Saturday, March 18, 2006

Coiba -The Dream Comes True

Tuesday, March 14

With all the obstacles we had faced, we were excited to be up at first light Tuesday and wading through murky water to Rolo´s boat. This trip to Coiba--which had up to this point been a really shaky dream--was now blossoming into a reality.

With the sun rising at our backs, Rolo and Chambon revved up the 40-hp outboard motor and we started our trek across 36 miles of open ocean. From what we had heard, the trip would take about three hours in total, a small price to pay to visit a deserted island that not many people have ever had the chance to explore.

About a fourth of the way to the ANAM ranger station (the place where we had to go to validate our permit) the motor puttered to a stop. We were afraid for a moment, but Rolo kept us calm. It was just a problem with the propellor. He had brought along a brand new one just in case. While we floated, I looked over the side of the boat. A school of red snapper was hanging out 10-20 feet below the surface. I couldn't believe how clear and blue the water was. I haven´t even been to the Caribbean before, so to me, it looked like something out of a movie or a travel brochure. Maybe God purposely stopped the boat so we´d get to marvel a little more at his creation.

Traveling an average of less than 18 km per hour, we had a lot of time on the boat to rest and look at the scenery. A few times, flying fish zipped out of the water, flapping their fins and hovering about 3 feet off the surface for a good distance.

Soon, Coiba rose out of the mist, tantalizing us from afar. The island is so massive that we felt like we were almost there even though we still hadn't made it halfway. Slowly but surely we inched closer. Before we reached the ANAM station we marveled at Granito de Oro, Coibita, and other small islands northeast of Coiba.

We were overjoyed to reach the ANAM station, an ocean oasis of a visitor center. Most people who come to the island are content never to leave here. They have cabins for rent and a 14-foot pet crocodile named Tito. There are bathrooms and an exhibition of preserved forms of many of the species of animals found in and around Coiba. Other than ANAM and the penal colony--which closed down completely in 2004--there isn´t much else on the island that attracts visitors. That's exactly why we were headed into the wilderness.

We dropped $10 a piece for permits to enter the park and had Rolo drop us on the other western side of the island at Playa Hermosa ("Beautiful Beach" in English). The bow-shaped beach is over 2 miles long, nested with palm trees at its back and jungle-clad cliffs jutting out on both sides to form a secluded bay. The sand is darker than the white sands you read about in resort advertisements, and the fact that it naturally occurred that way somehow made it more beautiful. Carbon-colored volcanic rocks embossed with coral fossils burst from the sand at our drop-off point. On top of the largest one was the sign: ¡Bienvenidos a Playa Hermosa!

Bubbling with enthusiasm at this point, we organized and hiked briskly from the beach into the jungle. The first place we walked was an old airstrip possibly constructed by the CIA in the 1980s. Chuck´s writing a book on Coiba, so I´ll let him explain the details. Just know the airstrip, while a little overgrown, gave us a flat path with little resistance for the first leg of the hike.

About a mile in we noticed some abandoned buildings that looked like ancient ruins. Upon further explanation, the rusty iron cells and window bars told us that the place had been used as a prison. Chuck theorizes that the CIA had a training camp here for contras fighting a civil war in El Salvador and that the prisoners were kept on this side of the island to help maintain the camp (More speculation as to the significance of these buildings in a later post). Bats had taken over the prison, so we only explored one side. There was graffiti all over the walls, much of it referring to God. Brad later commented that he liked how the graffiti shows that the prisoners were stripped of hope, and God was all they had to rely on. We stopped for lunch under a shade tree that allowed us to escape the ruthless sun and thick humidity.

After refreshment, we continued our hike out of the flat, grass-covered airstrip and into the dense triple-canopy jungle. To make a long story short, our revised plan was to climb the highest peak on Coiba and continue across the island from east to west, visiting the penal colony before heading back up to the ANAM station.

We had ascended about 400 feet, almost to the summit of Hill 164 (on our map) when I about gave out. Not only was the climb steep, but we had to hack our way up through dense vegetation. And to make matters worse, black palms were everywhere, making it more difficult for us to brace ourselves and avoid falling down the hill. The heat was more than I could bear, and dizziness had set in. I plopped down on the hill, totally defeated, and we were only a few hours in. More than once, I got so disoriented that I thought, Lord, are you gonna let me die up on this hill?

Chuck went to the top of the peak and looked at what we had on our plate. He decided that we weren´t going to be able to bag Cerro Torre at the rate we were going. It rises about 1400 feet in altitude. And 400 had taken all of our strength. The only place left to go was down, so we set up camp by a water source and decided to try a new route across the island in the morning.

Lying exhausted in my wool hammock, beneath the stars and next to a running stream, I let the screeching cicadas, the fluttering bats and the howling monkeys sing me to sleep.

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