Our arrival at Shelter Bay Marina was a happy one. After weeks of gloomy, rainy days in the San Blas Islands and Portobelo areas, we were welcomed at Shelter Bay by bright sunshine and blue skies.
As it turned out, Shelter Bay was sunny seventy percent of the time, the exact opposite of the Portobelo and San Blas areas. Panama does in fact have various micro-climates. We had departed a notoriously rainy area and had now arrived in a more sunny spot. In four years of cruising, we had never seen several days of uninterrupted heavy rains the likes of which pounded us at Portobelo, Panama, and it felt so good to see the sun again.
Thus, our spirits were up and we were ready to enjoy the best of central and western Panama!
HISTORY OF PANAMA
Before we get going, let’s refresh our memories on the history of Panama (derived from Wikipedia.com).
Panama's Road to Independence
Panama is the southernmost country in Central America, situated on an isthmus that connects Central America to South America.
Pre-Colombian native populations inhabited Panama as far back as 11,000 years. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, Panama was widely settled by Indians comprised of Chiban, Chocoan and Cuevas.
The Spanish arrived in the Central American region in the 1500’s. After roughly 320 years of rule by the Spanish Empire, Panama declared independence on November 10, 1821.
A National Assembly was convened and Panama joined with Ecuador and Venezuela in what was Simon Bolivar’s new country founded as the Republic of Colombia (that originally included a vastly greater area than present day Colombia).
Thereafter, however, Panama broke away and declared its independence from Colombia in November of 1840. Under the leadership of General Tomás Herrera, Panama became the 'Estado Libre del Istmo', or the Free State of the Isthmus.
Soon thereafter, a union between Panama and the Republic of Colombia was made possible by the active participation of the U.S. under the 1846 Bidlack Mallarino Treaty that granted the U.S. rights to build railroads through Panama and to intervene militarily against a revolt so as to guarantee Colombian control of Panama.
There were at least three attempts by Panamanian Liberals to seize control of Panama and potentially achieve full autonomy, including one led by Liberal guerrillas like Belisario Porras and Victoriano Lorenzo, each of which was suppressed by a collaboration of Conservative Colombian and U.S. forces.
In 1902 U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt decided to take on the abandoned French works of the Panama Canal and try to succeed where the French had failed.
But the Colombian government in Bogotá refused the prospect of a U.S. controlled canal under the terms that Roosevelt's administration was offering. Roosevelt was unwilling to alter terms and quickly changed tactics, encouraging Panamanian landholding families to demand independence from Colombia, offering U.S. military support to them instead of Colombia. By 1903, Panama was independent and that paved the way for a U.S. owned Canal.
But there was a twist. In 1903, a Frenchman, Phillipe Bunau-Varilla, who was serving as Panama’s Ambassador to the U.S., unilaterally and without approval by the Panamanian Government signed a treaty granting U.S. the rights to build and control the Panama Canal. The Canal opened in 1914.
This treaty became a contentious diplomatic issue. It finally boiled over to the point that it was agreed sixty years later that the Canal Zone would be returned to Panama.
History of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal is one of the most difficult engineering projects in the history of the world. It has had an enormous impact on shipping, allowing ships to reduce mileage from New York to San Franciso by more than 50% (6,000 miles versus 14,000 miles) and also avoid rounding Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America . . . one of the most deadly and dangerous patches of ocean on earth.
The French tried to build the canal, initially beginning in 1880. They were unsuccessful and approximately 21,900 workers were killed in the process. The French efforts failed because they rushed into committing to a sea-level design that was destined to fail from the outset.
For one thing, the Caribbean and the Pacific are not at the same “sea level.” The Caribbean is lower than the Pacific. Also, aside from a gravely flawed overall design, the threat of tropical diseases caused needed technical personnel to flee back to France and caused a “brain drain” on the project.
After the U.S. took over, however, the Canal was completed by 1914. The complete death toll was 27,500 workers to build the Canal, many of which were caused by diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, and even landslides.
The U.S. efforts were led by Chief Engineer John Frank Stevens from 1905–1907. The U.S. bought out the French equipment and excavations for U.S. $40 million, and began work on May 4, 1904.
To restore diplomatic relations with Colombia, the U.S. paid Colombia U.S. $25 million in 1921, seven years after completion of the canal. This payment was accepted as redress for President Roosevelt's role in the rebellion and declaration of independence by Panama, and also, by terms of the agreement Colombia finally recognized Panama’s independence, all as set forth in the Thomson-Urritia Treaty that embodied the agreement.
Chief Engineer Stevens’ major achievement in Panama was in building the infrastructure necessary to complete the canal. He rebuilt the Panama Railway and devised a system for disposing of soil from the excavations by rail.
He also built proper housing for canal workers and oversaw extensive sanitation and mosquito-control programs that eliminated diseases from the Isthmus. Stevens also argued the case against a sea level canal. He successfully convinced Roosevelt of the necessity to build a canal with dams and locks.
With the diseases under control, and after significant work on preparing the infrastructure, construction of an elevated canal with locks began in earnest and was finally possible.
The Americans also gradually replaced the old French equipment with machinery designed for a larger scale of work.
President Roosevelt had the former French machinery melted down and minted into medals of courage for workers who had spent at least two years on the construction and said medals served to commemorate their contribution to the building of the canal. These commemorative medals featured Roosevelt's likeness on the front, the name of the recipient on one side, and the worker's years of service.
In 1907 Roosevelt appointed George Washington Goethals as Chief Engineer of the canal and the project was completed in 1914, two years ahead of the target date of June 1916. The canal was formally opened on August 15, 1914 with the passage of the cargo ship Ancon.
By the 1930s it became apparent that water supply would be an issue for the canal. Massive amounts of water must be readily available to flood locks. This prompted the building of the Madden Dam across the Chagres River above Lake Gatun. The dam, completed in 1935, created Madden (later Alajuela) Lake, which acts as additional water storage reservoir for the canal.
Since its opening, the canal has been enormously successful, and the canal continues to be a key conduit for international maritime trade. The maximum size vessel that can use the canal is known as a “Pamamax” vessel – ships actually built to specification so as to fill the canal’s maximum lock capacity.
The maximum dimensions allowed for a ship transiting the canal are:
- Length: 294.1 meters (965 ft)
- Beam(width): 32.3 meters (106 ft)
- Draft: 12.0 meters (39.5 ft) in tropical fresh water (the salinity and temperature of water affect its density, and hence how deeply a ship will sit in the water)
- Air draft: 57.91 meters (190 ft) measured from the waterline to the vessel's highest point
A typical passage through the canal by a cargo ship takes around nine hours. 14,011 vessels passed through in 2005, with a total capacity of 278.8 million tons, making an average of almost 40 vessels per day.
After WW II, U.S. control of the canal became contentious as relations between Panama and the U.S. became increasingly tense. Many Panamanians felt that the Canal Zone rightfully belonged to Panama. Student protests were repelled by fencing-in the Canal Zone and an increased U.S. military presence.
Negotiations toward a new settlement began in 1974, resulting in the Torrojos-Carter Treaties signed by President Jimmy Carter on September 7, 1977.
This set in motion the process of handing over the canal to Panama, for free, as long as Panama signed a treaty guaranteeing the permanent neutrality of the canal (Neutrality Treaty) and agreed to a clause allowing the U.S. to come back anytime. Though controversial within the U.S., the treaty led to full Panamanian control effective at noon on December 31, 1999.
Under the treaties, Panama also gained control of all the old U.S. military bases, canal-related buildings and Canal Zone infrastructure as well as full administration of the Canal itself.
Before the canal’s handover, the government of Panama held an international bid to negotiate a 25-year contract for operation of the canal's container shipping ports (chiefly two facilities at the Atlantic and Pacific outlets). The contract was awarded to Li Ka Shing, the wealthiest man of Chinese descent in the world.
The tolls for transiting the Canal are impressive. The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on May 16, 2008 to the 964-foot Cruise Ship Disney Magic. The toll was just over US $331,200. The least expensive toll was 36 cents to American adventurer Richard Halliburton who swam the canal in 1928. The average toll is between $50,000 and $150,000.
The people of Panama have already approved the widening of the canal which, after completion, will allow for larger, Post Panamax vessels to travel through it, increasing the number of ships that currently use the canal. Also, there are suggestions that a whole new set of locks might be considered.
Manuel Noriega and the U.S. Invasion of Panama in 1989
Relations between the U.S. and Panama became strained by the end of the 1980’s after Panama’s President Torrijos was killed in a plane crash in 1981. After Torrijos death, Manuel Noriega came to power but was implicated in drug trafficking and was a destabilizing factor in the region.
Noriega refused to step down. It is hard to forget the image of a somewhat crazed Noriega pounding a podium with a machete during one of his inflammatory speeches.
On December 20, 1989, twenty-seven thousand U.S. troops invaded Panama and removed Noriega. Just prior to the invasion, a new Panamanian President was sworn in during a ceremony at a U.S. military base inside the Canal Zone and, thus, President Guillermo Endara was already officially Panama’s President at the time Noriega was captured. Unfortunately, it is estimated that as many as 4,000 Panamanian civilians were killed in the conflict.
Noriega surrendered to the U.S. in short order and was taken to Florida where he was prosecuted for drug smuggling and racketeering. Noriega became eligible for parole on September 9, 2007, but he remained in custody while his lawyers fought an extradition request from France. Critics have pointed out that many of Noriega's former allies remain in power in Panama.
Old Fort Sherman and New Shelter Bay Marina
During U.S. occupation of the Canal Zone, Fort Sherman served as a military base for U.S. forces guarding the Canal. It was the primary defensive base for the Atlantic sector of the Canal, and was also the center for U.S. Jungle Warfare Training for some time. Its Pacific-side partner in Panama City was Fort Amador. Both bases were turned over to Panama in 1999.
