Author Archives: Tanya

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

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.

Stop and Smell the Orchids

One thing I love about living in Central America is the everyday encounters with exotic flora and fauna. I know that what is “exotic” to me is normal to the people who live here in the same way that North American birds and flowers that are normal for me would be “exotic” to them. We used to laugh, for example, when people would take manatee tours in the Indian River Lagoon—we would hear the vacationers screaming, “Look! A manatee!” as they nearly tipped the boat in their eagerness to photograph a slow-moving sea cow. We saw these gentle animals in our back yard nearly every day and became inured to them. To be fair, my friends in Panama laughed when I would stop by the same tree every day to look up to see what the sloth was up to (usually sleeping in the same place as the day before, but sometimes, gasp, it was scratching!). I never got tired of looking at this strange animal, but this strangeness and newness is part of why we travel. Nature is full of surprises—even when you’re used to the surroundings, a closer look always inspires wonder and awe.

On the way home from an afternoon out with Jay here on the Rio Dulce, we stopped to take a closer look at a tree surrounded by a cloud of pink blossoms. We idled over in our dinghy and realized that the flowers were not part of the tree, but were growing attached to the trunk, that they were, in fact, orchids. They were beautiful—with ruffled pink/purple petals and a deep magenta throat. I snipped a small cluster to bring home and show the kids and to see if I could identify the type of orchid. Suddenly, ants were crawling all over my hand and down my arm—the orchids were teeming with them. I gave the flowers a quick dowsing in the river and brushed the ants off my arm. I felt bad for having so thoughtlessly disturbed the flowers and their residents and regretted not carrying the good camera so I could have captured a closeup of the flowers without taking them off the tree.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala

My initial research made identification seem a difficult, if not impossible, task—there are over 1000 species of orchid in Guatemala, and there are several books and identification guides to enthrall the orchid-lover. There is even an annual orchid festival in Antigua, Guatemala every year, and many viveros which sell them to collectors and gardeners from around the world. I looked through pages and pages of images, and with a little patient digging, I was able to narrow down what kind of orchid I had. And it made perfect sense. The genus is myrmecophila: myrmex meaning “ant” and “philos,” love. These orchids and ants share a mutual affection for each other—they are, in fact, symbiotes.

Myrmecophila orchid, Guatemala  (closeup)

Myrmecophilia (exaltata?)

I found a lovely article written by Ivan Gabaldón, whose curiosity about this phenomenon led him to closer observation through macro-photography of ants and orchids. He had done his own research and interviewed conservationist Joann Andrews in Mexico. She describes the relationship thus: “the ants help the flower bloom, defend the plant from herbivores and take up residence in its bulbs, where they store dead insects that in turn provide protein for the orchid. The reward for the ants is to feed on the orchid’s nectar.”

Further reading reveals another mystery: the ants are not the primary pollinators for the orchids, rather, each species of orchid produces its own signature fragrance that attracts flying insects—a different kind of bee for each orchid.

How often do we zoom past such wonders in our hurry to get somewhere or to do something? A microcosm, mysterious and beautifully complex, lies within our reach, but unless we slow down and take the time to look, and to study what we see, we miss it entirely. Perhaps this is the best gift nature offers us: the chance to pause in our busy-ness and get a different perspective, to notice and appreciate something new and strange.

For more information on orchids in Guatemala:

Ivan Gabaldón’s article, “On the Miracle of Orchids and Their Love of Ants” from www.rideintobirdland.com.

James Bateman’s book, Orchids of Mexico and Guatemala (updated by John A. Denson in 2010, Lulu.com).

Oakes Ames’ and Donovan Stewart Correll’s Orchids of Guatemala and Belize (1985, Dover).

 

Up the Rio

After much discussion of family goals, summer plans, boat projects, and seasonal weather, we made a decision while in Belize in June to head up the Rio Dulce in Guatemala instead of sailing back to Florida to haul out for hurricane season. This is a departure from our original plan, but for those who know us, this will not come as a surprise since all of our plans are written in wet sand at low tide.

