Pre-Canal

The bar at Balboa Yacht Club may be one of the greatest people watching places on the planet. There are all manner of people passing through and one of the main activities is lining up crew for going through the Canal. You need a minimum of five people on board to make the transit with one driver and four line handlers.  Since very few cruising boats have enough people on board you can’t sit around Balboa Yacht Club very long until you’re sure to be either asked if you need crew or want to crew for someone. Several of the boats moored at the club were looking for crew and there were usually at least a few youngsters making the rounds and posting a note on the board to offer their services.
Finding Canal crew for Mermaid wasn’t an issue. We had people lined up months before who wanted to come down and tick off the “Crewed for a boat through the Panama Canal” item on their bucket list. As the day of our Panama Canal transit approached our canal crew arrived. Mike’s Brother David Stout and our long time friends Kathy Ross and Holly Scott, the owner of Charlie’ Charts, flew in and spent several days helping with last minute boat chores and exploring Panama City. The crew visited the Canal Museum at the Miraflores Locks where they watched our friends on Neko pass through, visited the fish market and wandered through the streets of Casco Viejo, the still being restored section of old Panama City with architecture similar to what you find in the French Quarter in New Orleans. Everyone enjoyed the French ice cream shop we stumbled upon on a side street in Casco Viejo that offered exquisite ice cream and some very interesting flavors. Robin loved the basil ice cream … the lavender, not so much.  We spent our evenings toasting the sunset on the foredeck with a round of Rony Mangos (Dark rum and Coconut rum with Mango juice over ice) as we watched the never ending parade of ships passing through the channel that to and from the Canal.

Panama City

After anchoring out in secluded anchorages in western Panama and the Perlas Islands for many weeks the first sight of the skyscrapers of Panama City were a shock. Mermaid motored in from the Perlas through flat, calm seas we picked up a mooring off Tobago, an island seven miles offshore from Panama City. We found dozens of ships waiting to go through the Canal anchored between us and Panama City and the bright neon signs were clearly visible at night. The first step of going through the Canal was getting measured and the appointed day of our measurement we navigated through many, many ships into the La Playita Anchorage where we anchored and awaited the arrival of the Canal Representative. When he didn’t show at the appointed hour we called our agent who gave us some sage advice. ”When in Panama, one must be patient.” Sure enough, the pilot boat approached a short while later and we were duly declared fit for a passage through the Canal. We settled in on a mooring at the Balboa Yacht Club. The price was outrageous but the place had such a charm that we just couldn’t leave. The bar was the crossroads for sailors that were getting ready for a transit or those that had just completed one. It was also the hangout for an eclectic mix of ex-pat boat workers, canal agents and barflies. The moorings are just outside the Bridge of the Americas and only a few hundred yards from the ship channel that leads to the canal so there it was a fantastic place to watch the world go by. Our friends aboard Neko were on a mooring near us, which made for great fun exploring Panama City. The malls in Panama City were shockingly huge. We spent the days shopping, eating out, doing boat chores, visiting museums and visiting with other cruisers. We watched the World Cup of Soccer with locals, our agent and other cruisers. We enjoyed the restaurants and entertainment. What a difference this place was than anywhere we had ever been. Panama City is a place where no matter where we went we’d trip over history. From the ruins of Panama Viejo, the city started by the Spanish in the early 1500s, to the recently restored Cacso Viejo, where the city was rebuilt after it was sacked by Henry Morgan in 1671 to the buildings of the Canal zone there was something of interest everywhere we’d turn.

Perlas Islands

Cruising the Perlas Islands in the wet season meant that we were not going to have any problems finding a place to drop the hook in a crowded anchorage. It was more likely that we’d have the place to ourselves not worrying about how close our neighbors were. We’d met up with a French couple on H2O while anchored at Pedro Gonzales but that was it.
The only real island with significant civilization was Contadora. We needed to check emails and get a few groceries and when we got there the calmest anchorage was off the nudist beach. There weren’t many nudists but there were a couple of boats already anchored there. There was a French power cat that seemed to think that the nudist beach extended into the anchorage and an Australian boat with an extended family on board, that based on the wailing of the toddlers were having some quality family time. As we were sitting in the cockpit watching the world go by Robin saw a sailboat approaching and said “Hey, that looks like Tug Tub”. Yep, that’s right, Tug Tub, the name’s a long story. Mike said that the odds of running across some friends from Mexico that we haven’t seen in over a year down here were pretty long but Robin hailed them on the radio. There was no response and they anchored on the other side of the Island. Oh well.
The next morning we hopped in the dingy and decided that the best place to land the dingy was a beach around the corner so we headed that way and as we cruised up to the beach there was Tug Tub setting at anchor. After lots of smile and hugs we headed out for a week or so of dingy adventures, beach combing and rum tastings with Tug Tub.
Most days we flagged down a local fishing panga and bought whatever they had caught for dinner. Usually that meant lobster which we paid a few bucks apiece for but we also scored a couple of what the locals call Sierra, a very tasty mackerel and one day brought home an octopus. The lobsters and Sierra ended up on the grill and after a lot of cook book consultations we went through a long process of preparing the octopus to tenderize it. We ended up grilling it and it was tasty but something in our process went awry because it was as tender as shoe leather. Oh well, I guess we’ll just stick with lobster. It was great getting to buddy boat with old friends until they had to head for Panama City and then back to the USofA.

