[060212; 1608 UTC,
Underway to Ensenada de Muerto, Golfo de Chiriquí, Veraguas, Panama
N 7 degrees 55.1 /W 081 degrees 46.3]
We've finally arrived in Panama! We left Golfito, Costa Rica at 0605 local time on February 5, 2006 and, after over 14 hours of sailing and motoring, arrived at an obscure anchorage called Puerto Balsa near Punta Burica. Just north of a sobering reef and adjacent to a deep underwater canyon, we made our final approach into this anchorage in the dark, inching our way in under the light of a bright moon with Philip on lookout on the bow. We dropped the hook at 2030 CST, made a hasty supper and collapsed into bed but not before changing our clocks one hour ahead to eastern standard time!
Puerto Balsa is not much of a "Puerto", just a small collection of modest homes and shacks on the beach. We used radar and GPS to navigate the dangerous eastern shore of Punta Burica and relied on an anchorage waypoint given to us by Tim and Katie, Norte Americano ex-pat owners of Land Sea Marine in Golfito. We'll share more information on Land Sea and Tim and Katie later.
When last we wrote, we were in Bahia Ballena, Costa Rica. Our first stop was a revisit to the spectacular Bahia Curu, just six miles away (see our last passage note for details). Disappointed by the turbidity of the water combined with reports of sharks inhabiting these waters, we only stayed overnight and then pushed on to Bahia Herradura, home of the VERY expensive Los Suenos Marina. A slip at Los Suenos costs a whopping $4 per foot, per day. For Carina, that would work out to be $136 per day or over $4,000 per month!! Who would pay that kind of money? Certainly not Carina (we anchored out), but there are scores of mega-yachts and sport fishers occupying the slips that came and went almost like clockwork each morning and evening, disturbing the tranquility of the bay with mountainous wakes. We did use the marina's excellent fuel dock to re-fuel and bring on water and were treated very well by the courteous and professional dock hands.
The next day we began a passage to Bahia Quepos about 40 miles away. We had intended to skip Quepos and go non-stop overnight to Bahia Drake but a glowing report by friends just ahead of us helped convince us to stop here. In Quepos we joined Alkahest and 5th Element who kindly radioed us with the GPS coordinates for some pretty nasty rocks and reefs within the anchorage. We had even considered staying another day to enjoy the snorkeling at a pinnacle but the weather turned overnight, sending steep, short-period chop into the bay.
Very early next morning (0448 local) we pulled our anchor in the dark under overcast stormy skies and a light drizzle and pointed our bow towards Bahia Drake (pronounced "Drah-hey" by the Tico locals). A few hours out the drag on our fishing reel began SCREAMING. We were motoring and we quickly throttled down. Philip set the hook and uttered a long "WOOOOW, this is a big one". It didn't take long for us to realize that we'd actually hooked a 6' sailfish! Sailfish, protected by catch and release programs, are greatly prized by sport fisherman because of their fighting ability and beauty. We can attest to both of these traits! After an hour of battling the leaping fish (on 30 pound test line), we finally drew the exhausted animal next to the boat and cut the line to release it. We had no way and no desire to board the fish and remove the hook as the thrashing fish's bill can be a very dangerous weapon in the cockpit of a small boat.
Bahia Drake borders the Parque Nacional Corcovado on the Osa peninsula and local legend has it that Sir Francis Drake buried treasure somewhere on the peninsula and/or on nearby on Isla de Caño. The treasures we saw were the stunning scenery and abundant wildlife. The bay has beautiful white sand beaches, is horseshoe shaped and gently shoals towards the land. Two rivers, one is shallow and wanders amongst mangroves while the other is narrow, deep and rocky and penetrates deep into a jungle with a lush green canopy high overhead. Teaming up with Jay and Danica (Alkahest) and Bruce (5th Element) we dinghied ashore to explore and then shopped for a few vegetables in one of the two very small tiendas. We also checked out a small "eco" hotel, Jinetes de Osa, where we found we could rent horses for a ride through the jungle. We all decided to "bust our budgets" and made arrangements for the horseback ride the next day notwithstanding the fact that Philip, and only Philip in the group, had never ridden before.
