A Look Back
07 April 2018 | Palm Beach
I thought I might look back at our trip to Panama and Columbia to summarize things for anyone considering going that way. We spent the hurricane season of 2017 in Panama and then stayed for the winter and beginning of 2018 in Columbia and Panama.
For the past few years we have sailed up to New England or the Canadian Maritimes for the storm seasons. This past year we decided to head south below the hurricane belt to Panama and this is what we learned and experienced.
We traveled south through the Bahamas and cleared at Great Inagua for Port Antonio, Jamaica. We spent some time waiting for the right weather to pass though the Windward Passage. Seeing the mountains of Jamaica materialize in the haze is very dramatic. Port Antonio is a great stop with the Errol Flynn Marina offering slips or more economical moorings and is a very secure spot to enjoy the natural splendor and cuisine of the area. From there, after again waiting for weather, we had a 4 day run down to Isla Providencia, a Columbian gem in the western Caribbean. It was a beautiful island to explore by scooter and the people were extremely friendly. Be sure to walk to the top of El Pico, the tallest mountain, for great views all around. We’d heard that fresh produce was hard to come by there, but we found plenty of good produce in the several grocery stores in town. Clearing in is somewhat pricy, as by law you must use and agent for the formalities. Mr. Bush is the local agent and a call on channel 16 to Bush Agency when you arrive will get the process started.
We then made a highly recommended stop in the Albuquerque Cays. They are an atoll like area of coral reefs and two small cays south of Providencia and San Andreas. They are also owned by Columbia and a contingent of navy personnel is stationed there and will want to see your zarpe when you arrive. The water is crystal clear and the diving is superb. Check out our blog for some waypoints to get into and out of the reef.
From there it was an overnight run in no wind down to Bocas del Toro in Panama. As you close the coast the mountains in the background become visible and then the coastline itself. The Bocas area is an archipelago of islands surrounding Almirante Bay with two entrances, Bocas del Toro and Bocas del Dragon. Either are good deep water channels but Bocas del Dragon is marked and is the one used by the ship traffic in and out of the bay.
Clearing in to Panama is somewhat convoluted and can vary depending on where you are. In Bocas, you can anchor, fly your yellow flag, and call customs and they will come to you or go into a marina and the marina will call them for you. We did the latter, and where visited by customs, immigration, health, agriculture, and the port captain. Everybody has a charge and then you go to the port captain’s office to get a cruising permit. The totals were in the range of $3-4 hundred dollars. In our experience it was different at each place we went. The government has recently changed the law and it should make the clearing in process less expensive, but it may take some time for the changes to filter down to everyplace. We also tend to try to do everything by the book and sometimes you might save a bit by shortcutting the process if you want. For instance, when we cleared back in from Columbia after going to Cartagena, we might have been able to use our original cruising permit, but technically you are supposed to get a new one for $185.00, so we did. Another change is that in is no longer necessary to get a domestic zarpe for in country travel. The only thing for sure is that policy and rules change constantly.
There are several marinas in the Bocas area, Bocas Yacht Club and Marina, and Marina Carenaro are close to town. Red Frog Marina is part of an upscale resort on Bastiamentos Island some distance away and Agua Dulce is a small marina at the eastern end of Bastiamentos. Bocas town is a funky, eclectic place where the merchants are all Chinese, with surfers, backpackers, the local Indian community and Panamanian vacationers all thrown in. It’s one of those places where you probably can’t find exactly what you’re looking for but if you look hard enough you can find something that will work. You can spend a lot for a fancy dinner but also get a great lunch for less that you would pay to buy the food and fix it yourself.
We spent two or three months cruising the archipelago and really enjoyed the area and people. We primarily used the Cruising Guide to Panama by Eric Bauhaus. It has great charts and is very accurate, although it falls short on the shore side attractions. The vistas with the mountains in the background are unforgettable. One thing you must prepare for to summer over in Panama is the weather. It s very hot and it rains a lot. We never used our watermaker because we caught rain and kept the tanks full. The boat needs good ventilation and lots of fans for comfort. A lot of folks go into the marinas and run their AC units all summer. There is a huge contingent of expat Americans who live there and have places all over the archipelago and stay in touch by VHF radio. All travel is by boat, as there are no roads and all the residences outside of town are off the grid and depend on solar for power and catch rain for water.
We took Spanish lessons in town and also traveled up into the mountains to Boquete to have a break from the heat and do some hiking. We also put the boat into the marina and traveled to Peru for a month to get a break from the heat. The airport at Bocas has daily flights to Panama City and connections to anywhere.
We finally broke free and sailed east to the Rio Chagres and spent a few idyllic days watching the wildlife. We then went around to Colon and Shelter Bay Marina. We stayed there a couple of weeks and visited Colon, Panama City, the canal, and signed on as line handlers to help an Australian couple get their boat through the canal. I’d highly recommend that experience as we had a blast and seeing the canal from that perspective is beyond description.
From there, it was on to Portobelo, Linton and then the San Blas Islands. The San Blas is an archipelago of islands in habited by the Kuna Indians and they have an autonomous government even though they are a part of Panama. They call their world Kuna Yala. It is an idyllic place of hundreds of small islands covered in palm trees and surrounded by coral reefs. It’s also a land of contrasts. The Kuna people have traditionally lived simple lives, fishing and farming, with land being communally owned. Now with a huge influx of tourists, they are trying to transition to a capitalist economy. Add to that foreigners taking advantage of the situation by chartering to tourists and backpackers and paying no taxes, it creates a volatile mix. Cruising the area requires payment to each community for the right to anchor in their area. Also the people offer seafood, fruit and veggies, and molas and other handicrafts for sale. Molas are a famous product of the area and are traditionally worn by the women. They consist of intricately sewn fabric in many colorful designs. There are also problems with plastic trash and pollution which threaten the area even more. The weather here is also interesting. In the summer there are storms with severe lightning and several boats a year are struck. There are also severe thunderstorms that roll down out of the mountains in Columbia at night called Chocosanas which bring huge amounts of wind and rain. In the winter the wind blows. 25-30 knots tradewinds are not uncommon. As with other areas of Panama, change is a constant and hopefully it will eventually be for the better.
Form the San Blas, we traveled overnite to the Rosario Islands and then into Cartagena. The anchorage is off Club Nautico, the local marina, and was full of boats when we were there. The water is churned by constant water taxi traffic, worse in the morning and afternoon. They also have thunderstorms, called Culo de pollo that sweep through the bay and dump huge amounts of rain. After a week at anchor we couldn’t get into Club Nautico, but we were able to get a slip at Club de Pesca, a private club that rents slips to visiting boats on a space available basis. I would highly recommend it, even though it is expensive, as it is very nice and secure. Cartagena was wonderful with lots to see and do, restaurants and history. The water in the harbor is so fertile that you can almost see the grass grow on the bottom of the boat. In the week we were at anchor we accumulated an inch of growth on our anchor chain. The air is also polluted and the decks and awnings accumulate a lot of black soot which needs to be washed off. If I were to do it again, I’d plan a haul out right before leaving Cartagena.
We left Cartagena and went back to the San Blas for a couple of months to let the winds settle a bit before heading back north. We are glad we did this trip, although we would probably not return unless we plan to transit the canal. Some folks really fall in love with Panama and many US citizens live there or spend the winters there, some in the Bocas area, up in the mountains or around the San Blas. It is possible to get a permanent visa called a pensio’n, which allows easier clearing in and out and discounts on almost everything in country. There are too many places we have yet to see for us to settle, so we’ll keep on keeping on.