Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Cartagena to Panama

Lahaina Roads at anchor in Cocos Bandera

December 25 - Cholon

We left Club Nautico in the morning and made our way to the fuel dock to top off the tanks in preparation for an overnight trip, this time to the San Blas Islands. Soon we were heading out through the lengthy channel to the open sea.

Cholon was a mere 15 miles or so southwest. The winds were from the starboard quarter, so we put up a headsail and hugged the coastline. A boat we knew from Club Nautico, Shiver, was ahead of us and also was going to spend a few days in Cholon.

We made our way into the bay with help of Pete, on the yacht Avitar and by following Shiver. But the only tricky part of the process was getting through a very narrow gap that led to the expansive bay, known as Baru.

Coming into to the bay at Cholon

That evening we went to a happy hour held on an old fishing boat owned by an expat, Robert, who also happed to own a home that overlooks the bay (there were plans for a potluck dinner at his house the following day - Christmas). We were warming up to this place quickly.

The following day, the potluck turned out to be a delicious and fun - turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, many side dishes and lots of tasty desserts. The view from Robert’s house was nothing less than spectacular. To one side, the entire bay of Baru was visible while the other side of the house offered up a view of another bay. We had a grand time eating and mixing with the other cruisers and several hours later, dinghied back to Lahaina Roads satiated and ready for an afternoon nap. 
Christmas feast

The next morning was our overnight sail to the San Blas Islands, about 140 miles away.   

December 27 - Isla Pinos, San Blas

After a brutal, at times frightening, overnight sail from Cholon, we are safely at anchor off of Isla Pinos, one of the more remote islands in the San Blas chain. 
We left Cholon under sunny and warm conditions, motoring through the tiny pass as we made our way out to sea. Although the seas and winds were much like what we had encountered before, with seas from the quarter and winds from abaft, the ride wasn’t too bad. We even had cocktails and barbecued a pork loin for dinner. 

That all changed later that evening. It started with a few sprinkles. Those sprinkles eventually blossomed into a storm, with high seas, winds above thirty knots and a spectacular (but scary) thunder and lightening show. Hollywood would have found it challenging to emulate. 

At times we were right in the center of the lightening, with bright flashes continually exploding around us like powerful strobe lights. Lightening occurred so frequently and furiously that several seconds would elapse before nighttime darkness would return. In a way it was as if hundreds of photographers were snapping photos with super bright flash bulbs right in our faces. I had never ever experienced anything like it.

It’s one thing to sit at home and watch a lightning show but quite another thing to be on a sailboat at sea when your mast is the very tallest target around for lightning to strike. Dave and I discovered later that we both had been mulling the possibility of needing to abandon ship and what we’d have to do to prepare - getting the dinghy ready, the life raft in the water, essential gear and supplies etc. To us, it was unexplainable how we didn’t get zapped with a bolt of lightening. But somehow, we made it through the wicked cauldron and lived to talk about it.    
In the morning the weather improved a little and soon we spotted Isla Pinos. The approach to the island was straightforward (that’s why Sir Francis Drake used it in 1571 to plan an attack on the town of Nombre de Dios). There was no perilous outer reef to navigate through to get to the island. We headed towards the south side of the island and found a spot in the lee of it. We anchored in twenty feet of water. It was noon - time for a beer and some shut eye. 

The following morning we took the dinghy into the village. Diane and I had seen the typical Kuna village before and this was not much different from what we had experienced. But when it came to buying a mola, we encountered a new experience. Earlier, we had asked one of the women about purchasing molas and she had responded by showing us a few samples of what she had made. But when it came to buying, it apparent that she couldn’t just sell us a mola - the village chief would have to be involved.

Villagers laughing at Barry's funny accent 

First we would have to get the approval of the chief. So someone went out to fetch him. He was out somewhere on the island. After about a half an hour, he returned, and in pretty good English, he said that he would get all the families to show their molas in the village square.

A few minutes later, women with their children started to appear with their molas, laying them all out on the ground for us to see. There really was no bargaining - prices were set but they were very fair. We ended up buying several molas and had a great time experiencing the custom.

The chief's home

No sooner had we gotten back to the boat, when the chief came paddling up in his dugout canoe - we had seen his house and now he wanted to see our boat. We invited him aboard and gave him the grand tour of Lahaina Roads. He was impressed with the two bathrooms we had aboard and liked our bar cabinet - Feliz Ano Nuevo, he said with a smile. 

Dave and the village chief

We sent the chief off on his canoe a bit later and pulled up anchor. It had been a very interesting and eye-opening day on our first day in the Kuna Yalas. We headed passed the village through the reefs towards the next island, Ustupu. 

