After 1000 miles and 7 days at sea we reached the Galapagos, population about 22,000. Owned by Ecuador, the islands were the inspiration for Charles Darwin's theories of evolution. Many birds, plants, and all of the reptiles are exclusive to these islands. Of the dozen or so islands only a few are inhabited. The whole group is considered a national park and cruisers are restricted to 3 or 4 different ports to anchor in. If you just show up you are limited to 21 days and cannot go to another island with your boat. If you plan ahead and use an agent you can pay for a permit to visit 2 or possibly 3 other islands and stay up to 60 days. It is all very regulated and they do check and will tell you to leave if you break the rules.
Our first port of call was Wreck Bay on the island of San Cristobal, population 2500. The first thing you notice are the hordes of sea lions, they are every where, and unafraid of people. The second is the large fleet of live aboard dive boats that converge on the island. The cold Humboldt Current brings nutrient rich water to these islands, and along with that a myriad of marine life. Two species of sea lions, a small population of fur seals, many species of sea turtles, sperm whales, killer whales, manta rays, many species of sharks, the worlds second smallest penguin, marine iguanas, and huge schools of fish. Even though water temperatures are in the sixties diving is a big industry due to the abundance and variety of life. There have never been a shark attack here and they attribute it to the fact that there is such a rich supply of prey the sharks don't need to eat us funny looking creatures. One guide said all Galapagos sharks are vegetarian but I am doubtful.
The people are very friendly, the town neat and clean, and you can get a good dinner for $8, lunch for $3 or $4 if you eat where the locals do. We spent 2 weeks here hiking the trails, snorkeling among the sea turtles and sea lions, and enjoying the scenery.
Our next stop was Puerto Ayoro, also called Academy Bay, on the island of Santa Cruz. Puerto Ayoro is the largest city in the Galapagos, population about 10,000 and the most touristy. Which also means the best shopping foe food or supplies. Cruising in these remote areas you soon learn to look in every store to see what they may be selling, as they may carry anything. A local pet & feed store in the front also sold building supplies, tools, toys, fabrics, and house wares in the back. There are almost as many "tour operators" as tourists. At least two on every short block so deals can be made. We took a few all day tours at inexpensive prices and learned a lot from our guides about the land and the people. There are quite a few paved trails starting in town to various beaches and scenic spots.
Our last port of call was Villamil on Isla Isabella, largest and youngest of the Galapagos and the least populated, about 1200 people. No paved roads in town, limited shopping, and very friendly people. This is what you expect to see when you think about the Galapagos. Not a lot of tourists come here to stay on the island, mostly back packers and cruisers. There are lots of things to see and do here and can be very reasonably priced. We toured volcanoes, marine iguana nesting grounds, farms in the highlands, an old prison, tortoise reserves, a rodeo, a 3 day festival with a horse race down the middle of town. All the restaurants sell a lunch special for $3 or $4, usually consisting of a soup, small salad, meat or fish, rice, and a fruit drink. We had had a delicious lunch at Aloha Mary's of fish and the other things so we went back a few days later and ordered lunch again. The soup had some kind of meat? we could not identify and the main dish also had a meat we could not identify not found very tasty. A local we had befriended came in for lunch and educated us. He said "we in Isabella are organ eaters". The main dish was cow stomach, and the soup was made with either a cow or a goat hoof. After that we asked what was for lunch!!
Being islands everything gets shipped in by cargo ships from the mainland. None of the ports had commercial docks or water deep enough for them to get close. The ships anchor out a quarter mile or so and all cargo is loaded onto small barges or boats and brought to shore, where it is off loaded by hand or small cranes. You will see everything from food to building supplies, furniture, appliances, and even mall cars and trucks . It's very interesting to watch. Gasoline and diesel fuel are also transported this way and they are subsidized by the government. Locals pay just over a dollar for fuel, cruisers pay from $4 to $6 depending on where you are.
The islanders are also very environmentally aware and recycling is practiced every where. They try to ship out as much recyclable material as possible back to the mainland. All public garbage cans are marked for what goes in them and we rarely saw any litter. We met a couple along one trail that was on Isabella on business. The government was planning to put up a huge solar power array that would cover over two acres of land and be able to power the whole town. There would also be a back up generator that would run on bio diesel fuel, that is made of recycled cooking greases, oils, etc.
We enjoyed our 7 week stay in the Galapagos very much but it was time to move on to French Polynesia. Hope you enjoy the photos.
Enchantment went through the Panama Canal Dec 29th with cruising friends Carol, Jim, Suzie, and Robin. We ended up spending more time in Panama City than expected due to dental problems. The upside is that Panama City is very modern, and anything you may need or want is available for a reasonable price. The president has modernized the bus systems and a subway is under construction. I wish we had brought our camera to the central market. The best place to provision for a long passage. All the farmers bring in their produce there and it gets distributed to supermarkets, small tiendas, restaurants, and street vendors. The market covers almost ten acres and sells fruits and veggies of every kind. There must have been 1000's of pineapples and other fruits. For $5 you could buy a 25 lb bag of oranges or grapefruit. At the entrance you can hire a man for $2 to follow you around with a hand cart to haul your goods around and out to your car or taxi.
One of the most interesting trips we took was to an Embera village 30 miles into the rain forest. The Embera are one of six native Indian tribes in Panama and they are also the least politically active, least influential. The village we visited was an hour bus ride to the river then an hour boat ride up river. Approximately 140 people live in the village of Embera Drua. They have no electricity and choose to live traditionally. There village land was in an area incorporated by the government into a national park, whose main purpose is to protect the watershed that feeds Lake Gatun and the Canal. The Embera were allowed to stay but they cannot hunt or cut down trees for buildings. They do fish the river and cut lumber from areas outside the park when needed. Their only means of income now is to allow visitors (tourists) for a small fee which includes lunch. The women are expert basket weavers using palm fibers dyed with various berries. A large basket can take several weeks to finish.
On leaving Panama City we spent a few days on Isla Taboga, 8 miles away. This is a popular spot for Panamanians to go for the day or weekend with its beaches and clean water. Ferries run back and forth all day for a few dollars each way. From there we sailed 30 miles or so to the Las Perlas group of islands. Of the 20 or so islands only 3 are inhabited. The beaches are beautiful and many disappear at high tide. With a tidal range of up to 18 feet the landscape can change dramatically from low to high tide. Many episodes of the reality show Survivor have been filmed in these islands so you may have seen them on TV.
On leaving the Las Perlas we sailed 1000 miles to the Galapagos, where Charles Darwin got his inspiration for "Origin of the Species" and evolutionary change. As I write this we are on the Island of Isabela, Galapagos and are making ready to leave in 2 days for French Polynesia, 2950 miles away. Nothing between here and there but ocean and hopefully good weather. It will take a minimum of 3 weeks and perhaps as long a 5, depending on weather, any mechanical problems, and the temperament of King Neptune. By the time we get there we should have a blog update covering the Galapagos Archipelago.
A new adventure begins. After spending two winters cruising the Easter Caribbean, and most recently the last 2 years cruising the Western Caribbean and Central America we are changing oceans. We are scheduled to transit the Panama Canal Saturday Dec 29th. So we will be spending Christmas on the Eastern side of the continent and New Years on the Western side. In general the areas we have cruised so far has been relatively close together, rarely more than a few hours or overnight sail away. You can often see your next destination in the E Caribbean before you leave port. Weather forecasts are easily obtainable and usually very accurate. The tidal range on this side of the continent typically is 12 ~ 18 inches.