Construction of Fort Sherman began in January 1912 as a phase of the original 1910 defensive plans. Fort Sherman was named by War Department General Order No. 153 dated November 24, 1911, in honor of General William Tecumseh Sherman.
Shelter Bay Marina is now located on the old Ft. Sherman property in the Canal Zone.
Fort Sherman includes 23,100 acres of land, about half of which was covered by jungle during the Fort’s operation. The developed areas included housing, barracks for 300, a small airstrip, a small church, and various recreational areas. The Fort’s artillery included batteries of massive 14 inch guns.
Much of Fort Sherman has now been reclaimed by rain forest.
Affluence of Modern Day Panama
In general, Panama is an extremely wealthy and politically stable nation compared to many of its Third World neighbors in Central America. Panama enjoys First World infrastructure and very high standards of living, and it boasts strong and thriving economic growth.
Panama City enjoys first-class, first-world medical care, modern and sprawling shopping malls and high-quality consumer services.
Panama's economy is mainly service-based, heavily weighted toward banking, commerce, tourism, trading, and private industries in need of its key geographic location. The handover of the Panama Canal and military installations by the United States has given rise to new construction projects.
The high levels of Panamanian trade are in large part from the Colón Free Trade Zone, the largest Free Trade Zone in the Western Hemisphere. Last year the Zone accounted for 92% of Panama's exports and 64% of its imports, according to an analysis of figures from the Colón Zone management.
U.S. Citizens Retiring in Panama
Panama City is currently experiencing a real estate boom. Tourists and retirees are arriving in greater numbers and consequently helping the local real estate market. Thousands of U.S. citizens are now choosing Panama as their retirement home.
Attractive weather and the low cost of living, along with a firm economy serve as attraction points. The government of Panama has put together a very liberal package for retirees offering tax exemptions, and discounts on transportation and meals.
Tourism on the Rise in Panama
Along with real estate, tourism is one of Panama´s rising markets. Small and amazingly diverse, Panama makes it possible for a traveler to visit not only two different oceans in one day, but be able to combine, in less than a week, a diversified natural experience (white sand beaches, cloud or rain forest, mountains or valleys) with a wide range of cultural experiences (seven Indian tribes, Afroantillian and Spanish Colónial culture, several historic monuments and a 300 year old World Heritage Site called Casco Antiguo often referred as Casco Viejo.
In recent years the North Western and North Eastern regions of Panama have drawn increasing amounts of tourism to the beaches, rain forests and Caribbean areas all within easy reach of popular Costa Rica. Bocas Del Toro on the Caribbean, Boquete in the mountains, and the surfing areas on the Pacific coast are now huge tourist draws.
Whew! Panama is a geographically small nation with a BIG history and the information above merely scratches the surface. But, it will better allow you to hang on for the ride in this trip report.
What better place to start than to show you the area around old Fort Sherman, the home of the new Shelter Bay Marina.
SHELTER BAY MARINA AND FORT SAN LORENZO
Shelter Bay Marina is located just off Cristobal Bay in a relatively small cove on the western, remote side of the Bay. Surrounded by thousands of acres of jungle, Shelter Bay Marina is isolated. The marina runs a shuttle bus into Colón daily (twenty minutes each way), so that marina guests can provision and also make connections to travel.
Cristobal Bay itself is a very large body of water that was naturally wide open to the sea, but now the bay is protected by tremendous man-made riprap levees that emanate from both the western and eastern outer shores, with each levee running a half a mile or so out across the mouth of the bay and directly toward each other. The levees terminate so as to leave an opening into the bay and create a ship channel and entrance to the now artificially protected bay. It is the largest breakwater system I have ever seen.
Shelter Bay Marina is adjacent to the foot of the western levee, on the inside, and it lives up to its name.
Cristobal Bay is large enough to serve as an anchorage for numerous large ships. Scores of ships anchor outside the breakwater too, and for miles the sea is covered with ships waiting their turn to transit the canal. There were about 50 ships waiting when we arrived. That number would soon grow to 70 due to a “slow down” by canal advisors and pilots demanding more pay.
Several miles inland, the bay terminates at the northernmost lock in the north set of locks known as the Gatun Locks.
Let’s look around the marina:
One of the attributes that is both good and bad about Shelter Bay Marina and the Ft. Sherman area is the utter seclusion. The outer gates of the Fort are manned by armed guards 24/7 and it is a very secure marina.
But, on the other hand, it is at least a twenty minute ride to Colón and you must cross the Panama Canal via a small drawbridge at the Gatun locks. If you time it wrong and have to wait for a ship the trip could take forty five minutes. Have really bad luck and catch a ship on the ride back too and all of a sudden a forty minute round trip to Colón just turned into an hour and a half minimum.
But it is worth it. Colón is a dangerous and dirty city and being in the “remote” jungles of Ft. Sherman and Shelter Bay was fabulous.
And we rode the shuttle quite a bit. There is no grocery store or mini-mart at Shelter Bay, only a restaurant. You have to ride the marina shuttle into Colón's outskirts and the Cuatros Altos Mall to provision for anything.
The shuttle can get pretty crowded and it is an adventure of sorts. Cuatros Altos Mall is only a few years old but looks fifteen years old. A modern, but run-down mall, there is a very good grocery store there -- not a Publix in Ft. Lauderdale by any means, mind you, but a very impressive market by Caribbean standards with lots of brand named goods and very good produce.
Shelter Bay has no fuel dock, only a nearby fuel barge (more on that later) and you can’t get gasoline there at all. So, on the ride back on the shuttle, things like overfilled leaky dinghy gas cans, venting propane tanks, and groceries all got crammed into the back of the shuttle for the ride back to the marina. Sometimes we would take a cab back to avoid the crammed shuttle on the return trip. And a couple of times, when Melissa bought over $200 worth of groceries, the grocery store gave her a free ride back to the marina.
Here is a look at crossing the canal while en route between Shelter Bay and Colón:
While traveling in and out of the Fort Sherman area, it was spooky. Old buildings are stripped and the place is deserted. It has that “Day After” a nuclear bomb feel, or perhaps Chernobyl in that one can easily picture the place bustling with activity but it is absolutely abandoned.
It is reported that when the Canal Zone was turned over to Panama, various Panamanian government bodies opposed each other, each claiming ownership and control of Ft. Sherman. It resulted in a raiding of the Fort, and various forces came in and stripped everything of value from the structures, even knocking out walls and rendering the structures uninhabitable.
Much like two children fighting over a rag doll and ripping it apart to ruin it for both of them, such was the fate of Fort Sherman. The end result is that many of the structures are protected during daylight hours by guards to prevent further destruction.
There were many things, both good and bad about Shelter Bay Marina, just like anywhere else in the world, but there was one thing that was so absolutely amazing and perfect for us that we rate Shelter Bay Marina as one of the coolest marinas we have ever stayed in.
With paved roads into the jungles, and a paved road for several miles through the jungle and hills to Fort San Lorenzo, being at Shelter Bay Marina offered us the best walking and bicycling opportunities we have ever had while on the boat, period.
No traffic, exotic animals everywhere, interesting ruins of the Forts Sherman and Lorenzo, and scenery and seclusion to die for . . . all located behind the outer, guarded gate of Ft. Sherman. It is a paradise for those of us who like to walk, jog, and ride bikes.
In addition to the wildlife everywhere, the Fort Sherman area has the ruins of many gun placements (“batteries”) that were spread out over the large area of Fort Sherman. Every battery was a little different and some were very large and complex installations that must have cost a fortune to build.
There are deep, dark tunnels into underground areas and the gun batteries all have that spooky abandoned look, all while the jungle caresses it and has begun to cover it all up. It is so remote and quiet and you are in the wild jungle. There are supposedly panthers around too.
So, looking into the deep tunnels and dark entranceways to underground areas (all of which were open and unlocked), I got the feeling that something like a tiger could come barreling out at me at any moment.
The flash on my camera would transform a pitch-black hole into a clear view of what was inside. It was a very interesting experience.
We did have a bit of a scare while exploring the Baird gun battery station. Jack and Desire Foard, and their Jack Russell Terrier named “Lady Pitt” came on the walk with us (she loves to look for monkeys in the trees). Lady Pitt was following me around the Battery when I stepped over a depression in the tall grass. We heard a 'thump' sound and quickly realized Lady Pitt had fallen in!
When we cleared the grass back, there was a very deep manhole and Lady Pitt was at the bottom!
We found a makeshift ladder nearby and Jack climbed down and saved Lady Pitt . . . she was unharmed, thank goodness! We were very careful about where we stepped after that!
Monkeys, monkeys, monkeys! Sometimes we would walk and see none. Other days it looked like a “monkey interstate” with scores of white-faced monkeys racing through the canopy.
Other times, we would see the slow moving howlers sitting way up in the canopy. And all the time, we heard the howlers from great distances away. More on that later.
But one day I had some fun. When I was a little kid, I took to running across the ground like a monkey and making monkey calls and my relatives got a kick out of it.
One day while on one of our walks I decided to make “monkey shines” at some white faced capuchin monkeys. Well, they went wild and started tearing up the trees!
Yes, we enjoyed walking and the scenery around Shelter Bay Marina, and the marina itself had many impressive attributes, not the least of which was the finest floating docks money can buy.
But, it did have some serious "third world" annoyances nonetheless.
The marina was absolutely plagued with electricity problems during our stay. Day after day, week after week, the power would be out for hours at a time. There were quite a few large power yachts coming and going and when three or more plugged in, that was the end of power for a while.
The marina office and the restaurant had the benefit of a generator, but the docks were continually in "black out" mode.
We have found it routine in the Caribbean that while marinas are quick to advertise a long and impressive list of amenities, very few actually deliver those amenities in full and uninterrupted fashion.
