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Paddling Panama’s Pacific Coast - The Gulf of Chiriqui

Published on 8/8/2014
 By Colin Reedy  
Mandatory non-disclosure agreement.
This article reveals little known exotic locations for epic kayaking yet to be developed or even much populated. By reading this information you promise to do your utmost to maintain their confidentiality... and get there someday soon. That being said, check this out.
I’ve been fortunate to kayak many gorgeous locations both far and near from my home in the Pacific Northwest - Vietnam’s Halong Bay, the Mekong River through Laos and Thailand, the rugged coast and sea caves of southern Italy, the Abel Tasman park in New Zealand - however, none compare to the joy of sailing a few weeks along Panama’s Pacific western coast and paddling the clustered island groups in the Gulf of Chiriqui.

Even with a 41-foot sailboat as both transport and a base, and Google Earth as our planning guide to zero in on interesting rock features and beaches, we barely put a dent in the kayaking possibilities that exist across over 100 miles of this offshore playground. The Gulf of Chiriqui contains several island groups as well as countless unnamed clusters of islets offering protective anchorages with easy day sails between. Each archipelago serves up square miles of rock gardens with challenging wave action, caves to explore and tunnels to run, warm sandy beaches littered with coconuts and mangos, jungle hikes under tropical foliage home to screeching howler monkeys, fresh waterfalls for bathing, and mangrove labyrinths with surprisingly large crocodiles.

Stay ON the kayak in the mangroves.

That’s right, ON not IN the kayak. My boat of choice for this adventure? A 12-foot sit-on-top “Mars” design made by Ocean Kayak. I must confess, as a more traditional sea kayaker, I used to scoff a bit at polyethylene sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks. I saw them as slow safe non-performance boats for casual paddlers and tourists. They might be fun surfing waves at the beach for a while but nothing I’d spend all day in covering distances or maneuvering around waves and rocks. That was until I spent time working with Tim Niemier in Bellingham, the man who founded Ocean Kayak and almost single-handedly brought SOT kayaks into being. My experience with Tim had me testing and tinkering with a wide variety of SOT designs that were anything but “non-performance”. Choosing a boat is always a compromise between factors but for tropical water kayaking that includes open water distances of 2-3 miles, choppy waves in and around barnacle clad rocks, rough landings, occasional dips to cool off or snorkel, and hefting onto a sailboat every day, the Mars kayak - with knee straps for bracing and a bungee cargo net - performed ideally.
Parida Island, the most western island group in the Gulf of Chiriqui, is technically within the Chiriqui National Park but we encountered no evidence of development or park ranger presence on our visit. From Puerto Armuelles on the Panama mainland we sailed due east for the south end of Parida Island where Google Earth indicated a large crescent beach with great anchorages nearby and a vast area to the west littered with rocky islets. A veritable kayaker’s Valhalla. We arrived and anchored safely just before sunset. The night threw us a loud violent lightning storm with bolts crashing so close and bright it frequently became daylight for an instant. I lay awake staring up at the mast thinking how dumb it was to sleep next to a huge metal pole in these conditions.  Fortunately, tropical weather changes quickly and dawn broke with clear skies as we prepared for a day of paddling.

At about 3.75 miles long and 1.5-2 miles wide, Parida Island is one of the larger islands we encountered. A glance at the map reveals a heavily contoured coast set with small bays and beaches between rocky points, all crying out for exploration by kayak. Even with good local tide information the currents could be dangerous so we played it safe and stayed within reasonable distance of shore on the first couple days. However, by day three we charged out to more distant rock clusters 1 to 2 miles away to play in frothing rock gardens. One we christened the “Washing Machine”. Each rock group, maybe half to one mile apart, became a hopping off point for the next, allowing us to explore further without placing ourselves too far from safety.

