My father’s departure left me with just twenty-four hours of solitude before my cousin John was set to arrive in Golfito. I cooked up a hearty breakfast before firing up the engine and making the short hop across the Sweet Gulf to land-locked Golfito. Spits of rain greeted my arrival, and I anchored off Tim and Katy’s Land and Sea Services once more and passed the remainder of the day reading and relaxing on board.
On August 21 I passed the morning straightening up Aventura, filling her diesel and water tanks, and headed ashore. After a quick shower I caught a bus through town and got off at the airport. I sat beside the airstrip under the shade of a lone shack serving as the office and waited in the midday heat. Around noon the hum of a prop plane pierced the silence and I watched the small Sansa airplane circle around over Golfito and come in to land. Moments later the dozen passengers disembarked and I met my cousin on the airstrip. We greeted with a handshake and a hug, loaded his two bags into a taxi, and returned to Avventura. While John settled in I got to work replacing the boats charging system that he had brought down for me. With the battery monitor and regulator replaced, I fired up the engine and my heart sank. Not charging!
Frustrated, indeed downright pissed off, I headed in to the Banana Bay Marina and got on the internet. After failing to reach Xantrex by phone I delved deep into their website and at long last came across a troubleshooting guide. For my series of symptoms there were two possible causes: bad alternator (which I knew wasn’t the case), or a voltage drop in the positive cable leading to the regulator. Armed with this info, I returned to the boat and traced out this wire yet again. I replaced its fuse even though it hadn’t blown and fired up the engine. Still not charging. I jiggled the wire a bit and heard the alternator start to work for a second. Knowing I’d found the source of the problem, I sought out the more specific location and quickly isolated it as loose wiring in the fuse holder itself. Another trip ashore where I bought a new fuse holder for $1.50. Returning to the boat in a steady rainfall, I replaced the fuse holder as lightning began to strike about us, and lo-and-behold, all was well once more! After all my effort and worries and purchasing of new parts a simple fuse holder had held me hostage!
As if knowing I had prevailed over my electric problems the lightning storm passed on and the skis began to clear revealing an amazing sunset. I joined my cousin in the cockpit for a couple beers and we clinked beer cans in anticipation of the fun and adventures that lay ahead. The celebration continued with a bite to eat ashore at the Restaurante la Cubana, a beer and a guaro shot in a local bar, and the return to Avventura where we remembered the old days and recalled fun stories.
There were a few days between when my cousin John arrived and when my cousin Ryan was set to return to Golfito. This meant occupying ourselves and seeing out adventure in a town seemingly devoid of much to do. We took a trip down to Playa Zancudo and spent a day at the beach, surfing and throwing a football around, just generally enjoying the sunny day. And we spent one day hiking through the foothills of Golfito hunting for waterfalls and wildlife and found plenty of each. We swam in the small pools at the base of each falls, showered in them, and generally immersed ourselves in the aura of the jungle.
The day after Ryan’s return we set about preparing to flee Golfito one last time. After our water and fuel tanks were filled it came time to check out of the country. My three month visa was set to expire in a few days, and our plan was to visit a bit of remote southern Costa Rica before continuing on for Western Panama. Our first stop was at an internet café where I typed up and printed a couple crew lists. Next stop: migracion. When we arrived at the immigration office a sign on the door proclaimed it to be closed from noon till one o’clock. We had arrived at 12:10. Thus we turned our attention to provisioning, found a nearby supermarket, and bought what felt like half its contents. The Ticos were all quite impressed with our burgeoning cart, but I knew our stockpile likely wouldn’t even be enough to get us to Panama City.
Once our groceries were stowed aboard Avventura we returned to migracion where a middle-aged overweight Tico lady walked us through the paperwork and stamped our passports before directing us to customs—the next step. The customs office was at the Duty Free Zone, but when we arrived there the man I needed to see was out. While waiting for him I visited the bank inside the Zone and paid the $20 for our International Zarpe. By the time I returned to the Customs office the man we needed to see had arrived. He looked at a couple of my papers, filled out a new one, and sent us on our way to the Port Captain’s office. At the Port Captain’s office (located in a small shack at the base of the Commercial Pier) I shelled out another 2,000 colones for a few colorful stamps which were put on my Zarpe, shook hands with the Port Captain, and was told to have a nice sail. With the check-in process complete I looked at the clock on the wall: 4:00—too late to leave for Puerto Jiminez.
One final night in Golfito, some beers with fellow cruisers on the deck of Land and Sea Services, and a morning departure for Puerto Jiminez. A north wind had begun blowing through the anchorage in the night and I was optimistic of a nice sail to our next stop, but as soon as we reached the entrance to Golfito the wind disappeared, and we motored for the entire crossing. A day of enjoying Puerto Jiminez was enough for me, and after a second night of northerly winds turned the anchorage into a lee shore the time had come to flee the Sweet Gulf once more. My first idea was to stop at Pavones, but when we emerged into open waters I realized there was but little swell running. This coupled with the possibility of more dangerous north winds in the evening caused me to shift our destination to the earthly paradise of Drake’s Bay.