December 29 - Ustupu and Onward

We navigated our way through the narrow pass between the Isla Pinos and the reef on the mainland and reached open water. At first it was a bit unnerving because the GPS and our Panama cruising book charts were different. The odd thing was that for the first time, it was the GPS that was wrong. A bit unsettling but it was something we had to get used to because all the GPS readings from here on seemed to be off by several hundred yards. (To clarify, the GPS lat/long readings were correct - the GPS chart overlay was the part that was incorrect.) 

A short while into our motoring, we passed nearby the island of Manitupu, but decided to proceed to Achutupu (otherwise known as Dog Island). We were welcomed by the locals as we walked the island, but truly the welcome had an agenda - to sell us molas.  

We walked onward and watched a basketball game that actually was pretty good. One of the locals told us that both teams were composed of family members  that was a tradition.  These players all played as they had been team members of a varsity high school basketball team. 

Diane pondering her next mola acquisition

After watching the game for a while, we walked back towards where the women were showing off their molas - many had appeared and the selection was impressive. The molas are very colorful pieces of cloth consisting of several different layers of cloth. We bought several of them, some with patterns of birds, fish, fruit, the sun and moon and other more abstract forms.

We again pulled up anchor and headed for San Ignacio de Tupile. We passed by Ailigandi and Bahia Golondrina, seeing a couple of yachts anchored in the latter bay. After a couple of hours we anchored in front of San Ignacio, but not without the assistance of a local - there were lots of coral heads in the way of which we found a couple, by bouncing right into them. They were more difficult to see than normal due to all the rainfall that had occurred making the water murky and muddy. But finally we did get situated.

As soon as we anchored some young boys popped over in their canoes to check us out. They were very friendly and wanted to check us out. When we went to shore, we offered them a tow to shore, which they took us up on. They, as well as we, had a fun time.

San Ignacio de Tupile was a clean, well planned island, much different from Isla Pinos and others we had seen. The people seemed very happy, with lots of folks sitting outside of their thatched homes enjoying the late afternoon. In spite of our guide saying that there were cold beers and restaurants on the island, the only thing we found was a place to buy a case of warm beer. One lady offered to cook us a lobster meal, but it was bits of lobster with plantains - not really what we had in mind for dinner. But we did end up buying several molas from her, which seemed to make her extremely happy.
Kristi and Diane with a mola weaver

After a while (and a few more mola purchases) we returned to the boat, had our cocktails and prepared a meal of salad, pasta and pork chops accompanied with an Argentinean Malbec. A fine way to finish off the evening.  

We got up in the morning and soon after coffee were pulling up anchor. Our initial objective was going to be Isla Tigre, but once we approached the island, we concluded that it was “just” another traditional island. This meant, no swimming around the boat because of the raw sewage emanating from the island and we were looking forward to white sandy beaches with swimming and snorkeling. We continued onward and set a course for the Cocos Bandero Cays, reportedly a group of extremely scenic islands, that lie within a protective outer barrier reef.

One thing I haven’t mentioned much about is the weather. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been optimal. The stormy weather we encountered on the way over to the San Blas Islands has mitigated but only to the extent that we aren’t being surrounded by bolts of lightening, the deafening sounds of thunder, all accompanied by torrential rains. 

The skies are cloudy and at times it rains. In the distance there is a misty haze and the water is tainted with a muddy green color - run off from the land and turbulence from the ocean. Still, we’re making the best of it. At least nature isn’t pelting us with torrential rains. 

We weaved our way through lots of corral reefs and tiny islands and finally came upon our new destination -  Cocos Bandero Cays. We spotted a number of other yachts anchored at Green Island and east Cocos. We had been aiming for a couple of islands in the west Cocos. 
Barry keeping an eye out for coral

We anchored at Orduptarboat after weaving our way past a couple of reefs. A little deeper than we typically like to anchor, the forty feet of depth forced us to lay out more chain than we liked to put out - it’s a lot of work hauling all that chain back in, in the morning! 

The upshot of the deal was that we had the island to ourselves. In fact, we had the three surrounding islands to ourselves. We got the dinghy in the water and visited two of the islands, each so small that we walked around each of them in no time. 

December 31 - Holandes Cays

The next morning, New Year’s Eve, we sailed to the Holandes Cays, four miles north, and found our way into a snug harbor behind a barrier reef and an a small, palm tree-lined island with white sandy beaches. 

Later in the day we took the dinghy to BBQ island, an idyllic white-sandy beach island another half-mile away. We walked, snorkeled and swam around the area. Nothing to write home about in beauty and uniqueness - lots of dead coral and the visibility was marginal.

