Our first port in Panama was Shelter Bay Marina, close to Colon. The marina has a free bus to the City every day that proved to be very useful. We needed to check in so the first day we went with the bus to the Port Captains office for our Cruising Permit and the next day we went to the Immigrations office to get our passports stamped. Bureaucracy in Panama can take a lot of time.
Shelter Bay Marina is also a good place to prepare for your canal transit but before that we wanted to see more of the coast, so after checking in, we left Shelter Bay and sailed north east to Porto Bello. See the map above.
Legend says that Christopher Columbus originally named the port "Puerto Bello", meaning "Beautiful Port", in 1502.
From the 16th to the 18th centuries, it was an important silver-exporting port and was attacked by pirates several times. In 1668 Porto Bello was defeated by Captain Henry Morgan with a fleet of 450 men. You can still see the ruins of many fortifications from that time.
Summer is hurricane season in the Caribbean. Panama however is usually considered safe because of its far westerly position but in November 2016 hurricane Otto passed close to Panama and gave strong westerly winds right into the anchorage at Porto Bello. Some 20 yachts were stranded and many had still not been pulled afloat when we were there two months later.
A long time ago fishers from Porto Bello found a wooden statue floating in the harbour. It showed to be a statue of Jesus Christ carved from black wood and it ended up in the church of San Felipe. Each year in October the Black Christ is celebrated with a festival and pilgrims from distant places come to participate.
Local buses are very colourful in a naive way. Somebody said they are originally American school buses. One day we took a ride to Sabanitas and back. High music, no air condition and a big International V8 engine without silencers. Full of people and nowhere to sit. Not very comfortable.
The Black Vulture (Sv:Korpgam) seems to be very common in Panama. You often see them in the air circling around but you can also find them on the ground walking around like big chickens.
We also saw a colourful Kingfisher and many Swallows. The closest match I found on Internet was the Green Kingfisher (Sv:Grön kungsfiskare ) and Mangrow swallow (Sv:Mangrovesvala).
After a few days in Porto Bello we moved on to Porto Lindo further NE along the coast. Martin and I took the dinghy for a tour to discover the shores of the beautiful Linton Island where a group of Spider Monkeys were supposed to live.
Sloths (Sv:Sengångare) seem to be common in Panama. We saw one in a tree as we walked down the road between Porto Lindo and Linton Marina. Another one had found its way up on the pulpit of a big catamaran and unfortunately we also saw several Sloths killed by road traffic.
This one we found as we walked along the shoreline of Porto Lindo. It was probably not wild but it seemed to be free to move as it wanted.
Kitesurfing is popular in the Caribbean. This guy was really good. It was not easy to catch with the camera, but in hard wind gusts he went high up into the air. A real acrobat.
Porto Lindo is a small village but there are places where you can have a meal and meet other sailors. One is "Tucan Smiles" managed by a British couple, Sarah and Roger.
In Porto Lindo we met Swedish Magnus and Liv abord Nanny, a Hallberg Rassy 35 Rasmus, on their way to USA. Last time we saw them was in Martinique spring 2016.
After a few days on anchor in Porto Lindo we left the boat in the marina and took a taxi to Panama City. We visited the Miraflores lock and saw a big ship coming through pulled by locomotives. We also saw the Canal Museum in the old city. Very nice museum.
After a night at "Albrook Inn" we started the next day with a visit to the "Summit Park", a zoological garden with rare animals from the Panamanian fauna. To the left, "Running Jesus", a lizard that can run on water. In the middle, a Leopard and to the right a Tapir.
They also had a Harpy Eagle, the biggest of all eagles in the new world. It is also Panamas National Bird, depicted on their Coat of Arms.
It was now time to say goodbye to Martin (our oldest son). He had been with us for 4 weeks, all the way from Grenada to Colon, Porto Bello, Porto Lindo and now to Panama City. We had a great time together but he had to return to his job in Sweden. With a sad feeling we left him on the airport and returned to Bird of Passage in Linton Marina.
The beautiful archipelago of San Blas is not far from Porto Lindo and we had long planned to go there. It's a very interesting area. The islands are fantastic, with long sand beaches and cocoa palms. The entire area is protected from high seas by a long reef so there is very little swell once you're inside. San Blas is also protected by law as a nature reserve and the only people who live there are native Kuna Indians.
In San Blas there is life everywhere, on land and in the water. To the left, a Hermit Crab (Sv:Eremitkräfta) and to the right a Blackbird (Sv:Koltrast) singing.
The Kunas make their boats from wooden logs, just like we did in Scandinavia 5.000 years ago during the stone age. Their houses are primitive with roofs covered by palm leaves. They do welcome tourists to visit them but never marry outside their own culture.
A Kuna fisherman and his son came along our anchorage and offered us fresh langusts. We bought two and cooked for dinner.
Before he left he asked us if we could give some cookies to his son. No problem, we did have some, but this was a new thing for us. We met the same question later in the Las Perlas archipelago so we have now decided to always try to have some goodies for children on board.
One of the islands we visited was Chichime. Here we found a primitive bar and an indian ho juggled with three machetes !
This is Venancio, an indian who sells Molas to visiting yachts. A Mola is a piece of embrodery, handmade by Kuna women, with motifs from nature or Kuna history. Some of them
are quite complex and must take long time to finish.
We bought some Molas from Venancio. Here are two of them.
Many indians seem to live a primitive life on a distant island but there are also more modern villages closer to the mainland. Nargana is one. A bridge has been built to Corazon de Jesus nearby, a power station supplies electricity and a water pipeline from the mainland is under construction.
From Nargana there was a steady stream of wooden log boats up into the Diablo river nearby to bring fresh water back to the village. Some of the log boats have sails and we saw Kuna indians sailing a log boat as far away as Porto Lindo, about 40 NM.
