Here in Port Linton (Panama) we are anchored on the edge of the Portobelo National Park. You don’t “head off in to the jungle”. You live next to it!
Just over on Linton Island there are spider monkeys who keep the tourists entertained by hanging from the trees and stealing anything they can reach. The surrounding jungle is also full of howler monkeys. We haven’t seen them but hear them all the time. The local dogs start barking which sets the monkeys off howling which drives the dogs to bark insanely which drives the monkeys wild which … You get the picture.
Walking down the road we thought we saw a spider monkey but on closer inspection it turned out to be a sloth hanging happily upside down and chewing away at the leaves. The next creature we mistook for a monkey was a variegated squirrel with its huge bushy tail hanging down.
The flowers are full of huge brightly colored butterflies which are definitely much larger than the tiny humming bird we saw flitting from flower to flower this afternoon.
There are also caiman, crocodiles and poisonous snakes here but we have managed to avoid all three.
All photos are from Wikipedia and licensed under the Creative Commons license.
Annalena and Daniel flew to Panama to meet us for two weeks holiday. And where better to spend a two week holiday than in the San Blas Islands? These are an archipelago of low lieing palm islands where the coral reef rises above the surrounding sea. No two sources agree on the number of islands but it may be about four hundred- or more. It really depends on how you define an island – at least one grass hut, or at least one palm tree or a rock with crabs on?
The whole area is a maze of coral reefs. The pelican may fly a mile but we need to weave between the reefs with an eye on the depth gauge and at least two eyes at the bow spotting the coral. The direct route is a guarantee that you join the wrecks that litter the area.
The local Kuna people live in bamboo and palm huts and still use dugout canoes to travel and fish. If the wind is blowing in the correct direction, they hoist small sails and lean far out upwind using their single paddle to steer, Vincent paddled out to us to swap some of his limes for our sugar and then charge us the village anchoring fee of ten dollars for a month,
It is very surreal when you anchor behind a reef in totally flat water but with the sight and sound of the swell breaking nearby. And when a sail driven dugout passes you from palm island to palm island, you know this is some where special.
At the west end of the archipelago there is tourism but as we sailed further east it became more lonely. When we visited the twin towns of Nargana and Corazón de Jesús there was no sign that tourism plays any part in their economy. The two towns each cover their respective island and are joined by a footbridge. Here we saw schools, shops, a court house and churches. After over a week out in the islands we felt we had arrived in the big city.
Our guests only had two weeks holiday so we returned to Port Linton with only a tiny part of the islands explored but with beautiful memories and a hand sewn picture bought off a passing canoe.
The weather forecast was for light winds from all directions so less than optimal sailing conditions. The pilot charts forecast a 0.7 knot current against us just to add to the challenge. But, being becalmed at sea still sounded nice when compared to being eaten by mosquitos and no-see-ums in the rainy season at the swampy Puerto Velero Marina.
So we left at seven in the morning from Columbia, heading for Panama.
The weather forecast was correct but the current was one to one and a half knots and always against us. At least the wind really did constantly change direction so we could use the shifts to make ground in the correct direction.
At anchor off a sandy white beach floating on aquamarine blue water as the sun sets in a fire of red. That is the way to end a beautiful day sailing.
Or you can ruin the day by berthing in a marina!
If you plan on spending the night in a marina then it would be sensible to contact them to ensure there is space available. Many ignore emails. Others answer with standard text that ignores your request. Once you are within radio range, you can call them on the VHF radio. Mostly they ignore this as well but some answer and a few understand English.
This post is aimed at those intending to follow us by boat to Columbia. It explains the way we experienced the formalities here. Talking to other sailors we meet here, it would appear that there is no standard system and the time line varies enormously.
On approaching the port of Santa Marta, we called port control on Channel 16 and were asked about previous port, number of people on board, registry, etc. All in English and all professional. We then called the marina who ignored us. Port control obviously heard as they called the marina and told them who we were and that we were coming in fast Spanish.
We arrived at the Marina Santa Marta who acted as our agents for clearing. They asked all the standard questions and gave us a few forms to fill out. This was Friday but by the end of the day we had immigration stamps in our passports without seeing any officials.
During the weekend nothing happened but on Monday there were lots more forms to sign. They were all in Spanish and all filled out. By Friday (seven days after arriving) we had a temporary import permit for the boat. On Wednesday we had applied to clear out of Santa Marta – you have to clear in to and out of every port – and that was also there on Friday so we were clear to continue. We paid about €30 for all the work and forms.
Leaving Santa Marta, we once again called port control who were friendly and spoke English.
Arriving off Barraquilla we called their port control about ten times but never got an answer. We didn’t feel discriminated against. Both port control and the pilot were ignoring most calls. As we anchored in the bay at Puerto Velero we were met by the navy coastal patrol who asked if we had reported to port control. We explained that we would love to but they were ignoring us. Turned out their radio was defective so we should call them by phone.
Marina Puerto Velero took copies of all our papers and cleared us in with the Baranquilla port captain. They also did all the paperwork to clear us out of the country. For this they charged us not a lot but I am no longer sure of the actual price as it was included in the marina bill.
