Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Panama City, Panama– March 20–June 13, 2017

We explored Panama City (locally referred to as simply “Panamá”, leading to occasional confusion) first while moored at Balboa Yacht Club and later during two short tourist visits from Shelter Bay Marina near Colón, one with Special Guest Crew Member Bob Romano. Most of our time navigating Panamá was spent searching out goods and services necessary or convenient for every day life: the best grocery option, a barber, lunch, boat parts and theaters showing subtitled (vs. dubbed) English-language movies. But we were able to perform some Acts of Tourism – which is what we’ll share here.

Pre-History Panama

For those interested in the Isthmus of Panama pre-human residence, we recommend a visit to the Biomuseo. It provides an accessible explanation of the creation of the isthmus (think: first chapter of a James Michener novel) and the planet-altering effects of that creation. We learned (here conveyed in highly unscientific terms) that the creation of the isthmus:
  • closed an opening between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, altering ocean currents and thus the planet’s weather patterns; and
  • provided a land bridge between North and South America, allowing interaction between species which had not been previously introduced – the result of which was catastrophic for some species (in current political speak, “evolutionary losers”) which were introduced to predators they had not evolved to defend against. E.g., bye-bye giant sloths . . .
This information and more plus a 3-story, 360-degree nature video for only $18. The museum’s little coffee shop is good and the museum is housed in the only Frank Gehry-designed building in Central America:

Biomuseo By Sea - Taken From Abracadabra

Biomuseo By Land -
Taken From The Amador Causeway Sidewalk

Looking Out From The Biomuseo On La Playita Anchorage

Critters of Panama

Not far from the Biomuseo, also on the Amador Causeway, is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Punta Culebra. The Institute has a very nice display about the frogs of Panama:

Not Your Grandmother's Ceramic Ashtray --
A Real (poisonous) Frog

It’s also a place one can get close to:

Sea Turtles

Fish With Disney Faces and Coral

Outside of the exhibit spaces, one can observe:


Docents and Curious Children

Looking further, one can even see sailboats:

Abracadabra Anchored at La Playita
Next to Full Monty

Spanish-Era Panama

Spain’s first settlement on the north shore of the Gulf of Panama lasted for about 150 years -- until the city was sacked by a group of pirates led by Henry Morgan. Once Team Morgan cleared out the Spanish rebuilt their city several miles further west using a lot of the rubble Morgan had left behind.

A present-day visit to the site of the first settlement (Panamá Viejo or Old Panama) is an archaeological tour and a museum visit. Those with an interest in Spanish colonial history will find it very interesting. Others may simply enjoy walking among ruins and looking at the views of modern Panamá Moderno from what remains of the old cathedral tower.

Bryce and Bob - Exploring Ruins

Bob and Bryce - Taking In The View

The Spanish next built in the area now called Casco Viejo. In today's Casco area there is little that remains from the colonial era. There are several lovely churches to visit but the real draw are the mid- to late-19th century mansions which have been or are being re-purposed as hotels, restaurants, bars and shops.

[Note: The existence of two “viejo” (old) areas of town sometimes results in confusion for tourists. Cab drivers have learned to interrogate tourists to confirm which they are looking for. There also seems to be a move to re-brand Casco Viejo (Old Town) as Casco Antiguo (Antique Town) which can add another layer of confusion since Casco is not as antique as Panamá Viejo . . . .]

Casco Whichever is a nice place to wander during the day and we had a good lunch there one afternoon. Because it is reported to be a very “happening” place at night, and we are not very “happening” people, we have never looked for a hotel or gone to dinner there. But recently we talked to some yatistas who reported getting a good night’s sleep at a Casco hotel so we might try staying there in the future in search of a hotel with more "charm" than the Hampton Inn.

The Canal

Casco is also where the Museo del Canal Interoceanico (aka The Panama Canal Museum) is located, housed in the building that once served as the headquarters for the first French canal company. 

Interestingly, despite it’s location, this museum gives the French canal efforts short shrift and focuses primarily on the American canal and the transfer of the canal to Panamanian control. It is a must for those even remotely interested in the history of the canal or of the country of Panama.

There’s even a Northern California connection: some exhibits about the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, held in San Francisco. Molly was amused to see one of the bonds issued by the City and County of San Francisco to finance the exhibition because one of her first transactions as a baby bond lawyer (a few decades after 1915 . . . ) was a refinancing of the City and County of San Francisco's fire suppression system. However far we travel we take our history with us!

An Aside: We've said this before but really - it bears repeating: anyone interested in the history of the canal should read David McCullough’s The Path Between The Seas. That said, Bryce doesn’t think he needs to read it. He spent several weeks being interrupted in whatever he was doing by Molly’s insistence that he hear certain information from the book or listen while she read paragraphs to him. Read it before your spouse does in self defense.

Another canal museum is located at the Miraflores Locks Visitors' Center. We visited the locks as part of our pre-transit education and got to see several sailboats pass through these locks (some of those pictures can be seen in our canal transit post). We also enjoyed the museum, so much so that Molly toured it for a second time with our Special Guest Crew Member Bob Romano. She thought it was even more interesting after having gone through the canal.

Lock Control Building

Cargo Ship Bridge Simulator -
Miraflores Lock Museum

This museum also provides a lot of information about the recent canal expansion that was opened in 2016.

While moored at the Balboa Yacht Club, we had a front-row seat to canal traffic - car carriers, cruise ships -- even a Canadian destroyer and a U.S. submarine! We often didn't get pictures because the highest traffic time north/south was during our dinner hour -- way better than eating dinner in front of the television!

The Bridge of The Americas -
From Our Balboa Yacht Club Mooring

Panama City Today

[Travel Tip: Not so much a tip as a warning. Internet searches for “Panama City” done in English often bring up information about Panama City, Florida. It plays hell on trying to do travel research.]

Panama City, if you weren’t reading newspapers in 2016, is a big banking center and home to law firms specializing in international tax advice for the wealthy. There are countless sleek high rise buildings we presume are evidence of this wealth.

Panamá Moderno Shot From Panamá Viejo

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (1953)
And A More Modern Neighbor

Muy moderno!

But walk or drive (or cooler and calmer yet, taxi) a few blocks off Avenida Balboa and you will find charming, but deteriorating, buildings of the early 1900’s. Look to your right or left while traveling the highway to the Amador Causeway and there are ugly and blocky mid-rise crumbling concrete apartment buildings. The people’s housing. As in most countries, the wealth is not deep. We understand individual travelers can’t have a significant impact on a country’s economy – but we remind one another that the minimum wage is under $500 a month when deciding whether to tip generously.

Thus ends our short summary of Fun Tourist Things To Do In Panama City (Panama). We will be returning to Panama December-ish and may have time to engage in some of the other interesting activities the area offers. If so, we’ll report in!

Next stop: a family visit in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada. Our last trip to Lakefield was in 2015, so we have a lot of catching up to do.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Holá y Adiós Hasta Diciembre, Caribbean Panamá! –– April 23 – June16, 2017

[Hello and Goodbye Until December, Caribbean Panama!]

Greetings from The Land of The Free where we are spending a short time visiting with friends, performing life maintenance tasks and blogging about our last month afloat in Panama. We will soon depart for a family visit in Ontario, Canada. After that? Until we return to Abracadabra in December, the beginning of Panama’s “less-rainy season” (to say Panama has a dry season is somewhat disingenuous) we will be in California and . . . other places TBD. Recommendations re: interesting, affordable, land-based travel destinations gratefully accepted.

Blog-wise, we now return to Panama: In the weeks following our canal transit we enjoyed Shelter Bay Marina (very near Colón) and Linton Bay Marina (further east) and spent a couple of weeks anchored in two pretty bays. We also took a short trip to Panama City with our Special Guest Crew Member, Bob Romano because we thought he would enjoy the city and well, just coincidentally, that we could use a few air-conditioned hotel nights! That short break will be part of our Panama City post.

Shelter Bay / Fort Sherman

Shelter Bay Marina is aptly named. It is well protected from wind, well equipped and well run; a perfect place for Abracadabra to shelter during the really rainy season.

Not Much Roll In This Marina!

The Neighborhood Is Tranquilo

Oh yeah, there are nice showers, a swimming pool, a mini-mart, a bar/restaurant and a free shuttle bus to a grocery store in Colón for the crew!

The marina is located on property once part of Fort Sherman, one of the many U.S. military installations built to protect the U.S.’s interests in the Panama Canal. Some may remember Fort Sherman as the U.S. jungle warfare training center (busy back when The Great Threat To Our Way Of Life was from jungle terrain countries . . . ). Fort Sherman real property was ceded to the Panamanian government in 1999 as part of the termination of the U.S.’s interest in the canal. 

