Panic (swimming) in Panama!

Hola! We arrived in Panama after a convoluted and interesting journey from Cartagena via the beautiful and (apparently – but not,) deserted islands of San Blas. Visiting the San Blas archipelago was definitely a change of pace from bustling Cartagena, and our first chance to enjoy the usual joys of anchoring. For the first time since returning to Almazul in November we could swim from the boat, to the beach, snorkel, explore the nearby islands on foot, and sit under the stars at night with no starving mosquitoes for company. Bliss!

When it came time to actually officially enter Panama, the check in process was a bit of a marathon; eventually reaching a successful conclusion after 4 visits to the small immigration office in Portobelo, several emails, and finally an intervention by the head of the immigration office which seemed to get things moving. I wonder if he became weary of our daily visits to his office? Whatever and however, we got in!

During our time in Portobello waiting to be officially allowed to move around in Panama, we befriended the immigration staff (obviously!) and a recently arrived Italian waiter, who seemed to know how things worked and helped us to get our phones going, get to the ATM, and tie our dinghy up safely and for free. Just asking a local a question has generally resulted in interesting conversations along with lots of useful information that no guide book can provide, and this was no exception.

But enough about us. MUCH MORE importantly, we have had VERY IMPORTANT and WELCOME guests on the boat! Cecilia and Marcus came to stay with us in Bocas del Toro in northwestern Panama, followed immediately by Bonnie, Lara, Hayley and baby Nate. Cecilia and Marcus were the last of the combined family yet to visit Almazul, and we very much enjoyed the company of all of our loved ones. We did many things we would not have done thanks to their energy and ideas, and we are missing the buzz of youth on the boat. We became pina colada officionados after conducting solid research in order to debate the merits of various establishments’ offerings, and certainly enjoyed the slightly more upbeat pace our young ones gently encouraged/forced upon us! 😂 We took turns making sundowners, played board games and tried unfamiliar food and drinks such as holjadre, Seco Herrerano, and acai bowls. I have never heard of an acai bowl but was very happy to make the acquaintance! The small leg up to ”get with the times” our visitors provided was both necessary and fun!

But it’s back to boat work and boat food now, in fact we have eaten chickpeas for four days straight, and not a pina colada in sight!

Downtown Portobelo

SOME NEW EXPERIENCES:

  • Having a baby onboard. We were looking forward to this, but with no baby on boat experience, we could not really anticipate the things that would be tricky. As it turned out, little Nate really was a dream. He quickly adapted to boat life, as did his Mum, Aunt, and extra Aunt. A boat is actually a great environment for near walkers, because there are lots of things to pull up on, and every grabable surface is solidly attached. (The movement added a level of difficulty however!) Grandma had to get over her discomfort with him in deep water, and with the reassurance of his Mum and Aunties, it did not take too long. In fact bobbing around in the water in his shaded water toy was a very relaxing inducement to sleep on several occasions. Then what to do? We usually managed to transport him to land whilst sleeping, but putting him in the shade whilst out of range of falling coconuts required careful consideration.
  • Almost pitchpoling in the dinghy. We were attempting to beach the dinghy at a beautiful white beach at Zapatilla, and whilst some waves were coming in, we were completely unprepared for a couple of whoppers that took us by surprise, almost upending the dinghy twice, with us in it! Some of us managed to get onto the beach between waves, but it was definitely a near miss, and we are lucky. Our plight may have looked hilarious, but for a moment there it was a bit scary, as I tried to get under the dinghy seat so as not to be impaled by a branch we were being flung towards by the rogue wave. Paradise huh!?

  • Taking the dinghy through a long narrow waterway through mangroves. The beautiful dappled green light loaned an eerie feeling to our expedition, and we spoke in hushed tones while we peered closely at the tangled roots and scanned the canopy for monkeys. Occasionally a small fast moving tour boat would pass us with its waving passengers and we clung to the mangrove roots to make room, bouncing in their wake as they receded from view.

  • Completing a rowing marathon of over a nautical mile INTO a fairly tough wind in the Linton Bay area. The marathon began calmly, but became more intense as we left the shelter of the mangroves and got the full force of the wind. However it turned out to be a good outlet for the Captain’s frustration at the dinghy motor failing YET AGAIN, and of course, a long way upwind of the boat. By the time we were back on Almazul, harmony was restored, and upper body workout sorted for the day. Tick tick.
  • Hiring bikes. The area near Bocas town is fairly flat, and the breeze in our hair while peddling along near the beach was most welcome. Our bikes were labelled with their names, and my personal fave was Perla. Hot pink with a comfy seat, she groaned gently on each revolution of the rear wheel, but got me from A to B and back without mishap. Although she did lose a screw once, (it can happen to the best of us!) resulting in a scraping mudguard that became our fault on return of the bike – and we were pretty dirty on the resulting $2 charge, but par for the course I guess.
  • Learning a bit about permaculture in Panama. We visited a Cacao farm that based its production on permaculture as developed by Tasmanian Bill Mollison. I felt deservedly ignorant not knowing that the founder of the permaculture movement was Australian, but not any longer.
  • Hanging our washing out ON A WASHING LINE! This is the first marina to have a washing line, and what a luxury this is. You can just hang your washing up, leave it there, come back and it’s dry, and moreover, exactly where you left it. Usually I hang it on the stays, boom, and safety lines on the boat, and while it’s a great way to get stuff dry, everything must be tied on securely with a line through or around each item, and rotated to let the knotted up corners dry. Effectively this means that babysitting and mollycoddling the laundry can take up most of the day. Before I understood this process, I lost more than a couple of faves overboard, never to be recovered. So the babysitting is worth it; but a WASHING LINE means freedom!
  • Picking fresh herbs in a marina. The very same marina that provides washing lines also has fresh herbs and tomatoes growing for guests to use. The woman who owns the marina is an ex cruiser, and understands the value of these small luxuries to people who live on boats. There is also a well equipped workshop, complete with a VICE! Thanks Mary.
  • Being papped on the boat! (Well Hayley anyway – see funniest!)
  • Seeing 400 + ships on our AIS!! 😳 As we passed the entrance to the Panama Canal there were hundreds of large ships anchored waiting to transit through to the Pacific Ocean. We were a mere speck compared to these big fellas! We also had the company of 3 dolphins playing alongside us for several hours as we motored through this area. They were not fussed about the ships.

HIGHLIGHTS:

BEST:

  • HAVING ALL THE KIDS ABOARD. NO QUESTION, FULL STOP. 😍 Hanging around, nice chats, anchoring, night swims with phosphorescent algae, dinner by moonlight, looking at the stars, SUPPING at sunset, dolphin watching, snorkeling, finding new beaches, trying daqs and margies and Pina coladas, walking in the jungle, looking for sloths… so many nice times together.
  • Seeing a sloth! Well I saw a shape in a tree, and had to be convinced by my young companions that it was a sloth, and I believed them, but would not be a reliable eye witness myself, even con glasses.
  • Finding a handy expat New Zealander who made a clever repair to a cracked muffler – saving us from a burgeoning leak becoming worse, at least until a new part arrives.

WORST:

