Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Panama, Rio Chagres (River exploration) 20151122

We just had the most amazing week chilling out in the Chagres river. I wasn't expecting much from our brief stopover there - it's just a river in the middle of the jungle. But it was stunningly beautiful and we were all alone, totally cut off from the world. No Internet, no cell reception, and no other boats or people. Plus we woke up to a different version of this every morning:

We also woke up to the sound of countless jungle animals just going about their lives. There were howler monkeys, whose cries echoed through the trees like something out of a horror movie. There were fish splashing around in the water, brightly coloured birds greeting the new day, and tiny little sparrows lined up along our lifelines. My morning alarm was always these little guys chirping right above my head. There were also iguanas and crocodiles, but they both passed us by silently and without a fuss.

After stopping at the entrance to see San Lorenzo, we went all the way to the end of the river and anchored near the dam that services the canal by blocking off the river. We went ashore to go exploring, in the hopes that we'd be able to walk all the way over to the dam. Unfortunately we couldn't figure it out and our trek came to an end when we reached a cliff overlooking the end of the lake and the dam wall.

The walk wasn't that eventful, and hiking through the jungle left our clothes completely drenched in sweat, our legs completely covered in mud and most of our bodies spotted with bug bites. But we did manage to find some howler monkeys, which made it all worthwhile. We strayed from the tiny track to follow their cries, and found ourselves looking up at a group of them playing in the trees above us. Some were sleeping in an attempt to escape from the heat, but most were jumping around and playing. They were stuffing themselves with leaves from the huge tree in front of us, which had obviously been chosen as a playground because it was tastier than the others.

There were babies in amongst the troop, who jumped and climbed much more energetically than the older ones. They looked down at us curiously, but didn't seem to mind the intrusion. We sat there for close to an hour, just enjoying nature and our new friends.

After we moved on I focused most of my attention on trying to find sloths and toucans. No dice. We did find lots more ants though, and more ant tracks where the constant army of ants had worn tracks through the grass.

Rows of ants carried pieces of these leaves back to their nest. The trails of bobbing green dots stretched out in every direction

We spent a few days after that just relaxing on the river, enjoying the solitude. We eventually needed some excitement though, and we took the dinghy on an adventure down some of the little side rivers. They were mostly narrow and cute, without much wildlife to play with. We went underneath a tree with an iguana on it and found some pretty birds, but that was it. All the interesting animals were hiding further in the jungle.

We had so much fun though, ducking under branches, narrowly avoiding spiderweb and getting stuck in amongst mangroves. Half the time it felt like we were just walking through the jungle with the amount of stray branches and leaves we had to avoid. One particularly large tree had fallen straight across the river - Garth left the engine going full ball and we both had to throw ourselves onto the floor of the dinghy in order for us to slip through the gap between it and the water. Both us and the dinghy got quite beaten up from our river adventures! When we got back to the boat, there was a huge mess to clean up from the dinghy. The whole floor was covered in leaves and dirt and while I was getting it all out I found ants, many spiders and one sneaky crab who was as big as my hand. It was one hell of a cleanup!

On our last day there we were trying to decide what to do. There are actual paths we could follow that lead into the jungle, and in our cruising guide there's a picture of people playing in front of a waterfall. Unfortunately the book didn't say where it was. I was keen to go adventuring, but as we were discussing our plans for the day we noticed that the cries from the howler monkeys had gotten a lot closer. Garth whipped out the binoculars and sure enough, they were hanging off the trees on the waters edge. The dinghy was still down, so we rowed over to say hi.

Zen monkey is super zen

We ended up staying for an hour or two as the monkeys played above our heads. We both just lay down in the dinghy and watched them in the trees, jumping around and playing together. The were very curious about us. A few of them took to hiding in amongst the leaves, peering down at through the gaps. Then they would scamper back up the tree. It felt like we were unwittingly caught up in a bizarre game of hide and seek.

So that was the Rio Chagres. There wasn't anything touristy or interesting to see, but it’s a really special place and I'm so glad we went. There's nothing quite like waking up in the middle of a jungle.

