Panama to Galapagos
11 May 2007 | Lat 0 45'S Long 90 18'W
Our last report found us returning to Balboa Yacht Club after a short 3 day visit to the nearby Las Perlas Islands in the Gulf of Panama. We said goodbye to our good friends from St. Petersburg, Larry and Phyllis Mazer and said hello to an old friend from Oregon, Chuck Sollitt. The plan was to install the new main halyard and jib control line Chuck had carried with him from the States, provision and then leave for Galapagos. We did all that and then decided that we should apply for a 90 day visa to French Polynesia, instead of taking the automatic 30 day permit that is given upon arrival in the Marquesas. This we received with three trips to the French Consulate and without undue stress but at the cost of four days.
The Balboa Yacht Club is an interesting place. They have about 92 members who keep their boats on moorings in an area swept by 5-6 knot currents first in, then out, then in, then out, etc. They rent out about 40-50 moorings to transients for 40 cents/foot/day (no extra charge for extra wide cats like us), first come basis, no reservations. There are really only three areas where boats can stay after exiting the Canal on the Pacific side: Balboa YC, an anchorage across from Flamenco Marina, and Flamenco Marina. Very slim pickings for an area with as many boats passing through as this one has. At BYC you get the mooring ball, a fuel dock with diesel, gas and water (assuming you can get to it through the many workboats which use it), a small but new coin laundry (50 cents to wash, 75 cents to dry), two clean showers, a trash dump, a really great T G I Friday's just up the lane, a very nice Bennigan's Restraurant down the road, and easy taxi access to all of Panama City. The anchorage is fairly lumpy, with the wakes from ships passing down the channel (but the biggest ships seems to leave no wake in the marina) and from smaller boats coming to the fuel dock. All transport within the mooring field and to the fuel dock and the long walk to land is by free water taxi. It is really interesting to sit on your boat at night and watch gigantic car carriers and even larger container ships pass by silently on their way to or from the locks. Today, the locks can take ships up to 106 feet wide and up to about 1000 feet long. The new parallel locks, when they are finished in ?? years, will be 150 feet wide and 1500 feet long and will be able to accommodate container ships that can carry 12,000 containers!.
Cruiser alert: Have you heard that the Panama Canal is operated by the Chinese? We heard this several times from various cruisers. No No No. The Panamanians operate their canal and are proud of it. Two container facilities, one on the Pacific side and another on the Caribbean side, are operated by one or more Chinese companies.
We enjoyed our stay at the BYC but after 10 days were anxious to get going so on April 21 we fueled up and left Panama for the Galapagos Islands some 850 miles away as the crow flies.
Our trip to the Galapagos was the most wonderful sail we have ever had in any boat. The first 48 hours saw no wind, flat seas, motoring (which we do quite well). After that it was five days of almost continuous sailing with moderate winds not quite in the best direction but do-able, easy seas, comfortable temps. Our port of entry was Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. We got to Gordon Rocks (about 20 miles short) about sundown and simply could not get to the anchorage before dark so decided to hang out in the channel overnight and enter the anchorage early the next day. That worked out wonderfully: we dropped sail, no engine and just drifted with the current (about 9 nm in 12 hours), very quiet, very peaceful, no traffic, no wind, no seas.
Come first light, we motored back up to the harbor and anchored out in the bay in front of the main town of Puerto Ayora in about 20 feet of water. The anchorage is rolly with long period swells coming in but little wind, cool temperatures, sunny skies. Quite delightful. The anchorage is home to cruisers, work boats, inter-island cargo ships, medium size cruise ships and water taxis. There appear to be no haul out facilities in the Galapagos. There is no requirement that you use a water taxi here (unlike BYC) but the dingy dock is very small and not very convenient so water taxi is the way to go- 50cents each way. The taxi drivers really know their stuff and are very skilled at delivering you safely to your boat in the face of 3-5 foot swells, usually without even touching your boat with their well padded bows. While we've been here there has been a constant turnover of cruising boats which range from 30 foot overloaded sailboats with two guys aboard who have sailed all the way from Sweden and are headed round the world to 100+ foot sleek sailboats with professional crews to medium size sail boats (38 to 56 foot) with husband/wife crews to medium size sailboats with husband,wife and 2-3 kids, all going round the world or at least to New Zealand. One of the boats here is Scout, a 49 foot Chris White Design just like us (well, at least similar). Small World.
The Galapagos Islands are truly unique: beautiful water, desert at the lower altitudes, significantly greener higher up, lots and lots of lava rock, cacti galore, wonderful critters. It's also a large place- 174 miles east to west which means that the tour boats, mostly small (25 feet?) , 20 passengers, 400 HP, ferries take a while to get anywhere. For instance, the tour to Bartolome went as follows: a 45 minute bus ride across Santa Cruz to the north end of the island, then a two hour boat ride, then an hour hike to the top of Bartolome Island on a well constructed board walk, then 2 hours spent on a beautiful beach including snorkeling with a friendly Galapagos penquin, then 2 hours on the boat, then 45 minutes on the bus. It was worth it. The folks here make their living off tourism, are very committed to preserving their unique environment and seem to be doing a good job at it. The all day trip to Bartolome cost about $80/person. (Yes, dollars: all of Ecuador, including Galapagos, uses US currency (paper and coin) but also makes their own coins.) There are also more expensive tours available including an 8 day trip on a medium-size cruise ship that is first rate so we hear: cost $2000/person, great food, great guides, lot's to see.
Of all the beautiful places and animals we have seen here, the most beautiful in my estimation is the beach just around the point from Pto. Ayora. The hour hike to get there would be impossible except for the paved (with pavers, not asphalt) walk thru the lava rocks and cacti. The large pocket beach is at least 500 feet wide with fine white sand, and dunes behind it, the water is blue blue blue with white breakers, the lava rocks are black and the spots of mangrove are bright green. We saw not one piece of litter on the entire beach!!!
Our stay was also enlivened by a delightful young Ecuadorian fellow we met on the Isabella tour and then ran into several times in Pto. Ayora. He manages the lodge on a non-profit nature reserve in Ecuador near Quito and his description of it is very appealing. You world travelers might find it interesting: the website is www.maquipucuna.com .
It is now Friday May 11 and we are doing the last minute preparations for leaving tomorrow: zarpe (exit permit), provisions, fuel, mind-set (most important part of the process). Boats are still coming in on a regular basis although it is getting late in the season and we should all be moving on. Weather forecast is for not much out there at first, then moderate trade winds on our back all the way to the Marquesas.
Til next time
Susan and John
PS. It's now Monday May 15, and we are at the end of our third day out from Gaglapagos and loving it. Wind has increased to about 9-10 knots and we are making 8 knots speed over ground. Only about 2500 nm left.