Lake Bayano is a large artificial lake in the western Darién. The spooky (but beautiful) caves that lie along one side of the lake are the principal attraction for most visitors.
Lake Bayano is located 55 miles (90 km) east of Panama City. The lake was created in 1976 when the Bayano River was dammed—today the Bayano Dam is the second-largest source of power in Panama. During its construction, the dam flooded 135 square miles (350 square kilometers) of forest and forced indigenous Guna and Emberá communities to leave. Not surprisingly, this was widely controversial and extremely unpopular within indigenous circles.
In 1996, nearly twenty years later, several Guna communities founded their own comarca (semiautonomous reservation). Known as the Comarca Guna de Madungandí, this comarca borders much of the lake and extends north towards the Caribbean. The Guna still argue with the Panamanian government about land that was lost during the building of the dam.
History aside, Lake Bayano is primarily known for its caves. There are technically three caves here, but most people only explore the first one. The Río Seco flows through this 1.5-mile (2-km) long cave, and during the wet season it’s possible to take a boat deep into the belly of the cave. When the water is low, however, you may have to get out of the boat and wade through water. There are also places where you’ll have to ample over slick rocks—be sure to wear good shoes.
An enormous bat colony calls this cave home. When you shine a light into the cave, you’ll see rows of bats hanging from the rocks. The bats won’t hurt you, but it’s a good idea to wear a bandana over your mouth and nose anyway—this will minimize contact with bat droppings.
Those that continue on through the cave will eventually reach an open area where light filters in through cracks in the rock. Calcium deposits bulge from the walls and long roots dangle overhead. It’s a darkly beautiful place.
The Lake Bayano area is slowly beginning to offer other activities aside from spelunking. The bird watching is pretty good, and there are opportunities for kayaking and fishing on the lake. Hiking and mountain biking can be enjoyed in the forests that border the shore.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive to Lake Bayano from Panama City.