Sailing west from the San Blas along Panama's north (Caribbean) coast has brought us along some of the most historic bays in the country. Back in the1500-1700s, when the Spanish were plundering the riches of the New World, these were the harbors from which they transshipped their loot, and thus these were the harbors that drew the attacks of the pirates, privateers, and navy.
Our 40-mile sail from Chichime brought us to a dramatic inland pass between Isla Grande and the mainland just about where the isthmus writhes most northward. The mouth of this channel is marked by a pair of dark island humps on one side and a buried reef on the other around all of which the swells break and churn. We sailed through to find that Isla Grande is a popular resort area, with a crowded beach, buildings in bright primary colors and not a thatch hut in sight. What a change! A cluster of neglected looking boats rolled at anchor, so we passed on through to Isla Linton to find calm water in the channel between it and the mainland (09-36.80N; 079-35.10W) along with about thirty other cruisers.
Isla Linton, it turned out, belongs to the rather impressive estate facing it. The owner has made his property a de facto bird sanctuary, which visitors can often explore with permission. Unfortunately the owner was in the hospital following a helicopter crash several days earlier, so such permission was not available, but we could hear a new-age symphony of tropical birds each evening. Isla Linton he has made into a refuge for injured animals. We dropped the hook off an abandoned house and dock, only to quickly realize that this little estate belonged to a group of four monkeys. Now, we have traveled many miles in the Caribbean, and the closest we have gotten to monkeys in the wild is the Howlers of Scotland Bay in Trinidad, which were mostly heard and not seen. On Linton, the four residents were not a bit shy, and we enjoyed watching them lounging on the empty window ledges, climbing palms in the front yard, and soliciting handouts from cruisers in dinghies at the dock. The word was out early that the monkeys could switch from charming to aggressive in the blink of an eye, so most cruisers contented themselves with dropping treats off at the dock and backing off to watch. Although we haven't yet pinned down the species (Panama has four), we are fairly sure they are NOT Howlers. They are about 3.5-4 feet tall, of slight build, and mostly dark brown, although one had a blonde mantle of hair on his head and shoulders. They walk on all fours or upright like a pot-bellied old man interchangeably. Either way their long tails are carried straight up to the sky, and when they have something to say it's a rather sweet little chirp.
We spent two nights in Isla Linton. During the day between we had our first restaurant meal in months over on Isla Grande. Like any good follower of Jimmy Buffet, the menu item most on the mind was a good old-fashioned greasy cheeseburger in Paradise. However, what we got when we ordered "hamburgesas" came bun-less and cheese-less. Fortunately, it was tasty and the draft beers were 65 cents.
From Isla Linton we sailed south a few miles to José Pobré where a Swiss sailor has built a business called Marco's Marina (09-36N 79-38W). There is no marina at Marco's Marina. What there is is a "yacht storage facility" behind some reef and mangroves. The boats are anchored bow and stern, side by side, in protected water, which is accessed by a narrow channel the entrepreneurs blasted through the reef. Although a couple of our friends have left their boats here for a few months back in the States, most of the boats here are European. Our reason for stopping was to have lunch with the German couple Benno and Marlene that we came to know in the Roches and the Aves this summer. By wonderful coincidence we learned they'd flown in the day before, so we got together over a lunch of lobster, mackerel and pulpos (octopus) at Marco's. Octopus is a specialty of this region, and it was superb. Benno and Marlene are joining a German boat to help with their passage to Tahiti.
After lunch, we enjoyed a perfect sail another six miles west to Portobelo (09-33.50N; 079-40.10W). My first glimpse of Portobelo was on a video made by Judy Knape's brother and his family as they rushed by to the Canal on the first leg of their now completed circumnavigation. The harbor caught my imagination then, and I was determined to visit it. Portobelo became the Spaniard's principal transshipment port in 1596 when the privateer Francis Drake cleaned out the goodies and torched the previous treasure port of Nombre de Dios about 20 miles to the east. The Spaniards then constructed four forts and several batteries on the shores of this deep and beautiful bay, and they did a great job with construction because most of the fortifications still stand. Unfortunately it didn't stop the raids by pirates and their ilk, and in 1739 Portobelo was "destroyed" by British Admiral Edward Vernon, after which the Spanish gave up their Central American "shortcut" and opted for the route round the Horn!
