Like many of Panama's small Pacific coast towns, Santa Catalina is a place more easily visited by land. Whereas in Bocas del Toro traveling by boat was an advantage, in Santa Catalina I often found myself wishing I had a bed that didn't move and that there were no obstacles between me and the town's pizza place (though that second wish isn't specific to Santa Catalina). The author of the guidebook The Panama Cruising Guide notes that “the same rollers that make the island famous for surfing can make dinghy landing on the mainland an exhilarating ride.” It can also make sleeping impossible and the waves crowded. So as soon as the swell died down, we headed off for Coiba National Park, setting a course for the islands of Jicaron and Jicarita at the Southernmost tip.
Coiba is about 10nm from the mainland and, since being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004 has become a major asset to Panamanian tourism. However, before that, the Panamanian government used the island as a work prison. From 1919-2004, prisoners were shipped out from the mainland to serve their sentences among several isolated camps. Uninhabited as it is today, the empty buildings remain. So though the park is world renown for its fantastic diving and wildlife now, its dark history is hard to ignore.
It's strange that such a pristine place can be so spooky. But it all depends on how you visit. When I spent the day with a dive center based out of Santa Catalina hoping to spot a whale shark my thoughts were focused on how lucky I was to be able to visit someplace not many people get to go and witness the discernible effects of marine protection efforts. I snapped photos of the deserted beaches and regretted not being able to watch our guide feed debris to a semi-tame crocodile named Tito. The only time I really thought about Coiba's past was when we had lunch at what was once a work camp but is now the ranger station. We cheerfully ate and chatted under a covered building on the beach that felt more like an outdoor cafeteria than a prison.
When Matt and I sailed to Jicaron on Tamata, though, and explored parts of the island where the dive boats don't visit, I began to see the landscape in a different light. The cliffs and unapproachable beaches and thick jungle became imposing and the fact that we only saw a couple of fishermen made it feel far away. When we spotted two crocodiles patrolling the waters of the idyllic anchorage we'd chosen one evening, I was vividly reminded that the same wildlife that tourists pay guides to seek out were once prisoners' obstacles to escape. Beauty and desolation often go hand and hand, and it's easy to call someplace like Coiba beautiful when you are free.
But thankfully I am not a prisoner and Coiba's beauty left a stronger impression on me than its past. While we didn't see any whale sharks, we had the waters surrounding Jicaron and Jicarita to ourselves and with only fins and masks swam among rays, reef sharks, hundreds of curious jacks, teeny colorful fish and whatever else was hiding in the rocks. At times we wouldn't even bother anchoring the dinghy, just hopping in at random and drifting along beside it. Fish approached us, unafraid. Big, healthy cubera snapper and even a solitary bull mahi-mahi passed by lazily, taunting Matt and Josh who were unable to spear because of park rules. And even when there wasn't anything wild to see, the clarity of the water was impressive in itself.
On land palms drooped under the heavy burden of unharvested coconuts. Hermit crabs fought over each others' homes in slow motion brawls. The drama kept us entranced, crouching down until our knees hurt. On the last afternoon we moved the boat to the north shore in preparation for an early morning departure to try our luck at Hannibal Bank the next day. We anchored the dinghy just off the shore to avoid a crash landing through the break. As we wandered along the beach searching for a rumored fresh water spring, we stumbled upon some tracks leading in and out of the water. I assumed them to be evidence of sea turtles, but as Matt and I followed them away from the water and the impressions became more solid in the firmer sand we realized it wasn't flippers but claws that had left the marks. The tracks led to a swampy lagoon, just large enough to conceal a full grown crocodile. We now regretted anchoring the dinghy so far off the beach; five meters was suddenly a very long way to swim.
We put off the swim for a minute, deciding to take our chances that the croc (or crocs) were out, and continued along the beach. As we were scoping out a small wave that looked just big enough to surf, a black shadow about 10 feet long appeared with the rise of the swell. Then another showed up not far away. We watched them swim back and forth, back and forth, sometimes disappearing for a few minutes and bringing to mind the inevitable swim we'd have to make sooner or later. We radioed Josh and Kim on Kuhela, who were anchored nearby and, as it happened, had just seen the wave themselves and were waxing up their boards. Matt nonchalantly informed them that the beach was pretty nice, we hadn't found the spring, and there were two ten foot long crocs not far from the boat if they wanted to have a look. “Yeah mate, they're out hunting right now in that nice little left hander.” They decided it didn't look big enough to surf after all.
Even then, I wasn't thinking about the prisoners who'd doubtless kept the same sharp eye out for dark shadows criss-crossing the waters close to shore. And I can't say I was reveling in Coiba's natural beauty, either.