071007; 2238 UTC,
Boca Chica, Chiriquí, Republic of Panama
N 08 degrees 13' / W 082 degrees 12'
It is rainy season in western Panamá and today the sky is completely cloudy and it is drizzling. This is actually unusual. Generally our days start out cool - say 80ish - and clear, and then the sun climbs in the sky and it gets hot, really hot, and muggy until afternoon sea breezes roll in, then afternoon storm clouds and sometimes rain, cooling things down once more.
When we last wrote we were anchored at Isla Brincanco in the Parque Nacional Isla Coiba. We have since moved into a mainland anchorage called Boca Chica, stopping for a week of exploring and snorkeling at the Islas Secas. Meaning "small mouth", Boca Chica sits on a peninsula at the eastern extreme of a large estuarine system. The two other entrances to the estuary, Boca Brava ("brave mouth") and Boca San Pedro are filled with hazards and involve crossing river bars. From Boca Chica, a boat (with a mast height of less than 62') can travel all the way to Puerto Pedregal which is the port barrio for David (pronounced DAH veed), Panamá's third largest city with 178,000 inhabitants.
We came to Boca Chica to gain access to the mainland, and to David in particular, since we needed to purchase new batteries to replace our failed house bank. Here, pretty much settled permanently, are a handful of boats and many land-based ex-pats from a variety of countries. We received a warm reception and generous help when we first arrived, but after that the reception seemed mixed. Boca Chica is being discovered and some people (mostly gringos) are not happy about this fact. The locals we have met are always warm, welcoming and friendly, but the ex-pats don't always get along with each other or want visitors. Amazing!
Boca Chica town itself remains a fishing village of modest homes set close together, however those whose ancestors acquired land when Boca Chica was considered a worthless swamp, are cashing in and you are beginning to see changes to the sleepy little town. A marina is under development across the channel on the shores of Isla Boca Brava. Next door to the site of the marina is a popular "backpacker" hotel set on a rocky prominence which is owned by a German named Frank. Two small semi-exclusive resorts dot the hillside east of town. A bit more east still, on a commanding hilltop, is a construction site for a massive new home. Inland, on the gravel road going north to the Panamerican Highway (18 km), is lush farmland with magnificent vistas overlooking the expansive estuary with tiny volcanic cinder cone hills in the foreground and the volcano cordillera of the isthmus as a backdrop. Erupting from the mountains is a massive waterfall and though it is twenty or more miles distant, it is clearly visible. It is pretty country!
Boca Chica is part of the port district for David, so since we arrived in the province of Chiriquí from Ecuador, we were required to bring our boat to Pedregal (David's port) to check into the country. To get there we traveled for two days up the estuary from Boca Chica, following branching passages in the mangrove lined rivers. Unfortunately charts and guidebooks of this area are dated and inaccurate, and despite local knowledge and borrowed GPS waypoints, Carina, on five separate occasions during our round trip, ploughed into unexpected mud banks. These were not a problem as we traveled the route over the course of two days and only traversing shallow areas during a rising tides. To complicate things en route, our last functioning depth sounder failed, so Philip manned the bow and became quite adept at using our lead line, the last and most reliable of our "depth sounders". (Add yet another action item to the boat repair list. And you thought we were having fun!)
Upon arriving at Puerto Pedregal and while anchoring near the small marina, we received a radio call from the Port Captain who in rapid-fire Spanish advised us to be ready to be boarded. We advised them we were "listo", ready, and began to gather our documents and set up our cockpit table to serve as a writing surface. Philip left to pick up the officials and returned with two large, nervous looking men from the Capitania and Customs with our little dinghy riding really really low in the water. We settled them in our cockpit and gave them glasses of cool water while they questioned us and filled out their forms. A few minutes later a water taxi showed up with a robust woman in spike heels who represented the agriculture department, and later still, another water taxi arrived with a representative of Immigration, who was accompanied by Curt, an American ex-pat with Panamanian residency. Curt was probably curious about the new boat in town and also helped with some translation.
We weren't expecting these visits, but weren't exactly surprised either. Each official needed to fill out a form and collect a fee - we lost track of the fees after awhile! The agricultural inspector also wanted to tour Carina and asked us to show her all of our meat aboard (we only had a couple of packages of frozen chicken and these seemed to pass muster). When she saw Jake's food, she asked about him and then she told Leslie that Jake should not go ashore. We didn't fully understand if this was for Jake's safety or because of some regulation prohibiting pets. Later, we learned there were poisonous coral snakes ashore at night, so we assumed that this was her message.
