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Western Caribbean Cruising, Part 5: Panama  

Oops Sunburnedby Sharon Kratz, s/v Rose of Sharon 

Rose of Sharon is now a member of the cruising community in Bocas Del Toro, Panama.

It was confusing to me for awhile: Bocas Del Toro town is located on the island of Colon. But a major city in Panama is Colón, capital of the Colón Province on the mainland. The Bocas Del Toro Province is actually about nine small islands which Columbus discovered while searching for a passage to the Pacific Ocean. At that time, the islands were populated by Guaymi, Teribe and Bokota Indians.

When the United Fruit Company arrived in 1899, banana plantations were a major source of income. Today, tourism is thriving in this area and the number of U.S. citizens buying property here is stunning.

HardwareBakeryGrocery Joe and I found foods and supplies we’d previously been able to buy only in the States: important things, like Chips Ahoy® cookies and eggplant caviar. The Gourmet Market offered fresh deli meats so for two weeks, we ate practically nothing but shaved roast turkey sandwiches. Two other groceries were called “the Chinese stores,” and they were located almost directly across from each other and offered the exact same shelf items except one had a fresh produce stand near the doorway. The families who owned and operated the stores spoke Chinese, some Spanish, and some English. Half the time, we never knew what we were saying to each other, but if you are a good Charades player, you will do well at the Bocas Del Toro Chinese stores.

I missed the variety and abundance of the fresh produce of Guatemala, but there were trade-offs. The celery in Panama was much better than the tiny, tough stalks we called “apia” in the Rio Dulce. I missed the fresh Guatemalan spinach and aselga (beet leaves) that were so rich in “cardio protective” vitamins, but the romaine lettuce of Panama was superior and inexpensive.

Downtown You could dine in a greasy spoon or eat veggie wraps in an upscale cafe or have pizza and beer at a curbside table. For the first time since we’d come to Central America, we had no ATM problems and plenty of shopping choices. Life is good in Panama.

Bocas Yacht Club and Marina is the most popular marina available between Bocas Del Toro (on Isla Colon) and Shelter Bay Marina at the Panama Canal entrance. Marina Carenero is located at Bocas Del Toro too, may be a good marina, and I’m not sure why boaters don’t seem to prefer it, but like Mario’s in Guatemala’s Rio Dulce, the Bocas Yacht Club and Marina is “where it’s at” for cruisers.

There is a fuel dock on the premises, regular water taxi service, free wifi, the lowest rate for electricity we’d found since leaving the U.S., and a very large staff of boat-knowledgeable employees available for bright work and boat maintenance.

The marina even assists the 10-20 boats anchored nearby when there is a problem. They charge the anchored vessels for some of the services that are free to their guests, and treat them with the same consideration as if they were on the dock.

Calypso Cantina, the onsite restaurant offers superior service and meals under the management of a Latitudes and Attitudes’ magazine ex-employee, “Charky.” There is no menu except a whiteboard with daily specials. Joe and I became regulars at least twice a week at the popular restaurant and it sounded as if we lived in some kind of assisted living community the way we and other cruisers discussed our plans for the week: “Well, Monday is meatloaf night, so we can’t get together in town that night . . . Wednesday is Filet Mignon and Friday is Barbecue Ribs . . . let’s do it Thursday.”

I believe this marina is one of the best we’ve visited in any country. The Calypso Cantina is one of the best marina restaurants we’ve visited, too, with consistently good meal quality and presentation. To learn more about Bocas Yacht Club and Marina, you can go to http://www.bocasmarina.com/.

Our major passage making was finished for 2008. It was time to meet new boaters and renew old friendships with cruisers who had left Guatemala before us. As we shared stories about who’d been where and when, I realized we have many things in common but the single most prevalent common denominator of cruisers is this: We have a sense of humor about ourselves and a complete inability to take ourselves seriously. Most of our stories were self-deprecating tales of mistakes we’d made and the hilarious results of boating judgment calls gone bad.

One story was about a cruiser who was showing his first mate a “better” way to wash dishes in a bucket using sea water. He finished his demonstration and with a grand gesture, tossed the bucketful of soapy seawater back into the ocean, unaware that silverware always settles at the bottom. He tossed their silverware overboard too.

