Ah, Panama! It was a dream for a long time. And all of the sudden it was reality. And that reality felt so good. We had left Costa Rica that morning, and suddenly, we were in Panama! We even opened up a tiny split of champagne and had a few sips – we never drink when we run the boat, but this arrival felt like it needed a little something special. So, a few sips were had. Max had some too. I mean, did he ever think he’d be in Panama? I think not. And of course, as we cruised across the border from Costa Rica, we had to crank a little Van Halen to herald our arrival into Panama. For some reason that doesn’t get old to us. I’m pretty sure that our friends Doug and Mary on N46 One Life could hear it 2 nm away. I’m pretty sure it WAS getting old to them!
It was a stunningly beautiful day that grew into a lovely evening. As the sun set, we pulled into our anchorage at Isla Parida. A sailboat and a fleet of Panamanian fishing boats floated nearby, monkeys and birds chattered in the trees and the white sand of a beach beckoned. But first, a passage drink was required. All successful passages earn a fabulous cocktail which is best consumed in the cockpit. And this night was no exception. We sat batting at bugs and poking one another – hey, we’re in Panama! How did that ever happen? It was one of those nights when we allowed ourselves a moment to feel pretty proud. Just for a minute. And then back to boat life reality.
In the morning we woke up to find that we were not really in the quiet, chill anchorage we had high-fived about the night before. Pangas were zipping about, sportfishing boats were arriving in the bay and Latin rap music was pounding on the beach. It was a party! And we were in the middle of it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, right? I mean, we love a good morning party. Why not?
We dinghied to shore where we found a restaurant that we could barely see the night before. Friendly Panamanians waved and shouted Buenos dias at us as we dragged the dinghy up the beach. A fun and animated panga captain came over to introduce himself and to ask about the boat. Red Rover, not the dinghy that is. He also then became our local knowledge tour guide, introducing us around to the other panga captains and explaining that the restaurant, and the beach are a big attraction for Panamanians who come from the city of David, via the small town of Boca Chica. Big groups of families and friends gathered on the beach, playing music, eating and relaxing in the water and under the leafy palm trees.
We checked out the small menu at the Isla Parida Bar & Grill (for real) and decided on a cheeseburger and chicken nuggets. Yes, we are 6 years old. I don’t know, it just sounded good! Everyone else was eating whole fried fish, so I guess we looked a little out of place. Americans. Check. Eating American food. Of course.
After stuffing our faces and waving goodbye to our new friends we dinghied around the bay and then loaded back up on Red Rover. We had stopped at Isla Parida in order to time our entry into Boca Chica, which involved weaving through islands and reefs. The charts in Panama offer little detail and information. Thankfully though, we had a few secret weapons. First, the SV Sarana digital guidebook that included soundings and specific details for all of the reefs. And second, a tool that the Panama Posse and fellow cruiser Scott on SV Animal Cracker introduced us to – Open CPN. Open CPN is a PC-based free chart plotting software that allows the use of satellite charts. The Panama Posse provides a free download of a myriad of satellite charts that other Posse members have snipped and created for anchorages, islands and passages. To say this is incredibly useful and helpful is the understatement of the century. Being able to actively see where you are on a satellite image, and to combine this with carefully understood depths from your sounder, allows you to safely enter anchorages that our main charts offer skimpy information (and often incorrect information) about.
One Life, who we often call the “Advance Team” made their way into the anchorage first and reported some skinny water but a totally doable entry. We rounded the islands, avoided the reefs and came around the corner to find One Life anchored off to the side of a channel. It looked like a fabulous spot, by trees full of howler monkeys and green, lush vegetation. As it was high slack we didn’t yet understand that the two of us anchored in a 3+ knot current. Good times. Have you ever seen a Nordhavn dance? Well, there were two waltzing trawlers at Boca Chica that night! At one point it likely became a tango. Or maybe a cha cha cha?
In the morning, we both moved to the other side of the channel where a variety of sailboats were anchored, and found enough depth and swinging room to safely put the hook down.
