Friday, 29 February 2008

Kuna Yala to Isla Linton, El Valle, Shelter Bay and Canada

Written by Stein, Kristiansand, 29th Feb. 2008. For corresponding pictures see Picture Gallery No 45.

From Kuna Yala to Isla Linton, El Valle, Shelter Bay and Canada

Pizza Dining with a Sloth
Ilse left us after 10 days of not the best weather, we were indeed in the rainy season, but after a lot of adventures.
Diana and I now felt like seeing more of mainland Panama, and after a last few days in Chichime, we day-sailed Friday 23rd November the 40 miles to the anchorage behind Isla Grande and Isla Linton, on the north coast of Panama. It is only eight nautical miles from Portobelo, but much longer by the windy coastal road. This anchorage is safe and fairly spacious, the locals friendly and honest and is now so popular with visiting sailors that they stay for months and years and sometimes forever! Some buy property ashore, quietly accepting that the area has the highest annual rain fall in Panama. Isla Linton is privately owned and uninhabited, apart from a group of curious spider monkeys.
Yacht “Naughty Bear” with our friends Susanne and Hans were also here after weeks of waiting for generator spare parts and mechanical help. If you are socially inclined, then waiting in this beautiful anchorage is not a problem. They introduced us to some of their friends afloat and ashore. Some have cars and offered lifts to the Friday night gathering at Don Quichote, a popular pizza restaurant about 20 km in the direction of Portobelo. Only problem is that the road has not been maintained for a long time, is full of potholes, so the ride is a slow and bumpy zigzag experience. But when finally arriving at the restaurant you feel you deserve a good meal and a glass of wine.
One of the guests was a young, orphaned three-toed sloth named Bandido. An American couple living in the bay had managed to rear him after his mother was shot by hunters. Not an easy job. Apart from finding the right leaves for his diet, the sloth also has to cling to a “parent” nearly 24 hours a day for about a year. Fortunately Bandido is happy to accept almost anybody as a parent for the night.

Miraflores Visitors Centre
Susanne and Hans said they could keep an eye on our boat for a few days while Diana and I decided to be proper tourists. We got on the bus at 7 am mostly accompanied by school children for the shaky ride to Portobelo, when the road becomes quite good. At Sabanitas we changed for Panama City. The bus service in Panama is mostly cheap and comfortable, some buses are air- conditioned and cost more – but need extra clothes! Our main problem was the painfully loud music that blasts out of the loudspeakers most of the time. A polite request results in a bearable level for about 5 mins before the decibels again hammer your brain… Next time we are bringing ear protectors!
In Panama City we took a taxi to the Miraflores Visitors Centre at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. It is as excellent museum about the challenges that first defeated the French and finally were overcome by the Americans. Not just challenges in construction and engineering; here is also medical history: More than 20.000 workers had lost their lives from malaria and yellow fever, especially in the first years before the French were bankrupt. It was an American Army Doctor, William Crawford Gorgas who first understood how to control the diseases by interrupting the life cycle of the two types of mosquitos (Aedes aegypti and anopheles) that transmit these diseases. He implemented large scale draining of nearby ditches and bogs, regular oiling of still water, fumigating and screening the houses and isolating the patients.
In the visitors centre we could also view the plans for increasing the capacity of the canal. New sets of locks are going to be built on either side of the Gatun lake. These locks are going to be huge and have a system of recycling some of the water that today is lost downstream every time the gates open. The new locks will allow even bigger ships to pass through the canal, and will secure good income after the enormous initial costs. The museum is also a reminder of how USA helped rebels create the country of Panama in 1903. Before that is was part of Colombia. USA also created the Panama Canal Zone as their territory in order to have complete political and military control. It was only in 1st January 2000 that the last military base was closed down and the Canal Zone officially handed over to the Panamanian officials.
The buffet lunch at the centre was as excellent as the exhibition, and having recovered sufficiently from the first bus-rides, we entered a mini bus for a two hour drive to our main destination, El Valle de Anton.