The local fauna in Pedregal are purportedly crocodiles, white-faced and howler monkeys, toucans and a variety of parrots, but, except for the parrots, we didn't see any of these animals. Cayucos, pangas and even large fishing vessels passed us each day, heading further up the winding tributaries to landings further into the jungle. Our sojourn to Pedregal was necessary but the anchorage was warm and breezeless and was infested at dawn and dusk with no-see-ums, so we diligently studied the tide charts looking for another good "tide window" to float back out. The river water was the color milky coffee and a car alarm engaged by a Uruguayan boat anchored nearby blared at every passing boat and every hint of thunder. GRRRR.
From this anchorage, however, we had a striking view of lovely, Volcán Barú, which at 3475 meters or 11,500 feet, is the tallest mountain in Panamá. This time of year, which is rainy season, the view of the slopes of Barú evolved each day, beginning with bright morning sun and tiny dots of puffy white clouds which would descend down the mountain side and darken into purplish-black storm clouds as the day progressed.
Each day while in Pedregal, we traveled by taxi to David, Panamá's third largest city, which sits 486 kilometers (300 miles) west of Panamá City. Tiny in comparison to Panamá City, David boasts only one stoplight and seems safe and prosperous. Despite its modest size, David has a full range of services, internet cafes (at $0.50 per hour!), many small universities, mega stores like the Do-It Center hardware store, and a Costco equivalent called PriceMart. David also has a regional airport that has daily flights to other locations in Panamá as well as Costa Rica .
We stayed in Pedregal for two weeks and, in spite of the marginal anchorage, we enjoyed our stay. We replenished our book selection at a fabulous used bookstore in Dolega, reacquainted ourselves with a couple of cruiser friends we'd made in Mexico and Ecuador and made a few new Panamanian friends too. We also took the opportunity to rent a car and tour the Chiriquí highlands on day trips.
Upland Chiriquí really surprised us with expansive mountain vistas that reminded us of Montana or Colorado. We visited towns all up the south side of Vulcan Barú, including Volcan, Cerro Punto, Guadalupe, Potrerillos and of course Boquete. Boquete was one of the first places in Panamá "discovered" and feels overrun with rich gringos who are building mansions along the face of the all the nearby mountains. The terrain is dramatic but the atmosphere did not resonate; we liked the smaller towns better.
Agriculture in Chiriquí province is abundant, mostly managed and worked, at least in the highlands, by indigena from the Nôbe-Buglé tribe, whose women wear billowing dresses of bright purple or orange cotton decorated with diamond or triangular shaped borders. Crops of rice, gently waving in the wind seemed to be most ubiquitous on the coastal plain while on the highest slopes of the mountains, cool climate crops such as broccoli, cabbage, celery and lettuce predominate. The rich soil here is the color of the darkest chocolate imaginable. Large tracks of the mountain slopes are grazed by cattle and horses, some even delineated (surprisingly) by tall, though narrow, stone walls of black volcanic rock.
One day, we took a hike into the Parque Nacional Vulcan Barú on a trail called the Sendero de los Quetzales (Trail of the Quetzales). We didn't find any resplendent quetzales (or harpy eagles for that matter) and, after reaching a height of land at about 8000', the clouds descended on the cloud forest and it started to rain (and it was cold!). We could've been in the Olympic National Park of Washington State except for the different vegetation.
Coming back down, we had just left the park and were on a narrow dirt road amongst fincas (farms) when we came upon two bulls that had gotten out of their pasture. Imagine this: on one side impenetrable jungle, on the other, barbed wire fence with strands set too close to slip through. Philip suggested we just slowly and casually walk on by. The first bull saw Philip in his purple GoreTex jacket and turned his massive head then his massive body towards him and stared impassively. Maybe he didn't like Gore Tex...or maybe he didn't like purple, he wasn't saying. And though he didn't act particularly aggressive, we could not tell what he might do. A more discreet Leslie found a small tree, squeezed behind it and convinced Philip to do the same, where we stood in the torrential rain until the bulls finally decided to saunter past us.
We've enjoyed immensely our forced rainy-season exile from South America, though we miss all of the friends we left behind. Having landed in Panamá we have found friendly people, beautiful land, lots of adventure and plenty of time for catching up on pleasurable reading. What more could we ask?
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie, Philip and el gato gordito, Jake