When we were still in Costa Rica, we had contacted Carlos, who owns a boat yard, boat storage and boat launch facility in Boca Chica. Carlos also functions as an agent, helping boats entering Panama to check into the country. The Panamanian law states that you can be in Panamanian waters for a maximum of 72 hours before checking into the country. A lot of cruisers try to make it to Panama City and skip the rural and somewhat more complicated check-in at Boca Chica. Many don’t check in for weeks. As we wanted to slowly cruise to Panama City, Carlos was our man. We sent Carlos all of our documents prior to arriving and let him know when we would arrive.
And here we were! Doug and Mary picked us up in their dinghy as we could not put our big dinghy down (see later in this story as to why) and our little dinghy with its electric Torqeedo engine wasn’t going to do well in the now raging current. We would get there eventually but…
We cruised past “town” and around the corner to Carlos’ dock. We wandered up to Carlos’ house which sits in the midst of his boat operations. Carlos is a lovely, funny, fun and engaging guy. The opportunity to meet him is enough of a reason to stop in Boca Chica. Baby cows, chickens, dogs, cats and other creatures wandered around the beautiful property, and Carlos’ family shouted hello as they worked on a kitchen project in the background. We sat in the shade chatting until the health department official showed up. The questions on the health form are hilarious to us – but they probably actually apply to a big ship like a container ship or a cruise ship. To be sure, no one died during our passage from Costa Rica! Kevin felt that it would be appropriate to joke around with the official, which seems to me to never be a good idea, but the gentleman was a good sport (thankfully!) and laughed about the lack of death on Red Rover.
The other necessary officials weren’t able to come visit us that day, so we said Hasta Mañana to Carlos and dinghied back to the boats with a plan to celebrate Mary’s birthday that evening. And we had to make a cake! The evening was soft and beautiful at Hotel Bocas del Mar where we enjoyed not only the use of their dock but also an outstanding dinner, followed by cake and rum on Red Rover.
The next day we dinghied back over to Carlos’ to meet up with the rest of the officials, who all came together in a single vehicle from the town of David, about 75 minutes away. This time we sat around the picnic table and the Captains – Kevin and Doug, chatted with the officials over hot coffee (in 90 degree, humid weather) while Mary and I patted the dogs. Many passport stamps later, we were almost done. Our Panama cruising permit would need to be blessed by the mothership in Panama City and it would not be back to the Boca Chica area for several days. That said, we could pick it up from the Port Captain’s office in Pedregal, which is just next to David. Perfect. Carlos’ brother would take us to town on Thursday, help us get our SIM cards from the Panamanian cell company, TIGO, take us to the bank (Panama uses US dollars), the grocery store and the chandlery. Excellent. In the meantime, there were more restaurants to try, and a few beaches to discover.
Back at the anchorage.
Our trip to David was splendid, although the cruising permit process wasn’t a smooth one. At one point Kevin was the owner of One Life and our permit says we have a 34 HP engine. Sure, whatever works! Carlos’ brother did a great job pressuring the Port Captain’s team and we managed to get our paperwork sorted out, and a truck full of groceries back to Boca Chica.
In the morning, when the tide was high enough, we headed out to Islas Secas, a chain of small islands just a few hours away. One of the things we absolutely loved about Panama was the islands – there were islands EVERYWHERE! Small, large, wooded, lush, jungly, beachy – all the types. The reintroduction of islands into our life gave us a clue – we are island people. And we had found our country.
The Secas are gorgeous. The water was absolutely clear and warm, a welcome change from the blurry waters around Boca Chica which are clean, they are just murky due to the rivers that empty into the bays. We snorkeled, we beachcombed, we had dinners and drinks with Doug and Mary and we wandered the islands. It was delightful.
