Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Our Darien Adventure
2230, Monday, 18 Feb, 13. At anchor, Sucio River, Darien, Panama
We are in a narrow river at the end of the navigable waters of the Sucio River in the Darien area of Panama. This is one of many rivers emptying into the Golfo San Miguel and one of the rivers that have been recommended to us. After crossing over from the Perlas Islands we had to wait for a rising tide to enter. The water is quite shallow in places and a rising tide is more forgiving if, by some misfortune, we were to run aground. We are with Sundancer, Rio Nimpkish and Iris. Sundancer has been here several times and their passenger, Sam and Nancy, from Windsong, are very familiar with the area, so they led us in. The channel is quite well charted in the Bauhaus Guide but, as we got to the narrow sections, the GPS tracking and the charts didn’t quite match. Tomorrow morning we will take the dinghies up the rest of the way to the village of Cana Blanca where we hope to make friends and buy some baskets.
We had left Contadora on the 13th, after only one night, and sailed down to Espiritu Santos, a beautiful anchorage, very popular with the local cruisers. We missed this on our way a few weeks ago and we were glad to get another chance to see it. It is at the junction of a fresh water stream on the East side of Isla Del Rey. It is a popular spot with catamarans and boats with twin keels as a spot where they can beach their boats to clean and refresh their bottom paint. We only had an afternoon so we decided to take advantage of the clear water give our bottom a good cleaning. This time it was a bit more demanding than a free dive so the scuba gear was brought out. It took the better part of an hour to scrape of an accumulation of small barnacles and growth with the propeller being the toughest. There was also a curious foam type of covering over most of the hull. When I got out of the water I discovered that the foam was really millions of tiny brine shrimp clinging to the hull, and by this time, clinging to me and all of my gear. What a mess to clean off!! Fran’s suggestion to use vinegar to persuade them to leave was a winner but it was still quite a chore. We now think that the particulate we saw in the water last time we were here was, indeed, the spawn of these creatures.
On our way from Contadora we were called by Beverly J and told that they and Risk Taker were finally in the area after a leisurely trip from Puntarenas, where we had last seen them. They will be heading for Panama in the next few days.
20:00, Wed, 20 Feb 2013, Anchored in Rio Cucunati.
Another quiet but windy anchorage just 5-7 miles, as the crow flies, from where we were yesterday. This area is a maze of rivers and mangrove swamps where the foothills on the Isthmus of Panama drain into the Pacific Ocean. We are with Rio Nimpkish and Iris; Sun Dancer stayed behind to spend another day with at the village where their guests Sam and Nancy have a special connection.
Yesterday morning we dinghied up to the village with as many presents we could carry. A few children met us at the landing and, as we entered the village the entourage grew to 20-25 children and a few women. The men preferred to stay back and work on their fishing nets. Just like in the newsreels of old the gringos handed out whatever we had brought as gifts. Coloring books and crayons, spare clothing, small sewing kits, candies and the like were distributed. As soon as we entered the village it was obvious that Sam and Nancy had made quite an impact on many of the residents in their last visit last April. People rarely return to this remote village and they were remembered instantly. Among other things, Nancy, a nurse, had dealt with a number of medical ailments and Sam had helped mix and pour the cement floor to little church. One lady made Fran’s day when she brought out a small basket to sell, the only one available for sale in the village. It had taken her a month to make and it is exquisite. Many photos were taken and Sam and Ron (Sun dancer) loaned their cameras to the kids to take whatever photos they wanted. We printed a few of them on our printer and sent them back today to have them distributed to the subjects of the photos. While we were there a Panamanian 2-man medical team arrived on their routine monthly stop. It was very interesting to learn that there has been no dengue fever or malaria in the area for 30 years! We had seen some signs of forestry activity on our way from the boat landing and they informed us that this is a sign of the times and one of the main sources of income for these remote villages. Although only the largest trees are taken the mess left behind is quite substantial.
Fran's basket and its creator and family
Showing photos to the kids
A Wounaan family (minus the father)
We departed on the flood tide this morning for the Cucunati, another of the main river systems. We had been advised to go to a location where there would be lots of wildlife. We are anchored in a wide section of the river, surrounded by mangroves. There are a few hills rising out of the swampy ground where there should be lots of fauna but getting to them is quite impossible because of the mangroves. We had to be content with listening to the birds and howler monkeys at sunset. We did foray into the mangroves today to see the birds but, as we were put-putting up a narrow channel in the dinghy, Fran spotted a large crocodile sliding off the bank with a loud splash. That and seeing something BIG swim under the dingy shortly thereafter was enough to send us packing back to the safety of Gosling.
Before the croc!!
14:30, Saturday, 23 Feb , Enroute from La Palma to Isla Iguana
We have just departed the village of La Palma, the largest town in the Darien area and are headed to Isla Iguana for the night before we cross back over to the Perlas islands. It has been a couple of interesting days.
La Palma, capital of the Darien
Buzzards waiting for a meal
After leaving Rio Cuncunati, Thursday, we motored through the islands at the entrance to the Boca Grande, through a narrow pass that reminded us of Dodd’s Narrows in the Gulf Islands of BC and to the town of La Palma. This is a town of approx 5000 people clustered on a rocky shore at the edge of several of the rivers in the Darien wilderness. The main source of income seems to come from the stores in the town and the constant flow of pangas loaded with people or supplies arriving or leaving from a simple landing stage close to where we were anchored. The houses and shops along the shore have their fronts on the single main street but their backs supported by stilts over the water. The remainder of the town’s houses are perched on the steep hill sloping towards the shore above the main street, many painted in bright pastels. But that is where the sketchbook description of town ends. The livelihood of the area seems to depend a lot on federal funding. There are many military personnel and several government offices. Some say that a lot of drugs pass through the Darien from Colombia but we saw no indication of this in our travels. The shore is littered with trash and debris and the population of vultures scavenging the shore seems to equal that of the town population. Restaurants are very basic but a decent meal from a pre-prepared menu goes for $3.50 a plate; chicken wings, beef, or what appeared as thick bacon strips but was advertised as pork ribs. After a meal and a bit of shopping we headed back to the boat and moved to a quiet anchorage north of the town. Sundancer stayed and found one of their dinghy wheels missing the following morning.
