Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Journey to Isla Coiba

February 24th dawned beautifully in Santa Catalina, Panama. While I was reluctant to leave behind my new found love of surfing, not to mention a toilet and shower, I was excited about the next phase of our adventure - Isla Coiba. A Panama National Park and World Heritage Site, Coiba has the second-largest coral reef in the eastern Pacific Ocean and is covered approximately 85% with tropical forest. The island was originally (meaning prior to 12-18,000 years ago) connected to the mainland of Panama but then separated when sea levels rose. This separation created a uniquely isolated island where animals and plants evolved slightly differently in appearance and behavior from the same species found in Panama and throughout Central America. Some descriptions I read before my trip compared it to the Galapagos Islands - a place I have always wanted to visit. Among the animals on the island are a unique subspecies of howler monkeys (which I heard but never saw) and a creepy little critter called a Coiba Agouti. Check him out:

Let me pause here for a moment and explain that although I did a bit of research in the last 10 to 14 days leading up to this trip, this was by far my least studied trip in a long while. The idea was first presented to me sometime in December and before I even did much digging into the details I worked hard to make the dates work with my schedule simply because the opportunity was there and I thought, why not Panama? (I am very much of the "have passport, will travel mentality".) I was told we would be surfing, kayaking and yoga-ing. I booked in January, was immediately buried in work and February was upon me without warning and I decided a guidebook might be a good investment to see what I was getting myself into. Also, I finally took a serious look at the itinerary and Googled the places we would be visiting. Suddenly my anticipation went from "it will be good to get away, I'm glad it will be warm, this should be fun" to "WHOA! This place looks amazing! So secluded! So unheard of! I can't believe I am getting the opportunity to go!"

Before I get to my actual experience I will share one other tidbit of fascinating information I picked up about Coiba in my lunch hour pre-vacation day dreaming research: from about 1919 to as late as 2004, Coiba was the home of a prison incarcerating the most violent criminals in Panama. During the Noriega years the prison was notorious for its extreme tortures, executions and political murders as well as the brutal conditions - so locals stayed away and folklore built up.

All of this to emphasize that although I was reluctant to leave our beach side cabana, anticipation of the adventure ahead was at a critical peak as we set forth on our journey to the star of the trip.


We were outfitted by Mike's kayak company (remember Mike, our lame surf instructor?) where we also loaded the tiny little motor boat that transported us the hour to hour and a half ride to Coiba.

I include this ridiculously bad photo for two reasons: 1) to show you our awesome little boat; and 2) to offer a warning when it comes to using an underwater camera casing in humid weather. I had previously used my water-proof camera casing on two river trips - both in very dry climes (Idaho and Utah) so the whole fogging lens thing was never a problem. I was caught completely unprepared for this. Luckily, Shannon (who did not have an underwater camera casing) was inexplicably prepared and had one of those anti-moisture silica gel pack things that comes in shoe boxes and warns you not to eat it. For reasons I do not understand now, I never even asked her why she had this but I was definitely grateful when she finally dug it out and I finally added it to my camera so my photos could stop looking like this:
Before boarding the boat we had to transfer all of our belongings to dry bags - dry bags that turned out to be smaller than anticipated. Much smaller. Which means what I felt was already minimalist packing had to be cut to extremely minimalist packing with a lot of shoving and tucking and frustrated "do you really think we will need [fill in the blank]" asked back and forth between Shannon and I both the night before and the morning of our great adventure.

And that giant yellow dry bag in the photo? That was Ian's - I could have easily fit all my stuff in there with room to spare but our bags were about a quarter that size and we had two each and one more to share. I know I really didn't have anything extra and I don't think there was anything critical (aside from the anti-moisture thing) that I didn't have so ultimately it all worked out.

Shannon and I were both happy to discover that we were getting the fancy type of life jackets - the kind people in the know refer to as "PFDs" aka personal floatation devices.

Mine even had a zippered pocket where I was able to stash some chapstick and extra sunscreen (the kind this is like deoderent where you just roll it on - excellent for reapplying, especially to the face). But what really cracks me up when I look at this photo is remembering that just as we were about to head out - boat loaded and goodbyes just about to finish up - Mike looked at me and asked if my sunglasses were "real" or just looked good. And he said it in this condescending tone that just really irritated me. And before I was able to respond he rambled on about how terrible the sun is and blah, blah, blah. If you have ever glanced through my vacation posts in the last couple of years you will recognize these glasses - they have done their time in the blinding sun and trust me they are "good" sunglasses. I paid a good amount for them because I have extra sensitive eyes (I seriously cannot be in the sun without sunglasses) and because I do not need to further encourage the crow's feet I inherited from my father. Mike did not pose this question to anyone else, it was not a general warning and honestly, if I said yes, I bought these off the street in NYC what could be done at this point? Was he ready to hand over his shades? Ugh, totally pointless know-it-all-ism. The irony of my defensiveness over my choice in eye wear played itself out over the course of the next couple of days.

