Panama Pacific Coast 2010

N 07° 31' W 81° 52'

A former penal colony

May 13, 2010

It is not possible to overstate how pleasant it was at Bahía Honda where we were so well protected from the Pacific swells and wind-generated waves.  The entrance to the bay is a break in the shoreline that actually faces west, although it is on the south side of the bay.  Along with the scattering of islands at various directions around the entrance, this reduces the influence of the swells from the south/southwest.  With our anchorage tucked in the northwest corner of the bay there was almost no wave action there at all.  All sides of the bay are steep and densely forested so when close to shore there is good wind protection from several directions. 

There are gaps in the forest cover where small-scale farmers like Señor Domingo have slashed down the vegetation, burned the plots, and planted fruits and vegetables.  Some of these plots are on astonishingly steep hill-sides, a testament to back-breaking work but also at risk of serious soil erosion if not kept covered in some sort of vegetation.  Although the overall impression of the landscape is much more natural that in more developed agricultural or residential areas or where one sees large, searing, clear-cuts as we had noticed along the south east side of the Azuero Peninsula, one has to wonder how sustainable these particular slash and burn practices will be for future generations.  Although there are several nature reserves on the Azuero Peninsula, the best conserved gem in the area is Isla Coiba, a status that has been internationally recognized in its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and this is where we headed next.

The Parque Nacional Coiba includes the biggest island in Central America (25 nautical miles north to south), many smaller, surrounding islands, and a large area of marine habitat in between.  The main island Coiba was inhabited by Chiriquí people from about 500 BC.   After the Spanish arrived it became a popular place for English pirate and raider ships to reprovision and re-outfit.  The main reason for lack of modern development or overexploitation on the island was that in 1919 it became a penal colony with at least 20 small prison camp areas and associated small-scale farming (the prisoners were expected to feed themselves and produce enough to sent to support prisons on the mainland).  It is said that the prison guards locked themselves in at night to be protected from the dangerous and free-roaming prisoners who were principally deterred from escaping by strong currents and sharks.  The penal colony was only closed down in 2005 so one of our older cruising guides from 1995 cheerfully describes the anchorage near the National Park headquarters but then warns “it is not considered safe to anchor or visit places outside the Park Office area without a guard or ranger in company”.  There are probably some feral cows, pigs, and dogs left over from the camps but one certainly hopes that no prisoners were left behind.

We set off for Isla Coiba on Thursday morning (May 13th) after Olivia visited us to say “Hasta luego” and kindly give us some more plantains.  As we left the bay we saw a lot of bird activity with a large flock of black terns and (the slightly larger) brown noddies busily feeding at the water surface.  This made Randall anxious to get his fishing lines in the water but not knowing the park rules about fishing, we pulled them back in as we passed Isla Canal de Afuera which is north of Coiba but within the national park. With little wind we motored 25 nm southwest to Ensenada Hermosa, a cove on the west side of Coiba which was exposed to the northwest but had a good sandy area in which to anchor close to shore and near the mouth of a small stream.  The steep hillsides looked delightfully undisturbed and we were pleased to hear howler monkeys quite close to us.

We saw a small, mast-less, sail boat washed ashore in the north part of the cove but there were no signs of the prison camp that had been there.  This particular camp was gruesomely infamous because prisoners from it had swam out to an unfortunate cruising boat that anchored in the cove, killed one (or both depending on the account) of the sailors, and commandeered the yacht to escape to the mainland.  Although we had nothing to worry about on this account, the swell was sufficient to deter us from trying to go ashore in the dinghy.  Also the water was not very clear so there was no point in trying to go snorkeling and we quickly decided that as pretty as the surrounding hillsides were, one night would be enough and we would seek calmer, clearer waters the next day.

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