Our first day at Drake’s saw us return to the Rio Claro by land, boards in hand. John and I paddled out in the head high surf and had the break to ourselves while Ryan went off exploring the forest. Alternating waves and thrilling in the atmosphere of the place, all John could say was, “We’re surfing in Costa Rica.” Life was good. After a few hours a couple guys paddled out and John and I headed in. We found a trail leading south from the beach and followed it along the cliff catching glimpses here and there of the blue Pacific below. The trail seemed to lead on indefinitely, so after a while we returned to the beach, retrieved lour boards, and followed the wildlife-riddled path back to Drake’s. Back at the boat in time for a spectacular sunset, a great day of cruising wound to a close.
With one last day at my favorite Costa Rican anchorage, the weather turned sour. Cloudy skies greeted the dawn, but after a morning of reading the skies began to clear and my cousins and I loaded in the dinghy and zipped over to the east end of the bay. Landing the dinghy, we bodysurfed some fun waves offshore, walked along the beautiful beach, and gathered a couple coconuts before returning to the dinghy and zipping straight across the bay to the Rio Agujas. After diving off the drawbridge a couple times, we each cracked open a coconut and savored its contents. John and I then hiked into the forest till we spotted on last troop of white-faced monkeys, said good-bye to the splendid fellows, and, after a brief stop in town, returned to the boat for the evening.
As our final day in the earthly paradise crept to an end the sun dipped in the west, painting puffs of cumulus and strips of cirrus clouds a bright orange. As the sun set beside Isla del Cano the clouds passed through the color spectrum from orange to fiery red to pink to a dull purple before night closed in. It was as though Mother Nature were bidding me one final farewell, ensuring Drake’s Bay was a place that not only myself, but my cousins as well, would never forget.
Another day at sea, anchoring in the late afternoon off Pavones. As a light rain began to fall we paddled out for a sunset surf session. The waves were small, but the crowd was light and I picked off a few fun waves. Beautiful vistas surrounded me, and I thrilled at the feel of the warm water on my legs, the cool rain on my shoulders, and the light breeze caressing my face. Only darkness could chase me back to the boat.
After a night of light sleep it seemed as though nature were telling us the time had come to flee Costa Rica. The surf dropped overnight, and dawn revealed tiny waves and a small crowd in the lineup. I consulted with my cousins, and in the end we decided it’d be a good day to make our way towards Panamanian waters. A quick check of the chart revealed Punta Burica was twenty-five miles away, and we could be at anchor once more by nightfall. The decision made, we spent the gorgeous, sunny day motoring along the last stretch of Costa Rican coastline—mile after mile of deserted white sand beaches lined by dense rainforest. In California, I thought, this would be priceless prime real estate; but here in Costa Rica it went for miles without a single sign of human life.
In the early afternoon I cautiously crept in towards Punta Burica and anchored about a half mile offshore in thirteen feet of water over a poor-holding rocky bottom. I left ample scope for the bad anchorage, but once I was sure we were secure John and I grabbed our boards and jumped in the water. Ryan elected to stay behind. To each his own, I thought, paddling for the shore. Punta Burica is actually a series of small points, all of which appear to be home to its own wave. A series of lefthand point breaks dot the scene, though at the time of our visit the surf was too small to see them in action. The coastline was gorgeous, and the rocky reef reminded me of my home in Southern California. After making our way past two points and glimpsing a third identical one in the distance we turned about as the rim of the sun touched the blue horizon. We reached Avventura with the last minutes of daylight, satisfied after another nice day of cruising.
The anchorage off Punta Burica was exposed to the southwest wind and swells; but as long as the wind blew it held Avventura’s bow into the swells and kept things comfortable. I went to bed at nine o’clock comfortable that we were safe at anchor, but by eleven the wind died, Avventura turned broadside to the swells, and we began rocking wildly. Sleep was impossible. After an hour and a half of trying in vain to shut my eyes again, and while my cousins remained oblivious to the motion and slept soundly, decided we might as well be at sea if I were going to be awake. At forty-five minutes after twelve I fired up the engine, jolting my cousins awake. I told them my plan, and said they should go back to sleep. They each laid back down as I picked up the anchor and inched my way offshore with the aid of the depthsounder, and with the radar scanning the black void. After a little more than three months in Costa Rica the time had come to flee her majestic coastline for the unknown splendors of Panama’s western isles.
Western Panama—Fun and Foul-Ups
There are two ways to cruise Panama’s western isles: the legal way and the not so legal way. As the legal way entails a long detour around Punta Burica to Puerto Armuelles (where rumors were circulating of check-in fees ranging into the hundreds of dollars), I decided to forego legality for the practicality of a direct sail to my first desired stop—Isla Parida. Some forty miles northeast of Punta Burica, Isla Parida is a miniature cruisers paradise. More than a handful of anchorages encircle the island, all with a very secluded feel and all with spectacular scenery. Our destination was the little bay of Ensenada Santa Cruz on the west end of the island.
The new day blossomed beautifully as the first rays of the sun slowly ignited a swath of clouds overhead. A menacing squall lingered off to starboard, blackening the horizon and reminding me the rainy season was in full swing. No wind, and but little swell as Avventura glided along gently piercing the glassy Panamanian waters. My cousins slept below, and I thrilled in the solitude. Leaving the cockpit, a pod of dolphins greeted me at the bow, dancing and playing beneath my feet. As the sun leapt into the sky the dolphins disappeared, and all was solitude once more.
