070214; 2147 UTC,
Club de Yates de Balboa, La Calzada de Amador, Panamá, Republic of Panamá
N 08 degrees 56.2' / W 079 degrees 33.3’
The Darien province of the Republic of Panamá is its most rural and has only one official road, part of the Interamericana, that begins in Alaska and ends abruptly at Yaviza, Panamá deep in the jungle, creating what is called the Darien gap. Most transportation here occurs by river in large pangas or hand carved dugouts (called botes - "BOW tays”) as the Gulf of San Miguel is fed by dozens of mangrove lined rivers and their tributaries. (In fact, the Rio Sabana was to be the western terminus of one of the historically-proposed paths for the canal through the isthmus of Panamá.) Birdlife and wildlife are abundant in the Darién with healthy biodiversity and many rare species, such as the huge harpy eagle whose main prey are howler monkeys. The capital of the province is the rustic frontier trading town of La Palma with fewer than 6,000 people. Darién is the tranquil home to the indigenous Embera, Wounaan, Guyamis and Kuna tribes plus peoples of mixed Afropanamanian and Latino blood and is rich in history. Balboa crossed the isthmus and it is believed that his first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean was from the cordilleras just northeast of where we were anchored in the Rio Sabana. Soon after Balboa's discovery, the Spanish began extracting hardwood and gold from the region as they fortified their positions against privateers of other countries. Fourteenth century Spanish ruins are still evident beneath lush jungle growth. It is a destination that many talk of but rarely have the opportunity to experience, so we consider ourselves fortunate to have visited.
When we last wrote, we were anchored at Isla Casaya in Islas Las Perlas. Every day or so during the week that followed we pulled Carina’s anchor to visit other anchorages in this beautiful island chain. The islands we were studiously avoiding were Isla Contadora and Isla Mogo Mogo where the TV show Survivor was being filmed with carefully orchestrated and bogus survival situations. (Though on our rebound to the city we were forced to stop at Isla Contadora for a short overnight visit and we watched as a boatload of actors approached the shore, singing like frat boys fueled on beer, as cameramen filmed from the beach and the word "sophomoric" suddenly sprang to mind.) Finally finding the picture-perfect spot with good protection and clear water we had envisioned, we settled into life at Morro Cacique, an anchorage adjacent to Isla Del Rey's southeastern shore. Cacique is the native term for a king, who in this case lived on Isla Del Rey (island of the king) before the Spaniards enslaved their skilled pearl divers and dismantled the native island culture.
At Morro Cacique, we snorkeled amongst sea turtles, dozens of varieties of fish and nurse sharks (including one tiny baby about eight inches long that looked a bit like a red bullhead!) and were visited by many locals selling langosta (lobster), sea cucumber, octopus and even tiny pearls. The water was warm and clear and the fish friendly; Philip acquired three tiny (quarter sized) sergeant majors, in characteristic yellow and blue stripes, who spent an hour or more swimming hurriedly next to his mask or snuggled under his chin!
Soon we were joined at the anchorage by friends from Alkahest (Jay and Danica) and Claire de Lune (George and Jan) and together with Mira (Jan and Dwight), we met to plan our excursion to the Darién; studying tide tables, other cruisers' notes, charts and guide books. Normally we do not travel in close proximity to other sailboats, but the Darién is a good destination to buddy boat since its remoteness makes getting supplies, competent help or boat parts difficult. We were lucky to have such an interesting, fun and competent set of friends who we'd known for years with whom to share the Darién.
We planned our departure for 0300 local time two days before the full moon, hoping to catch north winds for our eastbound crossing to the Gulf of San Miguel and then an inbound current that would sweep us far up into the rivers to begin our adventure. Our planning seemed to pay off, as we sailed with a brisk breeze in the dark during the wee hours of morning on our journey's first leg. As we entered the gulf the breeze died and we were left with a glassy but bumpy sea as we motored northeast across the mouth of the Gulf. Just as we reached the mouth of the Gulf of San Miguel, Claire de Lune reported that the temporary repair they had performed at Isla del Rey failed and their engine's water pump was again not working. The other sailboats stood off while George applied his new temporary repair. Had this new repair failed (it didn't), Claire de Lune would have had the resources of the other three sailboats at his disposal. And, if no fix could be affected and since the wind had died, one of us would have taken Claire de Lune in tow to keep her away from the nearby shoreline.