To get to the Pacific we will be transiting the Panama Canal, built 100 years ago and still working 24/7. There are 3 locks on each end, raising or lowering boats approximately 30 feet each. Over 220 million cubic yards of dirt & rock were excavated, and 2 million cubic yards of concrete poured to build the locks. The locks are gravity filled and emptied, using over 7 million gallons per lock to fill or drain in less than 15 minutes. The locks on the Caribbean side are 30 miles from those on the Pacific side. After motoring through Lake Gatun to the Pacific side you actually come out of the locks further East than when you started. Each lock is 110 feet wide and just over 1000 feet long. It will cost us $1000 to transit the Canal which doesn't even cover their cost to move us. The large cargo and cruise ships pay as much as $150,000 to transit each way. When the new, larger locks are completed in 2014 they will accommodate ships 150 feet wide and 1500 feet long. These container ships will transport as many as 15,000 containers each and pay up to $500,000 to use the Canal. It is amazing that it will have only taken 7 years to complete at a cost of @ $6 billion. Sounds like a bargain compared to what Congress spends on questionable projects.
Once on the Pacific side we will have entered a whole new cruising environment. The tides in the Eastern Pacific, along Central & S America, are typically 12~14 feet, and can reach 20 feet!! Much more careful planning will be required for navigation and anchoring. Heading across the Pacific the distances are very long, and navigational charts are often in error by large distances. Once we leave Panama it is a 900 mile sail to the Galapagos, the first set of islands we will reach. Sailing 24 hrs/day at an average sailing speed of 5~7 mph it will take 6 to 9 days to get there, depending on weather, currents, and Neptune's mood. From the Galapagos to the Marquesas, French Polynesia, is 3000 miles as the crow flies, with nothing but water in between. This passage can easily take 3~5 weeks depending on the whims of the weather. Weather reports will be received via ham radio or ssb (marine version of ham). Some times there is no good reception for days and you just keep slogging along and hope for the best. Once in Polynesia the inter island distances to Fiji or Tonga shorten to ranges of 400 to 700 miles. They will seem like a day sail after a 3000 mile passage. Updates will be more sporadic as the areas we will traverse will be more remote and less likely to have reliable internet, if at all.
Merry Christmas to all.
Vern & Michelle
Two hundred miles E of Bocas lies Kuna Yala, also called the San Blas islands. An archipelago of over 300 islands of which only about 40 are permanently occupied. In the 1800's the Kuna Indians numbered over 500,000, there are now only about 55,000. There numbers were reduced by wars with invading Spaniards, battles with the Panamanian authorities. In 1925 the Kunas reached an agreement wit the Panamanian government and they are now an autonomous region within Panama. They make there own laws, live by their own traditions and beliefs, and are left pretty much to their own by the National government. Three "Caciques" (high chiefs) rule the nation, each village has a "Sailas" (chief), they are the holders of Kuna spiritualism, medicinal knowledge and history. They have nightly town meetings called a Congresso where the chief will hear about transgressions or other important village business and meter out punishments or fines. No non Kuna is allowed to own property in Kuna Yala or marry a Kuna.
The Kuna live much as they did 100's of years ago, living off the land for the most part. There are no fences in Kuna Yala and all land is considered owned by all Kuna. Most live along the coastal islands in thatched roof houses with split bamboo walls and raised hard packed sand floors. Generally the only furnishings are hammocks and maybe a small table and possibly a chair or two. They use no screws or nails to build a house, timbers are tied together with vines or small rope. Villagers are excellent seaman and you will see the men, women, and children paddling their dug out canoes 4-5 miles off the mainland to gather coconuts on an outer island. They often come by the cruisers and offer to sell lobster, fish, or crabs for very low prices. It is a matriarchal society and girls are ready for marriage when they are considered mature enough, age is not a factor. The women also make molas which are intricately sewn appliqués that can take several months for the more finely made ones, fetching as much as $75~100 from a Master Mola Maker. The two most famous are Lisa and Vanencio from the islands of Marmadub & Urgandi. The islands all have Kuna names difficult to pronounce or remember so most have been give English names for us Gringo's. A few examples are Nonomulu, Uarsudup, Kanlildup (Green Island), Narrasgandupdummat (Moron Island).
After 2 ½ months on Kuna Yala we felt like we were leaving a different world when we finally had to go. The pace was slow and peaceful, the most stressful thing was deciding where to snorkel or what to have for dinner.
