Delve into Panama's chequered past – conquistadors and buccaneers – as well as discovering the wildlife its hidden Galapagos
It was nearly 7am, and a low mist hung in the mangrove trees crowding the black banks of the Río San Pedro. It had rained hard the previous night, and the flood rushed seawards, brown with mud and debris washed from the naked hills. I was a day and a quarter west of Panama City, an hour south of the pious town of Santiago, and I’d come to the end of the road.
At the river port of Montijo – which comprised a dozen damp clapboard houses, two open-air restaurants and a police station manned by a cop too intent on chatting up a sloe-eyed schoolgirl to take any notice of me – it was already warm enough to raise a sweat just standing still. Along the fish-stinking shoreline black vultures had hung out their wings to dry. The day was pregnant with expectation, but as I boarded the boat for the two-hour trip to Coiba Island, I couldn’t tell whether it was a promise or a threat.
I first heard of Coiba in May 2006, while hiking across the isthmus along the Camino Real. My guide, Rich Cahill, enjoyed passing dark nights in the jungle telling me what I could have been doing instead of hanging out with him. He told me of epic struggles with black marlin on the Hannibal Bank, of the countless quetzals on the slopes of the Volcán Barú and the uncertain thrill of being stalked by the jaguars of the Darién. Panama, insisted Cahill, was an eco-tourism extravaganza that made neighbouring Costa Rica look like a run-down sideshow. Our Emberá porters nodded in the firelight as he listed the myriad attractions of this little-known land. Only one name made them frown and mutter uneasily, and that name was Coiba.
This island – the largest in Central America – has a dark history. A penal colony was established there in 1918, and Coiba became a prison and unmarked resting place for some of Panama’s most dangerous men. Murderers, psychopaths and rapists rotted alongside dissident intellectuals and the mentally ill.
Under dictator Noriega, perhaps thousands of Coiba’s inmates joined the ghostly ranks of los desparecidos (the missing), their bodies buried in the red dirt or dismembered and fed to the sharks.
Camp commandant Capitano Mario del Cid was present at the killing of Hugo Spadafora, the Panamanian humanitarian whose murder prompted Operation Just Cause, the US invasion of Panama that unseated the dictator and restored democracy to the nation. In 2004 the prison was closed and Coiba was incorporated as one of Panama’s 14 national parks. All but a handful of the prisoners were transferred to mainland prisons, and of the dozens rumoured to have escaped and fled into the dense jungles of the island’s interior, nothing has been seen or heard.
“They brought in bloodhounds last year,” said guide Willy Hernandez, “but they found no one.”
“No one?” I asked.
He rammed the throttle forwards to cross the surf-line at the mouth of the San Pedro. “Everyone is accounted for,” he said. “There’s no one there who shouldn’t be.” Then, as if to reassure himself, he said it again. “Everyone is accounted for.”
Islands rose from the Gulf of Chiriquí like the shaven scalps of convict giants, their foliage and habitats scorched away by the slash-and-burn settlers once encouraged by the Panamanian government. Coiba, though, was different. The prison’s fearful reputation had kept the settlers away, and as it loomed upon the horizon – lush, green and wreathed in mist – the dread of the condemned was easily imagined. As soon as I stepped ashore at the research camp on Playa Machale, it was clear that Coiba was no Costa Rican-style eco-resort.
Accommodation was in run-down, single-sex, shared billets with thin blankets on damp mattresses. There was no bar, no internet, no electricity until after sundown and no restaurant – you hauled in your own supplies and your own cook.
Snorkelling from the camp’s perfect, jungle-fringed, white-sand beach was a high-risk pursuit: I counted two bull sharks and a 2.5m tiger shark in one rather brief dip. Paddling in the lagoon on the west side of camp was not advised, as a 4.5m crocodile called Tito lived there. That was fine, though – I hadn’t come to Coiba to waste time on the beach.
The island lies in one of the most productive ecosystems in the tropical eastern Pacific. The warm waters of the North Equatorial Counter Current meet the cooler Colombia current here, and an equatorial undercurrent from the west cools the mix further. This nutrient-rich bouillabaisse upwells from the seabed as it flows around Coiba, turning the Gulf of Chiriquí into one vast seafood restaurant.
There are more than 17 sq km of coral reef, protected from the bleaching effects of El Niño by the sheltered position of the gulf, and it’s this first link in the food chain that is the key to Coiba’s remarkable biodiversity.
