080103; 1646 UTC,
Isla Cébaco, Veraguas, Republic of Panama
N 07 degrees 29.5' / W 081 degrees 13.4'
Happy New Year! As you can tell from the header, we are STILL in Panamá and still having a wonderful time here. Most of our fall was spent enjoying the province of Chiriquí and the village and environs of Boca Chica in particular.
We like Panamá so much, and Chiriquí in particular, that we decided to buy a piece of it; actually, two pieces. One was a small, ¾ acre plot in the mountain village of Potrerillos which has views to the north to Volcan Barú and to the south, the distant Pacific. The other plot of land is in Boca Chica and is just less than four acres with nice views to the close-by Pacific.
Land prices, though not particularly cheap, seem to be increasing daily and we decided our purchases might be a good investment. Will we ever settle down and build a casita here in Panamá as so many other Norteamericanos are doing? We really don’t know though we do know we will continue cruising in Carina for the near future. Panamá is a small but beautiful country filled with warm and welcoming people of all colors.
We spent most of our stay in Chiriquí anchored at Boca Chica in front of a small open air hotel called GONE FISHING PANAMÁ, run by an American couple named Bruce and Donna who offered us a place to land our dinghy in return for our patronage of their restaurant, bar and wifi. Gone Fishing became a social center too, where for instance on Halloween, cruisers, ex-pats and Spanish-speaking locals alike dressed up and came out to a party to support the local school. Another event was a big book exchange night, which simply accelerated the rate at which books traveled through the little Boca Chica community.
On Thanksgiving, we spent the day at the home of Samatha and Fred, two ex-pat Americans who have retired to Panamá and who are building a home on a hill with magnificent views of the surrounding countryside, estuary and sea. They hosted a whole big bunch of folks…20 or more, including all the cruisers at anchor in Boca Chica, plus Panamanian friends. There we had the traditional feast of turkey, potatoes, squash, pie, etc, etc. and, as is also traditional, stuffed ourselves until we were groaning.
After finally settling the purchase of the properties, we were free at last to leave Boca Chica in early December for the stunningly beautiful western Panamá islands. First stop was Isla Gamez, the tropical island everyone envisages: white, talc-smooth sandy beaches, coconut palms and crystal-clear turquoise water. Here we caught up with friends arriving from Ecuador and visited and talked and talked.
After a few days we headed for Isla Cavada, one of the Islas Secas (dry islands). Along the way, the drag of the fishing rod screamed and Philip grabbed the pole and set the hook on a nice 4’ bull dorado. This strikingly beautiful blue, green and gold fish is also known as mahi-mahi or dolphin fish (not the mammal dolphin - Flipper is much too intelligent to be caught on hook and line). After gaffing the fish we filleted it on deck and then shared our bounty with friends Denis and Michele on Aquastrian, David on Merlin and Trevor on Nakiska. And we still had plenty of filets left over for the freezer! That night we coated the filets with olive oil and blackening seasoning and roasted them to perfection on the BBQ.
Christmas Eve found us sharing an anchorage at Ensenada Santa Cruz on Isla Coiba in the Parque National Coiba, along with friends Denis and Michele on Aquastrian. We were the only boats in the anchorage. The national park is a collection of uninhabited islands with Isla Coiba being the largest. According to our Panamá Cruising Guide (Eric Bauhaus), recent studies indicate that Coiba was inhabited as early as 500 years BC. This island is home to Black Howler monkeys, White-faced Monkeys, Black and Green Iguanas, the Needle Crocodile, various snakes and many species of birds. White-tipped sharks and multi-colored tropical fish swim in the turquoise water surrounding the islands.
Denis and Michele joined us on Carina for a roast pork loin supper and we toasted Christmas with red wine while we listened to Nat King Cole singing carols on the stereo. It was a mellow and enjoyable way to celebrate the holiday without the hustle and bustle and commercialism we’ve experienced in the states.
Just before commencing to celebrate the holiday, our old friends from the Autoridad Maritimo (this unit for drug interdiction) arrived to board us. The baby-faced young man in military fatigues who came aboard Carina was Josue Batista from Bocas Del Toro, who urged us to call him when we visited his home town so that he could show us the good, inexpensive (barato) restaurants that tourists never get to experience. While asking us where we’d traveled in Panamá, we mentioned a retirement boom town called Boquete near David on Volcan Barú. Josue quickly smiled a devilish smile and said, “Ah, Gringolandia” and when Philip laughed ‘til he nearly burst, Josue joined in to share the laugh.
As a parting gift we gave Josue chocolates to share with his colleagues, which he gently deposited in his pocket with a smile. Word apparently got around “town” as later in the day, the Parque Nacional Coiba boat showed up with a crew of men wearing expectant grins who circled Carina crying “Feliz Navidad!” and who smiled even wider when we motioned to them to come closer so they too could get some chocolates!
When Philip awoke on his birthday (December 31st) he never guessed he would celebrate the day by spending some time in a maximum security cell of a Panamanian jail but that’s exactly what happened! Fortunately, he only had to spend the necessary time for Denis to snap a picture (see the website ―soon― for the photo).
