Zapatilla Cays, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Moonlight Ferry to the
Zapatilla Cays

On a night-time boat to a deserted island in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

I awake the Captain from his hammock at the edge of the dock, and the two of us jump in the boat.

The dock belongs to a small seven bungalow resort on the island of Bastimentos, where my wife and my son are asleep, and where we are the only guests.

Bastimentos is a large island, but almost entirely preserved as the terrestrial portion of a Panamanian National Marine Park. The large island has few towns, and no roads to connect the towns.

When we leave the dock on the southeastern tip of Bastimentos -  Punta Viejo – we are leaving a shore without lights, and so, even in a sky filled with big puffy midnight clouds, the stars and the moon provide all the illumination.  Your eyes adjust quickly in this sort of dim blue on navy light.  The swells come in from the Caribbean, and swollen by the reefs, seem bigger.  So much so that at one point I yell to the captain because I am certain the swell will overtake us, but he knows the true size of the wave, and it passes under us cleanly.  I smile at the captain after that.

Last night, we had all watched night monkeys descend from the trees.  They are small monkeys, but they have huge eyes, and these eyes allow them the ability to see at night, in the dimmest of light.  The way they talk to each other, with voices of purrs and whirrs, reminds me that these animals are alive with consciousness.  In the middle of the day, you’d never know the forests were inhabited by these strange creatures.  But here they are, doing the same thing their ancestors have done for millennia, off into the dark in a ritual search for food.   

Something about having seen these primates descend from the darkness and into our world haunts me somehow.  Knowing they are always there, just out of sight. 

It’s a short distance to the Zapatillas Cays; two tiny islands also protected by the marine park.  The Captain brings the boat right next to the shore, and I jump off.  He backs the boat off and disappears.  I click on my headlamp and start walking along the beach in the direction of the other Zapatilla Cay.

Whiptail Lizard

A Central American Whiptail near the Isla Bastimentos, Panama coast.

The Zapatillas Cays are part of an archipelago of many islands which sit inside a giant bay – Almirante Bay, and a giant lagoon – Chiriqui Lagoon.  These islands, called the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, are nestled into the north-facing part of Panama, near the border with Costa Rica.  Coral reefs protect the bay and lagoon from the rougher Caribbean Sea, so that while this water is indeed ocean, there is little in the way of tides, surges, waves.  There are no hurricanes here.

The water throughout the inside of the Bocas del Toro islands is so calm that people prefer to build their homes and businesses right on the water, on stilts, nestled among countless mangroves.

But the tiny Zapatillas Cays are uninhabited, and so, in this otherworldly starlight sky, I walk along the narrow beach until the tangle of vines and overhanging trees makes it impossible in this light. I decide to sit at the edge of the beach and look out at the stars, but the waves reach all the way to the edge of the sand, so I find a place to sit in the forest.  With my headlamp, I scan the trees, the ground, and the giant eight foot bromeliad next to me for creepy-crawlies before sitting down.

It is not often in our modern world that we can sit down alone and look out at a world entirely made up of natural light, at a scene that appears unchanged for centuries. 

These moments of isolation are important to me, because I need to see things for myself to understand them, I need the quiet to imagine.  And so the way that I learn the history of the world I live in is to see the template of it with my own eyes.

In this dark light, I look out at the sea.  Faintly, I can see the mainland coast beyond the islands and the mangroves, a mess of tall mountains as black shapes on the horizon.  Bocas del Toro numbers only about 120,000 people.  Most of those people live in the big towns of the province, and so I know that I am looking at mountains devoid of humanity. 

This would have been the empty view an English sailor might have seen as he awoke for an early shift aboard the HMS Leopard, a 50-gun ship-of-the-line.  The man’s view may have included the 19 other ships sent by the Royal Navy to blockade Spain’s trade route back to Spain.

Night Monkey

Panamanian night monkeys appear at the Al Natural Resort property after the sun goes down.

In an hour or so, the first light would have brought out the Ngöbe Buglé Indians on their dugout canoes.  Today, just as in the spring of 1726, these Indians would spend the better part of the day paddling, casting fishing nets or foraging the rivers and reefs. 

While the Royal Navy was the pride of England, and had, over the course of the last 800 years, evolved into an unmatched force to protect and serve the country’s interests, the political landscape of Europe’s powers was itself continuously evolving.  And so, while the navy was unmatchable by any other fleet, it’s danger was in the way alliances shifted over time.    

The man waking for his shift likely joined the navy not for fame or England’s glory, but because the conditions of living ashore in England at the beginning of the 18th century would have likely been a deplorable combination of subsistence living, disease, and pre-industrial urbanization.  The Navy would have been a calculated risk of survival.

And for that man, then, to find himself here looking out over this foreign seascape by starlight, had to be quite unsettling.  But it would get much worse for him.

Porto Bello was a Spanish port town to the east of Bocas del Toro, and it was one of the primary points of origin for the caravan routes back to Spain.  Embroiled in a war with Spain that arose from trade disputes and shifting alliances, Britain sought to blockade Porto Bello, rather than directly attack the city.

Governor of the Bahamas Woodes Rogers, who was considered by the Royal Navy an expert on the Spanish Caribbean, advised the navy that the fleet should base near Bastimentos, because the likely route of the Spanish caravan would pass by here.

The fleet spent most of its time sitting and waiting, never engaging the Spanish ships.  Slowly, sailors fell ill to jungle diseases.  The man who rose early in the morning aboard the HMS Leopard would, only a few months later, rise to a ghost ship of men dying of yellow fever.

After returning to Jamaica for fresh sailors, the fleet would wander these waters, hoping to keep the Spanish at bay. 

Francis Hosier, the fleet’s admiral, had found success in earlier battles with France, and was no fan of the Royal Navy’s chosen strategy of sitting and waiting for the Spanish ships.  By the time Britain and Spain declared peace, over 4,000 Royal Navy sailors perished to yellow fever and other diseases.  A ballad, Admiral Hosier’s Ghost laments the fate of the admiral and his crew:

See these mournful spectres sweeping
Ghastly o'er this hated wave,
Whose wan cheeks are stain'd with weeping;
These were English captains brave.
Mark those numbers pale and horrid,
Those were once my sailors bold:
Lo, each hangs his drooping forehead,
While his dismal tale is told.

When the sun creeps out of the horizon, I see something out of the corner of my eye.  The bromeliad that I had been sitting aside, is host to a large spider.  Whatever it is, it’s about the size of a tarantula, large enough for me to get up off my feet and try to ply my way down the beach. 

On the beach, I scan the ocean with my binoculars, and sure enough, with the first light I see a dugout boat floating in the water several miles away.  Already at first light, a man is foraging the depths, a simple daily ritual, to feed his family.  It is haunting to imagine that his ancestors may have been doing that exact same thing nearly 300 years ago, when 20 big gun ships began their long wait.

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