Text and photography by Mary L. Peachin and courtesy of Tropic Star Lodge
Sail unfurled, the billfish exploded out of the water. Less than half a mile off Panama’s Darien coast, sailfish gorge on migrating Pacific coast sardine. During winter months (January and February), black and blue marlin school around nearby Zane Grey reef, a small seamount rising from a depth of 300 to 110 feet below the surface. Covering about 200 yards, billfish, tuna and other pelagics congregate to feast on the abundance of baitfish found in its upwelling current.
Tropic Star Lodge Piñas Bay anglers have broken one hundred and fifty IGFA world records. In this fishing paradise, a daily release might be dozens of sails, not two or three, but more like a total of forty or fifty fish per boat. At day’s end, boats returning to the marina have outriggers waving dozens of fish release flags.
Located on 14,000 rainforest acres, Tropic Star is not your ordinary fishing lodge. Its setting on Piñas Bay is magnificent. It can only be reached by boat or plane. So remote (150 miles south of Panama City), there are no roads within a hundred miles. A chartered Twin Otter plane lands on a paved 3000-foot airstrip. Guests can grab a beer or soft drink or make a pit stop in a small ramada before jumping on a tractor-pulled tram for the short ride to a nearby estuary where a panga waits. It’s then a short ten minute ride to the Lodge’s dock.
One would never know that the Lodge’s thousands of acres are located near the Darién Gap, Panama’s largest and most eastern province, one that borders Columbia. The Tuira and Chucunaque rivers flow through its thick foreboding tropical mountainous rainforest. Much of the area, which includes a number of different ecosystems, is home to jaguars, tree sloths, tapirs, and rodent-like capybaras, a local delicacy.
Sparsely populated, the native population is primarily the Emberá, who subsist engage on small plots of crops, hunting, and fishing. Nearby villagers bring beautiful woodcarvings and woven baskets to the Lodge. While warnings prevail about drug smugglers, bandits and Colombian guerrillas and paramilitary, the dense, impassable jungle near the lodge is protected at all times by security.
Cheerfully designed double rooms have a large bathroom and a shared balcony with comfy chairs overlooking the water. El Palacio, or the Palace, the original owner’s home sits high on a mountainside. For those not wishing to walk the 122 stairs, a cable-pulled car ascends the hill. The Palace has three bedrooms with private baths, a full kitchen, and can sleep six. Its expansive sunken living room and outside terrace offer a panoramic view of the Bay and surrounding mountains.
The luxury Lodge serves excellent cuisine either in its waterfront dining room, al fresco around its swimming pool, and even the lunch in the boat cooler. Ham and cheese sandwiches? Not here! How about Genoa dried salami on focaccia with sundried tomatoes and olives, fresh fruit, and whatever beer or soft drink you’d like to drink?
Tropic Star’s 80 person staff outnumbers its capacity of 36 guests. Needless to say, the service is attentive. Fifteen 31-foot Bertrams, with high transoms perfect for fighting fish when seas are rough, have a fighting chair, two cushioned sitting areas, room below to take a nap (but who would?), and even a “head.” Boats depart the dock at 6:30 and return at 3:00 pm. What would appear to seem a long fishing day becomes short (and exhaustive) when fighting fish all day.
Women’s Fishing Association’s (IWFA) annual billfish catch and release tournament. Twelve outstanding anglers came from Florida, North Carolina, Washington, and Arizona to participate in the three day competition.
This is not just another day of bill fishing. The specified gear includes protective circle hooks, technique, and rules that are very specific. There is no time to sit, chat, or relax. Every moment is spent watching your two rods and reels, one flat behind the teasers, the other raised on an outrigger. It’s key to watch the billfish follow the belly bait or ballyhoo, and be prepared and know when to strike the fish. Once hooked-up, the boat backs down on the fish for a quick release.
On the Puerto Rica, Floridian Grace Canfield, using 20 pound test Ande hi-viz line, released a dozen sailfish in a morning. There were times when she fought double hookups. Multiple hits are more the rule than exception, on one occasion four sails chased our ballyhoo or belly baits. On the final day, Lorraine Francis came from behind and garnered the championship by releasing 24 sailfish. The grand total: six boats released 390 sailfish in three days.