But before I allow this post to follow one thought to its logical conclusion, I will once again back up and offer this. If you are ever in need of some rain, might I suggest inviting Shannon and me to your neck of the woods for a vacation? Or really me and anyone from my Gates of Lodore river trip where we encountered one pounding rain storm after another in the arid east deserts of Utah in a time of year when rain just doesn't show up too often. When I visited Denise (from the river trip, not the one from the Panama trip) in Connecticut to go hiking - pouring rain. When Denise came to NY for my dessert party and we went out for brunch and a movie the next day - torrential downpour in December (rain, not snow). And when Shannon and I arrived in Panama we were told it was dry, dry, dry and hot and windy. But as soon as we arrived in Santa Catalina - the drought was over and it rained.

And while the day of our boat trip to Coiba dawned bright and sunny, the ominous gray clouds blocked out the sun before too long and soon we were all shivering in the boat as it bounced over waves that grew bigger and bigger. I couldn't help but remember a terrible boat ride I experienced in the Dominican Republic a number of years earlier that was over similarly choppy waters (though without the rain) wherein the boat driver launched our little motor boat off the back of breaking waves only to slam continuously down on the other side with each succeeding wave feeling like a longer plummet and harder landing until one wave seemed to move in slow motion as our little boat pushed over the front side and felt as if it hung in the air a full five seconds before slamming back into the water on the other side as all hell broke loose on that little boat - my two friends on the front bench looked back at me on the third with fear and concern and one was about to cry until we all saw the girl who had been sitting on the bench between us who was now splayed awkwardly between the benches with blood running down her chin in larger amounts than anyone was comfortable with. The bench I had previously been sharing with a Dominican-born New Yorker who was afraid of water and didn't know how to swim (yet was on a mini-snorkeling trip!) had snapped when we hit the water leaving the two of us holding onto the side of the boat to prevent from sliding into each other in the middle. Later I realized the snapping wooden bench probably saved me from snapping a bone in my body considering the massive bruise I walked away with as a souvinier. Another passenger - our snorkeling guide - broke his leg. During all the carnage I had to yell at the driver to stop and slow down to prevent further injuries. It was a nightmare I was not interested in reliving.



(Our excellent, excellent boat driver)

Luckily, this boat driver was better than the Dominican one and negotiated his way among the waves in a manner that did not send the boat slamming back onto the water. But I would be lying if a little bit of fear and quesieness did not settle in my stomach as salt water and rain water lashed at my face and eyes aggravating what was possibly a minor scratch on my eyeball from the dust storm the previous night when I had something stuck in my eye. There was no sun but the combination of salt and rocking and who knows what left me unable to keep my eyes open. It didn't matter that my eyes were shut since there wasn't anything to see - I believe we were still a few hours away from noon and yet the sky was completely dark and the rain and the gray was all encompassing. We had to trust our driver that he could find his way to Coiba basically blind. We also had to trust that he had enough gas as he kept switching tanks. Tanks meaning those plastic gas jugs people use to refill their lawn mowers. Only not quite that fancy. I didn't realize at the time that he carried any type of communication or navigation device as all I could see was a guy standing at the back of the boat steering us further into the darkness. That is, when I managed to keep my eyes open.

And then there was the part where I had to pee so bad I thought the next bounce may cause me to go against my will. The phrase "are we there yet" has never rung so loudly in my head. I was shivering with eyes squeezed tightly shut trying not to think about how desperately I needed to pee while being splashed on all sides with both rain and sea water. Not my favorite boat ride of all time.

Just as I was reaching the absolute end of my ability to tolerate it all, the boat stopped after Shannon had begged to stop to pee. Turns out, one of the many things we have in common is our small bladders! We both happily jumped over board into the welcoming warm, warm water. The rain was now just a light drizzle and the water had smoothed out to a gentle rocking that was nearly flat. The sun peaked out a tiny bit and we tried to remember how to pee while treading water as others waited impatiently in the boat - essentially watching. I squeezed out enough to get beyond the pain and we climbed back into the boat. Soon the sun came back and we could see land. Beautiful, green land.

And a giant, giant yacht.

Let me tell you, there is nothing that ruins the first glimpse of somewhere remote and difficult to get to like the sight of other tourists. Especially the sight of pampered tourists.

But we blazed right past them and went to our beach - Machete Beach - to unload our stuff before checking in at the ANAM Station (ranger station) and picking up our kayaks.

After depositing all of our things on the beach and a quick look around, we got back in the boat under a now brightly shining sun that had forgotten the clouds of the morning and headed back toward that stunning yacht.