Xxx Monique

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Sunday, 17 April 2016

Panama, Rio Chagres (Fort Lorenzo, Chagres river) 20151118

We finally made it to the Chagres river. After a week in Shelter bay and another few days anchored in Colon, constantly being knocked over from the wake of cargo ships, we have once again found paradise. The only anchorage for small boats near Colon and the only alternative to Shelter Bay Marina is out on the flats. So we dropped the hook for a few days to sort ourselves out. It was hell. The wake from boats going past was insane, and we would be woken in the middle of the night by things crashing onto the floor off the benches. We have had four obviously breakable things in the galley for the past few years - one ceramic coffee mug and 3 pyrex dishes. They have survived almost 17,000 nm of sailing, mostly upwind. One of them didn't survive Colon. The wake from the boats was so intense that one of my dishes managed to dislodge itself from inside our pot cupboard with so much force that it smashed on the floor (which is 2 inches below the cupboard). Plus the boats made SO much noise. They loved talking to each other! At all hours of the day, but more annoyingly at 5am, they would honk their booming ship horns at each other and then there would be another honk in reply. If they were feeling particularly chatty, this would go on for a while. So we are more than happy to be out of Colon.

This is our first river, and it's a bit bizarre how different it is. It might be just because we came from such a horrific anchorage, but it's really surreal being anchored in such flat, calm water. We found a few anchorages like this in the Perlas Islands in Panama, but the difference is that they were only calm when there was no wind. Here, our wind generator has been going all day. But we're in a river, so there's no waves or swell or nonsense. Just flat, calm water. I love it.

We woke up this morning to the sounds of the jungle. The real jungle. We are in the middle of the river, but not far from shore. So the howler monkeys were running around essentially just outside our front door. They make the most insane noises. Sometimes it sounds like a herd of cows dying, but it's hard to describe. Garth's input was that they could make up the soundtrack to a horror movie. They are loud, excessive and close by. It's surreal.

There are birds and animals absolutely everywere. I'm sure we can hear toucans, but I don't know what they sound like so i can't tell when they're chiming in with all the others. It was just wonderful waking up today to the sounds of monkeys and birds instead of being tossed out of bed to the background noise of things breaking and huge ships spelling out 'good morning' in morse code with their horns.

We went exploring today for the first time in a long time. It seems hard to believe because we've seen so many wonderful things over the last few months, but we have mostly stayed on the boat. I think we set foot on two islands while we were in the San Blas islands, and both times it was to burn our rubbish. So I was very excited to venture off into the jungle. We're all alone here, with no traffic going up the river and no cars coming down to the river. So it felt like old times to take the dinghy to shore and wander off on our own into an unknown area.

There's a fort at the entrance to the river, which was used in the 17th or 18th century to fight off pirates. I love exploring old ruins, and Panama seems to be rich in pirate history! It wasn't very far to walk, but it took us a bit longer than most because we were keeping a careful eye out for animals along the way. Monkeys, sloths and toucans are the wildlife of choice here. Unfortunately all we found was a squirrel, although he was adorable. We'd never seen one before either, so that was exciting.

We explored the ruins for ages, which was a lot of fun. Garth likes pointing out what each of the crumbling buildings would have been for when the fort was operational. He showed me the outline of where the drawbridge would have sat, which tower would have the best defence and where the ammo would have been stored. Who needs a tour guide when you have a Garth!

One of the interesting things about this fort was that they had lots and lots of cannons aimed behind them. They must have been very worried about being attacked by land as well as by sea. The fort at Portobello only had cannons aimed at the water, although it had walls everywhere to protect the people inside from attack. That fort had lots and lots of tiny windows, which were angled to be bigger inside. They allowed the people inside to see and shoot the people outside, but there was only a tiny hole for people to shoot through from the other side.

Fort Lorezo didn't have many of these walls, but it did have an awesome dry moat with a drawbridge, crumbling stairs to nowhere and lots of underground barracks you could walk through complete with echoing footsteps and slowly dripping water from above. There were even vultures circling above us, waiting to pounce on all the dead bodies. It was a pretty awesome place.

We had a picnic for the first time in a long time, which mostly consisted of fresh sourdough bread made from the starter gifted to us by Stefan in the San Blas islands. We layed our feast out on a crumbling wall overlooking our boat and hundreds of years of history, which was really lovely. We only saw three other people while we were there, a lovely couple and their guide. They showed us some amazing pictures of a sloth they had found down the road as she carried her baby across the road via some powerlines. I was dying to go on a sloth hunt after they told us it was amongst group of about 20 sloths, but it was getting late and we didn't want to walk 5km there and back to maybe find some sloths. So I will have to wait for another day.