Take Two Crew in the Rio Dulce 3

Crew of Take Two heading upriver

While some of the crew is ready to go back to the United States for good, others of us would like to spend more time in the Caribbean and Central America. The compromise is to spend a season in Guatemala, fly back to the US for a long visit, and eke out one more cruising season before sailing back to Florida. The cost of boat work and risk of hurricanes are both significantly reduced here as well.

View of Rio Dulce Guatemala

So far, we are loving it here–we’re plugged into a marina with a pool, and have met some new friends as well as connecting with some old ones. The day we pulled into the dock, Jacob and April and their two girls from s/v Lark were having lunch at our marina, and they formed a welcoming party.  One of the reasons we love this lifestyle is that boat-friendships, no matter how transient, are really special–the world is small and you never know when you’ll run into an old friend.

Shell Bay Waterfront Rio Dulce

For those land-lubber family members and friends we haven’t seen in a while, we look forward to seeing you sometime this summer or early fall when the crew of Take Two goes on the road!

Deep Thoughts

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am chicken-hearted. I look at danger and run for the hills. Eli says that I am the kind of person that can turn a perfectly-fun activity into a life-threatening situation. (Arguably, I could say the same about him!) I have an uncanny knack for imagining the worst possible scenario. I go straight there, do not pass go, do not collect $200. When one of the kids gets hurt, Jay has to remind me to stop planning the funeral. And it’s not just a “mom-thing;” I have always had a nervous disposition.

If I operated according to my natural instincts, we would still be living in a ranch-style house with a white picket fence in a quiet little suburb. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I would certainly not be pursuing my dreams. While my instincts are to live a small, safe life, my dreams are the opposite—I want to try everything, to go everywhere, to talk to everyone. I’m like Aladdin’s genie-in-a-lamp: “phenomenal cosmic powers, itty-bitty living space.” I have written about this dichotomy—and about my greatest fear: regret. This is what drives me to live despite my fear. And every time I experience something new, I have to confront that fear and decide whether to heed or ignore it.

For example, I climbed up, but decided not to jump from Morgan’s Head in Providencia. I don’t even like jumping from our high dive, where there is no rocky outcrop to surmount or coral heads to avoid upon landing. (The kids thought the 30-foot jump was great fun.)

Morgan's Head, Old Providence

But I did go ziplining in Panama because I wanted, just once, to know what it was like to jump out of a perfectly good tree and go screaming through the jungle. And, while I have enjoyed snorkeling or SCUBA diving (both of which involve breathing), I have never liked freediving (which involves not breathing). At the same time, I love to watch my kids take a deep breath, swim down into a sandy canyon between walls of coral, and glide comfortably at 10 meters/33 feet or more below the surface, for a minute or two. I sometimes follow them down, to take a closer look at something on the reef, but I get below the surface only a few feet before I begin to feel panicky, like I must get to the surface immediately to breath open air.

Sarah Freediving

So, when the opportunity arose to take an Apnea Total class at Freedive Utila, I signed up along with Jay, Eli, Sarah, and Sam. Aaron opted out (he’s not much of a water kid) and agreed to keep an eye on Rachel while we were in class for a couple of days. I had no depth goals, really, but wanted to conquer my fear of holding my breath underwater so I could enjoy adventure-snorkeling with my family more. Jay and Eli have good breath-holds and are comfortable at greater depths, but Jay had trouble equalizing the air space in his ears past 12 meters/40 feet, and Eli wanted to learn about practicing safely. Sarah and Sam both like to freedive and wanted to improve their skills.

Freediving is a sport with many faces. We recently watched Le Grand Bleu/The Big Blue, an 80s film by Luc Besson about two divers who practice no-limits freediving, an extreme sport where divers compete to go deeper and deeper, using whatever means available. (The current record-holder is Herbert Nitsch of Austria, who dove to 214 meters/702 feet.) The film is interesting because it explores two sides of freediving: the desire to go deeper and find the limits for the human body, and the equally strong desire to see and understand what life is like in the ocean and to get closer to our mammalian neighbors beneath the waves. But if you have seen that film, then you may have gotten the wrong idea about freediving.

