Passage Note #62: Western Panama - Islands and Mountains
Our purpose in going to Western Panama was twofold. The first was to explore this part of the country, primarily the beautiful islands we had been hearing about from other cruisers - the Secas, Coiba Marine Park, Golfo de Chiriqui. The second was the desire to depart in June to sail to Ecuador from the western edge of Panama, a more advantageous voyage angle for us than leaving from Panama City or Las Perlas Islands.
We left Panama City after our transit through the Panama Canal with friends on SV Tica (PN # 61). After a quick stop at Isla Otoque, our challenge was to round the first headland of the Azueras Peninsula, Punta Mala (Bad Point), a notoriously windy spot. We had 20 knots up until the point and then it fortuitously went light in the early hours of the morning as we rounded it and made our way to the surfer’s paradise of Benao.
At Cebaco Bay on the large island of Cebaco, we anchored next to the only sign of human life - a large fuel supply vessel cum fishing “resort”. We went on board to top up our diesel and water supplies (abundant water comes from a powerful spring on the island), and were shown around by Ron, the welcoming American manager. They have their own stable of small fishing boats for their clients but they also service other sportsfishers in this part of the oceanic hunting grounds, reportedly some of the best Panama has to offer. Chuck caught a good sized rooster fish but released it.
In Bahia Honda where we anchored on the western side of the bay, the water was as flat as a pancake and we were very well protected. As expected, we were paid a visit by Kennedy in his cayuca, a sweet local who makes it a habit to greet and panhandle visiting yachts. We bought some bananas, limes, and a pineapple, and gave him some clothes, hats, antibiotic creams, and some other medicines. His sister, her husband and two young kids came by in the afternoon just to say hello. The husband was driving a beautifully smart yellow panga with a nice canopy top and flags fluttering (a real contrast to Kennedy's beat-up wooden canoe); he told us it belonged to his employer, “the rich Italian” - a wealthy man who owns a nearby island.
The next day we visited the small village on Isla Bahia Honda to buy bread and gasoline and intended to take off for a new destination, but rain and squally conditions prompted us to return to our protected anchorage in the bay. Honda village was a dolefully dreary place with sour people, no bread, and overpriced gasoline. The only bright spot was Philip, a gregarious 19-year-old who ran down to the dock to welcome us and practice his very good english; he was contriving to escape the village to try his hand in tourism in Panama City.
"The Rich Italian's" Island - Isla Canales de Tierra or Isla Simca
Around the corner from Bahia Honda is Isla Canales de Tierra on the map, Isla Medidor in our guidebook, and Isla Simca as renamed by its owner. It is a private paradise owned by “the rich Italian”, Jean Pigozzi, where we stayed for several days, content to be in such beautiful surroundings. We anchored in a picturesque little bay with clear dark water on the western side, under his sprawling hilltop James Bond-type villa (serviced by a funicular), in front of his beachside guest house, and next to the bay that berths his 220-foot luxury yacht, the Amazon Express. The wildlife was fantastic - loads of parrots and bird life, howler monkeys serenading us from every direction, and deer and agoutis on the beach every sunset. On our snorkel excursions Linda was excited to finally see a fish that had been evading her for 8 years (a juvenile Cortez Angelfish).
Besides being a luxury getaway for himself and sundry dignitaries/celebrities and besides being a showcase for his spectacular contemporary African art collection, Pigozzi's ownership mission is to further science. To this end, the island is a high-technology ecological research station called the Liquid Jungle Lab for visiting scientists, conservation organizations, and academic researchers. He and his wife (and a secretary) were just completing their annual three month residency when we arrived, and we waved as they were driven off in his large panga to the small airstrip he singlehandedly refurbished in Pivar, 25 miles away on the mainland - where his private plane for Europe awaited him. Pigozzi, a wildly successful investor and heir to his father's Simca car company, is a jetsetter, socialite, philanthropist, art collector and has an elite line of clothing - a very interesting fellow. Read more about him from Departures or Vanity Fair.
As soon as the “boss” was gone, a flurry of activity ensued on the beaches around us as a small city of employees got busy repositioning a sizable fleet of 4 wheel drive vehicles, ATV’s, surfboards, kayaks, water toys, pangas, work barges, inflatable ribs, sports fishers, deconstructing a modular floating dock that had been laying alongside his yacht, cleaning and closing up the residences, and painting the large ship.
Pigozzi prides himself in owning so much land around the island that he says he controls the darkness - not one light can be seen from his mansion on the hill. He apparently owns the cleanliness too. We couldn’t get over the fact that this place was absolutely spotless - not ONE piece of trash or plastic bottle any where - and we circumnavigated the whole island in our dinghy! That has to be a first!
Western Panama is filled with several marine parks. The largest, Coiba National Park, is a marine UNESCO heritage site which encompasses a staggering 430,825 acres and 38 islands, the showpiece of which is the large island of Coiba. Because it was a former penal colony until 2004, today it is a premier diving spot and pristine natural reserve due to limited human impact in the past. We were planning a stop there but decided to forgo a visit due to the prohibitive park fees imposed on boats (a hefty daily charge for the boat AND for each of us). Access via tour boat as well as private yacht is expensive. Leaving from the mainland fjord of Puerto Muertos we did stop at a small island at the edge of the Park called Isla Brincanco. Under the radar of patrolling park rangers, we stayed overnight and enjoyed the beauty of the island with its deafening bird sounds; the water effervesced around us with jellyfish.