A short walk from the marina brings one to some remains of Fort Sherman:

Today's Sail Loft --  Fort Sherman's Theater

Battery Mower - Retired

Battery Stanley - Retired

Fairly Recent Graffiti -- Poor Fatty Buns . . . 

Handball In The Jungle

On weekly nature walks guided by Vicky of S/V Cinnamon Teal, marina visitors interested in exploring Panama’s jungle terrain can see some of the many bird and animal residents of the area. Thanks for taking your time to show us around, Vicky!

Our little camera isn’t the best way to capture pictures of birds.

A Yellow Beaked Iforgottowriteitdown

But we were able to get a few good shots of the slow moving neighborhood sloth.   

Livin' The Life

Geez - I Really Need A Pedicure . . . 

The Panamanian Aeronaval (the air and sea security force) now operates a training facility on part of former Fort Sherman. Some mornings marina residents wake to the call and response of military forces in training, on others to howler monkeys asserting their turf. One can’t help but muse about the primal need to control turf.


Portobelo Bay

The anchorage at Portobelo is some 20+/- nautical miles east of Colón. This has been a popular anchorage since the early 16th Century. During the Spanish colonial era it was a heavily defended port from which Peruvian silver and gold was shipped to the Spanish treasury. Today it is a calm, protected anchorage ringed by ruins of the Spanish empire’s fortifications.

Buddies Exploring Fuerte San Jerónimo

Plotting An Attack

Climbing Fuerte San Fernando
Regretting Wearing Sandals

Our Personal Marine Assault Vehicle

It is evocative and calming to wake on a misty morning under the protection of the ruins of Fuerte San Fernando. One feels very adventuresome -- hey, we're in the Caribbean! -- and at the same time the fort puts a lot of worries in perspective. The Spanish empire held this area in a vice-like grip -- for a while. Now, not so much. But life in both Panama and Spain go on.

Soy la evidencia de que todo cambia. Lo que te preocupa, también cambiará.
[I am evidence that it all changes. That which worries you will also change.]

The ruins of Fort San Fernando and other nearby forts offer a full afternoon of tramping (or several afternoons for those who move slowly in the heat). Travel Tip: Wear real shoes. Touring in flip flops is just offering up your toes as a local mosquito buffet. Trust Molly on this one.

Tourist literature describes the town of Portobelo as “laid back”. 


But to be honest, when one gets ashore -- it’s a bit grotty. The municipality’s street and sidewalk maintenance program, trash collection system, abandoned vehicle program and building maintenance team, to the extent they exist, are in serious need of financial support.

Even so Portobelo has its charms, and a budding reputation as an artist colony. 

Public Art -- Putting Panama in Perspective

There is a very nice art gallery with interesting and beautiful Congo art for sale (Casa Congo). [Side note: "Congo" refers to a culture and type of dance related to the Afro-colonial culture. Afro-colonials are descendants of Spanish-era slaves and distinguish themselves from Afro-Panamanian descendants of Antillians who immigrated in the late 19th century and early 20th century to build the canal. Some say this term is used because many of Spain's slaves in Panama were brought from the Congo basin.] Sadly, those who live on a 36' sailboat are not able to do a lot of art collecting. 

Casa Congo - Restaurant and Gallery

Portobelo is also home to a music school – La Escuelita del Ritmo (The Little School of Rhythm). On several evenings we heard drums from shore and assumed that we were hearing a class at the little school. 

La Escuelito del Ritmo

The parroquia (parochial church) is home of one of the famous Black Christ statues of Central and South America. There is a large pilgrimage to the church in October to honor the statue. 

The Black Christ of Portobelo

The town's museum is located in the former Royal Customs House (where the Spanish counted all that Peruvian silver and gold) which makes it worth a visit. The exhibits provide some information, some even in English, but the exhibits aren't worth a long drive. Warning: The English-language video about the history of Portobelo is probably pretty good, but it is shown in a small room with a broken air-conditioner. Even dedicated museum attendees may begin to lose concentration before the video gets to the sacking of the city by Henry Morgan.

Bryce and The Requisite Spanish Cannon

Bob and A Crown -- Without Information - ?

A Jumble of Stuff In A Corner -
The Museum Staff's Office?