Islas Secas are actually privately owned and a very high-end boutique resort (www.islassecas.com) sits on the largest island. We had heard that we should not anchor in view of the resort, nor should we go to shore on that island, or perhaps any of the islands. We found the resort staff to be friendly and open, and we did go to the islands in plain view of the resort team with no issues. We didn’t go directly to the resort itself, but watching the goings-on of the guests was highly entertaining. The resort staff took care of their every need and want. One morning we sat in a pristine, gorgeous anchorage all by ourselves, high-fiving that we were living a tropical paradise dream. Until… the resort staff showed up, wandered into the jungle and began pulling out supplies from a hidden shipping container. A beach day for 12 was being set up in no time with separate dining areas, a full remote kitchen and bar, every beach toy imaginable, umbrellas, loungers, pillows, towels, cold water receptacles, you name it. The resort’s Viking sportfisher then scrolled in and anchored right on top of us, ready for any guest who might like to go sportfishing. Another “bow down” boat owned by the resort showed up as well, delivering food, cocktail fixings and ice. After awhile, the resort guests came in a series of sleek center console boats, backed to shore so that no one got terribly wet when approaching the idyllic beach scene. Obviously, we were enjoying the show, although we were a little miffed that our tropical paradise was no longer only ours!
But wait… there was more. With the guests considering whether to play volleyball, sit in the sun, get a cocktail, go kayaking or snorkeling… the pangas started to arrive full of Panamanians out for a beach day. So on one end of the beach, we had the ultimate luxury beach day happening and on the other end we have coolers and boom boxes. Ha! And now, in our small little anchorage ringed in reefs we had a bunch of pangas, a few center consoles, a big bow down boat, a sportfisher and us. Crazy times. After some excellent snorkeling we decided it was a bit too much chaos for us and off we went, back to the main island anchorage.
Lounging around in Islas Secas was easy and happy. Time seemed to be slipping through our fingers quickly, although we weren’t doing a whole lot! Looking at the calendar, we decided we best move along. While we didn’t have a schedule (and we try to never ever have one – schedules make people choose unwisely when it comes to weather and conditions), we did have a general plan. We wanted to get through the canal in early May at the latest so we could still spend time in the San Blas Islands before transiting to Florida. And we wanted to try to get to Florida before terribly far into June when hurricane season would really be starting.
In other words, it was time to roll.
We said farewell to Doug and Mary, knowing we’d all see each other again soon, and headed out to Isla Coiba, which is the main island in Panama’s Coiba National Park. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and once a penal colony with inmates so dangerous the guards locked themselves in at night, Coiba is an unspoiled, untouched natural environment. The prisons were established in 1919 and their presence precluded any other development. As such, the wildlife and the plants and birds are amazing. It is absolutely gorgeous. And it of course comes with a check-in process all of its own.
We anchored off of the ranger station and dinghied in, leaving illegal Max on the boat. Day tour participants waved and a group of workers building a foundation alerted the office “staff” to our presence and we all met in a sparse office with a single desk and some papers tacked on the wall. We had taken our handy dandy folder of documents with us, as you never quite know what you might need. It was probably a good thing that I never opened it.
We had heard from a few other Panama Posse participants that the national park charged $60/night for boats plus some one-time fees for people beyond the captain. Well, it turns out that $60/night is if you are under 50 feet! We also had heard that generally you can tell the ranger that you’d like to stay for X days and then stay a bit longer, if you are in the far reaches of the park. So that was our plan. We figured we would have a bill of around $300. Um no. After telling the ranger we’d like to stay for four nights and that we were 58 feet (this is what our USCG documentation says – the boat is actually more like 61 feet), he turned his calculator to show me a fee of $720. WHAT?!? Um no. This conversation, by the way, was entirely in Spanish as the rangers do not speak English – and why should they, really? We are the guests in their country.
So, I somehow managed to tell him with sad eyes and shaking head that no, we could not afford $720 and that we didn’t have that much cash with us. As with many places in Panama and in Central America, this was a cash-based process. He finally asked, (in Spanish), how much money do you have? I made a quick calculation and went too high – $400. I should have said $240 or something like that. But for $400 we had a deal. And a one day fishing permit thrown in as a bonus. The $400 cash went into a desk drawer, no receipts were given, and I think we probably bought a lot of beer for the rangers.
