The Land of Nephi
An insight into the environment of the Land of Nephi can be gained from one of the missionary experiences of Ammon during his labors among the Lamanites.
Ammon and the waterhole.
"But Ammon said unto [the king]... I will be thy servant. Therefore Ammon became a servant to king Lamoni. And it came to pass that he was set among other servants to watch the flocks of Lamoni, according to the custom of the Lamanites.
And after he had been in the service of the king three days, as he was with the Lamanitish servants going forth with their flocks to the place of water, which was called the water of Sebus, and all the Lamanites drive their flocks hither, that they may have water—Therefore, as Ammon and the servants of the king were driving forth their flocks to this place of water, behold, a certain number of the Lamanites, who had been with their flocks to water, stood and scattered the flocks of Ammon and the servants of the king, and they scattered them insomuch that they fled many ways.
Now the servants of the king began to murmur, saying: Now the king will slay us, as he has our brethren because their flocks were scattered by the wickedness of these men. And they began to weep exceedingly, saying: Behold, our flocks are scattered already (Alma 17:25-28.)."
This event paves the way for Ammon to miraculously save the flocks of the king, and overpower the robbers, which greatly impresses the Lamanites. Eventually he is able to convert them. The account also gives us a clear insight into the land of Ishmael (which I believe was adjacent to the land of Nephi). It was a place where flocks could be grazed, scattered, and easily rounded up. To my mind, this would indicate open or rolling grass land or tropical savannah; it would be difficult to graze flocks in a region of dense forest, or round up scattered herds in broken canyon land. It was a fairly dry area with few places for watering stock, and had been so for some time as this pattern of banditry had apparently been going on for years. Note that "all the Lamanites" (i.e. from a wide area) took their flocks there to water them. If there were abundant rainfall, with many streams and springs, this event would not have happened. (However this event could also have occurred during the dry season in an otherwise wet environment.) The watering hole was probably a large spring, a small lake, or possibly an accessible bank on a river. If it were a large feature, it would have been much more difficult for the bandits to carry out their crime. To match the above criteria in Central America, the Land of Ishmael would have to be in an upland valley, probably on the Pacific slope of the cordillera. There the mountains shield the western slopes from the prevailing Gulf winds moving inland from the sea, resulting in a drier climate, or at least a pronounced dry season. Now relating this to the Land of Nephi (or Lehi-Nephi in some cases), it appears that it would be in a similar setting.
Keeping this in mind, and working from the key locations of the narrow neck (the Isthmus of Rivas), and the southern wilderness (the Talamancan Cordillera), it is proposed that the Land of Nephi was somewhere in the vicinity of Volcan in southwestern Panama (Views of Volcan area 1, 2, 3, 4). (Perhaps it could even be the ancient archaeological site of Barriles (additional views), about 5 miles from Volcan, which dates back to Book of Mormon times.) This location complies with the above listed criteria. Volcan is situated in a highland valley, at about 6000 feet elevation, and is located at the base of the extinct volcano Baru. It is a lovely area, with several other valleys and cities in similar settings at the base of the mountains. The valleys are somewhat dry for this region, and one of the principal land uses is grazing. The region is called "the Switzerland of Central America" because of its alpine settings, lovely climate, and towering mountains (also a number of Swiss immigrants settled there).
Criteria for the Land of Nephi.
It was a twenty days journey from Nephi to Zarahemla (with families apparently on foot) (Mosiah 23:1-4; 24:25). This would have been about 100-200 miles.
It was an area of grassland or savannah (not a forested area or jungle) where they could raise grain and grazed flocks (2Ne.5:11; Mosiah 21:16).
At a higher elevation than Zarahemla (Mosiah 7:2).
Apparently located at the southern end of the south wilderness (Mosiah 22:12).
In a region of drier climate (hence probably the Pacific slope).
It was "Many days journey" west of the Land of First Inheritance (with families apparently on foot) (2Ne.5:7).
Nephi built a temple there (2Ne.2:16).
The city of Nephi had a wall (Mosiah 22:6).
Abundant mineral deposits (2 Ne.5:15).
Land of Mormon, and waters of Mormon were close by (no further than a days journey) (Mosiah 18).
Adjacent to the lands of Shemlon and Shilom (Mosiah 19:6; 22:8).
Near the south wilderness (Mosiah22:12).
How does the area of Volcan, Panama fit the criteria for the Land of Nephi? It is on the "dry" side of the cordillera, at a higher elevation, where grazing and agriculture predominate. It is at the southern end of the Talamancan cordillera. There are archaeological sites in the area, but they have not been well studied. There are spring-fed lakes nearby which could be the waters of Mormon. I have not been able to determine if there are local mineral deposits. However, in general, Panama is blessed with abundant mineral resources, including all those mention in the references. The local Indians seemed to have an abundance of gold (see Gold of Chiriqui), whether they traded for it or produced it for themselves, and were apparently adept at metallurgy.
