28 February – 15 March – The Canal Zone

Panama, Porto Bello and The Panama Canal

28 February, Monday                        Panama City, Panama

Up early, packed and hit El Camino to Panama. Drove by houses that looked increasingly more like the USA than indigenous Panamanian architecture. Pretty soon we passed that invisible line and we were in the Canal Zone. Back in the USA.

Real pretty in the Zone, lots of jungle and orchids. We passed a few military installations and then over the Puente Del Americas to Panama City. From the bridge we could see all the boats in the Balboa Yacht Club and the big ships headed for the Canal. Pretty impressive.

We drove around Panama City for a while, just getting the feel for it. Quite a City, certainly not one to visit and leave in two day’s time feeling that you’ve seen it. The undercurrents encompass Africa, Asia, Latin and North America. Truly the ‘Puente del Mundo’.

Hit the Canal Zone where we tried to rent a room at the YMCA but due to Treaty Provisions, only people with ‘Official’ Zone status are allowed to stay there. Walked down to the Balboa Yacht Club and posted my card and ‘Crew Position Wanted’ ad.

Text Box: Crew Position Wanted
24 yr-old experienced deck hand 
seeking position on sailboat. 
Leave message, will get in touch.

Hope it pays off, but I have my doubts. If not, I’m going to have to do some fast shuffling.

We had heard rumors of a hotel out near the Tocumen Airport so we drove out that way. Finally, after driving all through the city, we came to La Siesta International Airport Hotel, a real fancy joint. $5.00 to camp with complete use of all the facilities, including the swimming pool. Not a bad deal at all.

1 – 2 March

Hung out at La Siesta and checked out the sights in the city. Vibrant downtown, everyone hustles and bargains. You’ve got to be on your toes.

3 March, Tuesday                              Colon

Got up early, stashed our gear in Lindsey’s car and set off for Colon. We caught a bus from Tocumen to the Plaza de la Martyrs, scene of the ’64 riots. Only 25 cents for 15 miles. Seems lots of prices went up on the 1st of March along with the inauguration of a 4% sales tax. Needless to say, the people are upset.

We cut across the Zone to the Panama terminus of the Panama Railroad. The train is red, white and blue. The Zonians live in a government-subsidised sterilized jungle version of Disneyland. No wonder they don’t want to give up their homes and jobs, but the Canal, despite the US money and organisation, is still in Panama.

Caught the 10.30 train to Colon. A great ride across, past the locks, over Gatun Lake on the causeway, through the jungle, all in the Zone. We passed some pretty large ships. Pulled into Colon and disembarked. A fun ride.

Colon is another bargain-filled town, only specialising in imported objects d’arte. Much fun shopping. I bought some nice molas. Walked all over town before renting a room in a cheap pensione. Saw a good double-feature.

4 March, Wednesday                        Panama City

Up early. Ate a pretty good breakfast and then checked the busses to Puerto Bello. Found out we had an hour to kill so I went back to Front Street and bought some more molas to round out my collection at 10 grandes and 27 chicas. Got some real nice ones. Too.

We caught the 11am bus to Puerto Bello at the mercado. It took about 1 ½ hours down a beautiful seaside road to get to Porto Bello. We passed palm-covered islands, isolated shacks and beautiful beaches. A real nice ride.

The bay at Puerto Bello is beautiful. Long and narrow, deep with jungle-covered hills rising steeply from the rocky shores. Three forts, ruins now, stand guard with their rusting cannon still trained seaward, ever vigilant against the phantoms of Henry Morgan and Drake. We disembarked in front of the Church of the Black Christ. Very rich interior, a contrast to the simple poverty of the village. Gold embroidered vestments covered the effigy which rested in a magnificent Mahogany case. Quite impressive.

We wandered through town, stopping at the main fort. For two centuries this was a giant of World commerce ‘til the pirates wiped it out. Old walls and walkways were everywhere. Little huts with ancient ramparts for a back wall. But by far the best part of town are the ramparts on the outskirts of town with the Casa Fuerte Del Santiago as the citadel overlooking all the formidable defense. Even with all the cannon and walls and castles the pirates still trashed the town every 20 years or so.

We spent about an hour drinking in the historic atmosphere before catching the bus back to Colon. This driver was a real hot rodder and it only took an hour for the return trip. Changed busses in Colon for the trip back to Panama. Didn’t get back to La Siesta until 10pm. A real fun excursion.