Later that day, we were anchored in the middle of Islas Cocos, a group of four small islands and a spot that Carlos had recommended. A ranger boat approached with three men in bulletproof vests sporting sub-machine guns. Nice. They wanted to be sure that we had checked in. We mentioned the name of the ranger we gave the $400 to, and after providing some anchorage recommendations, they were off! We didn’t have any proof of payment afterall – other than a one-day fishing permit.
Early the next morning we pulled the anchor and headed to the south end of the island. In our research, we had read that the islands of Jicaron and Isla Jicarita, just off of the southern tip of Coiba were spectacular, lush and remote. We love lush and remote so off we went! After a few hours of admiring the stunning coastline of Coiba with its incredible jungle, beautiful beaches and craggy hillsides, we decided that it might be time to put that one-day complimentary fishing permit to use. Watching the large swells crashing on the southern shoreline of the island, we put three lines and hoped for tuna. Kevin sat at the helm, scanning the horizon quietly until he pretty much freaked out. Yellowfin! Lots of them! Big ones! Jumping! Now Kevin is well known for seeing breaching whales that no one else sees, so I took his happy dance in the pilothouse in stride. Um ok, sure. But then he had the boat revved up and almost on plane, well as close as 144,000 pounds gets to planing, and we were off to the tuna fiesta. And indeed, a flock of tuna were soon leaping around us. Two seconds later, all three lines started zinging. FISH ON! Since Max has yet to perfect reeling in a fish, we started on two of the lines, hoping whatever was at the end of line three would hang on for a bit. Kevin brought his tuna on board and I reeled mine on up to the swim step for him to grab. I’ll note that mine was bigger. Ha! The third fish did get away, but honestly how much sashimi can two people eat? Silly question. On Red Rover, tuna can be ingested on a large scale.
While we were fishing we did notice that the swells were quite large down on the southern end of the island. Well-spaced but likely a minimum of six feet. Not a great sign for a calm anchorage. I took the helm while Kevin cleaned up the murder scene in the cockpit, and moved us along to our intended anchorage on the northern flat side of Isla Jicaron. A sailboat was already in the anchorage when we arrived, rolling and pitching and generally looking like a recipe for seasickness. The swell was wrapping around the island, and a secondary swell was coming from the opposite direction. A washing machine! No gracias. Our second choice anchorage was also being hit with swell from an unpredicted direction.
With visions of sashimi dancing in our heads we turned around and headed back north to a more protected anchorage. The yellowfin fiesta repeated on the way back, but I convinced Kevin that we didn’t really need more tuna on board, as honestly it is tastiest when it is totally fresh.
We spent a night anchored in Bahia Damas, just south of Punta Felipe, in a quiet, protected bay where we ate fish until we grew scales. Resting in the cockpit with full bellies we watched the approach of a large thunderstorm, lightning snaking out of the sky. The wind came up, and we hopped inside as the sky opened and lit up, all around us. This experience was starting to become familiar, and yet, it was still uncomfortable for me – being struck by lightning is a real fear here.
The following morning was calm and perfect for the day’s mission – snorkeling on the reefs around the islet of Granito de Oro. We anchored by the tiny island and took the small dinghy to the white sandy beach. Putting our faces in the water, we realized that we were in an absolutely incredible, healthy reef area. This was the best snorkeling we have ever experienced with thousands of colorful fish of all sizes, five white-tipped sharks, at least six large and unconcerned sea turtles and all kinds of examples of coral. And it was all ours. Until we saw a dinghy off around the other side, being pulled behind some divers. No big deal. Well then the submachine gun rangers showed up and managed to get the attention of the divers. As they weren’t talking with us, Kevin suggested I focus in the water rather than on top of it. Until… the rangers were shouting “señora!” I picked up my head, “si?” The ranger began a long narrative (in Spanish) and ended with a directive to return to our “little boat on the beach.” Apparently, this area was closed to support the health of the coral. There was no way for us to know that. We agreed and the rangers zoomed off. Slowly, we enjoyed our snorkel back to the beach.
