Darien and Isla Las Perlas
14 January 2017 | Playita, Panama City, Panama
The Darién region of Panama south west coast offers a unique experience to take Emerald up a few of the large magnificent rivers so it was an opportunity I didn't want to miss even though Im looking forward to getting on toward French Polynesia.
The day before we left Panama City we provisioned, picked up some extra fishing gear and a few parts as I need to do a bit of maintenance and checks along the away.
We left Panama City with little wind for the 50nm journey into the Las Perlas (Pearl Islands) and specifically to the southern end of Isla San Jose where we would be out of tourist's reach for the most part. It was a pleasant trip and we sighted many jumping rays, dolphins alongside Emerald, turtles and a few fins of an unidentified underwater species (Pilot Whales, I figure!). Fishing was excellent too with three catches the first day where Jeroen hauled in a 15kg SeaBass that went right onto the BBQ that night - simply delicious. Fishing each day was good but we had to stop - too much!
Our first snorkeling foray in the Pacific highlighted a bouldery bottom, many small fish, turtles and more rays and little coral (due to the large tides). Vis was about 10m and expected too get better as the dry season progresses. The Pacific is less salty! We took the dinghy up a river for a few miles where we saw many birds and a type of muskrat. Later we sailed over to the south end of Isla Del Ray, the largest of the Las Perlas islands for a few days in secluded bays and did some running around checking the place out.
The Darién region of Panama is (supposedly) where the primeval meets the present and the scenery we're told appears much as it did a million years ago. There are a number of national parks and reserves making efforts to preserve this area of its wildlife, forests and to some degree the traditions of the local Emberá and Wounaan people who maintain many of their traditional practices and retain generations-old knowledge of the rainforest. Parque Nacional Darién is also one of world's richest biomes and is home to the bird-watching destination of Cana.
We motor/sailed from Isla Del Ray to an overnight anchorage in Golfo de San Miguel. We didn't have the environment on our side as the wind pick up on our nose and the 2-3kt tidal current was ebbing as we crawled up the mouth toward Boca Grande. The following day the winds gusted to 25kts on the nose but we hammered on, making the pass at Boca Grande and eventually anchoring just south of Darién's regional capital La Palma. We cleared in with the local police (no cost) and picked up some supplies at the tienda's.
The following morning the winds subsided and we took Emerald first up Rio Sabana entering on a rising low tide. We then entered the Rio Iglasia and went in about 5nm before coming to an end. We then returned to the Rio Sabana and headed 20nm down the Rio Tuira. The rivers twisted, narrowed, currents altered (no more than 3-4kts), depths varied. Darker brown water eventually turned to a light thick murky brown while changing from salt to brac and eventually sweet. Plenty of small wood and occasional trees in the water. Tidal (Balboa) times advanced as we went further in. And the water depth shallowed the further we went in. Always an eye on the depth meter! We maintained the river rules of staying on the outer bends where water was expected to be deeper (not always the case) and traveling only on a flooding/rising tide (in event your ground and can get off).
We anchored behind Isla Piriaque in the late afternoon as the tide started to ebb and launched the dingy for some tributary tours and we a forest walk but found it's a quite thick and impenetrable wilderness. Parrots flew and squawked, herons and egrets congregated along river banks, hawks on the chase, sandpiper dug for worms and the that eerie scream of the howler monkeys. The next morning we woke at 5am to do a sunrise dingy drift tour of the river shore and try to see some waking animals - lots of birds - and one shy croc!
There was a lot of flotsam/debris in the morning's river and it continued to accumulated on the anchor chain and bridle and needing constant removal. It also involved taking the dingy out a few times to reroute some larger, heavier oncoming logs and trees preventing them from making hitting us. It was low tide now and areas of the river next to us had dried out. We were fine with 3m under our keel in this deeper section. However, just before it was time to pick up anchor and leave, we discovered the helm wheel would not turn - oh no - and later found out there was a large 3-4m log jammed between the port side rudder and keel. Jeroen managed to jump in, while I did crocodile watch, and managed to dislodge it without any damage - to the boat or him!
After this, I was a bit apprehensive about venturing further down the Rio Tuira toward Yavisa simply as the waters in this area were getting shallower with often less than a meter under the keel and after seeing the dried out areas and significant amount of debris. We've grounded Emerald a few times in the past without harm but it's a risk I didn't want to take just before embarking on a Pacific crossing. I like a challenge but with calculated risk!
The days of old, traditions of the Emberá and Wounaan people have long gone from this stretch of water. Land has been cleared for plantations, forestation, etc. The future and the internet has arrived - yes, you have 3G nearly the whole route of Rio Tuira! So for while I enjoyed the challenge of taking Emerald up these rivers, from a cultural point of view there was really nothing gained. To be fair, we could have taken a 3rd party tour that one can purchase to take you into one of the villages where the Emberá or Wounaan will put a show on for you and sell you their trinkets. That wasn't for me.
After leaving the Darién's rivers we returned back to Las Perlas for a day trip to Isla Contradora. The following days will in be Playita and finalizing plans for our crossing.