El Valle de Anton
People usually refer to the area just as El Valle - the Valley. It is a fertile valley inside the circular peaks of a huge extinct volcano. Situated at about 600 m above sea level, it is pleasantly cool compared to Panama City, yet still surrounded by lush rain forests, with its tropical flora and fauna. Especially the bird life is amazing. The area is quite affluent with a low crime rate, and many wealthy Panamanians and foreigners, especially Americans, have holiday homes here, and there are many hotels. We settled into a small cabin in Cabañas de Colores, and being a Monday, had the large garden of flowering trees and bushes all to ourselves.
Our three days at El Valle was spent doing a lot of walking. We took a Canopy Tour and were safely guided by Roger on wires through the top of the trees and across water-falls. Apart from lots of birds, butterflies and a big toad, he pointed out a large sloth with a clinging baby that looked like Bandido asleep in the tree tops. Next day we walked to La India Dormida. This area of the peaks looks like the profile of a sleeping Indian from afar, hence the name. We thought we could manage to find our way up on our own; surely such a famous trail would be clearly marked? But climbing steeply on tortuous dirt tracks past water falls and huge trees we could not get our bearings. Between orange trees, bananas and chirping chickens appeared a small farm. A boy named Felix confirmed that we were lost. Would he like to help us for one dollar? He nodded and disappeared to change from rubber boots and rags to nice shoes and a school uniform. After helping us he may as well do the 45 min walk down to school in the valley.
Finally, there we were on the Indian’s “chin” and could view the green, circular valley and the rim of mountains, five km to the opposite side. Unfortunately it was too cloudy to see beyond, on clear days you can see both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. But on the way down, near a water-fall, we were compensated by several iridescent morpho butterflies flashing their amazing colours like blue lightening in the green foliage. There were also two large stones decorated with pre-Colombian petroglyphs.
The final day we walked to see the bird sanctuary at El Nispero and to another area for the so-called square trees (arbour quadratum). Another attraction of El Valle has been the beautiful, golden (harlequin) frog. This poor amphibium is now near extinction due to the loss of its natural habitat, illegal pet trade and a fungus infection, the spread of which human are to blame. We only saw one small and strikingly yellow specimen in a terrarium, its few surviving brothers and sisters were in the frog hospital being treated with weak chlorine solution…
In El Valle we made breakfast and lunch ourselves in our cabaña, buying food at the market and from the Chinese store, but at night we ate at the restaurant Casa de la Mar. Good price, reasonable food, big helpings. We had hoped for a final dinner at Casa de Lourdes, one of Panama’s most famous restaurants, but it was low season and only open at week ends. We had a long walk, gazed longingly at the elegant, empty tables and trudged back to Casa de la Mar,

Land Storage and Home via Toronto and the Tilley Company
White Admiral was still fine when we returned to Isla Linton. We had done some shopping in Sabanitas (on road between Colon and Panama City) and instead of waiting for a slow and noisy bus found a taxi willing to do the more than one hour journey for 35 dollars. I think he regretted it when we passed Portobelo and started slalom driving between rain-filled monster holes, so when he delivered us safely at the jetty we gave him a bonus.
Two days of mostly socializing followed; first another memorable Friday get-together at Don Quichote. Bandido the sloth was there, of course, and we met Pam on Chautauqua. Pam is an American dentist and belongs to the rare species of female single-handers. She is also a keen bird watcher and has a lot of knowledge about South American birds that she was willing to share with us. So each armed with a pair of binoculars Diana and I joined her at 05.45 the next morning for a slow walk. A couple of hours later we had seen a lot of birds! Hawks, vultures, herons, tropic birds, bananaquits, seed eaters, tanagers, parakeets, parrots, humming birds, toucans, pigeons and more.
American Drew invited us to meet some friends at his place near Isla Grande. In 2006 he had invested his retirement and savings in a new marriage, a house on the beach (with a fitness-room), a stunning view, a small boat and a 4WD car. He left no close family back in USA, through his new wife had gained in-laws and step-children that he got on well with. So for Drew, life seemed to have started at 60! Sandy joined us. She is a vet and another single-hander on “little Bit”, but unlike Pam, Sandy has “swallowed the anchor” and bought property in Panama. She was a little sad that day at Drew’s place, as she had heard the same morning that one of her canine patients had died at sea. Sandy had performed the operation of hysterectomy (removing the womb) on the dog a couple of days earlier, and had recommended a week of rest. However, the owner had already been delayed due to his sick dog, and decided to leave the day after. He sailed straight into rough seas, the dog fell out of her basket, the stitches ruptured and the dog had to be put down….

