By Monte Richardson
The Pan-American Highway is something road-traveling adventurers discuss over a few cold beers. The fallacy of its execution lies in one small 60-mile chunk of Panamanian jungle aptly named the Darien Gap.
Save for this small sliver of rainforest, one could theoretically journey on the roadway clear from Deadhorse, Alaska on the banks of Prudhoe Bay all the way to Ushuaia, Argentina, some 30,000 miles of white line fever for the aspiring motorist. This gap in the road, a falling house of cards for someone’s magic bus, is home to Playa Muerto and a keystone civilization of indigenous natives named the Emberá.
The tiny hamlet of Playa Muerto dates back many hundreds of years and is home to Adolfo Grajales, the captain of our 43-foot Merritt, Picaflor. It lies on the shores of the Eastern Tropical Pacific and is within relative distance of the Perlas Islands Archipelago. Accessibility to the village is solely through the use of trails or from a steep beachhead where panga-style outboard boats can land. Wave timing is critical and a successful landing is challenging even for seasoned boatmen. What is so intriguing about this locale is its primitive nature and the population of skilled water people. Adolfo Grajales and his nephew Jilberto Cansari are famous in the area. Many of the boys in the village aspire to one day ply the deep waters as their older relatives do.
The Emberá Indians are collectively known—along with other various indigenous groups—as the Chocó. The women wear very colorful clothing much like a beach cover-up and do not normally cover their torsos. In the traditional form the men wear loincloths, although I have mostly seen them in shorts. These folks are well-known for their basket weaving skills, using fibers from a tree called the chunga palm.
Panama is world renowned for its woven baskets that are found in a multitude of colors and designs. Indigenous villages such as Playa Muerto utilize more traditional dyes from various plants and soils. Many of the Emberá paint their bodies with a dye made from the genip tree. This dye works as a bug repellent. The dye is painted on the body and similar in appearance to that of a henna tattoo, albeit darker. It lasts about a month before it must be reapplied. Many children, who are not normally clothed, wear the dye in intricate designs.
The village is located behind the beachhead and the people live in small houses that stand at a height of about six to eight feet. The roofs are thatched with walls that create a single room structure to serve as a location for both cooking and sleeping, with hammocks stowed during the day.
The ocean is the lifeblood of the community. Young children learn to paddle cayucos, dugout canoes of varying sizes, with a traditional spade-shaped paddle. These are used for hand-lining and other forms of fishing and foraging the sea floor. It is not uncommon to see cayucos several miles from shore over a rockpile or chasing schooling fish around one of the many promontories that dot the region’s coast. Many times when we’re fishing off Playa Muerto and it’s difficult to make bait, we take to bartering with the cayuceros for dead black skipjack and other alternatives.
The prowess of Adolfo Grajales and his nephew Jilberto is apparent when fishing offshore. Originally with no electronic navigation skills, Adolfo could take to the bridge and find a spot in the ocean by pure triangulation and laser focus on the water’s changing conditions. Both Adolfo and Jilberto know their way around the cockpit and are absolutely fearless on the wire with big marlin. In many instances the black marlin in the area are in relatively shallow water and are caught in a short amount of time between hookup and the first shot on the wire—something that has never bothered either of them, even given their relatively small physical statures.
Playa Muerto is not an anchorage destination but rather a day trip. Given its exposure to the open Pacific, it has relatively little safe harbor. However, daring commercial fishermen sometimes anchor behind a small rock formation with only several feet to spare on each side. This anchorage is not for the faint of heart, nor for those with beautiful fiberglass machines.
The area is within striking distance of Piñas Bay, Panama which lies some forty miles to the south, and there are also several anchorages in the Perlas Islands like Punta Coco and Isla San Jose. There are several good subsurface rock formations that harbor wahoo and other toothy creatures during certain times of year. Fishing for roosterfish is good along the beachheads and rock peninsulas during the rainy season. This is when the small feeder creeks in the area throw out freshwater into the surrounding ocean and create nice color changes.
Playa Muerto is not visited by many tourists and is by no means a “gringo honeymoon” destination. There are no real places to stay overnight without prior consultation from a local tour agent. Although I have seen a recent uptick in the popularity of trips to visit the village. The area offers a timeless look at a relatively untouched culture.
These days, the face of Panama is changing greatly. From the expansion of the Panama Canal and the booming economy of svelte Panama City, it is amazing to have the opportunity to travel a relatively short distance and be surrounded by nothingness, in a place with no roads and a look into a much simpler life where the rat race simply does not exist.