Rio Chagres, April 2009
After finally repairing our motor mount
and replacing a leaky coolant pipe, we left Shelter Bay Marina, exited
the Bahía Limón and sailed to the Chagres River, about
8 miles downwind. We entered the river at dusk and anchored just inside
the mouth, near two other cruisers. After the social life of Shelter
Bay, the relative isolation was refreshing.
The Chagres was both the savior and the enemy of the builders of
the Panama Canal. Before railroads were built, the Chagres was the
route used by travelers going from the East Coast to California
by way of Panama. It was a long, peaceful river, extending almost
all the way across the isthmus, and would have made a perfect basis
for a canal, but for one thing: in the wet season it could become
a roaring torrent, regularly rising 30-40 feet above its dry-season
levels after a major storm. So, while the river could be used as
the source of all the water for the canal, it also needed to be
tamed by flood-control dams if the canal was not to be completely
inundated during the wet season.
The solution was to dam the river six miles from its mouth at a
town called Gatun and simply flood the entire center of the country.
This formed Lake Gatun, at the time the largest artificial lake
in the world, providing more than 20 miles of navigation for the
ships crossing the isthmus, as well as supplying all the water needed
for the locks. Then, instead of using the lower Chagres as part
of the canal, the canal engineers used it as a spillway for excess
run-off water, mainly during the wet season.
This solution meant that the lower Chagres was left completely
in its natural state - there is not a single building on the river,
from the dam to the Caribbean, and the whole stretch of 6 miles
or so is a national park, with no hunting or taking of plants allowed.
The jungle presses in on both banks, but the river itself is about
200 yards wide and almost 40 feet deep for most of its length. So,
great cruising (motoring, not sailing) for us! The wet season hadn't
kicked in yet, so there was just a slow current - and in fact the
river was tidal all the way up to the dam.
Our first full day on the Chagres, we puttered upriver, keeping
an eye out all the while for crocodiles, monkeys, parrots, and sloths.
We saw (and heard) plenty of noisy parrots, but nothing else. After
motoring up until we could see the dam, we turned around and anchored
around a bend, just out of sight of it and of other signs of human
We were immediately serenaded by troops of howler monkeys. They
sounded numerous and close, and were certainly loud! The howls frequently
begin with three or four loud "Hup" sounds, followed by
a chorus of mixed tenor and bass, which echo through the jungle.
Our best analogy for the "Hup" is the deep barking of
a dog, while the chorus sounds vaguely like the distant roar from
a football stadium when the home team has just scored. It sounds
as if there must be hundreds of monkeys participating, but later
experience showed that there were only a few - a dozen at most.
A single howling episode goes on for less than a minute. We have
no idea why they do it, but there's one thing we're sure of: they
howl every time it begins to rain. Given that this is one of the
rainiest places on earth, we think it's a good thing Darwin didn't
know about these monkeys -- he might have had second thoughts about
By the time we were anchored and tidied up, the howling had stopped
completely; but we decided to go ashore anyway, and see what we
could see. There was a small dock by the water's edge, and we tied
our dinghy there and went ashore. No more than 50 feet down the
jungle path, we looked up in the trees and saw six monkeys, apparently
taking early naps. They were no doubt exhausted after all that howling!
Their napping style was to lie on large branches of trees, with
their bodies aligned with the branches and their arms and legs dangling
down. Some steadied themselves with their prehensile tails clutching
the branch or nearby vines. Interesting, but not howlingly. We tried
howling a little at them, but all we got was sleepy looks.
We left the monkeys to their naps and hiked the path along the
riverside. All around us were strange flowers, insects, and birds
- and one big spider. There was en enormous variety of trees; to
our untrained eyes, no two were of the same species. Down at our
level, there were lots of tall ferns and stalks with huge leaves;
20 or so feet above us were the tops of numerous deciduous trees;
then 80 feet or more above that were the tops of huge trees, some
of them with trunks 10 feet or more in diameter. We felt as if we
were deep in the Amazon, until we looked out to the east and saw
the shimmer of Lake Gatun, and listened for the low throb of ship
engines. The Gatun locks of the Panama Canal were only about half
a mile away - but in a different world!
We returned to Akka for lunch and a swim (keeping an eye out for
those crocs). Later that afternoon, the howling started again, first
at some place downriver and then, like a call and response routine,
directly inland from the little dock near us. We leapt into the
dinghy and motored to shore. The howling stopped as we tied up,
but we knew where the monkeys had to be. Sure enough, we found three
or four of them swinging through the trees overhead - probably the
same ones we'd seen before, but awake now. They moved smoothly from
branch to branch and tree to tree, sometimes using their tails to
hold on as they swung down to another branch, sometimes simply leaping
into midair then catching a new branch as they fell. When going
from tree to tree, they frequently ran out from the trunks until
the branches bent under their weight, then leaped and landed on
another branch that bent the same way.