One boater had a beautiful lancha that was large enough to actually anchor out and camp in. He’d also found a tent-like tarp so they could cover and sleep inside their comfortable lancha. They left their marina for a “camping trip” and hadn’t planned on high winds and the cause-and-effect of wind blowing through their tarp-covered lancha at midnight. They slept – or didn’t sleep – with their hands tightly gripping the tarp to keep from taking off into the night like Peter Pan and Wendy.

One first mate was at the helm, reading, and her husband, who was working on an auto helm problem down below shouted, “Put the auto helm on Standby!” She did, then went back to her book. Twenty minutes later, he climbed into the cockpit, glanced at the GPS and asked, “Where are we?” She said she guessed they were wherever they were supposed to be.

“He didn’t tell me that ‘Standby’ meant you were supposed to steer!” she told us.

I didn’t realize how much easier it is to be a-sailing in 400 feet of water, even at night, when your margin of error is huge. No matter what goes wrong, you have plenty of time to deal with it and you don’t have to worry about running aground or hitting something, because you’re out there all alone. That can be a good thing.

Joe with Paul and Mary MargaretRoad trip! Our cruising friends from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, Paul and Mary Margaret of S/V AngelHeart, had been at our marina in the Rio Dulce and made passage to Panama over a year ago. They were eager to show us some of the beauty of Panama they’d seen, plus there were several places they had not yet visited, so we planned a week-long journey to the lowlands and highlands of Panama.

OOur journey began with a lancha ride from the marina to the water taxi stand. I’d ridden in water taxis and knew they could be a wild ride, but this one was relatively smooth. Fast, but smooth. The water taxi took us to the small town of Almirante, our nearest mainland town where a bus terminal is located. It was at Almirante where I first saw some of the poverty that I’d seen in some other Central American towns; the huts on the water’s edge were ramshackle and trash was on the shoreline and floated in the water as we made our approach. Those who work in Almirante may work for the Chiquita® banana company or on cocoa farms, if not in the tourism industry.

When we disembarked the water taxi, eager little boys insisted they carry our luggage away from the water taxi terminal and toward the street, where waiting taxis offered us rides to the bus terminal. The little boys wouldn’t take no for an answer, they simply began dragging our bags away from us, so it seemed like a good idea to follow. They were honest, albeit aggressive, and we gave them quarters for their efforts.

The taxis in Panama – or the ones I’ve taken so far – are a good value. A typical fare is about five dollars for two couples. We took a taxi to the bus terminal and this is where I became concerned: the Litegua and Fuente del Norte buses in Guatemala were high-class compared to this ride. The bus was small, the aisles were small, and the seats were smaller.

I’m a large woman. After years of trying to get rid of it, deny it, be ashamed of it, I’ve become accepting of and willing to work with this big-o body of mine. If I’m dressed to the nines and wearing makeup, I’m “Rubenesque.” Most days I’m just fat. Joe and Paul had both put on some extra pounds over the past year. Mary Margaret had the only respectable body among the four of us, and as we navigated the narrow aisle with me in the lead, I actually thought I might get stuck.

There were no two seats together, so Paul and Mary Margaret sat across from each other and Joe sat next to a teenager who came out of her iPod® world only long enough to complain if someone opened a window because it might muss her hair. I sat in the very back in a long seat with three strange men. Sometimes during the ride, one man would leave and then we’d all spread out, giving each other a bit of breathing room, but usually another man would take his place at the next stop. The man on my right was eating fried chicken. At one point, the man on my left spent his entire ride with his right hand under my left buttock. I don’t think he was being lecherous, but it was more intimacy than I wanted. Maybe it was more intimacy than he wanted too, but he didn’t try to find another place to put his hand./p>

PPaul fumed a bit, “We’re taking the plane back.” Bocas Del Toro has an airport and so does David (pronounce it Dah-veed), our destination for the bus ride.

Really, it wasn’t that bad and only lasted about three hours which I thought was no big deal, but it was like most bus trips in Central America: by the time we arrived at our destination, we were dusty, grimy and exhausted.

