Having saturated ourselves in palm tree covered islands, turquoise waters and sandy beaches, it was time to explore a different side of Panama. Our next port of call was to be Shelter Bay Marina, via a stop over in Linton Bay to sleep and refuel, which is at the entrance to the Panama Canal. After a frisky sail down (I now hold the speed record of 11.7 knots !!) towards the Cristobel breakwater we radioed in to check which tankers, cargo ships and cruise liners we needed to dodge between to enter the canal area and Shelter Bay. We were advised to proceed and just keep out of the way of the 'big boats', but had an exciting moment when one of the 'big boats' decided he didn't want yachts in the way and radioed to say “clear the area now” - a command that we 'small boats' were very willing to obey !
Safely tied up in the marina we immediately switched into shoreside life and headed for the bar. It was a little bit of a culture shock after Guna Yala to see a 'normal' bar, restaurant, swimming pool etc... and so many people in one place. Shelter Bay Marina is a little out on a limb, but I rather enjoyed the fact we had to cross the Panama Canal via ferry when we wanted to go to the shopping centre. The pay-off for being out of town was the incredible wildlife that surrounded the marina. It was amazing to simply stroll for a few minutes in the early morning and be surrounded by birds and monkeys and other unusual animals. We woke each morning to the sound of the howler monkeys and checked for the resident crocodile in the afternoons. Absolutely wonderful.
A visit to Panama City was a must for us and our visit luckily coincided with carnival time. The marina had kindly arranged the trip to take in a visit to Fort Lorenzo and the new Panama Canal locks en-route, so we had a fascinating day exploring old and new in Panama. Once in Panama City, we returned to the world of high rise buildings and traffic, with a great hotel on the waterfront. After a sundowner in the hotel bar with our fellow cruisers, we headed out to see what the carnival had to offer. We had been advised to carry very little with us in case of pickpockets, but found that it was so safely guarded we couldn't get in ! Steve spent a while negotiating with the police and army about our lack of id cards and passports, explaining that they were all locked up in the safe at the hotel, and eventually our group was allowed to enter. We then had to go through a very thorough pat down/search and at last we were in. It was a fun event with music, costumes and floats, but seemed a little low key compared to some of the Caribbean carnivals we have been to. At least the beer was very cheap.
We spent a couple of days exploring the old city and catching up with our friends who had done their canal transit and were about to sail off to the South Pacific, with a little carnival activity thrown in. It seemed strange to see some of the Guna Yala ladies walking around the city in their full tribal costume and they were certainly a contrast to some of the more risqué carnival costumes we saw.
Back in Shelter Bay and we were finally able to get our new wind turbine fitted after many hours of frustrating hammering to get the old turbine off the pole, with much assistance from our wonderfully helpful rally chums. Apparently the previous owner had decided adding “Locktight” was a good move. I also found the marina to be a fascinating place to see yachts getting ready for their Panama Canal transits. Activities included getting the yacht measured, hiring huge lines and fenders, and stocking up with provisions. A vital element was to obtain additional people on board for a couple of days as mooring line handlers and a number of our rally friends were able to volunteer for this. Some had a night time transit and some a daytime transit, but they all seemed to enjoy the experience. Something we will have to try another time.
The key highlight for our time in Colon has to be a visit to see Steve's son on board the super yacht he works on as 2nd officer. It seems incredible that we were all at the Panama Canal at the same time, but we always say that sailing is a small world. The captain had kindly agreed to us being allowed on board and our dinghy certainly looked very tiny as we tied up to the huge super yacht platform. The yacht was beautiful and our visit was all too brief, but how fantastic to be able to snatch a couple of hours together. Who knows when and where in the world we will meet again.
We really enjoyed our time at Shelter Bay, but felt that we had only scraped the surface of Panama the country. Still, the sea beckoned and having stocked up, we said goodbye to the helpful staff and headed north for San Andres.
I am always excited to arrive in a new country and the San Blas islands or Guna Yala territory in Panama, certainly feels like a different country and way of life. We had read and heard much about the Guna Indians and how they live in their autonomous area of Panama and were excited about developing our own impressions of these people.
Our arrival anchorage was at the island of Los Pinos and this is where we had our first experience of meeting the locals and visiting a typical village. Being a little vertically challenged myself, I was interested to see that the Guna are indeed as short as I had been told. We were welcomed ashore and into the village and struck by the ordered nature of the settlement. The unique tribal dress worn by the ladies was amazingly colourful and I remained fascinated by these outfits throughout our time in Guna Yala.
The apparently simple way of life soon forced us to slow down after the buzz of Colombia and relax back into island hopping. As we moved up the chain of islands the sea became clearer and full of starfish and we started to notice subtle differences in the Guna lifestyle. Some of the island villages had small shops and concrete buildings, some had just a few palm huts amongst the coconut plantations, many islands were uninhabited. How lovely to be back in an area where there are no vehicles and everyone either walks, canoes or swims to get around. We were never going to be able to visit every island (there are over 340), but were pleased to be able visit a number of different cays including The Holandes Cays, Lemon Cays and Naguargandup Cays.
We found the Guna Indians to be friendly and quietly reserved. The locals who visited us in the dugout canoes to sell lobster or molas (appliqué) or fruit, were not pushy and sometimes interested to have a look around the yacht or have a drink on board. Sometimes they preferred to swap coconuts and bananas for sunglasses or rice – exchanges we enjoyed. We had the occasional visitor collecting anchoring fees, but generally felt that the locals were happily carrying on with their own lives with just a friendly wave to the yachties anchored in their waters.
We had some fun times with other rally cruisers when we met up for meals and beach bbqs and were lucky to be able to catch up with other friends before they sailed off to Colon in readiness for their Panama Canal transit. Whilst everyone seemed to be enjoying their time in Guna Yala, we all remarked on the dreadful amount of plastic waste that was being washed up on the islands. It seemed a constant stream of plastic was washing in from other countries and we really felt for the islanders as options for waste removal were limited. One of the village chiefs suggested that 7 tonnes of plastic is washed into their territory each year. Terrible.
Valentine's Day was set to be another fun packed day which sadly ended in complete tragedy. One of our lovely rally friends suffered a massive heart attack and, despite the fantastic efforts of many fellow cruisers and doctor, could not be saved. We had only know each other for a few months, but sailing creates quick and strong friendships and our whole community mourned his passing. His wife was and continues to be incredibly brave as she faces a different future. She takes some comfort from knowing that he was loving his retirement on board their yacht and that they had spent the day laughing and exploring this beautiful area together.
Inevitably our memories of our time in the Guna Yala islands are tinged with sadness, but we also look back at our photographs and remember the fun times we shared with our friends as we sailed through this unique area. How lucky we feel to be able to continue our sailing adventures through fascinating countries, meeting wonderful people.