29 September 2005
Panama Canal Zone N 09.20.727 W 079.54.681
Heading out to San Blas
We are anchored in an area known as "the flats" about a one mile dinghy ride from the Panama Canal Yacht Club on the outskirts of the infamous Colon. From our anchorage we can see every boat that enters and departs the Panama Canal and our boat rolls from the wake created by these large freighters.. At any given time we can spot five to ten freighters either waiting at the entrance behind the breakwater, steaming past our location or docking at one of the nearby piers. Pilot boats and tugs are continually in and out of the nearby channels to meet the freighters during the day with activity greatly reduced at night. We are here not for the view but rather to fill the boat with provisions in preparation for a 60 day excursion far from supermarkets, fuel docks and liquor stores.
After taking our dinghy in to the yacht club, we depart the grounds only by taxi due to the rumored muggings outside the gate. These rumors are perpetuated by the taxi drivers who tell you of the unfortunate cruiser who actually tried to walk the streets of Colon only to lose everything they carried in a broad daylight hold up. So for a dollar or two we don't tempt fate and taxi through the city that has been built to make every other city in the world look good. The colorful hues of paint have long ago faded and peeled and mold and mildew cover the exterior walls of most buildings. People loiter anyplace that doesn't have a security guard to move them along making the streets full but without a sense of direction. Unemployment is high and after the US turned over the Canal and closed its 20 military bases the average wage in the country dropped by 50% or so they say. There are of course some redeeming qualities to Colon and one is the Duty Free Zone. Since most of the city is unsafe, an area of about six square blocks has been designated as a duty free shopping area with tight security created by high walls and uniformed policemen. You have to show your passport to be granted a five day pass to the zone where you can find perfume, liquor, clothing and luxury items you might expect at a duty free shop at a large international airport. One of the major attractions is a store named Motta where you can order liquor by the case and have it delivered to the Yacht Club for a fee of $65. This encourages several cruisers to accumulate an order to defray the cost. The prices are about half what you might expect to pay at Sam's Club. Other items such as electronics appear to be less competitive than US prices but then you're not in the US. Should you go to the Duty Free Zone you will not find restaurants as they seem to distract from shopping but there are street vendors selling empanadas, hamburgers and other gastronomic delights.
Another find is Rey's supermarket which is equivalent to a small US grocery with all the major brands you recognize. Ask the taxi driver to take you to Rey's at Cuatro Altos (Four stops). After you have finished shopping there is a taxi stand right outside to deliver you and your booty safely back to the yacht club. Another supermercado is Super 99 at Colon 2000. They seem to carry more bulk items but still nice with very good prices.
Portobelo (09 33.4N, 079 41.0W)
Our first destination from" the flats" is Portobelo, the rainiest city in Panama. Having been discovered by Columbus in 1502 on his fourth trip to the Americas, Portobelo served the Spanish as one of the small outpost on the Carribean coast.
Every year Portobelo celebrates the legendary "Festividade del Negro Cristo" or the festival of the Black Christ on October 21. Legend has it that the statue of the Black Christ came to Portobelo in 1821 on a galleon headed to Cartagena, Columbia. The ship left port and encountered a fierce storm and sank. The bound statue floated free and washed up on the shores near Portobelo where it was recovered by the local fishermen and taken to the church where it is housed today. (Picture of the church is above) At this same time an epidemic of cholera was ravaging the isthmus of Panama. The citizens of Portobelo prayed to the Black Christ to spare their city from the disease and soon afterward the threat of cholera disappeared, never finding its way into their city. To keep the city in continuing good health the festival is held annually. At 8:00 PM on October 21 the statue is taken from the church and promenaded around the town on the back of about 80 native men. At midnight it is returned to the church and the festivities begin with some of the hardest drinking in the free world. The celebration attracts about 30,000 people. If you chose to attend be careful because the Black Christ is also the patron Saint of pickpockets.
Immediately behind the church is the Museo del Cristo Negro de Portobelo, which houses approximately 63 of the robes worn by the Black Christ which have been donated by Panamanians for the festival, some of them more than 100 years old.
All of Latin America provides an interesting cultural mix of Spanish and other Europeans, indigenous Indian tribes, and descendents of Africans brought to work on the plantations until slavery was abolished. But if you are in Panama you know there is another cultural diversity and that is the Chinese many who were brought to Panama to help build the Canal. In most small towns we have visited the groceries and the hardware stores are owned and operated by ethnic Chinese. This is not of course earth shattering news since in many countries Chinese proprietors own and operate many small businesses. Most major cities have a thriving community know as "Chinatown" . But it is a bit unusual to hear Chinese spoken at almost every grocery store we visit.