By seven o’clock the island came into view, and the remainder of the morning passed with it growing ever-so-slowly on the horizon. Shortly after eleven o’clock I guided Avventura through the opening to the cove, leaving an islet to starboard and a cluster of small rocks to port. As we dropped anchor in seventeen feet of water our friends, Cameron and Jenny off Velella, paddled over in their kayaks to greet us. With no other boats in sight, I asked what they were doing. “Just checking out the island a bit. We’re anchored up north in Ensenada los Negroes.” After a brief chat they continued on their way and I set about the task of shutting down the watermaker.
By the time my chores aboard were complete sweat was dripping from my brow. Without a word I walked past my cousins in the cockpit and leapt into the refreshing water of the cove. I swam in the direction of the beach to the east where Cameron and Jenny were exploring, and my cousins soon followed. Ashore a narrow concrete road led inland and we all followed it through the trees where it emerged onto the beautiful stretch of sand at Playa Grande. I was again quick to jump in the water and bodysurfed the fun little waves rolling ashore. From the water the beach looked spectacular. The long white sand beach was devoid of people and a row of coco palms guarded the sane from the onslaught of the rainforest. The beach ran a few hundred yards, guarded on its east end by a tall rocky point. Emerging from the water, I returned to Avventura, unwilling to leave her unlocked and unattended for too long.
We passed the rest of the day swimming around in the cove and exploring her small beaches. The beach on the cove’s south side was guarded by steep hillsides covered in tropical growth, and felt like something right out of the movies. Aside from the tracks of a couple birds it looked as though we were the first life form to pay a visit to the hard-packed sands. Here John and I laid in the cool sand, relaxing in the shade of a tree, thrilling in the silence of the scene. We returned to the boat as a squall descended upon the island, and emerging from the cove just as the rain began to fall, I retrieved some soap and shampoo and showered in the steady downpour. The squall lasted just long enough to rinse me clean, and nightfall followed quick on her heels. My first day in Panama drew to a close, leaving me optimistic about what lay ahead in the country.
A night of rest was followed by another morning of exploration. A panga had arrived early in the morning, unloaded a few things on the beach, and anchored just offshore. Once all was clear again John and I swam ashore and returned to Playa Grande. The surf had picked up and we had a blast catching the short rides, hooting and hollering as if the short closeouts were the best waves ever ridden.
Once we’d had our fill of surf we struck off down the beach to see what we could see. At the east end of the beach a second paved path led up into the trees once again, and as we climbed the steep road and approached the top of the point we saw three Panamanians planting grass on a barren hillside beneath a little house where the sounds of construction were ringing out. After exchanging greetings with the locals I asked if what I saw above was a private residence. When they replied in the affirmative I turned to leave, but was assured we could go up without any trouble. The owner was home, they said, and he was also a foreigner.
Our curiosity piqued, we continued up to the newly-built structure and saw the construction continuing on the larger concrete frame of a house beyond. From atop the point beside the house you had an unobstructed view down to Isla Paridita and the blue of the Pacific beyond. Around to the side the rolling hillsides swept inland and one part was covered in tall, wild grass. While admiring the view a gringo walked up and said, “Welcome to the yacht club,” a big grin forming on his face. He said he assumed we were off the yacht anchored beside his panga, and then offered to show us around. Introducing himself as Nico, the tall white-haired gentleman reminded me of an aged sea captain as he swept his hands out across the cleared hillsides and explained that he owned 300 acres of the island including most of what we could see and indeed had seen since arriving in Ensenada Santa Cruz. He was an eccentric Hare Krishna originally from Canada who had most recently lived in the hillsides of Hawaii’s Big Island. A couple years earlier he had begun the search for a remote island on which to raise his three children (1, 3, and 5 years old) with his wife. Hearing this I couldn’t help but utter, “what a bitchin place to grow up.”
Nico explained that the finished structure would serve as a sort-of garage and also the nerve center of their abode. He showed us the bank of batteries and the large inverters which would be powered by the solar panels already gracing the roof, and those which were still to come atop the house itself. He explained about three pumps he had down in wells in a valley beside the home which would provide their water, and stated that his goal was to become completely self-sufficient. This would be the fifth solar-powered home he’d lived in, and Isla Parida was his third choice of where to live. He owned an island in the Phillipines, he explained, but for various reasons found living their impractical. Next he attempted to buy some land in Fiji, but his bid was blocked by the Fijian government. He had found this chunk of land on the internet and was able to talk its old Panamanian owner into selling it. The house was now three months from completion, and he was clearly looking forward to moving in permanently.
After an hour talking with the man John and I took our leave and returned along the path Nico had built to the boat. After a late breakfast we picked up anchor and sought a new bay to call home for the night. Motoring north out of the cove, we passed the resort and mooring buoys in the wide bay of Ensenada los Negroes, rounded Punta Caña Brava, and glided past the pristine uninhabited north coast. Rock outcroppings separated stretches of white sand beach and the rainforest lurked omnipresent in the background. A pod of dolphins paid us a visit as we made the turn around Punta Jurel and a couple minutes later I guided Avventura into the cove off Playa del Socorro and anchored beside Velella. The familiar green hull of Celtic Dancer and sleek lines of Thulani sat anchored off the nearby chunk of rock termed Isla Gamez.