Panama is also noted for its fresh and brackish water fishing for peacock bass, snook, and tarpon. Motoring down the Chagres River, we passed under a historic railway bridge into the Panama Canal. While most visitors cruise the passageway between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, adjacent its main channel, I was fishing for peacock bass with Horacio A. Clare III.
Better known as “Chicho,” the 41 year old is not your typical fisherman. He is Panama’s IGFA peacock bass world record holder, with a second championship pending for dorado. He has an uncanny expertise and fishing knowledge of the 164 square mile man-made Lake Gatun.
Chicho doesn’t just fish like a champion angler, he looks like one. Forget his expertise in casting and retrieving, his fly fishing shirt is emblazoned with sponsor emblems: Rapala, Shimano, his IGFA world records, and his dark polarized Costa del Mar sunglasses. He is so in awe of the phenomenal scene we observed in a shallow lagoon that he put down his rod. A male was protecting his larger pregnant mate as a voyeuristic predatory Oscar waited nearby to eat the emerging eggs or hatched juveniles. “I have only seen this a few times, and it is more important for this female to give birth than for me to catch her.”
In the early 19th century, the lake was created during the building of the Canal. Throughout the rainforest, the channels and lagoons of Lake Gatun are home to peacock bass, tarpon, grouper, red snapper, snook, Oscar, and jack trevally. Panama has only one of the four species of peacock bass. Their “sargento” is sedentary and territorial. According to Chicho, “they don’t go out to restaurants,” rather they sit and wait for a passing tasty morsel. Peacocks are aggressive during the spawning months between November and February. They’ll bite “anything that passes their way.
The jungle drenches nature. Crocodiles, including half a dozen month-old hatchlings and turtles sun on muddy banks. Birds dipped into the water to feed on fish. A harpy eagle, Panama’s national bird, soared overhead, a black anhinga and an osprey perched on logs. In this bird watcher’s paradise, keel-billed toucan, wrens, tanagers, tropical woodpeckers, red-beaked wattle jacana, hummingbirds, yellow kisskadee are just a few of Panama’s 975 bird species.
Dense vegetation propagates a palate of color. Yellow blossoms of the Mayflower and Golden Shower tree or guayacan tree, purple jacaranda, the white flowered Caracucha were in bloom. The trees enveloped philodendron, ferns, bromeliads, orchids, and schefleras. Liana vines snaked around huge strangler fig trees. Echoing across the water was the distinctive growling of howler monkeys.
The ride to and from Gamboa Rainforest Resort is in the wake of freighters or cruise ships approaching the Canal’s Pablo Miguel locks. Located near narrow and deadly Gaillard Cut’s, the 800 foot excavation where so many lives were lost, Gamboa River Resort’s 156 rooms and 32 historic villas (built during the construction of Canal), is surrounded by Parque Nacional Soberania. Beautifully designed rooms surround a two-story lobby filled with towering plants.
Embraced by jungle, the area, about 40-minutes from Panama City, is designated as an eco-reserve. Gamboa offers many unique nature-related tours and activities. A 300-foot tram carries guests above the forest canopy, offering a coast to coast view. Hiking trails and rental kayaks are available at the marina. A boat trip offered to Monkey Island provides the opportunity to view a family of six white-faced capuchin monkeys. Another nearby island offered a lucky sighting of half dozen month old crocodile hatchlings. By reservation, Caudillo or Headman Felipe Cabezón welcomes visitors to the Emberá village of San Antonio, a ten minute boat ride from Gamboa.
Historians believe that the Emberá migrated to Panama through Columbia from the Amazon River. Their role in the construction of the Panama Canal was building hand carved canoes. In return, they were given land in Charges National Park. In addition to their villages in the Darién, an hour and a half from the modern architecture of Panama City, the Emberá retain their primitive style of life in the rainforest. Their thatched roofs open-air huts are built on stilts to protect from flooding. They subsist on corn (which they grow in a small plot) and fish the river. They sell woven baskets and carvings to the few visitors who made the canoe voyage upstream. Women paint their topless bodies with the black colored fruit of the Jagua (it looks like dark henna.) Men hang out or tend to the needs of the village wearing loin clothes. The scene is reminiscent of villages in the Sepik region of Papua New Guinea.
