Rivers and Crocodiles
After a couple of weeks around the small outer islands of the San Blas archipelago we sail to an island near the continent, named Rio Azucar (Sugar River) after a small river that runs down from the Darien Mountains and enters the sea. We drop anchor in the calm shallow waters not far from the river delta. Early the next morning we are ready to visit Panama’s mainland for the first time.
With long pants and long sleeves against sunburn and bugs, hats and sunglasses, we pile on the kayak. The wind is hush under a bright sky with a few clouds stuck in the mountain tops. We enter the place where the river’s freshwaters mix with the sea. Nothing moves. Dark blue mountains in the distance covered with thick impassable forest and no sign of civilization for miles and miles in all directions.
The river is wide and shallow in the beginning, surrounded by mangroves, some so tall they form dark tunnels and we pass under them.
Further, the waters are still and completely transparent. The world admires itself as if a mirror has been placed at its feet. Our kayak now glides in a shiny sky without bottom, over clouds and upside-down trees.
The river-water is cool and clear. No industry upriver to pollute it, no human settlement to exploit it, only forest and mountain.
And animals. Stingrays sleep on the bottom and panic as our kayak approaches, creating small muddy clouds as they make their escape.
Birds fly away as we pass by the shores: herons, cormorants, a dark ibis, jacamars and kingfishers, warblers and woodpeckers, toucans and many more.
A group of dark feathered azure-hooded jays hidden in a bush hanging over the water fill the silence with a cacophony of loud weird chatter, like frogs’ croaking, that goes on for a long time and suddenly stops very abruptly, all at once. Right when the rattle has become part of the silence and we don’t pay it any attention, it stops and it’s strange mystic silence again. A black falcon surveys his kingdom with a most respectful gaze from the highest branch.
Our favorite river-dwellers are the little brown basilisk lizards, known as Jesus Christ lizards, for they and the son of God share a rare skill- walking on water! And if you ask them, walking on water is piece of cake, they sprint over it! What a spectacle every time they cross before our amazed doubting eyes from one shore to the other speeding as fast as their feet can carry them on the river surface (as fast as 7mph)!
His divine abilities aside, the basilisk is quite a sight even when sitting still, concealed, pretending to be part of a rotten tree trunk or branch on the shores. Brown, scaly, with a high fin-like crest down his back, head and tail, like miniature dinosaur, and large feet equipped with flaps of skin along the toes allowing the lizard to remain on top of the river when moving quickly, just a bit slower than his land speed.
Youngsters can run up to 10-20 meters on water, while adult Jesus Christs can cross only a few meters before sinking, not because they move slowly, but because they are heavier and cannot sprint for too long… Once he falls in the water the basilisk continues swimming but only when necessary, when running from predators for example, because some other aquatic animals would eat him too…
Suddenly we hear a sweet tiny chirping, like a gentle bird’s cry, and it is a monkey! And another one! And another one!
A family of Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys (titi monkeys, the smallest Central American monkeys) are in the trees above our heads talking to us! Wonder what are they saying? These are different than the ones we saw in Tayrona (Colombia) with short hairstyles- white Mohawks and bald spots above the ears. We nickname them “punks”
Yet, the one animal we are here to find is the crocodile, master of the river. It is a strange and scary feeling being in a river full of crocodiles, alone, without a guide, having to get out of the kayak when it gets too shallow or when the current gets too strong to paddle against it, and to step in the water barefoot, in a river home of the Central American caiman.
And sure enough we find him. Hiding in the shadows ashore, camouflaged like the sand and the rocks, completely still, he is watching us with his cold yellow eyes.
Another one! As we approach a small rocky beach just where the river makes a sharp turn, another croc tanning ashore hurriedly drags himself to the water edge and slides in with a spectacular silent motion. He swims away and disappears.
It seems that the caimans are more afraid of us than we of them, yet Maya, like most 11-year-old girls, is terrified and almost cries, but as soon as the third one (and they are all small) runs away from us panicking, she is convinced that they have nothing to do with the horrifying monsters depicted in films. And the river safari continues.
There is even a baby caiman sitting on a tree trunk and we all (even Maya) find him cute.
We keep going. At places the river is shallow, wide and calm-too shallow even for the kayak- and we have to walk and pull it behind.
Other places are narrow and deep and the river runs fast. It is hard to paddle against it. Going back downriver, we pass these rapids quickly, and it is exciting and fun.
We would love to go further and further until the river ends, but it doesn’t. It only becomes more and more difficult to paddle, the mountain begins to rise, rapids appear, and so we turn back. We pass again under fallen trees which the leafcutter ants and other forest creatures use as bridges over the river.
We paddle by the big ceiba tree adorned with the hanging nests of weaver birds. It is much faster going back downriver, and easier.
Fata Morgana is waiting for us, and a few more wild rivers to explore in Kuna Yala, full of elusive jungle creatures, the sweet-and-sour smell of wild rotting mangoes fallen near the shores, and the sounds of birds and monkeys.
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Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:
About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: