Farewell Panama, You Were A Beautiful Host

After spending eight months in Panama, we prepared to leave the San Blas Islands, and head for Colombia. Our original plan was to be in Bocas del Toro by the end of June, and stay for a month. After that, it would be on to the San Blas for the month of August, and then head for Colombia in September. As we’ve well learned, weather rules the cruising world, and as a result, we didn’t arrive in Bocas until the first week in August.

Since we’d arrived late, and paid several hundred dollars to clear into Panama, I told Scott it would be a shame to rush through the country, so we slowed our plan. Almost three months later, we’d grown attached to the laid back, comfortable town of Bocas del Toro, and the scenic surrounding islands. We met new friends, and frequented stores and restaurants in town so much that we were recognized on the street.

We ate fresh made pizzas at Bocas Marina’s barbecue night, got to know most every happy hour special in town (Scott even came to like sushi!) and never got tired of the mountain views.

At Red Frog Marina, we were surrounded by lush jungle rain forest, and enjoyed the short walk through tropical scenery to the beach, for yummy tacos. The staff quickly became friends, and the sights and sounds of the property were truly beautiful.

 

Scott crawled through caves with bats, hiked trails on Red Frog’s property and explored the archipelago with the Aluminum Princess.

We went to Sunday parties at Ron Azul,  attended many happy hours on Red Frog’s dock, survived crazy, crowded, high-speed panga rides to and from town and celebrated Thanksgiving at a terrific potluck with friends during our final days in the area.

It was hard to cut the apron strings and leave Bocas, which will always have a special place in our cruising memories, but there was more of Panama to see.

As we headed for the San Blas Islands, our route took us to more beautiful locations. The shoreline scenery at Escucdo de Veragus was almost otherworldly, and we spent hours in the dinghy taking in the sights.

Portobelo’s harbor was quiet and picturesque, and we enjoyed roaming the ruins of the many forts that surround the town.

At Captain Jack’s, perched on a hill in town, we were welcomed with cold towels, local info., and delicious food. We’d have liked to linger longer in Portobelo, but weather pushed us on.

Next was a pit stop at Linton Bay, for an overnight trip to Panama City, and a visit to the Panama Canal. We spent hours watching the huge ships close up, as they passed through the locks on their way to the Pacific.

Then it was on to our hotel for the night, where we continued to watch the ships pass by. It was also a treat to watch tv in English, and take roomy showers.

Our return trip toward Linton Bay was by train, on the Panama Canal Railway; what a cool way to travel! We spent the entire ride out on the observation deck, getting up close and personal with our surroundings.

We took advantage of a lull in the wind, and enjoyed a calm ride over to the San Blas Islands, where we enjoyed a tropical Christmas and spent almost four months surrounded by gorgeous water and uninhabited palm tree islands.

Scott fished almost every day, catching endless lobster, then using the heads as bait for delicious Trigger fish!

 

There were endless anchorages, some near the lush, mainland mountains and others surrounded by reef and palms. 

We enjoyed getting food from veggie boats, and interacting with the friendly Guna people.

For somewhere so remote, our social calendar was quite busy! We made terrific friends here, who we’ll keep in touch with for years to come. There were many beach parties, as well as trash burning gatherings, which was always a good excuse to bob in the water.

During our time in the San Blas, we had our first official cruising visitor. Our friend Karen made the adventurous journey to see us, and we had a ball catching up, introducing her to our friends, and showing off our “neighborhood”!

Scott continued his explorations, by land and sea, and Howard spent his time in Panama as he does in every location we visit, playing, napping and watching for fishes….and occasionally sharks, and generally keeping us on our toes!

 

 

So now it’s time to move on, and leave where we’ve called home for the last eight months. We could spend years here, or very easily live here. The country is beautiful, and offers much to see and do on the water and inland, as well as in Panama City. Our departure is bittersweet, but we look forward to our next stop, and for the adventure to continue.

 

 

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

Groceries In The San Blas Islands

As you may imagine, keeping stocked on groceries and supplies in the San Blas was challenging, to say the least. Although we were glad that Howard’s trip to the vet in Panama City resulted in no real issue, it gave me the chance to stock up on groceries and such. As long as the round trip by water and land was already in motion (to the tune of $200.00+ dollars) it was smart to fill the car and get my money’s worth!

With the trip to Panama City being logistically and time challenging, as well as costly, cruisers usually find other ways to get what they need.

There are several larger islands that have tiendas, or stores, on them. They offer a limited selection of canned items, rice, boxed milk and juice and produce that is more shelf-stable, such as onions, carrots, eggs (not refrigerated here) and potatoes.

Boats from Colombia arrive with supplies for these stores at various times each week, bringing with them, among other things, fresh produce. Scott is amazed that these old, wooden boats (that have seen much better days) make the journey to and from the San Blas, without breaking apart in the big waters off of Colombia.

Unfortunately, the fresh stock is usually depleted within two days, so unless you happen to be very close by when the word gets out about a boat coming in, you’re out of luck.

Many out here use the chance to have things brought to them through other cruisers who may be traveling to Panama City, or through friends (or friends of friends) coming to visit. We have taken advantage of all three of these scenarios to restock on hard goods and groceries.

So….unless you are traveling near one of the larger villages when a shipment arrives, or have some form of Panama City connection coming to the area, the usual cruiser method for getting food (aside from fishing) is the veggie boat.

