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November 23, 2005

Paddling the Changuinola River

There are a number of rivers in the province of Bocas del Toro, but access to them is very difficult. The lower stretches are used for travel by motorized canoe, but the upper parts are very isolated. In November 2005, we set out to explore one of them, the Changuinola river.

Looking at the map, the most reasonable access point for a first trip seemed to be via the Rio Robalo. The map showed a community called Norteno about 2km up the Rio Robalo from the road bridge, and from this community it was 15 or so km to the Changuinola headwaters. Part of these 15km follow along the Cano Sucio river, which gives hope for the existence of a trail at least part of the way.

We took Izmael and Choni with us; the idea was to leave the boat at Izmael's grandmother's place and then walk to the road (10 minutes which turned out to be 30) and take a bus or taxi to the Rio Robalo bridge about an hour towards David. After 10 minutes on calm ocean water, we went up the creek through pretty mangrove to his grandmother's house.  From there, we hiked up to the road in about half an hour, giving us a chance to get a feel for the weight of the boats.

We waited along the road and chatted with a few indigenous people who were taking cacao beans to Almirante to sell them. But soon a taxi came by, so we stopped it and had the guy take us to Rio Robalo.  He was English speaking, and it was as usual very entertaining to listen to his accent. At one point I asked him something about "the little bus" which he did not understand even after I repeated it twice -- until I translated it to "de liki bos". I love their accent...

He had a 4WD truck, but was apparently not used to dirt roads, so given the "bad"condition of the road from the Rio Robalo bridge to Norteno he  eventually refused to go further. Very strange; the road really wasn't all that bad. Oh well, it just meant 15 additional minutes of hiking with boats.

The Rio Robalo was very pretty, and soon we got to Norteno and the confluence with the Rio Cano Sucio. We followed a trail along the Rio Cano Sucio (to the right after the bridge over the Rio Robalo). About an hour and many stream crossings later, we reached Filo Verde. From there, it was another hour to Loma de Agua, a community of about 100, with a new school built from cement under construction. Six hundred bags of cement, plus bricks and other building materials, had been brought in on horseback and carried by hand to build the new school.

Here, we managed to hire a horse to help us carry the heavier bags on to La Pista (another 2 hours). In La Pista, two very nice young men named Benjamin and Simon offered us a house to stay in and themselves as guides for the next day. Good news: There is a trail all the way to the river! They said it would take 4 hours to get to Corte Culebra (they called this part of the Changuinola river the Rio Culebra). There are two trails to get to the river, one of which was a bit longer and met up with the river further down, where it was not as wild. Of course we ended up choosing the shorter, wilder alternative - a good decision, as it turned out.

Choni and Izmael went and got some firewood so we could cook something, but then the decision was made to accept Simon's invitation to cook in his kitchen. As I found out when I was done setting up the hammock, nets, thermarest, etc, "using" Simon's kitchen apparently meant Simon telling one of his two wives to cook on a fire under their house, with a good 20 people total watching her... It made me a bit uncomfortable, feeling like the reason that she had to do all this work even though I never asked her or Simon for it; I would have preferred simply doing our own cooking or chipping in some ingredients and eating whatever the family was eating that day.

So we provided rice, traded some more rice for some squash and some breadnut, and since there was no salt we gave the cook our salt container for the trip which contained enough for about 50 meals or so. I had a hunch that this was a mistake, and indeed, the container came back empty. Fortunately, there was a little tienda that sold me 10 cents worth of salt to refill the container. A little later, Izmael asked if we wanted some coffee, mentioning that they could not use their locally grown coffee. Izmael then asked if we had a little bit of sugar, we did, and because I am soo slow to catch on, I gave him the whole bag -- one pound. A weird sense of deja vu came to me when the coffee turned out very sweet. Sure enough, a little while later I found myself giving Izmael money to buy another pound of sugar... An interesting aspect of local culture; things are used when available, not when needed. Makes a little bit of sense in an environment where nothing lasts because of the humidity and heat. But is that enough reason for salty rice and overly sweet coffee? A matter of taste, I guess.

The house we stayed in was a classical traditional hut; the posts were made of wood split with an axe, the floor and low walls from Jira (a palm that can be split and flattened out -- a bit like bamboo but much more durable), and the roof from Penca palm fronds. The whole structure was built with a machete and, in lieu of harder-to-obtain vines,  the ubiquitous red and white twine the banana company uses to tie their banana plants up so they don't fall over in the wind. No chainsaw, no nails, no hammer, no wooden boards. No wire, no hinges, no screws, no cement. They might have needed a shovel to dig holes for the posts (which were split with a machete or maybe an axe. Ok, so machete, axe, shovel, and twine. Very impressive; it was nice to see that that here people have preserved their traditional construction methods.

