Published: May 24th 2012May 24th 2012
Panama City/Sailing – Jeff
We packed up our stuff in Boquete and headed to Panama City. Unfortunately, our 10:00 bus from David to Panama City left twenty minutes early. Never in my life would I imagine something in Latin America leaving on time, let alone 20 minutes early. We were, in fact, on time but missed the bus thanks to some misdirection from one of the bus operators. We had our tickets changed free of charge and hopped aboard the double decker bus for the ensuing eight hour bus trip. We arrived at the massive bus terminal in Panama City and immediately felt the fast paced, commercialized vibe of the big city.
We checked into a small hostel in Casco Viejo, the “old town” of Panama City - which is currently in the midst of a massive restoration project. Construction and renovations were everywhere. Our first few days were spent wandering around the Casco Viejo neighborhood to learn the lay of the land and see some of the historic buildings. Several of the buildings happened to be destroyed from the 1989 US invasion because they were frequent hangouts of Manuel Noriega at the time. The bad neighborhood of Casco Viejo, El Chorrillo, also happened to be a primary target of our invasion – I’m unsure why as it was considered the slums even back then. With that being said, it was strongly advised to stay away from that area. We inevitably had to pass through El Chorrillo in a few cab rides and noticed the anti-American graffiti that decorated many of the parks, road signs, and abandoned buildings. More on that later.
Our first “must see” in Panama City was the Mercado de Mariscos (seafood market). It was only a short, and very scenic walk from our hostel. The market has ceviche stands everywhere you look so we sampled a cup from several stands for lunch. It was so good we ended up eating a ceviche lunch there for the first few days. However, Erin and I tried a “coctel” rather than a ceviche for a dinner on our third night. The coctel is a mayo and mustard base rather than lime juice. Later that night we had our first night out with several English friends we had met in Boquete. The following day we woke up with what we thought was a terrible hang over but ended up being food poisoning. To make things worse, our current room in the hostel was reserved so we were asked to move into a dorm room or find a new hostel. We chose to find a new hostel with private rooms available to nurse our illness. Feeling miserable, we checked into Hotel Casco Antiguo, the oldest hotel in Panama City. There we would spend the next several days recovering. As we started feeling a bit better, we bravely distanced ourselves from bathrooms and decided to go to a local mall to watch a movie for some low key entertainment. The Avengers in 3D was a pretty good flick!
Hotel Casco Antiguo happened to be very close to El Chorrillo, the aforementioned bad neighborhood. It was clear that the folks there struggled financially - several homeless people lived right next to our hotel. To our surprise, they were actually much nicer and more helpful than the people we encountered in the rest of the city. I gave one of my shirts to a homeless guy who had been wearing the same thing for several days. He and all of his friends were very grateful. They all introduced themselves and wanted to know our background and what brought us to Panama City.
was the day we had reserved our catamaran for Colombia. The night before departure we organized all of our stuff and got some last minute Skype time in before leaving at 6:00 AM for the coast. Very early the next morning, we rode a 4x4 jeep to the coast as it was much needed the last hour of the trip. Our driver, Miguel, loved his late 20th
century American music. Three hours of driving with disco classics and 80’s and 90’s ballads - the volume completely cranked. Erin and I were laughing hysterically as Miguel crashed through giant mud puddles and potholes while he passionately sang “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and other similar classics in his very broken English. The music was too loud to converse with the fellow passengers but the “Concierto de Miguel” made the road trip go by quickly. After arriving to the river that leads to the Caribbean, we hopped in our boat that promised to take us to our catamaran. Off we went…to the wrong catamaran. They asked us over and over where our boat was anchored and we honestly had no clue what to tell them. We simply did not know. After a few failed attempts to call some contact numbers we had been given we decided to try our luck at a different island. There we found our boat, Cleo’s Angel.
We were the last passengers to board and were quickly greeted by our very
German Capitan, Frank; his wife Claudia, and their new deckhand Orison, a local from Cartagena. The four other passengers were John and Kevin from the UK and Josh and Marguerite from St. Louis, MO…small small world.
Our starting point was El Provenir which was in the San Blas Islands. It was beautiful enough where the boat was anchored that we would have been perfectly happy staying there. Instead we ate some lunch and headed to our first island which was only a 30-40 minute boat ride away. The next three days were spent at three different islands with nice reefs to snorkel around. When we weren’t snorkeling we would play cards and board games on the boat, hang out on the “trampolines” at the front end of the catamaran, or just sit and chat over a few beers. Claudia was an excellent chef. Most meals, like the crew, were also very
German – and very delicious. This certainly didn’t feel like “budget travel”.
The San Blas Islands are absolutely stunning. Tiny, white sand islands dot the beautiful blue Caribbean water. Some islands were so small they only had one palm tree on them. All islands could have been on a post card. Every boat ride offered jaw dropping views everywhere we looked. Seeing the Kuna Yala (the indigenous tribe that owns the islands) canoe around the islands fishing and diving for lobster was a refreshingly rustic site. There was not any sign of over development in the near future to taint this paradise. I found it funny that Panama’s native people get a reservation on beautiful Caribbean Islands, the Native Americans of the U.S. get North Dakota…its good to be a Kuna.
After our days sailing around the islands we hit the open water. Frank woke up at 5:00 AM and set the boats autopilot in the right direction. From that point on, the passengers were responsible for a rotating “watch” shift where we would keep the boat on course and watch for other vessels. Shortly after breakfast we were headed towards a giant thunderstorm. Lighting was crashing straight down everywhere in the distance and loud thunder was quick to follow. Fortunately it passed us minutes before we hit it. From then on it was smooth sailing.
Our first evening on the open water was complimented with a pod of dolphins that followed our boat for about thirty minutes. They swam right next to the front of the boat so we laid across the trampolines and watched as they entertained us. We could have touched them they were so close. Late that night Erin and I had the 1:00 and 2:00 AM watch shifts so we had the opportunity to see the beautiful night sky in open water…it was quite a sight.
The following day we were scheduled to arrive in Cartagena around 4:00 PM. Around 2:00 PM we were sitting around chatting when we had our first fish hit the lures we had been dragging in the open water. I grabbed the pole and reeled in the not-so-big tuna. The timing was great. Captain Frank fileted the tuna and tossed it in the fridge. A few hours later we were docked in Cartagena. Frank insisted we eat one more meal before heading into the city. Another wonderful German meal accompanied with fresh seared tuna and a bottle of champagne (thanks to Josh and Marguerite) to celebrate the arrival: a new city, country, and continent to explore.