  • Relentless mozzies and the notorious “no see ums.” It is hard to avoid them, and sometimes you don’t know you are being bitten until much later. Poor Cecilia had in excess of 100 bites on ONE leg in ONE evening early in her time here, and many more on subsequent days, all over. And observing the Aussies, they had a similar experience… as did I. We religiously applied repellent – but they are hardy little critters. We all had our turn of looking like we had measles (except Marcus) and the itching can take over a week to subside. Both our Swedish and Oz visitors are probably still occasionally scratching a bite, in a bitter sweet reminder of their time on Almazul!
  • HELL DAY. This term was coined by Cecilia, and really summed things up. Torrential tropical rain on the first day of a Caribbean beach holiday, topped off with hundreds of bites from mosquitos and no see ums. Added to that, we had to be inside to avoid the bugs and rain. All the hatches had to be closed because it was pouring – so there was NO respite from the humid heat. Wet towels and shoes just steamed things up even more. Definitely not ANYONE’S idea of a beach holiday in the Caribbean. We eventually got ourselves out of the marina and on our way… far away from land and the bugs…. and so eventually HELL DAY could end. The end came in Dolphin Bay when we saw our first dolphin, and from there everything looked brighter. The rain stopped, we had some breeze, and we had NO BUGS. The Caribbean beach holiday could begin, and we could all stop privately stressing about the forecast week of rain ahead.
  • PANIC SWIMMING! We have appropriated another term coined by Cecilia; the “panic swim.” This accurately describes the extreme urgency to have a swim when you are almost suffocating in the heat – and this happens fairly frequently here. The term also serves as a kind of emergency signal to others. If any one calls “panic swim” everyone else gets out of the way to allow the person quick access to the water, to avoid spontaneous collapse or combustion!. 😂 Thanks CC! 😂😘
  • THE. WORST. SUNBURN. EVER….. This happened despite regularly slathering on the 50+ sunscreen. Snorkeling seemed to bring it on, and a snorkeling session followed by a surf lesson meant that for Hayley and Bonnie, a few days were spent standing up when one would normally sit, and for Lara that she could not carry a back pack. The sting passed in time, followed by them shedding a little skin. Long sleeved shirts and long pants were wardrobe choices more often after that. We have our doubts about certain brands of sunscreen, but do not want to personally pursue further research, for obvious reasons.
  • The gas crisis. Murphy’s Law dictated that of course we became critically low on gas when expecting 6 guests on the boat, BEFORE we realised that getting a refill takes 2 WEEKS. However frugality paid off, and we got our refill the day before the last tank emptied. It is safe to say that Haute Cuisine was not on the menu for a few days.
  • The SUP bursting. This was unfortunate timing, as Cecilia and Marcus had just arrived, and had started to enjoy using the SUP and BOOM! It sounded like a gun had gone off nearby, but it was our poor well used SUP rupturing along a seam. We are investigating repairing it, and managed to rent one for a while while our Oz visitors were here.
  • NOT ONE edible FISH caught for the entire month that our kids were aboard, despite a concerted joint effort led enthusiastically by Marcus.
  • Saying goodbye to both sets of visitors. It’s not like we will see them next week.😥
  • The unexpected wave of nausea that came over me as I looked the pony tail in my hand, after snipping it off. Less hair to wash saves water, and the time had well and truly come, but the sick feeling I had immediately after the big snip took me completely by surprise.

FUNNIEST:

