NAVIGATION NOTES – DARIEN REGION OF PANAMA 2013
These notes are a result of a short cruise in the Darien Region of Panama in October 2013 on “Alba” our Hallberg Rassy 42. Our draft is 2.0 metres (6’ 8”).
We went into this area with three other boats “Grace”, “Lil Explorers” and “Windsong”. It’s good to have buddy boats around for the additional security – if you go aground or have an engine failure then you have some help on hand. It’s also helpful to visit the villages as a group because it will be cheaper, splitting the costs of any little displays that the Indians put on.
We used the excellent cruising guide written by Eric Bauhaus. There’s a set of KAP electronic charts in general circulation in the cruising community, which are scanned copies of the charts from Bauhaus’s book. These are very accurate for the San Blas islands, but I’ve found that they are up to 0.25 mile out in the Darien region. However, these charts give a good set of soundings - in most areas the chart datum is just a bit off. The Navionics charts are completely useless, having no soundings at all for most places.
YOU USE THESE NOTES AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The most recent version of this document can be obtained from:
You can read our blog of our trip at:
The Darien province of Panama is approximately 80 miles from Panama City, but it’s infrequently visited by cruisers mostly because of security concerns. It’s an area of impenetrable jungle and is frequented by Columbian drug runners and guerrillas. However, the region where we cruised appears to be safe and there’s a large presence of Panamanian armed forces and Guarda Fronteras in the area.
The Pan-American Highway stretches all the way from Alaska to the tip of South American except for a hundred miles through the remote Darien area. Colombia is on the far side of the Darien and Panama has resisted all requests to build a road joining the two countries because of security concerns - the impenetrable jungle acts as a natural barrier preventing drug runners and illegal immigrants from entering Panama.
The Darien is a remote and beautiful place, with river systems that penetrate the jungle and is inhabited by two tribes of Indians called the Wounaan and Emberá. These Indians are trying to retain their traditional ways, but there is increasing pressure on their customs as the more westernised, Latino Panamanians buy land and build more roads into the region.
Panamanian laws also have a strong effect on this loss of cultural identity. For example, when the Emberá Indian children go to school, they have to wear school uniforms and shoes, even in the small schools in remote villages. Another example is in a remote, small town called Puerto Indio, which is twelve miles up the Rio Sambu, Emberá Indian women will be arrested if they walk around bare breasted. If the Pan-American Highway is extended through to Colombia then the social pressures will increase dramatically and these Indian cultures many only last one more generation.
The Darien region has a tidal range of 4 metres and the tidal currents are very strong – we had four knots coming out of La Palma, so make your movements depending on the tide. We used the tidal data from Navionics on an iPad and it was a good indication, but I suspect that the tides around La Palma are an hour after Punta Garachine.
When travelling up the rivers, both the Bauhaus and Navionics charts are incorrect and you will have to use visual navigation, keeping to the outsides of the river bends in the deeper water. It’s also advisable to go in on a rising tide.
3. CUCUNATI RIVER
We made this our first port of call in the Darien region, simply because it has very easy, deep access and we wanted to get a feel for the region before attempting some of the more remote rivers. This river is very wide. There is supposed to be a village further up the river, but we never found it. We think that it’s at the far end of the lake at the end of the river, but we’re not certain.
We used our dinghy to explore two miles upriver from our anchorage, but we didn’t find a huge amount of interest – just jungle, mangroves and herons.
In retrospect, we should have tried to go further up the river in Alba, possibly into the lake and then explored some of the tributaries by dinghy. However, we have no information about the depth of water in the lake.
The approach is very straight forward with at least 5 metres of water at low tide.
The following waypoints will get you into the river mouth:
We anchored at 08°27.6N 078°13.43W in 3-4 metres of water. We found that the marked anchorage at 08°26.44N 078°13.17W was very deep with 13 metres and then shallowed to less than 3 metres very rapidly – not a good place to anchor. The inner bend on Bauhaus’s charts is out by approximately 0.2 miles - the chart shows the land as being 0.2 miles further east than it actually is.
The anchorage we chose is about ½ mile from the shore and had a feeling of anchoring in the middle of a lake. Not a lot to see, although we were invaded by a horde of small green insects with freaky red eyes every evening before sunset, so it’s a good idea to get the mosquito nets up early.
