Thanks to a random comment over eight months ago that our friend Jessica Avila made regarding our little boat trip, I have had the ‘80s Van Halen hit, ‘Panama,’ stuck in my head nearly 60 percent of my waking moments in this country. If we ever make it to Perth, she will pay, pay, pay. In a way I suppose, it helps to keep the sheer awesomeness of the place in check.
A person could spend a lot of time here. Every anchorage we nip into for the night–just for a rest and we’ll be off first thing next morning—has a view of at least three other golden gleaming beaches lined with coconut palms that look like they might be worth a little exploring. Also, I’m not sure if it’s just not the season or whatever, but there are hardly any people. It’s hard to feel like we have to keep moving on.
We arrived at the national park Isla Coiba the night before last and anchored in a cove on the eastern side of Coibita/Rancherita. The main island used to be a penal colony until the environmentalists stepped in and all our outdated guides say things like: “Be sure to keep a 24-hour watch on deck at any of the outlying islands,” “Get a guard with a large gun to escort you on hikes,” “Do not pick up anyone floating in crudely constructed rafts begging for help,” or “We have personally seen escaped inmates on this [outlying] island.” (We have been told that Isla Rancherita is now home to a Smithsonian Research station and the penal colony is no more.) The cove is densely jungly with no human structures or debris in sight; it also has great sandy holding (many of our anchorages have been steep with a lot of coral debris mixed with the sand).
Yesterday morning we awoke to Billy and Paul duking it out on channel 16. Billy, the captain of the sportfisher “Typhoon” was supposed to go get live bait for a little fishing party and the fish weren’t biting, “There are NO fish out here; not even Pesca Panama is catching anything” (I find that hard to believe, but…) and Paul, the organizer/redneck was not pleased. We could watch out of our cove as the Typhoon charged all over the place burning up fuel and looking for bonito, and we could hear Paul drawling at the radio, his irritation coming through in careful enunciation if not always complete sentences, “So, let me get this straight. There is NO live bait at all anywhere?” (Again Billy assured him there was none in several different ways.) “Cause I got fifteen people here and we’re just sittin’ here pickin’ our butts.” (An oft-used expression.) “If you can’t get any live bait I guess we’ll have to just take ‘em snorkeling.” (Pronounced with considerable distaste.) This went on for over an hour until Paul went snorkeling with the tourists and chatter was replace by the incessant rapid-fire hailing between the ranger station on Coiba and “TRESTRESTRES!!!” and we decided to head over there ourselves to get checked in.
We eschewed snorkeling for land lubbing (actually, a small cruise ship called Sea Voyager had about thirty people paddling around Granito de Oro, rumored to be the good snorkeling spot in the area) and anchored off what might have been Donald Trump’s yacht, the R.M. Elegant. (I thought time and time again about starting a gallery of horrors featuring yacht names and photos of some of the beasts we see on our travels but have not when time after time, we meet some really nice couple on some Morgan called ‘Tide N Knots.’) Anyway, this R.M. Elegant is one of the uglier things we’ve ever seen, it looked like it cost a zillion dollars and probably looked a hell of a lot snazzier on a piece of paper laid out on the design table. There were jet skis and various satellite craft whirring all around it like fleas and we were pleased when they left shortly after our freaky-looking little sailboat dropped the hook. Not much later the cruise ship charged off too, leaving the entire area free of craft aside from ours.
After a chaperoned hike around Isla Rancherita (we had no choice) we decided to ride the last of the wind back over to the quiet little cove for the night. But it died. And there was a gnarly current (which was ferocious enough to actually see on the surface of the water). And the motor wouldn’t start (water in the fuel, dagnabit). For a while it was a bit dicey when we were actually sailing backwards (outrageous!) and down onto an ugly looking reef. We eked away on a puff of wind here and there and tacked, slowly, about in the dying wind. The water was almost to the silver sheer stage and we were getting nervous. Finally we lost the wind altogether and as I locked the helm in the straight position, Joshua got one of the kayak paddles, straddled one of the amas and started rowing; I joined him on the other side and damn if we didn’t make at least two knots. Impressive. We got another puff here and there and made it into our anchorage right as the sun went over the hill. We dumped buckets of water over our heads to cool off, then sat in the cockpit and drank pink rums.
The next morning we were booked for snorkeling, after we, er, Joshua, fixed the motor (carburetor full of water, requiring disassembly and many, many swear words). We ate egg tacos en route and anchored in an aqua section off the tiny rocky outcropping Granito de Oro. I keep hearing about the crystal clear water and I have never seen it. Here was, again, someplace where the water was supposed to be superb. It was okay. The coral was cool though, when you got close enough to it. We dropped into the water right onto about six turtles! They are much cooler when viewed from under the water and look like they are flying when they swim. They were all giving us the eye. Highlights included a wider variety of different corals than I’ve seen previously, many pairs of moorish idols, clouds of sergeant majors, various velvety damselfish, a school of barracuda (which, they weren’t big but there were like fifty of them), and then (gasp) SHARKS! Well, three of them, and well, white-tipped reef sharks, and well, we saw them only one at a time so it wasn’t really that dramatic. Joshua came over to me as I was happily regarding some sort of inanimate bumpy mushroom coral thing and grabbed my wrist telling me when we surfaced: “there are sharks, but they are harmless reef sharks.” I was actually more interested to see them than I was freaked out by the fact that the words “shark” and “harmless” were just used in the same sentence. They are really very pretty and move about in a fluttery manner (with all those fins), and they are rather small (thankfully); plus, they kept mostly to the bottom. I don’t know how well I’d react if I saw anything larger swimming in that side-to-side sharky way at me on the surface of the water. Du-duh… du-duh…
After swimming around the island twice, we had to swim the back out to the boat against the current. It took forever. By the time we made it I was tired and had to pee badly (I read somewhere long ago that sharks are attracted by the smell of blood and, yes, urine in the water and I have refrained from peeing even in lakes and rivers ever since). Plus I was wearing a body suit I tried out for the first time; I seem to always get jellyfish stings which cause an icky rash and sunburns even after laying on the greasy SPF30 thick (it used to belong to Sundi—Hey Sundi! I have your wet suit thing if you need it. You have to come and visit us to get it though). It worked quite well even if I nearly fell overboard as I was staggering around trying to get it off. It’s black with all sorts of 80s-looking neon stripes. I feel like I look really cool in it.
We are currently anchored on the northwest side of the island and are planning to search for a waterfall in the manana. With any luck we will not have to endure a friendly Panamanian park ranger as a tour guide making sure we don’t fall off a cliff or whatever the hell it is they think we gringos are capable of and will have the benefit of a freshwater bath to boot.