After rounding the Drake's Rock, so named because Drake's body was buried at sea nearby, we cruised in to anchor off the bay's north shore underneath the most striking of the remaining forts. In the morning we hiked up the three levels of the fort .our first foray with shoes in months, not to mention our first steep climb in months to be rewarded at the top with a great view and a heavy rain! The lower two fortifications had dozens of gun emplacements for cannons and a thick-walled powder magazine. The upper battlement was a neat square with a dry moat around it, a well or cistern in the center, and two levels of slits for soldiers with muskets ... the last retreat.
Along the way up and down we spent much time checking out the elaborate highway system of a colony of leaf-cutter ants. These guys follow highways not just across the path, but for a hundred feet or so up and down the path, to fell, cut and transport dime-sized pieces of leaf back to the home place. Mostly they carry the leaf bit upright like a sail, but we were fascinated to watch one ant work determinedly to get his piece under an obstacle. It involved a dozen tries with the leaf in different positions, with a smaller ant riding on top for ballast!
Although there are some upscale homes on the shores of the bay, the town of Portobelo itself is pretty simple, belonging to fisherman and farmers. Simple homes and shops are built in and on centuries-old ruins. However, the supplies available compared to the San Blas impressed us fine. Salad suddenly and wholeheartedly returned to everybody's menu!
On Friday, we hitched up with our friends Mac and Sam of Sandi Lee to adventure into Colón by bus. These busses, by the way, are old Blue Bird school buses shipped down from the States for a second lease on life. Don's Dad has a post-retirement job of collecting retired school busses to go back to Blue Bird. Now we know where they end up. Once here they receive a total cosmetic makeover via fanciful and colorful paint jobs, sometimes extending to the interior. Little else, however changes, including the size and spacing of the seats. Fortunately, most Central Americans are elementary school sized!
The object of our bus
trip was, after two months in limbo in the San Blas, to officially
clear into Panama. This system makes no sense to me, but it's how
they do it. Colón, the Caribbean terminus of the Panama Canal,
has a dreadful reputation for personal street safety and our bus
Saturday morning we sailed about 25 miles west right past Colón and all the waiting ships to the Rio Chagres. The Rio Chagres was part of the Spaniards' overland treasure route. They schlepped all the booty across the isthmus from Panama City to the Chagres and then floated it down to the mouth where it was then moved by boat to the storehouses in Nombre de Dios and, later, Portobelo from where it was loaded onto the galleons bound for Spain.
We entered the river mouth under Fort San Lorenzo, wending our way through the reefs and bars, and then proceeded about three miles upriver, which is 30-60' deep. This is the first river for TII and the 2Cs, and it's TII's first taste of fresh water. We expected to see other boats because it is said to be a popular getaway from Colón, but so far we have had it all to ourselves. This is the first time we have been totally alone that we can remember! The river is wide and tranquil with banks overhung by jungle becoming taller and denser the farther we go. We have seen no more monkeys, but we can hear Howlers roaring in several different directions. We were hoping to see a lot of birds, but so far we have heard more than we've seen. "Song" is not the word for it, however; the sound is like a blend of Woolworth's parakeet section, a turkey farm and a car crash. Every plop in the water has us on the lookout for caimans (brackish-water alligators), but so far we've seen none. We won't be swimming, though.
At night, the sky was crystal clear and the water so still it was like being anchored in a reflecting pool. Ahead of us the loom of Colón backlit the treeline, and we sat for some time on the foredeck drinking it all in.
In the morning we motored
upstream to explore and reached to within sight of the dam built
to create Gatun Lake, the man-made reservoir supplying the operational
needs of the Panama Canal. It takes 52 million gallons of water
to lock a ship from ocean to ocean (over 30 ships transit the Canal
a day) and it all comes from the Rio Chagres watershed! The river
didn't change much as we went inland, narrowing a little, but we
did see more birdlife, specifically little blue herons, egrets and
what we take to be swallow-tailed kites (a type of hawk) since the
guidebook says we would see them! We also had a delightful flock
of little birds with metallic blue backsides - either swallows or
swifts or maybe plovers (birding is not our