For example, while technically there is fuel available, there is no fuel dock at Shelter Bay Marina. Instead, there is a fuel boat tied to the trees on the opposite shore and you can take your dinghy there, or untie and take the big boat (giant hassle with full sun shades up). But, the fuel barge has no regular hours. You have to make an appointment and someone will meet you at the barge. No gasoline for sale, just diesel. And they don't take credit cards.
So why not wait to get fuel when you pull out, or why not get it pulling in? Well, we had full tanks when we pulled in. But, because the power was out so much, we had to run the generator a lot and thus the need for more fuel.
Also, the internet service was unreliable and frustrating during our stay at Shelter Bay.
By far, however, and worst service of all was in the restaurant. The service staff's attitude was stunningly awful. Word has it that the restaurant manager and the marina's general manager were at odds, but the owner of the marina would not let the general manager fire the restaurant manager.
I vote for firing the restaurant manager and sending both him and the the staff to jail for thirty days. The waiter and waitresses were the most unfriendly, downright lazy, frustratingly slow, and inattentive people we have ever had the displeasure of interacting with in a marina staff setting.
The food was not really good nor really bad, but it was most certainly the “only game in town” out there in the middle of the jungle in a remote marina.
One night, on a holiday weekend while all the big bosses were away, the waitresses kept turning most of the lights off, trying to make the restaurant look closed so they would not have much traffic. A lady seated in the outside area of the restaurant with a group of four came in and asked for a waitress to be sent outside to take their orders. She said they had been there 45 minutes. The girl at the cash register told her to have them come inside and order.
We watched food sit at the ready window and get cold while waitresses fiddled with filing their nails or read the paper.
Finally, one night things went badly enough for me to write the place off. I ordered a cheeseburger well done. There were only a few people in the restaurant and it was not crowded at all. After waiting an hour for the lazy staff to deliver the cheeseburger to my table, I cut it in half and a pint of cold blood ran out on the plate and soaked the bun. It was cold and raw in the middle. I called the waitress and said I did not want it and asked her to take it away. Ten minutes later, it came back with the patty halves looking like they burned in a bad car wreck, all sitting on the same blood-red bun. I again said I did not want it and said “NO! NO PAGO! NO PAGO!" (I’m not paying).
Well, the burger went back into the kitchen and the cook lost his mind and was cursing and throwing stuff around. Word is that the marina owner’s true passion is inventory control and that the cook would have to “eat” the cheeseburger.
Well, so what? You don’t have to be a master chef to know how to transform a raw hamburger patti into a cooked one, especially when you have an hour within which to do it.
So, that was the end. We had been eating in the restaurant for a few weeks but that did it for me. No mas!
Also, it was disappointing that the yard manager was not willing to accommodate me with a reduced price for a quick haul out to change my saildrive oil. Most yards will pick your boat up and let you hang in the slings during lunch hour and then splash you for a very reduced price. Many times, these types of “quick haul outs” are used for surveying yachts that are being sold and yards always offer special rates.
Not so at Shelter Bay. You can forget it.
The yard manager was wholly unsympathetic and demanded the full-price of a long-term haul out that would include transporting the boat to the yard, setting it down and blocking and chocking it (even though none of that work would be performed). He demanded between $600 and $700 just to hang me in the slings for an hour while I changed the oil in my saildrives' lower units.
I was told by other cruisers that some of the “take it or leave it” attitude allegedly comes from Shelter Bay perceiving itself to be the “only game in town” in the Western Caribbean. Of course, that’s an unconscionable mind set if true and such behavior does much to destroy goodwill with the cruising community.
So, faced with the prospect of getting overcharged by the yard at Shelter Bay, I decided to seek other options. We knew we were heading to the Rio Dulce in Guatemala in a few months for Hurricane Season, so I called RAM Marine and luckily they were very accommodating and they have a brand-new modern yard.
So hey! Good news. There IS competition for Shelter Bay Marina, so spread the word and maybe Shelter Bay will lose a little of the attitude.
RAM Marine agreed to haul me out, temporarily block the boat, let me work in their super-nice concrete area, and give me FOUR hours for only $350.00. That’s more like it and a fair price.
Thus, although Shelter Bay is surely a beautiful setting with nice docks, by the time we left we were not happy with some aspects of the marina.
I will say, however, that the marina’s General Manager, Russ, was very good to us. He saw us at a marine store in Panama City one day and have us a ride to another part of town. Also, he gave us rides to and from the Panama Canal Railway station in Colón.
Also, we said hello to and briefly met the owner of Shelter Bay, a prominent Panamanian. He seemed like a nice enough fellow. But, the in-fighting and often openly-discussed disrespect between lower level managers is obviously not good for business.
Nonetheless, they are building a swimming pool and trying to improve the marina. I just hope the corporate culture and attitudes of the service workers can be addressed. They need to offer good service much more than they need to have a swimming pool.
Clearly, Fort Sherman and Shelter Bay Marina have limitless possibilities. It will be interesting to see what develops at Fort Sherman, literally.
FORT SAN LORENZO
Just west of Shelter Bay Marina about ten miles lies the mouth of the Chagres River and the ruins of Fort San Lorenzo. Now a dammed river to insure a large reservoir of water to service the Panama Canal lock systems, the Chagres has a long history and has been fiercely fought over and occupied by many different groups in the course of history.
Why such a fuss over a little river you ask? Well, that’s easy.
The Chagres River valley contained so much gold at the beginning of its recorded history that the Spanish called Panama the Golden Castle (“Castilla del Oro”). After Peru was discovered, the Spanish transported the wealth of the Incas across the Chagres. And the super rich Chagres was also a conduit for other rivers of gold. Virtually all of the gold produced in the 1849 California Gold Rush was transported over the isthmus and via the Chagres. . . over a billion and a half dollars worth.
A brief history of the Chagres includes: 1) 1597 – Spain built a fort to repel pirates; 2) 1671 – Henry Morgan captured the fort and used it for a base to attack Panama City and upon his return he destroyed the fort; 3) 1677 – Spain rebuilt the fort with additional artillery and barracks; 4) 1740 – English Admiral Sir Edward Vernon captured and demolished the fort; 5) 1751 – Spain rebuilt the fort again and those ruins are present today.
How about a bike ride to Fort San Lorenzo! Let's go!
Riding bikes to Fort San Lorenzo was "as good as it gets" for a combination of exercise and beautiful surroundings!
Now that we have made a thorough tour of the Fort Sherman area, let's move on to more of Panama!
Far across Cristobal Bay, on the eastern shores and across from Fort Sherman and Shelter Bay lies the city of Colón.
Colón has a well-established reputation for being dangerous. Whenever we mention Panama to anyone around the world, more often than not the first thing said, emphatically, is “BE CAREFUL IF YOU GO TO COLÓN! YOU’LL GET ROBBED THERE!”
There is a marina on the Colón side of Cristobal Bay called the Panama Canal Yacht Club. It is a lot less expensive than Shelter Bay Marina and, thus, is very popular with the cruisers on a budget, or those who don't want the long cab/bus rides to get to town from the isolated Shelter Bay area.
Regardless, don't let the "yacht club" desgination fool you: it is an old, small, dirty marina located in a rough part of town next to a container ship loading dock.
One cruiser reported not being able to finish lunch there because of the smell of sewage. More important, it is common knowledge that it is too dangerous to walk outside that marina without getting mugged. Even to go a few blocks down the street you have to take a taxi, because there is a rough neighborhood just outside the gates. One cruiser was stabbed when walking at night.
In reality, just how dangerous is Colón? Well, one morning we were riding through Colón with the Shelter Bay Marina manager, Russ, in his pickup. He was giving us a ride back to the marina from the train station.
And there they were: two very white, very conspicuous tourists walking in a very dangerous part of Colón. Russ actually stopped his truck even with them and told them to hail a cab and get off the street RIGHT NOW!
In typical Pollyanna “I’d like to buy the world a Coke, and keep it company” fashion, the lady looked at us indignantly and said “Your kidding! Is it really that dangerous?!” Russ did not mince words: “YES LADY! GET OFF OF THIS STREET AND INTO A CAB NOW!
Some tourists (and that includes cruisers) are unwilling to accept that some places on this earth really are damn dangerous and very risky compared to other locales. And the "icing on the cake" with those risk takers is that they ignore warnings and then proudly announce that a known-to-be-dangerous place is really safe, simply because nothing happened to them on that given day, etc.
Anyway, Russ told us that, in broad daylight at that same location, a lady who is a professional photographer was in a cab stuck in traffic and taking pictures out of the window with a $10,000 camera when a robber stuck a gun in the window and demanded the camera. The lady grabbed the gun barrel and wrestled with it just as traffic took off and she got away without losing her camera or getting shot. Lucky!
Also, the routine "M.O." on the street is for a gang of many to keep piling on a victim's back until he/she is tackled to the ground and can't move -- then the gang holds the victim down and goes through his/her pockets.
As to Colón, know this: when each and every local you meet tells you it is very dangerous to walk alone in their city and to be careful, it's no joke.
In fact, some of the Panamanians we met in Panama City reported that they don’t go to Colón anymore. It’s just too dangerous. I went for a dental checkup by a semi-retired dentist in Panama City and he related, in perfect English, how he grew up near the Chagres River and Ft. Sherman areas and enjoyed the river and the seashore very much. But, he lamented that he would never go back there now, because the highway traffic and the crime in Colón are all so dangerous now.
And while the streets of Colón can be very dangerous, the anchorage on that side of the Bay is pretty safe in comparison, but not without its own set of problems too.
In Cristobal Bay, just outside the short canal into the Panama Canal Yacht Club in Colón, lies an area of the Bay called “The Flats” where the “we like to anchor out” crowd hangs out. Many cruisers don't like marinas and for good reason: they cost a lot; it is a hassle to get out fenders and lines and power cords, etc.; you usually lose the breeze and it's hotter; and, you lose the great privacy you enjoy on the hook. So, for those who love to be at anchor, The Flats is the answer.
The Flats anchorage also serves as the staging area for yachts transiting the Canal.
The Flats, however, has its own set of troubles. Dinghies are routinely stolen in that area and the anchorage is notorious for its poor holding. Boats drag often, but the joke is that “considering the holding is so bad, they all break loose and drift in a group and thus do not collide.” Synchronized anchor dragging! Who would have thought of such a thing?!
Also, it is aggravating that The Flats are in an area within the plume of a dump where trash is burned. One cruiser reported that the smoke gets so thick in the anchorage that all hatches must be closed until the smoke dies down or the wind changes.
As for shopping, Colón hosts a HUGE free trade zone that is actually a walled city of many square miles, all located on the outskirts of old Colón. Huge, tall, solid-cement walls surround the entire zone and armed guards monitor the traffic in and out of the few gates. It is a fortress.
The complex is massive; way larger than can be covered in a day. Moreover, the outlets are not designed for walk-up consumer purchases. Rather, this is a place a business would come to purchase large wholesale shipments for resale.
We did not enter the Free Zone. It seemed more trouble than it was worth, especially considering you might look all day and never find the type of products you are looking for. Nonetheless, we did hear stories of a few brave souls finding bargains.
During our stay we had the opportunity to see a little of the City of Colón while going to Customs and Immigrations with our Agent “Stanley” and also while catching the Panama Canal Railway to Panama City. Moreover, we traveled with a fellow cruiser via rent-a-car to Panama City and saw even more of Colón.
All things considered, if it fits within your budget, I contend that Shelter Bay Marina, located safely away from Colón, is a vastly superior choice for cruisers on the Caribbean side of Panama.
TRANSITING THE PANAMA CANAL
The Colón area is a popular stop for cruisers making their way around the Caribbean , but it is mandatory staging area for transiting the Panama Canal. The Panama Yacht Club, Shelter Bay Marina, and The Flats anchorage stay busy with yachtsmen readying their boats for passage though the canal and the big jump into the new cruising theater of the Pacific Ocean. Yacht rates to transit average $800 and up.
Transiting the Canal is quite a production. You have to hire an agent. Authorities come out and take precise measurements of your boat. You sign a contract that, in harsh and strict legal language, sets forth that the Panama Canal Authority and all its agents and assigns have no liability whatsoever in the event your vessel is damaged or destroyed, either intentionally or through negligence. You assume absolutely all risks for entering the canal.
Once all paperwork and inspections are completed, then the yacht owner must rent long, heavy lines for all four corners of the boat and also rent tires for fenders (the more the better).
Finally, the transiting yacht must arrange for manpower. Rules require that each yacht have a minimum of four line handlers (one for each corner of the vessel), a captain (usually the owner) and an “advisor.”
It is recommended that at least one local line handler with experience be hired to help the others know what to do and when, and tell everyone what to expect.
Cruisers routinely volunteer to be line handlers, some to get a preview of what to expect when they take their own boats through the canal, and others, like us, do it purely for the interesting experience of transiting the canal.
During the time we spent in Panama, we quickly learned that no two transits are alike and that much of the experience is determined by what boats/ships you are paired with in the locks.
Some folks get lucky and have good rafting partners. Some get unlucky and have to raft up with unprepared boats and careless crews.
We fell into the latter category, but through hard work and over-preparedness, we came through okay.
Here is our Panama Canal transit story:
Melissa and I volunteered as line handlers for O'Vive, a brand new St. Francis fifty-foot catamaran (hull number four). We “met” them while underway and sailing on the same course from Portobelo to Shelter Bay Marina. They called us on the VHF to inquire how little Indigo Moon was keeping up with their big cat!
The owners are Florida Keys residents, husband and wife Dave and Natalie and their two children, Emilie and Alec (ages 14 and 12). They are headed to New Zealand and Australia and will enjoy a year-long adventure in the vast Pacific Ocean.
Here is a link to the O'Vive website: http://www.sailblogs.com/member/eauvivecrossing/?xjMsgID=37258
The required crew for a canal transit is four line handlers (either volunteer cruisers or paid local help), the Captain and an "Advisor" which is technically a category of less skill than a Pilot (although some of the Advisors are actually commercial captains and overqualified for the Advisor position).
Because kids can't be line handlers, Dave had to hire one extra.
So, on board for transiting the Canal are Captain Dave and line handlers Melissa, Natalie, Buddy and a local guy named “Cholo” who is an experienced line handler.
There are also the Advisors. You get one advisor for the first night going through the Gatun locks, and then a different advisor the next morning to make the long trip across Lake Gatun and then down the Miraflores locks on the Pacific side.
We left Shelter Bay marina at 16:00 and anchored in the Flats in Colón Harbor , where all boats go to meet their advisor.
We were at anchor and full of excitement, chatting with Cholo and excited about the prospect of transiting the Canal. The sun finally set and twilight set in when we noticed a blue monohull (that I won't name), was motoring around the anchorage (instead of anchoring like the Pilots instructed).
The blue monohull motored at full speed across our bows at such close range that I was certain he would catch our anchor chain! Luckily he missed. I still don’t know how.
Then, he continued on at full speed straight at the beam of another monohull that was anchored a few boats away. We were all certain there would be a crash, but he did a “Captain Ron” maneuver and backed down at full throttle. With much fury and boiling water from the propeller, he barely avoided a collision, all as we gasped.
As the boats came within inches of each other, a guy jumped on (we found out later the Captain was picking up a volunteer line handler).
We still did not know it yet, but they were to be our rafting partners. At that point we were merely remarking at how insane that boat handling was.
At 19:30 the Pilot boat roared up to us and nosed in to our stern to let our Advisor jump on.
You HAVE to feed the Advisor a good supper or else the Advisor can order a box dinner be delivered to him on The Flats (for $200 dollars) and you have to pay. While eating dinner, our Advisor monitored his radio for instructions as to when we would enter the locks and what our rafting arrangement would be.
Soon we learned the wicked news: the wild monohull was our rafting partner! We listening to the radio and heard him ignore instructions and cause confusion and make it difficult for the Pilot boat to get his Advisor on board.
Finally, an hour later, we were headed toward the locks as a fleet. A large ship, a freighter, was already in the locks. A steel Mexican trawler from Tampico was behind the freighter. And then there would be our boat and our rafting partner, the ‘Sailboat from Hell’. That was the plan.
Ships were coming out of the other side of the locks and we met them head-on, passing very closely as we got near our lock. As soon as the traffic cleared we had to stop mid-channel and raft to the sailboat. It is required that we motor into the locks already rafted up. So, we had twelve rented plastic-covered tires on each side of the catamaran, six big fenders on each side, and lots of lines and were super-ready.
The ‘Sailboat from Hell’ had four tires total, two crummy little fenders and NO LINES. They had some ridiculous, thin line that was obviously old and threadbare. UGH! They were drinking beer and were unprepared.
So, we supplied all the lines and did all the work and tried our best to get situated with what is tantamount to a Remora from Hell that is now stuck to us.
The sailboat crew sat back and was unconcerned. They had no VHF at the helm. We handed over a walkie-talkie so that Dave could communicate with the skipper and ask for engine and/or rudder help, etc.
We did the best we could to raft up safely, and then began motoring toward the lock area. All we could do to console ourselves was that we had done our best under the circumstances. Also, that hopefully the line handlers on the Canal banks would help control things.
Then more bad news: the authorities determined that we cannot fit behind the Mexican trawler. Unfortunately, we will have to raft up to him too. The banged up and rusting steel trawler has two tires. That's it. No fenders, no nothing.
Also, we have been instructed to raft to the trawler and there will be no lines running from the sailboat to the other side of the lock.
We now have the ‘Sailboat from Hell’ on our starboard side adding tremendous pressure and leverage in the wild turbulence caused by the lock filling as well as by the prop wash when the ship ahead takes off.
On the port side, we will be wrenched against a steel fishing trawler with no fenders except ours!
There are three locks to traverse and it was only through extreme skill and quick work that we avoided damage to the catamaran. Dave, using his engines, and all the line handlers using all their strength were just barely adequate to work line loads and push and fend off the other boats. It was tough.
The last lock into Gatun Lake is where the ship ahead really put the hurt on us. In the first two locks, the ship took off with not too much throttle and the prop-wash was impressive but we managed.
As soon as the last lock opened, though, the ship “put the hammer down” and I quit breathing when I saw the violent wash coming toward us! I really don't know how we managed to avoid ripping a cleat off of the catamaran. The line loads were gut wrenching.
Hey, the guys on the sailboat didn’t care. They just drank more beer! Plus a new scar on that boat would have improved its character.
After surviving the Gatun locks against all odds, and being free from the monohull at last, we motored to a big ship mooring in the lake, and guess what?
We had to share the mooring with the ‘Sailboat from Hell.’
And yes, this guy likes to aim the pointy end directly into the beam of other vessels. He came within a foot of putting his bow into us while trying to land at the mooring. It really is hard to imagine how someone could be so unskilled.
It was 2:30 am when we finally got all the boats tied up and got to sleep.
At 6:00 a.m. it was “up and Adam” and back to work! The new Advisor came on board: Rudolfo Aleman, a really cool guy. We got loose from the mooring and got away from the sailboat and explained what we went through in the Gatun locks.
And that morning I saw, for the first time in daylight, the name of the monohull and recognized it instantly. Good Grief!!!!!!! This boat was menacing the fleet back in St. John , U.S.V.I. a couple of years ago when I was the St. John Maho Bay Host for the National Park Service.
In the dark of night this same boat crashed into my friend Kendall's beautiful Wharram catamaran while it was moored at Maho Bay! Kendall was not made whole on the damage.
I explained to our Advisor, Rudolfo, that NO WAY did we want anything further to do with this menace of a boat . . . a vessel obviously on a world-wide mission of destruction!
To his credit, Rudolfo went to work on the radio lobbying for an arrangement that would end any further intercourse with the Mexican trawler and the crummy sailboat.
GOOD NEWS! We won't raft to them anymore. There is a big tour boat scheduled to go through the locks with us, and no ships! We will be in front rafted to the tour boat. The dangerously handled blue sailboat will raft to the Mexican trawler.
So, we relaxed and enjoyed the trip through the large expanses of Lake Gatun . It takes several hours to cross the lake and weave through various islands. We enjoyed the sights and visited with Cholo and Rudolfo, the Advisor. Cholo is a nice guy. All day he explained over and over again how much he loved his wife. Then, he would get giddy and call her on his cell phone. This cycle went on for hours.
As for Rudolfo, we chatted a while and he learned I was a Louisiana Lawyer who went to LSU. He excitedly told me many members of his family are lawyers who also graduated from LSU and Tulane law schools! I explained that I was trying to reach a Panama City lawyer named José Miguel Aleman, a close friend of Baton Rouge lawyer John Pace, who suggested I call José Aleman if I were ever in Panama. John Pace had informed me that José Miguel is from a family of very prominent Panama City attorneys and that José Miguel ran for President of Panama in the last election.
The more I talked, the more Rudolfo smiled. In the “small world” department it turned out that Rudolfo is José Miguel’s cousin and in less than thirty seconds, Rudolfo had José Miguel on his cell phone and that is how I made contact!
During that telephone conversation Melissa and I were invited to get together with the Alemans during our visit in Panama. We’ll get to that later in the report!
The rest of the canal transit worked out fine thanks to Rudolfo, and the ride down the Miraflores set of locks to sea level was a "piece of cake." No ship, no turbulence, no line loads, and no jerks.
Here's a look:
Once the last lock opened on the Pacific side, it was a great relief. It was fun to be with our new friends on O'Vive for this once-in-a-lifetime opening scene in their Pacific adventures.
There were over 50 ships and huge tuna fishing boats anchored outside the Canal on the Pacific side. Though hard to explain why, it was immediately discernable that we were not in the Caribbean . The color of the water, the style of fishing boats, the way the swells were running, the birds, the schools of fish . . . it was a new world that my nautical soul instantly detected.
We motored into the "Flaminco" Marina and quickly said our goodbyes and jumped ship in order to catch our prearranged ride back to Colón , Shelter Bay and to Indigo Moon. It was a great experience and we really enjoyed meeting the cool folks on O’Vive.
Lessons learned: COMPLAIN immediately if your rafting partner poses risks. The Advisors said in retrospect that the blue sailboat should have been turned back due to a lack of lines and fenders. We should have spoken up, but didn't know that we could.
If you see a dangerous situation developing in the canal, it's no time to spare feelings or let cruising goodwill send you into the locks with severely mismatched vessels.
Maybe the Canal should have “drunk crew and crappy boat" days, when all those types of careless cruisers and bums are sent through together. All said, though, it was a fabulous experience -- JUST PLAIN AWESOME.
There is a huge, multi-story observation building at the Miraflores locks (the last one on the Pacific side). I was so happy we made it through unscathed that when the gates opened I yelled "Hola! Como Estan!" and then "I LOVE YOU!" to the several hundred spectators.
We laughed when somebody screamed back loudly "I LOVE YOU TOO!"
And so it was. Our first welcome to the Pacific was a good one!
We will always remember the experience of transiting the Canal. It is a unique undertaking unlike any other. We think of the crew of O'Vive often and hope that their Pacific Adventure is turning out to be spectacular.
With the Canal experience done, we rested up a few days and then headed off on yet another inland adventure.
After recovering from our arduous line handling experience, we decided to take the famous Panama Canal Railway to Panama City, spend the night, and then rent a car and head west on the Pacific Coast and spend the night at the beach in Santa Clara. Our plan was to then drive west and inland the next day to the popular mountain village of Boquete.
Before we head out, here is a brief overview of Panama City:
Cosmopolitan. Affluent. Vibrant. First-World.
Dynamic Panama City, located at the south entrance to the Panama Canal, is a fabulous destination and an oasis in otherwise undeveloped and unstable Central America. With a metropolitan population of one million people, and an impressive infrastructure funded by the Panama Canal project, it is the political and administrative center of the country.
International banking, tourism, and the Panama Canal provide much of the nation’s income, and 55% of Panama’s GDP is generated in Panama City alone.
Panama City is a tourist destination in its own right and enjoys a hotel occupancy rate that is the 2nd highest (84.7 percent) in the world after Perth, Australia and followed by Dubai (84.5 percent).
The communications systems are highly developed and are among Central America's most reliable. Internet use is widespread due to Panama's high income.
Developers and investors from around the world are investing in Panama’s real estate market. This is caused in part by the fact that the canal is planned for expansion and many other such developments are likely to take place in the country.
Panama City has been rated as one of the top five retirement locations in the world for the last five out of seven years, and more and more U.S. citizens are buying property and retiring in Panama City, or in other locales such as mountain villages like picturesque Boquete.
Panama currently has more than 110 high-rise projects being constructed, with 127 high-rise buildings already built. It currently holds the 65th place in the world by high rise buildings count.
The Centennial Bridge, that crosses the Panama Canal earned the American Segmental Bridge Institute prize of excellence together with seven other bridges in the Americas.
Panama City has full access to electric service, potable water, sewer lines, telephone, cable TV service, and internet service. Telecommunications are very advanced after the privatization of the national telecommunication company in the mid-1990s. Cell phone service is also very accessible. Panama City has for years boasted some of the cleanest, best-tasting water in the world. Tap water quality is excellent throughout the City.
About 45% of Panama physicians are located in Panama City. Top-quality medical care and modern hospitals are located in the metropolitan area. The hospitals offer first-rate medical services. Many Panamanian doctors are U.S. trained, and standards at the top hospitals compare favorably to those in the United States.
And so, we boarded the train in Colón and enjoyed a beautifully scenic trip through the Canal Zone with vistas of Lake Gatun and the canal.
Considering most of the hotels were booked due to a convention (and everyday popularity of the city), we had a little bit of trouble securing a room. We managed to get checked into the somewhat shabby, but clean and acceptable Executive Hotel.
We spent an enjoyable first evening in Panama City having dinner with Bob and Trish Meredith. At the time, Bob and Trish just happened to be passing through Panama City while touring Panama in their Toyota 4 Runner.
I first ‘met’ Bob on the Latitudes and Attitudes Magazine internet chat board four years ago. We were both leaving the Gulf Coast (them from Texas) at the same time to go cruising. Bob and Trish currently live on their boat, Barnacle, at Mario’s Marina on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.
Since we were planning on spending hurricane season in the Rio Dulce at Mario’s Marina, Bob and Trish were a great source of information for us. We had lots of fun visiting with them and looked forward to seeing them again in the summer.
The next morning, we rented a car, made a stop by the Allbrook Mall, and then headed over the Bridge of the Americas and on to Santa Clara where we had rented a cabin on the beach for the night.
Okay, back up. Getting out of town wasn’t nearly that easy. I have driven in many different countries and in one of my “past lives” was an outside salesman for a heavy equipment company. I have always boasted that I have never gotten confoundedly lost in my life . . . until Panama City. It broke me!
The street maps do not match the actual streets and there is not one street sign in the entire city. I kept asking Melissa, who was holding the map and is usually pretty good with directions, where we were and where we should turn.
She had no idea and kept saying ‘How can I tell you where to turn if I don’t know where I am!?!’ Actually, that’s a pretty cleaned-up version of the “R-rated” conversation we continued to have at higher and higher volumes. It was frustrating, to say the least.
We had left the car rental office with all intentions of heading to the Allbrook Mall, but drove around lost for forty-five minutes. Suddenly, and without knowing how or why, I found myself on the up ramp and committed to going over the Bridge of the Americas. I informed Melissa that we were on our way to the coast and that the Mall was out of the picture.
Not so fast! Melissa demanded I turn around, go back over the bridge, and find the Mall. An hour later and after almost deciding to make a high speed jump over a six foot tall concrete centerline divider that kept keeping me from turning into the Mall, I finally managed to weave through various switchbacks and u-turns to arrive in the Mall parking lot. I still can’t figure out how we made it.
Finally done with the Mall, we drove across the Bridge of the Americas once more and drove about two hours to Santa Clara on the Pacific Coast.
It was mid-afternoon and we found ourselves with plenty of time to check into our cabin at Las Sirenas, take an afternoon walk on the Pacific beach, enjoy the beautifully landscaped grounds of Las Sirenas.
Sirena. It's Spanish for siren, or mermaid. A thing of luring and irresistible beauty. Las Sirenas Resort, Panama, lives up to the name.
We watched the sunset from the patio of our cabin and enjoyed a west coast (actually south coast in Panama) experience.
While relaxing outside on the patio, we particularly enjoyed the family of black and white cats that looked a lot like feline dairy cows.
They were obviously hungry, but all we had available to feed them were snacks we had just bought at the store, a good 30 to 45 minutes away. Yes, Melissa was suggesting we go buy cat food, but she had used up all the “keep driving” goodwill for the day by making me go back across the Bridge of the Americas to the Mall. I was beat.
So, Melissa crumbled up a few oatmeal Hob Nob cookies and placed them in a little dish. The kittens nibbled a bit, but didn’t seem particularly overjoyed with the fare and then began “peeling out” in the plate and sending Hob Nob debris flying.
