Geography Report: Guatemala

Editor’s Note: After nine months in Guatemala, Take Two is preparing to head north toward Mexico–likely Sam’s last geography report–as we complete our three-year, 5000+ nautical mile circle of the Caribbean this spring.

Basic Facts

Capital: Guatemala City

People/Customs: Guatemala has a population of more than 16.5 million, (as of 2016), made up of many different people groups about 41% Ladino (mestizo), 11% K’iche, 8.3% Q’eqchi, 7.8% Kaqchike and a mixture of other Mayan and indigenous groups. Guatemala’s religious makeup is mostly Evangelical Christian and Roman Catholic, but there is also a Jewish population, as well as small groups of Muslims and Buddhists.

Language: the official Language is Spanish, but several Mayan dialects are also spoken (Q’eqchi for example). English is taught in schools, but not commonly spoken.

Climate: Guatemala is bordered by two oceans (the Pacific and the Atlantic) making it susceptible to hurricanes, volcanos and floods. Temperatures range from near-freezing at the highest altitudes, to a humid 90° on the Caribbean coast. Guatemala has a dry season and a wet season (rain depends on altitude and region) and is in the hurricane zone, though Rio Dulce, which runs inland, is considered safe from hurricanes.

Food/Farming: typical Guatemalan food consists of rice and black beans, some sort of meat (chicken, pork, beef, or fish), salad or cooked vegetables, fried plantains, and corn tortillas. The volcanic soil of Guatemalan highlands helps with the growing of tropical fruits (bananas, mangoes, pineapples, papayas, melons, etc.) and vegetables (lettuce, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, and beans). Cattle, pigs, and chickens are raised for meat, and freshwater lakes provide fish. Guatemalan coffee of the mountain regions is exported all over the world.

Government: Guatemala is a constitutional democratic republic with a president.

Currency: the Quetzal (1 dollar= about 7.5 Quetzals)

Art/Music/Culture: the music in Guatemala was influenced by the Spanish settlers, the African slaves, and the Mayan natives. Some of the main musical types are nueva cancion, salsa and punta. Mayan musical instruments included drums, horns, and flutes, and a wooden xylophone called a marimba is still popular today. Carvings from wood, stone, and jade are common, and the markets in the mountain regions which sell colorfully-dyed and woven cloth are famous.

History

As in Belize, the Mayan civilization plays a large part in Guatemala’s history. The Mayans were in Guatemala thousands of years before the Spanish conquered their land. It was an advanced civilization with a written language and a complex religion consisting of many different gods and spirits. The Mayans were expert builders and possessed advanced knowledge of mathematics and astronomy. They also believed in an afterlife where humans who were sacrificed continued the battle of good and evil. When the Spanish came to Guatemala in 1519, they tried to convert the Mayans to Christianity, but only succeeded in a limited way. As the Spanish settled in Guatemala, the Mayans were either killed, enslaved, or forced to flee to remote places. Many fought back, and many died of diseases brought from Europe. Since no gold or silver was found in Guatemala, the land and its people—as slave laborers—were exploited for tobacco, chicle, cacao, cotton, indigo, and cattle. Somehow, despite Spain’s three centuries of brutal rule, and continuing conflict with the Guatemalan government, their culture has survived until the present day.

The first capital, Villa de Santiago de Caballeros was founded in 1527 (present-day Antigua). After flooding and earthquakes destroyed it in 1773, it was moved to its present location (Guatemala City). During the colonial period, power was concentrated with Spanish landholders and the Catholic church, and the subjugation and persecution of the Mayan peoples that began in this period continued into this century.

In 1821, several Central American regions, including Guatemala, claimed their independence from Spain and formed a loose federation of states. In 1838, the Honduran and Guatemalan leaders of a liberal party invaded Guatemala, took over the government, and executed the head of state, beginning more than a century of violence and political strife as liberal and conservative factions fought for government control.  After warring with neighbor states, Guatemala declared its independence as a nation in 1847, though border disputes persisted into this century.

Coffee was brought to Guatemala by Jesuit missionaries in the mid-1700’s as a decorative plant but was not grown as an agricultural product until the mid-1800’s when the natural dye companies went out of business due to the invention of synthetic dyes. There are eight distinct coffee growing regions in Guatemala today and its coffee is exported all over the world.

In 1904, the United Fruit Company entered the scene, and eventually bought about 40 percent of Guatemala’s land, cultivating 14,000 acres of land with bananas and other tropical fruit, and building railways, roads, ports, and a fleet of ships. The United Fruit Company had a hand in many other business and political ventures. (The fruit companies still have a lot of economic and political power.)

Jorge Ubico was a general in the Guatemalan army who was elected president in 1931 (in an election with no other candidates) during the Great Depression after José María Reina Andrade, Manuel María Orellana, Baudilio Palma, and Lazaro Chacón had all been deposed for separate reasons in the previous 2 years. Ubico was known by his efficiency and cruelty; he reinforced the police and military greatly and instated forced and slave labor. He was forced to resign 1944 after a series of violent uprisings.

A new constitution was made which allowed all adults the right to vote and limited presidents to serving one term in office. Ubico’s successor lasted only one year. In 1945, Juan José Arévalo was elected and served a six-year term, survived 25 coup attempts, and established a social security system and health reforms. After Arévalo, a military leader, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán was elected and made socialist reforms. Because he was friendly to the communist party and passed agrarian reforms which redistributed land to Mayan peasants, he lost the support of the United Fruit Company and incited the United States to get involved. Guzmán stepped down in 1953 before the CIA could mount an attack to depose him, and what followed was thirty years of economic and political troubles during which the constitution was revoked and the Mayans lost land holdings and civil rights. President Armas, supported by the United States, was shot by his own body guard in 1957.

After much turmoil, General Fuentes took power, but was later overthrown when the U.S., fearing a communist revolution, backed a military coup and a new leader. The next several years saw constant change and conflict—with the military in charge of the government and guerrilla fighters representing the people involved in a bitter, decades-long civil war.

Initially, the two sides were the FAR (Rebel Armed Forces) and PGT (Guatemalan Labor Party) against the MLN (National Liberation Movement), a right-wing organization aligned with the military and blamed for using political assassinations and death squads to silence opposition. Later, as the violence escalated, URNG (Guatemalan National Revolution Unity) and the EGP (the Guatemalan Army of the Poor), whose motto was “Long live the poor, death to the rich,” opposed the ESA (Secret Anti-Communist Army), FNO (National Opposition Front) and the government-sponsored PACs (Civilian Self-Defense Patrols). People were forced to either serve the government or join the guerrillas.

Horror stories and human rights abuses were common during the war. In one case, villagers who came to a town meeting to resolve a land dispute (over a parcel near fruit shipping lanes owned by the president) were met by soldiers who shot over a hundred men, women, and children and buried them in mass graves that the army had dug the day before.

