Panama City – Gateway to the Caribbean

They say time flies when you’re having fun. Well, we must be having too much fun because it’s been a blur since we left Costa Rica.

Our Costa Rica to Panama City adventure started with a boisterous 80-mile sail from Golfito to Isla Parida, our first stop in Panama, where we rested for the night before heading further southeast to the beautiful Islas Secas. This small group of islands had sandy beaches; crystal clear water, which we hadn’t seen for a while; and no restaurants, internet or cell connections. It was an idyllic place to hang out for a few days and, in hindsight, we should have stayed longer. But, we had peeps from Canada flying into Panama City, and had promised our sailing friends on Manaia that we would be linehandlers for their canal transit so we raised the anchors and kept moving.

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The next stop was Bahia Honda, one of the most protected bays in the country and, from a cultural perspective, one of the most unique experiences we had on this trip. Nothing earth-shattering, just that it’s so remote the locals are accustomed to trading with sailors for goods and supplies, and the fact that they are not shy about it. I mean we barely had our anchor down before local boats came over to see if we had anything they needed – ranging from clothes to batteries to chocolate and school supplies for the kids. One guy even wanted the top that Audrey was wearing (not sure it if was for his wife or the thrill…). Needless to say, we weren’t quite prepared for this but we took it in stride and after a few days in which we gave away everything we could, we left Bahia Honda feeling like we helped someone and needed to go shopping.

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The next few stops – Isla de Cebaco, Bahia Naranja and Ensenada Benao – were short hops where we didn’t stay long but we did have a few adventures. First, Audrey caught a big Spanish Mackerel that was enough for fishcakes, fillets and sharing with fellow boaters. Second, we got stuck in Isla de Cabaco for a few extra days due to gale force winds in the Gulf of Panama.

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Third, we met new friends, CB and Tawn, from the sailboat Pallarin in Ensenada Benao and when we invited them for drinks later that day Tawn showed up with 19 stiches on her head from a surfing accident. I don’t know about you but if I’d been hit in the head with a surfboard and got that many stitches, I’d be in my bunk hugging the pillow. Tawn is one tough sailing and surfer chick.

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Finally, we got boarded by the Panamanian Coast Guard in Isla de Cebaco when we weren’t even on the boat! Turns out they were doing a routine check but we were walking on the island at the time and, from shore, it looked like thieves were on our boat because theirs was jet black and they were there for so long. We eventually got back and they cleared up the mystery but I thought Audrey was going to have a heart attack for a while. They were very professional and super nice considering we hadn’t officially checked into the country yet. They just instructed us to check-in at an official port of entry asap and said to enjoy their country.

For those of you who have been following our adventures, we’ve talked about Gap Winds, which are very strong winds caused by their funneling from the Caribbean through mountains on the relatively narrow Isthmus to the Pacific. They occur in three areas along the coast – the Gulf of Tehuantepec in Mexico, the Papagayos from Guatamala to Costa Rica, and the Gulf of Panama. Well, we’d already done two of the three and it was time for our final push into the Gulf of Panama.

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We left Ensenada Benao at 7:00 am with fair winds for sailing past infamous Punta Mala (Bad Point?) then another 70+ miles to the Las Perlas Island. It was a perfect morning and the boat was doing 7-8 knots which meant we should get there before nightfall. But, they don’t call it Punta Mala for no reason and the Gulf of Panama isn’t one of the Gaps by accident and soon enough we went from good wind to no wind to battling strong currents and strong winds on the nose slowing the boat to 3-4 knots. In short, it went from a perfect morning to arriving at our anchorage on San Jose Island just after midnight. But, from what we’ve read and heard from other boaters, it could have been a lot worse (our friends on Pallarin arrived the next morning at 9:30 am) so we celebrated with a shot of Mexican Tequila then hit the sack in preparation for our final push to Panama City.

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The next day we motor-sailed in very strong winds 30 miles to Isla Contadora, a popular vacation destination in the Las Perlas islands, where stayed for one night (and would return), then had an awesome sail to Panama City – one of our major milestones as it’s the entrance to the Panama Canal and, of course, the gateway to our ultimate destination, the Caribbean just 50 miles away.

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It was a major accomplishment. We’d spent a year lollygagging in Mexico then hauled ass past Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua before a relatively short stop in Costa Rica and finally made it to Panama City. But, as my old bosses at GM used to say we had to “Celebrate on the Run” because our friends Sharon and Graeme from Toronto were arriving in less than a week and staying for two weeks, and we had to check into the country (which took 2 days and is a long story), clean the boat, do laundry, re-provision, do some repairs, get a phone and internet, as well as a million other little things before they got here.

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We won’t bore you with details but we got it done, they arrived a few hours late, and we all enjoyed an awesome vacation (yes, we get vacations when friends come on vacation). First of all, Sharon, Graeme and Audrey spent 2 days going through the Panama Canal as linehandlers on Manaia (while I did boat projects). Then we spent a week in the beautiful Las Perlas Islands where our experiences ranged from an awesome sail to Isla Contadora to a swimming rescue in a Kayak to nearly grounding Celebration due to the extreme tides (20+ feet). Finally, we returned to Panama City where we spoiled ourselves in a marina and enjoyed some spectacular sightseeing and great meals in a charming, wonderful city.

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