We caught a taxi from the bus station to the airport terminal at David, where we negotiated for a rental car. Joe and I had never driven in Guatemala but Panama roads were so similar to the U.S. that it’s a reasonable way to travel. The highway traffic in Panama is more subdued than the town traffic. If you can imagine Texans driving tiny cars in a Figure-8 street stock race, you’ve captured the essence of city-driving in Panama. Paul was our designated driver, for which we were all grateful.

On the David-Boquete road, vehicles must pass  through a small insecticide-spraying station. That was a first!

David is Panama’s second largest city. It hasn’t got much to offer, tourism-wise, but it does have a fabulous place that is like a Sam’s Club® called PriceSmart®. You have to buy a membership, and there you can get mass quantities of typical provisions plus things like air conditioners and lawn furniture. We stopped there later in the trip and I nearly went into that hypnotic trance that happens to me at Wal-Mart® stores. Nearby, there was a store that looked like a Home Depot®. We are talking first-world civilization here!

It was February, and our part of Panama was hot. Some days, it was almost unbearably hot and the humidity had weight. Those days we hid on the boat, running the air conditioner and watching movies. I was completely unprepared for the cool, clean air of our final destination, Boquete. It was wonderful!

Boquete is a Panamanian must-visit! This is where having a rental car was invaluable, because Boquete is located in the scenic highlands area of Chiriquí Province. Driving the area yields beautiful mountain and valley vistas, and the quantities and types of flowers growing wild or on carefully landscaped lawns was lovely. The small town has numerous artisan and craft shops.

El Oasis HotelMary Margaret found our hotel, El Oasis, on the internet and it turned out to be a real prize; our rooms were $25/night and a full breakfast with several choices of entrees was included with the room. There were two small lobby areas for relaxing and a wrap-around patio overlooking the small Caldera River. The hotel was very small but they were in the process of adding another floor of rooms because it was almost always full, especially on weekends. Their website is http://www.oasisboquete.com/.

Artifacts Our first tour was the ruins and archeological site Sitio Barriles. Even though most of the major finds from this dig are now on display at the Museo Antropológico Reina Torres de Araúz in Panama City, there would be some smaller artifacts at the site and because we knew it was on private property, we were completely unprepared for the professional educational information and tour by Edna Landau, granddaughter of William Fredrick Houx. Houx came from California to Panama to become a coffee-grower in 1925. He soon recognized the significance of the discovery and began documenting the excavation.

Sitio Barriles was first discovered in 1906. Later excavations took place, and the biggest find was in 1947 when 18 human-sized statues were discovered on the property. What is most fascinating is that the two statues portray people of two different races: one is African and the other is Oriental. The Asian-featured person is perched on the shoulders of the African-featured man.

Map on a rockThe timeline of the people who lived at Sitio Barriles is somewhere between 2000 B.C. and 300 A.D. This is pre-Aztec, Maya and Inca! Some historians say if the mystery surrounding the people who lived there could be unraveled, it might mean re-writing history as we now know it. The spirals carved in the stones at Sitio Barriles also match carvings of a mysterious culture that lived on Pacific islands, including Hawaii.

As Edna explained the fascinating finds and what is known of this ancient people, I stared at a primitive map, carved on a large rock. It might have been a replica of an original find. This was an intelligent, communicative community of people who made jewelry, pottery – and maps.

Hieroglyphs There is one particular slab of basalt stone that only reveals its petro glyphs when wet. It is believed to be from a temple site and metaphysical groups claim it has a powerful energy, even stronger than Machu Picchu, the “lost city” of the Incas. Mary Margaret placed her hands on the slab and I hugged it. I didn’t feel any particular surge of energy, but then, I wasn’t really concentrating.

Edna showed us several barrel-shaped stones and explained that the barrels were probably used like wheels, to move large objects. She said a huge eruption of a nearby volcano about 300 A.D. could have been what destroyed the area and the people living there.

Football sized lemonRemember that large yellow fruit Joe bought from a Cayucos-man? It was the size of a football, had a bumpy rind, smelled like a grapefruit and tasted like a very sour lemon. We didn’t know what to do with it. Well, Edna has a tree bearing that fruit and she called it a “Big Lemon” tree. It is also called the Thailand Sour Lemon tree. Each lemon yields a quart of juice, and Edna gave us samples of a wonderful marmalade from this fruit.