The elections of 1990 were the first peaceful transfer of a civilian democratic government, and peace accords were signed in 1996. The thirty-plus year civil war cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives and land and created over a million refugees. Tens of thousands went “missing” (like school children abducted to serve in the army) and their whereabouts were never discovered. Some of those responsible (like Rios Montt, president in the early 80’s) were later charged for what amounted to genocide and “crimes against humanity.” Political turmoil, government corruption, and economic inequality are still common in Guatemala, where there is a huge gap between rich and poor, and the military protects the government instead of the people. Peace is tenuous, and there is always the threat of impending conflict. Despite that fact, Guatemala is a beautiful country with fruitful land, kind and friendly people, and a rich pre-Colombian history.

Land forms/Flora and Fauna Guatemala is made up of volcanic mountains, cloud forests, rain forests, coastal plains, wetlands, and mangrove islands. On land you can find many different kinds of wild cat (like jaguars, panthers and mountain lions), tapirs, monkeys, coati, iguanas, snakes (including the infamous fer-de-lance), as well as domesticated animals like cows, horses, goats, pigs and chickens. In the air you can find many different species of macaw and parrot, toucans, oropendolas, hummingbirds, hawks, and vultures, as well as seabirds like pelicans, cormorants, sea gulls, and frigate birds. And In the water you can find several spices of freshwater fish like snook and white-fish, and on the coast, reef fish and sharks. There are pine forests, tropical forests, palm trees (like coconut palms), fruit trees like mango and papaya, ferns, air plants and hundreds of species of orchid.

Things to do: Go zip-lining, kayaking, wake-boarding, hiking, swimming in water-falls and hot-springs near Rio Dulce and Lake Isabal, climb a volcano, visit coffee plantations, or find jade and fabrics in the markets of Antigua, visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal or Yax’ha in the Peten region, or visit the villages along the shores of Lake Atitlan.

Bibliography

“Guatemala.” Wikipedia. January 2019.

“BBC News Timeline: Guatemala.” News.BBC.co.uk. January 2019.

Pavlidis, Stephen J. Cruising Guide to the Northwest Caribbean. “Republica de Guatemala.” 2014. Seaworthy Piublications, Cocoa Beach, FL.

Digging In

We’ve noticed a pattern when we travel to a new place: for the first couple of months, we feel like strangers, after three months things begin to feel familiar, after six we’ve made friends with locals, and after nine we feel at home. Beyond that, it gets hard to leave and the place keeps a little piece of our hearts. Places are like onions—you have to peel back the layers. And a lot of the places we visit have a skin of tourism that puts us off initially, but once peeled away, reveals something fresh and interesting.

Little by little, we have begun to dig beneath the surface here in Guatemala, both literally and figuratively. Through a friend in the Keys who is starting an orphanage on Lake Izabal for abandoned and abused children, we met the Guatemalan guy who will be the house father, who also works for an organization that runs a high school for indigenous villagers with an itinerant teacher, and who helps organize a week-long kids’ camp in January before school starts (the equivalent of a Vacaction Bible School in the U.S.).

After visiting the orphanage in October, I knew there was something special happening there, and that I wanted to be a part of it. Our boys began to go on weekends to do work at the property— building a privacy fence, digging a pit at the edge of the lake that will eventually be a slip for the orphanage’s lancha, moving rocks, and doing anything else boys with lots of energy can do.

Boys digging (Zuber visiting from Maine!)

By the first week of of January (the last week before school starts here), we were excited to help with the Campamento Rio Dulce. If you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church in the United States, you may not know what a Vacation Bible School is: it is a week of camp, organized by a local church, geared toward introducing kids to the Bible in a fun and engaging way. Kids do arts and crafts, play sports and games, sing songs, and learn Bible stories. In Rio Dulce, the camp was started five years ago by a missions team from a church in Texas that wanted to give the local churches an opportunity to reach out to the children in the indigenous villages along the river. These villages originated as Mayan refugee camps during the civil war, and the people are survivors of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Some of the kids who come to camp from the 17 villages represented speak only Q’eqchi’. The local churches have taken responsibility for the camp (still funded by an organization in the U.S.) and it is an impressive community effort.

On the way home from camp

On the boat to camp

We rode a large lancha every morning full of screaming and singing children, teenage camp counselors, and volunteers to a remote place on the river, up a mangrove creek through the jungle to the campsite. The fast lancha with the cocineras, the cooks, got a head start so the ladies could light the fires and begin cooking lunch for more than 300 people.

The cocineras

This is not a peanut-butter-and-jelly operation. These are ladies who volunteer to chop vegetables, make tortillas, and cook rice, beans, and chicken soup in enormous pots over open fires in a thatch-covered hut, then hand-wash the 300 plates and cups outdoors—every day for a week.

Lunch Production

Lunch Aftermath

Joining me, Eli, and Aaron were three teenage friends from other boats—two girls from Israel and a boy from South Africa. I was helping with arts and crafts, up to my ears in scissors, crayons, glue, and googly eyes. After standing around much of the first day trying to figure out what they could do, the teenagers ended up helping Josue with sports and games. Our kids’ time in Homeschool P.E. in Marathon came in handy, as they knew lots of big-group games. The language barrier was the biggest obstacle, but once that was overcome (with the help of a kind translator who speaks flawless Spanish with a North Carolina accent), there was no stopping them.

Corn-Sack Races

I loved helping with arts and crafts and felt at home in a roomful of little people jabbering in Spanish, as it reminded me of my teaching days in Atlanta, where I taught Kindergarten in a school that was 80% Spanish-speaking immigrants. Even the groups with big kids, who didn’t need help with the crafts, were a joy—they were practicing their limited English with me, and I was attempting to learn to count to 10 in Q’eqchi’.

Arts and Crafts

Some of my favorite memories from the week of camp come from the assembly time at the beginning and end of the day. Aaron brought his electric guitar and wowed the kids with his rock riffs, and I filled dead time (while he set up) teaching a song I knew in both English and Spanish. I met a guy from Rio Frio named Franklin, and he helped me learn the word for “Hallelujah” in Q’eqchi’. On the last day of camp, we sang a two-part song, one part in English, the other in Q’eqchi’. To me, it was a beautiful illustration of how bridging language gaps draws people together and helps us find common ground.

Aaron playing at camp

After a week of camp, I had made friends with a group of young people (the camp counselors), all of whom were interested in learning English. I decided to start a free weekly English class and the pastor of the local church offered us a space. If it goes well, I hope the class will be the first plank in a language bridge between the locals and the English-speaking cruisers who live here for part of the year. As of this posting, I’ve had two great classes, and had other cruisers ask how they can get involved.

Volunteers and Counselors, Last Day of Camp

Photo: The crew of Take Two with camp counselors, Deon from s/v Dreamcatcher (far left), the crew of s/v Rothim (Hagit in the middle with Naomi and Adi to her right, Zoe next to Rachel), and our friends from Maine, Owen and Zuber (back row next to Aaron and far right).

One of my students, a guy we met at camp, plays guitar and drums and made friends with Aaron. They have gotten together already to practice music. Eli went along too and it makes me happy to see our kids using their Spanish to reach out to locals.