The crew at Cocos Banderas

The most memorable part of the Holandes Cays was the fact that it was there that we spent New Year’s Eve. Kristi cooked a fabulous (and very tasty) chicken dinner including sparkly and glittery looking palms on a toothpick to liven up the appearance of the meal. Dinner was delicious but, unfortunately, did not embolden us enough to stay up until midnight. The latest some of us stayed up was 10:30pm. Pretty pitiful. 

In the morning, after our coffee, we pulled up anchor and headed northwest for Punta San Blas, a peninsula on the western edge of the Kuna Yala area. We passed by numerous islands including the Lemon Cays and El Porvenier. But when we got to the anchorage, we decided that the anchorage wasn’t as peaceful as the book may have led us to believe. We headed onwards.

Three hours later we sighted Miramar, a small village with a snug little harbor on a river. The entrance was treacherous - waves breaking on either side of us and no particular view of where to go once we made it through the pass. But as soon as we got into the tiny bay we turned to port into the river area and a few feet later, promptly ran aground. 
Lahaina Roads at Miramar

With the assistance of some local folks standing nearby, we were coached away from the middle of the river, veering off to starboard. After revving the engine up in reverse for a few minutes, we got off the sandbar and ended up side-tying to an old island trader boat. Jose, an English speaking military fellow, was critical in helping us out. Fun stuff - definitely the stuff that makes great memories.

January 2 - Miramar to Portobelo

It was a bit of touch-and-go leaving our side-tie in Miramar but we made it out of the tight anchorage without a hitch. Getting through the pass with large breaking waves on either side of us was a bit exhilarating and got our heart rates up. The boat would lurch upwards into a steep swell, only to head straight down another one. But quickly we got out into open water and were on our way to Portobelo.

Four hours later we were entering Portobelo, after an exciting sail along the coastline. Entering Portobelo’s harbor was banal after experiencing Miramar.  It was wide open - easy to understand why Columbus liked it so much when he sailed in here in 1502. 
Coming in to Portobello

After anchoring, we took a walk into town walked passed an area that had experienced a landslide just recently. There was lots of mud, debris and the remains of household goods strewn around the area. We found out later that eight people had died when the side of the hill had given way. 

Some of the devastation from the landslide

In the town we visited the Custom’s House and the Cathedral. But it was obvious that the town had seen better times. After being plundered and laid siege on by the likes of Morgan, Parker and Vernon, Portobelo had lost its luster along the way. What was left looked pretty shabby. A few pieces of the old forts still remain, but even parts of them are gone - some of the rock from the forts were used to build the Panama Canal. 

On the way back to the dinghy, we stopped for lunch at one of the  local restaurants and had a tasty chicken, rice and beans dish. We also found some cheap rum and wine at the local grocery store. What a productive day it had been!

December 3 - Portobello to Colon

Early the following morning, we headed out of the bay towards Colon, Panama. It was a sunny day with a mild breeze blowing out of the northeast. By noon we were at the entrance of the Colon harbor and headed for Shelter Bay Marina. A short time afterwards we were docked at the marina. We spotted several boats that we had encountered elsewhere including Cartagena and the ABC’s. 

In essence, the process of checking in to Panama and transiting the Canal requires an agent. One pays an agent to do all your legwork and to coordinate setting up a schedule with the Canal Authorities to be admeasured for the transit. We needed four sets of heavy duty line, an advisor and one additional line handler (there were four of us excluding the skipper) to go through the canal. We’d have to feed them and provide a place to sleep for the line handler. The advisor would leave at the end of the day. A new one would join us the following day to see us through the rest of the transit.     

Shelter Bay Marina is several grades up from Club Nautico in Cartagena. The docks are new and clean, it has a pool, Jacuzzi,  a laundry facility, showers, bathrooms, a restaurant and a bar. It is situated at the edge of a national forest reserve that has hundreds of types of native birds, monkeys, sloths, crocodiles and other wild animals. Docking here isn’t going to be a hardship.

January 5 - Shelter Bay Marina

We’ve been at Shelter Bay for a couple of relaxing days. We’ve had the boat measured and we’re scheduled to transit the canal starting tomorrow afternoon. We’ll have two additional people on the boat - a canal advisor and one more line-handler (who is prepared to dive into the water should the need arise - that could get exciting since there are crocodiles and strong currents in the canal lake).

The transit takes two days coming from the Caribbean side, while only one day from the Pacific. And that’ll be the next report. 


  1. The pictures are classic in this latest entry. What's more colorful though is your description of the collective sentiments during the harrowing storm. Glad everyone made it despite the storm's best efforts. Good stuff as always George. Looks like there were a few waves behind you guys in all of the shots as well!

    Keep 'em coming.


  2. Beautiful pictures and exiting times. so glad you are all having such a wonderful trip! Can't wait to read the next part.
    Happy New Year! Patricia