“Crocodile!” exclaimed Bredio, our guide pointing ahead. The engine of the local boat we were in stopped suddenly and everything went eerily quiet. As we drifted towards the river bank, I wasn’t sure I was ready to get up close and personal with an 8ft croc. Then instinct kicked in….and I quickly reached for the camera. This was a photo opportunity not to be missed!
A crocodile basking in the sun
We had planned the private tour for eight of us to venture up the Rio Mandinga in San Blas in search of crocodiles. Our guide, who spoke excellent English, picked us up in a 28ft panga (local boat) and instructed us to don life jackets before we set off.
The panga had two twin unlinked 40hp engines running on separate tiller throttles, something that Skipper thought was hilarious and quite dexterous on the part of the panga’s captain. We covered the two miles to the mouth of the river in less than 10 minutes.
The area is known for its quality “ulu” dugouts – boats carved out of a single piece of wood – and we soon discovered we weren’t the only ones exploring the river as we passed an “ulu” sailing at the river entrance and also a couple of men with their dogs in another dugout, scouting for iguana on the river banks. Rather them than us, as they were without engine and using just paddles to navigate their way down this crocodile corner of the river.
Our guide brought along his two very cute kids, one of whom was Albino and looked like she was from Iceland rather than an island in Panama. The rest of the crew of the panga included a captain, who used extreme skill with hand-eye co-ordination on the throttles to manoeuvre the boat swiftly around obstacles; as well as a ‘spotter’, who hand-signalled to the captain when there were shallow areas or upturned branches to avoid.
On more than one occasion, the spotter had to use a large pole to push us off the bottom when it got too shallow for the boat’s engines. Being stuck on the mud, and eyed-up by a crocodile was not part of the plan!
The boat trip was mesmerising; stunning coloured birds lined up on the muddy banks including pelicans, eagles, vultures, green and blue herons and tropical kingbirds.
The two large aquatic reptiles we saw did not disappoint. In true celebrity-style, the crocodiles allowed a couple of photographs to be taken before slinking away to safety, into the depths of the river.
Crocodile laying in the sun on the river bank…
…and then he slinks back into the river!
An hour up-stream, our boat stopped against a sandbank and we could go no further. The guide encouraged us off the boat and with trepidation we followed, stepping onto black sand and keeping our eyes peeled for croc-tracks.
It wasn’t long before the boat crew were splashing around neck-deep in the water. We watched in amazement at their brazenness; and ventured to the water’s edge for a paddle, but there was no way that any of us were going to go much further in.
A football was produced and a team effort of the Brits against the Gunas ensued. The threat of crocs rocking up to muscle in, all but forgotten for a moment. Then, as the light started to fade from the day, it was time to head back down stream, eyes-peeled again for crocs.
At the bottom of the river, the panga opened its throttles and roared into action, taking us back to our boats that were anchored off Isla Gerti. It had been an awesome day, simply messing about on the river with crocodiles – and for just US$15 per person, it was most definitely a Mastercard moment!
© Two Drifters Travel