Finally we had to take the eight o’clock (only) bus to Baranquilla to get an exit stamp from immigration. Then wait for the four o’clock (only) bus back which was an hour late. The marina organised an appointment for us at eleven but the officer didn’t look overly busy.
We are currently in the marina at Puerto Velero so in the middle of nowhere on a mosquito infested sandbank but only a hundred kilometers away from the legendary city of Cartagena. Yesterday we caught a ride on the back of a motorbike up to the main road and then took a bus to Cartagena. It took a total of two hours to get there and saved the Colombian bureaucracy of clearing the boat out with the port captain of Baranquilla and back in with the port captain at Cartagena.
We arrived mid morning and began by finding a coffee shop to get our bearings and escape from the sun. Once coffee had been taken we set off for the skyscrapers of the new city and and the office of the telephone company to refill the data on our SIM cards. On the way street sellers tried to sell us boat rides but understood our refusals when we told them we actually own a boat.
With freshly filled phones, we returned to the old city with its city wall, cathedral, quaint streets, university, pretty squares and street sellers. How I hate street sellers. If I am not wearing a hat or sunglasses it is because I don’t want them. I do not need a painting as I don’t have a wall to hang it on and don’t need a taxi as I can walk where I want to go. I have no interest in a restaurant as the street sellers are cheaper and their food tastes great. I don’t want anything! Go away! Leave me alone!
By three in the afternoon we had seen enough “stuff” and read enough signs about the history so we went to our hotel and checked in. Funnily just as we arrived outside a nice building with the flowers of the roof garden hanging over the parapet Heidi said “this looks a nice place.” Good choice – it was our hotel. Inside we enjoyed the shower, the swimming pool, the wine from the mini-bar and the shower again. Never ending water is such a luxury!
In the evening we ventured out back out on to the streets and visited the part of town known as “Getsemani”. The street entertainment was not as good as billed but the street sellers were still selling tasty food so we worked our way down the menu. The banks frightened me stupid by all saying they had a technical problem when I inserted my credit card. With visions of a blocked card we got Heidi’s but eventually found a working machine. On the way home we finished the evening with refreshing Limonade de Coco and Limonade Frigo being sold in a bookshop.
Day Two can be summed up as sleeping, showering (remember the unlimited water) brunching, shopping and the bus home. Back at the road junction the mosquitoes were waiting expectantly.
Boats have marine toilets. They look a lot like the toilets you are used to on land but work a little differently. You don’t just press a button and empty a days drinking water down the drain. Instead you pump a lever which sucks sea water out of the ocean and uses that to wash everything clean. At the same time the pump empties the contents out of the bowl. There is a switch with which you decide if you would like to empty straight in to the ocean – the preferred solution out at sea – or in to a holding tank on-board – when in a harbour or a bay. The contents of the tank can later be pumped out once you are back out in the middle of nowhere.
A great system that is flexible and reliable – until it breaks. The first indication we had that something was amiss was when it became harder to work the pump to empty the bowl. Shortly thereafter the pump to empty the tank began to sound as if it was working harder and then stopped working.
I was pretty sure the problem was a blockage in the outlet pipes as this is a “standard” problem on most boats that occurs every couple of years. I disconnected the outlet from the tank pump and was rewarded with a spume of dirty looking slurry. After that is was “just” a case of bending myself in to the hot, tiny space in front of the toilet, dismantling all the other pipes, beating them on the dock to break the calcium build up, washing them through and re-assembling. Really important was to assure that absolutely everything was very tight as most of the piping is below sea level and a break could lead to a sunken boat. Four hours later, and with Heidi’s help to feed hoses through tight spaces, everything was working again.
Once I had showered off the sweat and the all pervading smell of slurry, I was happy that everything was working. I drew a plan of the system so I would know how everything works next time and searched the Internet for some way to avoid the problem. Unfortunately the expert opinion seems to be that it is just a part of boat ownership so learn to like it.
Here in Santa Marta, there are stalls on the pavements selling everything and that includes great food. Therefore this evening we went out for dinner.
We walked up past the large police station and found some one selling something that smelt nice. We ordered a bag of five for $1000. We still don’t know what it was but it managed to be sweet and spicy at once and tasted great.
Once we reached the big crossroads we really went to town. We started with an Empanada which we knew from Curaçao. That set us back another $2000 as we ordered it with a drink. Next we crossed the road and bought a hot-dog for $2000. Demand was high so we were given two plastic stools to sit on and watch the nightlife until it was ready. After that we went to our favorite seller of “hot cheesy things grilled between leaves”. Another €2500 but worth every cent.
By now we were stuffed but splashed out $4500 for an ice cream at a mini McDonalds in the supermarket.
Back on the boat we finished the evening with a rum punch and now we feel round, fat and satisfied.
The total bill was 12000 Peso so €3.14. As Heidi rightly pointed out, you can’t cook food for that price.
We are at Santa Marta in Columbia and from the boat we can see the surrounding jungle covered mountains looking adventurous and inviting.