How would it be to grow up like these two young boys on a distant island ? No cars, no computers, no Pizza or Mac Donalds. Only a sweet cookie from a visiting yacht once in a while.
We spent about a week in San Blas and then returned to Shelter Bay Marina. It was now time to prepare for the canal transit. We met several Swedish boats who were also preparing for transit. Peter and Eva on Atla with rig problems and Kaj on Ammonite, a Nordhavn 80+.
Dan and Åsa on a Westerly 49 and Marcus and Alexis on a Marieholm 32.
We hired an agent to take care of the canal bureaucracy and used our time to provision food for the Pacific. After 4 days of shopping we started the transit on Saturday the 4:th of February. Our line handlers arrived and we set off to the Flats anchorage to wait for our Pilot. We had to wait a lot and it was dark when we entered the first lock.
After the first lock you are in lake Gatun. Here we took a mooring, the Pilot left and we could finally have dinner at 22.00 in the evening. Tove made a nice pasta for the line handlers who stayed on board for the night.
Next day started early with the arrival of a new pilot. We crossed the Gatun lake, some 20+ NM and arrived to the first of two locks descending to the Pacific. Once again the yachts tied up together three by three. Bird of Passage was in the middle with one boat on each side.
My job was to drive and steer so that our three boats together moved from one lock chamber into the next. At the same time, lock workers walked on the side walk with our four long lines, all supervised by our pilot. Quite comfortable compared to some of the locks we have been through in other countries. On the other hand, if there had been floating bollards available like the big locks on Rhone in France for example, everything would have been much less complicated.
The bigger boats are pulled by locomotives, two on each side at the bow and one on each side at the stern.
Some ships are not very beautiful. Automobil transports are among the worst.
The wild life along the canal is intensive, In lake Gatun we heard Howling Monkeys close to our mooring and between the two last locks we found this alligator resting as we passed by only a few meters away.
There are still only two ways to cross the canal by car, the new Centeniel Bridge or the old Bridge of Americas. Both close to Panama City on the Pacific side. A third bridge is under construction near Colon on the Atlantic side. Our canal transit ended after the last lock at Balboa Yacht Club in Panama City where line handlers and pilot left us after two days work.
We had seen a few Pelicans earlier but here they came in thousands.
They are funny to watch when they dive for food.
They look like something from millions of years ago, a flying dinosaur?
Panama city has a new centre and an old. Once in a time there was even an older city but it was destroyed by pirates.
Low water in the fishing harbour.
The fishing harbour has a big market with many small seafood restaurants. I ordered "Spider Crab" which showed to be fried baby octopus. Very tasty and not expensive.
Many shops in the old city sell Panama hats. Of course we had to bye one.
We stayed about a week on the mooring at Balboa Yacht Club. During this time we made daily trips into the city, even bought a new sewing machine to replace the old one which was broken. Last thing we wanted to do in Panama before we left for Galapagos was to see some of the islands in the Las Perlas archipelago.
First night we anchored at Taboga Island, just outside the inlet to Panama City. Then we left in no wind and motored 35 NM to Contadora, one of the most northerly islands of the Las Perlas archipelago. We anchored on the south side in "Bahia Sueco" (Sv:Svenskviken, Eng:Swedish bay) which has a beautiful beach reserved for nudists !
Next day we went ashore and took a long walk around the island. Close to Bahia Sueco is Bahia Largo, the largest beach on the island, very beautiful but with a sad story. Along the entire beach are numerous deserted and ruined buildings and on the beach itself is the wreck of a passenger ferry.
Further up the island we found a bar and sat down for a beer. The waiter told us that the deserted building was once the famous Hotel Contadora Resort with 300+ rooms, casino, restaurants and so on. The owner seems to have been a Columbian drug lord who was mysteriously killed in a plane crash.
What a story ! We wanted to know more, so I spent the next day searching for details on the Internet. Here is what I found:
The Hotel was built in the 60's by Gabriel Lewis Galindo and soon became popular among celebrities. US president Jimmy Carter was here during the negotiations for the Panama Canal Treaty 1977. When the Shah of Iran fled the revolution in 1979, he came here. Sophia Loren came in the eighties, Christian Dior was a frequent visitor as well as the the Kennedy family, Elizabeth Taylor and John Wayne. At some stage the hotel came to be owned by a Columbian "drug boss", Carlos Arango, who died in a plane crash 2005 leaving over 10 million dollars in debt. An effort to get Russian investors interested was made but failed. After that the hotel has not been looked after. It finally closed down 2009 and is now falling into pieces. The wreck on the beach is a Russian built ferryboat also used by the hotel.
Most of this I found in the references above. My private conclusion is that it seems like the hotel was much too big for the island. Most of the rooms probably stood empty during long periods and this is a perfect set up for drug related money laundry. What a sad story !
Maybe this deer was brought to the island during the glorious days. I hardly think it came by itself. To me, it looks pretty much like a Swedish Roe Deer.
We stayed at Contadora a day extra to work with our bimini that needed service. Our new "Singer Heavy Duty" with Tove at the controls fixed it beautifully. After that we left and headed for Esmeralda, a small village on the south part of Isla Rey. On our way, we saw lots of Mantas that jumped high up in the air.
Esmeralda village is far away from modern civilisation. No roads, no harbour, not even a pier or jetty. In many ways similar to the islands of San Blas. As soon as we arrived, children started coming out to our boat begging for cookies, chocolate or soda. Soon we had nothing left to give them.
When the sun went down, this fellow came to visit us. I have never seen a grasshopper that big before. No wonder the name is Giant Grasshopper (Sv:Jättegräshoppa).
Esmeralda came to be the last place we visited in Panama. After a good dinner on fresh fish from Esmeralda we took up our anchor and headed for Galapagos.