February 16 - March 18, 2009
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
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
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
and a battery were built in Portobello. The pirate Henry Morgan
and Sir Frances Drake also attacked Portobello during the
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
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
The Castillo Santiago de la Gloria, built
in 1629, is now a steep,
grass-covered hill. Henry Morgan attacked it from the rear
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 Black Christ of Portobello is carved
out of a dark, exotic wood.
When a ship leaving Portobello sank offshore, the box containing
statue floated back into the port. The locals made the Black
their resident saint and credit him with preventing an epidemic
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
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
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
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
next day. Nick never had that drink. By Friday morning, the
had already begun.
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
- 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
- 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
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
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
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
to hear a howler monkey.
Caribbean Soul anchored in the peaceful
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
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.