Mermaid is in Panama!

Panama is a paradoxical place. The canal generates over two billion in fees annually and Panama City is a modern city with high rises dotting the skyline. However, when you get away from the bright lights much of the country is undeveloped and still very much part of the third world. We enjoyed the pristine waters and beaches of Islas Secas where we found tide pools brimming with life and orchards growing in the trees along the beach. In Bahia Honda we enjoyed the calm waters, went into a small village where there was one phone and no streets or cars. Phillip, a young Panamanian who told us he needed to practice his English (he was right but it was much better than our Spanish) latched onto us as we pulled up and gave us the grand tour. We visited a school where 150 students came from all over the area and bought a cold drink from the local tienda where everything is brought in by panga after a several hour trip up the river.
It was hard to leave this calm anchorage but we wanted to see the Perlas Islands. We played dodge squall and ship all through the night. Just as soon as we thought we had gotten away from a squall another one would build right on top of us! It was a long, wet, bumpy night and we were very happy to arrive at San Juan. We went to both anchorages on San Juan and both were rolly… we already had enough of rolly so continued on to Isla Pedro Gonzales.
Wow… what a pretty anchorage and very calm. A French boat came in not long after us and came by for a glass of wine. We slept great!
The beaches at Pedro Gonzales are the prettiest we had seen so far. We took the dink around the corner to remote beaches and spent the afternoon exploring. There were agates the size of your fist just laying on the beach. What a place!
We needed to find internet to check in with family and headed to Isla Contadora. We found internet and will explore the islands more.

The Sweet Gulf

Golfito is a special place. It’s located in Golfo Dulce which lives up to it’s name … the sweet Gulf. The big ocean swells don’t come into the Gulf and in addition Golfito is a very well protected bay making this an excellent anchorage. We had received many warnings about Golfito from other cruisers. Everything we had was going to be stolen anytime we left the boat. We brought the jerry cans of diesel and fenders below so that they wouldn’t walk away and took a mooring at LandSea. LandSea is a small, funky marina that has room for a couple of boats to tie up to their dock and three moorings. It’s run by a couple of ex cruiser, ex pats. Tim, a semi crazy, hippie type, runs the Sea part and Katie runs the land part where they have a few rooms to rent. This just may be the most cruiser friendly place on the planet. The prices are more than reasonable, there’s good internet access, laundry service, a nice shower, and to top it off beers are $1. You keep your own tab by marking how beers you get from the fridge on the white board in the Cruiser’s Lounge. Tim lives on his houseboat in keeps a weather eye on all the boats to make sure that nothing gets ripped off. They have about half a dozen dogs that are part of the security team and will bark you to within an inch of your life if they don’t recognize you. Tim really is a character. He spent years as a charted captain and had many stories of past adventures. He is also a nature lover and feeds a sea turtle that has been coming by a few times a week for several years. Who knew that sea turtles liked bananas? We spent our days reprovisioning and doing boat chores then heading in and enjoying a cold one with Tim and the other cruisers on LandSea’s porch overlooking the moorings. Katie told us about a small, palapa restaurant on the beach across the bay and joined us when we headed over the next day. The restaurants were all squatters and they get shut down occasionally but they’re all back in operation a few weeks later. The food was excellent and cheap. Robin had a Lobster dinner. It was a whole grilled lobster, fried plantains, beans and a salad for $6 including a beer. Robin also made a trip to the border to do some shopping with Kim from Maluhia. Costa Rica has high import tariffs making most everything expensive but there is a very strange arrangement at the border with Panama. There’s a street that runs a few blocks where one side is in Costa Rica and one side in Panama. You enter the back doors of the Costa Rica stores and come out the front where you cross the street to shop in Panama. There were several large grocery stores where Robin was excited to find several items that are hard to find in Central America. She came back loaded with blue cheese and green beans. We could have stayed here longer but Panama was calling us so we did the paperwork cha cha to check out of Costa Rica. A morning spent running from migracion to Aduana (customs), waiting over an hour to pay our fees at the bank then got our zarpe from the port captain and we were good to go.

