Hi. I arranged all of my amazing crew gigs over the years through
cruisersforum so I'm thrilled to be able to give something back
The last boat I was on went from Grenada
, to Tobago
, Trinidad, Bonaire
(Santa Marta and Cartagena), the San Blas Islands, then to Shelter Bay and Colon. I'm happy to give any info on any of those places.
In response to your post, I can give you info on Panama
, including the San Blas, especially since I was there only a few weeks ago. I was on a 42' monohull
It might be a bit convoluted, but, hopefully, helpful.
Make sure you have cash (US $) because there isn't a single
ATM anywhere in the San Blas Islands. Some places do take credit cards, though.
Being on a Cat should mean that navigating will be less stressfull, when you're navigating between the islands, but you definitely need to stick to the main channels, and have a spotter at all times. Compare paper navigation
guides with whatever nav. software
you have, as there are discrepancies. There are some islands, for example, that are difficult to get to even with a dinghy
. On the way to Banedup Island, we hit bottom with the dingy, and it happened really fast. One of the other yacht owners, anchored nearby, yelled out to us that we couldn't get there that way, that we had to come back and go all the way around, etc., etc...... you get the idea. But that's exactly what it's like in the San Blas. Banedup is one of the islands, however, where they sell 'restaurant-style' food
(limited menu- chicken, octopus, lobster, fish), and beer
, so it might be one of the islands you want to go to.
Porvenir, not far from Banadup, is where you clear in, and there is a 'restaurant' there, as well. They also have a 'hotel.' It's cheap
, but very basic. Graciella is the elderly, Kuna Indian lady, that runs the place.
If you only have Euros, say, there is an island, very close to Porvenir, where you can change it to American. We didn't find the man who does the money-changing, but we lucked out and found a couple of guys on a boat that changed Euros to American for us. I don't remember the specific name of the island, but it was one of the Carti Islands, the one that is overflowing with reed huts. You can see it from Porvenir, only a stone throw away. Graciella will tell you where it is, anyway, if you ask her.
As we dinghied away from that Carti Island, we saw a couple of locals waving to us from their wooden dug-out canoe. I didn't know it at the time, but it was a lobster that one of them was waving at us. When we pulled along side, we saw that the bottom of the canoe was filled with lobster. One of our guys wanted to buy three, and he was told it was $20. I immediately said no, because I happened to know that you buy the lobsters for about $2 US, each. Markus offered $10 for 3 lobsters. I guess the guy in the canoe felt bad because he gave him four, for the $10.
If you want to go Panama City, from the San Blas, there is a way to do it, from Porvenir, but I don't remember the details. I do know that you take a boat from Porvenir, early in the morning, to some other place, and from there you are transported in a jeep. I wasn't paying much attention when Markus made his arrangements.
Markus was the only one that cleared in at Porvenir, and it cost him $100 US, plus and extra $20 for the overtime fee. We arrived with lots of time to clear in, but the language barrier made it difficult. So, by the time Markus made his intentions clear, it was past closing time. This is a problem that I've seen before, so it definitely helps to know some basic Spanish, related to the customs
and immigration process.
Our cellphones worked, but there is no wifi
anywhere in the San Blas.
This should be a no-brainer, but don't take anything that doesn't belong to you, not even a coconut. Everything belongs to someone, even those coconuts that have fallen behind some brush, that you would think people don't care about. On the island of Yansaladup, for example, just across from Banedup, there are two men
there, whose jobs happen to be to harvest the coconuts. It's kind of funny
, really, because you can walk from one tip of the island to the other in about two minutes.
There is a boat, larger than the canoes you'll typically see, laden with fruits and vegetables that will come to your boat. Even if you don't need anything, introduce yourselves and find out what their delivery
schedule is. I think they come by every day, but I don't remember. One of the Yansaladup caretakers came by and offered to go to one of the islands to get us beer
. He, as a local, pays $1 US per beer, but he would charge you $2US per beer. He paddles over in his dug-out. The dug out canoes are called cayucos.
Oh yeah, if you want those 'money-shot' photos, go to Banedup Island, well before the sun sets. Sit at the picnic table closest to the 'bar,' on the side of the table closest to the water
, and face the sun. Just do it, and you'll see what I mean. I wish I had the photos to show you. When I got back to Toronto, my laptop
crashed (maybee too many photos?), and I lost
all of them. I don't know if any of you saw 'Police Academy,' the first one. Remember when one of the two brown-nosers found his car, after Bubba Smith used it to 'practice?' Remember his reaction? That's what I did when I realized I had lost
all of the photos from a 4-month trip.
I have some of the San Blas photos on my blog, though, but not much.