We did find some amazing ants while we were at the fort. I first noticed them crossing a crumbling old path we were walking on, a trail of tiny dots carrying huge chunks of leaves back to their nest. And then we followed them. Ants were coming from everywhere, along trails that saw so much foot traffic from this ants nest that they had literally worn a path through the grass. In some places grass had grown over the top of their trail from each side and they continued along the path in a kind of tunnel. It was insane. We found a spot where a few of these paths met up and it was like the China of ant world. There was just a mass of bobing leaves as the ants merged into one big path and continued along their way, on some kind of super highway. It was fascinating. My dad would have been proud at the amount of time we spent being fascinated by ants today.

Giant black ants holding some kind of meeting

Crazy ants forging paths in the grass (I think they’re leaf cutter ants)

We spent the whole walk home looking for sloths but we found none. Disappointed, as we were about to round the corner to return to our dinghy I saw something fast and springy run across the path ahead of us. I assumed it was another squirrel. Then we heard something in the bushes right next to us. I looked over to see a monkey detaching himself from the bushes he had just landed in, to scramble off into the scrub. We missed him! Garth was diasappointed. I tried to see where he had gone but he disappeared like a ninja. Then I happened to glance up at the tree above us, and two tiny monkeys stared back down. They were so small I thought they must be babies, but Garth informed me that howler monkeys were just small and that our friends were juvenielles. Cheeky children. They didnt' stay above us for long, eventually leaping through the air to land on another tree and then scrambling off into the jungle.

Enchanted by these adorable creatures, I looked around to see if I could find any more while Garth tried to take photos of the babies. We were surrounded! There were little dark balls hiding in the trees all around us. We watched them for ages, enjoying their antics. They were very different to the spider monkeys on Linton island. Those were bigger, with more personality. They used their tails as an extra arm, sometimes just hanging down with their arms in the air as if they were flying. The spider monkeys were friendly and very, very cheeky.

The howler monkeys were a lot more skittish. They had beautiful long, curly tails but they didn't use them as an extra limb. Instead of swinging from tree to tree in a flurry of feet and tails like the spider monkeys, these guys just launched themselves into the air and then grabbed onto whatever they landed on. They were like little, noisy grenades flying through the air and then exploding on their target. They were awesome.

After a while we gathered our things and moved on, but we found another monkey right next to the road a little further on. He was hiding behind a huge leaf, staying perfectly still. Garth noticed him, but eventually decided that there's no way that little black ball could be a monkey. It was just a branch. I watched him for a while longer and eventually decided that it was indeed another furry grenade. When he realised his cover had been blown, the poor guy scampered up the tree and backtracked to where his friends were. We decided to go back for one more look.

When we returned to the tree we had stopped beside at the beginning, I looked up to find yet another monkey right next to us. He was hiding behind a huge leaf. But he wasn't a very good hider, because he was eating his handful of camouflage. We sat down and watched him for ages as he devoured his handful of leaves. As the remains of his dinner got smaller and smaller, I noticed something underneath all the leaves. It was a tiny, tiny head twisting around and trying to take in it's surroundings. This monkey was no boy! She had a very tiny baby in tow, clinging to her stomach as she finished her dinner. I begged Garth to take some pictures, but he refused. He was too far away for me to reach over and grab the camera, and he was having too much fun to look through a lens.

You can just see the fuzzy outline of a tiny head on the left

Munching on leaves

The mummy eventually climbed down, with a lot more care than the other monkeys were using. She jumped from one tree to another and ended up less than 1m away from me. The tiny baby was gripping tightly to her back, with two arms and two legs stretched out in different directions trying to grab as much fur as it could. The little head swivelled around to look at me as the mum jumped onto another tree and disappeared up into the canopy with the rest of her family. It was truly remarkable.

So day one and we're already really, really happy. Garth found enough monkeys to keep him satisfied for a while, I got to see a tiny, fluffy baby and we both had a great time exploring the ruins of Fort Lorenzo. Next stop, somewhere with more sloths.

Xxx Monique

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