Sunday, 28 July 2013

Notes from the islands

Remember that a couple of weeks ago I told you about our temporary boat cat? Well, for several days this week we had a boat dogfish! His name was George, and he liked to hang out under the boat in the shade and dart out when we threw scraps of food over the side to see if anything is good to eat. He was only about 2 feet long and looked like the little shark he is, with a pointy tail that swishes back and forth just like he was happy to see us. He preferred post-dinner scraps like chicken, but wasn't so keen on limes. I have a great video of him coming out to eat leftover octopus that we threw over (the Captain cooked it and it had great flavour, but was a bit chewy) and will post it asap.

On another note, our swimming prospects have improved. A couple a days ago we explored our Snug Harbour anchorage by dingy and found several islands with little sandy beaches where we stopped and went for a nice swim. We also visited a Kuna Hotel a couple islands over, which looked lovely, but had much of the same view we did. You can check out their website for pictures at

Today we are anchored at Rio Diablo, a popular spot for re-provisioning and where we are also getting some laundry done. Tomorrow we are going to a little island nearby that is reputed to have a potable water tap with a hose on a dock, which is a rare thing here. Usually we have to have to fill jugs and dump them into the tank ourselves. (And they are 5 litre jugs and the tank holds 300 L so it takes a while.)

I hope you are enjoying the summer sun where you are - we've had a lot of cloud cover here. It was surprising to me, being the Caribbean, but I am coming to understand this is Panama in the rainy season. Still, no snow!

Monday, 22 July 2013

Rollers, breakers and swells, oh my!

These days we are learning about the differences from offshore to inshore cruising. As you can see on the satellite track, we have been sailing by day and on anchor by night, working our way northwest along the Panamanian coastline. It is a different feel then the long haul sailing we did from Jamaica to Colombia and then from the east coast of Colombia across the mouth of Uraba Bay to Sapzurro on the west side of Colombia, which took us a day and a half non stop.

First of all, and most annoyingly for the Captain, "cruising" here at this time of year means motor sailing, actually mostly just motoring with the mainsail out to stop us from rolling too much in the swell! The winds have been light to nonexistent during the first part of the day, when we've been traveling, picking up to 3 to 5 knots in the early afternoon, just as we are ready to put the sail away and drop anchor. We would leave later, except because we are inshore there are lots of reefs and shoals to avoid, which are almost impossible to see when facing into the late afternoon sun. And so we motor.

Traveling inshore we also have to make decisions about whether to stay inside the little islands and travel close to shore or go outside the islands and get caught in choppy swells. We've now done both and in both places we have to pay attention to the breakers, where the waves crest over the shallows and reefs. It is a spectacular sight from afar, but up close it usually means we are more focused on the navigation to get us out of there!

But the anchor has been up and down in several interesting places along the coast, in spite of the navigational challenges. We anchored off the Kuna village of Ustupu several nights ago, which is the largest village in the Kuna Yala with a population of a couple thousand. It's on a fairly densely packed island, and most of the buildings are thatched huts, although there were a few two-story concrete buildings, including a church painted orange and yellow. We came ashore to buy provisions and saw some of what we expected - locals dressed in their native style, which for the women means shortish skirts with a blouse on top and what looks like piles of beaded bracelets in red and yellow around their calves, with a headscarf draped loosely. We also saw the more unexpected - three teenagers using netbooks to access the internet via wifi in the town square, and snickers candy bars in the shop (they have to keep them in the fridge because it is too hot here) - yes, we bought two.

We had difficulty finding any produce in the stores because the locals grow their own and wouldn't necessarily need to buy it, but we investigated the steamer on the dock and they had brought in tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and onions, things that you would have difficulty growing here. The ship also had the most enormous pile of plantain in the back half - think of an area 20 feet by 10 feet, piled four feet high with plantain. We're not sure if they were buying or selling, but it was a lot of green bananas! While we were on the ship we asked about limes, another common local item, and so someone went off to their house to get us some, probably from his tree. When he came back, we asked what the price was for the bag of about 15 limes and it turns out all he wanted was 50 cents. We gave him a dollar and you shouda seen the smile we got - ear to ear.

At many of our stops, we've had men in dugout canoes come up to the boat to sell us items. We've had fish, lobster, pineapple and mangos. There have also been several wanting to sell us crab, but we weren't sure what to do with them so we had to turn them down. (If you have good crab recipes, email me, and include how to kill, clean and cook it.)