Like the town, the anchorage could benefit from some clean-up. It is a lovely, calm anchorage but sadly it looks like A Place Sailboat Dreams Go To Die.


Can't Help But Wonder What Happened . . . 

Tip For Sailors: When dinghy driving at night, proceed with caution! Unoccupied boats will not be lit.

Not all the boats in the anchorage were decrepit. In fact, for a few days we were joined by Atlantic, a modern re-creation of a 185-foot, three-mast schooner originally built in 1903. She is, according to the internet, a wealthy Dutch yachtsman’s pride and joy. Who could blame him?

The Atlantic Seen From Fuerte San Fernando

The Atlantic Flying The Maltese Ensign

In summary: We liked Portobelo. It’s well worth a visit for sailors and tourists alike. Note, however that those looking for a “Caribbean Paradise Resort Experience” may be disappointed. 

Linton Bay

Just a few miles further from Colón, south of Isla Linton, is another popular anchorage: Linton Bay. This anchorage is slightly more exposed than that at Portobelo, but is relatively well protected.

After spending a few days at anchor we needed water (we don’t run the water maker when anchored off small villages likely to have unsophisticated sewer treatment plants) and power (clouds + calm = insufficient solar and wind generation). So four of our nights in this area were at the new Linton Bay Marina.

Linton Bay Marina

Warning: This paragraph is a short marina report – skip if you’re more interested in touring activities: Linton Bay Marina has nice docks, water and electricity. The office and shore showers are in re-purposed shipping containers and the floating dock bar and restaurant is a work in progress. Produce trucks arrive frequently and on occasion a woman delivers bread for sale. Both events are reported by the marina over the radio. There is also a “real” grocery store within a short taxi or bus ride, though for our short stay we relied on the veggie and bread deliveries so we can’t report on how well stocked the grocery store is.

Molly At The Linton Bay Floating Bar/Restaurant
[Note Big Travel Lift!]

The small village  at the south end of the bay, Puerto Lindo (Beautiful Port), is, uhm . . . not very accurately named. It’s a small fishing village and the population is poor. Once again we were reminded how difficult it is for the poor to eat healthfully. In the two small tiendas in town we found white bread, canned tuna, chips and beer – but not much else. The charming lady at one tienda told us about a veggie truck but when we asked about the truck's schedule she laughed: Oh, no schedule – oh, no – no schedule!

One restaurant in the village is Casa X (Casa Equis – pron: eh-keys). There’s a nice dinghy dock there and the son of the owners is very kind, speaks good English and will give directions to the local tiendas. Their coffee is okay. We can’t report on their meals. The ambiance would be improved by a few ceiling fans.

Our Linton Bay tourist adventure was a dinghy ride through a mangrove tunnel to Panamarina, a mooring field tucked in a mangrove-lined estuary popular among hardy, budget-minded yatistas. Panamarina is also, interestingly enough, the location of Tripadvisor’s number one restaurant in Puerto Lindo (there are two listed, the other being Casa X): Panamarina, a French restaurant in the mangroves.

We watched other dinghies and tourist pangas navigate the shoals guarding the entry to the passage through the mangroves. Finally we decided we understood the general circuitous route – go way right, go sharp left, out again and then into the bushes. We motored around the shoals – very slowly – and entered the mangroves. All was well until we came upon a side channel. Hmmm – we’d figured out how to get there, but had failed to do recon on possible side channels. We chose what seemed to be the widest and continued to put-put slowly along . . .

Not Well Marked . . . 

Our Brave Captain Navigating The Mangrove Swamp

until the channel took a turn and – voilá! – there were boats on moorings.

I See Ships Ahead, Captain!

We had a nice lunch, talked to a few of the sailors moored there and retraced our route back to Abracadabra, full and ready to return on our next visit to Linton Bay.

Sailing In The Rainy Season:

One can - sail, that is. We sailed about half of the short distances (in total - 50 nautical miles +/-) to and from these anchorages. But it was the rainy season so we did get wet. Though we were lucky enough to dodge the truly exciting weather we saw in the distance:

Yeow - Water Spout!


So went our couple of weeks away from Shelter Bay: Pleasant. Interesting. An introduction to the real Caribbean where there are resorts with beautiful views to be enjoyed, but much more. 

Next for the blog – Panama City.

Next for us -- luxuriating in dry heat and air-conditioning in California.