River travel in a sailboat is so completely different than that in the open ocean. Due to the narrowness of the rivers, there is no opportunity to sail and we knew we would be motoring everywhere. Navigation is a bit more difficult since we must avoid shifting sand shoals, rocks and river shallows and contend with currents driven by large tidal swings of 12-15 feet which reach up to the very limits of navigation in the rivers.
Our first anchorage was at the evocatively named Punta Buena Vista (good view point), a rocky prominence adjacent to a tiny mangrove tributary. Spending only one night, we regrouped from our passage and prepared for the next day's passage to the Rio Sabana, described in one of our cruising guides as "a mini cruising ground in of itself, "an area of peaceful creeks and secret anchorages...". We were planning to leave Punta Buena Vista with enough time to get into the main channel and up to a narrow cut called Boca Chica (small mouth) to ride the inbound current as it began to flood but before it was moving too fast so that it would not interfere with our ability to steer. Using Boca Chica would save us many miles and possibly allow us to travel this day with the inbound tide all the way up the Rio Sabana to Islas Las Bellas (the beautiful islands).
We anchored that afternoon south of Islas Bellas in rapidly thinning water depths in what looked like an inland brackish lake over one mile square. Dozens of tidal rivers and streams emanated from the river here like tentacles reaching inland through jungle growth towards the mountains and provide homes and shelter to wildlife including howler monkeys, harpy eagles, crocodiles and a multitude of other bird species such as wimbrels, egrets and white ibis. The small mountains around us, some to 1,000 feet, were dotted with massive cuipo trees that look like huge grey stalks of broccoli. Like other estuaries, the vistas continuously changed due to tidal water depth changes and the angle of the sun. We enjoyed a full moon on the first night's anchorage, our boats blanketed in profound silence with the landscape around us glowing in the intense moonlight.
After a day of rest and projects, we departed on our second morning on an expedition of two inflatable dinghies to travel seven miles farther up the Rio Sabana to the Wounaan village of Boca del Lara. The timing of our trip was problematic since we traveled upstream during a falling tide. One half mile from the village, the water depths were so thin that it forced us to get out of the dinghies and drag or half carry them across shallow patches. Fearing we had somehow passed the village by without seeing it, Philip, Jay and George hiked up the side of the dry river bed and located the village. They were hailed by a handful of adults and a passel of children, two of whom (a boy and a girl about 8 years old), followed the guys back to the dinghies. Shy at first, they soon warmed up when Jan offered them a treat from a container of homemade cookies. We were soon joined by a horde of young, barefoot children, some naked, all laughing, many swimming and a few with traditional tattoos on their arms or ankles. They chattered away in a seemingly effortless combination of their indigenous tongue and Spanish as they helped us push and pull the dinghies towards the landing while others of them rode inside.
As we approached the banking at the edge of the village, some of us suffered cuts and scrapes from the barnacle and oyster shell-encrusted rocks hidden beneath the silted river water. George and Dwight suffered the worst cuts to their feet and required some medical care (the village had no clinic). George, assisted by a fisherman, sat down on the grass to wash his cuts and was soon lost from view as a large group of mostly children and a few adults gathered around to watch him get bandaged up. The village children burst out in laughter when George yelled in pain after someone poured isopropyl alcohol directly on his cuts.
