Visiting the Darien had long been an objective, a “bucket list” item, for us. The Darien Province is huge, steeped in legend and history and mystery. The Darian Province was at one time considered a viable site for the Panama Canal. We traveled there and saw a very small part of this magnificent place. This blog entry does not begin to tell what can be experienced there. It is a place that takes years to see. We had a week but it was packed with adventure!
We left the Playita anchorage (just outside of Panama City) with the intention of staying off Isla Chepillo, a guidebook-recommended anchorage. We were trying to avoid overnight passages to the Darien and this anchorage was only a half-day journey following the Gulf of Panama’s NE coast.
However, once arriving at Chepillo, we determined the conditions there that afternoon—no protection from high wind, big seas, general yuckiness—to soldier on to Isla Contadora, one of the Perlas islands we’d visited weeks earlier to avoid similar conditions after rounding the Gulf of Panama’s infamous Punta Mala. We figured that going somewhere we knew was our best option as we were going to arrive at night.
The journey to Las Perlas and Isla Contadora became a very pleasant downwind sail, something the stubborn northers we’d battled all the way from El Salvador to Panama denied us this—our 2015—cruising season. We even had opportunity to sail wing-on-wing with the newly-shortened spinnaker pole.
Arriving at Isla Contadora around 8 p.m., we had an interesting time anchoring amid loud sport-fisher boat parties, very deep water, and nearly invisible anchored sailing vessels.
Our route was now somewhat altered, but plans are made to be changed. And for us, the usual open book of a plan.
Leaving Isla Contadora and staying at Isla Casaya, Las Perlas … We’d every intention of heading for the Gulf of San Miguel and the Darien Province early today. But, for some reason (serendipity is usually a good thing!), we delayed raising the anchor and checked in with the daily 9 a.m. PanPacific cruiser net*. We announced to the net collective our plans for traveling to the Darien. Right after that announcement, the captain of “Argo” called in and requested the PanPacific 8143 frequency be reserved for a Cetacean-Argo conversation.
And so, we met Fiona and Clayton, Argo’s owners. They too had been planning to go to the Darien, were anchored at a nearby Las Perlas island and wondered if we’d like to buddy boat there. Sounded good to us. We arranged to meet at Isla Espiritu Santo (another of the Perlas islands) the next afternoon and discuss plans for the trip.
After our chat with Argo, we motorsailed to the Isla Casaya anchorage (yet another Perlas island—there are a lot of them in the archipelago) and had a blessedly quiet, non-rolley night. The anchorage was empty, except for a pescador (a fisherman) at the anchorage entrance, setting out his net…in the dark.
Leaving Isla Casaya, heading for Isla Espiritu Santo, Las Perlas archipelago
We awoke the next morning to fishnets strung across the anchorage entrance; plus, another 100 meter length in front of our bow. The fishermen who set the nets were across the way from us and were probably trying to figure out what to do. We, of course, hoped they would remove the nets because we were kind of trapped by them. Happily, they did, with no recriminations. We hope we didn’t ruin their day.
After the last fishing nets were removed, we headed for Isla Espiritu Santo. Clayton and Fiona of “Argo” were already anchored there. We dinghied over to Argo, agreed to leave early the next morning, cross the Gulf of Panama (mostly east and on a flood tide so we’d get a push) to the Gulf of San Miguel, head to the and stay at Isla el Encanto. This gulf is a body of water within the Darien Province and is fed by rivers and tributaries we wanted to explore. Once we arrived in Gulf of San Miguel, we planned to stay in an anchorage at Boca Grande (the sort of river), the entry to the Tiura River, a main artery that would take us to the places we had read about. We all had hopes of connecting with new cultures, seeing fascinating creatures and hearing the unique sounds of this fabled place.
Darien Adventure Day 1…Leaving Isla Espiritu Santo for the Gulf of San Miguel, gateway to the Pacific side of the Darien Province. Anchored between Isla el Encanto and Isla Boca Grande
Our transit was about 40 miles from Espiritu Santo. We chose to travel to the passage between Isla el Encanto and Isla Boca Grande to anchor. On the way into the passage, we saw a little white lighthouse on our right. Continuing on we viewed a ruined house, some pilings and the beginnings of what would be ubiquitous – mangroves. The jungle was taking over. We had read that there were remains of a Spanish fortress established to defend the Rio Tuira against British privateers looking for gold mines; and the remains of a more modern ruin, a defunct Gulf Oil company site, its pier supports were all that could be seen.
Across from our anchorage, perhaps five miles away, was the biggest town in this part of the Darien, La Palma. We had cell coverage coming from a tower in La Palma. Interesting.