  • Being papped on the boat. When anchored in a pretty remote area that probably didn’t see a lot of boats, we were visited by a parade of local kids, families, and fishermen in small dugout canoes. Apart from stopping by our boat, many locals seemed to paddle long distances between various parts of the large bay we were in, making journeys of an hour or so to get to school, a shop, work etc. They moved silently, and so would surprise us when close by standing up – therefore presenting their faces quite close to where we were sitting. Some made a friendly but brief visit, some had crafts or fruit or fish to sell, and some stayed for a long chat. (chat is overstating it – our Spanish is not really up to “chatting” but we can have warm and rewarding interactions with gesture and the odd useful word.) When one such long “chat” appeared to have drawn to a close, I made an attempt to bring the visit to a conclusion by giving the two small boys some biscuits for their siblings, and a lolly each for themselves, expecting that would be a signal and they would be on their way. But no, they continued to sit in their dugout, just watching us and general goings on. I had to go downstairs to make dinner, and they just stayed put. This happened about four times with different groups of people. Whilst we wanted to be friendly, we eventually ran out of conversation, and just had to go about our business, closely observed from the water. One morning Hayley awoke to a pair of big brown eyes peering in her window, meaning the little boy’s face was about a foot from her own! Paparazzied in Panama, sin cameras!
  • Cecilia disappearing into what we thought was knee deep water after jumping off a water taxi at a small beach at Hospital Point. This happened when the Taxi driver instructed us to begin disembarkation, so Cecilia duly did so, and we watched on with momentary horror as her whole body AND cap disappeared from view underwater. When she popped up surprised but laughing all was well, and THEN it was funny….
  • “Swimming” (actually being dragged at speed, well 3 knots, felt like 10!) behind the boat, not having enough hands to hang onto the rope and two parts of bathers at the same time. We had put a rope and a fender out for recreational purposes while we motored to the next anchor spot. Hayley was in the water, and she looked like she was having fun, so I joined her. As it turns out, she was working quite hard to get the odd breath whilst undergoing a thorough irrigation of her nasal passages. Even so, she still managed to catch hold of me as I surfaced from jumping in, wizzing fast backwards past my planned handhold on the rope. We hung on for dear life, not quite being able to let the onlookers on the boat know to SLOW DOWN. Instead we heard the sounds of distant laughter, especially from the driver as we clung to the rope, each other, and our bathers. Hayley will not need her sinuses irrigated for quite some time, they had a truly thorough flushing that day.
  • Slip sliding our way down a VERY steep and greasy track to Wizard’s Beach. We had done this pretty walk with Cecilia and Marcus, and had found it a bit muddy in parts, with an occasional slippery bit. Marcus and Cecilia and Magnus’s skiing and skating prowess probably saved them from a few tumbles, but we certainly slid around a bit. The second time we tried it was with the 3 Oz amigas and baby Nate. It had rained heavily the night before, and we had been warned by other walkers that the path had become extremely slippery. So we chose an alternate track, in the hope of dodging the most slippery part – but actually it could not have been worse. It started with Lara going down on her bottom, then me, then it was all of us in turn, squealing, grabbing, splatting, sliding, knocking one another over; it was chaos! Poor Nate was with Bon in a front pack, and although Bon only went down gently once, he cried pretty hard for the duration of our slip sliding squealing descent. We tried to keep the squeals to a minimum for his sake, but it was impossibly funny!
  • Being mobbed by local kids and adults alike whilst carrying baby Nate. Many people really wanted to touch him, especially his face and hair, but I had to draw the line at a young boy sticking his fingers into Nate’s mouth! And also when a young girl wanted to touch his face. I indicated no, because he was sleeping, but of course she then told me that he was actually awake now, (as a result of a quick cheek pinch she managed during our gestured exchange!) Aaarrgghh!! Naughty girl!
  • Nate being kidnapped/adopted by a neighboring Panamanian family at Starfish Beach. One day when the girls were ashore with Nate they found themselves sitting next to a large extended gregarious Panamanian family. It seems that in Panama extended families are the norm, unlike Australia and Sweden. There were at least four generations happily picnicking, swimming etc. We think it was Grandpa that was the most outgoing, and he came and swept Nate up on many occasions, chattering to us, and plonked him next to his grand daughter who was about the same age. The two little ones were truly Yin and Yang; she was dark skinned, dark haired and slight, against Nate’s robustness, fair skin and hair… They observed each other closely, and then went about their business. The little girl was walking, and Nate almost followed suit. On many other occasions the family came and picked him up and carried him around, and he was completely unfazed. Once the family plucked him up and plonked him onto a big water toy that is usually towed by a speed boat, with screaming passengers whirling around getting dizzy and being sick. Thankfully it was not attached to the speedboat at the time. He was a little nonplussed, but not distinctly unhappy. His extra Auntie Hayley followed in close pursuit, to make sure he was safe and entirely happy about the situation.

