Monday, March 12, 2018

Crazy Cruisers in Panama

Portobello Anchorage
After two years of cruising, the state of the boat’s cockpit enclosure had degraded from “embarrassing” to “nonexistent”. On a centre-cockpit boat such as ours, the cockpit is in the centre, as opposed to in the stern, to allow for a massive master bedroom and ensuite bathroom. But because the cockpit is closer to the front we are much more exposed to spray and waves when we are bashing upwind, which we usually are. The Endeavour 42 is supposed to have a full wrap-around plastic enclosure with panels that can be unzipped and removed as necessary. When we bought the boat, two panels were missing, and the remaining panels were well-worn and cracked.

Old enclosure

Approaching Mainland Panama

We had planned to have the enclosure replaced once we were in one place for long enough but found the wait times too long in Florida, it too be too expensive in Grenada and couldn't find anyone in Colombia. By the time we reached Panama, the clear tape holding the front panel together had started to disintegrate in the sun and we knew the situation was getting desperate. We still had about a month before the end of hurricane season and happened upon a marine canvas shop in Portobelo that could fit us in for a reasonable price. As we waited for our new enclosure we set about exploring Panama.

Playa Blanca - Not sure about the namesake beach but the crystal clear water was lovely!

As it turned out, that did not take very long.

James asked me to make a face summing up how I felt about our time in Panama thus far...

Bird raft

There are two main anchorages in eastern Panama: Puerto Lindo and Portobelo. Puerto Lindo has a marina and it rains a lot and is uncomfortably rolly in October. Portobelo has a town with a few shops, it rains even more, and is even more rolly. We split our time between the two and filled our days visiting with our friends on Lalamanzi and trying to improve our drinking water catching system. Most cruising boats that don’t have a reverse osmosis water maker have some way to catch rainwater. The coolest cruisers have a hardtop fibreglass roof over their cockpit with a drain that connects directly to their water tank. We, however, are not that cool and just have a tarp with a hole in it that drains into a bucket. Nevertheless with rain falling almost every day or night we were able to easily keep up with our water demands. Not to mention that rainwater tastes better than both marina water and bottled water!

Spanish Fort at Portobelo

The other pastime we developed was observing the local cruising community. You see, Panama is pretty much the end of the line for folks cruising the Caribbean. Because of the  prevailing winds and currents, when you get to Panama your options are (a) go through the canal and continue west around the world (b) sail north (c) stay in Panama forever. We are aiming for Option B. Most cruisers go with Option A, but a surprising amount default to the last option. Both Puerto Lindo and Portobelo have a decent number of these “lifers”, including “The Boat With the Chicken Living on It”, “The Guy That Wears Just a homemade Loincloth”, and “The Lady That Spends Half the Year on Her Boat and The Other Half in a Panamanian Prison”. These are all 100% real and are just the tip of the iceberg. Very entertaining. Side note: if you want a great deal on a boat, Panama is the place to start your search. 

Waiting for Bananas to Ripen

We spent some time visiting the howler monkeys in Puerto Lindo (which as an aside is not very "lindo" - Spanish for beautiful). I mastered making different kinds of curds - lime and passionfruit were by far the best. Banana curd should never, ever be made.  I also started making homemade courtesy flags to fly in the countries we plan on visiting this season. This gave me great hope that we would indeed leave Panama one day. We celebrated James Birthday here and since there isn't a whole lot to do for a birthday celebration I decided to make him a sponge cake filled with homemade passionfruit curd. Panamanian flour and I just do not get along - the cake was as thin as a cracker. 

Passionfruit curd

We also made a couple of day trips to Panama City. The travel time from Portobelo is about three hours each way, leaving you a solid four hours for exploring Panama City. We had a hot tip on an Indian restaurant whose owner had immigrated to Panama from Pickering. The food was incredible and was as close to a taste of home as a curry made by an Indian-Canadian in Latin America could possibly be. The best thing about Panama City has to be its modern new metro system which can take you from one bland paved concrete neighbourhood of the city to another for a mere 35 cents! We skipped the famous Canal Museum in favour of a waterfront view of all the ships waiting for transit in the calm blue Pacific.

