The hunt for the (elusive) Manatee

A few days ago (seems like forever), we went with our neighbor Javier, to see the Manatees that live in the San San River. What a crazy adventure – or more adventures in local transportation!

The day started with a taxi to town, to catch a water taxi over to Almirante on the mainland. This water taxi holds about 18-20 people, and is about 20′ long, with a canvas top and two big outboards. The driver sits in a cushy car seat wearing a life jacket, while the riders are on wooden slats and use life vests as cushions. Crossing from Bocas to the mainland takes about 20 minutes traveling about 18-20 knots….in other words…a butt numbing bouncy ride! Then from the water taxi, we hopped onto another taxi for a ride from Almirante to the “big” city of Changuinola, home to either 25,000 or 50,000 people, depending on who you talk to. It’s also the home of Chiquita Banana, and there are banana plantations everywhere you look, with banana bunches all wrapped in big plastic bags to keep the bugs off! Here is a photo of the old bridge where the banana tram used to run.

Chiquita Banana Tram (left of new bridge)

Outside the city a ways, we were dropped off at a place on the San San River where we boarded a cayuca (the traditional dugout canoes of Panama).

Javier and Marty, getting ready to board our cayuca

Down the river we went, enjoying the beauty of an early morning on the silent river. We saw sloths and toucans, egrets and hawks, and of course lots of turkey vultures circling high above (keep moving!!).

Keel-billed Toucan (thanks Jeanne!)


Cattle Egrets

We traveled down the Rio San San into the San San Pond Sak HUMEDAL (wetlands area) and got out of the cayuca so that we could walk across a small peninsula of land to the Caribbean side. There was a beautiful black sand beach and lots of waves. This is also a beach where the turtles nest in the spring.

Black sand beach on the Caribbean

We waited a little bit on the beach while our cayuca driver crossed over to get another guy to head upriver with some bananas and banana leaves that they would use to feed the manatees. So off we went again, back upriver!

The elusive manatee!

Dead end

The guy with the cayuca full of bananas slipped into this mangrove and started tying the bananas and banana leaves to a branch of the mangrove so that they hung just at water level. Then our cayuca driver entered the mangrove area a little ways upriver where we were able to climb up into a viewing platform. What a riot. We sat there for nearly 2 hours, when finally we heard a munch munch among the leaves, some movement as the hanging buffet was pulled on, and our driver said “shhh”… So we shushed, and watched and waited….and were rewarded by the most incredible, mind-boggling, amazing sight….wait for it….a nose! And yes folks….that was our manatee sighting!! We decided the fisherman that was paddling his cayuca past the area must have scared the manatee away, since he showed up nearly at the same time as the manatee. Well, we were nearly out of drinking water and bug spray by this time, so we decided that manatee viewing was best left for another trip!

Back into the cayuca we went, for a ride upriver this time! The boat ride was really the best part of the trip anyway, as we enjoyed all the moss hanging from the trees, and a number of sloth sightings!

Trees along the San San

Moss in the wind

Then we took the public bus back to Almirante, and that’s always an experience! One learns to balance on one cheek while going hell bent around corners and tailgating other crazy drivers! We also had a Chinese lunch while in Changuinola, pollo y broccoly, con papas! Yum!

Cayuca stop!

We got back to our Casa at about 4pm, right before the skies opened up with an afternoon shower. Just perfect for a relaxing rum y pina on the deck while waiting for the mahi mahi to cook! Just another day in paradise!!!