“We call this Panama’s secret Galápagos,” announced Hernandez, smiling at my scepticism. Fifteen minutes later, and less than half a mile offshore, he was still grinning as we were surrounded by a huge pod of humpback whales. Numbers were impossible to count from our tiny launch, but we agreed there were more than 60 mothers and calves, their exhaled breath hanging in the air like sighs as they passed the boat, their barnacle-encrusted flippers seemingly only an arm’s length away. I’d never seen so many whales so close, but the helmsman was unimpressed. “They’re always here,” he shrugged, like a Londoner dismissing the pigeons to an excited foreign twitcher.
And it wasn’t just the humpbacks; 19 other species have been seen in these clear blue waters, including orca, sperm whale and Bryde’s whale. But it’s the human rather than the cetacean presence that concerned Hernandez. While I photographed whales he had been watching a distant fishing boat through his binoculars, his suspicions aroused by the pelicans and frigate birds wheeling in its wake. The boat was a long liner, and as we came alongside, its sullen captain waved a permit from the wheelhouse.
“Research,” he growled, pointing at his unshaven, tattooed crew. “These are all, er, research students.” It was an unlikely story, and as I peered over the rail the bloody truth immediately became clear. The still-twitching carcasses of dozens of sharks lay in the gore-soaked gunwales, the fins sliced from their bodies and tossed into crates for the delectation of some distant Chinese gourmet. Many more had been tossed overboard, to the delight of the seabirds, and as I snapped away the so-called research students kept working, their blades glinting in the sunlight.
It was not something my guide wanted me to see – the permit had been issued by a corrupt official far removed from the park’s administration – but it illustrated the dichotomy facing a country where the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is ever-widening, and where the poor see no justice whatsoever in vast tracts of abundant fishing ground being protected for the benefit of rich tourists.
As the ‘research boat’ skulked homewards, we followed the coast south around the Punta Crocodila, a saurian-shaped peninsula that must have scared the hell out of ancient mariners. Half a dozen sleek Central American spinner dolphins – the rarest and least understood of the four species common to Coiba – played in our wake, taking turns to leap the white water while a troupe of mantled howler monkeys yelled at us from the forested shore.
Their abuse might not have been for us. As we rounded the crocodile’s snout a pair of gunmen were waving from the beach; their comical cut-offs and outsized wellies were at odds with their Armalites, but their job was deadly serious. As well as being one of the most perfect stretches of beach on earth, Playa Amarillo is also the maternity ward of choice for the discerning loggerhead turtle. More than 30 nests, each concealing a clutch of around 60 soft-shelled eggs, lay within the first 450m of sand. The armed duo – Nino and his colleague – were there with other teams to protect the nest site until the hatchlings made their dash for the safety of the sea.
“Poachers from the mainland can make a pile from turtle eggs,” said Nino, patting his weapon. “This helps them to consider alternative sources of income.” I glanced at the dense jungle behind the beach. “I guess it’s good to be armed in case you encounter escaped prisoners,” I said, but Hernandez interrupted before he could answer. “There are no escaped prisoners,” he insisted.
From the calm waters of the Bahía Damas, the main prison camp of Coiba looked like Club Med after a cyclone. Ruined white-walled buildings with broken tin roofs spilled down a grassy slope to a soft sand beach shaded by coconut palm and tamarind, but any sense of fun in the sun was dispelled the moment I stepped ashore. The latent terror of those one-way ticket holders booked into Coiba’s sea-view cells remained potent enough to raise the hackles as I disembarked. It was from this rotting jetty in November 1969 that Panamanian revolutionary Floyd Britton first saw the prison, perhaps unaware that the dossier borne by his escort was stamped ‘return not requested’.
For the next week Britton was beaten several times a day, spending one horrific afternoon tied to the tail of a horse as it was whipped around the barracks. Britton was then transferred to one of the 25 satellite camps and was never seen again – but then, evidence disappears quickly in this climate.
In the roofless office marked Recursos Humanos (Human Resources), thousands of prison files lay rotting in neglected heaps. In the tiny cells – in which nine men shared a space measuring 4.5m x 3.6m – the prisoners’ graffiti remained, pathetic, plaintive and defiant. Beside one concrete bunk, small stickers from the Panama City Marriott and the University of Louisville, Kentucky were pasted up beside magazine pictures of a suburban family home – reminders of a paradise lost. Elsewhere, a huge bleeding heart was embraced by the assertion amigo como Jesus no hay – ‘there is no friend like Jesus’ – and a series of crudely drawn pictures of cheap automatic weapons accompanied an entreaty to ‘get big artillery’.
