Rio Chagres, a Jungle Paradise Next to the Panama Canal

A Winterlude Update originally posted on Halloween, 2007 … as we travel back to the boat for this winter’s adventures, we recall adventures of years gone by…

For the first time since September 2001, Winterlude is in uncharted waters! Earlier today we sailed from Mono Island to Isla Pinos in the Eastern San Blas & all the charts – paper charts, as well as electronic charts had “unsurveyed” water – of course, in the area we wanted to sail! Luckily the uncharted area turned out to be over 100 feet of crystal clear deep blue water until crossing the reef again just off Isla Pinos.

David Enjoys a Waterfall in the Rio Chagres

David Enjoys a Waterfall in the Rio Chagres

Winterlude has been on the move since leaving the Bocas Marina two weeks ago. In 14 days, we’ve covered almost 250 miles in eight separate voyages. We’ve anchored in Colon, watching the giant container ships enter the Gatun Locks, anchored behind Isla Grande on the way to the San Blas and in the San Blas, we’ve anchored amongst islands that have too many vowels! Try to pronounce, let alone remember, such islands as Dupwala, Oiosicuidup, Miriadup and Tiadup.

In a minor change of plans, we’re anchored behind Isla Pinos, 172 Kuna natives live here in one of the more traditional Kuna villages – only the school is a block building, the rest are thatch huts, including the congresso which is the main gathering place. We will be here a couple of days waiting on a weather window to sail to Cartagena, Columbia. Beginning sometime in December, Christmas winds howl out of the east for weeks and months until late April or early May. Since we want to see Cartagena and might go back in the late spring to have some boat work done, we decided to sail almost directly to Cartagena so we can be safely back in Panama before December!

Anchored in the Rio Chagres, a Jungle Paradise

Anchored in the Rio Chagres, a Jungle Paradise

The last update concluded sailing up the Rio Chagres, the river that was dammed to create Gatun Lake – it supplies 80% of the fresh water used for the Panama Canal. The Chagres stretches only six miles below the dam to the Caribbean Sea, but that six miles is an absolute zoo – primary rainforest complete with all the critters! Remember the exuberance you felt as a five year old the night before Christmas? – or the wonder that you see in a child’s eyes when discovering something totally new and intriguing … that’s the way the Rio Chagres affects everyone. We anchored about halfway to the dam and before we had the anchor down, we had already spotted howler monkeys in the trees – you find them by watching the foliage, when it’s not moving in synch with the other leaves, there’s likely a troop of some variety of monkey! The next morning, we discovered a sloth slowly making his way up higher in a tree – sloths are more difficult to spot than monkeys because they move as if in VERY SLOOOOOOOWWW motion. Almost undetectable.

The stillness in the river is overwhelming – you can hear yourself breathe and even that makes too much noise! In the distance muted ship horns blow as they transit the Panama Canal, a mere four miles away. Toucans chatter noisily as they fly from riverbank to riverbank – always in pairs. I didn’t know that toucans mate for life and always fly together in pairs! Even the river water is still, the current flows by without any of the familiar lapping and gurgling heard in other anchorages. Sunrise and sunset are the noisy times of day … the howler monkeys crescendo to a noise level totally unexpected. If you didn’t know, you’d think it was a pack of wolves or dogs howling. Green parrots fly in noisy flocks overhead. One night we heard a sound like a crying baby that went on for several minutes – there are jaguar, jacarundi and puma among other cats in this rainforest, so we’re sure it was a cat. But it sure sounded like a baby!!!

Exploring Shallow Tributaries by Kayak

Exploring Shallow Tributaries by Kayak

By far the biggest noise is the THUNDER! It’s still the rainy season in Panama for another month and Jimmy Buffet’s lyrics “Thunder rolls like a bass drum note” is close to being descriptive, but in this river valley, not only does it roll but it REVERBERATES – making the boat shudder from time to time! Afternoons are prime time for the thunderstorms – sort of like when I used to vacation in St Pete Florida with my family, every afternoon we’d have a thunderstorm accompanied by heavy rains. Here, there aren’t always heavy rains, but when there are, it’s notable – first for the howler monkey – they always howl even louder when it’s about to rain, so there’s no mistaking whether or not we’re going to get wet. It’s good because it gives us time to open the water fills on deck and dam up the side decks to collect the rainwater. Winterlude has a watermaker, but it’s easy to collect clean clear rainwater here and it doesn’t take electricity!

Dinghy Exploring in the Rain

Dinghy Exploring in the Rain

One day we were exploring the river with friends – as we dinghied under a fallen tree to go up one side river, our friend Doug commented that Disney would charge $60 per person for this adventure! Heading upriver, we were certain that we were the only gringos to see this part of the jungle … just when we spotted a white painted target shaped like a man’s head & shoulders. According to what we found out later, the U.S. Army used to train Delta Force troops up our little river! So much for us being the only gringos! That same day we dinghied downriver to climb two small waterfalls & enjoy the clear chilly water (don’t get me wrong, the river water is completely clear too). Unfortunately, just about the time we arrived at the waterfalls, the skies opened and dumped literally 10 inches of rain! We decided we were already wet & climbed the waterfall & enjoyed the pools anyway!

Busy Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal

Busy Gatun Locks on the Panama Canal

From the Rio Chagres, we hiked to the Gatun Locks viewing platform at the Panama Canal. David loved watching all the ships transit the locks. On the walk back, a leaf cutter ant was laboring to haul an entire large leaf on it’s back across the road. The ant was struggling with the leaf and decided to reposition for easier hauling. Unfortunately at about the same time, a colorfully painted chicken bus (not for chickens, they’re old school busses painted for use in the mass transit system here!)
whizzed by and the brisk wind forced the leaf dancing off the sides of the road. Poor ant, all that work just to get blown away by a bus!!!

It’s fascinating talking to the people, my Spanish still isn’t very good, but enough that we talked to the lunch lady – she has a cooler in the bus shelter across from the Gatun Locks and feeds canal workers. Lunch of the day was king mackerel with rice, beans & a plantain relish and limonada for $2.25. She had just returned from an 8 month trip to Germany visiting her friend who is in the U.S. Army there. She had more tales to tell than we could quickly translate, but it was fun being able to almost converse!

Entering the breakwater at Colon Harbor must be the sailing version of Air Traffic Control! We had to call Cristobal Signal Station “This is the sailing vessel Winterlude 10 minutes from the breakwater, requesting permission to enter the harbor. Once inside we will traverse the east side of the channel to The Flats anchorage” – the controller acknowledged us & told us to stay to the west side of the channel until we were at red marker 2 when we could cross to the anchorage. Being regulated just like an approaching container ship was fun! The Flats anchorage is just outside the entrance to the locks and is quite rolly with pilot boat & tugboat traffic. But a fascinating place to spend two nights while we reprovisioned foodstuffs and checked out of Panama. Our zarpe says “clearance to Cartagena via the San Blas” – so we can take all the time we want before actually sailing to Cartagena, an overnight sail.

 

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