Where to Toss the Bags:
Continental and Delta airlines offer non-stop flights to Panama City’s Tocumen airport from Houston and Atlanta. Other airlines serving Panama include Iberia, TACA (Transporte Aereo Centro Americano) and Aero Mexico. Eight major US gateways provide service to Panama: Los Angeles, Washington DC, New York, Newark, Miami, Houston, Atlanta, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando. US departure airports sell $5.00 entry visas.
Bring the Camera:
The sun rises over the Pacific and sets over the Atlantic in this southernmost Central American country. In addition to its famous Canal and diverse fishing, Panama offers scuba diving, surfing, kayaking and river rafting, caving, rock climbing, handicraft and super-sized mall shopping, plus numerous beaches and historical sites.
In 1671, Captain Henry Morgan viewed Panama City from the top of a nearby hill, now called Cerro Luisa. Not only could he see the city, he could see from coast to coast. Today, the remaining ruins have been established as a park. Pink lilac-type flowering guayaca tree cover the ruins. Reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, a decade after a destructive 1671 fire, Casco Antigua or Colonial Panama was rebuilt using colorful wrought iron balconies either painted or decorated with bougainvillea.
The engineering feat of the Panama Canal, a 48,000 acre National Park, still remains its primary visitor attraction. Outside Panama City, Miraflores Locks is the place to watch giant gates leveling water for ships transiting the 50 mile (80 kilometer) Panama Canal. Approaching Gaillard Cut, ships ply muddy water. The canal is being dredged to deepen and widen it to accommodate larger container and cruise ships, a project scheduled for a 2014 completion.
Knowledge of some of the history of the Canal makes it easier to understand why it is one of the great wonders in the world. In 1880, Frenchmen Count Ferdinand de Lesseps dreamed of building a sea level inter-ocean canal. His previous experience was building the Egypt’s Suez Canal, a place where the land was level thus allowing him to build a lock-type canal. While the climate was extremely hot there, there was always water available.
Within three years, de Lesseps labor force totaled 19,000 men. Grossly underestimating the task at hand, during the next ten years he would make little progress. He lost 22,000 men who succumbed to the ravages of yellow fever, typhoid fever, and malaria. By 1889, de Lesseps’ company, Compagnie Universell du Canal Interocéanique declared bankruptcy.
The United States, had a vested geographically interest in the completion of the Canal. The country studied the possibility of building the canal in Nicaragua, primarily being its location was nearer the United States. After several years of debate, President Theodore Roosevelt, concerned about numerous volcanic eruptions in Nicaragua, made the decision to buy the Canal from the French and Colombia, who at that time ruled Panama until its independence in 1903. Colombia received a payment of $25 million dollars at the signing to the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty. More than 75,000 men and women would spend ten years building the Canal at a cost of almost $400 million.
Dr. William Crawford Gorgas assumed responsibility for the first challenge of the Canal. Discovering that the devastating epidemics of malaria and yellow fever were caused by the bite of the mosquito, he sought to eradicate them. Another formidable challenge was the eight and a half mile Gaillard Cut. Continuous landslides in this treacherous section buried thousands of tons of dirt and humans.
The 51.2 statute miles of the lock-type Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914. Three sets of two-lane locks, Miraflores(on the Pacific side),Pedro Miguel, and Gatun Locks(on the Atlantic) lift ships almost 90 feet above sea level to the main body of water of Gatun Lake, then lower them back to sea level. Each lock chamber is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. The water used to raise and lower vessels is fed by gravity from Gatun Lake into the locks. In 1977 the Torrijos-Carter treaty was signed and the Panama Canal Authority became an autonomous governing body known as the Panama Canal Authority.
Tourist season in Panama is primarily during the dry season, November through April. But, the Canal is only a small taste of a country offering fascinating culture. Of the 2.8 million people in Panama, two of the better known indigenous tribes are the San Blas Islands Kuna and the Emberá. Their colorful dress and embroidered molas are renowned. The Emberá, many who wear loin clothes (women are bare-breasted), live in thatched-roof stilted huts. They weave baskets and make wood carvings from the tagua nut or cocobola, a rainforest palm tree nut also known as “vegetable ivory.”