You can see the yacht up in the corner of the above photo - it was seriously massive. And when we climbed out of our dinky little boat at the ANAM Station we discovered what kind of people travel on such a yacht - extremely pampered rich ones. Mostly old extremely pampered rich people. The type who have cabana boys in matching white polo shirts and crisp blue shorts running around to do their bidding. The type who all looked like they had just stepped out of their massive Hamptons "beach houses" in their resort wear instead of onto an extremely remote rarely visited Pacific island.

It was disappointing to say the least to maneuver past them as we were walked through the station to a back room with aging posters of animal life on the wall and very old filing cabinets and a desk where the official took down our names and glanced at our passports as Jaime gave them money for our stay. It was quiet and other-worldly back there and I felt like at least we were seeing the real details and not being handed a towel every time a bead of perspiration showed up on our foreheads. We re-filled our water bottles at a sketchy looking spigot near the water as a guide walked a herd of shuffling tourists clad in bright prints and linen past us. I tried to follow their gaze up into the trees to spot the monkey or bird or whatever the guide was pointing out but instead found myself the object of other's ogling. At any moment I expected the guide to turn and point to us as some of the crazies who come and camp on the island to explain away our more sporty attire. I like to think those people were secretly jealous of our bravery for having a less santized encounter with the island.

Before long it was time to climb into the kayaks for the first time. Funny thing is, I was the only beginner - everyone else had been on a kayaking trip with Jaime before and both Ian and Denise actually owned their own kayaks and did this on a regular basis. Jaime nearly forgot this as we were about to climb into our kayaks and had to turn back into the guide to teach me what I was supposed to do!

Jaime gave a quick lesson on how to hold my paddle and I spaced out through most of the instruction on how to use the pedals (yes! there are pedals! this was total news to me) to steer once Shannon agreed to sit in the back. Granted, I did sit back there and try it out but mostly I was not grasping the concept all that well.

Another concept I didn't grasp all to well? Paddling. There were a lot of tips and tricks and directions and instructions and do this and not thats thrown out at me on that beach among the yacht tourists and I just wasn't with it enough to comprehend it all. Or maybe I thought I would just come to it naturally given my river experience (if you can call it that) and those occasional free kayak days I spend on the Hudson each summer.

The lesson to future me: if you are struggling and something feels much harder than it should be - try asking a few questions. It hurts far less than the sting of needlessly fatigued muscles, I promise.

That first paddle out of the ANAM Station bay and back to Machete Beach was painful and felt much further than it actually was. Bless Shannon for being so patient with me as I took a few strokes and then faded, took a few more and faded and then whined about how much harder it was than expected.

After about an hour we arrived at our beach and set up camp. We found this beautiful and enormous sand dollar and took it as a sign of where to pitch our tent.

Our little clearning was just above the high tide mark in a small clearing in the jungle down the beach a ways from what Denise termed "the living room" of our island.

Here's the view from our tent:

And here's the Living Room where we gathered for breakfast, dinner and long evening talks - sometimes with a fire, always with extra bug spray.

It has now been nearly three months since I called this beach home for a week and I must tell you that I miss it. Of all of the places I have ever been, this is one of the most remote, most secluded and untouched wildernesses I have had the opportunity to enjoy. And I will tell you it was a little slice of heaven.

That first afternoon on the island, after we set up camp I tried out my new snorkel gear for the first time as we checked out the reef around the small outcropping of an island in the middle of our bay. I was surprised by how little effort it took for me to swim with long fins on my feet but I knew I was awkward in adjusting to breathing and seeing under water. Especially with that one possibly scratched eye that refused to function properly. It was malfunctioning enough that I was incapable of seeing the first reef shark we encountered. Of course, that was probably a good thing as I really was not mentally prepared to encounter real life sharks in my vulnerable role as a swimmer.

There is so much more to tell of Coiba - the fish, the monkeys, the sea turtles (oh, the sea turtles), the sun rises, the sun sets, the fascinating camp fire discussions and the always delicious food - including a birthday cake! I realize I get long winded and rambly when I recount my travels but I truly love reliving my experiences as I write about them (even poorly as I have done today - I am forcing myself out of this writing funk one way or the other!) and I hope you get something out of it as well. If not, I hope you enjoy skimming through the photos of a very beautiful part of the world at least.

p.s. I should mention that in all of my posts about Panama, while the majority of the photos are my own, I have also used some that were shared by my generous travel companions.

3 comments:

ali said...

So gorgeous. Your previous boat riding experience sounds horrific! It can be hard to believe places like isla coiba exist when you are stuck in the middle of nyc. It's great you're able to re-live it so clearly!

Travelin'Oma said...

This is deskchair travel at it's finest. I love reading about trips I'll never take!

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