Darien Adventure Day 2…Anchored off Isla el Encanto in Boca Grande, the entry to the Darien’s Rio Tuira and its branch waterways. Taking the Rio Iglesia to Embera Indian village
The el Encanto anchorage was quiet all last night. Some bugs, but not too bad. We heard a new bird call at twilight and we both theorized on just what it was. The anchorage was like the ones we’ve experienced when we get away from the ocean and anchor on these Panama rivers. The water, silty and unreadable. Vigilance is key in watching our depths and understanding where we are in relation to shoals, rocks and roving logs. The mangroves grow thick and are breathtaking, yet creepy. Within the mangrove forests we hear snapping noises. A jaguar hunting perhaps? The sky is black. The trees reach up to touch a bleary moon. A howler monkey trumpets a warning to intruders.
Today we did our first dinghy trip up the mangrove-fringed Rio Iglesia. We were looking for an Embera Indian village our guidebooks had mentioned. Ahead, the river seemed to dead end at a muddy shore. A “cayuco,” a dug-out wooden canoe that the Darien tribes build and paddle expertly, had been pulled up on the muddy shore with its painter securing it to a nearby tree.
An elderly man met us there and spoke mostly to Clayton, who had the best Spanish of the four of us. We walked around the village with the elderly man and I asked him what his village was called. He said, “Quimba.” On the way up to this place, we saw a sign for “Puerto de Quimba,” where Ron said he saw a ferry terminal.
The elderly man guided us to a busy family home where, outside, tanned cowhides were drying on lines. Clayton and Fiona suggested that the hides were being used to make saddles. The Quimba village homes were rustic, built on stilts. Chickens roamed freely around the property. Children played happily outside in the dirt; were held close by their mothers or were they the grandmothers?
What I would come to learn on this trip to the Darien was that little of what I read applied anymore.
We were taken to another family home and met a woman of indeterminate age who smiled warmly at us while she prepared food for her family. We asked if there were any tiendas (stores) in this village. The woman enlisted her nine-or-so year old son, possibly her grandson, to take us to a store. Stores are always another piece in the puzzle of learning about a new community, no matter what happens, so we followed the young boy whose name was Teodoro.
The store was a shack with a young woman sitting inside, at a service window, in the dark. The shelves appeared to be virtually empty except for sodas and perhaps, some packaged candy. I asked if she had, “Pan (bread) por sandwich, como ‘Bimbo’?” Bimbo is a Mexico and Central American brand of packaged, sliced bread that has a half-life, kind of like Wonder Bread. The woman, seeming embarrassed, shook her head. I felt badly that she seemed uncomfortable, so I said, “No problema. No está importante. Gracias.”
Teodoro took us to another store where they did have “pan como sandwich.” I bought a bag and Clayton bought a watermelon.
We walked back through the tiny village with Teodoro, asking him about school and his family and just stuff—another wondrous experience that I hope he enjoyed as much as we did—and then, we took the trail back to Argo’s dinghy.
Darien Adventure Day 3…Taking Rio Tuira to Rio Sabana. Visting Boca de Lara, a Wounaan village
We agreed to spend the next day motoring up Rio Sabana and getting as far into it as depths allowed our big boats and then complete our journey to Boca de Lara, the Wounaan Indian village all of us had read about.
Moving our boats through the Darien river system was not trivial. We had to time each day’s venture with the tides and currents. Some of the rivers shallowed out pretty seriously. Cetacean’s keel dives six feet below the cabin floor. The Darien rivers ebbed 10 feet or more—twice each day—so having a minimum of 7-plus feet between us and the bottom was important. Actually, I preferred having 10-plus feet.
We also traveled along these Darien rivers’ outside bends to maximize each waterway’s depth.
It was good to have Argo with us. They are seasoned cruisers and studied this part of the Darien with high interest. We shared our opinions on the conditions, the depths, what we saw and heard, what we wanted to experience.
After we reached our anchorage in the Sabana, a large panga or cayuco filled with people went by. Paradoxically, the helmsman blew kisses at us. The riders waved. We found out what the jubilation was about once we arrived at Boca de Lara.
When we pulled up to the Boca de Lara dock, which was really a beach kind of landing, I believe a young man took our line. He guided us up a short hill and then led us to a large, thatched-roof structure built on stilts. He rang a bell and we were soon surrounded by women, some of them topless, displaying all sorts of baskets and intricately carved Tagua-nut animals for sale. The baskets varied in quality and artistry. But, we were supposed to buy as many as possible and choose from different artisans if possible. Some of the pricing was outrageous, but the pieces we chose were irresistible, as were the women’s joyous smiles. We were informed that the carved animals were done by the village men, who left the selling to the amen. The baskets were woven by the women. Everyone spoke Spanish. I do not think I heard any Wounaan conversation.