Monday 3rd December we sailed passed the massive breakwater outside Colon and the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal. Sadly, a lot of the breakwater consists of stones taken from once so impressive forts and fortifications of Portobelo…
Tucked in behind the west end of the west breakwater, next to the Coast Guard sation in Limon Bay, lies Shelter Bay Marina. It is a new marina of floating, concrete docks, modern facilities and good security run by two Americans; Russell and Bruce. There is a daily free bus ride to Colon and back. This trip takes 30 min each way, provided no delays, but as it goes across the Canal, and the bus can only pass when the first lock is closed, so the trip may take a lot more than half an hour.
All this comfort and service has a price, of course, but we had heard that it was so much better organized and reliable than their competitor back in Cartagena that we had decided it was going to be worth it. And next door is the San Lorenzo National Park, great for early morning walks for us budding bird lovers.
Wednesday 5th Bruce in his large travel lift placed White Admiral gently and safely on land. Two days of hard work followed. We were very grateful the last night when we were invited for dinner aboard Christmas-decorated “Santa Magdalena” with Jamie and Casey. We first met Jamie in Los Aves, then in Bonaire when we had a memorable cycle trip with her and Robert. Bonaire is also when she first met Casey. At that time he was a single-handler, a state of affairs that quickly ended when they met! They are nearly 30 years younger than us, but like us also part time sail and part time work. They had just returned from a working period and were in great pre-cruising spirits. Diana and I arrived in our best Kuna shirts, mine was made by the waiter of Porvenir Hotel. A few hours later, in the middle of the night and after a couple of hours’ sleep, we locked up White Admiral, and entered a taxi for the long ride to the airport in Panama City on the opposite side of the isthmus.

Toronto, Canada was our first stop-over. Diana’s brother Jim lives in Oakville, not far from the big city. He has two married sons, Craig and Andrew, who between them have three children, and his daughter Heather also has a partner. In Oakville we in addition have good friends from Glasgow University, Ethel and Will, so our three day stop in Canada involved a lot of pleasant socializing. Fortunately Jim loves a fast walk to burn some calories, but the sub zero temperatures, ice and snow made a big change from hot and humid Panama.
In Toronto lives Ilse, whom we had arranged to meet at the main shop of the Canadian Tilley Company; famous producer of outdoor and travelling clothing. We were pleasantly surprised to see how glamorous she looked in smart clothes and make-up, not the way this superbly practical traveller normally looked when we had met her in Colombia and Panama! She brought us pictures from her trip, several gifts again and insisted on taking us out for lunch. There was little doubt she had enjoyed her sail, in spite of touching that reef! (or maybe just because of it?!) While in the store I was going test if the Tilley hat really has a life time guarantee like it says inside. My ten year old hat had been a constant companion on many travels, including two rows and one sail across the Atlantic, trips to Orinoco and the Andes, the Sahara Marathon, Galapagos and Cuidad Perdida. The Tilley store is a really beautiful shop, and I felt a little self conscious about bringing this expensive hat that was now falling apart; was it through use or abuse?. But there was no need to bring witnesses or proof, I was immediately allowed to choose a brand new, similar hat. (And they let me keep the old one.)
Well done, Tilley!
(Wonder if I’ll be back in another ten years?)

More Kuna Yala. Visit from Ilse and Near Disaster

Written by Stein, Kristiansand, Norway, 29th feb. 2008. For photos see Picture Gallery No 44.

More Kuna Yala. Visit from Ilse, Rio Gangandi and a close call in Porvenir.