The next day, we left the unnecessary gear with Choni and Izmael, which they took back with them for us the same morning. We continued on with minimal gear that fit into the small whitewater kayaks.

Simon and Benjamin dragged the boats most of the way, laughing out loud a couple of times on the downhill sections when one of them was knocked over by a boat sliding down the hill behind him. We paddlers carried the gear, partly simply by wearing it (PFDs and, in my case, helmet, which added safety anyway) The uphill sections were very exhausting and all four of us took turns with the boats. It was quite a mudfest, and my soaked hiking boots doubled in weight; the trail is apparently used to move cattle.
This, by the way, was one of the most surprising things about the trip. I had expected that 2 hours or so from the road, there would be no more agriculture of any sort and was hoping for virgin rainforest. Instead, there was a cattle farm at the end of the trail, along the Changuinola river. Along the way, however, the trail crossed through virgin forest for about 3 hours. Very pretty.

The plant with the interesting root system behind the tree with the flowers in the picture on the left is Jira; the same plant the floor and walls were made of in the house we were staying in the night before.

The trail was clearly heavily used, and it appears that it had been there for a long time. Apart from the muck, it was actually a very good trail. It supposedly goes all the way to Boquete, 2 more days of walking.

Seeing this gave me an idea... most of these trails are ancient and have been used for generations. However, they are not mapped anywhere, and even the names of the communities do not appear on the military topo maps we were using. 

So, wouldn't it be fun to explore this trail system with a GPS and add the trails to the maps? Where else can you find hundreds of km of maintained jungle trails connecting small communities? (Ok, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, maybe Costa Rica, certainly Colombia). Still, pretty cool...

On the other hand, the entire area is part of the Comarca Ngobe Bugle, sort of an indian reservation; people are very weary of strangers and it would probably hard to convince them that you are walking around with a GPS to map trails and not to steal their land and sell it... And, more realistically, they might object to having this information publicly accessible.

The trail went mostly southwest, which meant we were putting in much higher than we planned to. Good, more whitewater that way.

Before reaching the Changuinola/Culebra river proper, we came to a creek that we decided had enough water for us to paddle.

Simon and Benjamin had wanted to try out the boats, but just as we arrived at the creek it started to rain, so they changed their mind since they were already cold. Also, all of us where equally exhausted after the long trip, and they had to hike back while we had a few hours of whitewater ahead of us,

The creek, probably Quebrada Romero, was a fun little creeking experience to warm us up. We had to walk around part of one rapid because of a nasty decapitating rock overhang. 

It was obvious from the river that this was a rapid that needed to be scouted though, so not too much danger here.

The Changuinola river turned out to be beautiful, with clear water and fun class III rapids and countless waterfalls coming in on the sides. The first 2 hours of the run we were in a canyon with no sign of civilization, after this, the valley opened up and there was a cattle farm on the hillsides and some signs of people living there (mostly, Pifa palms which have been used for food since ancient times in this area).

The rapids were mostly straightforward and boat-scoutable, and there were surprisingly few trees in the river. This can, of course, change rapidly; we were just lucky. For the first day the rapids were quite consistent and there wasn't much flatwater between them at all - fun!


The toughest rapid on the river  definitely required scouting, and even though it was only class IV we decided to walk part of it, because of the remoteness of the place and the consequences of injuries. We put in below a drop that could  in the have possibly flipped us and put us into a bad spot lower in the rapid. The lower part was fine, we ran a sneaky line down river right.

Our first camp was on a little island. It's usually a bad idea to camp on an island, but the spot was very high and we thought it would be extremely unlikely for the river to flood so rapidly that we would get stuck. Our options for camping were pretty limited -- all we had was the tarp and hammock, so we needed a spot with trees to tie things to but preferred not to be directly in the jungle with all its bugs. 

Getting water was a bit of a problem; the river had become muddy with runoff from the cattle farms (did I mention I hate them?), so we had to find a clear side creek to get water from and treated it with bleach (fortunately we had noticed at home that my iodine tablets were spoilt -- the lid was corroded).

Because of limited space in the boats all we had to sleep in was one hammock to share, which worked surprisingly well once we had found a comfortable position (heads by feet worked best), and until we heard a scary sound and found ourselves falling fortunately only about 2 inches onto the rocks. The branch I tied to had broken... 