Most freedivers are not ego-driven maniacs who risk everything to go deeper. Most are using only their breath, a descent line, and maybe a pair of fins to safely reach depths of 100 meters/330 feet or more. Often, freediving is a means to an end, to go underwater unencumbered by SCUBA gear and explore reefs and wrecks, to go spearfishing, or to experience the Zen calm of descent and the emotional rush of coming back to the surface. And, like any sport, there is the challenge of training one’s body and mind and the fun of doing something you couldn’t do before, always improving and besting your previous depth or breath-hold.

Initially, it seems counterintuitive to go down and down into the deep blue while holding one’s breath—after only a few seconds, the build-up of carbon dioxide signals your brain that it is time to exhale, and after that the diaphragm begins to spasm. We’re land mammals, after all, only distantly related to the whales, some of which can swim down thousands of feet and hold their breath for an hour or more. But we share some interesting adaptations with these cousins and have only discovered our potential by pushing the limits. The human body is a well-designed machine—capable of much more than we demand of it. With training and breathing exercises to improve relaxation and gas exchange, it is possible within only a few days to improve breath-hold, and to dive deeper and more comfortably than one thought possible. (If you’re interested in freediving, I can recommend a book we read: James Nestor’s Deep.)

Jay Ascending from 21m, Freedive Utila

Of course, there are risks, too. Hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) can cause loss of motor control (sambas) and blackouts—rarely at depths, but more often in shallow water as a diver ascends, or at the surface after a dive. Pressure can damage the ears if one doesn’t properly manage equalization of air spaces. This is one reason we took the freediving class—to better understand and mitigate the risks. I have been snorkeling with Eli and watched him go down (deeper than I can follow) and disappear into an underwater cave or tunnel, then waited for him nervously at the surface for what seems like forever. Invariably, he comes calmly gliding to the surface, unaware of my discomfort. Preventing accidents and learning what to do if things go wrong was one of the best parts of our 2 1/2-day class. Already we have changed the way we practice freediving so that we take better care of each other and enjoy safer, more-relaxed snorkeling adventures.

Time for School

Oddly enough, the biggest discovery in the class was that learning to hold one’s breath is, ironically, all about breathing. We spent a significant amount of time during class and in the water just breathing. Having practiced yoga in the past, I was familiar with some of the exercises, like belly-breathing or lengthened exhales, and with the benefits of certain kinds of breathing to the nervous system. When one practices a “breathe-up” at the surface before a dive, it is not hyperventilation, like you might imagine—this only increases tension and decreases safety. It is instead a pattern of deep, slow breaths which induce an almost meditative state that helps one prepare for a stress-free descent. Freediving is all about relaxation and the careful management of oxygen supply. Efficiency is everything; one wants to expend the least amount of energy so that one has more time underwater, either to reach a greater depth, or stay longer at a desired depth. And an anxious brain is a big oxygen-consumer, so learning to calm and quiet one’s thoughts and lower the heart rate makes a big difference. To some degree, it is all in your mind.

Watching my kids prepare for a dive was like watching them fall asleep as babies. Having spent their whole lives around and in the water, they have a comfort that I envy. Observing their dives was one of my favorite parts of the class.

Sam, Constant Weight to 17m, Freedive Utila

Going down myself was more challenging. Even at the end of the first day (when I managed to get down to 6 meters/20 feet), I still felt my heart rate accelerate before the dive, experienced discomfort during the dive, and was ready to come up before I’d reached half-way down the line, the bottom of which was at 12 meters/40 feet. When our instructor, Mariano, asked how I felt, I said, “Happy to reach the surface and breathe again.” He was incredibly encouraging and positive, and offered helpful advice after every dive. And he said the next day would be better.