Dog Island, East Lemmon Cays
Since Diana last reported 31st October we had another few days before my mother Eli and my name-sake cousin Stein (now officially “St. Buster of WhiteAdmiral”!) flew back to Norway. A new anchorage for us between the East Holandaise islands and the air strip of Porvenir was the tiny Dog Island. Years ago a small ship that developed a serious leak was run aground here. The rusting bow of the ship sticking out of the water near the beach does not look pretty, even with the customary brown pelican perched on top, but if you snorkel over the submerged parts it becomes a truly amazing adventure! Thousands of fish obviously love this wreck for shelter, feeding, breeding and just socializing. A lot of the ship is covered with marine growth, including colourful corals and wavy anemones, creating a concentration of living things that is hard to beat even on the best reef. It is only about 4 m down to the deepest part of the hull, so it is very easy to skin dive outside and inside the wreck. But there is also quite a current running, so while admiring butterfly fish, tangs and sergeant majors, one has to be careful not to drift into something sharp, abrasive or poisonous.
The Dog Island wreck and an ulu in the foreground
Ashore a family from the large island of Carti who owns the island, take turns in serving visitors and keeping it immaculate. You pay a small fee for going ashore. There are two clusters of small huts, one is the living-quarters for themselves and one is a shelter for visitors where one can buy molas, cold soft drinks, beer and drinking coconuts. Eli also managed to come ashore here, but when returning to White Admiral in the dingy in a choppy sea got drenched while getting back onto White Admiral. She didn’t complain though, good going for somebody about to turn 92!

Sunday 4th November Eli and Buster entered the small Air Panama plane in Porvenir and started their long journey home. The plane was delayed by two hours due to squalls with heavy rain, which also flooded the half-finished shed where we were waiting. We were luckier the night before when we had a farewell dinner at the Porvenir Hotel, a very simple but friendly establishment close to the south beach. The metal chairs are rusty and permanent wax cloth covers the tables, but the outdoor restaurant has a splendid view and is sheltered from sun and rain by a large roof of palm fronds. They have a rather limited menu, a choice of fish, chicken or squid, served with a salad. Tastes good and is very cheap! After sunset you have to endure the noise of a generator which provides electricity for the fridge, in order to serve ice cold beer and wine, including cold red wine! Also in San Blas it is never far to the nearest mola-seller, and both St. Buster and Eli were happy to make some last-minute bargains before we rowed home and finished dinner with tea and biscuits and another glass of wine aboard.

Bredio Villalobos
Alone again, Diana and I did some shopping in the tiny store of Whichubhuala next to Porvenir, where Diana even managed to find a couple of tomatoes and paprikas. Then we sailed south to Isla Gertie in the Robson Group, a group of islands close to the mainland in the south-west part of the Gulf of San Blas. Close to shore, outside the tiny Rio Torti the navigation is tricky with sand banks and reefs and, due to the heavy rain, brownish water with poor visibility. But with our Bowhouse Guide, a reliable echo sounder and some patience we found a reasonable anchorage at 11 m. depth. We even had time for a ride up the river to wash clothes and fill some cans of water. Coming back just before sunset we saw white and red ibises landing in the mangroves. Especially the red ones are such a spectacular sight.
Next day among other visitors to offer molas and vegetables we met Bredio Villalobos, who offered his services. He is a short and muscular man with an infectious smile. He is in his mid thirties, originally a Kuna born in the Robsons, but has spent nearly 20 years in Panama City before returning to his roots to marry a single mother and have his own family. Kuna males also love children, and a girl with a child is no hindrance for a permanent bond. Girls with property are of course especially popular; in Kuna Yala land is inherited from mother to daughter. Because Bredio speaks good Spanish and understands that he must speak slowly, he is popular with the yachties that infrequently visit this part of the archipelago. The bunch of bananas he brought us was cheap and of excellent quality, so we arranged to employ him for a day when we returned with our next visitor, Ilse from Canada.

