Canal to Bocas del Torro to San Andres, Colombia
15 February 2010 | San Andres, Colombia
2010 Feb 15
We sailed to Bocas del Toro from the Panama Canal, making 3 stops along the way to break the trip up into day trips, and to see some sights.
We first stopped at Rio Chagres, only 10NM west of the canal entrance. Much of the canal was built on Rio Chagres. They build a dam 7 miles from the sea, to create Gatun Lake, and then dug the locks around the river to Limon Bay and Colon. This 7 mile section of river is a National Park, has no development, and is pristine tropical rainforest.
We explored the river up to the dam, and then anchored mid way. Taking the dinghy up a channel in the mangroves, we went into the jungle a mile or so. We tried to trek through the rain forest to find the Smithonian Institute research tower that goes above the canopy. A rainforest sound impenetrable, but actually the solid canopy prevents much undergrowth, and it is not too difficult make your way through it. Armed with a compass and a handheld GPS, we ventured a ways in, but dusk was only a few hours away and we did not want to get caught in the forest after dark. We returned to aVida and anchored near the mouth of the river, so we could get a start at 5AM for the next destination.
We stopped again at Isla Escudo de Varaguas to anchor for the night. The anchorage was exposed to 6 foot swell diffracting around the ends of the island, and it was a rolly night. but the anchor held, and we departed at sunrise again.
Next stop was Tobobe village, in a pretty sheltered inlet. We are getting our fill of native villages. They all come out in their dugout canoes and hang around the boat, hoping for handouts, it appears.
The first canoe was a guy who asked to come aboard. I said no. We talked for a while, and then he claimed to be the chief of the village- Tobobe. I felt I could not insult the chief of the village where we were anchored, so we invited him onto the aft deck for conversation, offered him water, etc. Somehow what started as him inviting us to dinner at his hut, turned into him bringing his wife and 2 children onto our boat for dinner that evening. Quite a bizarre experience. He claims to own all of the land on the other side of the bay from the village, and his wife was not friendly at all. She breast feed her baby at the dinner table all evening, and did not interact at all. I did not know I would get a booby show. He was very friendly and polite, and the conversation was not bad, although his English was as bad as our Spanish. He told us he was studying to be a "chef", so now I don't know if he initially told us he was the chief or a chef. After treating him and his family with kindness, respect, wine and food, I made comments suggesting ending the evening, get some sleep, etc.
Then, I think I heard him ask $50 for "the dock". What- to anchor here?- why did you not tell me the cost to anchor off your village when you came to the boat this morning? Then he clarifies (or back pedals)- he was asking $50 to sell us his dog- not dock- he says, and he apologized for the misunderstanding. I try to escape the evening again. So he asks what do I have for him. What do you mean? Money. I asked Why- por que, quando?. He said, even $2. Maybe 5. For my baby, etc. It appears these people are quite desperate, and they may have all the fish and bananas they need, but they can't buy other items that are important in this world. Out of kindness we gave him $10, and sent him on his way.
We still don't know if he was the chief, a wanna-be chef, or just a beggar, or maybe all three. One of many unusual experiences we are having.
From Tobobe we sailed to Bocas del Toro. This is a large region with numerous bays, islands, and places to explore. The center is Bocas Town.
We scuba dived in Bocas- not bad, but just does not compare to Galapagos or other places we have been, or are going to. Rita stated that Bocas Town is like the Put-in-Bay of Panama; bars and partying everywhere.
We took the dinghy to Bastimentos, one of the Bocas islands. There is a quaint native village here, living simply but they all seem happy and friendly. We hiked a trail up over the peak of the island to the other side to an amazing beautiful bay and beach area, swam, napped on our blanket, and just relaxed. The trail was very primitive and Very muddy in many places. We ended up taking off our sandals, and going barefoot in the muck for the 3km hike. The colors of the village; the village life; the trek through the tropical forest on the trail; the beach; all just so wondrous.
We had made a 200NM overnight voyage from Bocas del Toro to San Andres, Colombia (off the coast of Nicaragua), planned to arrive early on Feb11. But the winds and waves were on the nose at 15-25 knots, with squalls blowing through. We had to motor all the way, with limited opportunity to motor sail and make a bit faster headway, and we arrived late in the afternoon- later than planned.
We were about the begin the entry into the San Andres channel just before dusk, when our Furuno depth instruments went berserk and could not give us our depth. The entrance to San Andres is a hazardous 2.5 mile obstacle course through reefs and shoals. Our attempts to contact the Port Captain or the yacht agent ashore via VHF were unsuccessful. I was about to venture into the reefs blind, but then thought to call Furuno via sat phone. Fortunately, it was a weekday; Furuno tech support was in the office. We spent 20 minutes of expensive sat phone time to diagnose and reconfigure the equipment, and were able to get the depth working, just as dusk was falling. We made the entrance into the inner harbor without problem. We were rather exhausted after just 2 of us doing round the clock watches in heavy weather and head-seas. The boat once again was covered in salt crust from the spray coming over the bows, over the forward cockpit, and even over the top of the pilothouse.