After a few days at Parida, we sailed 20 miles SE to the Secas Islands, a smaller 4-island grouping that stands about 14 miles offshore. Anchoring off the largest island, we slept the first night and awoke to howler monkeys calling from the shore. I enjoy an early morning paddle, often before the other guys even wake up. I’ll make a small thermos of coffee and slip away for an hour or so to see what wildlife I might find. I found the howler monkeys pretty quickly. They don’t hide. And the closer you get the more racket they put up. I bobbed 20 feet off the shore as a whole family crawl through the trees above me. Big males, babies clinging to mothers, and a few curious ones watched me sip coffee as I watched them back. A bit later on this morning I saw something I’d never encountered. It took me a while to even realize what it was. Nibbling at the water’s edge, I thought I saw three beaver, but without tails. Or maybe huge guinea pigs with longer legs? No, Capybara! The world’s largest rodent. They looked like great crocodile snacks.  
 When you spend weeks, or months, cooped up on a sailboat with two other guys, even good friends, you need some time alone and away. The biggest concern on any long term group adventure is rarely about gear, chores, money, or leadership, it’s about just getting along while being in close proximity 24/7. So some days we each took a kayak, or the dinghy, and headed off in different directions to take a break from one another. We’d share breakfast, inform each other roughly where we’d plan to go, and make a plan to check in every few hours by handheld VHF radio. We’d also all agree to bring back some kind of food. That was the mission for the day. Bobby was a good diver and could gather shellfish. Ryan often took a fishing hand line or the speargun. I liked climbing trees for coconuts, ripe mangos and occasionally a version of an avocado that I discovered. At the end of the day we’d all converge at the boat, refreshed from time alone, and feast on whatever we’d gathered and caught. A machete became a standard piece of gear on my kayak. Nothing else opens coconuts like a few well placed strikes from a machete.  
The rocky Secas Islands had fewer beaches than Parida but offered nice waterfalls which made great freshwater showers, something dear to saltwater boaters. Besides the machete, I kept a bar of soap, a washcloth, and some shampoo tucked into a dry bag under the bungees on my kayak. You never know when you’ll discover a “shower” around the next point. The Secas also delivered one of my favorite geological features: caves. Depending upon the tides, these may be walk-in or paddle-in caves and I have some innate - others say annoying - need to peek inside as many as I can. I’m pretty sure someday I’ll find a pirate’s treasure hoard in one of them. What’s not to love about caves? The best ones have water sloshing and echoing from deep inside, a few bats swirling around, and need a headlamp to fully explore. Others are passages or tunnels through the rocks that require careful timing with the waves to shoot to the other side, or deliver you into little secret spaces with no other exit than back out the way you arrived. I’ve spent few days in my life happier than those spent eagerly paddling unknown rocky coastlines, pushing a bit further to discover what’s around the next point. Tropical warm waters kick that up a notch.

From the Secas we sailed another 20 miles to what our map called the Contreros Islands but other maps indicate as Isla Brincanco and Isla Uva, a pair of uninhabited rocky islets. Each about 1.5 to 2 miles long and half that wide, we dropped anchor in a large well-protected bay on the north side of Brincanco. Ten miles from the mainland and small in size, these islands offered a surprising amount of fresh water pouring off the rocks in trickling falls, which nicely fit our bathing schedule. Iguanas scurried across the beaches and up sheer rock walls as we landed kayaks on the first encounter. Circumnavigating the whole island is less than 6 miles if you portage across a sandy isthmus on the SW. Another island off the NE offered nice snorkeling in the passage between it and the main island. Good visibility revealed coral, schools of colorful fish, a sea turtle, and a few black tipped reef sharks.

The last island on this trip and the largest by far was Coiba, the gem of Panama’s national park system. While Coiba is not an unknown exotic location - it’s the biggest island in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site - it’s still not a common destination for travelers or kayakers. We found no one but a couple sleepy park rangers on the north shore. Charter boats for diving and fishing connect to Coiba from Santa Catalina on the mainland but these may be seasonal as we saw few. One reason for Coiba’s remoteness and undeveloped status is that it was a penal colony for over 80 years and only recently allowed visitors. That does wonders for maintaining a place’s pristine quality.