With Ilse to Rio Gangandi
Ilse Cloer we met first on our strenuous and memorable trek to Cuidad Perdida, Colombia in late February. We were impressed with this extrovert, adventurous and very fit lady in her late 60’s, wanted to get to know her better, and offered her a sail on White Admiral. True to her spirit she immediately accepted and duly arrived in Porvenir 7th November. She brought us some unusual and practical gifts, like Tilley scarves of micropellets that when wet swell up and can either be cooled or warmed depending on the effect wanted. She also did some shopping for us bringing goodies like lettuce and cheese.
After introducing Ilse to the lively village of Wichubhuala and the peaceful shores of Chichime, we returned to Isla Gertie. On Nov. 10th, with Bredio as our guide, we rented a local big dug-out canoe (known as an ulu) with a 15 HP outboard and a driver to get us part of the way to the village of Gangandi. It is one of only two of the many Kuna villages not situated either on an island or along the coast, but by a river inland in the Darien. Few tourists travel her, so it was an opportunity to see a more isolated way of living, a lot of rain forest and birds, maybe some reptiles and monkeys, and get some exercise.
The boat trip was about 30 minutes first going south along the coast and then up a biggish river. At the right entrance of the river we were surprised to see the tops of big wooden piles, obviously the remains of a large quay. Bredio explained that the Chiquita Banana Company operated plantations here in the 1920s, even building a small railway. But the turn-over was disappointing; bananas were not produced or delivered in the amounts they had anticipated, and the operation was closed down only after a few years.
Our driver took us up the river for a few miles, and while he returned to the sea to fish we walked for about two hours along a narrow and mostly muddy path up to Rio Gangandi. We waded across the river in quite a strong current before finding the village of Gangandi behind a field of big elephant-ear like leaves of yams and a thicket of banana trees.

Bredio has an older sister living in the village. She served us sweet oranges straight from the tree overhanging a bench and a table (shaking the tree made them drop in your lap!), and was happy to introduce us to her house and large family. Promising to make some printed copies in return, they were also happy to be photographed. Bredio then took us for a walk through the village to the local Congreso, to meet the saila (chief) and pay our visitors’ fee of $2 each. The chief was leading an informal meeting while lying in a hammock in the middle of this huge, wooden hall, but did not seem the least worried by our interruption. He spoke good Spanish, wished us welcome and explained in a friendly manner the many rules affecting visitors: No video filming, and photographs of people only by prior arrangement. The chief proved to be a retired teacher in his early 70s, had a chiselled, square face with dark skin, broad cheekbones and the slightly slanted, humorous eyes of the Amerindian. And he knew about Norway and its capital Oslo! Afterwards we regretted not having asked permission for a photograph, as with long-sleeved yellow shirt, pink tie, black trousers and black round-rimmed hat he was a colourful and unexpected sight in this simple village in the steaming forests of Darien.
Crops of yam, oranges, plantanas and bananas provide income for the 300 or so villagers of Gangandi. And the women here as elsewhere in the Kuna Yala are almost always working on molas for their own decoration and as an extra source of income.

Judging from the many rows of white jaw bones hanging outside some huts, the villagers also enjoy the meat of the large tapir mammal. But their numbers are dwindling even in the Darien and the occasional hunting parties now have to wander far from the village for their prey.
A tall tower built from bamboo and covered with a few leaves had children playing in it, they shouted the now familiar “Photo one dollar! Photo one dollar!” Is this a hunting tower? I asked Bredio, or for bird watching? No, Bredio explained, people climb up to get better cellular phone cover! So the modern world of solar panels and mobile phones is also entering the village of Gangandi. But we only saw two houses of concrete and tinned roof and no TV antennas.
We had been lucky with the weather so far, and only while waiting for our boat back at the head of the first river did the heavens open up. The rain filled the ulu so fast that one man had to work hard to bail out faster than it came in. Soaked to the skin in spite of our oil skins, it was good to get back aboard and we were grateful for our diesel cabin heater and a cup of hot cocoa. But with all this rain and more to come, there was at least no more need for collecting brownish river water…
At the Gunboat anchorage the next day we introduced Ilse to her first snorkelling, and like Dagmar she also learnt it in record time. With so much to see on these reefs it’s a wonderful feedback to learners of all ages. Then we bought two large crabs and several big crayfish from some young men in an ulu before sailing out to the Swimming Pool in time for the Monday sunset socializing with other yachties on Barbeque Island.

