves, drink coke and wait.

Rio Congo grave yard

Me sitting on a grave waiting for our boat

After about 20 minuets we head down to the beach. Here are some of the houses on the beach of Rio Congo.

View of Rio Congo

I asked if I could have a photo with the officer in charge, our new boat captain and his hon.

Our boat Skipper, his son, the head of police and Me

On the way to the boat I see these children playing. I never saw one child cry the entire trip. All of them were always at play, laughing and very happy.

Children playing in Rio Congo

Heike and I head to our boat. The boat with the motor is ours.

Headed to our boat

My last image of Rio Congo as the boat sails off. That was a great adventure. I am kind of lost now. I don’t know what to do with myself. I missed my flight home. It left the day before on Friday. Its Saturday now. I am probably 2 days by bus from the airport in Costa Rica, I have been out of touch with everyone I know for days. I have never felt this feeling of having nothing to do, no place to go, and no one to talk to that I know. I spend all my days with things to do, plans to follow, people to see, things to do. Phone call to make. Emails to return. Now nothing. So strange to have no place to go, nothing to do, and no one to talk to.

I have everything I need to remain out in the jungle for weeks. I can always find food. And a cold coke. There is no internet for hours, no phone I can make an international call. There are phone booths, but I could never make a call out. There is even a phone both in the middle of Rio Congo. I’m not sure who they call.

Rio Congo has a phone booth that does not work

We get to the boat and its not the captain we were introduce to. Its some new guy. Nothing is predictable here. You just go with the flow.

Last sight of Rio Congo


Perhaps my favorite photo of all time. I am very happy, I found the village and the sawmill site. I have lots of artifacts from the mill. I have nothing to do and no where to go. No flight. and 10 weeks left on my visa. What to do. I propped my boots on the boat leaned back and let the ocean breeze dry the sweat.

The water soon got choppy and we got drenched. Riana loved the ocean spray. We both laughed at our adventure and almost getting stuck in Rio Congo. We are becoming good friends. We are soaking wet and happy to be going back to La Palma. We get to the other side of the gulf and the water calms. There is a strong breeze and in the heat we are soon dry off, but are covered in salt. The little light house marking the channel to La Palma is in view. We are almost back.

Heike enjoys the moment


We enter the channel to the inner gulf.


The water get very rough between the two parts of the gulf from the different currents.


When the water calms down again Riana sits on the bow of the boat and enjoys the ride. La Palma is off in the distance.


View of La Palma from the boat

The little port.

Heike exits the boat


Arriving back at La Palma

We are both hungry and go to a restaurant and get chicken, bananas and rice.

She asks me what I am doing tomorrow and and I tell her have no plans. She tell me that she wants to go to Mogue, a indian village deeper in the jungle. I have nothing to do and it sounds like fun. We finish dinner get some drinks and had back to the hotel. Night has come and Riana is tired and heads to bed. Is Saturday night and i walk around to find a local bar. The town is dead and its only 10:00 pm. Almost all the bars are closed. Friday night everyone was out having a good time. The streets had lots of people. Music was blasting from the bars. But tonight ia dead. Only two bars are open and there are only a few old men drinking. I head to bed.

My story should be over now. I have found what I have I have come to see and do. I have found grandmas house in Panama City, I have come to the jungle found Rio Congo and the sawmill site. Had a great time, Seen things I never thought I would see. Met amazing people. Had an adventure and the time of my life.

It odd that my favorite song, Green Day’s Time of your life just played on itunes as I type, it also played at the airport as I was checking in at LAX almost a month ago. I have not heard it since I left. Its cool that it played as I finish writing about Rio Congo.

But then Sunday would be Mogue. The adventure was not over, it was just starting!

I will post Mogue stores and photos tomorrow. If my trip was just the one day in Mogue the trip would be worth it. Mogue was the most interesting and dangerous day of my life. I have never been so removed, so far from anything I know and in the middle of the most unforgiving and remote part of the continent.

Time for my first warm shower in a almost a month. More later….

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