The U.S. government use to operate a radar station in the rainforest about 45-minutes outside the city. When the cold war ended, the facility was used by drug enforcement to monitor traffic coming from Columbia. Several years ago, the government abandoned the tower. Raul Arias de Para saw an opportunity to use the tower, which was taller than the canopy of rainforest as a small lodge for bird watchers. Rising at daylight, birders could enjoy a close encounter with the birds and wildlife. The seven rooms (with shared bath) have been recognized as one of the top bird watching destinations in the world.
Panama’s Canal may be one of the great civil engineering wonders of the world, but the country’s culture, history, geography, and people shouldn’t be missed. While colorful busses still ramble along crowded streets, appearing as though school kids competed to tag them in colorful graffiti, in recent years, Panama has built a tourist infrastructure of fine hotels and restaurants. There are now three contemporary glass buildings exceeding 100 floors.
Panama seems to offer something for everyone. For the angler, the abundance of the more sizeable Pacific sail in such large schooling numbers is an unequaled experience. Marlin anglers have an easy target during seasonal migrations. The bass, tarpon, and snook fisher will love fishing in the rainforest and wondering where ships navigating the canal are coming and going. While Panama City jumps and has lots of action for those interested in nightlife or upscale shopping, the native culture and their unique handicrafts, bird watching in the jungle, surfing or scuba diving attracts others. Panama seems to be similar to what Costa Rica was two decades ago, a fabulous destination without a lot of tourists. But Tourism continues to evolve. Visit Panama while it remains relatively unspoiled. (ending previously added)
Other Notes of Interest about Panama:
- Capital: Panama City
- Population: 3.2 million ( 2004) with a 1.2 % annual growth rate
- Area: 29,762 square miles, about the size of South Carolina.
- Entry Requirements: Visitors must have a passport valid for six months after departure. Entry visas are required and can be purchased at gateway cities for $5.00. The airport departure tax from Panama is included in the cost of your ticket.
- Currency: While the Cordoba may be the country’s currency, the US dollar is used everywhere.
- Language: Spanish is the official language. English is spoken or understood in tourist areas. Indigenous tribes speak Spanish or their native language.
- Time Zone: Panama is on Central Standard Time observes Daylight Savings time.
- Religion: 90 % of the country is Catholic.
- Climate: Panama is tropical with its seasons considered wet or dry and humid. The annual average temperature on both coasts is 29°C (84°F). The period of lightest rainfall is from January to March.
- Geography: Panama lies between Costa Rica to the north and Colombia to the south. Shaped like an S, Panama varies in width from 37 to 110 miles. Its two coastlines encompass 1,786 miles.
Tropic Star Lodge, www.tropicstar.com, rates begin at $5150 for six days fishing days, $4150 for four days, prices based per person double occupancy. Saturday is turnover day. Twin Otter flies the hour flight from Allbrook domestic airport to the strip near Piñas Bay. Guests land on a 3000-foot paved strip. The Lodge is closed between September and November . Under a ramada outgoing anglers wait. Behind a wire fence, Emberá set up shop to sell their baskets and carving. A tractor pulls a tram carrying guests to the river when a boat is boarded for the short ride to Tropic Star’s dock.
Gamboa Rainforest Resort, www.gamboaresort.com, Built in 2000, spacious rooms with balconies (hammock included) overlook the Chagres River or the rainforest. Each room offers luxury amenities. Two day fishing packages for a four night stay start at $1,330.00 (between April 15 until December 16), and $1,580.00 (between December 16 until April 15.)
Canopy Tower Ecolodge and Nature Observatory, www.canopytower.com. Basic bedrooms are located at treetop level, about 40 feet from rare sightings like Blue Cotingas and Green Shrike-Vireos, birds that can only be viewed high in the canopy.
Panama City restaurants:
Steak Houses: Argentina Gauchos and Rincon Suizo Argentina, Martin Fierro
Italian: Trescalini Cafe, Balear, Pomodoro
Seafood: Siete Mares, Casa del Marisco