A Near Disaster
Sailing slowly back to Porvenir we revisited Nuinudup and neighbouring Banadup, where we found to our delight a small store were they bake Kuna bread. Now we understood the meaning of the tall flagpole beside this hut: A raised flag is a fresh-bread-signal to passing boats!
At Nuinudup we met again a family with a small albino boy, gave them prints of photos and bought some fish. More snorkling at Dog Island before sailing to Porvenir, catching a mackerel on the way and anchoring in slightly choppy conditions. The three of us had agreed to do one hour of brisk walking on the air strip before dinner, and as we dropped the hook just before 5 pm I broke my golden rule of skin-diving to check the anchor. But we had a really fast walk, discovering that 69 year old Ilse was impossible to keep up with. Afterwards she explained; she used to compete in speed –walking!
The wind picked up at night, but we thought we were safe as we fell asleep about 10 pm, tired from all the exercise. The awning was as usual spread across the stern to protect the cockpit area from rain, we did not worry about the fact that it also is a bit of a wind catcher.
At midnight I woke up with the most awful grinding noise going through the hull followed by the sound of surf nearby. I ran outside with a torch and lit up jagged corals beneath the port hull and not much depth on starboard side either. The portside keel was scraping a ledge of a reef and the surface breakers were only a few metres away; our anchor must have dragged! Diana and Ilse were also out in a few seconds; we got the awning bunched up and the engines on and started motoring off the reef while winching in 50 m of 10 mm chain manually, the electric winch having broken a few weeks earlier. At this point we did not know the extent of damage to the port keel, rudder and propeller, but we did not think the hull could have hit, certainly there were no leaks on portside, and with hearts pounding and arms aching we slowly moved off the reef bringing chain and anchor aboard in the relative safety of a 13 m deep channel just outside the reef.
To find a good anchorage in Porvenir in daylight is not easy, the bottom being an undulating surface of small patches of good sand separated by areas of dense grass and poor-holding corals. I knew we had not anchored on coral, as that makes a lot of noise when dragging, so most likely the plough anchor had hooked the edge of a grassy patch. With the rising wind and harder pull we would probably had broken off a piece of grass which would have stuck like a cork on the tip of the hook, effectively preventing it imbedding again. And reefs are never far away in this dangerous anchorage. In the middle of a windy night safe anchoring is much trickier than during the day. But with our strongest torch we located the sheltered, white sandy beach off the south-west corner of the island. Slowly we moved in till we were very close to the beach, and in a couple of metres dropped the anchor followed by lots of chain while the wind blow us back to deeper water. Finally at rest and feeling shaky, but safe a man ashore shone a light at us and shouted something we could not make out above the wind. He kept shouting for a while, but we ignored him, thinking he was probably drunk.
After Diana and Ilse were back in their bunks, I stayed at the chart table watching the movements of the boat on the GPS for a long time. Finally I was convinced that the wind was from a stable direction and new disasters were not imminent, and got a couple of hours of sleep before sunrise - and the prospects of a morning dive to inspect the damage.
At 06.15 there was hard banging on the hull and the same voice shouting again, now very loudly from a small boat alongside. It was the Immigration Officer: “¡Mueva, pronto, aeroplano llega 15 minutos!”
Now we understood. We had anchored in line with the air strip! If we did not want the top of the mast torn off by the 06.30 plane coming in for landing, we’d better move quickly!
Having re-anchored yet again I was quite nervous before I could finally jump in with mask and snorkel. But it was with happy amazement I found only superficial abrasions on the aft part of the keel and two small scratches on the rudder. No serious damage! After breakfast we anchored the dingy near the reef of our nocturnal adventure and found a fan-shaped area of broken finger-corals, many of the small pieces bearing blue spots of our bottom paint!
As sailors, Diana and I together have a fair amount of skill and experience, but occasionally we also make mistakes.
Everybody needs a little luck sometimes!