FOOD AND BEVVY HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The PINA COLADA theme that permeated our time in Bocas, as it does for many I imagine. $3 a pop.
  • Lobsters; sold to us on the boat from a man in a small dugout canoe. Ha had the bottom of the canoe filled with wriggling, crawling lobsters, and offered them to us for $20. We agreed on this, and the man prepared them for us by separating the tails and giving them to us. There were 16 in total, and Magnus halved them and baked them with garlic and butter. THE BEST.
  • Big sweet coconutty fruity condensed milk biscuits from a stall in Portobelo. They were the size of a large hamburger. Super sweet, they would certainly satisfy any sweet craving. We tried both strawberry and pineapple, and concluded that they were both good, and also that a little bit went a long way.
  • Baguette like breadstick in Portobelo- not so common in Central America?
  • Cococnut bread – ubiquitous and pleasant.
  • Queso and pollo pasty eaten at Fort Ferdinand, Portobello, overlooking a glassy green bay, where Almazul was anchored below us. The pastry was good, and only enhanced by the setting in which it was ingested.
  • Vegan lunch at Cacao Farm – see pics. The farm was run by an Argentinian surfer and his Scottish wife. They gave us an informative tour followed by a delightful vegan lunch, sourced entirely from the property. We enjoyed lemon grass and ? soup; yuca fries; plantain and something tasty and green?, paw paw, cacao and mint; and raw cacao brownie, amongst several other surprising and incredibly flavorsome courses that I wish I had written down at the time!
  • Tamales still warm from a marina employee’s kitchen. These were corn/maize meal with chicken and spices wrapped in banana leaves. Filling and delicious.
  • Acai bowl – this is probably not news to you, but it was to me.
  • Taco bowl – ditto.
  • Boat made ice cream smorgasbord. Courtesy of some Alaskan fishermen boat neighbors, we had a selection of 7 flavours to choose from. I tried salted peanut butter; delicious, and a meal in itself.
  • Seco Herrerano – a sugarcane based spirit, strong stuff, but mildly flavoured.
  • Beer cocktail – I personally do not recommend, but possibly because it was completely unexpected, combined with the fact that I am at best, a very occasional beer drinker. Tequila, beer, and a salty chillied glass rim. Generally speaking I love to buy things to see what they are, but this one was a pass for me. Magnus didn’t mind it, so it was not wasted. Note to self, when the waiter asks if you would like Corona or Panama beer when ordering a cocktail – buyer beware! 😂

BOATWORK:

  • Replacing the lost genoa furler top, and fashioning a cap to replace the lost one, which resulted in the loss of the furler top in the first place. This required MANY trips up the mast over several days, and unfortunately for me, they ALL had to be undertaken by the Captain. I thought I should see a marked improvement in the bicep area, but sadly not.
  • Leaking muffler repair, thanks to Magnus’ persistence, and in the end, to Kiwi Dave.
  • Sewing repairs to sprayhood and bimini top.
  • Gas ring fixed – not by the expensive part hand delivered from Sweden, but rather by simply pulling the knob off, pushing the underlying pin in, and replacing the knob. Job done.
  • Bin lid rejigged to resume opening function.
  • Mozzie nets quadrupled in thickness to try to beat the no see ums. Results promising so far, but TBC.
  • Fixed leak in astern water tank.
  • Replaced failing anchor light with a tricolour lamp, so we have a working anchor light, and the option of navigation lights at the top of the mast.
  • Hammock purchased! Users so far 100% happy.
  • Attempted dinghy repair.

6 thoughts on “Panic (swimming) in Panama!”

  1. Acai bowls, Beccie have been around for 20 plus years in australia…your hair looks great, short…

    1. Oh! Thx Joan. I don’t get out much!! I’m glad I have finally caught on. 🙂
      And thx re hair – had to go 🙁

  2. Sounds like you are having a wonderful life experience Bec
    Stay safe and enjoy
    Yvonne

    1. Thx Yvonne yes, visiting some incredible places. Hope all is well with you snd yours. xxx

  3. Nice to follow you guys!
    Was the never-leaving-visitors possibly in Bluefield Lagoon?

    Did you stop by Escudo de Veraguas outside Bocas? We had to leave there because of a BIG swell that made anchoring impossible. Really one of the places I’d like to go back to if I got the opportunity. Suppose to be good fishing there. The few minutes I tried I lost a big one, just trolling from the dingy close to shore.

    Take care

    1. Yes Bluefield, i guess you had the same experience. We are planning to do a stopover in Escudo de Veraguas on the way back to Colon. Fishing in Panama has been pretty disappointing so far. Hope that will change soon. Great to hear you are enjoying the blog.
      Take care! Magnus

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