As we’ve peeled back the layers, I have begun to view my surroundings with different eyes. What first appeared as only a loud, dirty, and crowded town, Fronteras has become a place where I see familiar faces, occasionally hear my name called, and feel at home browsing in the produce stalls, waiting in line for fresh tortillas, or chatting in Spanish at the Dispensa Familiar. By the end of April, when our visas expire, we will have been here for more than six months. When we move on and approach the completion of our circle of the Caribbean Sea, Rio Dulce will be out of sight, but not out of mind. It is a place we know now, and love, and to which we may return for a future hurricane season.

Mayan Ruins in Guatemala

We had been back in Guatemala for a few weeks after our trip to the United States when we decided the Mayan ruins nearby sounded like an interesting and educational way to pass some time while our boat was hauled out. The house on the Rio we had rented was reserved by another group for three days in the middle of our stay, so we had to find somewhere to go. Why not Tikal? And that is how I found myself climbing into another bus privado with only my backpack and a good book. For a sailing blog, I spend an awful lot of time writing about being on a bus.

We drove for several hours, at last alighting in the town of El Remate. We had rented another Airbnb house, a well-appointed affair that was part of a nearby hotel. We got our tours to Yaxhá (another ruin in the Petén region) and Tikal lined up for the next two days and were just sitting down to a relaxing lunch at the hotel restaurant when disaster struck. Dad had asked a friend to go check on his batteries while we were gone, and he discovered a serious problem. This was very bad news. Dad had to return to the Rio early the next day to work on the battery bank. The good news was that the rest of us would stay to see the ruins.

Our tour to Yaxhá was slated for the afternoon and evening. We filled the intervening time by reading about Mayan history, playing video games, and eating at a nearby restaurant. Then it was time to go. Our driver and tour guide were waiting for us at the hotel reception desk, along with a turismo van. Our guide’s name was Nathaniel, a young guy who used to play soccer (futbol) on the national team. He and Mom talked continuously during the hour-long ride to Yaxhá. The road ran through the Guatemalan countryside: fields, dwellings, roadside produce stands, cow pastures, and jungle.

The city of Yaxhá is located at the end of a loooong dirt road stretching through the hilly wilderness. At the end of the road is a pyramid. It is one of the smaller ones, only about fifty feet high. The stone was weathered, and plants were growing on its stepped sides. That looked like all there was; there was no ruined city in evidence, only thick, hilly jungle. Thick, exceptionally steep hilly, jungle. Wait a minute. Nathaniel informed us that the suspiciously steep hills were the ruins. But they were covered with trees! Our guide explained that the pyramids and temples were extremely overgrown, but there was definitely a city buried under the forest. Over 500 structures’ worth. Excavation and restoration had begun in the 1950s and was still underway. Nathaniel showed us around.

Mayan Pyramid, unexcavated

The path wound through the invisible city, skirting the buried pyramids. Howler and spider monkeys swung in the trees above. It seemed like a typical rainforest hike. Then we would come around a corner, and a cluster of stone buildings would emerge. Nathanial told us they were palaces. The ruins looked like sets from an Indiana Jones movie. The city was built near a large lake that provided transportation to the other nearby cities. There was even a temple on an island in the lake.

The Mayan empire once stretched from the Yucatán peninsula in southern Mexico to northern Honduras and El Salvador, completely encompassing Guatemala. Which is why Guatemala is home to some of the most spectacular Mayan ruins in the world (in addition to quite a large population of Mayans, who are still around despite efforts by the Spanish conquistadors to obliterate them).

Ruins at Yaxha, Guatemala

Some of the buildings we were looking at dated from as early as 600 B.C., the middle of the Mayan Pre-classic period, though structures were often built in layers, pyramids becoming larger with each successive renovation. The Mayan civilization lasted from around 2000 B.C. to well into the sixteenth century, and thrived from around 750 B.C to 900 A.D. Not long after, the civilization went into decline, and collapsed in the following centuries for reasons unknown. The last vestiges of any organized civilization were systematically destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors after their arrival in the 1500s, however, there remains to this day a large number of people of Mayan descent that inhabit Guatemala, Mexico and Belize, and still carry on many of the traditions.

During their multi-millenial dominance of Mesoamerica, the Mayans developed an advanced system of writing, mathematics, and astronomy, in some areas predating and surpassing all other early civilizations. Their mathematical skill was far ahead of contemporary peoples, and their hieroglyphic writing was the most complex of any pre-Columbian civilization. Their polytheistic belief system had much in common with other Mesoamerican peoples, including complicated rituals, sacred basketball games, and human sacrifice. Despite efforts by Spanish settlers to convert the people to Catholicism and destroy the original traditions and practices, Mayans still come to worship and make offerings at sacred places. The ashes of their recent fires can be seen in front of many of the pyramids (like the altars in the main plaza at Tikal).

Mayan Ruins at Yaxha

We wandered around Yaxhá for several hours. Most of the structures were still buried, but we could see what once had been there. The sheer number of pyramids was surprising. You would expect that constructing something so large would be an expensive, laborious, and time-consuming endeavor, but there seemed to have been no shortage of cheap labor in the ancient city, because the ponderous edifices were liberally planted throughout the area. Basically, every hill was made of cut stone blocks under all the dirt and trees. I still have trouble believing it. Many of the excavated structures had wooden stairs running up the side, put in place by the national park system so that people could ascend to the tops, and a brisk climb afforded wonderful views of the surrounding jungle, punctuated with the tops of other pyramids.

The (literal) high point of the tour was when we climbed up a temple that towered 100 feet above the city. It was late evening by then, and the sun was hidden behind a thick layer of clouds. We were joined by several other tour groups, all eagerly awaiting the imminent sunset. It was, after all, a sunset tour. We were not disappointed. The sun sank through the grey clouds, and for a few moments illuminated the jungle, sky, and stone with its ruddy brilliance. Then it slipped behind the mountains, leaving only the lava-colored clouds above to mark its passage.

Sunset, Yaxha, Guatemala

We walked back to the bus in the dusky shade of the forest canopy, listening to the eerie roars of the howler monkeys in the distance. So that was Yaxhá. The Mayan ruins were cool. They were remarkably well-preserved; except for the fact that they were often still half-way inside of a hill. It was hard to believe that they were the oldest man-made things I’ve ever seen.

Tikal, which we toured early the next day, was basically more of the same, only on a grander scale. We were pretty tired from the evening hike the day before, and I had a very pleasant sleep… only to be rudely awakened at the ungodly hour of 5:30 to get ready to go to. The van had arrived by the time we were all packed up and semi-conscious. It was the same van, in fact, and our guide was Nathaniel again. I confess to sleeping on the ride to Tikal, an incredibly difficult feat considering the bumpiness of the road. Tikal is a much larger and more well-known city, much more frequented by tourists. As such, there is more tourist-related infrastructure, like a large parking lot, museum, bathrooms, and trinket-vendors. Fortunately, this was only around the visitor center. Once we started walking into the jungle, all of that disappeared.