4. LA PALMA
This is the major administration centre of the Darien region and a pleasant little town, with lots of small tiendas – you can buy most basic supplies here. You can anchor off the town or go further around the corner to the recommended anchorage at La Punita.
It’s a very straight forward approach to the town. You can either go around the big bend in the river (Boca Grande) or through the smaller Boca Chica channel. The tide rips through the Boca Chica with swirling eddies, so make sure that you get the tides right. There’s loads of depth going through the Boca Chica and it’s about 100 metres wide.
The following waypoints will get you through the Boca Chica:
The recommended anchorage is at 08°23.97N 078°08.13W. This is in 8 metres of water at low tide. The holding seems to be variable, so make sure that your anchor is well dug in because the tidal current is strong. The town’s electricity generator is on shore next to this anchorage and it’s quite noisy. Also, the locals are not averse to playing loud music at night.
Our friends on “Lil Explorers” anchored of the main town and were able to pick up a good wireless internet connection.
There are two floating docks at the north end of town. The most northern one is the public dock - the other one is for government boats. It’s a short walk into town and there are gargage bins on the main street. “Grace” and “Windsong” both used the services of the outboard mechanic just next to the dock. There’s a fuelling station, which is a water-front building at the south end of town. There’s no floating dock, so getting fuel at low tide is somewhat of a challenge – jerry jugs are pulled up and lowered down on a rope.
5. ISLA EL ENCANTO
This is a pleasant anchorage a couple of miles to the north of La Palma - far from the noise of the generator.
It’s a very straight forward approach into the anchorage passing to the north of a few small islands. There’s a 3 metre deep sand bar indicated on the Bauhaus charts and you may need to feel your way in – the water is plenty deep close to the most northern small island.
The following waypoints will get you into the anchorage:
It took us fifteen minutes of circling around to find somewhere that wasn’t too deep or too shallow. There’s a very deep channel that runs through the anchorage with depths of over 12 metres. If you go north towards the main island, it shallows rapidly and a long way from the shoreline. We were happy at 08°25.97N 078°09.00W in 7 metres of water and the holding was good.
6. RIO INGLESIA
This is a pleasant river only 3 miles from La Palma. It’s fairly narrow, so there’s a good chance of spotting wildlife. However, there’s a busy water taxi port called Puerto Quimba which connects La Palma to the Pan American Highway. We believe that there’s a village nearby, but we didn’t visit it because we thought that it wouldn’t be very traditional being so close to the Pan American Highway.
On the way across to the mouth of the Rio Sabana, there’s a rocky reef called Vaguila Rock. It’s quite big and easy to spot at most states of tide. The water is fairly shallow at Punta Sabana, so don’t cut the corner too much.
At the mouth of the Rio Sabana and going into the Rio Inglesia, you’ll encounter depths of 3 metres at low tide, but once inside the Rio Inglesia, there’s loads of water.
The following waypoints should get you into the river mouth:
The recommended anchorage is at 08°24.86N 078°01.79W. It’s at the end of the river where it turns into a kind of delta. The river then goes past a couple of small islands and opens out into a lake. The depths after the anchorage decreased quickly and the river is very narrow here (about 25 metres), so we didn’t bother to stay - there didn’t seem to be much to interest us especially with the busy water taxi dock just around the corner.
7. RIO SABANA
This is a wide river, which is navigable for 15 miles. It narrows significantly after 13 miles, just before the Wounaan Indian village of Puerto Lara. There’s a pleasant anchorage half way along the river at some islands called Isla Bellas.
The Wounaan Indians in Puerto Lara are very friendly, but will ask for $10 per person to visit the village. With some negotiation (and a large group of ten adults), we were able to knock the price down to $5 per person. For this fee you are able to anchor, use their dinghy dock, walk around the village, take photographs and buy handicrafts from them. I think that they have quite a few tourists coming here and it’s a business to them. When you pay the “visiting fee”, the chief of the village will ring a bell, which is the signal for the ladies of the village is come out to display their handicrafts in their central meeting hut. The baskets and carvings are of very good quality. The going price seems to be $20 for the average bowl or carving.
The entrance to the Rio Sabana is shallow at 3 metres, but soon increases to 5-10 metres until you approach the Isla Bellas, after which it gets shallow again for a while and then once again it gets deeper on the outside of the bends in the river.