I did my part. I relaxed in the hammock and laughed at the whole experiment. Then Melissa tried some Fritos corn chips and found them to be a much bigger hit. Apparently, cats like fat too and my Fritos were getting sacrificed and Melissa’s Hob Nobs were available for her future use. We were laughing and the cats were fun.
The playful kittens entangled themselves in the low hanging tassels of our front pork hammock, providing us with more fun and entertainment.
As twilight waned and darkness set in, it was VERY quiet. We were just getting to bed when an extremely loud bird call, much like a scream and cry combined, pierced the open window above our headboard. It made the hair on my neck stand up!
I went out in the darkness and could just barely make out the shape of a very large bird about fifteen feet up in the tree outside our window. It’s screams continued: bloodcurdling and very loud. It was really creeping me out! I even thought it might be a vulture and a bad omen over our window.
I could not figure out what it was until morning when I was able to get a better look. It turned out that screeching creature outside my window was a huge peacock! I have never seen one up in a tree before and I have never seen one fly. Thus, I never considered that the dark form I saw the night before could have been a peacock.
Of course, I have always seen peacocks on the grounds of Louisiana Plantations, most notably the John James Audubon House in St. Francisville, and I knew they made good watchdogs in light of their tremendous screams when they call.
I went back inside to got the camera and managed to get a shot of the bird in the tree. Just as I stepped back, down it flew making a tremendous whooshing sound with its wings. Thereafter, the bird casually walked away.
Soon after sun up we were on the road, headed for Boquete, a five hour drive west and then north into the Panamanian mountains. We made our way west along the Pan-American Highway, a road that winds through many small towns, up and over hills and mountains, and the surface of which varies from two lane to four lane to blacktop to concrete to perfect to demolished at any given time.
Also, speed limits change faster than you can keep up with them. And that brings up yet another first-world attribute of Panama: “speed traps.” There are cops everywhere with radar guns and the roads are well-patrolled. There are even seatbelt laws.
And, you know where this story is going.
As I crested a hill about an hour out of Santa Clara, a motorcycle cop strolled into the roadway and waved me over. I was doing 97 kilometers an hour on a two lane section of road.
The officer approached my window, saw I was a gringo, and quickly decided that it was easiest to ask me to walk back with him to his motorcycle. He showed me the number on his radar gun: 97. Then he explained that on two lanes the limit is 80 and that only on four lanes is it 100. Then he asked how long I would be in Panama.
Ok, this is a high stakes Spanish test.
Any good lawyer can talk his way out of a ticket, right? The truth is sometimes.
I’ve been speaking Spanish since our lessons in Cartagena. Not great Spanish by any means, but good “Tarzan” Spanish. Hand gestures are also a strong point of mine after years of work on the courtroom floor.
The officer finished talking, picked up his ticket book (that is never a good sign) and looked at me. He was just about to flip the ticket pad open and start writing when I launched!
In Spanish I quickly rattled off the equivalent of: "I am sorry! Please! Please! I did not know! I understand now. You want me to go slower. I can go slower. I promise to go slower. My speed will be 80 on two lane. I will go slower, no problem! I don’t want any trouble. I am leaving tomorrow. I have a boat at Colón and I am leaving Panama and sailing to Belize in just two days. Please. Please. I am sorry."
Part of salesmanship is knowing when to shut up. I said no more, the cop looked at me and studied my sad face for a moment, and then the verdict. He put the ticket pad back down, handed me my Passport and I was free to go.
So, not bad. I passed the test. And, as an added bonus, Melissa had a blast the rest of the day telling me to slow down all the time!
We also had to go through checkpoints on the way. These guard shacks are in the median and well-armed military personnel stop traffic. They demanded passports and asked where we were going.
On one of those stops, a rather snippy guy made us pull over and then admonished me to wear my seatbelt (which was already on). I kept showing him it was on and saying “si, siempre” meaning “yes, always” but he seemed hell bent on lecturing me anyway and I surely held still for it and caused no trouble.
After hours of grueling driving we finally reached the capital of Chirqui Province, David. It is there that you turn north off of the Pan-American Highway and head up into the mountains.
Boquete is located thirty minutes up into the mountains from David and is a favorite vacation spot and retirement area. This is Panama’s most mountainous region and Boquete is situated in a valley at an elevation of 3,600 ft.
With the Caldera River to its east and Baru Volcano to its west, scenic Boquete enjoys a comfortable year-round climate ideal for active retirement living by outdoor adventure seekers. Birding, hiking, mountain biking, rafting, and nature-based activities are the premier opportunities in Boquete.
In addition, rich and fertile soil lends itself to gardening, flower production, and coffee plantations.
The real estate market in this area is absolutely “on fire” with gringos buying up property and planning to retire in this quaint mountain area. Wherever we went, in restaurants, shops, grocery stores and the like, there was always a gringo within earshot announcing proudly that they are buying property in Panama.
And there is no mystery as to why. If you love nature, want to live a simple life in the mountains and escape the perceived ills of fast-paced, expensive life in the USA, but you also still want to be in a country that has first-world services and a stable government that operates under Rule of Law, then Panama and Boquete will be very high on your list. This area continuously rates in the top five retirement places in the world.
And it is developing as you would imagine. There are large upscale residential developments underway with golf courses. It is a boomtown atmosphere in that regard. However, the town itself lacks infrastructure anywhere near necessary to serve large numbers of the upscale USA golf course crowd. It will be very interesting to see if a “well healed” gringo community can really do without Starbucks, Barnes and Noble, and Walmart, etc. I would imagine that the golf course developers are banking on a “build it and they will come” attitude regarding ancillary businesses.
Regardless of how things eventually turn out, the natural beauty of Boquete is spectacular. With careful planning and an eye toward the future, this sleepy little mountain paradise will not lose its character as unprecedented development continues.
In the meantime, we enjoyed it immensely. For one thing, up in the mountains it was cool during the early mornings and afternoons, and cold at night. Wearing jeans and jackets was quite a contrast from the sweltering Caribbean heat we had experienced for the last three years. Although I hate cold weather, it was fun to recall what it is like not to sweat at all for an entire day!
Here’s a look at some of our experiences:
It was quite a drive back to Panama City non-stop from Boquete, and we were trying to get the rental car back in time not to pay additional charges.
Things were going great when we crossed the Bridge of America with forty-five minutes to spare.
Then it happened. We took a few turns and got absolutely lost AGAIN. The map was useless. We could get to major areas, but the complicated street details were just plain wrong. Also, remember, there are no street signs in Panama City and few signs regarding major highway turns.
Melissa and I drove around for an hour. We knew we were in the vicinity of the car rental office but could not figure it out. Finally, I decided to find a pay phone, took a left in a new direction and a few blocks later we stumbled on the car rental office.
It did not help that they had moved and were giving out maps with the wrong, old location! We had not noticed it when we departed several days earlier.
The next time we rent a car in a foreign country, I am bringing a handheld GPS with me and entering the agency’s coordinates into the unit as a waypoint. It would have been a snap to do.
But, alas, we got lost and humble pie was my reward. We had to pay extra because we didn’t make it back on time, but I was just happy we got the car returned with no accidents or traffic tickets and no dents or scratches.
One thing I do not like about renting cars in the Caribbean, Panama included, is that none of the agencies offer full insurance. There is always a sizeable deductible of a few thousand bucks. So, the “scratch and dent” inspections are critical when signing paperwork at the inception of the rental. I have heard of rip offs. They also like to charge for sidewall tire damage.
When renting truly rough-looking cars in the Eastern Caribbean, I took to drawing a big “X” over the entire car on the damage diagram and the writing: “The entire surface of the vehicle has sustained previous damage so much so that the vehicle cannot be further damaged unless it is severely crashed in a major high-speed accident.” That kept me out of the scratch and dent scams.
Thankfully, we got the car returned without incident and made it back to the hotel in one piece.
BOATING WITH NEW FRIENDS IN PANAMA
Once back at the hotel, I called José Miguel Aleman to arrange a get-together. He invited us to go boating with family and friends and offered to swing by the Flamenco Marina in his boat to pick us up. From there we would head several miles out into the Pacific to the famous island of Taboga where we would raft up with the Aleman’s family and friends for an afternoon of BBQ and swimming.
Let’s check it out!
I had fun meeting Roberto. The Aleman brother's Dad was the Editor-in-Chief of the L.S.U. Law Review in 1941. There is a close kinship of LSU Law grads, just as one would expect there to be after joining the ranks of a group of people who have completed an academic endeavor that is so challenging and difficult that only fellow alumni can truly appreciate the accomplishment it represents.
In short, we had a fantastic day with the Alemans. The perfect hospitality extended us by the Alemans and their friends and family reminded us of South Louisiana so much so that it made us homesick.
At the end of the afternoon, during our return ride to the marina, José Miguel was happily animated, pointing here and there at the shoreline, saying: “You can live over there in a new condominium! Melissa, you can work for Dell, they need people and pay well! Buddy, you can keep a boat right over there and charter it!” In a matter of minutes, José Miguel had a Panama Plan in place for Melissa and me.
And, well, it was a pretty dog gone good idea! It is nice to have options. Melissa and I have a few years of cruising left in us, and who knows where we will wind up when we “swallow the anchor” and buy dirt again. Panama is a fabulous option.
That said, Panama City is a wonderful place where warm people and cosmopolitan first-world services combine to render a very attractive location. In short, Panama ’s fine reputation is well deserved. And certainly, we will not forget the fellowship and hospitality extended us by the Alemans and their friends.
MEDICAL SERVICES IN PANAMA CITY
Before returning to Colón and Shelter Bay Marina, we decided to spend a couple of more days in Panama City . Melissa and I wanted to visit a dentist to get a check up and cleaning. We were referred to a wonderful dentist, Dr. Charles Garcia, who was very reasonable, had a modern office and provided first-rate service.
