27 March 2018
Panama is the land of contrasts. The Kunas in the San Blas region are indigenous people who inhabit tiny, low-lying islands and rule themselves independent of Panama. Panama City has a skyline of about 100 high-rise buildings and a population of just over 1 million (about the size of Milwaukee). Las Perlas Islands are 40 miles south of Panama City. This rocky island group is mostly uninhabited except for a few fishing villages and some resort areas. It has a remote feel that belies its proximity to Panama City. We did not travel much on land but from the sea (both Caribbean and Pacific) the countryside of Panama is mountainous with some areas reputed to be unexplored. Right through the center of Panama is the famous Panama Canal which transfers 5% of the world's shipping between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. There is a lot going on in Panama!
Uproar sailed from Colombia to Obaldia, Panama on January 5th . We will leave within the week for Galapagos. We have been here nearly 3 months! Our long stay here was not strictly due to the beauty of Panama and the friendly Panamanians. The canal transit alone takes time to arrange paperwork and schedule. We needed long-stay visas from the Franch Consulate to spend the time we want in French Polynesia, a process that took one month. We had visitors from Milwaukee for the transit and some cruising fun with Glyn and Laura in the San Blas. And we traveled back to Ohio for my father's memorial service. Our last adventure here is in the Las Perlas where we are decompressing from busy Panama City.
Highlights were the beautiful San Blas Islands and the unusual Kuna Yala people. These islands are either densely inhabited with thatched huts or uninhabited with cultivated palm trees for their precious coconuts. The coconut islands are postcard beautiful with sandy beaches. There are hundreds of good anchorages protected by an extensive reef system. We enjoyed this 100 mile stretch of Panama in the company of Skabenga and Mana Kai and a return trip with Glyn and Laura aboard. Snorkeling is especially good in some parts of this island chain.
The canal transit is a right of passage. The canal is a serious operation, efficiently run with massive equipment and huge ships everywhere. But it signaled something more to us, the end of our Caribbean voyage and new adventures in the faraway South Pacific. It feels a bit like walking out on the end of a high, diving board. There is no turning back and one has to travel a long way!
Balboa Yacht Club is at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal, just past Bridge of the Americas. It is a mooring field, half yachts and half supply boats to ferry crew and supplies to the ships. There are no dinghy docks but two efficient tenders work 24/7 and pick up after a call on VHF channel 6. But the water and air are dirty here. Our deck was covered with soot and bottom covered with sludge and growth. Workboat and canal traffic often caused rolling, uncomfortable seas. We were here more than two weeks while traveling back to the US and various other tasks. They do have a very nice open restaurant and bar. We were back to hamburgers and wings.
We gladly left BYC and headed just a few miles to La Playita anchorage. Tailings from digging the canal were dumped along a group of small islands extending south of the canal. This was paved into a beautiful causeway developed with restaurants, marinas, chandleries, and bike rental shops. The water was still rather dirty but not as bad as Balboa. I believe I was the only one in the anchorage who swam daily. Oh, the Pacific is significantly colder than the Caribbean. Glyn and I called the temperature “Lake Michigan warm,” around 73 degrees.
Traveling around Panama City is by taxi. They are everywhere and prices are reasonable. While Colon at the Atlantic side of the canal is a dangerous, run-down place, Panama City sparkles and is quite safe to visit. We especially enjoyed the Old City, buildings dating back to the 1600's, many restored. There are wide squares and parks in the old city. We visited often as the French Consulate was located there. We also availed ourselves of the mega-shopping opportunities. Price Smart is a Panamanian Costco and other grocery stores are as complete as the best in the US. Uproar is sunk another few inches from the supplies we put onboard for the long, Pacific crossings. We could probably live three months or more on just the stores onboard.
Adriano, our favorite taxi driver would take us shopping in his small, Suzuki van. He even took us to a number of shops to buy a new outboard motor. Yes, our old Merc died. I removed a spark plug to see if we had spark. When I pulled the starter rope, seawater squirted out the spark plug hole. I pronounced it dead without further investigation. We bought a new Suzuki 15 hp. It is a two stroke which I have mixed feelings about. But it cost almost half what a four stroke costs and is 35 pounds lighter. We really struggled with getting the Merc on and off the dinghy. Our new motor is now Zukey, named after the famous Zukey Lake Tavern, best pizza on the Huron River chain. Now we just need a ZLT sticker to personalize our motor.
The obvious question about Panama City is “why so many tall buildings for a population of just a million?” The answer is simple, drug money! There are 160 banks in Panama and the Panamanian government doesn't ask a lot of questions. They are there to launder drug money. Some of the skyscrapers are standing empty but the money is in a legitimate investment. I guess it is better than being confiscated by the DEA. Regardless of the source, Panama City is a delightful place and stark contrast to the San Blas islands to the north, Las Perlas islands to the south, and mountainous country east and west.
We expected Panama to provide transportation to the Pacific Ocean but she provided much more.