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Cruising Independence
  • Writer's pictureRick D.

Sept 7 – Sept 21 The Bay of San Miguel, Panama

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

The Bay of San Miquel is a huge bay located on the Pacific coast of the Darién Province in eastern Panama. Fed by a number of rivers that lead into Darien, we chose to explore a few and seek out the remote villages far into the mangrove backwaters at the head where the rivers start as tidal streams.

Knowing the bay waters would be dirty from the natural runoff, we made water on the way from Las Perlas and filled the tanks (approx. 180 gallons). Of course the wind was on the nose, so we had to motor almost the entire way. We anchored in the lee of Isla Iguana to avoid the winds of the evening thunderstorms and had a rocky night. We finalized the installation of our mosquito netting for all the hatches and portholes and sprayed them with permethrin, well aware that this could be “mosquito central”! In reality we really didn’t feel attacked and frequently had “movie night” in the cockpit. (Rick made hundreds of DVD’s over the years – so we have a great supply).

With so many tributaries feeding the bay, the tidal currents were very strong and secure anchoring was a primary concern. Our new Spade Anchor has performed flawlessly in different bottom conditions, but adding additional scope to the anchor chain always helps! Unfortunately that doesn’t keep you from waking up a few times in the middle of the night to check on the AIS anchor watch alarm and checking the boat’s position.

We stayed at anchor in the bay for another night as some wicked storms rolled through. We did have our first stow away on board for a few hours during a storm. A blue footed booby flew into the pilot house window and crashed on the deck. He just looked around stunned and enjoyed riding out the storm on the boat. We took pictures - which he didn’t seem to mind. We’ll probably not get as close to one on the Galapagos!

A fisherman in a small motorized panga did come by asking for gas. We gave him a gallon and he gave us a big fish in return. Rick thought it was a catfish, but Candy was skeptical… when fried up for dinner it was pretty tasteless…

Haven’t seen the sun in days, The eco-system here is very aggressive and constantly changing. Calm then 35 knot winds and the sea can change in minutes. Constant lightning in the mountains of Darien. Hard to sleep and live on the boat when it is bouncing about – longing to get up a river and into the calm.

Rio Congo – We worked our way up Rio Congo, guided by the Bauhaus Guidebook and his charts digitized for the OpenCPN navigation program running on a PC. The Navionics and C-map charts have no detail and are frequently wrong in this area – scary. We slowly motored up to where the charts said there should be a hole and anchorage spot and hit a sand bar… some serious power in reverse got us off against the incoming tide.

There were no villages up the river to visit but we were visited by Peter the persistent pelican who was sure we were a fishing boat and tried 20 times over two days to land on the deck, dinghy, davits and pilothouse! We tried shooing him with the salt water wash down hose, boathook, beating two cushions together and Candy stared him down while landing once… in desperation Rick brought out the Bluetooth boom box speaker and blasted Das Punk “Bigger, taller, faster” at full volume… we weren’t sure if he was shaking or dancing, but he finally got the message. Every pelican we saw afterward was suspected to be related to him and we believed the “pelican telegraph” would encourage others to try his stunts!

Rio Cucunati

We then found our way up Rio Cucunati with the hope of ultimately finding the village at the head of the river. We followed the guide charts until we literally sailed off the page. Luckily another guide had a hand drawn chart and we felt our way up the river until it was to shallow for us – taking the 12 foot tide and aggressive currents into consideration. At night the river was perfectly silent, with billions of stars and only the occasional breathing of a lone dolphin who feeds in the river. Magic!

The day brought many fishing pangas roaring down the river from the Cucunati village to fish all day and all night. A rainy lay day postponed our search for the village, but we resumed in earnest once the rain blew out to sea. We really hadn’t watched the coming and goings of the pangas and soon found ourselves half way up the narrow, winding and twisty river in the mangroves on a falling tide… After a three hour slog we barely managed to get out of the rapidly exposed river bed (before we could be stuck for 6 plus hours until the tide rose) !

The next day we tried again, this time earlier in the tide cycle and more aware of the panga movements – what a difference! We still just managed to get to the village, but still had to drag the dinghy through thigh deep water to make the last 200 yards. It turned out that high tide at the village was three hours after high tide in the river – and it took over an hour going pretty fast to make it all the way and not get stuck.