That night Leslie coached Philip on the bare basics about horseback riding. Next morning we were met by Kenneth, a slight, shy and handsome 17 or 18 year old young man riding a spirited gray gelding and trailing 5 additional horses. He spoke only Spanish and didn't ask us about our riding experience but cocked his head, squinted his eyes at us and then paired us up with what he thought would be a proper match. Les' chestnut gelding, Colorado, was young, small (13 hands) and pretty feisty. No problem though, the horse that can out-feisty Leslie has not yet been born. Philip's gelding, Luna, of 14 hands was gray, pretty calm and had kindly brown eyes.
We started off along the beach at a slow walk which suited Philip just fine, even though he had trouble getting used to the motion and bounced up and down like the tenderfoot he was. A slow trot was worse and he thought he might become unseated. Then Kenneth decided to canter and, of course, a rest of the pack followed. Philip hunched down in the saddle, hung onto the reins and found he had much less trouble due to a more comfortable movement of this gait. Danica, on a large mare, would break up into uncontrolled laughter whenever she looked Philip's way. "I'm not laughing at you, Felipe," she'd say, "I'm laughing with you". This, despite the fact Philip wasn't laughing.
We rode on the rough local dirt roads and onto faint jungle trails and up and down crystal clear streams with the jungle canopy high overhead emanating fragrant floral smells and countless birdsong. Finally, we dismounted our horses, tied them to trees and walked a short trail over a steep hump to a beautiful waterfall where we stripped our clothes down to our bathing suits and went for a swim in the very, very, very cool water. The current beneath the tall rushing falls was intimidating but we giggled and shot through small passages between rocks like kids at a carnival. Thrilled with our swim we began to reassemble our clothing and determine how we'd cross the rushing stream on slippery rocks in our hiking boots. Leslie's legs were the shortest of the group (by far) and so Jay picked her up and threw a surprised Leslie over his shoulder like a sack of grain and crossed the stream.
At midday we stopped at an isolated and modest farmhouse which happened to be Kenneth's parent's home. (None of the houses in this area, called Los Planos, had driveways, though we were miles from town.) We gringo caballeros gingerly dismounted and with bow legs, creakily followed Kenneth across the pasture/yard, where two piglets lay in a small mud puddle, grunting contentedly. We were shown to a small table in the kitchen of the three room home where Kenneth's mother and married sister served us a casado ("married man's lunch") of chicken, rice and beans and a salad of fresh vegetables. Though small (about 16 x 16 feet) and without indoor plumbing (but recently with electricity), the wooden hip-roofed house was meticulously clean and well-suited to the hot and humid climate. Small pet dogs sat obediently on the steps outdoors, looking longingly at our lunches but not daring to cross the threshold. After sitting for an hour over lunch, we got up from the table and discovered we had all stiffened-up from using muscles we never knew we had. Kenneth asked if we wanted to ride for another couple of hours but the consensus was that we had had enough of the four-legged torture machines (guess who wrote this passage?!). The ride back to town was still well over an hour on rough roads and trails. After we got back to the beach and dismounted, Philip explained to the group that he had accomplished the three goals that he set for himself: 1.) He stayed in the saddle; 2.) He did not break his neck and become a paraplegic; 3) He didn't kill himself. AND he had a good time!
Leaving Bahia Drake at 1630 the following day, we overnighted to Golfito, a small town in Golfo Dulce ("sweet gulf"). Golfito is the furthest south port of entry into Costa Rica and it was here we would obtain our international zarpe for transit to Panama. There is not much sweet about Golfito, though it does have a comfortable, shabby, has-been feel to it and it is easy to get around and obtain supplies. Philip told Leslie he felt it was a perfect place to sweat in the heat and humidity while being robbed. Petty crime seems to be rampant here. It got pretty old having to watch your belongings every minute of the day. One local fool actually swam out into the estuary in broad daylight, boarded a boat where he stole a radio and camera and then swam away with the loot in his hands. Naturally, he ruined the camera and radio with the salt water and, after being caught red handed by a cruiser, wheedled, "Ah, señor, I don't want no problems". Call the police? Don't waste your time! Another anecdote (of an incident in San Jose) tells of a tourist watching as a thief broke into her car and stole her possessions. Seeing a policeman nearby the woman sought assistance; after a brief chat with the perpetrator, the policeman allowed the thief to go free… with the woman's goods!
