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February 16 - March 18, 2009

Panama Mainland


My fingernails are digging into Nick's leg. A green blur whizzes by in my peripheral vision; jungle smells assault my nostrils at 70 mph. Pastel LED lights flash to the booming Latin-rap music played over two monster speakers. Overhead, the roof is flamingo pink. Below my feet, viewed through rusty holes in the floor, the blacktop rushes by. Gravel flies as the wheels teeter on the shoulder around a sharp curve. Suddenly we stop, and the acrid stench of burning brake pads fills the air. I'm a passenger on an American school bus.

This is no ordinary school bus. From its humble and plain origins transporting American kids somewhere in the heartland, the bus has been transformed for public transportation in Panama. Mass transit back home never had so much character. On the exterior, these public buses are works of art featuring air-brushed images of monsters, religious figures, and voluptuous senoritas. Most have a religious slogan of some kind. After all, if you're going to drive like a demon through the jungle, you'd better give God his due. Inside, a booming sound system and flashing LED lights entertain passengers who carefully shift their butts to avoid loose springs in the original school bus seats.

For $1 US per person, we've taken the 40-minute bus ride from Portobello, which has no bank or ATM, to the town of Sabinatas. At the El Rey Supermarket, the ATM readily dispenses US cash, which is the official currency in Panama. How convenient! Perusing the aisles we find treats we've not seen for many months: tortilla chips, ginger snaps, peanut butter, and wholegrain cereal!

As I wait in the check-out line, I notice a darkly tanned gringo behind me. He's wearing a floppy hat, his two front teeth are missing, and his t-shirt proudly says "Texas." As it turns out, he moved to Panama from Mesquite, Texas, bought a few acres, and leased the land to Cable & Wireless and a few other businesses. He now lives off the rental income. I contemplate how this fellow's appearance hardly represents the studly Cowboy image we promote back in the Lone Star State. Then I take a second look at our own appearance--floppy hats, wrinkled clothes, and plastic shoes--and decide Texas might not want to claim us either.

Then it's back to the curb where we wait for 45 minutes (the bus is late) to fight our way on board another plain yellow school bus turned sexy work of art. This one has a tall chrome tail pipe and no muffler. In yet another role reversal, we're seated in the back of the bus. As usual, we're the only two white caps in a sea of black and brown. After another whirlwind trip through the jungle, we're deposited back at the square in Portobello two and a half hours after we began. So for you folks back home who wonder just what we do all day out here, that was our trip to the ATM machine.

With D and Don of S/V Southern Cross, overlooking Portobello Harbor from the summit of Castillo Santiago de Gloria.

After Edward Vernon's attack in 1739, two new fortresses
and a battery were built in Portobello. The pirate Henry Morgan
and Sir Frances Drake also attacked Portobello during the colonial
period when Spain's treasure-laden galleons sailed the Spanish
Main (Caribbean Sea).

Customs house built in 1630. For a century, a third of the world's gold came
through the customs house in Portobello. Spanish galleons arrived in Portobello
to load up the gold, silver, and other treasures taken from Central and South America.

Unusual planter. Tree growing out of an abandoned building.

From Plain Jane to Smoking Sexpot. An American school bus is reborn as
airbrushed public transportation in Panama.

Locals dressed for Carnival. In Panama, those of African heritage
take part in "congo" rituals as part of their Carnival celebration.

The Castillo Santiago de la Gloria, built in 1629, is now a steep,
grass-covered hill. Henry Morgan attacked it from the rear in the
1600s, and Edward Vernon blew it up in the 1700s.

Portobello neighborhood with satellite dishes.

Church of San Felipe de Portobello, home of the Black Christ of Portobello statue.
In October worshipers make a pilgrimage to Portobello to honor the saint.

The Black Christ of Portobello is carved out of a dark, exotic wood.
When a ship leaving Portobello sank offshore, the box containing this
statue floated back into the port. The locals made the Black Christ
their resident saint and credit him with preventing an epidemic from
spreading to Portobello.

Caribbean Soul in the cannon sights. As in Cartagena, we've followed in
the historic wake of Sir France Drake who, entombed in a lead coffin, lies in
a watery grave three miles offshore.

Nick performs a tick inspection of the furry crew.


Panama Canal Yacht Club

At first the electricity went out. Next came the whine of heavy equipment and the crashing of wood, cement, and metal collapsing beneath the bulldozers. At 0700 on Friday, February 27, 2009, a cruising landmark disappeared in a cloud of dust and debris. For years the Panama Ports Company and the Panama Canal Yacht Club have waged a legal battle for control of the club's property. This prime real estate is nestled between existing ship container storage facilities in Colon on the canal's Atlantic side.