Isla Linton (09 37.5N, 079 35.8W)
Our next stop was Linton (Lynn Tone) an anchorage that harbors about ten boats at any given time. Trouble started when the alternator on the Panda froze and burnt the belt. This necessitated a bus ride back to Colon to replace the bearings in the alternator. The bus ride takes no less that an hour and a half and is a torturous experience with people stacked as tight as possible in the isles. If you didn't know better you would think you were in a scrum in a rugby match. People were hanging on the outside of the bus with a death grip on some wrapped bar on the inside. Knuckles were white until it started to rain and then the whole hand turned white. After a similarly arduous return trip five hours later, we had a repaired alternator. After a run of about two hours the generator overheated and our spirits were dashed. Upon investigation, the strainer was clogged and the impeller split with one of the blades missing. Evidently the pump ran dry tearing a blade off the impeller and possibly stopping up the heat exchanger. I reversed the flow on the heat exchanger with some spare hose and I might add a good deal of ingenuity and presto we were off and ready to pull the anchor the next morning with our friends from Camperdown. We did however miss the party the night before. Cruisers, Roger and Binnie, who traded their boat for a beautiful house on the island had invited all the boats in the harbor to enjoy the spoils of a 125 pound grouper that Roger had speared earlier that day. Although we missed that party we were invited the day before to visit the house and to meet not only Roger and Binnie and a host of other cruisers but also the three sloths that occupy the house and in fact the bedroom of the owners.
Isla Porvenir (09 33.5 N, 078 56.98W)
Next day we are headed to Porvenir. After five hours of motor sailing we anchor at Chichime Cays and enjoy our first of many days in the San Blas. While in Chichime, as well as the other islands, you will be approached by the Kuna Indian families offering to sell you molas, jewelry, fish, lobster, crab, bread, and other items. In Chichime we bought lobster and bread baked by Berta in an oven fabricated from a 55 gallon drum. The next day we motored to check in at Porvenir and obtain our Kula Yala Cruising permit and then head out to the small lovely anchorage of Yansaladup, which describes all the anchorages in the San Blas.. And again the damn generator is inoperable. The water flow is poor and as I start to diagnose the problem the new impeller is torn! After disassembling the entire system and blowing through every orifice to see how the flow might be impeded I concluded that the small cork gasket in the strainer is allowing air to enter the system and the lines to drain and therefore each time I start the engine it runs dry for a while causing the impeller to fail. I change the seal , prime every hose, run a little muradic acid into the heat exchanger, dive in and make sure the intake doesn't have a jellyfish or something blocking it, shower and prepare for the ultimate test. Now the engine won't turn over? I know I seem to go on and on about these problems but without the generator the watermaker will not run and we will need to head back to Colon for a repair especially since our son Brad and his wife Kimberly are due to visit us in a little over a week. I retire that night without a solution and depressed enough to use all the ice we have in my sundowner. The next morning the generator starts with the help of Alan on Camperdown. Actually it just starts and it is because I did something incredibly stupid the day before or because there is a short that has been corrected with all the cleaning and inspecting of connections I performed this morning. We ran the generator for three hours filling our water tanks, did a load of laundry and charged our batteries before we took off to snorkel the outlying reef. Ahhh life is good here in the San Blas.
But wait a minute - the very next day the generator will not put salt water through the system and will soon overheat. Another two days are taken up with trouble shooting the system. Al and I rigged every spare pump on the boat to the generator and ran them on either AC or DC to see if we could run the unit. Finally we went back to the pulley pump attached to the generator and by running a new intake line overboard the generator ran and after shutting it down we could see the culprit thanks to the transparent lines. There was a leak in the pump seal and after running the generator it lost its prime so the next day there was no water coming through the system. The seal had been replace at the authorized Panda dealer when we were in Florida and after only a few starts it is leaking again. So much for authorized dealers and for that matter so much for Panda. Sorry I can't recommend them and in fact I will soon write the company with my thoughts.
Eastern Holandes Cays
After several stops along the way we are now anchored at the "swimming pool" where we have found several friends and recognizable boats form previous stops in Cartagena and the ABC's. The "swimming pool" is an anchorage that has protection from every direction once you find your way in. We have anchored in 15 feet which is very good for the San Blas and the bottom is sandy. It's a little crowded since it is the most popular spot in the whole of the San Blas Islands. On Monday evenings the cruisers get together for the weekly potluck and trash burn (sorry no bottles and no cans). This event is supervised by Reggie aboard Runner who has been "stationed" in the "swimming pool" since about 1998. There are other regulars of course and those who want to be. This is the place we are all looking for . A safe anchorage surrounded by beautiful islands and reefs to snorkel and plenty of fish to spear. For those of us who cannot spear fish there are always the Kunas who go by selling lobster and fish and also there is a service that brings out vegetables and chicken once a week.
A group of students from Panama City on a History tour of Portobelo, and eager to practice their English on us.