We toured the crumbling Antigua Prison de Coiba, the old prison built on Bahía Damas (Women Bay) in 1919, where, surprisingly, there is still a small police station…and a few leftover inmates. We understand that the police are stationed there to try to deter the drug guys from using the BIG isolated and beautiful island park as a drug exchange. What a life...a handful of guys who are on duty for six months at a time who don't even have electricity. (We’re not sure why the leftover inmates are still on the island, though they seem to be helping the police maintaining cattle, horses and gardens, plus probably catching fish.). Rafael, a policeman sporting an aging and rusted 9mm pistola on his hip, gave us a tour after looking at our flimsy footware and cautioning us to be careful of poisonous snakes. He dramatized his warning by pantomiming getting bitten and then swept his arm horizontally indicating that, if you were bitten, you were finished. That got Leslie’s attention especially since she is deathly afraid of snakes.
It was during this tour that Philip got to spend a short time behind bars in the (incredibly dismal and abandoned) maximum security block. The men of the police unit (the Tiburónes de Coiba or the Coiba Sharks as they call themselves) were friendly and happy to show off their pet hawk, the amazingly colored LARGE and wild macaws (called “guacamaya” and who thrive here but few other places in Panamá) and other not so inspiring places like the cemetery. While we quietly observed the one hundred or so unmarked tiny crosses, Rafael, with a sideways and wicked grin, pointed out a burial plot reserved for especially for “Felipe”. Before we left, we were given pipas (coconuts) to quench our thirst and were encouraged by Rafael to buy some shell jewelry made by the few inmates to get a little spending money. We bought two sets of earrings and necklaces and when we returned with the cash for the jewelry we brought gifts of food, soap and fishing equipment for the police and inmates alike.
We also spent a few days at a small islet off Coiba called Granito de Oro (grain of gold) where we snorkeled amongst white-tipped sharks and took excursions to hike and snorkel in other spots around the islands. While at anchor Olive Ridley turtles continuously surfaced all around the boat and eventually became so accustomed to our presence that they didn’t dive again right away but seemed to be inspecting us with curiosity.
One adventure was a hike on the somewhat overgrown trail called Sendero de los Monos ― Trail of the Monkeys ― where we heard many howlers but saw none while we stepped carefully on the lookout for poisonous snakes. On one beach we also spied a pair of Central American Agouti, a small (~ 8 lb.) rodent related to guinea pigs that store food in small caches throughout their territory and, ergo, are said to be “scatter-hoarders”.
We had an absolutely fabulous day of snorkeling nearby to Isla Coiba at the small Islas Cocos. The water was sparklingly clear...better than a pool. Friends Denis and Michele saw a HUGE manta ray and there were loads of new fish and white-tip sharks galore. In fact, Philip was swimming off by himself (which is a habit we are trying to break) and all of a sudden we saw a shark feeding frenzy between Philip and the dinghy. Denis told Leslie and Michele to "GET IN THE DINGHY...NOW!" and we took off towards Philip as he blithely swam towards the sharks....it was quite exciting for us, though Philip didn't see what all the fuss was about. It didn't prevent us from getting back in the water (in another location, thank you) but we were a wee bit more cautious with the white-tips, who weren't idly lying on the bottom as we've seen previously.
Today we are at Caleta Caiman (also called Ensenada Naranja), Isla Cébaco with 30 - 40 knots blowing through the anchorage. Sharing our anchorage is the supply ship, Cébaco Bay, that sells diesel, gasoline and other assorted supplies from October – May. In addition, Aquastrian is here, plus a Spanish flagged vessel called Avatar and the San Diego-based Susurru.
The strong winds we are experiencing are known as catabatic winds and are blowing like this all the way from the Sea of Cortez in Mexico all the way down to Panamá City. They are called simply “Northers” in the Gulfo de California and Gulfo of Panamá, but become Tehuantepeckers and Papagayos when they get especially nasty in those two gulf areas along the Pacific coast. To give you an idea of how nasty is this particular event, the warnings for the Gulfo de Tehuantepec yesterday were for hurricane force winds and seas to 27 feet! We missed making our passage to this haven (Isla Cébaco) by about 12 hours and sailed close-hauled right into these strong winds as we crossed the southwestern end of the Gulfo de Montijo while on passage from Bahía Damas on Isla Coiba...not particularly dangerous but not your average benign day sail either.
The holding and protection here is good, so we'll wait until conditions look right for rounding Punta Mala (bad point, appropriately named) and heading towards Islas Las Perlas (The Pearl Islands) and then Cuidad de Panamá, (Panama City) where we'll tackle more projects and replace failed equipment (no, it doesn't ever end), enjoy city amenities and family visits. While we wait we are enjoying this beautiful bay, reading, fetching water, buying fuel, doing laundry and just enjoying the sunshine...despite the winds.
Sus amigos del velero Carina,
Leslie, Philip and el gato guapisimo, Jake