Our new surroundings was a veritable cruisers paradise. No houses or people to be seen, numerous secluded beaches in sight, ample coco palms bearing fruit, and clear blue waters all about. Unable to contain myself, I leapt in the water for a swim even as Derek and Zaraida from Celtic Dancer pulled alongside to chat. Derek is a classic cruising character. As I continued cruising the stories he told and stories others told of him grew more and more wild. Before reaching Panama City he had been dubbed the Godfather of Cruising thanks to his genial attitude and willingness, bordering on insistence, to lend a hand whenever possible. He knew everything, it seemed, about sailboats and cruising, and his Irish wit and heavy accent lightened every situation. Derek had met his girlfriend Zaraida in her native Mexico where he was working, and though by all outward appearances they were the epitome of the odd couple, their personalities meshed and they had more fun than almost anyone I’ve ever met.
After chatting for a bit the Celtic crew continued on to Playa del Socorro, and my cousins and I gave chase, swimming in. We were soon joined on the beach by Cameron and Jenny (Velella) and the cruising couple off Thulani, Jeremy and Danni (I had first met this couple in Manzanillo, Mexico whilst having problems with my fuel pump. Their problems were far more depressing than my own as they had been forced to turn around some six hundred miles into their passage to the Marquesas due to a cracked chainplate. By the time they reached Manzanillo and replaced all their chainplates it was too late in the season for them to head for the South Seas again, so the opted to put off the trip and cruise Central America and Ecuador first.) On the beach we talked story and enjoyed the beautiful surroundings while trying desperately to get some coconuts down from a tree without climbing it. We tried just about everything imaginable to get the nuts down, from chucking rocks at them to tossing an anchor and rode up, and in the end succeeded in retrieving but a handful. These were divided amongst ourselves, and once the spoils had been reaped the gathering of cruisers dispersed to their various boats while the crew of Avventura remained, lying in the warm sand and silently absorbing the beauty of the day.
Aside from its beautiful beaches and quiet isolation, the anchorages around Playa del Socorro and Isla Gamez were a veritable underwater wonderland. Sea turtles swam and floated past throughout the day, and below a mix of tropical fish bolted from rock to rock. Big starfish sprawled across the seafloor and oysters could be seen here and there clinging to the seafloor. A day of snorkeling and spearfishing ensued, at the end of which Derek had speared half a dozen edible fish while Cameron had collected a handful of oysters. A bonfire was in order.
The bonfire is the classic cruisers get-together. Find a secluded beach on a remote island, gather some driftwood, catch whatever seafood you can manage, corral some booze from your private stash, and the good times flow as fast as the stories that are told. The beautiful little beach on the north side of Isla Gamez was the perfect spot for a bonfire, and with four boats in the anchorage the gathering was bound to be a lively affair. We met on the island in the late afternoon where Derek took charge of the fire, and before sunset the flames were burning high and hot. A gentle breeze rustled the palm fronds overhead and the buzz of insects grew as the light of day dwindled. The fish were gutted and cooked whole, and Cameron and Jenny shared some homemade bread. The booze flowed and the stories followed suit. Laughter and merriment abounded and for a time the nagging bites of the “noseeums” went unnoticed.
Then the rains came. This was, after all, the rainy season, and we cruisers knew it all-too-well. Should we call it a night and end the bonfire prematurely? Not a chance. Danni off Thulani whipped out an umbrella, and we took turns keeping the rain off the fire, huddled close around the fire and beneath the overhanging coco palms. A few lightning bolts brought shrieks from the girls and a few chuckles of defiance from the guys, and fifteen minutes later the squall had passed and stars began to fill the sky. I passed around a bottle of rum and the merriment continued. But with the damp ground came the noseeums with renewed vigor. Before long everybody was slapping their legs and waving a hand before their faces. While I remained unfazed due to a thick protective layer of hair, a damper had been put on the night, and by ten o’clock scoops of sand were dumped on the fire, our trash was gathered up, and we returned to our respective boats.
The return of daylight saw the departure of the cruising fleet from Isla Parida. Velella led the way, picking up anchor and sailing out of the cove without ever starting their engine. Celtic Dancer fell in behind them and Thulani joined the race. A half hour later it came time for our departure, and after a couple nights among a cruising flotilla we were all bound for different anchorages. Before an hour had passed Celtic Dancer had taken the lead, and radio silence was broken by the Irish call of “Dar she blows! Whales off to starboard.”