A small, fit village man elected himself to be our guide and walked us up the village's one dirt "street" while other villagers looked on with curiosity. Soon we were greeted by the presidente del comite de turismo, Wifredo, who presented George with a price list of tourist activities we could choose. The list was extensive, including native dancing, crabbing in the mangroves, riding horseback in the mango orchards and demonstrations of native crafts. In fact the first item on the list was "entrada en pueblo", $5 pp, which Wilfredo kept pointing out to George, who kept explaining we were only visiting briefly and were interested in viewing and possibly buying Darien baskets and carvings in tagua (nut) and cocobolo (wood). Eventually Wilfredo agreed we could do this and as we slowly worked our way up the hill through the village of mostly thatched roofed open-sided huts set up on stilts. Soon we entered a large open air metal and wood pavilion with a concrete floor, perhaps fifty feet in diameter, filled with people. We were told that the pavilion had been built with money from the U.S. Upstairs housed a computing center for the village, which "unfortunately" did not yet have internet access. Bare-breasted and shy native women dressed in brightly-colored wrapped skirts wearing blood-red or turquoise beaded necklaces were assembled around simple wooden tables filled with crafts for sale: intricately designed woven baskets, plus spectacular tagua nut and cocobolo wood carvings. The baskets were the finest quality we've seen in Panamá, tightly woven with intricate designs and constructed of dyed strands from different palms. After some gentle haggling with the women of the basket weaving cooperative, we bought several baskets and the rest of our group bought many more. Interesting to us, trading wasn't encouraged and baskets were strictly sold for cash, though tagua carvings were offered to those in our group who had items to trade that the women wanted. We weren't interested in tagua (we had recently purchased one from a Darién native selling crafts at a local park) so we later presented our trading items (fish line, fish hooks, clothing, food) to the dirigente (village chief) for distribution to those in need.
Juan, the diminutive dirigente, showed up after we asked Wilfredo if we could meet him. Obviously intelligent and gregarious, he outlined his plans for his people, one of which was to attract more tourists to visit. This way, he explained, they would be able to generate an economic base in order to preserve their unique culture and the natural environment around them. And though prospering while preserving cultural identity seems like wise planning , we worry that contact with outsiders will inevitably erode their culture. When Philip asked him about a large construction site on a nearby hillside, Juan said it was for a new school. It was obvious that a larger school was needed when we looked around; children seemed to outnumber adults six to one!
Juan walked with us as we prepared to leave the village. He stopped at his modest house, certainly indistinguishable from the other huts except for a white-faced monkey that was tethered to one of the house's stilts. Juan explained that it was a mascota or pet and needed to remain tied up since the animal had a tendency to steal food. Most of the village children walked with us to the dinghy landing. There a group of children who had been diligently caring for dinghies by moving our anchors uphill as the tide came in and the level of the river rose, eagerly stepped forward to receive their dime rewards. Some of the children helped us to navigate the grease-slippery embankment and shove off, reluctantly releasing our dinghies as we slowly pulled away and began our trip back downriver to our sailboats.
Our next destination was the Rio Iglesias (Churches River), which flows into the Rio Sabana from the east near the confluence with the Rio Tiura. We departed the Rio Sabana anchorage at what we thought would be slack high tide (we were always estimating the offset based upon a tide station at the mouth of the Gulf) and rode the tide downriver before turning and going against the strong ebb up into the Rio Iglesias. Philip was facilitating the regional single sideband (radio) marine net during the middle part of the passage, so we allowed our friends to go ahead of us so we wouldn't arrive at our destination before Philip finished. This gave us stronger currents to battle and less water to navigate but we experienced no problems. Just as Philip finished on the radio friends on Alkahest and Claire de Lune hailed us and explained that they'd gone into an uncharted tributary called Estero Tigre to seek a quieter and more secluded anchorage that would be away from the river's boat traffic.
This estuary was like a wide lazy river set amongst towering mangroves and populated by what seemed like hundreds of parrots who argued at dawn and dusk about whatever parrots argue about. One parrot's call sounded like "I can't do it!" with the other parrot's response sounding like "yes you can!". We enjoyed this anchorage immensely and stayed three days, exploring the miles of streams, watching birds and soaking up the quiet. We were visited by locals who had chopped mangrove logs with machetes (and who were hoping for a snack - we gave them granola bars) and were quietly inspected by those who traveled past in boats traveling to homes well hidden in the estuary's maze. Sighting a landing amongst palm trees one day that was unreachable due to a chasm of mud at low tide, we ventured back early one morning and found not a village at the landing but a single palm thatched home with a woman and her two grandchildren. She sent us on to see a finca (farm) up the trail about half a mile. Crossing dry stream beds and letting ourselves into the pasture through a barbed wire gate, we walked up a hill to the open sided farmhouse. Large pigs roamed the yard and a young man with a large hat comically upturned in the front, cooked on a wood fire in cast iron pot set on a curved piece of rebar. The caballeros seemed perplexed at our interest in their farm as we asked questions about what they grew and raised (corn, rice, cattle, pigs, horses), how big the finca was (95-99 hectares), how far they were from "town" (one day's walk through the jungle), did they mill their own lumber (yes, by hand), etc. etc. We gave them some gifts of milk and juice and Jan passed around some slices of sweet bread and then we said our goodbyes and walked back towards our dinghies through the jungle. Philip remarked that they probably wouldn't have been any more surprised than they were to see us than they would have been at the appearance of a spaceship with little green men had landed on their farm.