He was right. The second day, I ignored the goal entirely (the end of the line was at 21 meters/70 feet, which Jay reached easily) and focused on quieting my thoughts and relaxing in the water. Having worked through my fear and learned that I could safely ignore my body’s message to “Breathe now!” for at least a minute, I was able to pull myself down the line, relaxed with eyes closed, to 10 meters/33 feet. Most importantly, I was able to do this without that familiar feeling of panic. Coming back to the surface, as my lungs expanded, I experienced euphoria. I began to understand why people say freediving can be addictive.

Class completed, we got in the dinghy the next afternoon and took our new skills out to the reef. The weather was calm, the sunshine bright, and the water crystal-clear. I love that feeling at the surface when I first get in the water with my mask on, like I’m flying, looking down on coral canyons, rays swimming along the sandy patches, fish darting in and out of rocky caves, the water gradually changing from turquoise to violet-blue as the reef drops off into the inky depths. First one, and then another, of our family dropped down to glide along the bottom of a trench, or down along the reef wall at the drop-off. Each person had a partner at the surface, watching to make sure he was safe, and each took the careful steps of a breathe-up at the surface to make going to depths more comfortable. I also dove down, gliding along a sandy canyon-bottom, like an airplane flying low, looking at the ripples in the sand and getting a close-up of colorful fish at home in forests of coral. I came to the surface, happy to take some recovery breaths, but no longer afraid.

 

What follows is what I wrote in my journal about fear as I mentally prepared for diving the second day.

Fear

Warns me of danger.

Keeps me from repeating bad experiences.

Makes me aware of risks and consequences.

Helps me to stay on the straight and narrow.

Keeps me alive.

But fear

Can cripple me

Can keep me from experiencing

Adventure, discovery, friendship, love.

Is the enemy of faith, the destroyer of hope.

Prevents me

From making progress,

From achieving my goals,

From fulfilling my potential.

Keeps me from really living.

Fear:

What should I do with it?

Name it:

What exactly am I afraid of?

Look at it from all sides:

Is it legitimate?

Is it keeping me from danger or preventing progress?

Should I listen to the warning, or silence the alarm?

Pray about it:

What does the Spirit tell me?

Do not let your heart be troubled.

I am with you always.

Perfect love casts out fear.

If I speak to God about my fears,

He can quiet my thoughts or confirm a warning.

Make a choice:

Allow it to keep me away or proceed with caution.

Keep it in bounds.

Do not be ruled by it.

Make decisions using logic, comparing risks and rewards.

Do not live each day under its shadow.

Do not listen to the thousand whispers,

but search for the one clear voice of reason.

Fear

If I do not master it, it will master me.

 

Final thoughts, from Psalm 139

Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence? If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast… Search me O God, and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Bay Islands of Honduras

Picture this: a volcanic island covered with pine trees, sparsely settled, fringed by coral reefs, with a small round cay lying just offshore, covered, and I mean every available inch, with brightly-colored, multi-story buildings, some built on pilings out over the water. Shrimp boats with names like Flaming Arrow and Lucky Lady line the wharf along one side. A system of alleyways and canals crisscross the island, and water taxis buzz here and there, picking up and dropping off people going to the main island or through a channel to the north side, where there are sparkling sandy beaches and resorts, and one small settlement in a mangrove bay. At night, the taxis all retire, and country music begins to waft over the water from several bars. You might think to yourself, where am I? If you talk to anyone official, you will need some Spanish. If you meet someone on the street, you will speak English. The inhabitants of the island come in all shapes and colors, religious backgrounds, and socioeconomic classes. If you feel confused, this is part of the charm. You are in Guanaja, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Bonacca Waterfront, Guanaja, Bay Islands of Honduras

Bonacca, the Venice of the Caribbean

This place is full of seeming contradictions: a local who grew up in New Jersey and used to work in the New York Public Library returned to his island home to teach English to kids in the afternoons in a make-shift sidewalk-school. A Frenchman sails here every year on his way to or from Rio Dulce, Guatemala, but hates the water, so he comes only to hike in the pine forests. A German who settled here twenty years ago serves pizza in a palapa-on-stilts. A local couple who grew up in crowded Bonacca bought a hillside property on the main island and opened a first-class bar and restaurant which looks more like a chalet on a lake in Switzerland than a tropical island bar-and-grill.

