The Rio Diablo

Sun 2 Feb 2014 16:40
We moved down to the mainland, anchoring between the islands of Yandup and Akuanusatupu and the mouth of the Rio Diablo.

The two islands are joined by a bridge and are quite different to the other Kuna village that we visited, as these Kuna don't keep strictly to the traditional Kuna ways. More of the women wear western clothes, there are plenty of places where you can buy beer, and there's even a little shop and a bank. After two weeks without access to more fruit and veg (and remember, we're in the tropics, it's hard to keep things from going off, fresh food doesn't last) we were glad to be able to get some limes, a pineapple, some onions and some potatoes. They had a freezer with chickens in (there's a big generator that supplies power to the two villages) but there was a man with a huge berg of about 8 frozen chickens on a piece of cardboard made from opening out a box, he had a hammer and chisel and was trying to extract individual chickens from the block. We decided to pass.

From sun rise to sunset we were able to watch a continuous stream of Kuna canoes (ulus) coming in and out of the river entrance. Some were going up stream to the small plantations they have alongside the river, growing bananas, limes, avocado, and of course, coconut. But mostly they were fetching water. There's a water pipe to the islands, leading down to the river from a lake higher up the mountain, then running down the river and crossing the channel. But sometime last year it broke and hasn't been fixed. Every drop of water that's needed for drinking, washing, cleaning and cooking has to be transported from a couple of miles up the river. They load the ulus with barrels, jerry cans, tubs and bowls. On the way back the ulus are so low in the water with all the weight that they only have about an inch of freeboard, as soon as the waves hit them in the channel they have to bail as they go across.

Getting out of the river mouth is an art. There's a sand bar across the entrance and more spreading out from either side. The Kunas know the way but even they sometimes come aground and have to put all the water containers on the sand bar to lighten the ulu before they can get it off the bar. We watched carefully before hand to work out the route when we went in the dinghy but even so I had to sit on the bow with a pole, calling out the soundings as we went "2 feet, 1 1/2, 1 foot, lift!..." so Phil could lift the outboard out of the water if we got too shallow or there was a sunken branch.

Once past the bar the river started by traveling through a mangrove tree tunnel, then quickly widened out with a mixture of trees either side, interspersed by little patches of coconut palms and banana which the Kuna have planted. We went at daybreak; it was stunningly beautiful. Gently puttering along with the outboard, exchanging greetings with the Kuna as we passed them or they silently paddled down stream past us. Butterflies kept fluttering across our path and on either side of us intriguing bird calls would shatter the silence. Most of them we couldn't see but we saw plenty: herons and bitterns trying to camouflage themselves on the bank; egrets standing tall, watching the water for their breakfast; humming birds darting; pairs of parrots noisily flying overhead; a bush full of big dark anis, the branches swaying and dancing under their weight as they flopped down to a lower one; one beautiful bird of prey, barred tail, black back, head and neck; gangs of orioles, flashing bright orange/yellow as they race each other across the river; both belted and ringed kingfishers flitting from vantage point to vantage point; and a pair of woodpeckers clinging to a trunk, black with a white strip and a huge red crown.

We were looking out for monkeys, but there's no fruit trees in season by the river just now so they're not around, and sloths - I am desperate to see one of these wonderful creatures but they must be hard to spot as they move so slowly and even have moss growing in their fur sometimes as camouflage, I realise I don't even know what kind of tree they hang out in. But, surprisingly, what we did see were squirrels! Bigger than the UK ones, with bright orange red chests and fluffy tails. They were eating coconuts.

As we went I was very aware that, apart from the narrow strip alongside the river, there's no one in this country. There's huge areas where no one's ever gone. No one lives there. The Isthmus of Panama. Look on Google maps at Panama City, then follow the roads down south, they peter out... there's no way of getting south over these mountains by land except hiking through virgin rain forest. The Kunas go ashore in the day to get water and tend some small crops like bananas and coconut, and get wood, or to bury their dead, but that's it.

At night looking south, first at the dark strip of the mangroves, then at the canopy of the forest as it climbs the mountains, there are no lights, not anywhere.

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