Unfortunately, we haven't been able to swim at the places we've most recently stayed. Reasons include:
1) Very close proximity to the town, which has outhouses that hang off shore and so the floaties in the water reallly are floaters;
2) Gross yellow scum, a pile of which we saw further out to sea as we were motoring and then a thin line of which passed through our anchorage, probably the contents of a trading ship's bilge; and
3) Crocodiles! This afternoon, while sitting on the front of the boat after we'd anchored, I notice a "log" about 6 feet long that was moving perpendicular to the current at a steady pace. I yelled for the Captain to bring the binoculars, and sure enough, my log had a snout and a tail. He disappeared into the mangroves, but there was no carefree jumping of the boat to swim today - maybe off the beach tomorrow...

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Blue star on top

Na from Panama!

"Na" is hello in Kuna, the language of the indigenous people in whose autonomous territory we have now entered. We said good-bye to Colombia yesterday morning and motored around the corner and along the coast to Puerto Escoses, or Scottish Bay, where at the end of the 17th century, some Scots arrived and established Fort Saint Andrew. Unfortunately, due to malaria, yellow fever and plain old starvation, 3000 people arrived over two trips, and 2000 of them died here. Four years later, the project was given up for good and those still living escaped back to Europe.

We have had our yellow fever vaccines, are far enough off-shore to be mosquito free thereby avoiding malaria, and ate chicken curry for dinner to ward off starvation, so I expect our fate will be different from the poor Scots!

We saw dolphins approach the boat as we turned into the bay, so I am also taking that as a good luck sign. Otherwise, there is not much here. There are a few Kuna huts, including some that are built about 50 metres off shore, a lot of palm trees and jungle and I expect quite a few fish on the reefs. It is VERY quiet.

We have seen a couple Kuna in dugout canoes, including some that came over to chat. In basic Spanish (which I suspect was not his mother tongue either) we manage to discuss how long we were staying, that they caught a turtle in the mountains and are having it for dinner and that they will come back to sell us fish and maybe lobster. Not bad for our language skills and an inter-cultural exchange.

The plan is to work our way up the Panamanian coast this week, sailing during the day (or motoring depending on the wind) and stopping to anchor for the night. The "paradise" part of the San Blas is at the west end, although I can't say this is half bad.

PS. Blue star at the top refers to the Panamanian flag. We accidentally sailed most of the way today with the flag upside down. My fault, the Captain guessed blue star on top and I second guessed with red. He was right - I guess that's why he gets to be Captain!

Friday, 12 July 2013

Rainforest green

I know that for weeks now, the main colour on my blog has been blue, blue like the ocean and the sky blue - azul in spanish if you’d like. Well, today’s edition is brought to you by the colour green (and the numbers 4 and letters J and P).

We were standing there chatting, well, asking questions of the monkey man, (the monkey was climbing up and down his arm and onto the bar which we were leaning on, soooooo cute!) and then the monkey man asked if we’d been to see the waterfall yet.  “Waterfall?” we said in surprise.  And the next day’s adventure was set. 

We walked to the waterfall in about 15 minutes, on a well marked trail.  I made the Captain go first, so he could watch for snakes (Colombia has some exciting ones).  Fortuantely, we didn’t see any snakes, or armed bandits, (also infamous in Colombian jungles) just some ab-so-lut-ly beautiful butterflies.  There were big black ones with light blue on their wings and some littler ones that had fuscha on the tops but when they folded them up they looked just like an ugly brown leaf - which was the point, I think. The waterfall was not too big and you could tell the water was low right now, but there was just enough room at the top to stand under it like a shower. It was the nicest shower I’ve had in a while!

When we’d splashed around enough, we decided to continue down the path and walk to the next town over, Carpugana. It was an hour and a half up and over a mountain ridge.  Our wildlife sightings were limited to some good sized lizards and crabs, and a couple of cows as we came down into the valley on the other side.

The town is a bigger than Sapzurro, with several nice looking hostels and hotels and even an airstrip.  We found a lovely tourist bar and had a great piece of fried fish for lunch.  Then the owner of the bar, who spoke a bit of english, helped us negotiate a boat ride back to Sapzurro, less then 15 minutes to get back home! 

I have to say, the green jungle was really refreshing, but I prefer the ocean blue.

Pictures of the adventure below:

The valley, looking away from the waterfall.

Enjoying a refreshing fresh water shower.

From up on the ridge, looking back to the bay where we'd come from.
Carpurgana docks

In the bar where we had lunch, there was a fishing net strung up over the ceiling with all these shells tied on.  When a breeze blew, it made a lovely tinkling noise.

The Captain with his post-hike beer.
Our boat ride back to Sapzurro.  Oh, it was fun to be in a boat and let someone else do all the work!

Looking back at the coast - see what we just hiked over!

Captain Tapioca - okay, I don't know his name, but the boat we rode in was called Tapioca, so...

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

On the edge

The edge of the bay in Sapzurro.
Three days ago we arrived in Sapzurro, a little village at the edge of Colombia. We could walk into Panama from here, if we were willing to trek through the jungle for 4 hours, but we will take the easy way and sail around when we are ready.