As is always the case wherever I go, the first remark made by the dentist is that my previous dental work is very fine. Yes, Baton Rouge ’s Dr. Chad LaCour has fans amongst his peers throughout the Caribbean , all of whom “ooh and ah” over my pretty crowns and gold filings! And my checkup went off without a hitch.
Also, Melissa and I were due for a checkup with a dermatologist. The cruel tropical sun takes its toll on cruisers, us included, and we have to get yearly checkups to have our ‘barnacles’ looked at. We had been advised by fellow cruisers to visit Dr. Bullon, a very thorough and highly skilled dermatologist in Panama City who speaks English.
Our visit was not cheap: $800.00 for both of us. But, it was worth every penny. This doctor studied every inch of our bodies and I have never obtained an skin exam with nearly that level of completeness.
One mole was removed and sent to the lab. And the doctor removed about a dozen skin tabs (all of them) from my neck area. I complained that one of the tabs was continually irritated and rubbed by the neck of my T-shirts, and I wanted it gone. Well, he got rid of them all.
The process for removing the tabs was for the nurse to apply a topical anesthetic, stretch the skin really tight, and then the Doctor took a scalpel and used it perpendicularly to scrape, not cut, and he scraped each tab until it was gone. He explained that this method would not cause any scars at all.
I had no idea beforehand that all this was going to be done. When the doctor finished with me, it looked like a wolverine attacked my neck and upper chest, and, foolishly I wore a white shirt that day, so I had to be wrapped in gauze.
I complained about getting old and developing the skin tabs. The Doctor laughed and related that in Latin America the skin bumps and tabs that come with age are respected and referred to as “medallions of wisdom.”
And while I hope I am getting a little smarter in my old age, I opted to lose the “medals” and have a smooth neck more suited for T-shirt necklines.
Melissa got various skin issues addressed, a few little things frozen off here and there, and we also obtained various creams and prescriptions to take care of our skin. Melissa also had a biopsy done which was benign.
Although the price seemed high for Latin America , it included everything: medicine, lab work, etc. More important, you can’t buy such a high quality exam for any price in the U.S.A. where we have all become accustomed to being quickly run through doctors’ offices like cattle.
Bottom line: the quality of healthcare we experienced in Panama City was fabulous. It is one of the few places in the Caribbean that I felt like it was not necessary to fly home in the event of an emergency.
After tending to our health care, our inland adventure was over and we caught the Panama Canal Railway back to Colón .
We were excited because we knew that the marina would be buzzing and completely immersed in all things James Bond. Yep, during our inland trip, the entire film crew for the new James Bond movie Quantum of Solace moved in with a fleet of big trucks, and camera barges and boats, and helicopters, and paramedics, and stunt people, and security guards, and engineers, and craftsmen, and explosives experts, and food services, and all the things it takes to support filming a multimillion dollar major motion picture in the jungle.
BOND . . . JAMES BOND. . . . IS WALKING RIGHT BEHIND OUR BOAT!
Due out in theaters Fall 2008 the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace is the sequel to Casino Royale, wherein Daniel Craig took on the role of James Bond.
A portion of the movie was filmed in Panama, but in the movie the country is given the fictitious name of Isthmus (I wonder where that could be). Some scenes were filmed in the city of Colón too.
Shelter Bay Marina was chosen as the location to stage on-the-water chase scenes and to design and execute stunts associated with the chase scenes.
Also a fake marketplace was constructed at the edge of the marina’s boat storage yard, and a short scene was filmed there as well.
The effort and industry expended to capture the boat chase scenes was nothing short of phenomenal. We are guessing the chase scene will last three minutes, but it took about a month to design and film.
It was quite the traveling road show with everything from helicopters to "007" trash cans arriving on the scene in order to support the film crew.
It was quite interesting to see how things are done on the cutting edge of major filmmaking these days. It did not take me long to figure out that wireless digital cameras were being used as well as film cameras.
As it turned out, full rehearsals were “filmed” using high-grade digital cameras that sent wireless direct feeds into the director’s tent for recording and real-time review. This allowed for better design and sequencing before actually shooting a scene with film cameras.
We overheard that this digital method of pre-filming obviated the necessity for old-fashioned story boards. Instead, digital story boards are created in the form of actual digital sequences. This new “what you see is what you’ll really get” method eliminates guesswork from the process and when they roll film they know precisely what they are going after and how it will look.
I spent quite a bit of time "up close and personal" on the docks as the film crew was working.
There was no way that the marina could be turned into a closed set, so the film crew pretty much accommodated us as we did them. When the real James Bond star, Daniel Craig, was around he was not hounded at all, not even once that I saw, by any fans seeking autographs, etc. Nobody approached him.
Here is a look at some of the camera equipment:
There were many big power yachts in for the filming, not the least of which was the M4, a power yacht that is allegedly featured in the actual movie. it had underwater lights that lit up the clear, clean waters of Shelter Bay Marina.
That is one more very nice attribute of Shelter Bay: it is deep and the water is very clean compared to most other marinas.
By far, the most frenzied paparazzi-like mob to assemble on the docks during the entire filming had nothing to do with Hollywood or movie stars. Rather, the film crew went nuts over a baby sloth that was being kept by one of the marina employees. The little sloth’s Mom had been killed and the orphaned sloth was quite a hit. He got way more attention that Daniel Craig.
I guess that could be both good and bad. I’m sure Mr. Craig was happy to be left alone to concentrate on his work to a certain degree, but then again most movie stars are not used to being totally ignored and out shined by a sloth of all things.
I really enjoyed seeing all the props and stunt boats and the way they went about setting up the equipment necessary to film a really impressive chase scene. It did not take much imagination to figure out that the scene will depict bad guys in black inflatable boats chasing James Bond and the Bond Girl in this movie, Olga Kurylenko (as Camilla). Bond and Camilla will be running from the bad guys in a commandeered old fishing boat (really a high powered jet boat that has been camouflaged to look like an old boat).
The chase will include one of the chase boats climbing up on Bond's boat, hand to hand combat while the boats are speeding along, and the flipping of a bad guy's boat, perhaps with some explosions thrown in to boot.
One of the inflatables has a frame bolted under the bow to allow it to ride up onto the back of Bond's boat while both boats are running at high speed.
James Bond's boat is really two: one that is driven normally from the controls at the stand-up console, and another that allows a hidden driver inside the console, allowing the vessel to still be controlled during scenes when James Bond must let go of the wheel and engage in hand-to-hand combat with bad guys, all while the boats are running at high speed.
It took a lot of effort to set up the stunt of flipping a bad guy's boat. An underwater structure was designed to serve as a starting gate for the stunt boats. The shot starts out with the Bond Boat in front, and the bad-guy's boat piggy back. The boats need to be kept perfectly aligned and still to begin the stunt-run.
Let's check it out!
In addition to seeing the stunts, it was fun to look at the small props too. Up close, these are clearly plastic guns and you would never believe they would be adequate to use in a movie of this caliber.
But, when the bad guys rode in their boats at even a modest distance, you would swear the ares were real.
Also, there were demolition experts rigging explosives on one of the Bond boats.
In the "you've got to be kidding" department, there was an armed robbery attempt while the film crew was there. The film company hired private security guards, military men in uniform. One of these security guys got drunk and boarded and entered a large power yacht and pulled a gun on the crew, at 5:00 a.m., no less.
One of the yacht's crew managed to blow the horn and wake up the whole marina and the guard fled.
He was caught, but let go. The official statement: "He was just drunk and the gun was not even loaded. It was nothing."
Action was not limited to the inner part of the marina. High speed chase segments were staged in and out of the marina's entrance and also out in Cristobal Bay.
Additionally, the movie paid quite a few cruisers one hundred dollars per day to anchor just outside the marina's lagoon, out in the open fetch of huge Cristobal Bay . Some of the boats came over from The Flats anchorage and Panama Canal Yacht Club to anchor out and get paid.
Well, those cruisers started coming into Shelter Bay Marina by dinghy and putting even more pressure on the restaurant, the laundry room, and the shuttles into Colón for shopping, etc.
So, it was pretty irksome for those of us who were paying top-dollar to stay in the “nice” marina, only to find that the facilities we paid for were overrun and overstressed by "freeloading" cruisers anchored out and paid by the film crew.
As time went on, the issue of spectator photographs evolved.
If I had to guess, stuff was showing up on the Internet. At first, I took pictures all the time with no problem. By week two, I heard that people were getting hassled, especially women who were being intimidated into deleting pictures. By the time the final scenes were being filmed, security people were “thick as thieves” and were very aggressive in efforts to prevent any photographs.
I did try and take Mr. Craig’s picture from a distance once, but he was not amenable at all, always turning his back quickly to any camera that was raised.
So, I went into “stealth mode” and got a few anyway. Let’s face it, it’s not everyday that you get to pull something over on James Bond! That made it all the more fun.
One thing that can be said with certainty is that watching filming is BORING. It takes forever to set things up for a shot and then it’s over in an instant.
The progression for us boaters in the marina was initial excitement, then boredom, then aggravation, then finally a “thank God that is over” feeling.
We were getting tired of the boat wakes. The film crew and stunt boats ran too fast in the marina, and they also filmed high speed runs and chase scenes in the marina, bouncing us around a lot.
Also, the already terrible service in the marina restaurant was diminished even more so with the additional stress of having the film crew around. Although the film crews were supposed to eat at the commissary, it still caused pressure on the marina staff.
So, as fun as it was in many respects, by the time it was over it was we were ready for the Bond crew to move on.
Our time was coming to an end in Panama . For one thing we only received 30 days from Immigration and the time was approaching to renew or leave. Also, we needed to start moving north to begin making way toward Guatemala, our planned hurricane destination for 2008.
But, there was one more thing we wanted to do before departing Panama. People raved about taking their boats up the Chagres River. So, last but not least, we took Indigo Moon out the ship channel at Colón and headed to sea for a short run up the coast to the Chagres River.