As for distance, Volcan is about 125 miles, as the crow flies, south of the Central Valley in Costa Rica, which we have proposed as the land of Zarahemla. We would not normally think that it would take 20 days to traverse such a distance. However when the Nephites called this wilderness, they meant wilderness. The Cordillera de Talamanca are probably the most rugged mountains in Central America, and even today are not totally explored. The simplest way to travel from Volcan to San Jose in the Central Valley would be to go straight northwest by way of the Valle de Coto Brus and the Valle Del General. These are adjoining intermontain valleys that cover 60 of the 125 miles. Then from San Isidro 40 miles over the highest part of the Talamancas to Cartago. There are ancient trails that cover that route. But if we were to flee eastward into the mountains themselves to escape our pursuers, as did the people of Alma in the 20 day example, it would be much more difficult; and not knowing, or worse yet, not having any trails would make travel extremely slow.
One example of distance and travel time is given in the cronicles of Columbus' fourth voyage (2). During his stay on the coast of western Panama he contacted some of the local natives who told him that it was a nine day journey from the Laguna de Chiriqui in present day Panama, where he was anchored, across the Cordillera to the Pacific--a distance of 65 miles. This would average a little over 7 miles per day. This is certainly comparable to the 20 day journey from Volcan to San Jose which I have propose as the route from the land of Nephi to the land of Zarahemla.
An even better example is that of Balboa, who was the first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific Ocean. He set out from Antigua on the Caribbean Coast on Sept. 1, 1513 with 190 men and 1000 Indians. The Indians had told him it would take 6 days to cross to the south sea (this would have averaged 7.5 miles a day). They followed established Indian trails, but still encountered many difficulties. Finally on Sept. 28 they reached the shores of the Pacific--a total of 27 days travel to cover a distance of 45 miles, or less than 2 miles per day. (Could this possibly be the "narrow neck" which can be crossed in 1 to 1 1/2 days?)
Consider a third example, this description of travel across the mountains from San Isidro to San Jose (about a 40 mile journey) in the days before the Pan American Highway.
"One hundred years ago San Isidro was nothing more than a settlement populated by a hardy breed of pioneers. They survived on what they raised and collected locally--rice, tropical fruits and vegetables, pigs, dairy cattle, corn, coffee, sugar cane--and were basically self-sufficient. But for certain goods like clothing, tools and household utensils--manufactured items--they relied on trade with San José.
In those days there was no Inter-American highway. In fact, there was no road of any kind. (The highway came into being as a cart trail in the 1920s.) Valiant men loaded up their backs with 100- and 150-pound sacks of wild blackberries, dried corn and rice, and drove herds of pigs over the mountains to San José on foot. These men, shoeless and wearing little more than one thin shirt and a pair of pants, trudged through the mountains for a month [a month to go 40 miles!] to get their goods to market. There they traded for the much needed tools and utensils and the desired "finer" things available in the big city. After completing their trades they would make the month-long journey back to San Isidro loaded down again, this time with the clothes and refined goods that would lend a little civilization to their harsh existence."
"The route to San José took them over some of the highest mountains in Costa Rica. It was a treacherous and sometimes frightening way they walked. The most feared spot was one they named Cerro de la Muerte. Death Hill was not named, as one might imagine, for a spot where many men had fallen to their deaths. The area became infamous for the number of brave souls who lost their lives to the bitter cold as they negotiated this 11,500-foot-high section of the trail (3)."
Apparently travel in the tropics is much different than what we experience on the flat and open plains of the United States, or other such areas. When we think in terms of marathon runners, and others who can travel 50 to 100 miles per day, and try and extrapolate this to Book of Mormon geography we are only deceiving ourselves. It wasn't done by the average person in Mormon's day, or in the day of the Spaniard, and it isn't done in our day.
Las Lagunas as the Water of Mormon.
"And it came to pass that as many as did believe him did go forth to a place which was called Mormon, having received its name from the king, being in the borders of the land having been infested, by times or at seasons, by wild beasts. Now, there was in Mormon a fountain of pure water, and Alma resorted thither, there being near the water a thicket of small trees, where he did hide himself in the daytime from the searches of the king." (Mosiah 18:4-5.) Although it may be foolhardy to designate specific locations for Book of Mormon places, I feel strongly about this one, so will stick my neck out. I propose that Las Lagunas, a group of lakes about 5 miles west of Volcan in Panama, are the Waters of Mormon. These lakes are formed by large springs (fountains of pure water–verse 5) and are a source of recreation for the local inhabitants. The area is wooded and is lush and green. Although it is currently on private property, public access is allowed.
(2) Morison, Samuel Eliot. Admiral of the Ocean Sea: A Life of Christopher Columbus. Little, Brown and Co. 1942. p.607.
(3) Michael L. Smith http://www.cocori.com/library/travl/cerro.htm