Febuary 7, 2012
Into The Darien We Go
The Darien area of Panama is an impenetrable jungle in the south only reachable by boat or plane where the indigenous Wounan, Embera, and Kuna Indians live in settlements scattered along the numerous river valleys. The Pan-American Highway, which runs continuously from Alaska to southern Chile, has its only interruption here originally because the United States wanted to prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease from South America, therefore creating the Darien Gap. Environmentalists have since jumped on board wanting to preserve this amazing jungle area. Between the pictures in our Panama cruising guide and visions of a National Geographic experience, Larry has pressed hard on Ben and I to travel here on the boat. "No way" said Ben, "I don't want to see naked people!" It did sound intriguing and as we talked about going here with more of our cruising friends, peaking their interest as well, a group slowly formed and we left together on the day before the Superbowl for an unknown adventure.
Pax Nautica, Eyes of the World, and us were anchored by Saturday afternoon by Isla Iguana, excited about our new surroundings as well as sharing Ben's yellow fin tuna for dinner that night that he caught along the way. My first fish ever that I have filleted! In usual Ben fashion he says, "I HAVE to get off this boat and put my feet on land!" So off we go in our dinghy to check out the little island near Isla Iguana called Isla Iguanita. We notice right away after we land a dog off in the distance. Hmmm...is there someone here? We proceed to walk around the entire island, only seeing lots of birds, doggie footprints, and an old fishing net that at one time someone had tied three hammocks out of between some trees. Making our way back to the dinghy, there is the dog lying close by. At closer inspection, it is the skinniest, mangiest thing with a horribly damaged eye that is about three times the size of the other. It doesn't want to run away from us, but it doesn't want to come closer either. We send Ben back to our boat to get fresh water and dog treats. The poor thing could not get enough fresh water. Later that evening as we enjoyed the most delicious fish EVER, our friends teased me lovingly that only I could come to a remote area of the world and find an abandoned dog on an island. Just another thing to haunt my thoughts when I wake up in the middle of the night and cannot sleep....
The next morning, up early, we return to the island with a large amount of rice with chicken and carrots, and a 5 liter bottle of water with the top cut off that we bury in the sand so the dog can't knock it over. He was sitting on the beach waiting patiently, staring out at our boats. We all take off together in our own dinghy's to explore the mangroves up one of the many rivers. We see quite a few birds and have a lot of fun but are kind of surprised to not see any other wildlife. On our way back we stop at a small village on the water's edge. The people stare out their windows from homes that are built on stilts. As we slowly make our way up the beach, waving, saying, "Hola", and handing out candy to the children we quietly assess in our minds how welcome we are here. Turns out the people were delightful and had a wonderful sense of humor. We could not believe how charming some of the homes were, just in the little details. On our way back to the boat suddenly our brand spanking new 15 horse dinghy engine decides to stop working. Fortunately Val and Stan from Pax Nautica noticed and quickly turned around and gave us a tow home...sigh...just another thing in the long line of things that have gone wrong with our boat lately. We host a Superbowl party that night, Lion's Paw having pulled in that afternoon joined us as well, having a wonderful time enjoying it with our friends somewhat in disbelief that here we are, anchored in the middle of nowhere being able to watch this...satellite good!
Monday morning, after serious discussion and planning with our fellow cruisers to plot our course up the Rio Tuira to reach the town of La Palma, we all weighed anchor and followed each other up - having to remind ourselves to breathe as we slid quickly through the swirling brown water from the rising tide. A boater's worst nightmare is running aground, therefore we take navigation very serious. Our charts on our electronic chart plotter are off here, meaning you can be in the middle of a body of water and yet the chart will show that you are on land...or vice versa...which can be somewhat unnerving. But, with the help of our Eric Bauhaus - The Panama Cruising Guide (a must for any boater coming to Panama) we drop anchor by this quaint, pretty good size town built up on the hillside in a bay. Next thing we know, here come the kids paddling up in their cayukos. We invite them up on board and enjoy a couple of hours of their company giving them candy, popcorn, and water as they fished over the side of the boat with Ben. From the ages of 10 - 15 years, they were delightful. As usual, Ben was very generous with his fishing lewers and almost every kid went home with one. The souvenir of choice here are the beautiful baskets that are handwoven so tightly that rumor has it they can hold water. A few different women paddled up to sell their baskets, coming up on the deck as well, and somehow we ended up with a puppy sniffing his way around! Our fellow boating friends I'm sure we're looking through binoculars chuckling as our boat was sinking lower in the water with the weight of all the people! With a polite, "Okay people time to go, Ben has school now!" They all loaded up in their various boats and paddled away with smiles. The three of us felt really good.