This ruins site was nothing like the many Mayan ruins we had visited, but it was fascinating, and now that I think of it, maybe there was some kind of mystical energy there. I remember feeling blessed to be able to be in that place, at that time.

In the evenings, the four of us discussed our next day’s plan and most importantly, which gourmet restaurant to visit for supper. There were so many to choose from! We managed to make it to one Mexican, one Mediterranean, one Greek, and an excellent seafood restaurant. There were beer stops in-between, of course.

Our next tour was to Paradise Gardens, a wild animal rescue and rehabilitation center. Rare birds, several endangered animal species, and over 400 types of plants make up this ecologically balanced and beautiful property.

We strolled the landscaped walkways, stopping to admire each animal. We visited the butterfly house, which was a bit less populous than usual, but there were enough butterflies that we still had to be careful when we did the double entrance and exit.

Lemur When we saw a recovering lemur, Joe and I became excited. He looked like a twin of the little cornbread-bandit that had snuck into our galley one night when we were docked at a type of wildlife reserve/hotel in Honduras! Maybe looks can be deceiving, but lemurs look like the sweetest little pets in the world.

Tamarin If looks can be deceiving, perhaps the Geoffroys Tamarins are not as evil as they appear. I’ve seen creatures in movies that – I realize now – were based on these devilish-looking little animals. We were careful when feeding them dried cranberries, because each alpha male was quick to attack anyone who might pose a threat to his mate. The tamarins have a reputation as a monogamous species but – guess what – sometimes there’s a little monkeying around; 1/3 of them occasionally forsake their “spouse” for the charms of another tamarin.

Lap nap Joe is such a babe-magnet! Or I should say, baby magnet. His specialty is sitting in rocking chairs, holding a grandchild in one hand and a television remote control in the other hand. I just hope over-exposure to NASCAR and The Sopranos won’t damage them for life. After our walk through Paradise Gardens, Joe eased himself into a rocking chair and the next thing we knew, a diapered Howler Monkey curled up in his lap. The baby monkey nestled down for a nap, and Joe gently rocked and petted her.

We missed the tour time for the coffee plantation, but enjoyed lattes and mocha-flavored iced coffees at the Café Ruiz. The Ruiz family has specialized in coffee-growing since the 1800s, favoring the shade-grown technique, which preserves the natural environment. Panama seems to be singularly eco-friendly and that theme is prevalent in much of the areas we visited.

Jardin BoqueteAnother tourist site in Boquete is Mi Jardín es Su Jardín, a private property featuring winding trails of aesthetically pleasing flower arrangements. It is a private property – which I didn’t understand – and a grand home sits in the middle of the estate. When the others walked ahead, I peered inside large sliding glass doors into what appeared to be a really nice welcome center. So I walked inside. It only took me a few second s to realize that welcome centers do not have crystal carvings on majestic coffee tables surrounded by luxurious sofas and chandeliers on the ceilings. I eased out the same way I’d walked in, quietly shutting the sliding doors.

When I told my group about my mistake, they were horrified. Most cruisers try so hard to be good U.S. ambassadors, not “ugly Americans,” and I’d committed a major faux pas by entering the private residence. “I didn’t realize!” I explained. “I thought it was the welcome center!”

When we returned the rental car to the airport at David, we found a solution between taking a prop plane (I am terrified of prop planes) from David to Bocas Del Toro or taking the gosh-awful bus. A taxi driver approached me and asked if we needed a taxi and where we were going. I said yes, we needed a taxi to the bus station and that we were bound for Almirante, where we would catch a water taxi to Bocas Del Toro. The man said he would charge us $200 to drive us to Almirante, which was about the same cost the four of us would pay for the plane and I wouldn’t have to take tranquilizers. It was more costly than the bus, but I wouldn’t have to contemplate a strange man’s hand under my butt during the ride, either.

Paul Continental DivideThe driver also promised to stop at the spot in the road where the Continental Divide reveals the Caribbean Ocean on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. Another first! The winds were downright dangerous at the point where the driver pulled off the road, and because of a heavy cloud cover, we couldn’t see the Pacific Ocean and could barely see the Caribbean.