Panama City

Ships Waiting on the Pacific Side

Of course we realized that unless we had a drastic change of heart we realized that at 37 miles this might be the closest our little sailboat would get to this vast expanse of water. We had very mixed feelings about that and it was hard to see all the boats transiting the canal knowing that we weren't going to cross through the canal.

Our Completed Enclosure!

No more getting wet underway...

Ship leaving the Panama Canal with a fiery sky

Monday, March 5, 2018

Boatwork in Exotic Places

After our time in busy Cartagena, the quiet and solitude of Kuna Yala was most welcome. We sailed 100 nautical miles without seeing another cruiser. Although it was incredible to have our pick of beautiful deserted islands near which to anchor almost every day we also had to use caution. With the exception of the Kuna we were truly on our own here. We were on constant lookout for the plenty of uncharted reefs that could have punctured the hull and stopped us in our tracks. Not too mention our first exposure to the sort of jungle wildlife not found anywhere else. Pumas, wild boar, snakes, monkeys, and crocodiles were all to be watched out for. The one crocodile we did spot from our dinghy was at least ten feet long and ruled out any plans we had to snorkel in that anchorage!

We spent weeks swimming, snorkelling, exploring the isolated villages and watching the strs at night. One night in particular felt like we were anchored directly under the milky way - with zero light pollution in the jungle the stars felt like they were right on top of us! Since our outboard was acting up we also spent our fair share of time paddling our dinghy around - thank god for Arkin's hand carved paddle! When we grew tired of paddling one of us would hop in and push the boat along.

Aside from being off the beaten track the lack of other gringos was also because it was still the end of rainy season. You could set your watch to the dark black afternoon clouds that formed over the mountains and dropped a couple of hours worth of rain (and usually thunder and lightning as well) on the islands. Although we had a few intense squalls, we did not encounter the feared Chocosana, the sudden intense storms with tropical storm force winds.


As we worked our way west at a leisurely pace, the traditional villages gave way to larger, more westernized settlements. At Nargana, there were hostels, small shops, and a cell tower (but no SIM cards available for purchase). There was also a bakery and a place to buy fresh fruit and veg and it couldn't have come soon enough! At the Hollandes and Lemon Cays we found the couple dozen other cruisers at anchor and we sadly realized that the short break we enjoyed from the rest of the world was drawing to a close…. or was it?

Anchored amongst the backpackers - sailboats from Panama to Cartagena are one of the most popular ways for those backpacking Central and South America to cross the Darien Gap - at Chichime, we discovered a steady leak coming from our engine’s seawater pump. We had encountered this problem before, almost two years ago while motoring through the “Dismal Swamp” in North Carolina. Since we were such newbies at the time, another cruiser kindly helped us rebuild the pump, but now we felt confident we could do it ourselves, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by coral reef. It was a close call when we damaged the threads on the pump shaft (maybe bashing it with a hammer was not the best way of removing the old bearings) but sweet relief when we found a spare shaft buried deep in a drawer. We would be able to leave Kuna Yala after all.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Kuna Yala - Canoes and Crocodiles

Not only is Sapzurro the last Colombian town heading west, it also marks the clear separation of South America and Central America. If it weren’t for this little stretch of jungle known as the Darien Gap it would be possible to drive your car all the way from Alaska, USA in North America to the tip of Argentina in South America. As it stands, you would need to ship your car by sea from Panama or Costa Rica to Cartagena.

Kuna Yala
Kuna Dugout Canoe

For once, a sailboat had the speed advantage over a car and in three hours we had crossed the Darien Gap into Kuna Yala. Like most people outside of the sailing and backpacking communities, we had never heard of Kuna Yala (or San Blas as it’s known in Spanish). This territory of Panama is completely autonomous and governed and settled by the Kuna indigenous population.

Morning Fishing in the Bay

The terrain here is beautiful but challenging, mostly jungle, with steep mountains rising from the coast. You can understand how and why the Kuna successfully fought to keep control over their land.
The eastern part of Kuna Yala, where we made landfall, is much more traditional than the west. Villages are small and dense with fishing and farming being the primary activities and sources of income. Most Kuna families have their own plot of farmland to grow plantains, bananas, and coconuts. It is illegal for anyone to take a coconut in Kuna Yala unless it is on his or her own land or purchased from someone else. Fines for tourists can be especially stiff. In fact, until the later part of last century, coconuts were the only form of currency used in Kuna Yala (replaced by the almighty US dollar).