After the baskets and carved-nut purchase session, the young man who rang the bell again and took us on a tour of the village. He also gave us a brochure listing other tours and events we could purchase.
After that sales pitch, our guide took us around more of the village, introduced us to more folks. We encountered more basket artists and other craft sellers (I bought one of those wraps the women were wearing). We looked at the black palm fibers drying the in sun to be dyed and used for weaving the baskets.
The process for making the Wounaan baskets is very involved and the best ones take months to complete. The guide’s wife showed up with one of her in-process baskets and it was easily the most beautiful piece of all that we’d seen. She told us this basket would take her a long time to complete. Each of her baskets have her insignia—a jungle orchid—on the bottom.
Boca de Lara village was a complicated place. Teaching the next generation the ancient language, the traditional dress, tattoos and their significance, and maintaining rituals showed the villagers were trying to keep the old practices. But, it also seemed they were selective about what cultural components to keep, what to let go. The basketry and carving was not traditional for these people. Their heritage was nomadic. Historically, the Wounaan did not engage in making objects to sell. But, the basket industry has brought income to the community which funds important programs, especially for the new generation.
We headed back to the dinghy, loaded down with our baskets and sculpted Taqua nuts. We waved goodbye to the villagers and went on our way.
Darien Adventure Day 4…Boca Grande anchorage behind Isla Logarto
We moved to Isla Logarto anchorage early this morning. After the big boats were safely anchored, we took our separate dinghies and motored up the Rio Logarto. This trip was adhoc. No plan, just see where the shallow river goes and maybe we can get out and take a walk and explore! Along the way, ibis, egrets, parrots and other birds were in abundance.
We came to the end of the line (too shallow for the dinghy). A cayuco was moored there. The waterway had reduced to an extremely shallow creek. We left the dinghy, climbed up a short embankment and began walking on a trail along the creek. Buildings lay ahead.
A man standing up in his panga and propelling it with a long stick came by and waved at us.
On one side of the trail, a group of Coconut palms, bursting with well, coconuts, stood together as though they were an orchard. We asked the panga guy whether this was a finca (a farm) and he said, with great pride, that yes, it was a finca. He then went on to tell us about this community’s new school, the new plumbing systems and the roads that had been put in nearby. That’s when Fiona asked if there was a road leading to the highway (presumably the PanAmerican highway) back to Panama City. Again, the man was very excited/proud and nodded.
Later, as we walked, a young Panamanian man and his girlfriend pulled up to us on an motorcycle. They visited with us and then continued on this road in the middle of what was mostly jungle…for now.
Darien Adventure Day 5…Boca Grande anchorage behind Isla Logarto. Visit to La Palma
We jumped into Argos’ dinghy to take the three-mile trip to La Palma. La Palma is the biggest town in the Darien, boasting a population of over 5,000 people. We went there to pick up a few supplies and get a feel for the place and the people. It is a busy place with cars on the road, restaurants, stores; kind of a strange thing to see in this remote part of the world.
We walked the main street and spoke with the locals. Fiona and I talked with the owner of a tour business. He asked us about ourselves and whether we were interested in taking a ride around the rivers. We told him that we were doing that on our own but thank you very much.
The dinghy ride back was pretty wild. The Rio Tuira flows quickly by La Palma and we really bounced over the flowing current in Clayton and Fiona’s fast dinghy.
Darien Adventure Day 6…Leaving Boca Grande anchorage behind Isla Logarto for East Sucio river
We left our Boca Grande anchorage mid-morning and pulled onto the eastern branch of Rio Sucio. We planned to explore some of the branch rivers as usual, visit another Wounaan village and just learn some more about this place.
As soon as we got outside into the Gulf, the winds were screaming. It was a surprise and reminded us of our ride up to Puerto Mutis in early March.
But, when we made the right turn and traveled a bit up the river, things quieted. It was hot, but no screaming.
Rio Sucio was another mangrove-lined waterway. There were supposed to be crocodiles there. Upriver, the Wounaan Caño Blanco village was accessible with the dinghies.
We headed up the East Sucia to Caño Blanco, another Wounaan village. We pulled the dingy up to a pristine stairway leading to the village. At the top of the stair way, a young man was there to greet us and take us on a tour of his village.