Joe and Mary Margaret stayed in the car but Paul and I were game, so we exited the car into a whirlwind; an incredible force of air that sent us staggering. My baggy blouse blew over my head, much to the driver’s amusement and he and I both grabbed at my shirt to keep it from blowing away! He threw my cowboy hat into the trunk of the car, quickly, and assisted me closer to the edge of the roadside precipice. Paul was already there, drunk with the exhilaration of nearly being blown off his feet into a Panamanian abyss. I liked the out-of-control tornado-like sensory experience too! We staggered back to and climbed into the car, where Joe and Mary Margaret held tight to anything that might blow out and away.

It was a terrific road trip.

Two weeks later, we decided to visit some of the Panama anchorages near our marina because after several weeks at the dock with no place to swim, I was suffering from swimming deprivation depression. The water near the marina and Bocas Del Toro town was just like the water near Fronteras, Guatemala. Too yucky for swimming. But our marina in Guatemala had a pool and the Bocas Del Toro Marina does not. It was the first suggestion I made to the marina manager and he said he’d certainly take it under advisement. I also told him where the pool should be built and how a modified swim-up bar would work well. I haven’t seen the marina workers digging any pool-sized holes, but there’s always hope.

However, just as the Rio Dulce had some sweet swimming spots, this area of Panama has more than enough places with clear, Caribbean water in which to swim. We just had to find them.

Because they’d island-hopped the area, Paul and Mary Margaret of S/V AngelHeart served as tour guides. AngelHeart is a Gemini 105Mc built by Performance Cruising, Inc. of Annapolis, Maryland. This is the exact same catamaran we followed onto a reef coral bed in Mexico, 2005, and there we were, following it again. But this time, Joe checked his own waypoints and trusted his own charting. It was funny though – at one point AngelHeart made a turn to starboard, off the charted path and Joe quickly radioed him. “AngelHeart, why did you make that sudden turn into shallows?”

I laughed and said, “They turned because they can! They’re in a catamaran!”/p>

IIt was also Paul of S/V AngelHeart’s waypoints that got us into Honduras’ Escondido Bay in a pitch-black, stormy sea one night. I guess I’d follow Paul just about anywhere, even if he does have a catamaran. He’s a good captain.

Carl and MaryOur first passage – and it was only a two-hour motoring trip – was to visit cruisers Carl and Mary of S/V amryka. One year ago, they had decided, as many U.S. citizens do, that Panama was the perfect site for a retirement home. They bought a beautiful property on the Panama mainland, overlooking a serene cove, and began construction of their dream home. Sometimes, the dream seemed like a nightmare.

They discovered that contractors in Central America do not work by the same standards as contractors in the U.S. And heck, even in the U.S., homebuilders have to keep a close eye on their project or they’ll discover closet doors slightly askew or air conditioning units installed in January that malfunction in August.

Mary and Carl found their rough-hewn wood doors and trim were installed un-sanded then painted or unpainted but they still needed sanding; the doors were not properly planed, so several of them dragged the floor and stuck. Their fresh water tank was mounted behind the house on a platform that began to collapse under its weight. They have electricity but no running water and the kitchen sink was installed but not secured so if you lift the edge of the kitchen sink slightly, it pops out. But the worse part was, the contractor disappeared.

MMary and Carl may have some kind of legal recourse in Panama – I suggested hiring a hit man, which is pretty-much the way things work in some parts of Central America anyway. Seriously, Mary Margaret of S/V AngelHeart (who really has the heart of an angel), suggested an old-fashioned paint party, similar to what farmers used to do – like a barn-raising, where fellow-cruisers would spend the day helping. The project itself was overwhelming, especially when the retired couple was faced with completing the construction on their own, but they have many friends who would be happy to lend a hand. It’s going to be a beautiful home.

We anchored in Dolphin Bay, the locals’ name for orras Lagoon, the cove fronting Mary and Carl’s home. Our anchorage was 09°11.48N, 082°13.40W.

At anchor As soon as our boat was secure, I jumped overboard and swam to AngelHeart. I noticed the water was extremely salty and stung my eyes more than usual, but that didn’t stop me. I splashed and paddled over to the catamaran and chatted with them briefly. Very briefly. Because as we spoke, I felt a small sting on my chin. Then another on my neck. I looked carefully as I tread water and couldn’t see anything, but the stinging continued – my chest, legs and arms were under attack.

