Puerto Armuelles and Boca Brava: Engine Trouble in the Bay of the Dead
With our Costa Rican visas long expired, it was time to head south and on to Panama! We checked into the country at Puerto Armuelles, the first port of call 65 miles south of the border.
This small and forgotten industrial port offers a chance for sailboats to check in and receive their cruising permits without having to travel all the way down to Panama City. In fact, it took only us about an hour to clear in and the port captain even walked us to the Immigration and Customs offices to make sure that we got everything we needed taken care of. The only downside is that you must check in as soon as they see your boat, and since there are only a handful of boats that stop here each year it’s hard to go unnoticed. If you arrive on a weekend or outside of normal business hours, they charge a hefty overtime fee. To avoid this, you can anchor just around the point in a roadstead anchorage off of Punta Balsa (approximately 8°04 N, 82°50 W) that’s fairly deep and relatively protected from the predominate wind and swell.
Puerto Armuelles was once the center of Chiquita Banana's thriving banana business, until its workers went on strike and the company decided to sell the branch location to a cooperative of local banana workers. After Chiquita’s departure, Puerto Armeulles’s economy slowly tanked and a large portion of it’s population moved out of the port city. The old, dilapidated and decaying pier is a remnant of it’s once prosperous days as a port of export.
Long before this area was all banana plantations, Panama fought for this land and the surrounding area in what was called the Coto War. Back in the 1920’s Costa Rica and Panama fought over this relatively small piece of territory. Panama was ultimately victorious. However, in 1940, Panama gave some of the territory back to Costa Rica after another dispute that ended up mediated by the US, found in favor of Costa Rica. The President of Panama abided by the ruling, as both countries felt that this was the only way to end military takeovers of their governments, which is interesting considering both Panama and Costa Rica have no military, just civil defense forces.
The anchorage off of Armuelles is a one night stop, in all but the most benign conditions. For us, we had a mostly sleepless night as we rocked and rolled, even with a stern anchor and flopper stopper out. At first light the next morning, we raised anchor and headed for the protected waters of Boca Brava.
Located several miles north of Boca Chica, is another entrance to Bahia de Muertos and it’s connecting river system. This entrance is called Boca Brava, (which means “brave mouth” in Spanish). We choose to enter here because it’s a deeper and larger entrance, though unbeknownst to us at the time, it can also be quite dangerous. Navigating over the many sandbars, with inaccurate charts, strong currents and large ocean swells building and breaking on the surrounding sandbars, was a nerve wracking experience to say the least.
Once safely anchored up one of the river’s tributaries, we found out where we were anchored (in Bahia de Muertos at Isla Muerto) got it name. Supposedly, many locals that live along this river system have had family members perish trying to cross the bar. When their boats would capsize, their bodies would wash into the bay and on to shore, christening it, the Island of the Dead and the Bay of the Dead.
Luckily, our entrance was much smoother and we were able to navigate the breakers safely. We arrived just as the tide switched and we enjoyed a 3 knot current running with us as we motored into the entrance, surrounded by the largest dolphins we’ve ever seen. These beautiful animals followed us all the way into where we would anchor and spent hours hunting around the boat.
The morning after crossing the bar and safely anchored in the calm river waters of Boca Brava, we had our first real upset with Mr. Perkins.
While the heavy mist of dawn still clung to the dense jungle growing right up to the muddy banks, I sat enjoying a cup of coffee and listing to the dolphins that were still hunting in the murky waters around our boat. As the caffeine began to course through my veins, I had the urge to start my day. With an engine like old Perky, you grow accustomed to checking the oil more that normal, and I often find myself checking the oil level periodically just to know that if there was ever an emergency, he’s ready to go. The tranquility of this stunning morning was quickly broken, as well as my heart, as I pulled out the dipstick. I found not the normal viscus oil, but diesel all the way to the top of the stick.
The next few hours were spent searching though greasy manuals, texting with my dad on our Garmin inReach (our only way of communicating when there’s no cell phone service or internet) and scratching our heads. Rachel was amazing during this hectic morning. She asked all the right questions and helped reassure me that we could and would fix whatever was wrong with the engine.
Luckily, it ended up being a faulty fuel lift pump, and we swapped it out for a rebuilt one that we already had onboard. We also lowered the fuel level in our tanks, as they sit level with the engine and when full, the fuel level sits just above the engine creating positive pressure on the pump. After changing the oil and oil filter, we motored several miles up the river to a small “marina” where we’d be able to grab a mooring to further diagnose the problem and explore the surrounding area.
Our mooring at Marina Chumicos would end up being Agape’s home for almost a month while we worked on quite a few projects that we had put off during the season. The river’s here were a nice change of scenery and we were often woken by troops of howler monkeys in the morning, and had crocodiles swim by the boat all throughout the day. One afternoon we even had a red tail boa constrictor hide out in our dingy and scare the bejesus out me as it crawled over my foot!
It was nice to take a little break from “cruising” and hang out in one place for a bit before we continued to explore the rest of Panama’s remote and wild western coastline.