Sailing Into Paradise

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Central America Caribbean » Panama
March 23rd 2009
Published: April 9th 2009
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Tracey takes a quick rest before breakfast in the San Blas Islands

Roads! Where We're Going There Are No Roads

If like us you are undertaking an incredible journey through the whole of South and Central America there is one slight hitch when it comes to linking continents on this road trip...

there is no road.

The Panamericana is a continuous series of roads that starts in Alaska and finishes some 48,000 km (30,000 miles) later at the bottom of the World in Argentina. In theory you can 'drive' the entire distance but to do so you have to cross an area in southern Panama called the Darien Gap. Here the 'road' becomes little more than dirt track, swamp and disease. Challenging enough you might think, but the area is also a hideout for Colombian terrorist groups and cocaine smugglers and is considered one of the most dangerous places on the planet. We think you get the picture, the people building the road certainly did. Even with the backing of an army they decided to leave out a pesky little 87 km...leaving overland travellers with the interesting question of how do we get to Panama?

The quickest and most expensive way is to fly to Panama City. Easy. Another option is to catch a cargo ship. We had met some motorcyclists in Brazil who had done this and had only just escaped with their lives. No thank you. Which leaves the third and by far the best option, chartering a yacht to sail you through the caribbean.

Has Anybody Seen the Dinghy

Having told you in our Colombia blog how we arranged the yacht, the continuing story starts with us departing Cartagena harbour under motor. Our fellow passengers were two Germans, two Israelis, a Brit and our good friend Canadian Jenn. For the first hour we mostly checked out the boat and each other, working out where we would sleep, where we could sunbathe and if the signs were good that we might all get on. So far so good.

At this stage we were riding choppy waves into a strong crosswind on a bearing that would take us out of the harbour. Behind us we were towing the dinghy which we had all used to board the boat and to ferry our bags and supplies. Gathering us aloft, Tony (the captain) had just started to run through some basic sailing rules and instructions for the voyage when suddenly he noticed that in the rough waves the dinghy was filling up with water. Next minute, BANG, the rope towing dinghy snapped. "Noooooooooo" went the cry from our captain who in a quarter second went from relaxed cool to deadly serious. "YOU" he yelled at David "Don't let the dinghy out of your sight. YOU" He yelled at another "Start letting out that rope, and YOU, hold on to this".

Suddenly our voyage had turned into some sort of reality TV show. We could just hear the announcer saying in a big deep voice "Join us tonight as we put eight complete novices in a small yacht and immediately subject them to a series of sailing challenges".

As Tony brought the boat around 180 degrees, the force of the turn and perhaps the power of the wind made the boom (the bottom part of the mast that sticks out at a right angle to hold the sail) swung across so fast that it shattered the runner that holds the boom in place and stops it swinging out into the ocean."SHIT!" went the cry as suddenly the boom and ropes
Living In A PostcardLiving In A PostcardLiving In A Postcard

Tracey, in Paradise (The San Blas Islands)
were swinging wildly off the side of the boat. "Quick" went the cry again as Tony abandoned the wheel and turned on the autopilot."Somebody come with me". On that instruction David lept to his feet and 20 seconds later found himself holding on to dear life in crazy wind and water as he and Tony worked together to catch and control the boom. In the end Tony delt with the drama very well. Without boring you with the details he worked very quickly and methodically, dashing about the boat with spare ropes tying new knots and winching bits and pieces while all the time barking out instructions to his girlfriend Karen and to us.

Meanwhile, as all this was happening the dinghy had gone to Davey Jones' Locker and some of our passengers were already starting to feel sick - a wee taster of the vomit fiesta that was soon to come. Consigning the inflatable to the depths Tony brought the boat back around which wouldn't you know it, dragged one of the ropes he just used to tie the boom in place right across the plastic windscreen and tore it in half. Things were not going well. Tony
All Hands On DeckAll Hands On DeckAll Hands On Deck

Shelley and Tracey removing sun baked chunder
was remarkably chilled about it though, even joking that he was going to charge us 20%!m(MISSING)ore for all the great stories we would have to tell our friends.

Pulling An All-Nighter

After our dramatic start the next 15 hours were wonderful. We moored in a lovely little bay called Baru and spent the night and the morning snorkeling and sunbathing. We slept in one of the two berth cabins which was very comfortable, even for big Dave who was over the moon at being able to stretch right out. At around 10am we hauled anchor and began the only long sail of the whole trip, 30 hours non-stop to the San Blas Islands in Panama. Unfortunately despite the positive start and a variety of sea sickness pills Tracey and Jenn spent almost the entire 30 hours throwing up. With the two Israelis also being sick there was quite a bit of jockeying for position to get the prime chunder spot at the back of the boat. Jenn found a spot below deck on the sofa where if she lay perfectly still and didn't sit up or move around she was mostly fine. Tracey took a spot above deck preferring a view of the horizon and a fresh breeze, but in both cases the girls had a miserable time. David did his best to look after them both, scurrying above and below deck to supply glasses of water and dry crackers.

