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Views of Panama

Adventures at Sea

Here are some stories from a voyage through the heart of the Panama Canal, along the coast of Darién Province, and to the Las Perlas Archipelago in the Panamanian Pacific.

By: Ana Teresa Benjamín
Photos : Cortesy Panama Marine Adventures

I remember the first time I went on a boat. I wasn’t yet 20 and I was headed for an island called Casaya, a spit of land in the Las Perlas Archipelago in the Panamanian Pacific. We sailed on a precarious boat with dark, claustrophobic cabins. The ship transported both people and merchandise between Panama City and the country’s most jungled province: Darién.

More than two decades later, that night voyage conjures nostalgic smiles, but at the time, there was only seasickness and nausea. Not even the breeze bringing a hint of rain eased my sufferings, which were multiplied by the impression that we were sailing into a black hole.

A lot of water has flowed under bridge since then, and during this finite journey we call life, I have had the chance to travel by kayak, dugout canoe, launch, and yacht. But never on a cruise ship. Until now.

Our trip began in a town called Gamboa. Located 20 miles from Panama City in the midst of the rain forest, Gamboa began to draw people in the early 20th century when the Canal was built. This now semi-deserted town is home to the Canal’s Dredging Division. I board the Discovery at the Division’s port.

Our first few hours on this 24-passenger boat are spent in, ahem, “discovery.” Like any Panamanian, I’m used to seeing ships pass by from the Miraflores Visitor Center and suffering the infernal peak-hour traffic jams on one of the two bridges over the Canal, but this journey through the heart of the Canal gave me a completely different perspective: first, there is the legendary man-made valley known as the Culebra Cut, which cost so many lives when the mountain after which it is named was dynamited. Then there are the Pedro Miguel and Miraflores locks.

It is one thing to understand the theory of how water fills the chambers of each one of the Canal locks, but it is another entirely to stand in the bow of a ship and feel the boat rise in the chamber while looking at the immense void of the next chamber, and to then drop, until you feel those century-old walls pressing in on you.

With both sets of locks having been successfully negotiated from north to south —you need a lot of experience and strict adherence to regulations to sail here— we finally reach the Pacific Ocean. We spent the 8 hours it took to reach the Gulf of San Miguel in Darién Province lightly slumbering in a warm and comfortable cabin.

A Quick Stop in Darién

I awoke that Saturday to see the exciting Darién jungle: vast, fascinating, and surprising. Our post-breakfast plan was to visit La Chunga, an Emberá community on the banks of the Sambú River, where visitors can learn about the group’s history and culture.

To reach La Chunga, we boarded a launch that could navigate the meandering Sambú River. There were no major surprises until we rounded a curve and came upon a dozen dugout canoes from which a number of men cast fishing lines into the river. They fished in silence while birds tried to steal their catch. In a scene as old as the history of humanity, the men were working to bring food home to their families.

The route narrowed as the river pushed further inland. At one point, we detoured toward a canal lined with mangroves, the roots of which seemed to have emerged from some fantasy saga, impressing us with their hypnotic beauty.

When we arrived in La Chunga, girls wearing the paruma (traditional skirt worn by Emberá women) came out to welcome us. The community is a hamlet with a small school, a communal house, and a sports court for soccer and basketball.

After watching cultural performances, we had the opportunity to purchase handicrafts: the Emberá do exquisite work with tagua (palm nut), carving realistic, finely-detailed animals. The women weave baskets of varying shapes and designs, using fibers obtained from chunga and nahuala palms. The men also work cocobolo wood, a hardwood that comes in a range of lovely colors. I bought a cane from Rogelio that was carved with two male iguanas fighting over a female from Rogelio.

A Peaceful Day at the Beach

Sunday, our last day, was set aside for the beach. From the Gulf of San Miguel, the captain set course for the Las Perlas Archipelago. Several decades after my first boat ride, these islands have become an important tourist destination and a zone of beach-front houses.

Given that the day was cloudy —Panama’s rainy season runs from May to November— our visit to Cañas Island was pleasant, albeit brief. We arrived by kayak, which is a wonderful way to experience the ocean. Once on the beach, foreign tourists enjoyed the warm sea —something they don’t have at home— while the rest of us chose to walk along the sand to look for shells and scenery.

Being there on the beach reminded me of what had happened a few hours earlier. All the ship’s cabins have large windows, and since the cabins are on the lowest level of the ship, the view from our beds is practically at sea level. It was very early and I hadn’t risen for the day yet. I opened the blinds, laid down again, and watched the swell of the ocean.

To be honest, being on a boat requires a certain amount of intestinal fortitude. As I stared at the vast expanse of ocean, a perfectly-aligned string of pelicans suddenly appeared, skimming the water just outside my window. You won’t be surprised to hear that such a tableau woke me up: splendid nature had come to call, and I couldn’t stop smiling.

My cruise experience ended at the Causeway Marina in Panama City, with another unusual scene: the rescue of a two-toed sloth that had somehow gotten stranded on the pier and was in danger of being squashed. The baby animal was rescued and taken to a nearby grove of trees.