I bid Paul and Mary Margaret a hasty goodbye and swam as fast as I could back to our boat. Out of breath and in no little pain, I ripped my bathing suit off in the cockpit and ran to the head, where I showered and shampooed, then Joe applied rubbing alcohol all over my face and body.

Several of the sting sites puffed up and itched. Later, Mary and Carl told me that the reason the locals called the anchorage Dolphin Bay was because of the numerous dolphins who visit there to eat the jellyfish. No one swims there.

The next day we visited a nearby chocolate plantation, where David Cerutti and his wife grow their own chocolate. Its quality and taste is superb and their organic cacao farming and manufacturing process has been featured in magazine and newspaper articles. The plantation is approximately 40 acres, and it is landscaped with ecologically-balanced and eye-pleasing beauty. As we strolled a small part of the property, David explained the cacao growth cycle and showed us the plants in various stages of development. Then he led us to place where the beans are fermented. Next, we visited a tiny hut where the beans are roasted and the “magic” of transforming the cacao beans to delicious chocolate takes place.

Cacao pods MMy favorite of the Cerutti products was a crunchy mixture of unrefined chocolate that could only be used in baking to add a nut-texture and dark chocolate flavor. I bought several bags to be given to family and friends, but Joe insisted we use one of the bags for our own brownies. They were the best brownies I’d ever made!

Mrs. erutti was in the States, visiting children and I’d wish we’d met her, because David Cerutti is a fascinating businessman who once captained a large yacht for a wealthy family. He sailed it to Panama for them and jumped ship, deciding he wanted to build his retirement home on a large hill overlooking a beautiful lagoon. His chocolate-making hobby led to supplying chocolate to a limited number of friends – limited only because he refuses to compromise quality in favor of quantity.

Our sail from Porras Lagoon to Johnson Cay took another hour, and we dodged tiny islands and shallows the entire hour. All we knew about Johnson Cay was that we’d heard another boat had anchored there for several days and found it to be a charming site. We dropped anchor at 09°14.60N, 082°10.13W.

I snorkeled the anchorage twice, and both times the abundance of underwater plant life was hypnotic. My first snorkel, I was alone and reported back to the others, “There’s something like black pearls down there! Bunches of them!” I knew they weren’t black pearls, but they were interesting. I discovered later they are actually called “Sea Pearls,” so I wasn’t that far off the mark. Except you can’t make necklaces with them.

My favorite was a shy, spiky, feather-patterned plant that when touched, closed up and retreated into its coral with the speed of light. I counted three types of brain corals and lost track of the starfish, there were so many. The white scroll alga was huge and I wondered how such delicate leaf-like plants could thrive so well in the invasive Turtle Grass. I saw one plant called a Green Mermaid’s Wine Glass. If I lived underwater, that’s the bouquet I’d like delivered to my door on anniversaries.

The Sea Cucumbers were large and if I rubbed them, a small layer of dusty algae floated away and revealed their clean, black matte coats; one was dotted with bright orange spots. I told Joe about handling the Sea Cucumbers and he said, “Do they like being petted?” because I used to say stingrays like to be petted. (I don’t say that anymore.)

“Well, you never know about Sea Cucumbers . . . they don’t get excited about much of anything,” I said. “Some of the plants respond more than Sea Cucumbers,” I laughed.

On my second snorkel, Joe was with me and this time, I carried a spoon so I could scoop up one of those “black pearls” and get a feel for it. It felt like a grape, but a bit more solid. Then I decided I wanted one of the large, orange-ish starfish to take back to the States. I figured if they were on the ocean floor, they must be dead because I’ve seen them swim. I prodded one with my spoon, trying to see if it would move, and it didn’t so I picked it up and yelled across the waters to Joe, “Hey, I want to take this starfish home! I think it’s dead anyway!”

Joe removed his snorkel and replied, “It’s alive! Put it back!”

“Are you sure?” I asked, flipping the starfish over to see if I could see any sign of life.

“Yes, I’m sure. Put it back!” he yelled. So I placed it gently back into the sand.

If you’ve snorkeled or dived in sites where the fish and the Disney-colors are almost a visual overload, Johnson’s Cay may not be for you, but I thought it was a good snorkel.

