081007; 2013 UTC,
Isla Contadora, Republic of Panamá
N 08 degrees 37.8’ / W 079 degrees 02.57’
Once again, we write while bobbing at anchor in the gorgeous Islas Las Perlas of Panamá. We've been here ever since we departed Balboa, Panama City on Sept. 7, 2008. In Panama City we installed new engine mounts and stocked up on literally a boatload of new charts and guidebooks for our South Pacific adventure to come. We had hoped to be in the city only for a couple of weeks, but a frenetic searches for "this" and a urgent trip for "that" kept us there for just shy of a month.
Most of our month was spent working on projects and shopping the city and the internet for supplies and provisions. Of the provisions we sought in Panamá were ingredients for Asian cuisine. These are available in tiny pockets scattered about the city. Two particularly good Asian mini-supers are located in Paitilla (pronouned pie-TEE-ah), in a shopping center of Jewish delis and bakeries tucked amongst dozens of high rise luxury condominiums overlooking the Pacific. To reach Paitilla, we walked from the Balboa Yacht Club dock across the park which comprised the former canal zone military base to the Amador Causeway. (Amador was a physician who risked everything when Panamá declared independence from Colombia with the help of the USA.) At the Amador Causeway we picked up a collectivo or minibus which, for $0.25, brought us to Cinco de Mayo, a park and government center and the center of the workingman's city. From Cinco de Mayo we walked for about three blocks, through road construction, reaching Balboa Ave. which runs along the waterfront. (Balboa of course was the Spaniard who discovered the Pacific Ocean by walking across the isthmus of Panamá.) On Balboa Ave. we caught a diablo rojo, or red devil, refurbished United States school buses which serve as city buses in Panamá City and environs. The diablo rojos are driven by fiercely independent and aggressive drivers who are not adverse to crashing into slow-moving automobile drivers.
The day we were shopping for our Asian supplies, the diablo rojo going east on Balboa Ave. was bound ultimately for Panamá Viejo, the original city site which sits well east of the present downtown. The bus was crowded, but we climbed board. Leslie was able to snag a seat next to a woman and Philip, along with other riders, stood in the aisle, one hand on the handhold overhead and the other clutching his backpack which was slung over his shoulder. Our ride was only a few minutes, but the bus stopped often and people shuffled and reshuffled and squeezed on or off. As we came to our stop, Leslie, with an unimpeded view out the window, looked back and told Philip we would be getting off soon. She got up from her seat and moved slightly forward but turned to watch Philip. He seemed blocked by a man who was fumbling with his change and who then dropped some coins on the floor. Another man near Leslie wouldn't take her seat but was instead trying to urge her to get off the bus. She refused saying she was waiting for her esposo. Philip seemed to be struggling with one of the male passengers, yelled at him and then finally broke free from the crowd in the aisle, came forward, paid the driver and we got off. Leslie said, "what was happening there"? Philip said the guy in front of him was blocking his way, while the guy behind him was pushing with a soft plastic bag against his kidneys all the while trying to pickpocket his wallet. Philip took control by grabbing the thief's hand and yelling "Just what the hell do you think you are doing!?" (in English) to which the mugger replied "perdon" (pardon me)! Philip later quipped that maybe the poor guy made a mistake and didn't realize he had his hand in someone else's pocket. We were able to foil this trio of thieves because we were alert and had heard of the orchestrated scam of trying to divert a mark's attention by dropping an object in his way. Other cruisers of our acquaintance have not been so lucky.
After Panamá City, our first stop was Isla Contadora. Contadora, as you may remember, is populated by mansions of well-to-do Panamánians. It's a tiny island (about one mile long) and the most densely settled of the Perlas Islands but the waters around it are sparkling and clear with bright turquoise patches and rocky outcroppings intermingled with coral. Our purpose in stopping at Contadora was to visit for a day or so with our friends on Suwarrow Blues, a Dutch boat with a family of five who we thought would be leaving for Ecuador any day. Our day turned into a week as we were also joined by RDreamz, an Everett WA boat with friends Royce and Pam aboard, who we have known for over four years.
Pushing onto Isla Pedro Gonzales, we settled into our favorite spot so far in Las Perlas, Ensenada Don Bernardo just off the coconut palm beach tucked in near the tiny rounded island. We worried as we anchored that we weren't greeted by Leonides, the cheerful bright 87 year old who lives in the shack just off the beach. Later, a young local man name Pufu (sp?) came by selling limones and a whole branch of tiny sweet, green bananas and he was able to tell us that Leonides was alive and well but visiting family (one of his two wives perhaps?) in the city.
We stayed at Don Bernardo almost three weeks, during which time many cruising boats came and went and we made many new friends —Ernie and Charlene of Lauren Grace from FL; Gilles and Catherine of Anesthesie from France; Susea and Gene of Moody Blues of Friday Harbor, WA; Dave and Sherry of Soggy Paws from FL (active SSCA commodores); Triple Stars with Jan and Rob aboard from San Francisco; Lyman and Terry of Sans Cles from Portland OR; Jim and Kay of Grace from Eureka, CA; Michelle and Robin of Warrior from Tasmania, Australia; and finally Alan and Lydie of Paradoxe from France.