Sapzurro is a very picturesque little village, with a surprisingly busy tourist trade for its size. It is uniquely situated in a little cove, with the Darien mountains rising up behind it, and at the “corner” of the coast. From here, looking to the right out of the harbour, the coastline runs due south into Uraba Bay, the southernmost point of the Caribbean sea or, looking left, the coastline goes around a point and then to the west, heading into the San Blas archipelago, our next destination.

We definately aren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto. The jungle backdrop is very different from the tiny tropical islands we’ve been anchored off of for the last week or so. When we arrived, I asked the Captain if he thought we would see monkeys. He responded that this seemed like a place where monkeys could be found, so we spent some time trying to distinguish the monkey calls from bird calls in the noisy cacophony of dawn. And, lo and behold, we went for pizza at a cute little restaurant the other night, and a man pulls up to the restaurant in a dingy with a small monkey curled up around the back of his neck! He is a German who has been hanging out here on his boat for a couple of years, and adopted a monkey along the way. Move over boat cat, I suddenly have a hankering for a boat monkey.

We are quite pleased with this stop, since it has everything one could need - water, diesel, fresh fruits and veg, beer, internet, pizza and monkeys. What more could one want? It may have a few too many bitey bugs, but that is only really at sunset and I just arm myself with bug spray and mosquito coils and hunker down in the cabin of the boat. If we are lucky, we might even find someone willing to tackle the pile of laundry that is threatening to swamp the boat...

PS. I wrote the post yesterday but then the internet conked out before I got a chance to put it online.  Good news - we found someone do do the laundry and it will only cost us $20,000 pesos.  That's about 10 dollars.  And we probably have about three or four loads.  That's washed, dried, and folded.  I'm telling you, it feels so luxurious to have someone else do all the laundry!

PPS. Because we have internet, I am including some photos that cover the last few stops.

A GIANT luxury yacht out for the day in the Rosario islands.  (We actually saw this same yacht on the dock at Cartagena.  They were having a party on it at 4 am when we first arrived.)

Our adopted boat cat - drooley :)
This is "la isolet" - or the little island, near to where we anchored in the San Bernardo Islands  Apparently it is the most densely populated island in the world - it has 97 houses, 1200 residents and is only 200 meters wide and 150 meters long!
Heading out to sea - the sea was such a beautiful colour in the shallows.

The jungles of Sapzurro, Colombia.

The tiny, colourful town of Sapzurro - but it has everything I need!

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Lobster at last

Hola from the Islas del Rosarios! We have been anchored off Isla Grande for the past couple of nights, and before that, we were tied up to a dock just 100 meters away from where we are now for several more nights. (Click on "location via satellite" for more precise details.) This is the largest island in a group that is only about 40 km away from Cartagena and is basically the local "cottage country" as we would say in Canada. Think Muskoka if you are from Ontario or Lake of the Woods if you know Manitoba. As a result, the small bay that we are in was teeming with boats on Sunday, mostly powerboats that came out for the day, but yesterday evening it was very quiet as pretty much everyone had gone back to the city.

We have been enjoying the perks of being out of the city. Yesterday I went swimming off the boat four (!) times, and we also went snorkeling and saw some very big and colourful reef fish. The Captain bought lobster and fish for dinner, so we ate lobster zucchini pasta last night and it will most likely be fish curry for dinner tonight. Our Spanish has been improving word by word, but we haven't been able to chat much with the locals. In spite of that, we made a fast friend of a cat who adopted us while we were on the dock. She came and cuddled in our laps in the day, and in the morning her ears were poking up above the boards in the companionway as soon as we got up. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask), she didn't make it as a stowaway, but we enjoyed the brief stint of animal love.

We have been practicing our navigation skills in preparation for the upcoming travels. The electronic charts we have are wildly inaccurate for the southern coast of Colombia and the far eastern coast of Panama on the Caribbean side; they historically are not well-traveled areas by cruisers. Indeed, at some points on the charts it simply says "uncharted area, no data available." Fortunately, we were given the "Guia Nautica Turistica de Colombia," or the Cruising Guide to Colombia. It was produced by the Colombian government last year and contains excellent detailed charts of all the relevant places. Our version is in Spanish and we've been told an English version exists, but charts are charts in pretty much any language. Between it, the Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus, and a few print-offs from online cruising sites, we are well prepared. Although I did plot a waypoint onto the electronic charts (so we can see where the boat is in relation to our planned route) and the point was on land according to the inaccurate chart. So the navigation will be interesting!

PS. Posting via satellite phone so no pictures - sorry - think lots of blues and greens and a few tropical sunsets
PPS Spot tracking daily while on anchor and morning and night when on the move. Don't want to leave you behind!