Thursday, 8 January 2009

Feliz Año Nuevo

With the swell dropping and the Caribbean rainy season living up to it’s reputation we decided to head over to the pacific side to the remote peninsula Punta Burica where Panama borders Costa Rica on the Pacific Coast. On the Costa Rican side of this peninsula is Pavones, one of the most renowned left breaks in the world, yet the Panamanian side is relatively undiscovered and must receive the same swell as it’s Tican neighbour.
We planned to fly from Bocas to David having heard that the road had been closed for the last few days due to continuing landslides but the flight we wanted was full so we braved the water taxi to the mainland and then the bus from Almirante to David. Whole sections of the mountains had succumbed to rain-sodden gravity carving great earth red scars into the otherwise lush green forested hillsides, sweeping car sized rocks, forests and roads away. There were some pretty precarious sections that had been patched up using piles of rocks and gravel to allow one lane of traffic through and our driver didn’t seem very confident at some points as he got out of his cab to have a closer look. Still, we made it and headed straight for the airport to pick up our booked 4x4 from Thrifty so that we could make down to the wilds of Punta Burica. Blanks faces met our arrival - they didn’t have a 4x4 free until the next day which scuppered our plans. A systematic sweep of the car hire places at the airport furnished us with a 4 wheel drive Daihatsu hairdryer with a dent in every panel and a careworn interior. The delay in securing our off-road coiffure-machine meant that by the time we reached Puerto Armuelles it was nearly getting dark and we’d missed our low-tide window to make the 2 hour beach-drive to Punta Burica. The portless Puerto Armuelles is a one-horse kind of town, and we were very lucky to find that horse. We had nowhere to stay and the very friendly boy in the restaurant we randomly pulled up outside warned us off the only hotel in town. A drink and a site down proved fruitful. The only other gringos in town, an American couple in real estate took pity on us, because we reminded them of their beautiful children, and put us up in a colonial style mansion for the night.
We pottered around Armuelles for a couple of hours in the morning buying supplies and browsing the multitude of Todos Dollar shops that made up the town centre before the tide would allow us to begin our mission to reach Mono Feliz, a jungle lodge, on the remote peninsula. We were worried that we weren’t 4x4’d up enough with our tinpot Terios so we tried to tell everyone we could that were driving to Mono Feliz in ‘this’ car. Everyone just smiled and said we’d be fine…. But watch out for the tide…. And the rocks… Having found access to the beach it was surprisingly good fun driving through sand, shingle, pebbles and rivers. Where we nearly came unstuck were the expanses of lava fields and rock pools that we had to traverse and the rivers which were deceptively deep. With huge crashes, bangs and wallops we bounced our way over rocks, logs and forded streams and rivers. We waved and smiled and checked the way to Mono feliz with everyone we saw in case we might need their help when the hairdryer finally ran out of steam, but two stressful, yet exilarating hours later we saw the sign, off the beach, to Mono Feliz – Happy Monkey. Pulling up and finding our open wooden cabin at this deserted jungle fringed beach made it all worthwhile particularly as whilst the kids who were looking after the place showed us around a gaggle of Squirrel Monkeys came down from the trees to see us, and with our fists-full of bananas they lept all over us to feed.
Juancho an American, grizzly adams type, runs the lodge with his local-born wife Luzmilla. He has bought 2 plots of land which he has left as a natural wildlife habitat whilst the encroaching ranchers devour the rest of the peninsula. His land is home to monkeys, as you might expect, particularly a troop of maybe 50 Squirrel monkeys which make up a good chunk of the remaining 2500 global population of this model. There are also Capuccino monkeys, Howler monkeys, Wolf Spiders, Jesus Lizards, Toads, Sloths and a whole lot more besides. Our open-side and fronted cabin sat on the jungle ledge only feet away from what was effectively our own private beach. Punta Burica’s 180º vista allowed us to watch the sun rise and set right on our doorstep. We did Yoga, run by the delectable Instructor Von-Stretchalot SR’s guru, on the beach at sun rise and built beautifully elaborate driftwood bonfires on our beach at sunset to cook on and lie by as we gazed at the ridiculous number of stars someone had spattered the sky with. By day I surfed one of the many point breaks along this coast either with two of the boys from the lodge or on my own. The swell was small so I didn’t get to see it in it’s full glory but it was just amazing to be riding decent waves in a tropical paradise without a crowd. After surfing a quick dip in the spring water plunge pool was a good bracer for either a jungle walk, a beach walk or some hammock time.
On a guided jungle on New Years Eve morning Junacho took us to one of his gringo neighbours places even further down the point and therefore even more remote. The American guy David is doing something similar to Juancho by returning his land to natural habitat but his Environmental Fundamentalist attitude brings him confrontation at every juncture. He’s fighting the poachers, ranchers, farmers, hunters, drug smugglers, gangsters, environment agencies, press, corporations and the government which has resulted in numerous fights and death threats and him carrying a pistol at all times and his wife being too scared to live there. Juancho’s philosophy, conversely, of doing his bit for the environment but also by integrating with the local community, working with nature and with the local people has endeared him to his neighbours and he leads a beautifully peaceful existence. I think the adage that you get back what you give out, that the world is a mirror to our own attitudes rings true here. Still, his heart is in the right place and his dedication has many benefits. He invited us into his wild cat cage, he rescued a baby Margay after hunters had killed it’s mother. This ferocious feline was a little bit bigger than the biggest domestic cat (yes, even big Jeffrey) and was an incredible beast, with leaopard-like spots, immaculate fur, huge nocturnal eyes and disproportionally large paws she was definitely not tame. She nearly bit our hands off when we tried to play with her, but to experience a wild feline so intimately was an indelible memory. As a parting gift David gave us a bag full of newly hatched sea turtles that he had incubated in a purposely built sand pit, having bought the eggs from the poachers for 10¢ more than they get from their contacts, for us to release into the Pacific that evening.
As the last sun of 2008 sank beneath the watery horizon SR and I drank chilled Bollinger in plastic beakers around a particularly ostentatious bonfire before coaxing, cajoling, tapping, flicking, encouraging and cheering our turtle friends to make their first steps into their ocean home. And all of this at about midnight GMT. What a way to spend our New Years Eve.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad that you are back in touch. What a fantastic read this blog is and what beautiful pictures. Loved the turtles story - did not love the account of that episode at Isla Careneros. You only have a few days left of this adventure but I know that you will make the most of it. Take care and see you soon.
Love, Mum

TKM said...

This isn't just a blog, it's an M&S luxury blog x

Anonymous said...

ed man, wow, you're really making me want to get back out there again..

i only rushed through panama and fun as david and p.c. were, i guess i missed the most of the best.


enjoy the rest of it dude.


Emma said...

An incredible New Year's Eve story! So lovely to think of those turtles. Have a brilliant last week x