This morning we cycled through the sleeping city and up the mountain road to the tiny village of Minca at 650 meters above sea level. We weren’t the only bikes out; the trip seems to be a popular sunday morning ride for the locals as well and the cars, taxis and buses all gave us plenty of space. The road is strewn with signs warning of everything possible. The collage is only a selection.
The village is deep in the jungle and the high street full of restaurants and bars so we stopped for Cappucino and chocolate bread – think french baguette with bits of chocolate baked in. We ate two of them!
After the village the tarmac stopped, the bamboo started and the call of strange birds. And the none stop uphill continued. We saw a sign off to the left that showed the way to the Pozo Azul waterfalls so followed that track. Amazing! A muddy, rocky, narrow jungle track shared by walkers, motorbike taxis and us on our mountain bikes, no rules on left or right and no one got annoyed at each other. An example for most of Europe.
The waterfalls were over run by people so we paddled, took photos and headed back up hill.
At one point we had to pull over to let a jeep and a quad pass coming the other way. Of course Heidi knew rhe occupants – a local surgeon and his American relative whom she had met at the village cafe earlier. They recommended visiting the coffee plantation and brewery at the Finca Victoria so we took their advice and were very glad we did.
Beer or coffee? Decisions! But luckily they have coffee flavoured beer so we could have both. And a really delicious home made sandwich to go with it. As we ate, and talked to the American on the next table, it began to pour down. Not really surprising in a tropical rain forest. Luckily we had our waterproof clothing with us and by the time we got back down to the village it had stopped anyway.
The trip home was about thirty kilometers and we lost about a thousand meters returning to the boat. With all the ups and downs we actually climbed 1600 meters! We enjoyed a fresh pressed lemonade at the beach and then cycled home after another great day. Our route is here.
I am writing this as we sail across the Gulf of Venezuela. We lifted anchor off Aruba yesterday morning in the dark and the island is now over a hundred miles behind us. We headed north west to keep well clear of Venezuela and, after rounding the Penisular De Le Guadjira, turned more southerly heading to Santa Marta on the coast of Columbia.
It is now over twenty four hours since we saw any sign of land or humans – except a solitary plastic bottle floating past. No ships, no planes; just the sea around us and the sky above us. Last night was a new moon and overcast but there was lightning all around us which provided a non stop spectacle. Over towards Columbia the lightning bolts were jumping from cloud to cloud and occasionally we saw them discharge in to the sea.
The weather forecast was variable and was absolutely correct. We are not even half way to Santa Marta and have experienced everything from dead calm to a passing squall. We have proved that we still know how to change the sail plan every hour and twice before breakfast. The wind changes and we change or adjust the sails accordingly and it is a source of wonder to head for a new continent driven only by the wind.
People ask if this “loneliness” is not frightening but we both agree it is anything but. It is beaufiful, inspiring and a great joy. How many other people have the privilage of two or maybe three days alone and undisturbed with nothing to do but work the wind and enjoy the vast empty spaces and our time together.
Almost as soon as I finished writing yesterday the wind dropped and we were left drifting at just over a knot with the current. At about one in the morning we felt a small breeze and tried setting the genoa with little effect. Before breakfast we tried the Parasailor which added a half a knot but flopped every where.
A sea bird spent the night on board and three starlings. One starling just died after sitting staring listlessy at us all morning. A second one understood Heidi’s offer of water and was back flying before we had the luncheon meat out of the tin for its lunch. So far from land and with no wind or drinking water is obviously not good for small birds.
Just now we were swimming surrounded by fish who seem to enjoy the shelter of our boat. It is cooler and refreshing in the water and you don’t notice the two thousand meters of water below you. As we got out a few dolphins swam lazily past with a small one showing off by jumping completely out of the water.
And now we can just sit and wait for the wind to return before the current takes us on to Panama.
Yesterday a breeze eventually picked up and, with the parasailor, we could very slowly head south-west. Just after dark it increased to something that could be called a wind so we changed back to just the genoa out. It is a good thing we did as, at about one in the morning, we found a huge black squall hiding between the thunderclouds. The wind speed increased to thirty knots, the bow buried in to the sea sending plumes of spray across the deck and it chucked rain down. I called Heidi from sleeping and was, as always, totally impressed as she calmly knotted her hair out of the way before entering the fray.
We are now some fifty miles from Santa Marta and finally look like every one imagines our life to be. The sky is blue without a trace of thunderclouds, the wind is just the right amount from exactly the correct angle. Breakfast tasted great and a huge bird of prey is sat above us in the spreaders which is good as it keeps the “shitty birds” away who, eat fish and then spread their remains as white goo over the deck.
The previous evening finished with another squall that had us soaked through. The final day didn’t start any better. We rounded the last cape to meet a wind on the nose. We tacked continually to port and then to starboard but as the wind increased we started to lose ground and go backwards. Things were made more interesting by trying to avoid a ship and hoping the lightning wasn’t going to come any closer.
Eventually, 12 miles before Santa Marta, we switched the motor on and fought against the wind making 0.8 knots in the correct direction. Just before the port, the wind abated, the rain stopped, we docked in the marina and fell in to bed. It was 04:30. We had taken four days and one hour.