Our plan was to only briefly stop in San Andres, to break up the voyage to Roatan. But we love this island. The island is so beautiful, the water the most crystal clear we have seen maybe ever. The people are all so universally friendly and helpful.
Our cruising guidebook warned us to never leave our boat unattended here. I think this may be American/Western paranoia about all things Colombian. In any case, they say this island is to Colombia as "Hawaii is to the US". Wealthy Colombians, Argentineans etc come here, and they tell us they rarely see Americans here. But they treat us very kindly here.
Our voyage efforts were rewarded with an excellent dinner at La Regatta, a very nice restaurant on the water, with great ambience and great island/reggae music, and very fine food and wine. Back to the boat for a good night sleep. But we had to rise by 8, to meet our agent on the dock to begin the paperwork- customs, immigration and inspections- for entry into Colombia.
For the first day, we rented a golf cart and circumnavigated the beach road around the whole island, then went into the interior through the local villages, and universally felt safe and welcome. It is not like the Caribbean where the poverty and resent of the people, and the beggars, seems ever-present- these are happy, not angry people. We thought this was a very natural island, but at the north end of the island we discovered a maze of streets with upscale shops, restaurants, hotels, etc that is apparently the commercial tourist center for the island. We went back walking this area at night and were very impressed with all it had to offer.
For the second full day here, we went natural. On the western side of San Andres is a barrier reef, second in the Caribbean only to Belize, through which we navigated. On the reef are 2 islands: Aquaria and Cayo Hxxx?? Saturday we took the dinghy to these islands with our snorkel gear, and found some nice snorkeling. There is abundance of small fish, but universally on this island a lack of larger predator species. These islands are a popular spot for tourist day trips, and there is a bar and restaurant (shack) on each.
The second island has "Bebe's Reggae Restobar", and it is a true Jamaican trip. Bebe is a Rastafari, the beach is lined with Jamaica and marijuana flags, the picnic benches and thatched shacks are all painted in rasta colors. Drinks are served in "pipas" (young coconuts- Lauren taught us that word) with the tops cut off to make a drinking cup. Groups of people come here to party for the day. A group of young people were gathered around a hookah, passing the hose, and the odor was distinct.
We had our fill of tropical drinks and the MOST fantastic fish and chicken we have ever had, fried with crispy crusty spiced outside. With the ultra-clear waters, multicolored turquoise and every shade of blue, with breaking reefs all around us, we said to each other "it just doesn't get any better than this". It was a very nice afternoon.
We returned to the boat that evening just in time to find the boat had dragged its anchor approx 300 feet, and was approaching an island and shoals. I dove on the anchor to see what was happening, and could see the long drag trail, with the anchor clogged with grass riding on top of the grass. Luckily, no other boats were directly down-wind of us. Our spade anchor (excellent otherwise.) is least effective in grassy bottoms. So we moved the boat twice to reset the anchor, and it would not hold. Then wind squalls came in right at dusk, with 20-25 knot winds that sustained through the next day, even though we are inside the harbor and in the lee of the island- I wondered what the winds were outside the harbor!. The boat began to drag again rapidly. Big problem esp. with night falling. We have 3 anchors on board. I got out our Fortress anchor, and in the driving rain we repositioned, and set both the Fortress and the main spade anchor. The Fortress is holding very well in the grass, and takes most of the load.
Today we took some time to dump our 4X5gal jerry cans of diesel into the tanks, and refill these and our gas can. We did some computer time, but could not find a working internet café- it is Sunday, and most are closed, and the 2 hotels/resorts we tried did not work. So we had a late lunch and mas vino again.
Ashore we ran into Gilles and Rachel, 2 Canadians who have been sailing a Pearson44 for the past 5 years around the world. Very nice people. We invited them over for drinks and appetizers on the boat in the evening. Very pleasant engaging conversation, sharing sailing experiences, and our life stories, weather discussions, etc. They are sailing the same route as aVida for a while, and we both are planning to depart for Providencia at the first weather window. They will leave earlier than us because they need more time to make the voyage.
Weather data suggests that our limited weather window to sail to Isla Providencia, Colombia will be this Tues, and then another blast of NNW winds will come down from the north. So plan is to depart Feb16 Tues AM for Providencia, a "simple" 60NM sail or motor, depending on the northerly winds, and we are going north, against the normal flow.
Then after a few days in Providencia, waiting for the next weather window, we sail to Roatan, Honduras. That voyage will be 400NM and will take approx 52 hours mas o menos, depending on the winds and seas. Roatan is a well developed tourist center that is focusing on diving- and the diving there is said to be spectacular- we are looking forward to getting wet there.