From Providencia it was a short day hop to San Andres, another Columbian owned island and a holiday destination for Columbians as well as Americans and Europeans. It is know for is excellent scuba diving, friendly people, and miles of beaches. It was the biggest city we have seen since Guatemala City and a bit of a shock after the solitude of the other islands we had recently been to. Complete with noisy traffic jams, stop lights, and crowded streets. But the shopping was excellent and we were able to obtain supplies not available else where. We only stayed a week before heading South to an area known as the Albuquerque keys. Two small islands in the middle of know where. One a military base and off limits, the other a Spartan fishing camp. We stopped for the excellent snorkeling reported to be there and were not disappointed. We wanted to stay longer but a tropical depression was threatening to develop near us and we needed to "run" for cover....so Panama here we come.
We have been in Panama for a month now and really are enjoying it. We are along the Western end of the Caribbean coastline near Bocas del Toro. Over the last decade Bocas has become a backpackers 'must see' destination and youth hostels are plentiful and can be as cheap as $8/night for a dorm style room. There is a large population of expatriates from the US as well as Germany, Canada, and England. The Panamanian government provides free emergency medical treatment for your first 30 days in the country. It also encourages immigration by providing generous tax incentives to move here. Retirees by law get discounts on movies, health care, local transportation, food, restaurants, etc. These discounts can be as high as 40~50% for some items. English is widely spoken and health care is excellent. You could live here comfortably for less than $2000/month and that could include a live in maid/cook.
The indigenous people in the area we are in are from the Ngobe Indian people. Most of them choose to live their traditional life styles away from the cities and towns. It is a subsistence living and most have no electricity, indoor plumbing, or modern conveniences. They live in the hills or on the mangrove islands that dot the area. Paddling their hand hewn dugout canoes for miles is a daily routine for many of them. A fishing line towed behind will hopefully bring in some food for the family. It is not uncommon to see a canoe full of children as young as 7 or 8 out fishing without adult supervision.
With our freezer full of lobsters, conch, and fish we sailed 190 miles SE to the Columbian island of Providencia in company with our friends on Interlude. It was a very pleasant 31 hour passage with just the right amount of wind for sailing. The main island is approximately 4 x 2 miles in size and is home to 6000 people, the main road only 20 km long. A much smaller island, Santa Catalina, is connected by a colorful foot bridge called Lovers Lane. S Catalina is about ½ mile in diameter and has no motorized vehicles. Providencia has the reputation as being one of the friendliest islands in the Caribbean and we concur. The islanders go out of their way to assist you if they can, most speak English, and the island is very safe. They do not get a lot of tourists here, and most of those are either cruisers or come from mainland Columbia. Prices are slightly higher than Roatan do to the greater distances for cargo. Supplies generally go from the mainland to San Andreas, 60 miles S, and what ever is left over gets sent here.
There are relatively few cars on the island but everyone seems to own a scooter or small motorcycle, which are perfect for getting around. The locals are proud of their island and work hard to keep it clean and attractive. Most public buildings are freshly painted and in good repair. The islanders value the simple but peaceful lifestyle they have. Various local politicians have tried to convince them to bring in offshore oil exploration, cargo container transfer ports, cruise ship docks, etc. All ideas being overwhelmingly rejected by the islanders. They realize that those things will bring in crime, pollution, and change their way of life forever. Most have seen what "progress" has done for San Andres and are not willing to give up what they have for more money. there is even a ruling that if you were not born here, or have family from here, you cannot stay more than 90 days. The owner of a local business told us the island had a problem with mainlanders from Columbia, Nicaragua, and other nearby countries moving in and the result was increasing crime rates, more drain on the infrastructure, and more people looking for a free handout. The 90 day rule seems to have solved that problem.
It is pretty easy to feel at home here and it will be hard to leave the beautiful island and the friends we have made here. Orville and his wife Rel own a small bar/restaurant on Santa Catalina called Bamboo Bar, where the cruisers can safely leave their dinghies and meet for happy hour. They provide free WIFI and make you feel more like family friends than customers. They even gave one cruiser a key to the place so he could open it for happy hours if the owners were not around.