The following morning we headed up the Rio Sabana to Puerto Lara about 20 miles upstream at the end of the navigable waters. The trip was fascinating but we were constantly looking out for shoals and obstructions. The charts we had were fairly good but only one had details for the last 5 miles to the village. We were entering on a flood tide, as usual, and had originaly planned to anchor about 7 miles from the town rather than risk the narrower section of the river. When we arrived at the proposed anchorage it seemed too easy to continue so we did. A few hours later we were within sight of the town in 19 feet of water (Gosling draws 6 ft). With the nearest tidal station, 7.5 miles away, indicating a range of tide of 8 feet we were comfortable to stay the night. Well, shit happened!! We were on Sun Dancer for cocktails for a few hours later that evening and watched their depth sounder go down from 5 ft to .5 ft but they were supposed to be in a shallower section. When we returned back to our boats, all of us were canted over. Iris, with her 7ft keel was over about 40 degrees while we were about 15. The change of tide was at 8PM and, although we had planned to spend the night, staying put was not an option because the next low tide at 8:30 AM was to be a foot lower. That meant a midnight departure down a river on the next rising tide following our tracks that were generated on our chart plotters on the way up. I like to refer it as bread crumbs like in the tale of Hansel and Gretel. It actually worked perfectly. Luckily we had a near-full moon so we did have some visual reference but Fran had to drive the boat blindly, making sure that the little boat symbol (Gosling) stayed on the pre-recorded line. What a trooper! And she hates video games….. We ended up anchoring at the mouth of the river a few hours later and had a peaceful night.
But all was not lost at this stop. Fat, dumb, happy and ignorant about our fate, we headed up the last few hundred yards by dinghy to the village. We were met at the dock by many children and a few village elders. Two men seemed to be the spokesmen and they immediately told us that there was a list of fees that were now being imposed by several villages of the Wounaan. The cost of everything from entry, to food to demonstrations and cultural shows was listed in Spanish and English. The list was obviously prepared by the Panamanian officials overseeing the tribes. We paid our $10 per person and were taken to a central platform where all the people in town soon converged with their wares for sale. The specialties were wood and tagua nut carvings, baskets and masks, bead jewelry and a few other trinkets, all hand-made by the inhabitants of the village. Some of the larger and more exquisite baskets were priced at $400, well out of a normal cruisers budget but everyone went back to their boats with their fill of smaller baskets and carvings and empty wallets.
Wounaan baskets and carvings for sale.
The expensive ones. Absolutely beautiful!
0900, 25 Feb 13, Anchored at Espiritu Santos
Our Darien adventure is over and we are back to the relative comfort of the Perlas islands again after a very calm crossing from Isla Iguana where we had spent the night
After our stop at the mouth of Rio Sabana we stopped briefly in La Palma again to catch up on our sleep and pick up a few supplies then carried on to Isla Iguana. Finding a decent anchorage was quite a challenge. We made 5 attempts before finding a mud bank where our Danforth would hold. It was a good thing we did because later that evening and early morning the current was running at 3 knots.
We left there early morning with the ebb pushing us out of the gulf and into the flat calm waters of the Gulf of Panama. It was an easy 32 mile motorboat ride under overcast skies (a relief from the blazing sun) to Espiritu Santos. We arrived just in time to be invited to a BBQ by the group of boats already there. Apparently this is a weekly routine on Sundays. The location was a beautiful little beach on the other side of one of the islands, it was a great group and one of them was a Newfie called Noseworthy, brother of the Noseworthy who was in the navy on the East Coast, for those ex-naval types who might be reading this.
1600, 26 Feb, 13, At a buoy Isla Cantadora.
We have just arrived at Isla Cantadora, the third visit here and the stepping off place for our return to Panama City. We stayed days at Espiritu Santos and had some so-so snorkeling yesterday. The visibility was about 6-10 ft but much better than it was when we first plied these waters a few weeks ago. I tried my hand at spearfishing with my trusty Hawaiian Sling but it is still fishless after many years of laying idle on this and our other boats. I did come close but trigger fish have tough scales and the spear just bounced off. I will have to sharpen my tines before trying again. I also had an argument with a lobster but he won and lived to tell the tale. Technique is everything and I am lacking in that department.
The intrepid hunter....
We left this morning and headed to Mogo Mogo, a small island south of Contadora where the Survivor Panama series was filmed. Fran and I had a great snorkel outing on a reef offshore with great visibility and lots of fish and coral. We then went into a beautiful cove where the shore is covered with pink shells. No wonder they chose this location for a TV series.
Pink Shell beach
Fran still has great legs, huh?
We have heard from Warren Peace and Optical illusion. They are in the South Perlas after crossing over from Punta Mala last night. It is Steve’s birthday today. Last year we celebrated together at Huatulco. We should be back together next week in Panama.
We left there about an hour ago and are now in front of the town where we have a decent internet connection and where I hope to send this section of the blog. Rio Nimpkish is also here so it might be dinner ashore this evening. Tomorrow we head back to Panama City and start preparing in earnest for our canal crossing.