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Chagres River

The Chagres River is 7 miles west of the Colon entrance to the Panama Canal Landscape: Fairly flat land, covered in dense, lush rainforest. Most of the river was around 100-200 feet (30-60m) across and about 40 feet (12m) deep.

Visited: March 1 - 4, 2003


The Chagres River is 7 miles west of the
Colon entrance to the Panama Canal

Ocelot anchored in the jungle up the Chagres River
Ocelot anchored in the jungle up the Chagres River

(Chris age 16) In a way, the Rio Chagres was the fulfillment of a dream I have had ever since reading about South American rainforests; to go up a river in a rainforest and explore. We easily took Ocelot up the river, and anchored with a surprisingly large number of other boats (about 8 to 10). The area was actually large enough to make a fair-sized anchorage, and one of the few parts of the river less than thirty feet deep.

Hiking through the Panamanian Jungle!
Hiking through Panamanian Jungle!

    The trip up the river coming in was glorious. We saw parrots, monkeys, and beautiful rainforest plants. There was a smell of green growth, mixing at times with the scent of tropical flowers carried on the breeze. Aside from the soft hum of Ocelot's engines, there was a constant music of bird calls and howler monkeys. Despite the tall trees surrounding us, there was a cool wind that kept us from feeling too hot.
    Our first full day after we anchored, we went ashore with a few other boats and tied up to a small dock. There were several paths leading into the forest, and we took one that headed in the direction of the canal. The first twenty minutes or so of the hike, we saw nothing except jungle and the creatures that live in it. Beyond that, we came to the dam at the head of the Chagres River, which produces electricity and regulates the level of the Gatun Lake. Past the dam, we arrived at the Gatun Locks themselves, the first section (Atlantic to Pacific) of the Panama Canal.

The wild banks of the Chagres River
The wild banks of the Chagres River

    Walking in the tropical rainforest has always been a joy to me. This path, however, was far beyond what I had ever seen before. Any direction I looked, including straight up or straight down, I knew I was in the jungle. Looking up, the sky was almost invisible , and the rainforest canopy stretched easily across the path. On the ground, insects, mostly ants, worked in the leafy forest floor. There were so many ants, in fact, that they cleared paths sometimes four or five inches wide, with constant streams of insects going out to cut leaves or returning with pieces often bigger than themselves. We also saw hummingbirds, monkeys, and a few other animals. Vines, flowers, and towering trees were visible wherever we looked.

A container ship & a car-carrier going up Gatun Locks
Gatun Locks from the observation platform

    The Chagres River used to drain out of the Gatun Lake freely, but with the construction of the Panama Canal, a dam was constructed to regulate the lake and produce electricity. Because of the dam, it is no longer possible to boat directly into Gatun Lake from the Chagres River, but the river anchorage was about as close to the dam as you could get without being able to see it. This meant that we saw the dam after only a short while walking, and emerged from the forest a little while later. As we left the forest, we had the option of going to the right, to see the dam and its power station, or to the left, where we could see huge freighters being brought along the canal.

    We chose to go left, and began the walk up to the locks. It took at least a half hour of walking before we could even see the canal clearly, and there was a guarded fence on this side. The guard told us to go all the way down to the bottom of the locks, where we could take bridges over to the observation side. We followed his instructions, which involved more hiking in the hot sun, and went up to a high observation platform where we could look down on the massive locks as huge ships moved along them. An English-speaking guide explained about the canal, the locks, and the ships, while we watched. When it started getting towards lunchtime, we walked back to the river and Ocelot.

Motoring up the spectacular Chagres River
Motoring up the spectacular Chagres River

(Amanda age 13) Wow, it's sort of hard to tell you much more than that. I agree, it was wonderful to take Ocelot up the Chagres, and even more amazing when we took hikes ashore or went touring in the dinghy. In the morning, we were woken up by the hoots and screeches of the howler monkeys, and the songs of birds just right there. On our main walk ashore, out to watch the boats going through the canal, Mom and I identified two new hummingbirds. One of them was amazingly tame, it let me get within ten feet of it sitting on a branch and take several pictures.
    We were anchored just behind a little island with one, perhaps two little trees. And let me tell you, those trees were jam-packed with birds. It made it harder to identify any one species, however, because color and songs got intermingled. Another cruiser in the anchorage let us borrow a bird guide to Panama, as we only had the West Indies and Venezuela, and some of the birds are completely different.
    At night, we shone our huge 1-million-candle-power flashlight around the banks, and saw, just what we expected to, and the reason we didn't swim in the freshwater - eight or nine sets of glowing red eyes looking back at us. Yep, crocodiles. Or alligators, I'm not sure which because we didn't see any during the daylight. I wasn't too anxious to find out, either.

Checking out some of the side rivers off the Chagres
Checking out some of the Chagres tributaries

(Jon)  It's so much fun to take the family someplace natural that they all love so much.  The entrance to the river was a bit dicey, involving 2 sharp turns to avoid a reef and stay off the beach, but navigation was easy once we were in.  We just quietly motored 5 miles up the river, soaking in the variety and beauty of it all.  The US Army used to do jungle training in this area, so apparently it's full of trails, but if you don't want to go bushwhacking there are also some old railway grades that provide wide, level trails.  One of my favorite parts of the trip was exploring some of the little side streams by dinghy.  We'd go up a stream for a bit, then just cut the motor and drift, all senses extended to try to capture the rich intensity of the jungle.  At night, talk was usually subdued as the night jungle sounds came alive to serenade us.

Exploring the glorious Chagres River
Exploring the glorious Chagres River

(Sue) Oh gloriosities! I loved our time up the river. This was the first time we'd taken Ocelot from the open ocean, across a river-mouth (narrow, with reef on one side, and breaking sandbank on the other), to enter a world of slow-moving, brackish water that was over 35 feet deep, about 200 feet wide, bordered by lush, untouched tropical forest. The bird calls alone were enchanting, but the grunts, roars and howls of the howler monkeys added a new level of mystery to the experience. Each morning I awoke to their calls, then set up my birding station in the cockpit -- bird books spread on the table, camera and binoculars at the ready.  Each day the small islet near us was crowned by a yellow-rumped cacique, a grackle-sized black bird with brilliantly yellow back and rump. Its song varies from shrill calls to a liquid, watery warble.

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