This coup d'etat took the cruisers in the marina by surprise since most people expected the legal wrangling to continue indefinitely. Apparently, Panama Ports obtained an order from the major's office late in the day Thursday, a strategically timed attack since Friday was a holiday. We were later told by the club's vice-commodore that they did obtain a restraining order late Thursday, but Panama Ports ignored it. Early Friday morning, Panama Ports positioned two containers in front of the gate to the marina and began the demolition, which continued through the weekend.

As the Panama Port's crew methodically went about the business of removing furniture and equipment from the premises, bewildered cruisers and marina staff stood by shaking their heads in disbelief. Watching PCYC's venerable bar being removed piece-by-piece was certainly a blow to the club's old-timers who've enjoyed many a drink and salty tale leaning against its rope mantle.

A lawyer for Panama Ports who was on site explained that the marina and dinghy dock would be in place until April 1st, at which time these structures would also be removed. Electricity and water were restored over the weekend, and during the following week, laundry, Internet, and fuel were available. A guard posted at the gate allowed boaters who were on an official list to leave and reenter the premises by squeezing through the tiny space between the containers and the fence. Access to the marina and its remaining services should continue through the end of March.

However, no one in authority has answers to the bigger, long-term questions. Most importantly, how will boaters anchored in the Flats get to shore to check in, provision, and arrange canal transits? In fact, when we spoke to the Panama Ports lawyer and demolition supervisor on site, they were unaware of the 30-plus boats anchored around the corner who depend on the PCYC facilities. Surely Shelter Bay Marina will not be able to accommodate all the boats who pass through Colon even if all those boaters were willing and able to afford the marina's high rates. Many questions remain for boaters coming to Colon, Panama. The only certainty is they will no longer be gathering around the bar at PCYC telling their salty tales.

More Adventures in Transportation

From Colon you can catch an Expreso bus to Panama City. Expreso indicates the trip is non-stop, not the service of caffeinated beverages. The express buses are a step up from the refurbished American school buses that serve the city routes. These are old Trailways-type buses with high-backed seats, air-conditioning, and in-transit movies. The trip from Colon on the Atlantic side of the isthmus to Panama City on the Pacific coast takes about an hour and a half.

On our first trip, Nick and I chose the seat behind the driver, whom we could see through a big picture window. Our driver was a portly black man with remarkable multi-tasking skills. As we flew down the narrow, two-lane highway, he skillfully balanced one and sometimes two cell phones in his hands while still somehow keeping the bus more or less in the right lane. Apparently the fare collector, who rode up front by the driver, was a humorous fellow because on several occasions the driver burst into uproarious laughter while throwing both hands high over his head. I told Nick that ignorance is bliss and we should never again sit behind the driver.

Included in your $1.50 one-way fare is an "inflight" movie, offered as a distraction from the traffic and haphazard driving. I should mention that Colon is probably one of the most violent cities we've visited. Every local we spoke to, from taxi drivers to doctors, warned us about the crime in Colon. So what kind of movies did they show on the bus between Colon and Panama City? We saw some of the most violent, awful movies you can imagine. One movie featured Spanish-speaking Korean hoodlums who routinely wiped out large numbers of people with machine guns and swords. Blood and guts and body parts were flying everywhere even as we flew down the highway. The occasional brief nude scene was a welcome relief from the violence. I had to wonder what the parents of the children onboard thought about the movie selection. We were later told that the bus drivers pick the movies, so I guess that explains everything.


The breakwater at Colon, Panama, the Atlantic (Caribbean) side of
the Panama Canal.

Demolition of the Panama Canal Yacht Club.

Two containers block entry at the gate. There was barely enough
clearance on one side to squeeze past.

For years Nick dreamed of having a drink at the historic PCYC bar. We
arrived on Thursday afternoon and decided to rest and go ashore the
next day. Nick never had that drink. By Friday morning, the demolition
had already begun.

Panama Canal

The Panama Canal is one of those engineering marvels that demonstrates the best of American ingenuity. The inaugural transit took place on August 15, 1914, but the dream began 34 years earlier when the French attempted to duplicate in Panama their success building the sea-level Suez Canal. However, the Panamanian rain forest and mountainous terrain made a sea-level canal unattainable. After spending the equivalent of $285 million U.S. dollars and losing over 20,000 lives to malaria and yellow fever, the French threw in the towel and sold their interest to the United States.

President Theodore Roosevelt was determined to build the canal and resumed the project in 1903. The waterway took 10 years of work by 75,000 men and women and cost almost $400 million. The American's ultimate success was due to several factors.