While at Brincanco we experienced a big squall in the afternoon, luckily with no strong winds since they came from the north and put us on a lee shore. Rain, lightning and thunder ensued later in the evening. Looking for an anchorage where we would be protected from the northern winds we were experiencing, the next day we decided to go to Ensenada del Veradero on the south side of large Isla Parida. This was a pretty spot located past a picturesque cluster of characteristic small rock islands. We anchored in the shallow water (8 1/2 feet at low tide) near a small island surrounded by white sand beaches with scattered houses and lined with lots of slender coconut palm trees.
Now we were in the Chiriqui National Marine Park, established in 1994 to protect 58 square miles of marine ecosystems, including coral reef, mangrove swamp and marine meadow - 25 islands and 19 reefs of the Archipelago de las Islas Paridas. It boasts an extraordinary diversity of terrestrial and marine life. One of the guide books calls this area a "best kept secret" but it has always been legendary to sports fishermen as a prized fishing ground. The idyllic tropical paradise of Isla Gamez was a favorite spot and we returned there a few times during our cruising, even though it became quite crowded with tourist pangas during the daytime.
We ended our cruising here with one foray back out to the Islas Secas, a group of 16 private islands that are part of a luxury ecolodge, considered by a guide book as one of the most gorgeous in all of Panama. Our friends Deborah and Guy on SV Elan had spent a season here as lodge managers so we had heard a lot about it. We spent a few days at the gorgeous Isla Pargo with sparkling crystalline turquoise waters that reminded Chuck of the South Pacific.
Boca Chica, our ultimate destination, is the closest town to the Chiriqui National Marine Park. Here we would anchor and stay for nearly 7 weeks until we were ready to leave for Ecuador in June. We were looking forward to seeing our friends Jim and Kendall who sailed their two boats down here several years ago from Mexico and built a float house in a neighboring bay. Better than a treehouse, the floathouse is a sweet, ingenious, comfortable home for them and it was fun to reconnect and spend time together. The big city of David was an hour car ride away with excellent chandleries and supermarkets for provisioning and we made weekly pilgrimages with Jim and Kendall. Linda went back to the U.S. for two weeks for a family wedding in May so Boca Chica was a good logistical spot for her to take an 8 hour bus to Panama City and then catch a flight to the East Coast.
Boca Chica is a fairly remote backwater spot - just a couple of fishing lodges, small resorts and a tiny fishing community with one small store -- and a lot of thick vegetation teeming with howler monkeys and birds. Besides small craft belonging to the resorts, there were only about 6 other sailboats in the anchorage. Jim and Kendall said it was once a much bigger cruiser destination with no resorts when they first arrived years ago. We enjoyed meals at a restaurant/hostal on Isla Boca Brava (on the water in front of Boca Chica) and regular Saturday night barbeques at the Tiki Bar at Seagull Cove. Decent enough wifi from two of the surrounding lodges kept us satisfied.
When Linda returned from the U.S. we took a bus and spent 4 days in the mountain retreat of Boquete on the slopes of Volcano Baru, anxious to see what all the hype was about. This small town on the Caldera River in Chiriqui is very popular with Panamanians as a vacation spot and has attracted large numbers of ex-pat retirees from all over the world because of its cool temperatures, scenic beauty, and natural environment. At an altitude of 3900 feet we were relieved to be cool and comfortable and leave the sweltering lowlands and high heat and humidity of coastal Boca Chica for a few days. This is an outdoors paradise with lots of climbing and hiking around the volcano, along pretty streams, and in surrounding coffee plantations. We spent a morning on Pipeline Trail with Jason, an excellent local birding guide, looking for the elusive Resplendent Quetzal. Success!! We saw one mature male, 2 immature males, and two females!!
After spending two days at The Haven Spa within walking distance of the town center, we relocated to Finca Lerida, a coffee plantation outside of town. The scenery, gardens and birdwatching were fabulous and we enjoyed some hiking through the coffee bushes and forested perimeter as well as a very informative tour of the Farm. Even though we had toured a coffee plantation in Guatemala, coffee is grown very differently in this part of Panama and we were amazed all over again. Beans have a different taste depending on the altitude they are grown at even within this one finca. Guide Cesar taught us how professional "cuppers" evaluate the quality of the beans they are looking to buy (sniffing and tasting and swirling much like wine tasters); an experienced buyer can tell you which country and which plantation the beans come from. We bought a (very) small bag of (supposedly) the world's best artisan coffee grown here called "Geisha", selling for $9.00 a cup in a local cafe. An outrageous price but something we had to try!
We returned to Boca Chica refreshed and ready for a round of "bon voyages" parties with Debi and Victor of SV Serenity (who would leave for Ecuador about the same time as us), Jim and Kendall, and a group of friends we had met during our stay there.
We pulled up the anchor and departed Boca Chica on June 7, heading west to check out of Panama with the authorities at Puerto Armeuelles.
MORE PHOTOS: In the "Photo Gallery" for Passage Note #62