A quick scan of the horizon and the unmistakable spouts of a pair of whales. We glided on under sail alone, the sea a sheet of glass and the wind a faint whisper. The whales passed a football field to starboard as Isla Bolanos drifted past. As Avventura neared the Islas Secas a squall approached from off the land and the winds became fickle. As we approached Isla Cavada the rain began to fall and the wind picked up to fifteen knots. With the sails down I inched towards the anchorage on the north shore of the island. The cruising guide I was using proclaimed the best anchorage to be, “west of a point and the islets in the middle of the northeast shore. A narrow vee of deeper water penetrates somewhat into the bay, but the shores and the bay proper are very shallow.” Taking this advice I positioned Avventura midway between the islets and the point and slowly crept in, seeking to anchor in a direct line between the outermost islet and the point itself. Before I ever got there my depthsounder leapt up to fifteen feet, and I yelled at Ryan on the foredeck, asking if he saw the ground yet. “No, it still looks deep.” A pregnant pause. Avventura was barely moving now, engine in neutral, captain on high alert. Then, “It looks kind of shallow straight ahead. The depth sounder read ten and I slammed the engine into reverse. Eight feet deep. Six. “Stop! There’s sand right below us!” Four… three… two! A slight bump, but the engine was in hard reverse now and Avventura glided backwards. I wrestled with helm and pointed her bow towards open water once more.
I’m still not sure if we touched the sand off Isla Cavada or not, but the close call scared me away from the island. Under the thick gray skies and light drizzle we rounded the east point of the island, circled around to the southwest, and slowly entered an anchorage between two islets off the unnamed island to the southwest. When the depthsounder read twenty-five I yelled for Ryan to drop the anchor. By the time the hook was set I shut down the engine, took a deep breath, and leapt into the ocean to wash away the stress of a near grounding. The Islas Secas had quickly lost their luster in my eyes.
A quick swim ashore and nature had soothed my soul. The white sand of the beach was soft underfoot, and I retrieved a coconut from a low tree, opened it, and drank its sweet nectar. My heart ceased pounding in my chest and I laid on my back in the sand, watching the puffs of wind rustle the palm fronds overhead. Darkness was fast approaching, so despite spotting the beginning of an inland trail I returned to the boat for the night, leaving all exploration for a new day.
Sunny skies graced the Islas Secas the following day, and after passing the morning reading in the cockpit the time had come to explore the island. My cousins and I donned our masks and snorkels and jumped in the water, snorkeling our way over to the big islet guarding the north side of the anchorage. The water was as clear as I’d seen it since Mexico and beautiful coral formations fringed the tall islet. A wide variety of colorful fish darted about amongst the coral polyps and a lone sea turtle shot past, descending into the depths offshore.
After making a quick circle of the islet, we followed the reef ashore and landed on the beach. Leaving our snorkel gear on the sand, we struck off along the trail leading inland from the south part of the beach. A wooden sign proclaimed the trail to lead for Playa Blanca, but we must have missed a turn somewhere because, after winding through the thick inland forests and wiping tens of spider webs from my face, we emerged onto the rocky beach of Bahia Nespero on the east end of the island. Here the rocks were piled with trash that had washed ashore. Plastic bags and soda bottles, beer cans and food wrappers; the heap of debris wrecked the pristine natural scene and I cursed my fellow man for his insensitivity to the beauty of nature and the effect his littering had on nature’s canvas.
Leaving Bahia Nespero, we followed the slow trickle of a stream inland for a time before the forest closed in around us and forced us back to the main trail. I took the lead once more, again fending off spider webs which bisected the dirt path at random intervals. There wasn’t much wildlife to be seen, and I was constantly wiping the sweat from my brow as the intense midday sun beat down through the forest canopy. As soon as we returned to the anchorage I dashed for the water and leapt in, wiping the remnant spider webs from my body and relishing in the cool feel of the Pacific waters.
The devouring of a couple coconuts was the last thing accomplished ashore at the Islas Secas, after which we swam back to Avventura. Seeing the accumulation of life on her hull, I devoted the afternoon to scraping it clean. Meanwhile my cousins sat inside, and before I knew it music was blaring. Underwater, through the thick fiberglass of the hull I could hear the annoying pulse and persistent thumping of rap music. There’s no more unpleasant noise to me than this modern auditory pollution. I spent a hour cleaning the starboard side and emerged from the water fuming. The work alone was bad enough. My knuckles were scraped and bleeding, my allergies flared up from somehow ingesting the paint dust scraped off, and I was beginning to shiver from being underwater so often. Emerging on deck I exploded at my cousins, yelling for them to “Turn that shit off!” To my great relief they quickly obliged and silence fell over the anchorage.
Moments later, sitting in the cockpit beside my cousins, I apologized for blowing up, explained my frustration, and reiterated one of my very few rules aboard Avventura—don’t pollute the air with rap music. It’s enough to ruin most any tropical paradise.
The sun made her descent towards the horizon and I cracked open a chilled beer. One long draught and the cool liquid calmed me to the core. I scanned the horizon and stopped at the spout of a whale passing between the islands. Pointing it out to my cousins, we watched from the comfort of the anchorage as the whale made its way between the Islas Secas and continued on its way out of sight. A flock of birds circled around the islet to the north, diving for bait fish and squawking with glee. The hum of insects swept out from the forest, mingling with the scents of land. The sun set over the west end of the island and put me to work preparing dinner. Another good day of cruising was winding down, and come morning we’d be on our way to another remote anchorage.