The following waypoints will get you into the deeper water past the mouth of the river, after that is just a matter of following the outside bends of the river. Except, as you approach the Isla Bellas, just off Punta Triunfo, the deeper water is on the inside of the bend as shown in the Bauhaus guide – I guess that the outside of the bend is being silted up by the incoming tributary.
We anchored in three places up this river:
Islas Bellas - We anchored overnight at 08°31.49N 078°07.37W. It’s out of the main channel and around 3 metres deep. The holding was very good. We tried to anchor in the channel to the south-east of the islands (08°31.71N 078°07.35W), but we couldn’t get the anchor to hold - we think that the river bed is scoured by the fast current at that place.
Puerto Lara - We anchored in the river just next to the Wounaan village at 08°37.01N 078°08.91W. The river is approximately 25 metres wide at this point. The holding is very suspect, being in a narrow, fast flowing part of the river. Most of our little flotilla dragged an hour after the tide changed direction. I suspect that the river bed is rock and gravel and is scoured by the current. There appeared to be sufficient depth because we had 7 metres at high tide, which should have given us at least 3 metres at low tide, but I’m not sure since we anchored elsewhere overnight.
Rio Sabana - Having dragged at Puerto Lara, we retreated back down the river a few miles and anchored at the east side of the river next to a couple of small tributaries. The holding was good in mud with over 5 metres of depth at low tide. It was around 08°34.61N 078°08.51W.
8. RIO SAMBU
This is a rarely visited part of the Darien and it was the highlight of our short trip. To our knowledge there was only one other cruising boat (“Eyoni”) that went up this river in 2013. There is a village called La Chunga, which is a traditional Emberá settlement. They have had some contact with tourists and small cruise boats have visited them in previous years, but they hadn’t seen many “gringos” recently.
The villagers are very friendly and were genuinely interested in us and wanted to show us their homes and way of life. The children are lovely, walking along with you through the village and spontaneously holding your hand. The village lives off subsistence farming and, in 2013, there was a US Peace Corp guy living in the village called Charles who was very helpful; helping to organise things with the villagers and acting as a translator.
The only “hard” cash that the village makes is from selling their small amount of surplus crops, but most comes from selling their handicrafts to the tourist trade. We were asked to pay a fee to visit the village. Initially we were asked to pay $15 per boat and $10 per person, but we negotiated this down to $15 per boat only. The $10 per person was going to go to the local Comarca which is a kind of regional council. I believe that there has been some discussion about formalising this fee and I will update this document when I can find out more.
There’s a floating dinghy dock on the riverside, which leads to a two kilometre long board walk, built five feet above the jungle on concrete posts. This is in a poor state of repair - two of our group managed to punch through the rotting wooden planks, leading to one badly sprained ankle. If the tide is out then this is the only way to the village, so walk on the edges above the concrete supports. For two hours either side of high tide, it is possible to take your dinghy 1½ kilometres up a small tributary next to the dinghy dock. If the village kids know that you are coming, don’t be surprised to have a dinghy full of them along for the ride.
The villagers put on a little welcome ceremony for us, meeting us on the outskirts of the village in traditional dress with a small band playing Emberá music. We all walked into the village where more villagers gathered and there was a welcome speech. After the formalities, we mingled with the villagers and wandered about. The chief took some of us for a walk around the village showing us their homes and crops - we were accompanied by hordes of children all the time.
Later that day, the village put on a small display of their traditional music and dancing and showed us how they make juice from sugar cane on their huge wooden press. We negotiated that they would do this for $50. The ladies displayed their handicrafts and we all bought various items. Some of the cruisers gave small gifts to the villagers and received small items in return – one notable example was an Emberá flute given in return for a pair of rubber boots.
The village made us a meal one evening in one of their larger homes – it was interesting to see how they cook on an open fire. On our final day, “Lil Explorers” invited the villagers to a traditional American breakfast on their 55 foot catamaran. Over 10 women and 20 children turned up and they were all surprisingly well behaved, patiently waiting for their pancakes with maple syrup.
The mud flats leading to the river mouth are 4½ miles wide, so great attention must be paid to the state of the tide going in and coming out. We made both transits at 3 hours after low water to ensure that we had the greatest rate of rising tide.