Visitor's Center, Tikal

Once the most powerful city in the Petén basin, Tikal was abandoned in the 10th century. At its height in the Late Classic period, the city was home to possibly millions of people, and its suburbs, satellite cities, and fortifications extend miles and miles into the jungle. Only a tiny fraction of Tikal’s hundreds of buildings have been excavated, but even that is impressive. The vast majority of the city is still immersed in the forest. Recent technological advances have allowed archaeologists to discover that the Mayan infrastructure and population in the Petén region was much more extensive than previously thought. Using LIDAR technology (Light Detection And Ranging, basically like radar with lasers), archaeologists have been able to analyze the earth’s surface beneath tree cover, virtually peeling away the jungle to see what lies underneath. Recent LIDAR surveys of the area have revealed thousands of buildings, roadways, pyramids, and terraces, indicating that many of the scattered ruins were actually part of a vast urban sprawl that covered the Guatemalan lowlands.

This is not evident at ground-level. The excavated sites are isolated from each other by the ever-present Guatemalan jungle. Nathaniel led us on a hike to the first cluster of buildings. The buildings in Tikal fall into three basic categories: there are the palaces, which are stone apartment blocks with fantastically tiny recesses for sleeping, and then there are the giant pyramids, with either a temple or platform for making astronomical observations on top, and there are the other buildings serving various, sometimes-undiscernible purposes.

Where the Mayan Sleeps Tonight, Tikal

The most impressive area was the Grand Plaza, the beautifully-restored heart of the city. It was a vast green courtyard with two towering temples facing each other, bordered by the North and Central Acropolis. The entire area was well-maintained and accessible. The two pyramids were unsafe to climb on, but the rest of the nearby ruins were free game. We ran around and explored the two acropolises. I was disappointed to find graffiti etched into the stone walls inside many of the palaces.

Main Plaza, Temple and Palace, Tikal

Nathaniel showed us something cool: when you stand in the center of the plaza and clap your hands, the echo from the pyramid stairsteps sounds exactly like the call of the Quetzal. The Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, was considered to be sacred in many indigenous traditions, and the pyramid stairs were constructed intentionally to make that noise. Now how did they figure out how to do that?

Moving on, we saw several more complexes and climbed several more pyramids. It was like a repeat of the day before. Jungle trails. Giant stone buildings emerging from a hillside. Heck, we even recognized a number of tour groups we saw at Yaxhá. Also like at Yaxhá, our tour ended with a pyramid climb and a nice view. This final pyramid, Templo IV, was a little different, though. It is the tallest pyramid in all of Mesoamerica. We made the long climb up a wooden staircase to the top. The vista of the treetops and surrounding city was astounding, but also familiar: it was where George Lucas filmed the scene from Star Wars: Episode IV,  when the Millennium Falcon flies in for a landing on Yavin 4. We spent some time up there, took some pictures, and climbed down. We stopped for a typical Guatemalan lunch (chicken, rice, beans, and tortillas) and went home soon after.

Mayan Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala

Our trip to the Mayan ruins was very interesting, and probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Other people told us that the ruins in Mexico and elsewhere in Guatemala were inferior to Yaxhá  and Tikal, and that those two cities were the most impressive and pristine. Of the two, I think Yaxhá was my favorite, both because of its remoteness, and because of its natural beauty. I like the idea of there being an entire city lost under the creep of nature and time. But of course, being able to see it all, and to imagine what it was like when it was new is also pretty cool.

We returned to El Remate and spent the rest of the day at the house, playing games and eating pizza. We took the bus home the next morning. On the long drive back to the Rio, I wondered just how many of the hills by the side of the road concealed ancient temples, and how many of the people we passed were descended from their builders.

A Day in Rio Dulce

We have been back in Guatemala one month, but not back on Take Two! We returned to supervise the bottom job (a one-week process) and decided to do more work. We rented a beautiful house on the Rio Dulce and have been zooming back and forth each day to work on the boat, socialize, or provision in town. This is a snapshot of our daily routine for the month of November.

Take Two Blue

6:00 am.  Jay and Tanya up early for morning quiet time, coffee, and yoga in the rancho overlooking the water.

7:30 am. Breakfast prep, kids start getting up to do school, Jay goes to the boat to work on projects.

8:30 am. Breakfast, morning devotions, school work.

12:00 pm. Lunch, Jay returns in the dinghy to work from home for the afternoon. Finish school day after lunch.

2:00 pm. Tanya goes with Sam and Rachel to the marina to hang out with other boat families or to town to buy produce and get dinner supplies. Big kids finish school and practice music.

5:00 pm Tanya returns as the sun begins to set over the Rio. If there’s time, Jay and Tanya have a chat over sunset drinks in the rancho.

Sunset, Rio Dulce

6:00 pm. Dinner prep with one of the kids. Free time for everyone else.

8:00 pm. Story time for Rachel while big kids finish dishes/evening chores.

9:00 pm  Jay and Tanya head to bed to read until they pass out. Rachel and Sam to bed. Big kids watch a movie, send emails, or read until their bedtimes.

The boat is supposed to go back in the water at the end of the week, when we’ll begin the process of moving back home, cleaning the boat, and readjusting to the space. I’m hoping to get back to a daily ukulele practice and to find more down time to read or write. Jay is hoping to get the boat back in good condition. The kids are looking forward to sleeping in their own beds again. We’ll all begin thinking and talking about what comes next for Take Two, probably a trip north to Mexico.

 

Take Two Takes to the Road

What follows is a series of what we call “Tanya’s famous out-the-window pictures” from our road trip in August, September, and October. I would like to thank all the wonderful folks who hosted our family, made us feel loved, and made all that driving well worth the effort!

Leaving the Florida Keys

Leaving the Florida Keys, August 12

 

Alligator Alley

Across the Everglades, August 12

 

North Carolina in the Rain

North Carolina in the Rain, September 5

 

New York to New Jersey

New York to New Jersey, September 7

 

Acadia National Park

Acadia National Park, September 27

 

 

Road Trip Self Portrait

Self-Portrait, Maine, October 2

 

Fall Colors, New England

Fall Colors, Leaving Maine, October 2

 

South of the Border

South of the Border, October 3

 

Causeway, Saint Simon's Island

Causeway to St. Simon’s Island, October 3

 

Bridge, Savannah

Leaving Georgia, October 8

 

Sunset, Florida West Coast

Sunset, Florida West Coast, October 15

 

Family Road Trip in the Burb

Family Road Trip in the Burb.                                                                      Total Miles driven: 4,325

To Everything There is a Season

In the last nine weeks, I have held my day-old niece, celebrated my mother-in-law’s 70th birthday, laughed and cried with old friends, taken in some of our country’s most beautiful scenery at Acadia National Park, and seen the first colors of fall in the northern climes.  I have hugged everyone in my extended family, driven by my childhood home, and visited the storage unit which houses the time capsule of our youth—wedding albums, baby photos, homemade quilts—and begun the process of saying goodbye to our older kids’ childhoods and welcoming them to the complicated and exciting world of adulthood. The seasons are changing, both literally and figuratively, and I am thrown a bit off-balance: I’m feeling decidedly autumnal.