The second day brought us mostly class II rapids in an open valley, with good current. We found some very conveniently accessible good water, and passed the community of Guayacan (just a few huts). Shortly before reaching Guayacan was when we started to see a few people on the side of the river. For the rest of the trip we would spot a person every so often, usually fishing. Every once in a while we'd stop to ask somebody for information about the river. 

In this kind of situation, the way you ask things is very important... If someone is sitting in a cayuco, we might ask him if he had gone down the river, how long, and what place he got to; not much sense in asking somebody on foot about the distances on the river, or asking someone how long it takes to get to a place they have never been to.

Then we'd ask very specific or comparative questions, such as "Is the current stronger further down"? "Do people paddle this section in cayucos"? "Are there sections where they have to get out and push the boats?"  etc, etc, etc. By asking several different people we could usually get a good rough estimate of how long it would take us to get from one town to another (none of the towns or anything were on our map).

After about 3 hours and right after a fun class III rapid, we came to a beautiful tall waterfall (photo on the far left - notice the boat in the river for size comparison), quickly followed by confluence with the Rio Culubre. The Culubre looked steeper than the Changuinola, and the water was muddier. According to a local guy who has a farm at the confluence, it is always muddy like that.

At this point it became more difficult to find a camp spot. As much as interaction with the locals is an interesting part of a trip like this, it gets old to be watched the entire time, even when setting off into the bush with a clrearly visible roll of TP... So the list of requirements for a campsite now included that the place can not be too easily accessible. 

We were getting low on food, so we decided to prepare some bananas and bread nut that we had found along the way during the day. The bananas were still green, so we baked them in the fire and they tasted like potatoes.

The next day finding water became a priority. We soon found this lovely little creek, and once again there was no need to get out of the boat to fill the Nalgene.

After 2.5 hours on the third day, we reached Corriente Grande, the largest comunity so far. Lots of kids were playing in the water and happily posed for pictures.

We wanted to take out it El Nance/Risco, but managed to paddle right past the town without seeing it. So we ended up having to paddle all the way to El Silencio, another 3 hours or so. In El Silencio, I called Man Hing so that he could meet us in Almirante at 5pm, then bought some food and water in a little supermarket right by the river. We were trying to get a taxi from there to Almirante, but very few taxis went by and when we found out it was only 20 more minutes by river to the road bridge to Almirante, we decided to paddle further in spite of the rain and cold. On the river we chatted with a few guys who had built little rafts from balsa wood and some young guys from Changuinola who were floating down the river in inner tubes.

Finally, after about 8 hours (15km) of hiking, 15 hours (80km) of paddling and 4 days total, we reached the bridge, exhausted but happy. I'd love to do this trip again, though it might be worth investigating to see if it is possible to put in higher up by starting on the Pacific side, hiking across the continental divide with the boats, and then put in. So much to do, so little time...

River description:

Times and flows are rough estimates on the day of our trip; the parts with whitewater can probably be paddled quite a bit faster if necessary. If you do this, email me, and please remember to respect the locals and always ask for permission to take pictures.

Put In: Take a taxi to Norteno. From the end of the road, walk to the bridge, cross it, and instead of going left into Norteno go right, up the Rio Cano Sucio. Pass Filo Verde and Loma de Agua, arrive in La Pista after about 4 hours.  In La Pista, get a guide, since the trail leaves the creek and is hard to find.

Take out: Bridge Almirante-Changuinola, or, earlier, at El Nance/Risco (supposedly requires a 15 min hike up the hill with the boats to get to the road).

Minute Flow (in cfs) Description
0 100 Put into Quebrada Romero
12 100 Dangerous rapid; tight chute with undercut rock, walk on right
20 800 Confluence with the Changuinola / Culebra River
60 800 Right bend before a tall canyon wall, class III rapid, large beach on the right.
80 800 Class IV rapid, many boulders, walked part of it.
120 900 Canyon opens up, rapids get easier, II
150 800 We camped on river right here, on a little island.
320 800 Fun class II rapid
330 800 Nice waterfall on left
360 1200 Confluence with the Rio Culubre (from left)
540 1200 Camp
690 1300 Community of Corriente Grande
700 1300 Fun II-III rapids
720 1500 First motorized canoes. El Nance/Risco with road access. But still a few good play waves below.
880 2400 El Silencio, confluence with the Rio Teribe
900 2400 Take out bridge along road from Almirante to Changuinola


Posted by rick at November 23, 2005 01:44 PM