But still no howling. We stood, watching, as the little troupe
disappeared behind some foliage. Well, we figured, that was it.
We had just turned to leave when the howling started again. We could
see some of the monkeys, who appeared to be motionless; but we couldn't
see them well enough to determine whether they were facing some
other tribe or merely celebrating their arrival at their favorite
berry bush or something like that.
Next day, we moved downriver about halfway to the mouth, again
inspecting the towering forest for interesting life, with no sightings
of crocodiles or any other of the jungle species we had been told
to expect. We anchored at the spot nearest the Smithsonian Tropical
Research Institute, which features a 165-foot construction crane
that sticks out above the top canopy. Our cruising guide suggested
a hike to the Center, saying that the heavy high canopy prevented
underbrush, so you could walk easily - but remember to bring a compass,
as it's easy to get lost. The guide also showed a little topographical
map of the area around the crane, and we also had a chart of the
whole area, which we traced from the laptop onto a piece of graph
The crane was only about a half mile away through the jungle; the
problem was that there was a 400-foot hill between it and us. The
cruising guide offered no advice about how to finesse this bump,
and the near face seemed almost too steep to climb. However, a little
creek ran along one side of it, so we decided to go up the creek
in the dinghy, get to the relatively flat land on the back side,
then hike to the crane.
The dinghy ride was easy, but eventually a downed tree barred the
way, so we left the dinghy about 0.6 nautical miles from the crane
(we had our handheld GPS with us) and started to hike.
The cruising guide had lied to us about the underbrush.
We trudged about 600 feet, more or less in the right direction,
through mud and dry creek beds, untangling vines from our bodies
and legs at every step. Due to the dense foliage, we saw nothing
of interest. Finally, Andi, who was in the lead, accidentally brushed
against a rotten tree branch, which disintegrated. It turned out
to be full of ants, which poured down over her head and shoulders.
She screamed and started to try to brush them off, and of course
all the while she was standing on the anthill at the bottom of that
tree, so ants were climbing up her legs. She stepped out into the
open and tried to kill all the ants, which were by now inside her
shirt and pants. She finally succeeded, but not before receiving
numerous bites; fortunately, these were not fire ants, and the bites
never festered. But that was pretty much the end of our hike. We
returned surprisingly easily to the dinghy and went back to Akka.
That afternoon, we decided to try to go over the top of the hill.
The rainforest there was much more dense than where we'd been hiking
that morning, and the underbrush appeared to be more manageable.
Our plan was to go diagonally around the hill, rather than climbing
the face in front of us. The straight-line distance was exactly
.5 miles, according to our GPS.
We tied the dinghy at a place that had clearly been used by other
boats - there were even a couple of tires rigged to keep boats off
the rocky landing - and proceeded up the hill. And up the hill.
And farther up the hill. The problem with ascending diagonally,
as we had planned, was that the hillside was scored with deep ravines
running straight downhill to the river. So unless we wanted to climb
down into these ravines and then scale the far sides, we had no
alternative but straight up. We were reassured by repeated indications
of other climbers - a piece of rotten line rigged to help climb
a 4-foot rock cliff, red and blue paint on various trees, etc.
After more than two hours of climbing, we reached the top (we think).
But time was running out and we were still .4 miles from the crane.
Even at an accelerated rate of progress (which we could not count
on) it would be at least another hour to the crane, and then another
couple of hours back to Akka, assuming we didn't get lost. At 4:00
PM, this seemed pretty dangerous (the sun sets at about 6:30 p.m.
at this latitude), so we turned back.
We didn't get lost, not really, but we did stop repeatedly to examine
cliffs below us and try to see how to descend them. It turns out
it's a lot easier to see how to climb up cliffs when you're looking
at them from the bottom than to see how to climb down when you're
at the top! We pretty much ended up following the route we had taken
up the hill, continually encountering landmarks we had noted on
the way up. It took us only an hour to slide and scramble down the
hill, but it took another half hour to get all the mud out of our
We did see some more monkeys on the way up, and when they had swung
their way from tree to tree into the distance, the howling started
up again. This time we couldn't even see glimpses of them. On the
other hand, a beautiful white hawk was flushed out by the monkeys
and alighted on a branch only a few feet away from us. We have no
idea what it was, and before we could get our camera out, it flew
So, Chagres detections stand at: Monkeys: 12 or so. Howling, beyond
counting, but never howling while clearly sighted. Parrots: hundreds,
all cackling to each other. Poisonous-looking jungle toad: 1. Beautiful
butterflies: 3. Crocodiles: 0. Sloths: 0. Construction Cranes: 0.
Ants: 1,000,000 or so.