Four hours of motoring was all it took to cross the gap between the Islas Secas and the small chunk of land known as Isla Silva de Afuera. This small island was the first place crazy Ray had shown me in Costa Rica where we could find surf, and I was determined to investigate his claims. We dropped anchor in thirty feet of water off the island’s west shore, leaving ample scope in the unprotected waters, and launched the dinghy to hunt for waves. Whitewater formed off the south end of the island, and I quickly zipped over to see if it appeared surfable. A left pointbreak formed off a pile of rocks and zipped across a very shallow reef, looking marginally rideable at best; but, around the outcropping of rocks there stood a short, heavy slab of a righthander with no danger from rocks to be found. I watched a couple waves fold over the shallow slab of reef in thick, heavy tubes, and knew I had to tempt the beast. Returning to Avventura for my board and my cousins, we were soon paddling out to tame the beast.
As it turns out, taming the beast was not in the cards for me. Though the waves were just six feet on the face, the amount of water being forced against the shallow reef created a force comparable to that of surf twice as big. What’s more, the drops were beyond vertical. On the first three waves I paddled for I got to my feet only to air-drop down the face, lose control when I hit the water once more, and get swept over the falls by the monster. By splaying my body out like a starfish I kept from hitting the reef too hard, but I couldn’t find a way to make the waves. For my fourth attempt I tried taking off from behind the peak and zipping across its face that way. The only change in the result was that I airdropped sideways and was swept over the falls alongside my board. It didn’t take long for me to realize I couldn’t handle the wave at its peak, so I spent a couple hours shoulder-hopping with my cousins where the drops were far more manageable, but the waves were short. We traded off waves and enjoyed the wild wave breaking off the beautiful rocky hulk of the uninhabited island. The sun was scorching and the water felt perfect. After a couple hours we returned to Avventura in search of an anchorage for the night.
A light seabreeze blew out of the southwest and I decided it was enough for us to sail by. Thus I never started the engine. With seventy-five feet of chain still in the water I set the mainsail, and once the anchor was up all the way I pulled out the jib, and we fell off the wind. A school of bonita broke the surface all about us, but none seemed interested in our fishing lines. Puffs of cumulus clouds floated past overhead against the sky blue backdrop of the heavens. We skirted past the south end of Isla Siva de Tierras searching for surf. A right pointbreak was trying to form along its east coast, but there wasn’t enough swell to make it rideable. Thus we carried on under sail till Punta Entrada passed abeam and we entered the Rio Santa Lucia. All hints of swells disappeared as we passed close by the sandy point and began motoring upstream. The shoreline fell away in a shallow cove bordered by a long beach giving way to dense forest. We followed the deepwater channel cut parallel to Morro Naranjo, and when the land fell away into a second cove I nosed Avventura out of the channel and we dropped the hook in 25 feet of water over a muddy river floor.
The engine ceased her drone and silence reigned supreme. All about us was dense, dark rainforest beyond the row of sand lining the river. A few palapa hut lined the Morro Naranjo shoreline, and a couple native children could be seen fishing with hand lines from the shore, waving our way. I waved back and could hear their giggling drifting across the calm river. A troop of howler monkeys somewhere in the forest depths drowned out the children’s laughter. Nature reigned supreme. As the sun sank behind the small hill of Morro Naranjo the howlers quit their commotion and the hum of insects rose from the jungle. Darkness set in and the black canvas of the night sky was filled with stars. A more peaceful, calm and quiet setting I know not of, and I was thrilled with my first true river anchorage.
Awake with the dawn of a new day, we quickly weighed anchor and rushed out the Rio Santa Lucia before a two-knot current. The current formed a near standing wave close to Punta Entrada, but once past the spit of sand all was calm and quiet in the ocean once more. We zipped past Isla Silva de Tierras first, but when the waves looked too small for the right once more I turned to port and headed for Morro Negrito, home to a secluded resort catering to surfers. Dolphins followed us across the bay where we anchored briefly off the big hulk of Morro Negrito. A left pointbreak there looked promising, but upon further review from the dinghy we decided it was breaking dangerously close to the rocky shore. Disappointed, but still with high hopes of finding a rideable wave, we picked up anchor and motored around Morro Negrito where a rivermouth helped form a nice beachbreak. After watching a couple sets pass through I anchored Avventura in twenty feet of water, grabbed my board, and was quickly paddling in, my cousins at my heels.
There wasn’t another soul in sight. In fact there wasn’t even a trace of life anywhere to be seen. Ashore a long brown-sand beach ran from Morro Negrito for what looked like miles. Inland lay the omnipresent rainforest, dark green and uninviting as ever. Meanwhile the waves rolled through in an endless succession, and thanks to the flow of sand out of the river they had nice form and stretched out in a series of long rights. It was one of the longest, best-shaped beachbreaks I’d ever seen, let-alone surfed, and for two hours we traded off waves amongst ourselves, hooting and hollering like mad and having a great time. Then, seemingly out-of-nowhere, a panga zipped around Morro Negrito and a handful of guys paddled out. Our solitude was shattered and the patrons of the surf resort were reaping the benefits of the waves they had paid so dearly for. One of the guys had been working at the resort all summer and he told me that today was the best the surf had been in weeks, and that overall it had been a terrible summer. I couldn’t help but laugh at our good fortune, and after three hours in the water my cousins and I returned to the boat, turning the waves over to the paying patrons to enjoy.