During the night the healthy ones took 2 hour shifts to keep watch on our course, alert Tony if the direction of the wind changed and to look out for other boats. Nobody saw a single vessel. It appeared we had this section of paradise all to ourselves. David picked the 4 to 6am shift and had the pleasure of siting alone and watching the sun rise over the Caribbean Sea.

Heaven On Earth

When we finally arrived at the San Blas Islands non of us could believe our eyes. This place is picture postcard incredible. Turquiose waters, small white sand islands and nothing but palm trees and the odd wooden shack as far as the eye could sea. Although the San Blas Islands are part of Panama the whole area is governed by the Kuna, the indigenous people who have lived there forever. There are around 400
Entering Panama Stage 1Entering Panama Stage 1Entering Panama Stage 1

A canoe from yacht to the mainland
islands in the group and the Kuna live on and fish around them all. Minutes after we moored a Kuna canoe swung past to ask if we wanted to buy any fresh fruit or fish. Things couldn't have been better, and with the girls now able to move we spent the next two days swimming, snorkeling and eating. Everybody onboard took turns cooking and/or cleaning. Some people took more turns than others which caused a bit of friction but other than that we had a wonderful time.

On the morning of the last day we sailed to what has to be the best immigration post on the planet, a wee building sitting on little more than a large sand bank in the middle of the sea called El Porvenir. Tony radioed for a dinghy to come and meet us and he and our passports were rowed to shore for processing into Panama. After that and a final big lunch we all boarded another local boat to be ferried to the coast and up a river to a pre-arranged meeting point in a place called Cali. (The drop off is here not in Colon because Colon is not a good
Entering Panama Stage 2Entering Panama Stage 2Entering Panama Stage 2

The 'road´from Cali to Panama City. Every gear was needed
place to be entering Panama with all your bags, passports and money, plus a lot of yachts keep getting robbed when they are moored there.) This part of the journey was as almost as much fun as the boat trip had been, especially when the´road´ got so steep that we almost didn´t make it at times. The views of the jungle and both oceans were incredible as we drove from one coast to the other and as the sun set over the Pacific Ocean we arrived into Panama city and went our seperate ways.

Coca Cola for Breakfast And Dinner

Jenn had been to Panama before so she knew a good place to stay in Casco Viejo, the old Colonial district. Panama is the most modern capital city in Central America, in fact it is so American looking and has so many ex-pats living there that it is called the Miami of the south. As we drove past towering sky scrapers, glittering nightclubs and expensive casinos it was easy to see why it has earned this title. Casco Viejo is all that remains of the original Panama City and until a few years ago it
The Two Faces Of Panama CityThe Two Faces Of Panama CityThe Two Faces Of Panama City

Very old and very new
was little more than a slum. Now an enormous project is underway to restore it to it's former glory. They have a long way to go. For every nicely restored colonial building there are still two garbage and rat filled dumps. We were told it is still dangerous in areas, especially at night and given that random locals kept stopping us in the street to warn us about holding on to our bags we guess the locals agree. Their frequent concern also shows that they want tourists to keep coming though, which is nice.

That night we ate at a restaurant called Coca Cola which was the only place we could find in our area that was open. The party might rage on in the new part of the city but where we were 6pm meant shutters down and deserted streets everywhere. For breakfast we ate at the same place. In total we think we ate there 6 times. Well, they did have some of the best cheese cake you have ever tasted, and their coffee was awesome. Jenn got a bit addicted so we kept popping in for a three-way fork-full.

Canal? What Canal

While Jenn spent her last two days before returning to Canada shopping and sunbathing we wasted a whole day trying to sort an issue with some plane tickets before heading off to the one thing everyone in the world can tell you about Panama, The Canal.

From Panama City there a few options for canal tourism. For a chunk of cash you can pay to spend the entire day on a boat going through the Miraflores and Pedro Miguel locks, the two stages that elevate you from the Pacific Ocean to the man made lake in the centre of the land. Alternatively and most easily you can take a bus to either of these locks, go to the museum and visitor centre and watch ships be raised and lowered through the locks. We decided on a more complicated and dangerous option, not because we are masochists but because the third set of locks on the Caribbean side are the largest and most impressive, lifting and lowering enormous cargo ships an impressive 26 metres.

Unfortunately the Gatun locks are near the afore mentioned Colon. This city is considered the most dangerous place in Panama after the Darien Gap.
The Little Engine That CouldThe Little Engine That CouldThe Little Engine That Could

These little trains pull all the boats through the canal
After the USA pulled their nearby military base out of Panama it left 4000 locals jobless which contributed to an already poor and under-employed economy. After talking to a man who had been there the day before and learning that we could arrive in Colon and change buses to Gatun without leaving the bus station we decided it would be ok. When we arrived we were pleasantly surprised to see it looked just like every other small town we had seen in Panama. The only difference was a number of street signs telling people that tourism was the key to financially rejuvenating their be nice to foreigners. Clearly there have been some problems!