Canõ Blanco was utterly different from Boca de Lara. First of all, there weren’t people plying us with their goods. The villagers were very shy and hung back in their immaculate, almost stately raised homes. The grounds were immaculate too. There were no baskets, no carvings, no drying basket fibers. Instead there were neat rows of homes with gardens and streets that were raked flat (no ruts or potholes). It was clear the community was proud of their place, maintaing it so well.
The guide then took us to the community building. The space was filled, but mostly with children, and they were glued to a television monitor playing a kind of fantasy/science fiction DVD movie. We can only guess that the guide wanted us to know how advanced and prosperous this community was but we were taken aback by this scene. Still, it was Sunday, so there was no school that day.
We were later taken to another home and we talked a bit with the owner who had a small yucca plot, and an immaculate yard. In a shaded area, a man in a wheel chair smiled at us and talked about this place. Another man in a hammock watched from close by the disabled man. The homeowner explained that the Caño Blanco children had to travel four hours by cayuco to school in La Palma. There was no Caño Blanco village school. He talked about his children and his home.
We thanked the homeowner and our guide. Accompanied by a group of village children, who were not shy at all, we returned to Argo’s dinghy. The kids stood or knelt at the top of the immaculate stairway to the river and waved goodbye.
We arrived at our mother ships, did some chores as the sun went down. Then the evening river noises—the birds, the howlers, the crackling—that wonderful symphony—began. I tried to record the howler monkey roarings, but they were too far away.
The night sky helped to make this particular place even more incredible. It was dark and yet there was so much that was visible and enchanting. Fiona and Clayton called and invited us to hunt for crocs but we were enthralled by the night sounds and incredible visuals so we declined. It was too much, those sounds and the night colors. We couldn’t stop looking and listening.
Darien Adventure Day 7…Staying put at East Sucio River anchorage
We talked with Argo about plans for the rest of our time in Darien and agreed (sadly) to move on the next day to a new spot—Rio Cucunatí—a site we’d read likely had crocodiles.
But, the rest of the day was spent in our lovely Rio Sucio anchorage. We kicked back and did some boat chores. Then, Ron took off in the inflatable kayak while I wrote. We had a blissful, last, quiet day in this lovely place.
Darien Adventure Day 8: Leaving East Sucio for Cucunatí
We left at about 8 a.m. Very early for us, but we had everything ready to go the night before.
We headed back east to Rio Cucunatí with screaming winds and opposing current. When we arrived at the anchorage, the wind blew even more violently. The boat bucked and threw us around the cabin. Needless to say, we were not anchored at Rio Sucio anymore.
We moved across the river to a sort of lagoon that looked quiet inside and it was. However, it shallowed really quickly so we had to stay just outside and were still involved with the bouncy stuff, but it was less. As the night came, everything settled down and it was quiet. So the move was worth it after all. We were very close to a rocky outcropping but the depths were good so we felt okay there.
The Cucunatí anchorage eventually became quite lovely, much like all the sites we’d visited in this part of the Darien. The night sky was beautiful. The anchorage became restful when the wind finally stopped torturing the river into confused, raging waves. Varying bird calls and sitings entertained us. Dozens of arguing parrot pairs were winging back and forth over us to wherever they come from and go.
Darien Adventure, Day 9: Rio Cucunatí anchorage to Pta Buena Vista
Next morning, howler monkeys residing in the trees growing on this rock that we had anchored very close to announced their presence. We listened and then prepared to leave Rio Cucunatí.
We headed to Punta Buena Vista. Anchoring was on a shelf where things kind of shallowed quickly so we put down a lot of extra scope.
When everyone was settled in, Clayton invited us on a last dinghy trip to find one of our toothsome friends. Ron went but I stayed on the boat to write. Of course, they all saw a crocodile.
I had wanted to spend time writing this day, in this quiet anchorage, so I made a choice. But, I had wanted to see a wild crocodile too.
You don’t always get what you want, but you might, sometimes, get what you need. Isn’t that what the song says?
Thanks so much to Fiona and Clayton and Argo for sharing this very special adventure with us. We had never met before but it was a privilege getting to know you guys. Thanks too for the great rides in your dinghy!
*The Pan Pacific Net (Frequency 8143 kHz) is a single sideband radio communication network that broadcasts daily and is offered to cruisers sailing in the Eastern Caribbean; the Western Pacific coast probably as far north as San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua and south to Ecuador; and, those brave souls crossing west to the Galapagos Islands, the Marquesas and further. The net is run by dedicated volunteer net controllers who make it possible for people traveling in this unconventional pursuit of adventure to connect, share what they’ve learned and help others be safe and have fun.