Cucunati Village - an amazing place - was not at all what we expected after the write up with pictures in the Bauhaus guide depicting women in ceremonial costume and guys in loin cloths! The townsfolk here were fully westernized with Ralph Lauren shirts and Landcruisers. As we walked along the ridge path to the town we noticed cement houses, street lights, satellite TV dishes and the cell phone tower with free wifi for the entire village. Horses were tethered up and the street and the village had an Old West or Argentinian feel about it. We passed a number of houses, shops, tiendos (supermercados) searching for food but pressed on.

We stopped at a large, clean market to have our breakfast. Whilst sitting and attempting to get internet a kind young man brought a chair over to Candy and said “sit here, the internet is best”. He was right! Within a few minutes of sign language and broken Spanglish, our new friend (Jose) invited us for a tour of the land via his truck to see the view from the mountain top which we came to find out was his family’s cattle property. An amazing 4 wheel trek up a very rocky mountain road took us to a vista view of the Rio Cucunati and all the village below.

His herd of 300 cattle on 300 acres of property in its mountainous splendor with a backdrop of the Darien landscape. He then took us to his family compound with a small part time school on the top of the mountain and headed back down to his home, where his wife and 2 young daughters greeted us with smiles and a lovely lunch of pork soup, rice and pineapple. We gave the girls some coloring books and bubbles which they really enjoyed. We got a tour of their home, complete with horse wrangling, chickens plus cow and pig breeding. He is clearly an entrepreneur rancher with his parents (who also owned the supermarket where we met him).

By water the town seemed very remote, but we learned that Panama City is 4 hours by jeep and the closest village, Santa Fe was only 25 minutes away. To bide time as we waited for the tide, we stopped for a cold beer at the “Cowboy Bar” with a horse tethered out front !

It was a beautiful 1 hour trip at sunset thru the mangroves and out to the estuary, back to Independence. We toasted the day with a cold beer, realizing how special our day had been, and ate the lovely fish we had received from a friendly fisherman that morning,

The people in Cucunati are so kind and caring and very happy with their situation. Their lives repeat everyday with the pattern of night fishing, scheduled by the tides that drive it. Other people, like Jose, specialized in the very important occupation of ranching and farming.

The most amazing thing was that we got to experience it all up close and very personal. Our memories of this river, the village and its people will last a long time! Again we find ourselves cursed with the cruisers dilemma – meeting great new friends and having to quickly say goodbye.

Rio Tuira and La Palma

As we were preparing to leave for Rio Tuira, an old fisherman came by to see us, admire the boat and honor our achievement, as well as show us how the estuary is their way of life and explain the respect that exists between the people and the land. It was beautiful to see him, no teeth, over 70 years of age, very thin and yet strong. Gnarled hands with spry smile and nimble quickness as he managed his boat solo. Another new friend.

Rio Turia is a large river with the capital of the Darien Provence along it’s banks. We were lucky to sail most of the way in, aided by a strong current that added two knots to our speed – we were playing the current in our favor. We had to avoid a long unmarked fishing net, as the fisherman waved us away. We also had to navigate carefully, as our charts were poorly geo-located and off by 300 yards.

La Palma -The town of La Palma is a loud, colorful and older city on a terraced hillside with 2 tall cell towers above. Many shops, a busy main street, booming music and a bank – our first since Panama City. The city noise, plus the roaring pangas in the harbor were quite a shock after quiet Cucunati! The anchorage outside the village had almost 3 knots of current, 15 feet of tide and we anchored in 45 feet of water at high tide. (More lost sleep checking our position… we only dragged a bit).

We got some internet, provisioned and found diesel fuel (by Jerry jugs and a 4WD taxi in the hilly interior of the city). We met a nice French tourist and shared travel stories in French – a nice change from Spanish. (Thank you Google for the Translate App on our phones!)

Tomorrow sees us setting off for Ecuador and a chance to do some exploration by land… ultimately Peru!

Fair winds and following seas be with us!

Navigating the Gulf of San Miguel

Our Blue Footed Boobie Stowaway

Paul the persistent pelican

Our low water approach to the village

We finally made it!

Fishing fleet awaiting the tide. (Note 2 men carrying a 60 HP outboard to a boat across the riverbed)

Same view, after the river rises

Delivering 15 gallon jugs of gasoline by taxi truck

Old meets new

The Cowboy Bar

Jose and his lovely family

The beautiful hills of Darien, Panama

La Palma Waterfront

Independence from the La Palma cliff walk

LA Palma main street from the cliff walk

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Jan 25, 2020

Looking at the Bay of San Miquel!


Jan 25, 2020

I think I now know where the town of Darien, CT got it's name!

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