THE CHAGRES RIVER: AN UNSPOILED JUNGLE PARADISE
As explained earlier in this report, the Chagres River was nicknamed the “Golden Castle” by the Spanish and it is the richest gold-producing and gold-transporting river valley in the world.
The gold may be all gone, but all the other natural riches of this spectacular river remain fully intact, even centuries after the Spanish explorers came and went. There are no villages, no developments, and no commerce on the river now. It’s pure.
Once we made it past the cliffs and a dogleg at the entrance to the river, the river straightens out for quite a distance before making several bends on it's way up to Lake Gatun.
Pristine jungle lines the banks of the river all the way up to the dam at Lake Gatun where there is a small boat ramp. A very small number of locals like to fish the river at night. Not every night, though. It is not unrealistic to expect a whole 24 hours might pass without your seeing another boat or person.
Monkeys, toucans, green parrots, sloths, crocodiles, and all the jungle critters imaginable inhabit the multiple canopied dense jungles on both sides of the river.
During our stay we did not see many other boats at all. The maximum number of boats on the river when we were there was five, stretched out over about seven miles of bending river.
And there were a few small fishing boats plying the river, not everyday though.
In short, this was the most isolated area we had been in for a long time. And it was splendid isolation!
I did meet one local on the river. One evening during “magic hour” I was grilling chicken breasts and watching birds and soaking up the unmatched beauty of the Chagres. Around a bend in the river came a young man slowly paddling a very heavy fiberglass, engineless hull.
He was in the smoke plume of my grill and as he approached he set his paddle down and motioned air toward his face with both hands and shouted “Muy rico!"
I responded “Esta bien, amigo! Es pollo parrilla!”
With a big smile, the likes of which all happy fifteen-year-olds wear when going fishing, he paddled up to the stern of Indigo Moon and grabbed on. We chatted a minute and I inquired as best I could in my Tarzan Spanish as to what fishing equipment he was using.
Very soon he opened his ice chest and he had only a very few things, scant provisions to eat. He quickly picked up two pieces of red fruit that looked exactly like radishes but about three times the size. He shut the ice chest and offered me one. He could tell I wasn’t sure about it and said: “Es fruta; dulce!” He bit into his and I did the same. He asked for nothing in return.
I still don’t know the name of the fruit but it was very good indeed. It was weird though, because every single attribute of the fruit was that of a radish except for the taste.
I thanked him and then, the response from me that I knew he was hoping for: “Amigo gracias por frutas, is differente! Me gusta! Tu quieres pollo? Es fresco y caliente y picante! Es listo ahora!”
Of course, his excited response: “Si Senor! Muchas gracias!”
I set him up with a big chicken breast, some chips and some candy bars and he was very happy. Good fishing requires good food to eat.
The next morning I did not see him return upriver like most fishermen. He must have passed by before I woke. Three days later, I was out in the cockpit at sunrise drinking coffee when two boat loads of youngsters paddled by, heading up river and back to the boat ramp.
About the same time I recognized my young friend, he saw me too, and he stood up excitedly: “Amigo! Amigo! Mira! Mira!” and he strained to hold up a tarpon as long as he was tall! How cool is that!
The Chagres River is a habitat for huge tarpon and my friend sure had bragging rights that day. I was shouting “Bueno! Bueno! Fabuloso!”
Fishing is one of those common interests that transcend all people and cultures. There is a universal excitement that fisherman always share.
I did not see my friend again, but I think of him now and then and hope he is having many great adventures on the amazing Chagres River.
We had many cool adventures during our week-long "vacation" on the Chagres River.
One afternoon, I went riding in the dinghy and did a round trip all the way to the mouth of the river and back.
Standing up and using the throttle extension, in glass-smooth water, I ran the whole river at full speed while listening to music on my MP3 player. By using “earbuds” all wind noise was cancelled and I found myself in a dream. It was a truly a spiritual experience.
Another afternoon, Melissa and I investigated every tributary we could find. Because the water was low while we were there, we could not go as far as some claim to have been. We wanted to hike up to the observation station that is located somewhere to the west of the river, but could never locate the trail head.
Nonetheless, we enjoyed ten days of bliss on the Chagres River and it was a crowning experience in or Panama travels. The more one looks at Panama the better it gets. It is an awesome country and we can easily say that our experiences there were the most diverse of any place we have ever visited.
In the evenings, we saw scores of various species of Toucans fly back and forth across the river. The toucans look quite unusual in flight because their huge beaks stick so far out in front of their wings. They look like a canard-design aircraft.
We sat out on the trampoline with binoculars and bird watched with great satisfaction.
Also, howler monkeys are abundant. One evening a tribe of about thirty decided to sleep in a tree on the riverbank that was not more than 75 feet from our anchored boat.
Howler monkeys are abundant on the Rio because it is a protected nature preserve area. In other areas of Panama and in other Central American countries, the howler monkeys are hunted and, believe it or not, eaten! So, their populations are pretty scarce in other locales. On the Rio Chagres, however, the howlers are there in large numbers.
It was fun to watch them with the binoculars as the sun set. It was not so fun to be shaken out of REM sleep at 4:30 a.m when the monkeys broke out into a MONSTER howling session! It is impossible to relate the experience. The tremendously loud sound is precisely what you expect to come from a very large, very pissed-off, carnivorous dinosaur. The calls seemed to shake the rigging as they echoed and boomed through the black stillness of the night. Unbelievable!
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the howler's call can be heard clearly from 3 miles away! I can’t imagine landing here as an explorer from the Old World and trying to figure out, in this dense jungle, what precisely it is that makes such a terrifying sound.
Many times the howlers are so far up in dense canopy that you can't see them and, even when you can see them, they are so dark against the sky that you can't see any features of their faces nor determine what they are doing, or if in fact they are making the BIG sounds that seem impossible to come from small creatures.
For the new explorer, it seems the howlers' calls would be enough to send them back the their Caravelle to weigh anchor!
Obviously, however, the lure of gold outweighed the fear of getting eaten by various jungle creatures like big cats, crocodiles, snakes and the hair-raising sound of the howler monkeys.
You can click on the second picture down and go to YouTube to hear actual calls I recorded on the Chagres with our little digital camera.
We could have spent a month on the Chagres and not gotten tired of it. During our travels so far, there are only a handful of places that have lived up to the Cruising Dream of experiencing truly remote and pristine natural settings. The Rio Chagres is definitely one of them.
Here are a few more scenes of our times on the Chagres:
As remote as the Chagres River is, we still saw a few cruisers there. But it was nice because we were all spread out. There are many bends in the river and etiquette mandates that you anchor in your own stretch of river all to yourself.
But that does not mean cruisers don’t get together, even in remote jungle areas. One afternoon we went to some small waterfalls with several other cruisers, including Diana and John aboard Dragonet, and then we went to the mouth of the river and walked the beach.
Another evening we had a sunset party complete with snacks. We rafted up three dinghies in the middle of the river and floated gently in the slow current of the river, enjoying the peace and serenity of this special place at sunset.
The next morning we were the guests of fellow cruisers, Bill & Pam, for brunch aboard their boat Pamela Jean.
Thus, the Rio Chagres is a great combination of perfect seclusion and fellowship in just the right doses.
There is no other inland river setting in the entire Caribbean that even comes close to the Chagres as far as we are concerned. The safety, privacy, peace, tranquility, abundant wildlife, and pristine uninhabited jungle make the Chagres River a setting that is unique and utterly precious.
Our stay on the Chagres River goes down as one of the coolest things we’ve ever done on the boat.
But like all good things, that time came to an end. We departed the Rio Chagres and headed back to Cristobal Bay to fuel up and get ready to depart Panama.
Coming into the bay, we passed near the side of the entrance and got a good look at the end of the riprap levee and the marker. The levee is comprised of boulders and also cast, concrete components that look like huge cuff links. These naturally hang on to each other and also hook into the boulders, keeping the riprap stable against the huge, pounding swells of the western Caribbean.
This pass is always rough with big swells and is a guaranteed "green water over the bow" endeavor on all but the calmest days.
With the boat fueled up and 100% ready to go, it was time to finally say goodbye to fabulous Panama -- a place that offers the most fabulously diverse experiences one could ever want. It's stable government and affluence provides first-world medical services and cosmopolitan living in Panama City. But, only a short distance from the city, pristine jungle and many natural wonders await. Panama is a unique jewel in Central America and we will cherish all of our adventures there.
So, where to next? We are on our way ultimately to the Rio Dulce, a river in Guatemala where we will head 20 miles upriver to hide out for hurricane season. The Rio Dulce has been a famous "hurricane hole" for centuries and will provide us with shelter during the upcoming hurricane season.
That means we will now have to head north in the western Caribbean. We have reached the southern-most regions of our Caribbean journey and from here on out we will begin moving toward latitudes north.
We’ll visit the island of San Andres, (Colombia’s “Hawaii”) located off the coast of Nicaragua. From there we will head past the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras, known for piracy. One of our “buddy boats” will be chased by fishermen at night while we transit the infamous Gorda Banks off of the northeastern tip of Honduras.
Come along with us in the next report. We'll enjoy the Colombian islands. We’ll thereafter sail to very remote areas off the Honduran coast and I'll save stranded fishermen out of gas and drifting in an open fishing launch.
Also, I’ll meet one of my most challenging engine troubleshooting episodes while isolated in the remote Vivorillos Cays off the coast of Honduras.
Then we will visit the spectacular Bay Islands of Honduras and enjoy world class scuba diving and swim with trained dolphins, all until tropical storm Alma finally "crashes the party" and runs us into the Rio Dulce of Guatemala!
So, clear the decks and secure all items. We are headed back to sea and Indigo Moon will be on the move again in the next edition!
Until next time,
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