Fall Colors, Maine

Solomon said that God has “set eternity in the human heart” and I’ve been contemplating what that means. It means we always want more—more life, more time, more beauty—it is never enough. I am watching my parents age, my children grow into adults, my own hair turning gray. These things are little by little, but also sudden. I am the same age as Jay’s mom was the summer we fell in love. So soon, it seems, I will be in her shoes again—looking back at a life I have lived, surrounded by adult children and grandchildren. It goes so fast.

My newborn niece who I held just a month ago is now making eye contact and smiling and cooing when you talk to her. My older nephews, who I also held as newborns (just yesterday, it seems) drive cars and have girlfriends and go to the homecoming dance. How is that possible? I remember rolling my eyes at my grandparents when they started to talk this way. I guess that means I’m old. Does that mean I’m wise, too? All this waxing nostalgic points to one conclusion. In the words of the immortal Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” The lesson in every season is to enjoy it.

Joy in this fleeting world is tied inextricably to longing. Seeing the child from the baby photos become a man induces a kind of grief-delight. C.S. Lewis defines it as “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.” He says joy “must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”

This kind of enjoying your life, stopping to look around, can cause an almost unbearable contradiction—I miss my children as babies, I wish I could see my mom as she was when I was a child, I long for my highschool sweetheart (who happens to be in the room)—but I also love them right now as they are. He has set eternity in my heart and I want all of it to last forever.

The Spanish word for enjoy is disfruta, closely related to the word for “fruit.” I say, disfruta your life—pick it, eat it, let the juice drip down your chin.  Solomon agrees with me (so I must be wise); his conclusion in Ecclesiastes 3, since life is fleeting, is to “eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all [your] toil—this is the gift of God.”

Apple-picking

Chips Ahoy

As you may (or may not) have gathered, we are no longer in Guatemala. We flew to the United States more than a month ago and have slowly been making our rounds among people we have missed on our long voyage. After hanging out with friends and family in Marathon, Naples, and Clearwater, we headed north. We worked our way up the east coast towards Maine, staying with various friends and relations along the way.

We were staying in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, at the home of some old cruising pals from s/v Ally Cat. We were at their house for about a week, and Massachusetts is a pretty interesting state from a tourist/field-tripper point of view. Mattapoisett is only a few minutes away from New Bedford, the old whaling town where Herman Melville wrote his famous novel, Moby Dick. Mattapoisett is also only a few minutes away from Cape Cod, home of our family favorite: Cape Cod Potato Chips.

A little research revealed that the factory tour was completely free, and that small bags of potato chips (also completely free) were available at the end. This, apparently, was enough to win the support of the crew, and we set out.

Driving through New England in September was, for obvious reasons, a totally different experience than driving through the summer jungles of Central America. It was sunny and a bit chilly, a novel combination for us, and we drove the Suburban with the sun-roof open. Some of the trees were beginning to change color. We drove over the Cape Cod Canal, which connects Cape Cod Bay with Buzzard’s Bay.

We eventually reached the factory. It wasn’t as large as I was expecting, only employing about 80 people. We signed in at the visitor’s desk, and put a little pin in Guatemala on the world map hanging on the wall. Then we were free to take the tour.

Cape Cod Potato Chips

The tour consisted of a long hallway with a number of large windows along one wall looking into the factory, affording spectacular vistas of large oily machinery, much of it inactive, and the occasional plume of steam in the background. Several plaques were spaced along the walls, offering insights into the various processes of chip-making.

There are only three ingredients in your original Cape Cod chip: salt, oil, and potatoes. Because potatoes are mostly water, it takes four pounds of potatoes to make one pound of crispy goodness. First, the potatoes are divested of their skins with a brush peeler, and inspected by hand. Then they are tossed into a slicing machine with a bunch of rapidly-spinning blades that slice the potatoes into thin rounds. They are then dumped into he fry-vats. Once thoroughly cooked, the chips are put into a centrifuge and spun at high temperatures to remove fat. The higher the temperature, the more fat is spun out. Then the chips are piped to the bagging machine, and sealed in their iconic bags. The bags are then pressure-tested. It was during this phase that we saw one of the bags violently explode, sprinkling its contents across the floor. Judging by the amount of chips already on the floor, this was not an entirely uncommon occurrence.

The hallway soon terminated at the shop, where we were given our complimentary bags of chips, each stamped with the time they were made that very morning. And of course, we bought a few extra party-size bags, including a brand-new flavor: Fresh Jalapeno-Infused. So all in all, it wasn’t a bad experience, though I personally was a little underwhelmed. But the day wasn’t over yet.

Nauset Light

We drove to the National Seashore, home of the Nauset Light, which just happens to be the lighthouse featured on the Cape Cod bags. We parked in a crowded and sunny parking lot perched above the dunes, with the famous lighthouse looming nearby. We took the obligatory tourist pictures with the lighthouse in the background, and then went to look at the ocean. The waves were large Atlantic rollers breaking just off the beach, perfect for body surfing, we thought. Except that the water looked icy-cold, and the wind was none-too-warm either. This didn’t stop many people; we observed a number of children playing in the sand or water, and some half-naked adults, who didn’t seem to know better, were sitting in beach chairs like it was a warm day in the tropics.

National Seashore

We did, however, see one thing that we would never have seen in the tropics: seals. Actual, honest-to-goodness seals. Two of them were swimming in the surf just off the beach. It was very interesting. Seals are also particularly interesting to Great White Sharks, which typically follow the seals south in the fall and winter.

For lunch, we went to a seafood restaurant aptly named “The Lobster Shanty”. We ate seafood typical of the area: fried clams, lobster rolls, fish n’ chips, and fish sandwiches. A rowboat filled with water was used for the storage of live Maine lobster. They looked smooth and drab compared to the Spiny Lobster we had been hunting just a few short weeks before.

Lobster Shanty

It was a good field trip. It was a nice drive, and a very pretty day, with good food involved. And now every time I eat Cape Cod Potato Chips, I’ll have a killer boast.

Life in the Fast Lane

We’ve been in the United States for two weeks now, long enough for the disorientation and reverse culture shock to take its full effect. We landed in Fort Lauderdale and spent a few days in the Florida Keys, a great place to transition slowly back—good friends, familiar scenery, and fun on lobster boats. And then we drove to Naples. In a sense, it is still the town Jay and I grew up in. On a date night, we drove down to the Ben & Jerry’s we used to frequent, tossed a coin in the fountain like we did in days of yore, and walked on the beach we remember so well. But other things have changed so that they are unrecognizable. Everything moves so fast. The place is so clean. And the people are so busy.

I knew we would be gone long enough to miss our boat and our traveling life, but I didn’t know how quickly I would miss it. That said, I am gorging myself on time spent with family and old friends–storing memories for later. I have been so happy to see relationships pick up where they left off, even though there have been a lot of changes, too. We came back to see friends and cousins who seemingly grew up overnight. They, of course, felt the same way about us—most of my kids are taller than I am now. Our parents have aged, of course, and we ourselves came back with gray in our hair and new wrinkles. These are the little things we might not have noticed if we had been here all along. It’s a bit of a rip-van-winkle experience.