At the bus station there were police everywhere so we ended up being personally escorted onto the right bus. Very nice. Mind you this only happened after the first police officer we asked had never heard of the canal, yet alone what bus we should catch to get there. We are not kidding you here. Tracey must have described the canal and the locks in three different ways and he still didn't have a clue what we were talking about. We almost bit our tongues
Highs And LowsHighs And LowsHighs And Lows

A container ship has just been lifted from Caribbean to lake height
off trying not to laugh. Luckily a second cop had heard of this 100 year old extrordinary feat of engineering that cuts through the middle of his country and most likely funds the entire police force.

We're still laughing just thinking about it.

We spent about an hour at the locks watching 2 ships pass through in both directions and enjoying all the pictures and information about the canal´s construction. There was even a guide giving a detailed speech as one of the big container ships passed through. Here are a few canal facts;

1. By the time the canal opened in 1914 an estimated 27,500 workers had died.

2. A boat travelling from New York to San Fransisco saves 12668 kilometres (7872 miles) by passing through the canal instead of rounding Cape Horn.

3. The canal is now too small to accommodate large container ships. A US$5 billion plan is underway to build new locks and channels that can handle ships carrying 10,000 containers instead of the current limit of 5,000.

4. Ships pay according to their weight with the average fee around US$30,000. The highest amount ever paid was $331,200. The lowest
A Kuna LadyA Kuna LadyA Kuna Lady

The Kuna ladies still wear traditional clothing
was 36 cents by a man who swam through in 1928.

On the return journey to Colon we had just started walking up the road to the bus stop when a canal workers´ bus pulled over and gave us a free lift to the bus station. Once there we briefly considered looking for the same ignorant policeman to show him a picture of what a canal looks like, but instead opted to buy a big plate of chicken and fried rice to scoff on our way back to Panama City.

3 Become 2

The following day while Jenn caught a ferry to visit a nearby island we spent the afternoon walking around the Old Town before heading out to the marina. During the construction of the canal so much land was dug up that they decided to use the rocks to turn one of the nearby islands into an extension of the mainland. The rather smart two lane causeway started a short cab ride from where we were staying.

After losing its island status it became the main marina for the city which in turn led to a boom in bars and restaurants
I Own This!I Own This!I Own This!

David, in David
to keep the World´s sailing community in Champagne and lobsters. The marina was packed with some incredible boats and yachts which David was drooling over. As for Tracey, just seeing another sailboat was starting to make her stomach churn! It´s a very safe bet that we will not be spending the twilight years of our marriage sailing around the World.

Afterwards we met Jenn at the ferry terminal and had a farewell night out which somehow ended with us walking along the entire length of causeway talking in great detail about 'the death zone´on Mount Everest! Our time with Jenn had been really good fun and if we are totally honest, a welcome injection of energy and new stories after spending so much time recently as ´just the two of us´.

The Greatest Named City In The World?

For our final hurrah in Panama we caught a bus to the perfectly named city of David and then on to the little hillside town of Boquete. Panama is a major grower and producer of coffee and Boquete has a number of coffee farms offering tours and tastings. The place we picked had the oldest standing coffee factory in Panama and the tour included a walk through this lovely factory of yesteryear as well as seeing and learning about the current machinery, processes and science. Let us tell you, there is a HECK of a lot more to this coffee lark than meets the taste buds. Our guide was a 7 foot tall Dutch man who finished the tour by brewing up a number of different beans and roasts and taking us through a series of tasting steps to help identify the flavours. A word to the wise here, don´t put your nose so far into the cup that you snort coffee. Not fun. Afterwards, having identified the best coffee on offer we made the obligatory purchase from the gift shop and then left the place bouncing off the walls.

We spent one more night in David (no jokes please) before catching a bus north to Costa Rica. With both of us suffering from a morning caffeine comedown we are looking forward to the energy boost that comes with the excitement of a new country.

Additional photos below
Photos: 36, Displayed: 33


The Oldest Coffee Factory In PanamaThe Oldest Coffee Factory In Panama
The Oldest Coffee Factory In Panama

The belts in this place were powered by water and everythig still worked
The Coffee MasterThe Coffee Master
The Coffee Master

7 feet of coffee knowledge
However You Like ItHowever You Like It
However You Like It

The humble coffee bean, there is a LOT more to it than meets the eye
The Coffee RoasterThe Coffee Roaster
The Coffee Roaster

Just 30 seconds extra makes all the difference. Being the roast master is one of the most important jobs
Checking His MelonsChecking His Melons
Checking His Melons

A lovely flower garden in Boquette

10th April 2009

Hi guys, wow the desciption and photos of the San Blas Islands make it sound and look like paradise. Poor Tracey, 30 hours of hell, I do feel for you. The facts on the Panama Canal were fascinating - what a brilliant piece of engineering. As usual, this and your last few blogs, have been amazing. Keep `em coming. Lots of love, Penny
11th April 2009

36 cents!!
I would love to now where the man who swam through the canal in 1928 kept his 36 cents!! Fantastic sea voyage, shame about the sickness.

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