 Coiba’s big draw in the future will be it’s diving and wildlife. Large islands frequently allow unique variations of animals and plants to evolve. Being separated from the mainland for 12,000-18,000 years, Coiba is no exception and exploring it by kayak gave us a perfect manner for enjoying both the geography and the biology up close. While I’m told Coiba hosts a distinct type of howler monkey (maybe a different scream?), I mostly noticed the blazing colors of the scarlet macaws swooping between trees and the abundant tropical fish. Scarlet macaws are large parrots with stunning red-yellow-blue colors that leave you baffled about evolution.  Who designed that?  The SOT kayak makes such a wonderful tool for snorkeling. I can dive down and anchor it to a rock in shallow water or tether it to my waist with a long cord and drag it along as I explore. Easy on-and-off ability, compared to crawling out of a sit-inside kayak, also make SOT’s ideal for taking a dip to cool off or exiting onto a rock in unsteady seas.
Officially, I think we were supposed to arrange some permission to go ashore on Coiba, but the rangers didn’t mind and enjoyed the company. In fact, one of them might have actually saved my life. Paddling alone from the sailboat, I’d followed the edge of a bay just south of the ranger station. While poking into mangrove tunnels and watching for birds and monkeys, I heard a large object nearby suddenly submerge itself in muddy shallow waters. Probably a crocodile, I thought. We’d seen a few before around fresh water lagoons and judging from the size of the tracks left in the sand and mud, they can get quite large. I decided to clear out and head for open water toward the beach by the ranger station a half mile away. As I approached, a ranger walked briskly to the water’s edge waving his hands. “Nice welcome,” I thought, what friendly people. He looked a bit anxious. I noticed what seemed like bright white bones scattered about on the dark wet sand. As soon as my bow touched he grabbed the front handle and pulled me a good way up the beach, stopping next to a sign facing the opposite way. He said something about “Muy peligroso, Senor” and pointed to the sign. “Peligroso” means dangerous in Spanish. Walking around the other side to read the sign - the warning sign - I suddenly realized I’d just paddled through the domain of “Tito” a huge killer crocodile. They feed him hunks of beef and fish off this beach. The source of those bones. In fact, they get his attention by beating a femur inside of a plastic 5 gallon bucket. A sound which, I wondered, might be unfortunately similar to that of a fiberglass paddle tapping the sides of a plastic kayak. The ranger told me that the previous year Tito attacked and killed a ranger by dragging him into the water during a feeding. I never actually saw Tito and I’ll never know what large creature submerged near me in the mangroves, but I have a huge new-found respect for crocodiles.

We spent a few days anchored off the north coast Coiba, paddling safely away from Tito’s hunting grounds, snorkeling the clear waters near a small islet off the NW, and wandering beaches and inland trails, before raising anchor and sailing for the mainland town of Santa Catalina. In another couple of weeks we’d be in Panama City, but nothing would top the previous three we’d spent wandering and kayaking the Gulf of Chiriqui.

The islands in the Gulf of Chiriqui will eventually attract more visitors, probably a few eco-resorts, and some fishing tours, but given the size of the area and number of islands, I think options for the adventurous kayaker should exist for many years to come. Getting there is the trick and sailing by boat is ideal, however here are two recommendations if I were doing it without a sailboat. David is a sizable town with airport service through Panama City. Nearby Pedregal could be a departure point by boat for Parida Island, which is only about 20 miles. According to some websites, Boca Chica and Playa la Lajas both offer limited service to Parida area. Santa Catalina has boats that will take you out to Coiba. As Coiba grows in it’s popularity, I’m sure other boat service will exist, and seeing as these are mostly diving oriented, a couple of resourceful paddlers with folding kayaks and tents could find themselves with a wide open tropical wilderness all to themselves. Cheers to those that go for it!
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All photos by Colin Reedy
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