Tuesday morning we were happy that Mark and Sylvia, our friends on Rachel lll, had arrived for "the adventure". We were to be picked up on the beach in a cayuko and be taken for a two hour ride up a river to visit the Wounan village called Puerto Lara. Rick on Eyes of the World had been kind enough to offer to pick us up and drop us off on the beach, therefore our dinghy would not be left there all day while we were gone. Now let me explain, there is a significant tide change here, I think about 13 feet at the time, so once again you have the homes that are built on stilts to accommodate the water when it comes in. There are even small huts/outhouses that are built the same way, thus probably allowing everything to drop through to the beach/water below (you get my drift). Well, when Rick dropped us off I took one step out of the dinghy and immediately sank to my knees in the muddy, gooey, (shi_ _ _) guck! Then I started falling over and put my hand down ending up with it up to my wrist. Oh my God... I think I'm gonna die! I yelled at Rick, "Do NOT bring the others here," and we slowly traipsed up trying to find more solid ground as we looked for our cayuko driver. I wished we had taken pictures because it would be really funny now, but at the time I was mortified. A nice lady offered a small bowl of water for us to wash but I did not have the heart to use any of her limited fresh water supply and when we followed our driver back down to get in his boat we just washed off on the river's edge. (Oh people, if you only knew how far I've come!) After picking up the other cruisers and filling up with fuel (you have to look at the pictures of this!) we are on our way for the adventure we've come for. Now if you've never been in a cayuko - it's like being in a really wobbly kayak- only with a big engine on it. As long as you're moving it's not so bad, but when it slows down, and if anyone even slightly shifts their weight, you feel like it's going to tip over. After the long, pretty uncomfortable ride, pinching myself occasionally - thinking I can't actually believe I'm here, we pull up to the indigenous village of Puerto Lara and are immediately greeted by a half dozen topless women who are covered in tatoo's, Wounan style, which is a sort geometric print painted on by a sort of indigo dye. The village looks charming with the huts built high on stilts and with thatched roofs. The people are so warm and have a wonderful smile. We each get a tattoo of our own, a tour of the village by the "president", an opportunity to buy their local crafts, a performance of a native dance, and a lunch of chicken and rice that has been cooked over a wood fire in the community hut. Pretty primitive stuff although it looked like the people were doing well and were happy. About 80 - 90 people visit a year so they don't quite have the touristy thing down and I thought it was a bit pricey for what we saw however it was authentic and we are certainly glad we came.
Leaving the next morning with the outgoing tide was very exciting to say the least. I took the helm, and we had a good track on our chart plotter to follow, only needing to make one small course change where we had hit a shallow spot on the way in. Again, I have to tell you, a narrow channel with this bubbling, swirling milky brown water is a hard thing to drive into, purposely. Then the feeling...with the engine idled down yet we're sliding through the water at 11.5 knots, it felt the same as when I've been driving in a car and accidently slide on black ice. "There's no steerage", I tell Larry. "Well speed up", he says. "Huh?!" The current is going faster than we are, therefore if I don't speed up I can't steer. Phew, we make it through, and all take a deep breath. Larry's mission at Punta Alegria, our next anchorage which is in the middle of nowhere, is to see a Harpy Eagle. Mark and Sylvia on Rachel lll are approached first by a cayuko driver and arrangements are made to take all of us to an Embera Indian village this time, up another river. We had a lot of fun on this ride, and I just couldn't help but laugh as the engine died for the umpteenth time and we would just drift silently like a scene from a horror movie in the Amazon, bumping into logs and hidden obstacles in the water making an awful noise as we grind over them. By this point I so wished I had brought a flask of something strong that I could nip at. I was starting to feel done with our "adventure".