Kuna Sailboat

Fishing near these villages is a communal activity, with dozens of dugout canoes meeting in the middle of the bay to fish and socialize.

Whaaaaa! Jungle Bug

The first village we came to we were visited by two Kuna in a canoe. It turned out that one of them was the chief, or saila, not just for the village but for all of Kuna Yala. We were informed that the saila would like to come aboard and also that he would like a cup of coffee. We also offered the chief some pancakes we had just made, a breakfast that he seemed to find quite amusing. 
Dugout Canoes

Once the niceties were out of the way the chief stated that it would cost us $20 to anchor there but this included a tour of the village and a swim in the river. Although this was an expensive anchoring fee by any standard, we knew we would have few chances to experience a more traditional village on our own. We had known that the Kuna were shrewd business-people, but at this rate we wouldn’t be able to make too many stops with our envelope of US bills we had withdrawn from TD in Canada.

Toucan (I did not realize that this photo would cost me 1USD)

What appeared to be a quiet and small place from the water was colourful and full of life and as our guide led us through the sandy alleys. Each wood stick roundhouse with palm thatch roof had a fire burning inside and multiple generations of the family lounging on brightly-woven hammocks, looking after rambunctious toddlers, or doing the usual household chores. We enjoyed a glass of soursop juice before heading to the river for a dip. It seemed that half the village was swimming, bathing, or doing their laundry in the cool fresh water of the river.

Mono River

Our fears of going broke were unfounded as we were only asked for an anchoring fee in one other location. The opinions held by the Kuna on “merghi’s” like us (bastardization of American, a blanket term for all foreigners) seemed to be quite mixed. Anywhere from ambivalence, to welcome, to the opportunity to make money, to a desire to protect their traditions by keeping their society closed and the merghis out. As with most things, money appeared to be winning. 

Dusk in Kuna Yala

One of the most beautiful anchorages we encountered as we moved slowly west was Mono (Monkey) Island. We anchored in the middle of a stunning crystal clear bay which was great for sleeping as it was completely flat. We thought it would also be great for swimming and snorkelling until we were in the dinghy just about to get our snorkel gear on when we saw what looked like a 3m long log around the corner from where we were about to snorkel. Since it was a very funny shaped log, we aborted the snorkelling and headed back to the boat to check it out in the binoculars. It was a bonafide croc! And as it stayed in that area for the remainder of the afternoon, we opted to stay dry and sweat it out on the boat.

Isla Mono (Crocodile Not Pictured)

When You Run Out of Crisps You Must Improvise

At Snug Harbor we were welcomed by a man named Arkin who would paddle out to see us every day on the way to his farm to say hello, exchange stories, and see if we needed anything. We asked if we could buy some coconuts from him and ended up paddling with him to his farm to get the coconuts directly.

Paddling to Arkin's Farm

No wonder the Kuna are all in good shape! Their wooden paddles must weigh about five times as much as a woos-y Canadian paddle and the massive blade offers maximum resistance to the wind each time its lifted out of the water. 

Preparing to Return Downwind

The farm was a simple plot of jungle with a tiny beach. As Arkin disappeared into the jungle with his machete, we stayed on the beach as he had just finished telling us stories of pumas and wild boar spotted nearby. 

Sailing in a Kuna Canoe

Sailing in a Dugout Canoe With A Double Rainbow - Travelling FTW!

Arkin Removing the Coconut Husk After Being Shocked We Did Not Own a Machete

Delicious Coconuts

The ride back to the boat was delightful - Arkin converted his canoe into a sailboat with a wooden mast, some string, and a bedsheet. The Kuna may not have the latest in carbon fibre or stainless steel rigging but they are master mariners. We were only too happy to trade with Arkin - some heavier line for his sail and a new hat for a handmade Kuna paddle we could use to get our dinghy around without having to interrupt the peace and quiet with our noisy and smokey outboard.

Kuna Yala Beaches

Beach Fire - Later Found to be Illegal

Tying a Hammock to Palm Trees (Probably also illegal)