“Snaaaaaaake! Mum, look! It’s a snake!” A small group of children were anxiously pointing at something on the ground in front of them. Lying at their feet on a bed of fallen leaves was an Equis (literally meaning “X”), one of the largest and most deadly snakes of Central and South America. Coiled in a loose knot, it sat motionless on a small patch of rocky ground that separated us from the children.
Panama With Kids: The Caves at Lake Bayano
We had spent the best part of the morning exploring an incredible network of limestone caves on the southern shoreline of Lake Bayano. Located approximately 80km (1.5 hours by car) north-east of Panama City, in an area of untamed wilderness, the caves are not a usual fixture on the tourist circuit. As some might say, they offer the ultimate off-the-beaten path adventure! Interestingly, the lake and river are named after Bayano, an African slave who led the biggest slave revolt against the Spanish in 16th century Panama.
Beginning with a 30-minute boat ride across the lake, our group of seven adults and eight kids (aged roughly 5 – 10 years) was led by Manuel, a local Panamanian from the tiny lakeside hamlet of Pueblo Nuevo. Before we encountered the snake we had spent a couple of hours wading, scrambling and at times swimming through 2km of dark, damp, rocky caverns with hundreds of bats flying overhead. My flip-flops were taped to my feet with duck tape and the faint beam from my head torch barely reached the walls surrounding us. To say I had come unprepared was perhaps something of an understatement!
Just before the snake episode, half the group had headed back with Manuel’s teenage son as the younger kids were tiring. The remaining party continued with the aim of reaching the ‘secret swimming pool’ at the end. I was at the back of the group, helping my seven-year old daughter navigate her way down some large rocks when I heard the snake alarm. It’s not uncommon to encounter a snake in Panama and I assumed that one of the kids had spotted a slithering shadow in the far distance. What in fact had happened still sends chills down my spine. Two children had stepped directly over the Equis snake.
The Equis Snake
Known in North America as the Fer-de-lance, or the Borthrops asper (it’s binomial name), the species is often described as the ‘ultimate pit viper’. Excitable and unpredictable their bites are extremely serious and usually fatal, especially when medical aid is not immediately available.
Of course at the time, I had no idea what an Equis was. When Manuel told us it was dangerous, the children on the far side of it backed away safely. However, the spot it occupied was a particularly narrow part of the gorge, perhaps only 6 or 7 feet at its widest point. There was not enough room to walk around it safely and of course we couldn’t turn around and retrace our steps either as two of the children in our group were already on the other side of it.
Thankfully we were in the expert, and extremely unflappable hands of our guide, Manuel. While we were all yelling at our overly-curious kids to “step back” or to “come here NOW!” Manuel casually picked up a rock and pitched it at the snake. He hit it right on target but it wasn’t enough to kill it. Thrashing around like a lit fuse on a bomb, we all looked on in horror. Manuel reached for another rock. After four or five successive blows he went in with his stick to finish it off. I loved my daughter’s first thought which was “What if Papa saw this?” (my husband, who we tease for being Mr Health and Safety, had gone back with our son in the other group), “he would FREAK OUT!”
As with all close shaves, it makes a good story but the reality is of course that we were exceptionally lucky and I’m certain that even the strongest atheist amongst us gave thanks to whoever was watching over us that day. It could easily have been a different story and to this day, I still feel myself turn a whiter shade of pale every time I recall it.
After tossing the dead snake over a rock, we continued to the pool at the end of the gorge. Bathed in warm sunlight and surrounded on all sides by enormous slabs of rock and tangled vegetation, a dip in the glistening jade water of this remote lagoon was a worthy reward.
The walk back was thankfully without incident. Although we did spot a couple of enormous spiders and swimming through the inky waters in the darkness was perhaps a little more daunting after the snake encounter. We could help but wonder if Equis snakes were swimmers! It turns out that they are, but mercifully none of us had access to google until we reached home at the end of the day.
Take The Video Tour of the Caves at Lake Bayano
The tour also included lunch at Pueblo Nuevo village near the entrance to the cave. Prepared by Manuel’s wife and other members of the community, we were given a choice between fried fish or fried chicken with (very good!) patacones.
Lake Bayano ‘Add-ons’
After lunch, we stopped off on one of the little islets in the lake for another swim. An alternative, but much longer addition to the tour is to take a boat trip along the Rio Maje to visit an Embera community. Although initially we were all keen to do this, we decided in the end that it would be too much for the kids. Given that they had already walked for three hours in the morning, and for much of the time up to their necks in water, we were happy to take it easy in the afternoon.
There is also the option of staying overnight with one of the families in Pueblo Nuevo or in a little two bedroom cabin overlooking the lake.
What you need to know / bring
- Good, solid water shoes with straps. The rocks can be extremely slippery and much of the tour is spent wading or swimming in the underground lagoons.
- Adult-size lifejackets are available. You are required to wear these in the caves as well as in the boat. Kids will need to bring their own.
- A powerful head torch, ideally waterproof
- Waterproof clothes. You will get wet. Rash vests and shorts / quick dryer trousers / yoga pants work well.
- Sun cream and mosquito repellent
- A change of clothes
- Water and snacks
- Sunhat for the boat ride
- Waterproof camera
- Don’t take anything that is not easy to carry or isn’t waterproof. Dry clothes and valuables can be stored in a secure place near the entrance.
- The guides do not speak Spanish.
- A snake bite kit?!
Getting to Lake Bayano
From Panama City, follow the Corridor Sur in the direction of Tocumen Airport. Continue straight on the Pan American Highway for about 80km (1.5 hours). The boat to the cave departs from Puente Bayano.
What are the chances of encountering a snake in Panama?
Although there is always a risk of encountering snakes and spiders (and possibly even caimans!) in the caves of Lake Bayano, the same can be said for much of Panama, or indeed in any of its Central American neighbours. However, in my two and a half years of living here, we have done countless rainforest walks and I have only ever seen three snakes. One of which was dead on the side of the road, the other was slithering across the main road in Panama City!
Booking a Tour at Lake Bayano
If this sounds like you’re kind of adventure then let us know and we can put you in touch with the guide.
The Venomous Snakes and Their Mimics of Panama and Costa Rica by Dr Julie Ray and James L Knight
The aim of this book is to not only help to limit the incidental and unnecessary killings of snakes, but also reduce the number of accidental snake bites. I wish we had known about it beforehand!
The book includes:
- Text in English and Spanish
- 56 species accounts with range maps
- Over 150 coloured photographs
- “No Touch” keys to help identify species
- List of hospitals in Panama and Costa Rica by province
Author, and snake ecologist, Dr Julie Ray also offers workshops for expats in Panama on basic identification of venomous vs non venomous snakes.
I Don’t Like Snakes by Nichola Davies
A sweet and beautifully illustrated story about a little girl who really, really, really dislikes snakes. By explaining to her why snakes behave as they do, her family give her a newly-found appreciation for these slippery, scaly, scary creatures.
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