These pangas visit the many anchorages in the San Blas, bringing with them fresh veggies, fruit, beer, boxed wine, soda and sometimes meat and cheese. Their boats are filled with bags and crates of goods, and many also have “mobile” freezers, that may contain celery, parsley, chicken, cheese or butter.

Some items are weighed by a hand-held scale, and others are sold by piece. We (especially Scott) have become familiar with most words needed to communicate what foods we need. For the rest, we just point.

Word spreads of these traveling grocery stores’ arrival over the vhf radio. You may hear, “There’s a veggie boat in the anchorage!” or, “A veggie boat is just left Esnasdup, on it’s way to Green Island.” Some cruisers even have direct access to the boats by phone, and alert others as to when they will be coming to certain anchorages: “A veggie boat will be in the eastern Holandes early tomorrow morning, around 8am.” Knowing a boat is on the way gives you a heads up to stay put and be on alert, so as not to miss your chance at buying food!

In anchorages farther east, such the Holandes (swimming pool and hot tub), where we spent much time, the boats have to pass through stretches of open ocean, and come less frequently when strong winds are blowing. Between high winds and the holidays, we went almost three weeks without seeing one around Christmastime.

Now don’t get me wrong, we’re by no means in danger of starving here aboard Sea Life. We packed her to the gills with canned and dry goods before coming to the San Blas, along with plenty of soda and alcohol. However, you never shake the panic of not having convenient access to things, especially fresh food.

It has become more and more common for pangas to bring pre ordered groceries out to cruisers at anchor, especially to those who stay out for months at a time, or even year-round. Recently, these boats have even started to deliver diesel, gasoline and water…smart thinking!

The veggie boats usually stop first at cruisers who have placed an order, and then proceed to sell to the rest of the anchorage, usually starting at the front of the pack, working their way back. The excitement of spotting a veggie boat is quickly deflated by having it blow by you, and then watching and waiting for it to stop at all the other boats before coming to yours. Since we usually try to be toward the back of an anchorage, and away from any crowd of boats, we are typically one of the last ones “in line.”

This whole process is incredibly stressful for Scott. Once the panga has been spotted, and identified that it is indeed a veggie boat, he keeps track of it’s progress through the anchorage, eyes peeled through binoculars, trying to see how much is being taken at each stop. I commonly hear, “@#%*@#!, so-and-so just hauled up two buckets full of stuff onto their boat! They just got here yesterday, and we’ve been here a week! We’re going to be last, and there won’t be anything left but some rotten @#%*!

These veggie boats must smell interesting to Howard, because once they’re tied alongside us, he jumps up on the rail, or cries to be held, to see what’s going on. Most of the men were taken aback at first, as Howard is much larger than any island cat (he is in no danger of starving either). We hear…“Grande!” or “Mucho Gato!” Several boats have learned his name, and call out “HOW-arrd!” as he appears.

The usual veggie boat produce choices include: cabbage, iceberg lettuce, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, and occasionally green beans.

Unfortunately, as you may expect, the quality of these items isn’t always the best. Tomatoes are hard, and very often more green than red. No matter how hard you try, they will not ripen, and instead rot pretty quickly if not used. Carrots and cucumbers can be gigantic, and sometimes bitter as a result.

The outer leaves of cabbage and iceberg lettuce heads are usually peeled off when sold, to exposed the non-wilted, inner leaves. We were so desperate for lettuce after one “dry spell,” that we paid for these sad, little things….the tiniest heads of lettuce ever seen!

Fruit offerings usually consist of pineapple, papaya, apples, limes, oranges, grapefruit, bananas and mangoes (once, I got avocados). The pineapples have been decent, but not nearly as good as the candy-sweet ones we were getting in Bocas del Toro, and the poor apples that I’ve tried are just tart and tasteless. I’m not a papaya fan, and the mangoes are very stringy, making them hard to eat. The damned bananas stay green and hard forever, and then ripen and rot in just days. As a result, we have eaten many banana muffins!

I’ve mentioned before that we have discovered “limon mandarinas” during our travel in Panama. They are about the size of a mandarin orange, and usually beat up-looking on the outside. The inside is orange, but tart like a lime. However, they are a bit sweeter, and juicer than the tiny, key lime-like ones that are also offered, and we’ve come to like them much more. Here’s a quick photo I grabbed from the internet, as we are currently out of them.

Image result for limon mandarina

We’ve gotten good celery and parsley from inside the “mobile” freezer, and there’s almost always “culantro.” It grows wild in the area, and smells and tastes exactly like cilantro.

I once saw shredded cheese in the freezer, and have also heard of people getting butter from it as well.

On one occasion, we were told by a veggie boat that they had chicken (pollo) available. Scott indicated, by putting two fingers toward his eyes and then toward the freezer, that he wanted to “see” said pollo. Out came a whole, dead chicken, and I mean whole…no feathers, but head, beak, legs and feet intact. I was definitely not up for that remote island challenge, so we passed on the pollo.

Overall, there are many more food choices than I expected to get here in the San Blas, and for the most part, we’re satisfied with what we get, and enjoy it. Here’s the result of a good veggie boat visit for us. Notice Howard getting right to work on his favorite…the pineapple tops.

Thankfully, Scott’s prediction of empty bins with only some rotten @*#! left, only happened to us once. There was almost always a decent choice of food left the in the boat when it arrived, and we’d live to eat another day.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”