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The Two Captains

Electronic Bookshelf

Puerto Mutis & Bahia Montijo, Panama

Puerto Mutis, as a major supply port for Western Panama fisherman, is the only fuel dock readily accessible for cruising yachts between Puerto Armuelles on the Coast Rican border and Balboa Yacht Club in Panama City ! At high tide a typical cruiser needing fuel could pull right up to the wall and have the hose passed down. (We opted to jerry jug.) It also has good road and bus connections to civilization, another rarity in Western Panama.

The catch is that Puerto Mutis is six miles up the Rio San Pedro, which is at the north end of Bahia Montijo, which itself cuts a 15-mile deep wedge into the watershed of Veraguas province. On paper it may look way out of the way, but, just west of Panama's bulky Penisula Azuero (i.e Punta Mala and Punta Mariaco), it is located ideally midway on a coast that offers little other easy options for getting fuel. Additionally, Veraguas, the only province in Panama with both Caribbean and Pacific coasts, has, on the Pacific slope, lighter than average rainfall during the rainy season, resulting from the unecological clearing of the natural forests to make grazing land for cattle.

Fortunately, accessing Puerto Mutis is straightforward on a rising tide with the Zydlers' indispensable "Panama Guide" book (no boat should think of cruising Panama without it; we have used nearly every page!) Plus, unlike Pedregal further to the west, the trip upriver can reasonably be accomplished in a day by most boats, and the entrance to the river system is protected by Isla Cebaco lying like a breakwater across the Bahia. Although Pedregal, once you reach it, has an actual marina available for cruising yachts and the larger city of David is much closer at hand, there is much suspense about which entrance to the estuary will be usable given swell conditions, the bars in the waterway shift about, and there are high tension wires that cross the river inland from Boca Chica that sure looked low to us (we went up river by panga from Parida.) Stories about sailboats being stuck on bars for days and even one of a boat being rolled in the surf, discouraged us from going to Pedregal!

Bahia Montijo has none of these drawbacks. The bay itself is quite shallow, and over a dozen rivers empty into it from all sides. Many of these are navigable at least for a ways. Ever prudent, we followed the recommended course which kept us in 30-40 feet of water most of the way.

Before going on to Puerto Mutis, however, we did take one of the many available side excursions up a watercourse that led to an inland lagoon called Boca de la Trinidad. Dense mangrove forests, much taller than we could have even imagined back home in the Virgin Islands and matched by root systems able to survive the ten-foot tidal range, encircled the anchorage. The lagoon was the most still place Don and I have ever been in our lives! Herons of several colors were the most common bird, plus a few parrots, pelicans and frigates. There was no hint of man in sight, no motors sounds or electric lights. We were attracted here by reports of roseate spoonbills, but we had to go hunt for them. Many herons later, after puttering deeper and deeper into the low tide flats, we finally found one dead tree with eight pink birds that, of course, all promptly launched themselves and flew away! Clearly this is an area worth visiting in its own right!

After a couple of days relaxation we backtracked out to Isla Verde, and going all the way around, continued on upriver to Puerto Mutis. Travelling again on the rising tide, which is an hour later than the tide station at Isla Cebaco, the lowest water we saw was nine feet. In addition to refueling, our hope was to find Puerto Mutis to be a secure place to leave the boat for several days while we traveled overland to Panama City. The town proved to be even smaller than we imagined, a single road climbing at an angle up a hill. The basin off the town was dotted with a couple dozen wooden fishing boats, but we found a spot for ourselves where we'd have enough water at low tide practically on the opposite shore! Another option for deeper draft boats is turning up the Rio de Jesus just before Puerto Mutix. Despite the muddy river, the bottom was sand, and with plenty of scope we had no problem with the 9' tides or any squalls.

Puerto Mutis proved to a delightful place, albeit very, very small and simple. There are only a couple of eating/drinking places -- Gladys' became our hangout--, and even fewer little tiendas with hardly any products to sell. People, however, are very friendly and eager to chat! When we checked in at the police station the officer promptly called the only American in town, who turned out to be a young man named Tom Yust. Tomas, as they call him here, is one of those folks who seems to have been everywhere and done everything. Most recently he has put several years hard work into building a sportfishing charter business based on the wild island of Coiba, to the west of here. (See Tom's fantastic website at www.coibadventure.com.)

Later we discovered that we were able to get our cruising permit for Panama (we had just come in from the Galapagos & Cocos) right next door to the police station. Immigration, however, must be done in Santiago (or, as we did, in Panama City if you are going there.)

Busses do the 50-minute trip to Santiago every half hour for $0.95. You could pop off halfway in the town of Montijo for basic groceries, but in Santiago, the bus passes right by a well-stocked Super 99 whose manager Jose Felix was particularly friendly and helpful. There is a panaderia right across the street, and if you have all you need the bus stops there on its way back as well. If you have too much stuff, you can catch a cab back for $12, and this will enable you to beg a stop at the fresh market, a street full of fruit and vegie stalls, on the way. Prior to our provisioning run in Santiago, we'd filled a cooler with "exotic...aka green" vegetables at Panama City's wonderful Mini Max (oriental greengrocer in Patilla area) and brought it back on the bus! You won't find alot of such "exotic" stuff in Santiago, although there is a second modern supermarket called Machetasu in a mall on the PanAmerican Highway (but it is not on the bus route) that has some different cold items, with a great Spiegel/True Value hardware next door.

To travel to Panama City you can catch a bus at the terminal in Santiago, or you can hop over to Los Toucanes Restaurant, a few blocks away on the PanAmerican Highway, and try to snag the Express bus from David making its pit stop there. It is allegedly faster. Our trip took us 3 hours for $6 on a Saturday. The return was a bit slower on a weekday.

Everybody in Puerto Mutis knew we'd be gone for three days. While I doubt anything would have been touched regardless, we did hire a fisherman known as Carlos Iguana to look after the boat, even to running the engine (from the cockpit) and hour and a half each night. He came recommended by Tom Yust, and it was a great choice as everyone in town clearly held Carlos in esteem. The boat was safe and sound with batteries fully charged upon our return. We paid him $20 for his services.




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