Three days later we weighed anchor and made the two-hour passage from Johnson’s Cay to Bastimentos Island, where we dropped anchor at 09°19.95N, 082°10.62W. This small island is a must-see, with a national marine park, two Indian communities, and during the right season, Playa Larga is a sea turtle nesting site that attracts four species of endangered turtles. We did not visit the town, which has a small population of about 800 Afro Caribbean residents and no roads, no cars.

Red Frog Our goal was to see the one-of-a-kind Red Frog. I’d read somewhere that this particular specimen of Dart Frog could only be found on Bastimentos Island. I was looking forward to handling one, but Mary Margaret quickly explained, “You can’t handle them. They’re poisonous.” The walk from the dinghy dock to Red Frog Beach was about ten minutes, and we met two little boys who displayed the tiny red frogs on large fan leaves – and the frogs are about ½ inch long! They are a brilliant orange/red color with black dots.

Local businessmanRed Frog Beach is the place you see in tropical vacation advertisements! Well, you know what I mean. It was The Perfect Beach: clean white sand, crystal-clear water, enough wave action for a bit of body surfing, and plenty of shade near the water’s edge. Paul, Mary Margaret, Joe and I spread our towels under the shade and within feet of the ocean’s edge and contemplated the beauty that surrounded us. I shut my eyes and listened to my favorite sound in the whole world: the surf, calling to me with its dependable prenatal rhythm as it bathes the sandy shoreline.

When I return to Red Frog Beach I am taking a paperback book, a day’s supply of water and munchies, and perhaps a pillow. It’s a good place for a good read and a good nap.

We’d been away from the marina almost a week and needed to return: our water tank was empty and we would be leaving for Panama City in ten days. Our flight from Panama City to the U.S. was five days after our trip to Panama City; we needed to sightsee this historical city and visit the Panama Canal!

We booked a prop plane on Air Panama that takes one hour and flies directly from Bocas Del Toro to Panama City. It’s just too convenient and I need to overcome my fears with faith. Or Valium.

Joe and I had decided to become six-months-on, six-months-off snowbirds. We missed our grandchildren but we couldn’t give up cruising; in fact, we were already looking forward to our planned 2009 passages and it was only March of 2008!

We’d heard horror stories about the damage heat and humidity could do to a closed-up boat in Panama and we were unsure which course of action to take: should we buy a window air conditioner, install it at the companionway entrance and run it every day? Should we run it once or twice a week? What would our electric bill be if we did that? Should we pay a boat boy to open the boat once a week?

We discussed our options with other boaters but I knew what I was going to do: I’d bought oversized black bags and I was bagging everything on the boat, including the cushions. Nothing with a scrap of fabric would escape this bag-lady.

Joe calls our boat “the old Rose.” S/V Rose of Sharon is twenty years old this year and I love every creak of her teak. I can tell you if there’s a loose motor mount by the rumble of her engine and I don’t even notice her unique boat-smell until we leave her and unpack our bags, all of which (and most of their contents) smell like our boat. I used to think that was a bad thing, but now I love it because it reminds me of her.

You can tell I’m homesick and I haven’t even left her yet. I think before we leave, I’ll sing a chorus of “I’ll be Home for Christmas” to her, just to let her know she’ll be spending the holidays with her family.

We utilized Eric Bauhaus' The Panama Cruising Guide, 3rd Edition and chart DMA 2801 for navigational information.
Rose of Sharon is secure at Bocas Yacht Club and Marina. Following a brief tour of Panama City and the Canal, Joe and Sharon returned to the States to become RVers. They plan to cruise the San Blas Islands and Cartagena, Columbia in early 2009.

Read Part 6:  Panama City & Panama Canal




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Our goal at SaltySailors.com is to provide entertaining & valuable information to those who are out cruising or hope to cruise in the future.  With your help, we will continue to grow. 

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Contributing Authors

Find out about our contributors. We have been blessed with sailors from around that world that are willing to share in their glories and upsets.  Read their bios and please consider becoming one too.

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We are always excited to get article submissions from fellow sailors.  You can write about anything in any of the areas we are working on and send it in.  Share a little of "Your Salty Sailor" with us.       

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