From the San Blas, we sailed to Colon. We ended up anchoring
just outside of the channel that takes you into Shelter Bay Marina. It was night by then. We were just sitting down with a beer when the police came by and politely told us we weren't supposed to anchor
there, and that the designated anchorage was on the other side of the bay. They said we could stay there for the night but we should leave in the morning. We dinghied into Shelter Bay Marina, that night, and had something to eat. They've got a good restaurant. No ATM. In fact, my Canadian debit card wouldn't work anywhere in Panama, not even in Panama City. I had to borrow $100 from Sebastian, the owner of the boat, and then wired it back to him when I got to Toronto.
We headed for the designated anchorage in the morning. This is when the unpleasantness started. The DA is in the middle of nowhere. We dinghied into the only inlet we could find, searching for the old yacht club. We saw one building that looked like it could have been a yacht club building, but it was all fenced off. We had read somewhere that the old yacht club's dinghy dock
was still there. In any case, to my knowldedge, based on that search we did, there is no old yacht club anymore. That made us worry, because we could see from the boat, before we even got in the dingy, that the whole area, for a few miles, was where containers were unloaded from ships. That told us that the entire place was a high-security area, and even if we could find a hole in the fence and were able to make it to a street to hail a cab, without getting robbed or killed, we'd probably get shot by the shipyard security
So, w dinghied for a mile and a half, searching for a place to dock
the dinghy but couldn't find anything that looked like a dinghy dock. We doubled back and decided to head
toward a spot where a few fishing
boats were tied up. It was total luck, but not only were we able to tie up, but that was where the customs
and immigration office happened to be. However, it was a concrete pier, about four feet high. We put ourselves between two 18' fishing
boats and clambered up onto the pier.
A word, first, about the area. Colon is a shithole, plain and simple. Not sure what happened to that place, because a lot of the buildings are beautifully designed, and I could see that a lot of thought went into the architecture. But is seems like one day someone decided that Colon didn't matter anymore and just let it go to pieces. While we were searching for the dinghy dock, for example, we could see that some of the buildings on shore looked like bombed out Beirut. I've done a lot of crew gigs, all over the world, and that was the only time I was afraid. I kept praying that our little two-stroke outboard
wouldn't konk out on us. It has never had to take us more than a hundred meters before, and here it was being pushed to take us over a mile. I could see the headlines flashing in my mind, as we dinghied further and further away from the yacht, passing neighborhoods that were clearly the kind of places that I would never venture into, even in daylight- "Canadian and German robbed and killed after drifing ashore when dinghy engine
gave out." So, whoever put the designated anchorage where it is, didn't give much thought to it.
Sebastian and I were really freakin' pissed to have been placed in that situation. Ok, maybe we missed the place that we were supposed to go, but, still, they put the anchorage right beside an area that not only is the ghetto of the city, but in a spot where it is really difficult to figure out and to manouvre in. We were forced to dinghy between giant ships and piers, and around speeding pilot boats. The other thing I was constantly thinking about is what if we had to make the dinghy trip back in the dark? We didn't have a light with us.
Anyway, back to customs and immigration. Once we were on the pier, we were met by a woman who was wearing official-looking tags around her neck. She looked like one of the dancers you see in seedy bars- busoms hanging out, skin-tight jeans, three-inch heels, and long, decoratively painted fingernails. We first had to go to a small office and pay the docking
fee of $10US. Then the dancer, I mean immigration officer, took us to her office. As I was getting on a plane in less than 72 hours, the time allotted to those coming in to the country by water
, I was cleared in right away, no charge. Sebastian, however, was going on to transit the canal, so he had to, at least, pay for a visa. But, when he was asked to pay a $75 overtime fee, he refused. He explained that we arrived well before the cut-off time, and it was their fault that it took so long to process us. For example, I needed to show that I had pre-purchased plane tickets, but they didn't have an internet
connection so I couldn't show them my Etickets. Next thing I know, we're in a cab, heading for a place that has wifi
, so that I could prove I had the plane tickets. Well, on the way, I had them stop so that I could use my debit card at an ATM. That's when I found out that my Canadian RBC card doesn't work in Panama. In any case, as far as we're concerned, a customs and immigration office should be prepared with an internet service
. Surely I wasn't the first person that was required to show proof of airline tickets, and surely I wasn't the first person that had an Eticket. They also needed to photocopy some of Sebastian's documents. Shouldn't they have photocopiers in a customs and immigration office? So, with the immigration officer, and some other guy, in tow, we went from place to place, trying to get things done that they should have been able to back in their government
When we got back to the office, Sebastian was told he had to pay $60 for a cruising permit
, from a different person in that office. Fine, he paid it. By this time we were both frustrated and fed up. The other problem, of course, is that they didn't have a person there that could speak English
. Again, something that you'd figure they'd be prepared for, right? So, after paying the $60 for the cruising permit
, all Sebastian wanted was to pay the $100US (same thing Markus paid in Porvenir) and then leave.