A fishing tournament disturbed our peace one weekend, but otherwise it was calm and quiet. Local pangas, cayucos and whales frequented the bay while fishing boats came in nearly every day. Some were gorgeous old wooden boats with lovely shear, brightly painted while others were truly utilitarian, sporting bouquets of bamboo poles topped with fluttering black plastic garbage bag flags. Nearly every Sunday, a group of boats came in that were all painted navy blue and that rafted to each other nearby between us and the beach. The fishermen would swim, cook, bathe, walk the beach or play soccer. Late in the afternoon, fun over, they would peel off and putter off to fish. Just before we left, one of these same boats came in and as they came by, they were whistling and calling "Carina!". We didn't think much of it, as we often have boats call out a greeting, so we waved and smiled as they motored by. A few minutes later a nearby yacht called us by radio and said they thought the boat was still calling. Philip looked over and a fisherman was holding up a HUGE red snapper and beckoning Philip. Not looking a gift fish in the mouth, Philip jumped in the dinghy and went over to investigate. The fisherman - Jose of the boat Don Chorito - was really offering this fish as a gift! Philip began to speak in Spanish and offered to pay cash for the fish but was rebuffed. Philip asked if the crew would like some beer, but a slight shake of the head from the captain made Jose sadly say "gracias, pero no señor". Philip then asked Jose if the crew liked chocolates. That drew an enthusiastic response so Philip motored back to Carina to get a filleting knife for the fish and a fistful of chocolates for the crew. You just have to love Panamanians!
One visitor to our anchorage arrived in a bit of a bad way. Brian, a 76 year old South African, aboard an aging ferrocement boat called Stargap, left Panama City in mid-July with a single crewmember bound for Bahia de Caraquez, Ecuador. After a bit of time went by, people began to ask on radio nets about his whereabouts and no one seemed to know. Those in Ecuador said he'd never arrived. The only report the community was able to get was very light and garbled from a boat called Zulu that said they'd seen him off Punta Mala in Panama. No one could make out precisely what they were saying but at least there seemed to be hope.
On September 15, we heard a man's voice calling on VHF 16 to "anyone at Isla San Jose". We were playing Scabble at the time and looked at each other and said, "Stargap"? It turned out to be Brian who was trying to find a suitable anchorage. He did not have a chart that would give him the detail he needed.. San Jose is the island south of where we were but since we have a good guidebook, we gave him some advice. Brian promised to call back if he needed additional help or else call us in the morning. He was exhausted, injured, perhaps a little hungry and obviously brimming with joy to be safely back in Panama and telling of his misadventures.
We failed to raise him by radio the following day and got a bit worried, but on the second day, he called while he was sailing up the channel towards Isla Pedro Gonzales where he planned to anchor and join us and the other yachts. This stop would allow him to buy fuel from a willing yacht, effect repairs and rest before heading back to Panamá City. Brian stayed a week and half or so, told us amazing stories of frightening squalls, towering waves and difficult Colombian officials he encountered. Brian, as it turns out, had tried to run a rhumb line from Panamá to Ecuador, against the Humboldt current and summer winds and waves. He ran low of fuel while his crew ran low of patience. His crew convinced Brian to put into Buenaventura, Colombia, a port not at all yacht friendly and for which Brian had no chart. He made it in, though not before he almost hit a reef. There he was quickly relieved of a significant amount of money to "process" his entrada and salida and once again went to sea, though this time alone as his crewmember jumped ship. Brian told us these many stories at gatherings while he rested and continued to wait for reliable wind to push his aging boat (with an aging engine) to Panamá City, where he now sits safely at anchor.
One fine afternoon a young couple drifted and fished along Don Bernardo's rocky shores in a leaky cayuco. Roman was perhaps 14, a handsome small boy with latte colored skin and curly hair with natural bright blond highlights in his curls. His friend, Shadow, was a pretty, small girl with long dark hair and dark eyes and a smile a mile wide. Philip called them over, we gave them some cold orange TANG and then Philip offered to give Roman his old spinning rod and reel. (These were made redundant when Philip replaced them last year and he'd been planning to give them away.) They both smiled shyly as they watched Philip put a small spoon on the line, get into our dinghy and begin to cast the lure. After a few casts, Philip turned it over to Roman who was self-conscious to try but who quickly got the hang of casting. They paddled across the bay, smiling (and of course bailing).
A few days ago, supplies were running low, so we up-anchored from Isla Pedro Gonzales and sailed (!) in squally south winds here to Isla Contadora. Supplies arrive on the island on Thursday via landing craft and are generally on the shelves of one of the three tiny tiendas by Friday afternoon. Stocked up again, we'll head back to Pedro Gonzales, perhaps tomorrow, and then make just ONE more trip to Panamá City. We had planned to round Punta Mala before now, but summer winds and cross equatorial swell have kept conditions nasty for southbound vessels, so we continue to wait. We'll renew our paperwork in Panamá (vote in the US elections by absentee ballot) and then, with the first weather window, we'll try to scoot around Punta Mala and begin once again to explore western Panamá and to visit our friends in Boca Chica.
Abrazos y amor,
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip, Leslie & el gato supremo, Jake
Isla Contadora, Panamá