Click here to ride in the cayuka
The village was sweet, slightly different tattoos on the ladies, same drooping boobs. We hand out small toys, candy, paper and crayons to the kids. Same style of huts and thatched roofs, chickens and skinny dogs running around, and even a pig - that we fed m & m's to - I think it thought it had died and gone to heaven. The kids were like, "What are you doing??!! Feed ME those m & m's!!" Larry and Stan from Pax Nautica got their wish, a hike was arranged for early the next morning with a guide to see a Harpy Eagle. It is the largest and most powerful raptor found in the Americas, and among the largest extinct species of eagles in the world. Excited for the next day we are invited aboard Pax Nautica to share a lasagna that I had put together earlier and celebrate a successful trip with some champagne as well. It is very dark out, a little windy, and there is quite a current running through where we are all anchored. Larry had taken off our (heavy) 15 horse motor on our dinghy and put back on our slow but "old faithful" 5 horse. I in the meantime had sent the champagne ahead with Rachel lll since we were a few minutes late and we had a lot of food to carry. The three of us jump in to the dinghy to bash our way to Pax and...the motor dies! (To our mothers, you probably shouldn't read this next part.) Okay, we remain calm, Larry tries to start it over and over with no luck. The oars get pulled out and as Larry starts rowing we are thankful for the four things we did right. We have oars, we have an anchor, we have a flashlight, and we have a radio. I'm sure a lot of us cruisers go out and don't have any of these potentially lifesaving things. Hey, we also have the food but I gave the champagne away!!! What was I thinking?! So, Larry is huffing and puffing, rowing like a madman...against the wind...against the very strong current...he asks me, "How am I doing?" I say, "You're not getting anywhere! We're just drifting farther and farther away!" We call for help and Mark on Rachel lll slowly motors out, looking for our light we're flashing in the distance. It seemed like an eternity for our hero to arrive, and for him to tow us back took even longer. By the time we reached Pax Nautica we were all soaking wet and I was quite shook up. This was the first time I started to think, am I ready to be finished with this cruising life? Does this fall into the category of not having fun anymore? We wouldn't have died. We either could have tried to steer towards a piece of land as we were getting sucked out or if it was shallow enough we could have thrown the anchor out and waited for the tide to change and then start rowing again, but still...Looking forward to sleeping in the next morning and having an easy day on the boat while Larry hikes away, at 4:45 AM we hear someone pounding on the side of the boat and calling Larry's name. It was Victor, Larry and Stan's cayuko driver for the day, an hour and fifteen minutes early because he doesn't own a clock of any kind and didn't want to miss the job! We brought him inside and gave him coffee and breakfast. He was very sweet and this was just another thing we tucked away in our minds to laugh about later. Stan and Larry ended up having a terrific day, were absolutely exhausted from their 12 mile'ish hike into the jungle aaannnddd...no eagle. They did encounter a couple of mean dogs followed up by two Guerillas, not Gorillas, with rifles. They seemed to be familiar with the guide, not sure if they were some type of security or what, but it was a reminder to the men that Colombia is nearby and there can be trouble with drug runners in this area. Needless to say, us wives gave a huge sigh of relief when they returned safe and sound in the late afternoon.
We all kind of split up the next day with the exception of Rachel lll and us who headed back to the Las Perlas island of Contadora. Carl and Cristina on Bamboleiro was waiting for us with open arms and Ben was especially excited to get back to swimming, snorkeling, and killing fish to eat with them. I can't even begin to describe how much Ben loves our Bamboleiro friends. They are truly the perfect younger couple, where Ben can act his eleven years of age and they don't mind, teasing and laughing right alongside him. We are grateful everyday for our cruising friends, never taking any moment for granted as we know how fleeting they may be as the wind can blow us in any direction at any time. Panama is a huge jumping off point, some people heading to the Galapagos, then Marquesas and French Polynesia, or to Ecuador for the upcoming rainy season, or North - back up to Mexico or the west coast of the States, or through the Panama canal and either turning right or left. We fall in the "going through the canal" group, then hanging a right to the San Blas Islands for a few months. From there...we'll keep you posted!
Photos for this update are found in the gallery section "Darien Jungle"