But the woman refused to allow him to pay the $100 for the visa, until he paid the $75 overtime fee. Sebastian refused. She refused to give him his passport back. So, Sebastian walked out of the office, leaving his passport with the immigration officer. The woman spoke to me, all in Spanish of course, without thinking that maybe it would be helpful is she slowed her speech down a bit. I again asked for a translator but I was given no answer. I went back out to where Sebastian was, and told him that the woman said he needed to pay or she would call the police. Sebstian walked back into the office and asked to see where his passport was, just to make sure she didn't take it home with her. She showed him that it was in the top drawer of her desk.
Sebastian left again, and I followed. He wanted to get something to eat, and so did I. We hadn't eaten all day. As we passed through the security
gate and into the street, we ran into the officer that we paid the $10 dinghy fee to, and he quietly said, "she's a very bad woman." As we walked further along the street, we noticed a bunch of police officers pull up on bicycles. It didn't appear that they were called by the dancer. There are police officers on bicycles all over the place anyway. So, Sebastian took the opportunity to try to explain what was going on. It wasn't so much about the money
, with Sebastian, it was the principal. He felt that if he caved in and paid, then the next yacht owner that showed up would be expected to pay, and probably be charged even more, etc, etc. After talking to the police for a couple of hours, with the sun dangerously close to the horizon, the police paddywagon showed up and we were transported to the police station. The immigration officer sat in the front seat. At this point I wasn't afraid. Frankly, I didn't even have to be there, because I was cleared in already and good to go. But there was no way in hell I was going to abandon Sebastian in that situation. Actually, I was thinking that this would be good material for my blog.
So, we get to the station, and were put into a urine-soaked waiting room, that was filled with scantilly-clad women whom I guessed were prostitutes. I tried to get a few photos with my phone
, but was immediately verbally attacked by my fellow inmates and told that I couldn't take photos. We were finally called out of the waiting cell and we stood in the hallway, repeating that we needed an interpreter. Oh yeah, by that time, the immigration officer had changed her story and said the $75 wasn't an over time fee, it was for something else. What was it for, we asked? They couldn't tell us. Then one of the prostitutes was called over to act as translator, but she couldn't speak English any better than the other, so our question still went unanswered. At no time were the police officers threatening us. I susptected it was a scam that the police were in on, anyway, so I still wasn't worried. If that was how Sebastian wanted to handle this, I was behind him. He is a man of principal and he shouldn't waver. Frankly, after the immigration officer changed her story about the fee, I felt certain that she was putting herself in a different situation so she could extricate herself, if Sebastian remained adamant, by saying, "sorry, it was all just a misunderstanding." I think she was starting to worry because now Sebastian was asking to talk to the head
However, right about that time, I happened to look to my right and I saw one of ther other inmates, who was behind the bars of a cell that we couldn't see from the waiting room we were just in. He gestured with his hands, going through the motions of putting on an imaginary rubber glove. That, along with the maniacal look on his face was enough for me. I turned to Sebastian and whispered, "hey, maybe we should pay the fee." He saw the look on my face and paid the money
We cabbed it back to the immigration building, with the immigration officer. Then Sebastian and I went to the open-terraced bar, just outside the immigration office security gate, and order four beers, two for each of us. Then the imm. officer came over and asked if we could buy her a bottled water. Huh?! So we did. Who wants more trouble right? Then I found out that she wanted to 'get to know me,' if you know what I mean. That's when we decided to buy a few more beers and take them back to the boat. In the meantime, some guy had come up and helped himself to one of my cigarettes, and another guy came up a picked up my duffel bag and placed it on the bar, telling me it isn't safe to leave my bag beside me on a chair. Oh yeah, remember the other guy, the one that was with us when were roaming all over, trying to show proof of my plane tickets? He asked Seb for $40US, a fee, he said, for the time he spent with us. We didn't even know who the hell he was or who he worked for. We really wanted to get the hell out of there, asap.
Next morning, the immigration officer was waiting for us at the office, and we all climbed into another taxi and paid another $3 and went to the main immigration office, downtown. Seb and I looked at each other, thinking, why the hell didn't we just go straight there in the first place?! We waited for an hour and then Sebastian finally had his visa and was given his passport back. Our mistake was that we didn't research
enough. We should have checked in at noonsite to see if anyone posted any info about clearing into Panama, in Colon.
Next day, I bought a bus ticket to Panama City.
So, no problem in the San Blas Islands. Watch your depths carefully and move slowly. Colon, however, is another story- "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here....."
I'll leave my story there, but if you have any other specific quesions, don't hesitate to ask. My intention was to give a synopsis, anyway, so I know I've let out a bunch of other possibly useful stuff.