Having found the fun surf we were in search of, the decision was made to forego our move to a new anchorage, and Avventura again made her way by sail and slipped back behind the menacing figure of Morro Naranjo to pass another night in her freshwater abode. After a gorgeous sunny day, and as if to remind us not to let our guard down, the rainy season struck with a fury. The storm descended from the rolling hills inland and within minutes had us surrounded. Lightning approached rapidly to within four miles where it lingered for the better part of an hour striking the hillsides in fabulous blazes of fury. I looked around at the lack of boats, buildings, or towers near us and my fear grew. How could we not get hit? But as with all other storms this one couldn’t seem to spot Avventura (a fact I liked to attribute to the “static-dissipater” attached to her masthead—though I’ve heard stories of boats with these same devices being struck) and after two harrowing hours the bolts of lightning disappeared leaving a steady rain in their place. By the time I crawled into bed the rain had let up and by dawn there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Such was my experience with Panama’s rainy season.
Sunny skies chased us down the Rio Santa Lucia one last time, and after again finding no surf off Isla Sivla de Tierras or Morro Negrito, we returned to the rivermouth beachbreak, anchored offshore, and quickly paddled in. The quickly falling tide and river outflow created a fast moving current that made staying at the peak difficult and kept us paddling at all times. I was able to fight through it and catch a couple waves, but my cousins were hardly able to even reach the lineup. After less than an hour of fighting Mother Nature I gave up and Avventura moved onwards.
The motor south was calm and uneventful. We hovered close to the shore, inspecting every stretch of beach and every point for the possibility of surf, but in the end found none worth stopping for. In the early afternoon we passed through the narrow channel between Isla Medidor and the mainland. The island had a couple beautiful beaches and was filled with thick forest, much as the mainland was. The waters offshore were deep and of a dark blue, inviting color, and, as we later learned from the locals, full of game fish—especially wahoo. Bahia Honda’s inhabitants usually catch small bait fish inside the bay before either paddling their dugout canoes or motoring their small skiffs out to the island in search of the big stuff.
Around Punta de Miel the expanse of Bahia Honda opened before us. Green hillsides encroached on all sides uninterrupted. Despite being on the mainland the bay was completely isolated due to the lack of any roads in, and the only thing connecting the bay by land with the rest of Panama was that of an old mule trail which led for miles to the nearest road. The lack of a road in has kept the bay pristine and lightly inhabited. A small hotel sits off in the northwest corner of the bay, a couple homes are scattered about the edges, and the small island in the bay itself boasts a tiny town of 300 people or so. Avventura glided over the glassy murky surface of the bay, and I brought her to rest in thirty-four feet of water off the northwest coast of Isla Bahia Honda, in sight of the island’s cluster of ramshackle houses. The inhabitants of the island lived a simple life of subsistence, fishing and farming most of their food, and wanting little in the form of the “modern” conveniences of life.
Once anchored the locals slowly came our way. Leading the procession was an old man, paddling across the bay from the mainland somewhere near the hotel. His name was Domingo. His canoe was a rugged dugout and appeared handmade. Attached to the stern was a small, new outboard. His wrinkled black skin and old bones hid a once formidable build. A big smile stretched across his face revealing a mouth missing more teeth than it had. He held onto the side of Avventura and struck up a conversation. Before long I had invited him aboard and we sat in the cockpit.
Domingo, it turns out, sells (or rather barters) fruit and vegetables with the many cruisers that pass by. In the dry season this can be a lucrative practice, but in the rainy season he can goes weeks without seeing anybody, and after passing through just such a stretch he was out of gasoline for his motor. He explained that if we desired fruit and vegetables all he wished for was some gasoline. Now unfortunately Panamas western isles aren’t burgeoning with gas stations and my reserves were down to two gallons; but we were already out of fresh produce, and the trade was well worth it. I filled Domingo’s bone-dry tank a little bit and he took his leave, promising to return shortly with our produce.
With Domingo’s departure came the arrival of inhabitants of the island. First came a middle-aged man in a small dugout canoe. He pulled alongside and spoke in broken English, explaining that he was a schoolteacher on the island, and asking if we had any books or magazines to spare. When I produced a small paperback he was ecstatic, but lingered as a canoe of three young kids, two boys and a cute little girl approached. The kids looked shy, nervous, and perhaps even a bit frightened. I got the feeling they didn’t see white people very often, and treated us with apprehension. As they lingered ten feet from the side of the boat I waved at them and called them over. It turns out their parents had sent them out to try and sell some beautiful wood carvings. Though they were quite beautiful carvings, I declined them, but didn’t let the kids leave before giving them a piece of candy for their troubles. As they paddled away the school teacher had a big smile on his face, and proclaimed those to be a few of his students. He then explained how the lure he used to troll for wahoo was missing a hook, and I realized he would probably try and get all he could from us, so I produced a hook from my meager supply and told him it was the only one I could spare.