On the way in, we timed our approach to arrive at the edge of the mud flats at low water and anchored at 08°06.19N 078°22.96W, while waiting for the tide. We then went in a dinghy with a portable GPS and “depth sounders” to locate the channel through the mud flats - we used both a portable depth sounder and a long boat hook to reconnoitre the depths. About half way across the mud flats seems to be the shallowest point, where there are some areas that dry out at low tide.
Our route in and out was:
08°06.1930 N078°22.9650 W
08°05.4790 N078°22.6960 W
08°04.9190 N078°21.1520 W
08°04.8540 N078°19.6010 W
08°04.9150 N078°17.8430 W
Our passage into the river was made more complicated by the local fishermen putting out one mile long fishing nets across the channel. They have a black flag at one end of the net with the fishing boat usually anchored at the other end. There are small floats holding up the net every five metres, which are hard to spot in a light chop. We encountered two of these nets on the way in forcing us to make ½ mile detours in both cases.
While navigating around the nets, “Lil Explorers” sent out their dinghy with a couple of people to sound the depths. On the second fishing net, they found that the actual depth was less than five feet around the flag end of the net, forcing us all to retrace our steps and pass around the other end of the net around the fishing boat. The depth at this point was -0.6 metres at low water, but 2.7 metres actual depth with the tide. It was a great strategy to have a dinghy ready to sound out the route ahead.
Once in the river mouth, depths increase to over 5 metres for the next ten miles up to the village at La Chunga, but keep to the outside of the bends because the inside of some of the bends are shallow. Also look out for flotsam in the river; there are some huge tree trunks semi-submerged on the surface of the water.
While crossing the mud flats, we took some GPS positions and soundings, which I hope will prove to be helpful, but bear in mind that the mud flats, by their very nature, are constantly changing.
Actual Track In (19 Oct 2013)
|Waypoint||Time||Sounding (m)||Tide Height (m)||Low Water Depth (m)|
Note: The shallowest parts are where we had to go around the fishing nets.
On the way out, we followed the same route and were fortunate that we didn’t encounter any long fishing nets. We had to go around a couple of fishing boats who were putting out nets in a 50 metre circle, but that didn’t force us off the route by much. Along the route out, the depth never went below 3 metres at mid-tide.
We anchored on the outside of the mud flats and at two places on the river - at La Chunga village and also at the entrance to the river on the way out while waiting for the tide.
Mud Flats - We anchored at 08°06.19N 078°22.96W while waiting for the tide to go up the river. We had four metres at low water and the holding was good. The anchorage is in the middle of nowhere - about 1½ miles from land. If you want to stay overnight then you should anchor at Punta Garachine.
La Chunga Village - We anchored at 08°04.11N 078°13.13W just next to the village boat dock. The river is roughly 50 metres wide here. The holding is very good and the depth is around 5 metres at low water. The current is strong and there is a lot of large flotsam coming down the river, so make sure that your anchor is well set and keep an eye out for tree trunks catching your anchor chain.
Rio Sambu Entrance - On the way out of the river, we anchored at the mouth of the river waiting for the tide. We anchored at 08°04.77N 078°16.97W, which had good holding in 5 metres of water.
Punta Garachine - The anchorage recommended by Bauhaus looked to be too close to shore for us, so we headed further south towards some mangroves and anchored in seven metres in good holding mud at 08°05.91N 078°24.55W. This anchorage is pleasant and protected from the west, but would be bouncy with any east in the wind. The jungle on the peninsula is interesting with huge trees sticking out of the canopy.
9. OTHER INFORMATION
An American yacht called “Eyoni” spent six weeks in the Darien region, travelling more extensively and going up more rivers than we did. They have a swing keeled yacht, so they are able to dry out if they get caught by the tide - our 6’8” single keel makes us a little more cautious.
They visited these additional places:
Rio Tuira - all the way to Yaviza (08°09.48N 077°41.79W)
Rio Balsas - 33 miles upriver to 08°00.30N 077°54.06W
Rio Sucio – all the way to Cano Blanca (08°30.93N 078°21.05W) – they liked this river, visiting it twice and going to a friendly, traditional Wounaan village.
Rio Sambu – they went a few miles further than us, going past the small town of Puerto Indio to 08°01.57N 078°12.46W
26 October 2013