A handful of prisoners, too old and broken to be moved, remain. One offered to show me the prison cemetery where the remains of 160 unnamed inmates lay beneath tiny white crosses marked simply, and somewhat mockingly, ‘En Memoria’. Perhaps these were the lucky ones. Thousands of their compadres simply disappeared – “fed to the sharks,” according to my trembling guide.
If any good has come out of all this suffering, it is that Coiba has remained relatively untouched by destructive human hands. More than 80% of the island is virgin forest, and with just three hiking trails most of its interior remains unexplored. Despite the island’s proximity to the mainland, it has been isolated long enough for speciation to occur; the few research expeditions mounted here have already revealed five endemic mammal species, two endemic bird species and a previously undiscovered snake species, but head ranger Alvarez Sanchez says much, much more remains to be found.
Among the island’s coveted hardwoods dwell 147 bird species, many of which are no longer found on the mainland, and little patience is needed to spot them. I counted 41 species in three days, including green kingfishers, orange-cheeked parakeets and a magnificent flock of scarlet macaws – rarely seen anywhere in Central America any more. Beneath the turquoise waters, 85% of all sea species found in the entire Pacific can be seen. Alongside 33 varieties of shark – including whale sharks, tiger sharks and hammerheads – are four species of dolphin, four species of turtle, the entire cast of Finding Nemo and all those whales.
Just off Coiba’s north-eastern tip lies a forested islet with the same idyllic granita d’oro (grains of gold) beach as dozens of others in the park. Ranchería Island, though, is different. It was here, in a CIA safehouse, that the Shah of Iran arrived in exile, his refuge granted by a Panamanian government that owed the US a few favours. Whether the deposed leader realised the ironic significance of the location of his asylum – just two miles from the biggest island penal colony after Australia – isn’t recorded.
There are two ways up to the house: one by a winding track and the other by 360 steps carved into the rock as a secret jungle escape route. I took the track, looking forward to an encounter with an extravagant, Dr No-style retreat. I was disappointed. The last king of the Persians spent his Panamanian exile in a two-bedroom bungalow in a cliff-top clearing, albeit with a few James Bond touches.
A vast hangar-like shed abutted the property, and there was a tiny landing strip. Cracked crockery and rusting cutlery for two gathered dust in the kitchen drawers, but it was the deceased despot’s library that caught my eye: a soggy collection of salt-swollen paperbacks with titles such as State vs Justice and, perhaps most tellingly, No Final Victories: A Life in Politics from JFK to Watergate.
More presidents popped up in the housekeeper’s record book. In February 2006 provisions were ordered and supplied to provide hospitality for a meeting between George Bush Sr, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Peru’s Alejandro Toledo and Panamanian president Martin Torrijos. The log showed that they went their separate ways after just a couple of hours, but didn’t say what they’d come to such a remote and easily denied rendezvous to discuss. Maybe they were just swapping fishing stories…
Panama wants more of us to visit this mysterious paradise; talks are under way with a South African company to construct an eco-lodge, allowing a ten-fold increase in visitors to around 30,000 per year. Current facilities, according to Indira Duran of Panama’s Dirección de Áreas Protegidas, are inadequate to exploit Coiba’s true potential. “This is the most exciting destination in Central America,” she told me, “but it’s too hard to get here, the accommodation isn’t up to the standard we would like our guests to enjoy and we have not yet developed proper itineraries for whalewatchers and divers.”
I understood her concerns, but I couldn’t agree with her aims. The few who make it here these days enjoy more freedom than Coiba has offered for nearly a century, and now Panama’s park service wants to incarcerate them in a luxury eco-resort.
On my last day, Hernandez and I sailed north to Santa Cruz inlet. Mooring the launch in a creek, we hiked across a mile of shimmering sand into the mangrove swamp at its far end. He wanted to show me a boring mollusc – that’s its name, not its description – but we became separated in the dense vegetation.
After 20 minutes alone in the mud, I found his bare footprints and shortly afterwards we were reunited on our ultimately fruitless seashell quest. It was only as we were climbing aboard the boat to leave that I realised the footprints couldn’t have been his – he was wearing wellies – but I didn’t say anything. After all, everyone was accounted for...