Anchoring in the Rio Chagres, just around the corner from the Panama Canal, we were surrounded by towering rainforest virtually untouched since the days of the Spanish Conquistadors, the silence pierced only by birdcalls and wails of the howler monkeys. The Chagres offers a welcome change from the coconut palm, white sugar sand tropical islands along Panama’s Caribbean Coast. While around the corner, behemoth ships enter the Panama Canal 24 hours a day, the Chagres offers tranquility that is often overlooked in the hustle and bustle that surrounds the Canal.
Drop anchor in same placid, translucent waters where five centuries earlier, pirates and buckaneers lay in wait for unsuspecting Spanish treasure ships. Sir Henry Morgan himself lost four ships on the reefs and sandbars of the Chagres entrance on his way overland to conquer Panama City in the late 1500’s. Fort San Lorenzo, the historic landmark, built by the Spanish to guard the treasures of the Spanish Main, still guards the river entrance perched high on a cliff.
Winding though the towering verdant green jungle, the river seems magical. A national park, the Chagres is an excellent location for bird watching, hiking and wildlife viewing. Trails are abundant thanks in part to the US military – in the past, this was a jungle training location. Don’t miss waterfalls, hidden behind bamboo thickets, explore the quebradas (streams) by kayak or dinghy and if you’re very ambitious, climb to the crest where a crane operated by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute is visible.
Back on the boat, a troop of white faced monkeys play happily in the branches, in the distance, afternoon thunderstorm clouds form and the howler monkey’s deep throated howls alert the jungle to the possibility of rain. Brilliant neon blue butterflies as large as my hand flutter from shore to shore. In the skies above colorful toucans and pairs of screechy green parrots soar. Green, blue, tiger and night herons stalk the shorelines while kingfishers and cormorants entertain by fishing. River turtles sun themselves on rocks or branches and sloths do a slow motion swing through the treetops. At night, examine the shorelines with a flashlight for glimpses of the red shining eyes of the elusive, but ever present crocodiles.
The Chagres winds upriver for about 6 miles before ending at the Gatun Lake dam used for the canal. The river still supplies 80% of the fresh water necessary for the canal as well as drinking water for thousands. Just before the dam, there is a small wooden dock on the port bank. Tie your dinghy (lock securely, outboards have been known to disappear) and walk the abandoned road through the rainforest to the real road – across from the old Tarpon Club, now unused. From there you can see the Gatun Locks and a short walk takes you to the viewing platforms.
The Rio Chagres is usually placid with a mild current and anchoring is possible anywhere past the entrance in 30-60 feet of mostly mud bottom bank to bank. There are virtually no obstructions or dangers once inside. But the entrance can be tricky and the ever shifting sandbars require that you ask locally for the latest entrance information. Strong tradewinds from the East cause breaking swells and waves make the entrance impassable part of the year. We had fine weather in September and October and locals tell us March through May are equally good times to enjoy the river. Be aware in years of extremely heavy rains, the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) may open the dam, letting water flood down the river. Patrol boats generally try to notify cruisers ahead of time, but there have been isolated instances of boats swept downriver with the strong current (no injuries either to the boats or inhabitants).
While in Panama, take time out for a side trip to the jungle, you’ll be glad you did!
Been to the Rio Chagres? Tell us your experience! Leave a comment!