8 March, Tuesday                              Panama City

After R and R at La Siesta for a few days, went into the city to take care of business. First stop, Balboa Yacht Club to check my notice. By golly, I met some people off a 50’ Challenger ketch who might need an extra crew person. Talked to the captain/owner and visited the boat. Sounds good, I’ll know tomorrow. Ate a superb $1 Chop Suey meal.

9 March, Wednesday                        Panama City

Big day. Up early, took a shower and caught a bus into the city. Walked over to the Balboa Yacht Club to meet Jim, my prospective captain. Arrived and sat around waiting for quite a long time. Finally he showed up, we talked a bit and I was on. All right, a ride to Miami. Took the bus back to La Siesta and partied by the pool ‘til three am.

10 March, Thursday                           Panama City

Up kinda late as we had fun last night. Lounged around the pool al morning, recovering from some raunchy rum. Later we drove to our favourite restaurant and just ate ourselves silly. For $1.65 I had a gigantic cauldron of soup and a heaping plate of chop suey con puerco, both excellent. On into the city where I cashed in my ticket to and from Costa Rica for $46. Then to the Yacht Club.

There was the yacht ‘Fantasy’, riding serenely at anchor. My home for the next few months. Spent the rest of the day and night getting acquainted with the boat and crew. Certainly looks good.

11 March, Friday                                Colon, Panama

Up early. Today: The Panama Canal. The pilot boarded at 7.15 am. We weighed anchor and motored under the Puente de Las Americas and entered one of the greatest engineering feats of modern times: the Panama Canal. Real pretty scenery up to the first set of locks, Miraflores, then across Miraflores Lake to the last uphill banks at Pedro Miguel.

The lock passages, really very interesting, went extremely smoothly as we were able to raft up next to a tug at all three locks. From Pedro Miguel we passed through the Galliard Cut where the builders cut right through the backbone of the Americas, the Continental Divide. Quite impressive. The ditch ran fairly straight for about nine miles to Gatun Lake. The 25-mile path through the Lake was real easy. Lush jungle came right down to the Lake and deadheads popped up to the surface.

By the time we hit Gatun Locks we were ready. A very smooth passage downhill through three successive locks then a quick run over to Colon Yacht Club where we anchored off for the night. All in all, an exciting and very memorable day.

12 – 14 March                                    Colon

Cleaned and prepared the Fantasy for passage to Cartagena via the San Blas Islands. Captain Jim took care of the paperwork…slowly. Exit visas, cruising permits, crew changes, etc. Had to clear both US and Panamanian Customs.

15 March, Tuesday                            Porto Bello

Up not so early as Jim still had to fight it out with his bureaucratic foes and the Port Captain’s office didn’t open ‘til eight am. So after a quick breakfast of Post Toasties and milk, Brian and I scrubbed the hull and waterline. Took about two hours of diving. Sat around for a few hours, shooting the breeze with other denizens of the Yacht Club.

Finally, at 12.15pm, with all of our stores safely aboard, all our papers in order, we loosened the lines and motored out of Limon Bay through the breakwater back (for me) into El Mar Caribe. Sure nice to be back on the water.

We motor-sailed along the coast to the beautiful bay of Porto Bello, reaching it by 4.30pm. Quite impressive coming in by sea with the castles, forts and cannon. Quite a trip. Anchored off the village and ate a superb supper of steak and potatoes. A great day.

San Blas Islands

16 March , Wednesday                      At sea off the coast of Nombre de Dios

Well, we’re starting to settle into a routine aboard the ship. We spent all morning fooling around with the sails, polishing chrome, etc. There is always plenty to do. Took it easy in the late afternoon. Sure is pretty here in Porto Bello. Ate a good supper of spaghetti.

Our plans are to leave Porto Bello on the tide and sail all night to Porvenir, just off Punta San Blas. We weighed anchor just as darkness was settling over the harbor and sailed out, right over Sir Francis Drake’s watery grave. Strong winds and heavy seas made for an exciting night run. This boat is a peach, sails well. We zapped past Nombre de Dios along the coast, passing freighters and stayed far off-shore.

Published by Phil Parent

Phil Parent is a geographer residing in Queenstown New Zealand.

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