After pulling up the anchor to cruise to our next anchorage, we saw a familiar boat name pop up on AIS. (AIS stands for Automatic Identification System and it receives and broadcasts information on other boats including speed, direction, closest point of approach and time for closest point of approach – handy to know – not all boats have this, but all cruising boats sure should). S/V Delos was in the house! If you are unfamiliar with Delos, go watch one of their videos. We had been following Delos for years, enjoying their journeys and antics all around the world. And here they were at Coiba! Kevin handed me the VHF mic. I frowned. I wasn’t going to be THAT fan girl. But he insisted – when was I ever going to have this chance again? Whatever. So, I called Delos on the radio and tried my best to not be a nerd. We talked about the Coiba check-in process and our boat load of tuna that we were happy to share if they ended up near us that evening.
We anchored in a beautiful bay with white sandy beaches and interesting looking reef systems by Playa Rosario on the north end of the island. While out on our dinghy cruise to check out the new neighborhood, Delos pulled in and anchored just behind us. Needless to say, we invited the crew over for cocktails and seared tuna. A great and fun evening where we were able to learn about Karin’s favorite spots in the San Blas Islands (which they noted to be one of their top 5 destinations in the world).
Note Max’s interest in Sierra’s movie…
After moving about quite a bit we decided to stay put at Playa Rosario for a couple of days, swimming, snorkeling, cleaning the boat bottom and generally hanging out eating tuna.
But as per usual, wanderlust called, and we were off to Isla Canal de Afuera, a steep island that was still a part of the national park. We anchored by a reef that ended up being a bit too far underwater at high tide, and while it stopped some of the wind chop and wrap-around swell, we practiced our rolling techniques all night long.
In the morning we were happy to pull up the anchor and head to Bahia Honda, which we had heard would be flat calm. At this point we had not had much cell service for quite some time, and we were hoping to check in with the outside world. There was a small village on an island in the middle of Bahia Honda. Maybe? Nope. Not a bar was to be found. But we did find Doug and Mary anchored in a peaceful corner, and so of course, we invaded their peace!
Bahia Honda is remote. Really remote. It can only be accessed by boat. There isn’t a source for gasoline in town and there isn’t a true store. We understand that there are a few tiny tiendas that would have some basics, but not much else.
Shortly after we anchored, we were approached by a wiry older gentleman in a slightly sinking panga. We had read that we might meet this local resident, Domingo and his son, Kennedy, among others in the neighborhood. This isolated community sees a number of cruising boats throughout the year, and according to guidebooks and blogs, they feel that these well-equipped boats are floating general stores. Our new neighbors were looking to trade and also to sell items. While Domingo was our first visitor, we ended up with several visiting rowing boats and dugout canoes as well as two boats with ancient outboards. Domingo was fascinated by our Torqeedo electric engine, noting that it would not require the hard-to-find and very expensive “gasolina.” He wanted to trade for it. We had to tell him several times that it wasn’t on the offering table, but we appreciated his fascination and appreciation of it! Domingo brought us eggs, root vegetables, pineapples (cut out of the jungle and quite tiny but still…) and on his second visit, a bowl fashioned out of a coconut that his wife made for me. One gentleman brought his fifteen year old son out to see us. He explained that his son went to school on the tiny island and that they worked on their English for at least one hour per day. His desire? For his son to practice speaking with us. The teenager was of course reluctant and embarrassed (this reaction to parent prodding is apparently the norm in all cities and villages around the world) but he did chat with us a bit. I keep a tub of school supplies as well as sticker books, coloring books and the like on the boat for kids in these remote villages and many were dispersed here. Our English speaker’s dad also sold us a wood carving of a whale that he had crafted.
Other than school supplies and an off-limits electric engine, the visiting men were all seeking items from the General Store. Some things we traded and most things we simply gave. These people have very little, but they are surviving, and they are happy. Interacting with them was a gift. So, what were they seeking? Vegetable oil, canned goods, pasta, sweatshirts, t-shirts, rain jackets, a backpack, batteries, gasoline, sugar, thread and needles, milk, flour. Red Rover is a little over-provisioned so we absolutely lightened our load at Bahia Honda and felt awesome about helping some families in need.