On our boat, we live in slow motion. We got off the fast track a few years ago and chose to live more simply and to take our own sweet time—raising our kids, working, playing, eating—all of these things are done at a more-leisurely pace. We feel a sense of accomplishment if we can get one thing done during the day. Here, I can stick a load of wash in one machine and dishes in another, hop in the car, run to the grocery store, and still have time for a visit with a friend in the afternoon. That’s American efficiency. But it feels a lot more rushed and less satisfying. I can feel the pull of “civilization” and I know  we may need to spend some time in the U.S. while our kids are transitioning to independent lives, but my heart is anchored in the lee of a quiet island in turquoise water. Like the poet John Masefield says, “I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide/ is a wild call and a clear call, that may not be denied.”

Tanya’s Travel Notes: Panama

As a favor to a few friends interested in traveling to Panama, I’m publishing some notes I made about our travels to supplement travel and cruising guides.

Bocas del Toro

Red Frog Marina

A scattered group of islands (some volcanic and rainforest, others mangrove islets) on the western side of Panama, Caribbean side. Great place to spend hurricane season, and surfing is good in the winter/spring (swell coming from Colombia breaks on reefs/beaches). A large expat community, as well as young backpackers/travelers from all over the world. We spent 9 months here and would come back. The main islands are Isla Colon, Christobal, Solarte, Bastimentos, and Isla Popa. Bocas Town is on Isla Colon, and can be noisy, busy, and unsafe. Water taxis can be caught all the time to the islands (prices vary based on distance). Lots of tours offered loudly by water taxi drivers. Check into the country with a team of people from Customs, Immigration and Port Captain—best done by anchoring off town, or calling ahead to Red Frog and the team will come to your boat at the dock.

Marinas

Red Frog Marina (IGY)—The dockmaster, DC, is an especial friend of mine (If you go there, tell him Tanya from Take Two says hi). We plugged in here for hurricane season and had a wonderful experience. Beach a 15-minute walk away through nature-preserve. We found red frogs, oropendola birds, hummingbirds, sloths, birds of paradise, and lots of other natural beauty. Marta (from Colombia) is the massage therapist at the spa and she is a treasure. Uchi does laundry for $6.50 per load, wash/dry/fold…cheaper than doing it yourself because the dryers require two runs. Good hiking/walking on resort roads. Zipline on property—get Amanda or DC to try and get you a good deal. Beach club open—and it has a pool! I heard Playa Tortuga was damaged in swells this past winter, but Red Frog Beach is also lovely. Good tacos at Nachyomama and good food/drinks at Palmar. Salina Hostel is on the Red Frog Property. The restaurant there is also decent. Good for happy hour drinks and ping pong! The marina runs a free shuttle to town for shopping, but also has a small market with a deli, ice cream, some produce and a wide variety of supplies. Less known is the Salina Hostel shuttle to town, which runs several times each day. You have to buy a ticket ($5) and get the schedule at Salina Red Frog or Salina Bocas, but it’s a lot cheaper than a water taxi, which can run between $10-$20 each way, depending on time of day, number of passengers, and mood of the driver.

Agua Dulce marina is run by our friends Bobby and Shirlene (they have 3 homeschooled kids). They have laundry, bathrooms/showers, water and power, and a workshop (complete with sail loft). Bobby is the Suzuki dealer for the area and he knows how to get things. Shirlene is a nurse, and besides homeschooling the kids, she helps take care of the Ngobe villagers who come to her for help, hosts volunteer groups, and teaches English in the village school. Ellie, their oldest daughter, often takes people kayaking or hiking to the bat caves.

Restaurants

Notoriously unpredictable…sometimes great and other times not great. Lots of staff turnover. Many inexpensive restaurants in Bocas Town for backpackers/surfers. Here are some of our faves.

Buena Vista has a nice spot on the water. Kelly, the owner, is a friend of mine, and it’s a really nice place for a cool drink and lunch (burgers and nachos are good). Also, it’s hard to find a place to park a dinghy in town, and Kelly will let you load groceries there as long as you stop in for a bite or drink.

El Ultimo Refugio is also typically very good. A little place across the street, Tutty and Fish has good ceviche, and also sells a wide variety of meats and sea foods.

Casbah has Mediterranean food and tapas. Also good.

La Pirata is predictably good Panamanian food.

Go to the Golden Corral for ice cream and try the Grape-Nut flavor—no joke—it’s the best!

Our favorite date night was at La Loma Jungle Lodge on Bastimentos. We recently heard that Henry and Margaret sold it, so we don’t know what it’s like now.

Don’t miss Ernie’s (Los Amigos) in Tierra Oscura (connected to Dolphin Bay)…really good fried chicken at lunchtime or eggs Benedict on Sunday mornings!

Shopping

Note: There is a storage room in the turquoise building by the taxi dock, but you have to ask about stashing something there. Sometimes they charged me a dollar or two to put bags there.

Isla Colon is the best grocery store in town, and not far from the water taxi dock. Felix, the Chinese guy who runs the store, can get you things that you might not see on the shelves, just ask!

Same goes for Lorelei at Super Gourmet, where prices are a little higher, but she carries specialty items and has the best deli in town. (And the best whole-bean Panamanian coffee—look for the package with the blue butterfly.) A perfect lunch stop, too, with fresh sandwiches, soups, and salads. Across from Super Gourmet is a good veggie stand.

Best bread in Panama is found at the Panaderia Allemana (German bakery)…it’s a misnomer, as the owner is Itailian, and carries a variety of breads and some imported Itialian pastas and specialty items. Two doors down from the bakery (which also serves breakfast and lunch), there’s a fruit and veggie stand run by a very sweet family from Chiriqui province (small green building). Ask Staci what day the truck is coming and you’ll get lots of fresh veggies and fruit at a good price.

Toto is like a Walmart–it has a little bit of everything.

Richard owns three stores: the 3R “Mall” has a wide variety of items and is air conditioned. Richard’s Ferreteria/Maderas  is nearby, and Richard can find you almost anything. He was just opening a new grocery store across the street when we left, with water access!

Things to do

Green Acres Chocolate Farm Tour

Horseback riding on Cristobal with Cowboy Dave’s Horseback Tours (highly recommended)

Jungle ziplines at Red Frog Resort

Surfing at Black Rock or Bluff Beach, classes, rentals, and tours at Bocas Surf School

Turtle Conservancy night tour on Bluff Beach

Snorkeling at Zapatillas Marine Conservancy, Hospital Point, or Coral Cay

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute visitor’s center

Beach day at Bluff Beach, Red Frog Beach, or Starfish Beach

Wildlife Boat Tours: birding at Isla Pajaros (nesting Tropic Birds), Sloth Island, Monkey island

ATV trails with Flying Pirates

Movie theater in town with private air-conditioned viewing rooms

Art or cooking classes for kids (Christin Fjeld) and sometimes a mom’s night out wine-and-paint

Shipping

Lots of expats means lots of things coming in from the US and Canada. You can ship things to the Mailboxes etc., order things from a guy named Bill Kruger who gets containers from the U.S., or go through David Pang in Panama City, who can send things by plane to the Bocas airport. You can also take a bus from Almirante to Changinola or David (you take a water taxi to Almirante) to get things. David has a Price Mart, Novey (household goods), Conway (like Target), and Do-It Center (like Home Depot). There are two sisters, Toby and Lola, who can get things sent from David to Bocas.

