Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Coiba Island Experience

Greetings everyone!  Here is the million dollar post from our Panama trip on Coiba island.  This was the most expensive and yet amazing experience we had in Panama.  It was worth every penny.  I wrote about our investigation on Coiba island several months ago.  We had also done some research on the Darien Gap.  Both would have cost around the same amount of money and both offered similiar experiences.  However, we were travelling during the rainy season and most of the Darien would be inaccessible due to flooding trails.  We then began to focus our attention on the biologically diverse island of Coiba.  80 percent of this large island remains untouched with pristine primary forests.  It's one of the last places in Panama to view colonies of the Scarlet Macaw.  There's even a species of howler monkey that is endemic to this island only.

It started from the tiny surfing village of Santa Catalina.  We found a guide by the name of Javier who runs a place called Casa Kenia.  He runs a great program that took us several nights to the beautiful and isolated island of Coiba.  Accommodations were okay on the island.  We did have a/c for a couple hours, but it ran on generators and eventually, the unit would shut off at 2 in the morning:)  I must make this note because it's very important to know before going.  Having ANY accommodations were better than none in this very beautiful national park.  But because it was a little rough, some birders will dislike this place because they physically can't hike the trails or have difficulty getting in and out of the boat.   So I offer this advice.  If you are thinking about going to Coiba Island, make sure you bring water shoes of some kind and spare clothes which should include some good hiking boots to walk the sometimes muddy trails.  Don't forget sunblock and your camelback for water!! It is a primary rain forest and has its challenges at times, but thanks to Javier, we had a fantastic experience on the island.  A lot of it is unexplored botanically and guess what?  The Smithsonian own the tiny island known as Coibitas to monitor this park and protected marine area.
I promised wild monkey shots...not good ones.....but here they are.  This little white faced Capuchin monkey was throwing mangos at our building in the morning.  I moved quickly with my camera in hand to snap several shots off before he moved too far into the tree tops. The bottom pic looks like the mysterious BIG FOOT picture taken awhile back.  I laughed at how this monkey walked from one section of rain forest to the other.  Some people believe it's easy to spot wildlife, but I'd like to say that it's one of the most challenging things to do as an amateur photographer.  The wildlife is all around you, but you have to really look and listen to see all the wonderful critters.

My case in point.  Where is the monkey in the trees of this picture? 
Pic taken by my friend Jen Inboden
So why did Panama leave this island in such a pristine shape?  Quite simple.  They placed a penal colony here which accounts for a small portion of the islands deforestation.  The vegetation is growing back as the colony is shut down.  No more prisoners live here anymore.  You may think of this place as the "Alcatraz" of Panama.  Many people were afraid to come here because several prisoners had murdered locals who accidentally wandered onto the wrong island.  I'll tell that story in a few days.  But because Coiba Island had this reputation on the mainland of Panama, it was protected unintentionally by killers and murderers......with a positive outcome for Mother Nature and for human kind! A potential algae that grows around the waters has been recently discovered to fight cancer.
The island is large with flowing rivers full of animals.  It's difficult to get inside the interior and we had only scratched the surface.  One side was completely off limits as the tides and currents of the ocean made for a dangerous ride.  Instead, we were able to visit the calmer side of things within one of Panama's most beautiful and sacred coral reefs. Coiba Marine Park is considered one of the top ten reefs of our world.   Several smaller islands surround this larger one.  It's possible to have whale and dolphin sightings here.  While on this trip, I saw many large sea turtles swim around the reefs. And birding.....well, there's a lot of them to see here as well.   The beach above was an entrance to a secret trail full of old and twisty vegetation.  Monkeys had recently walked on the beach leaving their fresh tracks behind in the sand.

Not all rain forest is the same.  People want to know what primary or secondary forest means in person.  Well after walking around in primary pure virgen rain forest, I will never forget how incredibly cool it was.  Twisty gnarly vines connected mammoth trees together.  And there was a soothing presence about it all.
Iguanas galore on Coiba island. 
It's difficult picking out the massive amounts of green pics and determining which shot will be posted on the blog.  For me this post was the most difficult because I had to choose which pics best represented what I saw in the forests.  Here is an example of the viny ancient look of Coiba.  In fact, Coiba is known as one of the viniest rain forests on this Earth.  It has a unique look. 

It wasn't uncommon for vines to connect or take over entire trees.  Vines would come from the ground....the air.....water.......basically anywhere they could cross; they would. I loved the bark of this tree on the pic below.  Moss and lichens covered many of the trees in Panama which added a lovely green tone to the brown bark.
This is a saltwater crocodile below.  A special post will be released in November on this guy, but for now, here's a pic. What? You want more now?  How about a clip on him on the last day of the month?  I have a fantastic video showing this guy in all his glory on August 31st.  We had to be careful swimming in certain areas around the island.  These guys are pretty territorial so you won't find many concentrated in one area, but there are usually a couple lurking around the waters.  When we went swimming, we always kept our eyes open for floating logs because that's what they looked like in the ocean waters. 
Saltwater crocodile
This reptile fascinated me.  He also scared me a bit as I had never been close to one before.  I've seen alligators and caiman but nothing prepared me for the size of this creature....15 feet long!!
As I walked the beach, I noticed something in water.  I hadn't paid attention to the signs, but it stated that crocodiles live in these waters and that visitors should keep their eyes and ears open.  Traveller note. Always keep your eyes and ears open in wild national parks:)  Luckily I had followed that tip and spotted this guy in the water.  I had been snapping shots of birds in the mangroves nearby.  Crocodiles are fast. Traveller tip two.  If you should ever be chased by one on land, make sure you run zig zag. 
It wouldn't be right to post all these pics without including a shot of the agouti. Apparently, Coiba island has their own variety of this rodent, but I couldn't tell the difference. 
I'll have more shots and views for you from this amazing journey to Coiba Island and surrounding areas.  I think I have broken down the topics into some interesting areas that you'll find fascinating.  Some are on plants.  Some are on gardens.  And some are on reflection.  Either way, I hope you enjoy this mini series.  If you have the 500 to 600 dollars and time for this week stay, I  highly recommend it.  It isn't a trip for the faint of heart, but if you have energy and endurance, this place will capture you imagination.  Like Gamboa, it was difficult saying good-bye to an area not travelled by many people.  In fact, most Panamanians were excited that we were going to the island and stated that they wish they could visit.  Most travellers wanted to go but didn't have the money to do it....especially the backpackers.  Speaking of backpackers, we met two of them on this trip.  They went to Coiba on their own which was much cheaper, but they didn't have a guide or a way back.  It was difficult for them to get a view of the entire island and were limited to just a couple of trails from the ANAM station.  It was by luck that we came along and were able to bring them back to Santa Catalina.   I recommend a guide so that you get the full experience of the islands because it's a definite must see for your bucket list! PS.  Javier is a birder:) Until tomorrow....

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Thanks for stopping by!