Mi Casa Too, Guanaja

An Australian couple who have traveled the whole world by every conceivable conveyance house-sit on shore near where we are anchored (we met them in town on the day the supply boat came in). You never know what or whom you will encounter in the narrow streets of Bonacca.

Casa Sicaffy Storefront, Empanadas for Sale, Bonacca

Roatan is no less strange. Isla Barbareta, to the east, has virgin hardwood forest and good diving—it’s owned by a Texas tycoon. Mannie and Tita, originally from Mexico, run The Mango Creek Resort, a quiet getaway in Old Port Royal—yet another old pirate lair—with pastel-colored bungalows over the water, where people come for fishing vacations.

Mango Creek Resort, Old Port Royal, Roatan

Jonesville and Oakridge are local villages on bays lined with shrimping boats that ply the Cayman banks several months each year. The area looks and feels more like Louisiana than Latin America.

Shrimping Fleet, Roatan

French Harbor boasts Fantasty Island, an exclusive dive resort with a hotel, marina, dive shop, restaurant, and white-sand-lined lagoon—guarded by Hondurans with shotguns. In the same area, Little French Key brags that it is the “#1 Tourist Attraction in Honduras”—an island complex of beaches, restaurants, gift shops, swimming lagoons, and wild animals in cages, including lions and tigers and jaguars (Oh my!). We’ve never been anchored where we can hear lions roaring at sunset. It adds to the feeling that we have stepped into a Salvador Dali painting.

Horses On the Boat to Little French Key, Roatan

Coxen Hole, where the cruise ships come in to unload their thousands of passengers, has a reputation of being unsafe, and West Bay is the place said passengers go to play for the day—think parasail boats, jetskis, overloaded snorkel boats, and beaches lined with lounge chairs. West End is a little quieter—a small beach community with boutique hotels owned by North-Americans, open-air restaurants, cruising sailboats, and walls of coral to explore just offshore. A cruise around the island offers, if nothing else, variety. Each time we anchored, it felt like we’d arrived in a different country.

West Bay, Roatan

Utila is as different from Roatan as Roatan from Guanaja. A mere 17-mile sail takes you into a different weather pattern and social atmosphere. There are still palatial gringo-retiree houses with ocean views, still tin-roofed houses on stilts in town, but Utila is obviously a young diver’s mecca. Dive shops with palapas strung with hammocks line the waterfront, delicious after-dive lunches can be found for a reasonable price at lots of establishments, and the dance music starts at sunset and doesn’t finish until the wee hours. Young people from all over the world come here to get certified to dive and to become dive instructors themselves. Others come to swim with whale sharks, which are often found in the waters along the north side. Like Guanaja and Roatan, Utila has clear water, beautiful living reefs, lots of fish, and inexpensive dive-shops, which makes for phenomenal snorkeling and diving.

Swimming with a Whale Shark

The Bay Islands of Honduras have always been a crossroads. Mayan glyphs can still be found here—relics of a once-expansive population which had established trade routes throughout Central America. The first European explorers who came to get fresh food and water were welcomed by indigenous Paya in cayucos. The ubiquitous pirates of the Spanish Main lurked here. The Garifuna (Black Caribs) of St. Vincent were shipped here by English Colonizers during the wars between the intermarried “Black” Caribs and pure-blood “Yellow” Caribs of the Eastern Caribbean. The people from Africa, those whom “England left behind” have formed their own unique culture and language. Seafaring Caymanians sailed downwind from their islands to the East. Louisiana shrimpers seeking a new fishing grounds plied the nearby banks. The Hondurans who took over the islands brought Latin culture and cooking and Spanish language. The tourists seeking pristine reefs and beaches, the expats looking for cheap property in paradise, the sailors looking for a quiet anchorage—they have all come through the Bay Islands and left their mark. We too have come, made friends, formed impressions, created memories, and enjoyed the beautiful waters of the Honduran coast.

Sailing Away from Guanaja