We reluctantly left "our" isolated estero and headed to the provincial capital of La Palma. The moniker is the only thing lovely about La Palma. It is a frontier trading town with a rough waterfront with muelles (docks) that sit over mud-encrusted large animal bones, broken bottles and trash while buzzards hopped like chickens around the stilts of the building. We anchored south of town near a spectacular ketch, reportedly owned by a New Yorker, and built from lumber milled from local trees by a Panamanian master boat builder. The beautiful sailboat, anchored just off the town presents a dramatic contrast to the otherwise rustic outback town. We were told that the store which sold wine was closed for siesta but that maybe one of the many bars in town would sell us some. The very lovely and shapely bartender showed us her selection: Boone's Farm Apple or Mogen David 20-20. Philip made an internationally understood gesture of gagging and the bartender burst into a paroxysm of laughter. We planned to stay in La Palma for one night but after buying gasoline (siphoned by "Jose" from a 55 gallon drum) and some provisions and entertaining "bote"- loads of basket sellers and kids on school vacation, we decided to push onto a more isolated and pristine anchorage at Isla Cedro. Anchoring here would also put us within a day's sail of Isla Espiritu Santo in Islas Las Perlas, a popular anchorage and our next planned stop. Our decision resulted in a slow, four and a half hour, seven mile passage against the incoming tide with swift currents in the narrow Boca Chica passage that nearly stopped our boats.
Just before daybreak the following morning, we departed the lovely island anchorage and motored under calm conditions towards the mouth of the Gulf, dodging large drift nets. As the morning warmed, a forecasted northwest wind piped up and, because it opposed the tide, it created a steep chop that slowed our passage. Our kind-hearted friends on Mira, already at anchor at Espiritu Santo when we arrived, thought we'd be tired (we were) so they planned a welcome meal of pizza that allowed us to concentrate on tidying up our boat rather than our grumbling stomachs. Not wanting to move again after pushing hard for two days, we spent two nights at this little anchorage nestled between Isla Del Rey and Isla Espiritu Santo, winding down our time with the other boats who'd shared our Darién adventure. We slept hard and woke up late, puttered around the boat and even played bocce ball on the beach. Soon responsibility called: our visas were expiring soon and our friend Olenka from Ecuador was arriving in Panamá City on her way through to the San Blas, so we pushed onto Contadora for a brief stop before departing for Panamá City at 0235 local the following morning.
Back in the big city we caught up with lovely Olenka as she whizzed through town on her first international travel adventure to meet her novio (boyfriend), our friend Bruce on 5th Element. The following day we took delivery of imported boat parts we had purchased. We discovered damage to the shipment which created additional chores that ate up our limited time, forcing us to apply for a renewal of our tourist visa on the very last day possible as Carnaval would shut down the country's government offices for five days. We hope to be here just two weeks more before beginning our passage to Salinas, Ecuador with intermediate stops in Islas Las Perlas and the western islands of Panamá before jumping off from one of those western islands (probably Isla Coiba) around April 1. In Ecuador we will take Carina out of the water and begin a topsides rejuvenation including painting, cabinetry, refinishing our cabin sole, etc., using skilled, though modestly priced, labor available at the Puerto Lucia Yacht Club's boatyard - an adventure of a slightly different type.
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie, Philip and el gato supremo, Jake
Isla Casaya, Islas Las Perlas, Panamá