Cruising

Islands and anchorages everywhere and you feel like you have the place to yourself. Water mostly clean and clear (sometimes jellies, depends on how closed-in the area is). Holding good in sand or mud, but usually deep. We looked for 30-foot depths. Anything shallower, and you can see the water shoaling to just a few feet. (You’re anchoring in underwater valleys, trying to stay off the mountaintops.) Good snorkeling and kayaking in and around mangrove islands. Dolphin Bay, Tierra Oscura, Sloth Island, Monkey Island, Bastimentos (bays on the south side), Loma Partida (near Isla Popa), leeward side of Cristobal, Starfish beach (leeward side of Isla Colon…after the afternoon crowds leave and in the morning before they show up is best)…and many more to explore! You may occasionally get Ngobe Indians paddling up in cayucos (dugout canoes) and asking for rice or sugar. Sometimes they sell/trade coconuts, produce, or fish.

Travel

Flights leave Bocas several times a day, connecting to Panama City or San Jose, Costa Rica. Jay flew to Boston and made it in one day. When we traveled as a family, the boat was safe at Red Frog. It would be safe at Agua Dulce, too. It’s pretty easy to take bus trips, too, and the price includes the water taxi to the mainland. We took the Hola Panama shuttle to Boquete, (Volcan Baru area, near the cloud forest) and the Carib Shuttle to Costa Rica. Both experiences were very good. We recommend Mount Totumas if you want to see the cloud forest of Panama and do some hiking. We rented their cabin, bought groceries and cooked in several nights. But the food at the lodge is amazing, too. They grow a special variety of high-altitude coffee (and roast it themselves). It is the best coffee I have EVER tasted. Jeff will personally take you hiking and show you all kinds of things. We saw a dozen different kinds of hummingbirds alone. In Boquete, we like the suspended bridges hike at Tree Trek, and a field trip to Boquete Bees to learn about pollinators in Panama, taste honey, and to see the butterfly garden. The boys did some rock climbing with professionals on the basalt wall, and we also rented a car one day and went to Cangilones de Gualaca…google it—it was a memorable day! You can also do coffee tours in Boquete.

Downsides

The heat and the bugs (and sometimes the rain)! The mosquitos aren’t the problem, it’s the chitras or sand flies. They ate me alive, but I was just itchy and have no residual effects. On the windward side of the islands, it can be choppy and uncomfortable, but cooler; in the lee of the islands, it’s usually completely protected, but hotter and buggier. The rain is less predictable in the islands than on the mainland. Mainland Panama disappears for months beneath rain clouds, but Bocas doesn’t get regular rainy season. June and July are usually the rainiest months. Lots of overcast days, but then it’s not so hot! We loved it there, made friends, and found it hard to leave.

Shelter Bay/Colón

View from Car Ferry

Sailing from Bocas

Leaving Bocas to head to central Panama, you have a favorable current, which really helps.  You can take protected waters all the way to Bluefield and then go out at the entrance to the Laguna Chiriqui. The channel between the mainland and Isla Popa is wide and deep. A couple we know is building a castle/house on an isand near that channel…you might see it. A good stop on the way to Colon is an island called Veraguas. It has the most beautiful lagoon to snorkel in (Rachel calls it the mermaid lagoon) and a beach. Good in settled weather, but can be swelly. A great stop for a day or two. Another stop is a night or two in the Rio Chagres. Once you get past the shoals near the entrance (past Fort San Lorenzo on the hill), it’s very deep, and you have to look for a spot to anchor near a bend in the river where you might see 30s on the depth sounder. It is jungle and mirror-smooth water. We saw toucans, howler monkeys, caimans, and lots of wildlife. We kayaked in the little tributaries and loved it. We have been warned that sometimes they open the sluice gates on the dam when the Gatun lake level is too high, but we took the risk during sunny days and loved it.

Marinas

Shelter Bay Marina also has the nickname “Shelter Pay.” It has haulout/full-service boat yard, sail loft (although I just heard the sailmaker we knew was heading out to go cruising), workshop, mini-mart, laundry (expensive unless you do it yourself, but the machines are often busy), restaurant, pool, small hotel (handy if you haul out), boater’s lounge, palapa/picnic area, nature trails, free shuttle to Colon for shopping, and a good cruising community. It’s easy to find or become line-handlers for a canal transit. There’s a morning cruiser’s net for daily announcements, and there are always activities (like open-mic night, dominoes, etc.). Usually there are some kid boats there. The new manager, Juanjo, is a friend of ours from Puerto Rico, where he used to manage Las Palmas del Mar. He’s a good guy.

Restaurants

The restaurant at the marina It’s 5 o’clock Somewhere is pretty good. Nice spot for evening drinks and weekend events. We rarely went to town, and then only to shop at Quatro Altos. There are restaurants there, including a Dominoe’s pizza, but we were always focused on groceries and didn’t dawdle. Shelter Bay is a little isolated from everywhere else. A taxi to/from town runs $20-25, so I usually took the free bus (sign up sheet at the office).

Shopping

Quatro Altos has a large, well-stocked El Rey supermarket, a marine store, an electrical parts store, hardware store, shoe stores, and several department stores. El Rey had everything I needed, but the bus runs into Colon to another shopping area. Shopping trips take several hours because the bus has to cross the canal by ferry or over the locks, which means it has to wait for shipping traffic (can be as long as an hour each way). The first time, it’s amazing, but after a few times, it just means a long bus ride. The driver, Mauricio, is very prompt and cannot wait for late-comers (the bus is also the employee shuttle). He appreciates a tip occasionally.

Transportation to Panama City

Buses are cheap and good (take the express!) and often air-conditioned. Taxi or free shuttle (in the morning) will get you to the bus station. It takes about 2 hours. Sometimes the free shuttle will do a day trip to Panama City as well. A guy named Roger (Rogelio) will drive you in his van as well for about $100, and knows where to find all sorts of things. He often acts as translator as well as driver. He is now an agent for canal transit, too. Ask the marina for his number.

Downsides

We were there in November and the rain was unbelievable! I’ve never seen downpours like I saw there! There were some bugs, but it depends on the wind and location in the marina. The marina is isolated and there’s nowhere to go, but there are lots of cruiser-organized activities.

Panama City/Panama Canal

Panama City, Panama

Before you go: read David McCullough’s Path Between the Seas, a fabulous read about the people who built the canal. Not a dry history book!

Transportation

We tried a little of everything; took the bus, used taxis, used Uber, and hired a driver. We even took the Panama Railroad train back to the Caribbean side (totally worth the expense as the rail runs along the canal and through the jungle—best ride ever!) Sometimes taxi drivers have no idea where things are. Uber works well. Our guide/driver is a family friend, Luis, who Jay’s parents use when they are in the city. He did a city tour with us and it was wonderful. Nice, new van with A/C. He knows when ships are transitting the canal and takes you to the Miraflores locks at the right time. His contact is +507 6536-1179 and he speaks both English and Spanish.

