SimplySailingOnline.com shows by example how easily you can eliminate stress, become more independent, raise your children in a safer environment (while spending more time with them, instilling values not based on the mighty dollar) and avoid the traps of commercialism. Because we live and sail simply, we have been wandering for 11 years with no intention of stopping. This is not a trip for us; it is our life, and I hope to share our success with stories of laughter and tears, as well as how-to tips and DIY projects for preparing, sailing and making a boat a home, so that others can join us.
This week we continue exploring our favorite place. If you haven't yet read Eurisko Sails West: A Year in Panama, here is a taste of a different kind of paradise.
After the heat and stillness of anchoring in the mangroves of Trouble Hole, Agama Cay was a pleasant surprise. Anchored off the mainland, at the base of a mountain chain containing Panama's highest point (only 30 miles away) we frequently needed sweatshirts in the evening. During the day we had a cooling breeze and the company of six Indian children who lived in the only house visible from the boat. They paddled out to visit us, more outgoing and talkative than the children at Trouble Hole had been. After a half hour their mother called them away and we only saw them when we rowed to their house to give them a fish we had caught. We counted 13 people in and around the house, waving at us as we rowed away.
When I was ready for a change of scenery and wanted to go snorkeling, we sailed to Gallego Cays, 6 miles southeast of Bocas. This area of low, mangrove-covered cays offers several anchoring choices and reefs to snorkel. After my son caught an 8' nurse shark, however, I was content to "dry snorkel." For this, Dave rows me into the lee, where the water is calm, and I can see sponges, coral, fish, sea anemones, starfish, long-spined sea urchins, even an arrow crab from the non-shark infested safety of the dinghy.
Even the jungle is a short sail from Bocas. Five miles up the west coast of Isla Colon is Big Bight. Though it is in our cruising guide, we never saw another boat anchored there. As we sailed in, we could hear howler monkeys and the distinct call of oro pendula. We took the dinghy to shore and hiked a path through the jungle where we saw a sloth, army ants, and tiny frogs and heard howler monkeys. Not until we returned to the boat did we see the monkeys, swinging among the trees, high above where we had just been.
Later, Dave sculled the dinghy far up a "creek," a machete-cleared cayuco path through the mangroves. Rounding a corner we were suddenly in a clearing, at the end of the mangroves and the edge of the jungle, with cliffs of rich dirt on both sides and old trees reaching up to the sky. A cayuco was pulled up on the shore, and there was obviously someone's house nearby. Welcome to the jungle.
Though we never saw many people, other than a few Indians, at Big Bight, we could occasionally hear them. When I requested complete isolation, Dave sailed us eight miles to an unnamed wrinkle in the south shore of Solarte. We soon discovered the reason we were alone, as well as an appropriate name for the anchorage: Bug Hole. The chitras were so thick we could not sit on deck even during the day. We soon left the isolation of Bug Hole.
Bocas has a long sailing history. Cayo Carenero (Careening Cay) was so named because Columbus often careened his ships there for maintenance and repairs. Today, the Indians sail more than the cruisers. They paddle their cayucos upwind and sail off the wind. Most cruisers are too impatient to enjoy sailing in Bahia Almirante, but with no working motor, we had no choice. The wind is fairly predictable: it starts around 9:00 am, dies around lunch time, and then returns in the afternoon. For us, the joys of sailing the archipelago include the lack of seas or need for a reef. Not since the Chesapeake Bay have we sailed so many pleasant miles under full sail.
Adventuring under sail does have its hazards. Many of the areas we visited are not well charted, and we had to navigate by eye. We often had to time our trips in order to have the sun behind us when we neared shoal water. A proficiency in eyeball navigation allows you access to more anchorages in the area.
Anchoring in the archipelago is an exercise in compromising. Too close to the mangroves, in protected little bays, the chitras will find you; there is less of a cooling breeze, and frequently, not enough swinging room. We have sailed out of many coves because we never found less than 30' under our keel. Further from the mangroves the water is 60' or more. The trick is to find shallow water a safe distance from shore to allow for adequate scope in the event of a squall.
Bocas del Toro is a nice base from which to explore Panama by land, as well. Our favorite inland trip is to Volcan Baru, at 11,293 feet, Panama's highest point. The summit of this extinct volcano is a 20 mile round trip hike from the ranger station at the base, making for a long day. Baru is best visited as part of a stay in Boquete, a town of 3,833, many of them expatriated Americans. It is an interesting town, easy to explore on foot, with reasonable lodging, only a $10 taxi ride from the base of Baru. From Bocas, Boquete is a $4 water taxi and two bus rides ($7 and $1.45) away--about 6 hours. As in most Caribbean nations, public transportation is reasonable and surprisingly reliable.
This route, and many others through Panama, requires a bus change in David, Panama's third largest city. Most items available in Panama can be found here. There is a Price Smart, several large chain grocery stores and a quirky downtown with a park that is perfect for people watching.
If you prefer to shop without the long bus ride, Toby Braxton can help. She lives in David, acts as a private shopper and, for a small fee, delivers goods to Bocas once a week. ([email protected]) She also fills propane tanks and speaks English.
Ten hours by bus (or one hour by plane) from Bocas is the capital, Panama City. If you need to fly home or if you have people visiting, there are direct flights from Panama City to many US cities. It is closer, and often cheaper, to fly through San Jose, Costa Rica, though it is more of a hassle because of having to clear in and out of Costa Rica.
By boat from Bocas del Toro, most cruisers go to Colon, the San Blas Islands, and then follow the mantra "Cartagena by Christmas." Others cross the isthmus through the canal to explore the Pacific. Some, like us, island hop up the Caribbean coast of Central America. With no hurricanes, the typical seasonal Caribbean push to move does not exist. For us, we soon discovered the truth in what those who have been here longer say: it's hard to leave Panama. The climate, geology, people and their culture lull you into a comfortable complacency that postpones any discussion of departure.Portions previously published in Blue Water Sailing
The problem: Some boats, especially sharpies, tend to yaw (sometimes violently) at anchor. MONDAY we'll share Dave's $6 solution. It has made living on Walkure a completely different experience.
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