When the locals finally had all departed I zipped ashore in the dinghy, left it tied to a concrete piling at the north tip of the island, and headed ashore. The rocky streets were narrow and the concrete home falling apart. It was a rough existence here, but I admired the seclusion and steadfastness of the islanders. Beside a big covered patio overlooking the bay a building was painted with a beer sign. A cute little black-haired girl was dancing on the patio. I approached her, and she stopped dancing and shyly backed away. A man appeared from the beer building and asked if he could help us. I told him we were looking to buy some beers and sodas (our stash having been drained already), and he disappeared into the building once more. While he was gone I tried talking with the girl. She was extremely shy. At one point I crossed my arms across my chest and her face was writ with fear. She pointed at my arms and said, “No!” It took me a minute to decipher her meaning, but once I brought my arms down to my side she relaxed again. Just then the man returned, producing three crates—two of Cerveza Balboa and one of Pepsi. I handed over some money and left, unsure what to make of the girl—surprised by her sensitivity and recognizing her pure, sweet heart, but sad at the thought of why older men posed such a menacing figure to her. Perhaps it was simply the rarity of seeing a white foreigner on her island; but I clearly scared her by my mere presence.
I returned to the boat just as Domingo arrived with two bunches of bananas, two pineapples, and a small bucket of sweet chili peppers. I thanked him for his kindness, and he promised to return in the morning with papayas and hot peppers. As he left the sun slipped away and darkness quickly descended on the bay. But few lights flickered ashore and all was silent in the bay. Stars spread out across the heavens and the air grew still. All was peace and serenity. Another splendid day of cruising had drawn to a close.
Dawn. A light gray overcast engulfing the bay and dulling the greens of the land. The town beginning to stir, children beginning to play, fishermen heading for open waters reminiscent of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. And, a little after seven o’clock, the old man humming across the bay from the mainland in his rickety boat, permanent smile stretched from ear to ear, sun-beaten skin hanging loosely from his body. Domingo pulled alongside Avventura and passed off a few papayas and a handful of hot chili peppers in return for which I gave him some size D and AA batteries per his request.
With our business completed, Domingo turned about and headed for the mainland once more and I fired up the engine and cautiously crept towards open waters once more. Two hours of motoring was all it took to pass east of Isla Afuerita and drop anchor off the north shore of Isla de Canal de Afuera. On approach I could see the bottom when the depth-sounder still registered a hundred feet, and by the time it popped up to forty feet we dropped anchor, and I backed down in the direction of the island. The chain stretched out, and thankfully the anchor caught on the first try because our stern swung frightfully close to the shallows of the island’s vibrant coral reef.
The drone of the engine ceased, my cousins and I retrieved our snorkel gear, and we were over the side in mere seconds. The snorkeling was the best I’d seen all trip. The waters were as clear as any I’d ever seen in the Pacific Ocean, the rainbow reef sparkled in the morning light, and a variety of fish darted about the scene. We snorkeled our way around a rocky point of the island and landed on a beach covered in shells. The small island was filled with a dense covering of forest overhanging and shading the beach, and we walked in the shadows the length of the beach, re-entering the water and snorkeling back to Avventura as a gray powerboat approached the anchorage.
Emerging from the crystal waters, I was still dripping wet when the gray boat pulled up close to us. The words Mar Viva were painted on its side and a man asked us where our permit was to be in the park. Playing dumb, I asked what park he was referring to.
“This island is part of the Isla Coiba National Park, and you need a permit to be here.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea. We are heading for Isla Coiba very soon.”
“No. You must go there right now. Go directly to the Ranger Station and check in. We’ll be watching you.”
The ominous warning hung heavy in the air. Sure enough the gray boat hovered around us while we weighed anchor, and followed us out the narrow passage between the pair of islands. Once in open waters again I descended into Avventura’s cabin to look at a chart. I had planned to circle south of Isla Rancheria and anchor there for the night, but after being told to proceed to the Ranger Station at Punta Machete directly I changed our course to pass north of Isla Rancheria, the more direct route. This, as it turns out, was a fateful decision and should serve as a warning to all to never second guess yourself. I watched as the gray Mar Viva boat passed north of Rancheria and followed suit.
Around the north side of Isla Rancheria, a cluster of islands were scattered amidst the channel before Isla Coiba. The chart in the cruising guide I was using showed a patch of reef attached to the west side of Isla Coibita with clear, deepwater south and west of that. Thus we’d circle Isla Coibita, giving her a fairly wide berth, but favoring the small island to avoid a second patch of reef shown to be a short ways offshore of Isla Coiba. The chart showed nothing under seventy feet deep, and I figured the passage would be smooth, straightforward, and easy.
Powering at our cruising speed, I began turning us around Isla Coibita using the autopilot and changing course a few degrees at a time. Music was playing softly in the cockpit speakers and now and again I was flipping through a surfing magazine admiring the pictures of wave I’d never surf. Glancing up from the magazine, I saw the depth-sounder jump up from not being able to read to registering 100 feet. My eyes remained glued to the gauge as it jumped up to 80, 60, 40! Trouble was dead ahead. I leapt to my feet, ripped the autopilot belt off the wheel, and shoved the engine into neutral. An ominous brown patch of reef could now be seen lurking beneath the surface ahead. I cranked the wheel to starboard towards open waters and revved the engine in reverse to halt our momentum. Despite my efforts it happened. A pregnant pause, then the hard grinding sound a sailor hates more than any other, a sudden jolt backwards, and panic swept over me. We’d hit the reef!