Shopping

You can find everything in Panama City, as long as you have a driver who knows what you’re looking for. There’s a large mall (Allbrook), Discovery Center, Novey, Do-It Center, marine stores, a place that stocks all kinds of tools and stainless steel pieces and parts. Good grocery stores, too.

Things to do

The Museo de la Historia del Canal Interoceanico in the old city is very good, but mostly in Spanish. The visitor’s center at Miraflores also has a museum (not as good) but in English and Spanish. We did both. If you only have time for one, Miraflores will do.

Lots of museums, parks, and restaurants. A hike up Ancon Hill is a must, as is an exploration of Casco Antiguo (the old city was mostly burned by the pirate Henry Morgan, so Cartagena is a better, more-intact Spanish walled city to explore). Flamenco island is nice (there are lots of anchored boats near there, and an expensive marina). There are also beaches and fishing on the Pacific side of Panama.

Restaurants

El Congrejo area of the city has restaurants of every description. Pomodoro is one of our favorites for Italian/Pizza. Casco Antiguo also has many good restaurants. The Seafood market was recommended to us many times, but we didn’t make it there.

Downsides

It’s a large, dirty city, and you have to be careful in certain areas. Taxi drivers don’t really have a mental map, so you might need to help navigate to get somewhere.

Linton Bay (Porto Lindo)/ Portobelo

Fateful Trip

About 20 minutes from Portobelo, 45 minutes from Sabanitas, an hour from Colon, and 2 hours from Panama City. A day sail from Isla Grande to San Blas. Lots of people anchor in Linton Bay or Portobelo waiting for weather to San Blas, or for a canal transit. Rains a lot of the year. For check-in check-out—Port Captain is at Linton Bay (Porto Lindo), but the immigration office is in the yellow building in downtown Portobelo.

Marinas

Panamarina is a small marina owned by French people, and they store a lot of boats for hurricane season, as well as operating a boatyard and a French restaurant. You can get there from Linton Bay via a mangrove channel, but be careful of the coral heads near the entrance!

Linton Bay Marina—Much cheaper than Shelter Bay, but fewer amenities. Under construction, and things always in flux. There is a haulout/boatyard, but nowhere comfy to stay while you’re on the hard. Veggie trucks and bread truck comes several times each week. Free water! Wifi not so great on the docks. Note: people feed the monkeys on “Monkey island”—but don’t take kids ashore! Monkeys can be aggressive…just ask Rachel ☹. The good news is that medical care at the Portobelo clinic is free for tourists!  A lot of people anchor in Linton Bay, but it’s pretty rolly, with ocean swell coming into the bay.  A little more protection (depending on wind) in Portobelo.

Transportation

The “chicken bus” runs along the coast (marked “Costa Arriba”) and is inexpensive. I did some ride-sharing with a friend using a taxi driver named Jack (+507 6727 8277). He lived in the U.S., so is totally bilingual. For about $100, he’ll take you to Panama City for the day and help you find things. He’s a great guy. For $40, you can go to Colon for the day, and for $20-25, to Sabanitas to grocery shop.

Restaurants

Captain Jack’s in Portobelo is very good and has a good atmosphere, excellent seafood, Asian fusion, and curry dishes

Rico Rico has the second best bread in Panama (also owned by an Italian!)

Congo Culture House in Portobelo which is part art gallery, part history museum, part local café. A great stop in Portobelo.

Shopping

Iin Sabanitas there is a new Super 99 and an El Rey grocery store. I found everything I needed there, and it wasn’t as far as Colon or Panama City.

Things to do

Explore the old fort in Portobelo, go to the Culture House museum, go to the museum and to the church of the Black Jesus. Go to the beach at Mame or Isla Grande. Surfing near Isla Grande (reef break) during swelly times of year.

Downsides

A bit far from shopping, but not hard to get to the city. The rain? The hills around there are called “La Sierra Llorada” or “crying hills.” Can be wet.

San Blas

Parting Shot, San Blas

Porvenir has immigration, but not a port captain. If you go there, you will be charged the cruising fee ($20 pp and $20 for the boat). There is a road to Panama City from Carti, but there’s a check-point on the road with officials checking paperwork. Check-in can be done in Obaldia (to the east) if arriving from/departing to Colombia, but can be expensive. Most people arrive from Colombia, hang out in San Blas for awhile, then check in once they get to Portobelo, Colon, or Bocas.

Information

San Blas Facebook group is a good source of up-to-date information. Last we heard, the road to Carti was closed and the Congreso had closed the isalnds to commercial sailing charters. A beautiful place, and nice cruising grounds, though weather (of course) always plays a factor when planning your stops. Sometimes it’s hard to find protection from wind and swell. Provision well before sailing. Anchoring fees are not expensive, and are collected by Guna officials who will give you a receipt.

Cruising

Coco Banderos are lovely, but not in swells. Coral everywhere, very beautiful (but somewhat touristy).

The Hollandes Cays are also popular, and the “Swimming Pool” is often crowded. And there’s a croc there on BBQ island.

Our favorite spots were in the West Lemmons (in the lagoon near Tiadup), where we could get internet (Moviestar) and good protection from Christmas winds, and in the Green Island Group, where there were nice beaches, excellent snorkeling, and veggie boats and fisherman coming by. Also close to Nargana, where you can get basic supplies and internet (Digicel). We avoided the crowded Green Island itself, and the local fishermen said there was still a croc in the area. They showed us places that were “safe” for our kids. We never saw a croc. Or a shark. We did catch some fish. Most of the Gunas are free-divers and are catching big fish in deeper water.

The rule is, the farther east you go, the more traditional the villages. We were welcomed in Rio Azucar by some fishermen we befriended (anyone who comes by in an ulu has been out in the hot sun for a long time and greatly appreciates a cool drink in a shady cockpit.) They sold us affordable fresh seafood and coconuts when we asked. In Rio Azucar, they have bamboo and thatch huts with satellite dishes fixed on top! We have friends who went east past all the popular island groups and said it was like stepping back in time.

The best molas are made in Machina. There are a brother-sister team that come around and speak English and Spanish. Their molas are beautiful. Venancio may welcome you to San Blas, and he markets molas from Machina (some made by him). They are of high quality, but very expensive. Lisa may also come by. She also has beautiful molas, and much more affordable. She is from Rio Sidra near the mainland, and is a popular tour guide—she can take you up a river and show you a traditional village, farms and burial grounds.

We avoided busy places and crowded anchorages and only went to deserted beaches. We stopped once in Carti to do a little shopping but didn’t enjoy the experience.

Downsides

Provisioning is not difficult, just limited to rice, beans, fish and produce. Perhaps this is not a downside…but if you like your butter and cheese, stock up! The mola vendors can be a little intense, knocking on the side of your boat and unloading all their wares in your cockpit, but I tried to buy gifts for people back home a little at a time and spread the purchases over many people. Some cruisers complain about anchoring fees, but we did not find them to be excessive. If you’re looking for an escape from civilization and tranquil, beautiful islands, San Blas is wonderful. If you need internet (for work or school, for example!) then San Blas will present some unique challenges.