  • Engineers convinced Roosevelt to abandon the idea of a sea-level canal in favor of a lock-style canal. This drastically reduced the amount of excavation required in the difficult Panamanian terrain.
  • Colonel Williams Crawford Gorgas convinced the skeptical president and engineers that mosquitoes were the cause of the malaria and yellow fever epidemics that had decimated thousands of workers during the French effort. Residents of the canal zone were instructed to eliminate standing water and take other measures to reduce mosquitoes.
  • At the time, Panama was part of Colombia and Colombia had developed misgivings about transferring their treaty with the French to the Americans. Panama, on the other hand, wanted the canal and wished to be free of Colombia's governance. The U.S. sent a warship to sit in the harbor while the Panamanians staged a "revolution." Casualties in the brief skirmish included one lawyer and a donkey, and Panama became an independent country that promptly signed a treaty with the U.S. for construction of a canal.

The Americans completed the canal ahead of schedule, below budget, and without corruption. That is a marvel in itself. Since 1914, over 942,000 vessels have transited the canal. Panama became fully responsible for the canal on December 31, 1999; however, American consultants are still employed in the operation of the waterway.

During our stay in Colon, Nick had the opportunity to be a line handler on S/V Sirenus, a 33-foot sailboat transiting from the Atlantic to the Pacific. While ships are pulled through the locks with locomotives, small vessels are moved with four long lines attached at the bow and stern. Line handlers on the boat let out or take in the lines as the water level in the locks changes. A westbound transit starts at the Gatun locks, a series of three chambers that raise the vessel 84 feet to the Gatun Lake. On the west side of the lake, the vessel is lowered in the Pedro Miguel Locks and the Miraflores Locks to complete the 80 kilometer passage to the Pacific Ocean. The process takes about 24 hours, including an overnight stay in Gatun Lake.

For more information about the Panama Canal and its history see the official Web site or the Wikipedia article.

Panama Canal diagram from Wikipedia


A tugboat pushes a container ship.

Nick steering Sirenus. Note the black tires on deck, which were
tossed over the sides when Sirenus was rafted with two other
sailboats inside the locks.

Small vessels are typically rafted together three-across inside the locks.
Each yacht is assigned an advisor to guide them through the transit. One of
the advisors in Sirenus' raft was clueless, and the crew had to ignore his
instructions to avoid damaging the boats.

Gatun Locks at night. The locomotive railway appears on the right.

Sirenus departed Colon in the late afternoon and transited the Gatun locks in the
evening. They spent the night tied up with S/V Windweaver on this mooring.

Sirenus' first mate watches a container ship go by.

What a name! Perhaps we'll rename our boat the Ocean Dominator.

The Gaillard Cut is the area of the canal that required the most excavation. Even today landslides are a problem here.

Overhead view of the Miraflores Locks.

Lock gates open. Gravity forces water in and out of the locks.

S/V Windweaver locks through alone with long lines to the top of the chamber
walls. As the water level changes,, line handlers onboard must adjust the lines
to keep the yacht positioned in the middle of the chamber. The flow of water can
create turbulence, particularly when locking up.

Bridge of the Americas on the way to the Pacific.

Chagres River

The sweet perfume of tropical flowers drifts on a gentle breeze as we motor into the Chagres River, located a few miles south of Colon. Winding our way up a series of 90-degree bends, we pick a spot halfway up river and drop the anchor. Dense, green foliage along shore is mirrored in the river's smooth surface. A light wind rustles through the towering trees, with an occasional squawking parrot to punctuate the silence. Just a few miles from the hustle and bustle and filth of Colon, we've entered a peaceful sanctuary. The contrast is startling. We sit back and take in our new neighborhood. The tranquility of this place is a sedative, automatically calming our nerves. We sigh with satisfaction, and then suddenly an abrupt crashing of tree limbs jolts us out of our daze. A bonechilling howl echoes through the forest. The howl is answered by another and another, creepy and haunting. Surely King Kong lives and is crashing through the jungle to devour us--captain, mate, and furry crew--in one jagged, drooling gulp! But we just sit back and smile. We've just heard the call of our first howler monkeys.

Click to hear a howler monkey.

Capuchin monkey

Caribbean Soul anchored in the peaceful Chagres River.

Livin' the Dream reflected in the early morning calm.

This bird and its mate were determined to build a nest in our mainsail cover.

Bird watching is great in the Chagres.

Below the Gatun Dam. The Panama Canal is on the other side.

The sweet perfume of tropical flowers drifts on a gentle breeze.

A howler monkey demonstrates the literal meaning of some favorite expressions:

Going out on a limb...

Hanging on by his toes...

Taking the leap of faith, head first into the trees below.

Early morning on the Chagres, one of the most peaceful, pristine places we've been.


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