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?)