Quepos to Golfito

As we headed down the coast of Costa Rica the landscape turned a verdant green. The reason for this is that further north there are two seasons, wet and dry. Down in the little latitudes the two seasons are wet and wetter, a fact that was made clear to us over the next week. We made a quick stop in a small Bay called Dominicalito where we landed the dingy on a rocky beach and found a resort where we had lunch as white faced monkeys watched us from the balcony. We made it back to the boat where a short time later the bottom fell out of the sky. The runoff from the thunderstorm caused mud stained water from the river to spill into the bay far out into the sea. Leaving Dominicalito behind we headed for Bahia Drake. The Costa Ricans pronounce it Dra-Que and one of the locals on shore told us that the bay was named Dra-Que because Sir Francis Drake had anchored there after raiding the coast of Ecuador. It was a cool spot. We had a great dingy adventure going up a river where the jungle towered over us and exotic birds filled the air with their calls. Back on shore we took a stroll through “town” which is just a small grocery, some houses, a couple of dive shops and a resort. As we headed out we spotted a small Boa Constrictor in a stump near the resort. We stayed one day to long though. The last day we were there we had what Mike termed biblical rain most of the day and worse, the wind kicked up big rollers that came right into the bay. To say it was rolly is an understatement. We were planning on heading out at sunrise the next day but at 12:30 am Mike woke Robin up (on Mother’s Day) and suggested we get the hell outta Dodge. Half an hour later we had the anchor up and were underway heading to Golfito.

Austin Returned to Mermaid

When you reach a certain age being hip just doesn’t have the same importance as it once did. Back in the day hanging out and being cool was the hottest ticket in town but nowadays we’re more likely to be in bed by 9:00 pm than grooving to the latest sounds. Nothing like a visit from a hyper hip 25 year old to remind you that being cool is still important. Austin flew down to Costa Rica and spent a week in his old bunk. We took day trips to the hip surfing towns of Montezuma and Jaco where Austin rented a board and showed he could still shred the waves. We hiked up to a waterfall and had a nice swim in the pool below. On the way down from the waterfall Austin met another hip guy from Guatemala and the compared crystals… We hiked along the edge of Bahia Ballena where we saw a monkey and lots of land crabs. We visited the Manuel Antonio National Park where our guide pointed out poisonous snakes, frogs, monkeys and sloths. When the week was done we put Austin ashore with a bus ticket, hotel reservation and a plane ticket and while things didn’t go as planned Austin made it back to the US and we’ve reverted to an early bedtime.

 

Cruising the Nicoya Peninsula

After leaving marina Papagayo we hopped down the coast of the Nicoya Peninsula stopping at anchorages in Isla Pan de Azucar, Bahia Portero, Playa Conchal. As we were departing Playa Conchal Mike spotted the track and car on the back of the boom had blown out. We headed back into Playa Coco (which meant checking back in) to figure out what to do. We cut the old block off and Maluhia had a spare Velcro strap which we put on the boom and connected the Cunningham to the sail. Now we are set up more like a racing boat but it works! We re-provisioned, checked out and headed for Tamarindo where the water was clear and warm and the swimming was great. When we got to Samara there was a big southwest swell and we spent a couple of very rolly nights before heading for Bahia Ballena where it was nice and flat. We bought a couple of Pargo (similar to a red snapper) from the local fishermen and threw them on the grill just as our friends aboard Maluhia were coming in to anchor. We all had a great meal and a good time catching up.

Our Heads Were in the Clouds

A big Papagayo event was forecast so we decided it would be a good time to get off the boat and do some inland touring. We bit the bullet and left the boat in the very swanky Marina Papagayo arriving about an hour before the winds started to whip the bay into a froth. We shared a rental car and rented a house up in the mountains with Peter, Mary and Lucy of sv Neko and headed up into the mountains to see the Monteverde Cloud forest. Driving in Latin America is always an adventure and Peter did a great job behind the wheel. We avoided the wheel that flew off the 18 wheeler a couple of cars in front of us and avoided the bumps after we got onto the dirt roads up in the mountains. We headed up to the Cloud forest reserve early in the morning and hired a guide for a walking tour. The forest was amazing and our guide Javier was a font of information. We spotted a spider monkey just a few minutes into the walk and saw a wealth of other birds, plants and insects on the tour. We got a good view of a resplendent Quetzal, perhaps the most colorful bird of the Americas and saw Toucans and many hummingbirds. We decided to take the scenic route home and headed down to the coast where we had lunch at a very nice beach bar named Lola’s. We discovered that Lola is an enormous hog who has her pen just behind the restaurant. As evening approached we saw many howler monkeys in the trees along the road including one group that had a small baby just learning to swing through the branches. When night fell we found ourselves lost on very rough dirt roads. We hadn’t seen a car for quite a while when we flagged down a local and asked for direction. We got a barrage of Spanish but Robin did a great job of translating and before long we were back on the pavement and made it safely back to the marina.

Bienvenidos a Costa Rica

Costa Rica has a reputation for having enough red tape to wrap every Christmas gift ten times so we were ready for and entire day of getting inspected detected and neglected by the local officials in Playa Del Coco where we checked in. We hired a cab with the crew of Neko to ferry us from the various offices we had to visit and headed out early. Things didn’t start out well. You have to come armed with multiple copies of several documents and Mike had left one the printer the night before so had to go back to the boat to retrieve it. Once the false start was out of the way things went smoothly and we made the paperwork cha cha from the Port Captain to Migracion, back to the port captain, out to customs then back to the Port Captain without a hitch. We were done by early afternoon and celebrated by having a great lunch at the swanky El Mangrove hotel on the beach near where we were anchored.