As we mentioned earlier, the great thing about stopping in Golfito were ex-pats Tim and Katie, owners of Land Sea Marine Services (Tierra Mar). Having lived in Costa Rica for the last 18 years, these folks are a boon to cruisers traveling to Golfito. For the princely sum of $3 per day, cruisers can: tap into Tim and Katie's extensive local knowledge, use the dinghy dock, showers, clubhouse, get free water, buy beer and pop ($1 each, on the honor system), have access to an entertainment room with a large cable TV and exchange books in their extensive "library". In addition, even though not air conditioned, Tierra Mar is one of the coolest places in Golfito . This was important given the fact that the temps often exceeded 95 degrees with humidity also in the 90's.
Philip also has bad memories of Golfito because of the severe case of "stupidcide" he suffered while there. While refueling our inboard fuel tanks with a jerry jug of diesel, Philip opened the water deck fill by mistake and dumped 5 gallons of diesel into the starboard water tank. The water and fuel deck fills are the same size and are side by side. Still, no excuse. That little mistake extended our stay in hotter-than-heck Golfito for two days while we pumped the diesel out and refilled the tank with water and detergent trying to get the diesel out. Eventually, we did remove (we estimate) 99.9999% of the fuel and with carbon filters installed in our water filters, were able to finally push on into the western islands of Panama.
During the whole water contamination crisis we also lost our 3.5 hp outboard engine. This little bugger was only two years old and had been giving us trouble in the last few months. Finally the squared off shaft (that on a better built motor would have splines) simply sheared itself to round, probably allowing damage to the gearbox. A mechanic, judged brutally honest by Tim of Tierra Mar, told us we could repair the shaft for ca. $100 but he was fairly sure this wouldn't fix it. We considered briefly throwing ourselves at the mercy of Migracion and Aduana and checking back into the country (we already had our zarpe in hand when this occurred) so we could travel to David, Panama or San Jose but decided we'd push onto Panama City where we'd have more options for replacing it, including the possibility that another cruising boat might want to sell a used motor.
We also visited Puerto Jimenez and Bahia Rincon both in the Golfo Dulce. Jimenez is a cute but dusty little town of dirt streets and road weary trucks and SUVs, and is filled with tourists who come for sport fishing and access to the wilderness areas of the Osa Peninsula. The anchorage is tricky as the bottom comes up from hundreds of feet to 10 feet in just few winks! Here we were excited to see wild scarlet macaws like pigeons in trees near the soccer field. Bahia Rincon is at the far NW end of the Golfo Dulce and is a tiny place on the road into the Osa. Here we hoped to see toucans in the wild. The anchorage here is also tricky. We ended up about a boat length from shore at low tide in 15 feet of bright brick-red clay. When we swung away from shore our depth was over 60'. Going ashore in search of toucans, we found the reason the hillsides were blotched with bright red landslides. Most of the forest here has been clear cut in the past or remains so. (A small exclusive resort and the home of an ex-cruiser sit near the shore under hillsides that have already fallen.) Unfortunately we didn't find a toucan (though friends did the day we left) but FORTUNATELY we also didn't see the boa constrictor that a local woman, Tari, described as a nuisance.
Doug (of the sailboat Mamouna) had told us while we were in Mexico that the cruising just gets better and better the farther south and east you go. He's right. Though the scenery and wildlife were great in Costa Rica the petty theft in the south of the country made us tense and wanting to leave. (We did, however, thoroughly enjoy the Papagayo region and the Nicoya peninsula around Tambor and Bahia Ballena.) The western islands of Panama are spectacular with crystal clear, blue tint water. While snorkeling, the underwater wildlife takes your breath away (especially the sharks and poisonous, though spectacular, yellow bellied sea snakes - of which we have seen twelve today already while underway!).
Our three stops in the western Panama so far have been on Isla Parida (three different anchorages) and, last night on Isla Cavada in the Islas Secas. On our way into Isla Cavada we hooked and then lost a three foot bull dorado that hit the lure we were trailing. Sigh. Bring on the chicken for supper. Unfortunately a huge high pressure system in the Gulf of Mexico brings predictions of very strong north winds, so we are seeking shelter on the mainland and hope to back track to some of the other islands later this week.
We were told by another cruiser that all the islands in the Islas Secas are owned by a North American who has erected five or six (ugly) white yurts on the hillsides for which he charges $1,000 a night. We left Isla Cavada at first light this morning, steered while sailing painfully slow at 1.5 knots to avoid a nasty offshore pinnacle rock named La Bruja (the witch) and aimed our bow eastward towards Ensenada de Muerto (cove of the dead).
We'll write again soon and hope everyone is well.
Sus amigos del yate, Carina,
Leslie y Philip con el gato perfecto, Jake