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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Howler Monkeys & Parakeets @ Dawn: Sailing Rio Chagres, PANAMA

cruising destination passage making marker
Fort San Lorenzo above the Rio Chagres entrance is not that hard
o find when you know what to look for, and where.
“Rio Chagres” came in answer to the question, “What’s between Bocas [del Toro] and Shelter Bay Marina, Colon?” Those who’ve sailed there get all misty-eyed.  The normally unusual word “magical” soon follows.

cruising destination passage making marker
The walk from the dock to Fort San Lorenzo
was abut as straightforward as it gets
– it was a road.  Here it crosses the
Buena Vista bridge, built in 1939.
Even though we endured our 2nd worst passage to get there (click here for our worst passage) we agree.  We motored nearly 24 hours straight in 20+ mile per hour winds in 2-meter waves, 2 seconds apart for the majority of the near 100-mile stretch from Escudo des Veraguas to Rio Charges’ hairy entrance.  It’s shallow, between two coral reefs, in breaking waves.  The fort entry point’s moderately well camouflaged until you’re close.  Our guidebooks waypoints were excellent after you saw the fort, for past the river’s entrance.

fort san lorenzo lookout rio chagres
View from Fort San Lorenzo, overlooking
the Rio Chargres entrance.  The section in
between the foamy white was the path in
– where it didn’t get too shallow, that is.
Most of the stretch in the breakers is only
between 3 and 4 meters deep.
Once you’re inside, serenity sets in instantly.  The water’s jade green and calm.  Birds and butterflies abound.  More shades of green than we could name colored the verdant foliage… fern banks over a meter high, tall canopy trees stretching their hungry green umbrellas 100+ feet up, jasmine-sweet fragrances wafting velvety tendrils across the waterway, showy tropical flowers blossoming in enticingly fiery reds and yellows.

rio chagres cruising destination
Moth or butterfly?  We weren’t sure.  This
was the only one that was slow enough
to photograph.  We saw a wide array of shapes,
sizes and colors along the Rio Chagres.
The crumbling, 15th century fort loftily overlooked our anchorage; we parked in rowing distance of the dock below. 

We were asleep before sunset, and didn’t wake up until a little before dawn.

panamanian jungle cruiser destination
Re-entering the Rio Chagres after kayaking
to the “trailhead” at the
concrete bridge and beyond.
We ambled up to the fort to enjoy the lookout, and notice how obvious the route in was from this side.

We were a bit puzzled about the lack of marked trails, given the area’s splendor and abundant wildlife.  Both the Bauhaus Panama cruising guide and our Panama Lonely Guide extol the virtues of hiking under the jungle’s canopy, to pools and waterfalls, seeing jaguars, parrots and howler monkeys, shining your flashlight at night to spot crocodiles by their red eyes….

cruising destination
While loud, according to this National Geographic article,
Howler monkeys are a mere 22 pounds or less, and only 2-3 feet tall.
“The concrete bridge” “trailhead” mentioned in our Bauhaus  Cruising Guide was unspottable from the river, though our guide gave nearby lat/long for an anchorage.  I followed Wayne’s hunch on its location in my kayak.  The bridge, abandoned in 1999, was broken in the middle. Plants assertively established their presence through its concrete structure.  


Dawn view off the bow of our boat on the Rio Chagres.





A posse of bats living on the bridge’s underside didn’t appreciate my passage.  I eyed both ends of the bridge, and opted out of exploring it by myself, especially without a machete.  I paddled until I came across a dam I needed to ford, and instead decided to turn around and explore other outlets off the river.  A vulture and I startled each other when my kayak passed him within less than 2 meters!  I got a good gander and his ugly red, mottled head, though their broad wingspan and ability to soar the thermals is impressively graceful.

Rio Chagres riverbank reflections just after dawn.  Oh,
for a sound file of the birdsong and howler monkeys!
“You went to Rio Chagres?  Did you see any jaguars?  No?  No crocodiles either!  Nor any howler monkeys?  How disappointing!” sympathized Brian of the catamaran Stray Catz  when we met him and his wife Anna, our neighbors at Shelter Cove.  He must’ve seen the same guidebooks we did.

I agreed, to a point. 

The dawn makes it all worth it.  It’s beautiful.  Serene.  Even if the howler monkeys act as daybreak roosters.  They sound like a cross between basset hounds with a tinge on laryngitis, and barking German shepherds.  “Or elephants!” chimed in Alice Kilgo of Ocean Star, quite familiar with their howls.  I also harbor this silly vision of them hanging out late together, smoking too many coconuts, thus rasping their voices the following morn….

Rio Chagres post dawn cloud reflections.  Yes, magical.
The parrots?  We saw them flying together in pairs, resplendent in their lime green feathers.  They too make quite a racket.

We also enjoyed the erratic swallow-like flight of the little cobalt-feathered birds that enjoyed buzzing our boat.  They landed on our bowsprit, dinghy, sheets and backstays, chattering gaily.

“We chickened out at the entrance that same day, Brian admitted.  “It looked nasty.  Now I wish I’d gone ahead,” he lamented.  In consolation, I assured him that yes, it was indeed a nasty entrance -- the kind of entry that tightens the sphinky going through it.

Getting the crap beaten out of us for a day was enough to make us go for it.  We just didn’t want to go any further for at least a little while.  We’re glad we did. 

panama wildlife rio chagres
These little birds on the Rio Chagres seemed especially fond
of our bowsprit.  I considered them our hosts, though
Wayne felt they were our guests!
The Rio Chagres rivals Guadalupe’s River Salee, another river that came alive at dawn (click here to learn about the River Salee).  Unlike the River Salee, Rio Chagres was relatively and delightfully biting bug-free; stunning for a jungle.   And, with Charges, we were thrilled to stay a bit, not just pass through.

Even without successfully hiking jungle trails, spotting crocs or jaguars, would I still consider the Rio Chagres magical?  Yes.  Beyond a shadow of a doubt.

anchorage on rio chagres panama
Paddling back to Journey on the
Rio Chagres, I noticed a helicopter
passing by overhead! (It's the
little dot above our mizzen mast.)
Location Location
We are now in Shelter Bay Marina (N09.22.033 W79.57.097) at the edge of Colon, PANAMA, staging ground for entering the PANAMA canal to the South Pacific We left Escudo de Veraguas (N09.05.307 W81.34.099) the afternoon of January 27th, anchoring nearly 24 hours later on the Rio Chagres (N09.18.949 W79.59.965).  We stayed there two glorious days.  A need to connect with friends family and passage planning drove us into the Colon area for phone and internet access.  We plan to escape from Shelter Bay as soon as we connect, then return in time to meet friends and family February 11th.  In the interim expect a few more Cuba retrospective posts, and as well some on our stops between Bocas del Toro and Shelter Bay Marina.  This cruising year to date, we’ve traveled roughly 1782 nautical miles since leaving NAS JAX marina in Jacksonville Florida, December 8, 2014.