Finally Bocas Del Toro, Panama … a Winterlude Update

Given the current not so good news with cruisers being robbed, I went back to read our logs and thought I’d share how enchanted we were when we first sailed into Bocas Del Toro, Panama.   In this photo, Winterlude waits for first light to approach the Bocas Del Toro after a fast overnight sail from San Andres, Columbia.  Being commuter cruisers, we left Winterlude in the Bocas Marina and flew back to the US for hurricane season (even though Bocas is out of the hurricane zone).  Note that the log below does not contain local knowledge and timely information from Bocas and if you plan to visit, you should check with cruisers with current experience.


Arriving at Bocas Del Toro, along with our buddyboat, s/v Bruadair,  before daybreak under sail, we kept slowing & slowing the boat until we were doing less than 2 knots & STILL had to do circles outside the seabuoy for an hour waiting for daylight.  The good news was that we had turned off the diesel just outside the San Andres seabuoy a mile & a half outside the Bocas seabuoy!  Daylight that morning was obscured behind a heavy cloud layer, but  with the well marked channel, we made our way in & dropped our anchor off the Bocas Marina & Yacht Club by 7:30 AM in 8 feet of surprisingly clear water.  Both of us were too excited to get any sleep despite the fact that we’d had almost none for 48 hours … so we brewed a pot of coffee and sat in the cockpit taking in the beauty of the surroundings and enjoyingn our first glimpse of Panama.

The View From WInterlude's Cockpit Anchored in the Anchorage South of Bocas Marina

The View From WInterlude's Cockpit Anchored in the Anchorage South of Bocas Marina

Bocas Del Toro is located in the northwestern corner of Panama — surprisingly Panama runs mainly east & west — look at a map, Central America takes a BIG curve and Panama is the horizontal part of the curve!  We’re approximately 30 miles south of Costa Rica.  The scenery & biodiversity here is every bit as good as Costa Rica, but not as publicized, so tourism is just beginning – Panama advertises itself as “the adventure less traveled” — which appeals to both David & I!   The archipelago is made up of two large lagoons, Bahia Almirante & Laguna de Chiriqui featuring 8 major islands, over 50 cays and more than 200 patches of sand & palm trees or mangroves — all just begging to be explored!  Unfortunately, WInterlude has to give up the adventure to head back to Illinois, but we’ll return in the fall & enjoy the Bocas area as well as the Rio Chagres, the river that was dammed to form Gatun Lake for the Panama Canal — the Caribbean side below the dam has been reclaimed by nature & indigenous tribes, others tell of anchoring close to the jungle with howler monkeys & toucans in the trees literally above their decks!  I can’t wait!  Other cruisers tell us that the Bocas area of Panama alone merits a year or two of exploration.  We have no idea how long we’ll explore here, but it’s already showing promise!  🙂

Curious Children in the local Ngobe Bugle indigneous village

Curious children in the local Ngobe Bugle indigneous village

Christopher Columbus was awed when he discovered Bocas on his four & final voyage to the new world.  We were very pleasantly surprised to sail in through clear waters, coral and sand with the stripings of blue, aqua, crystal green & white that the Columbian islands featured, maybe not quite so prominent here, but still awe inspiring for first time visitors!

Banana Plantations at Changuinola, Panama

Banana Plantations at Changuinola, Panama

The local Bocas residents are mainly “Creole”, descended from protestant blacks, chinese & various indigenous Ngobe Bugle tribes. Well over two hundred years ago, the banana industry began & shaped the future of the entire area when the United Fruit Company was established.  Today we see more bananas than we’ve seen in any other location (and I thought Belize had alot of bananas, until we arrived in Bocas Del Toro!) – locally Panamanians, Jamaicans, Colombians and four indigenous Indian tribes work for Chiquita Bananas, exporting over a million tons of bananas a year – what’s that song that Kenny used to sing at regatta campfires?  Something about 30 thousand pounds of bananas going down a hill in a mountain?… that’s Panama! And that’s ALOT of bananas!!!  On a side adventure to Changuinola, the water taxi landed at Finca 63, one of many many Chiquita fincas, or farms.  We got to watch the automated banana transport … picture if you will, standing in line at King’s Island amusement park waiting for one of those big rollercoasters that have basket cages hanging from the top … as you wait, you watch the line of cages come toward you until finally one stops by your number, the door opens & you climb in.  Instead of rollercoaster baskets, visualize the same thing, but literally miles long & has green banana stalks with blue bags over riding toward it’s ultimate destination in a processing stand.  The bananas just keep on moving & the production location just keeps on removing, processing & packing them in yellow & blue Chiquita boxes.  Fascinating!  We never did get to see where they actually started the journey, but the overhead infrastructure was every few rows & ran for miles in between, so I guess the workers could be picking the bananas & attaching to the conveyor line miles away!    I’ll always picture the banana lined up for the rollercoaster ride everytime I eat a Chiquita banana!!!

Changuinola Water Taxi Ride

Changuinola Water Taxi Ride

Actually we originally went to Changuinola because everyone said the water taxi ride was not to be missed … originating in Bocas (which is a small town on Isla Colon),  you pay your $5 & zip across the lagoon passing Bocas Del Drago to enter a small crooked channel that was originally dredged by the fruit company to aid in exporting bananas.  Now the bananas don’t have nearly as fun a ride, they’re packed on a semi-truck to a banana carrier ship elsewhere.  The channel was carved through the jungle & the scenery & birdlife is stunning.  We kept watching for crocodiles, but didn’t see any, darn!

Check in in Bocas was painless, after arriving at the Bocas Marina later the morning we arrived, we were boarded by 3 officials.   Boarding was the toughest part … most marinas in Central America don’t have extra dock space so you can just step on & off the boat …. oh no!  You have to climb aboard over the bow rail or over the bow itself and wouldn’t you know, it was high tide, so the boat loomed a full 5 feet above the sidewalk with no step to help.    One of the two ladies in high heels took off her shoes & climbed on anyway…. the other stood in the hot sun & asked for some cool water while she waited….. luckily for her, it only took a few minutes & then they all climbed in their panga, put on their orange collar life preservers and zoomed away.

That’s another thing that’s different about Panama … it is the LAW that if you’re in a boat, you must wear a life preserver.  You see all the tour boats going out with 10 people, all with neon orange life preserver collars around their necks.  Talk about HOT!!!   The climate here is pretty consistent … 92 degrees every day, down to the upper 70’s at night, lots of humidity, thank goodness for our little Maytag $80 window airconditioner … we can only use it at the dock, which isn’t often, but when we’re getting the boat ready to store for a few months, it’s the best!!! Glad we allocated the space to bring it with us!

Adorable curious children were everywhere as we had a tour of the Ngobe Bugle village by the village chief

Adorable curious children were everywhere as we had a tour of the Ngobe Bugle village by the village chief

It only took about 10 minutes after arriving at the marina to glance down the dock & see s/v Bold Venture, a boat we shared anchorages with frequently last year in the Bay Islands …. Gloria & Gary had their daughter aboard for a visit & Gloria had organized tours every day to make sure Alia didn’t miss anything!   She invited anyone else in the marina that wanted to tag along to join the fun.  David & I went to Green Acres Farm … two gringos bought 25 acres on an adjacent island over 10 years ago, discovered there were cacao trees & figured out how to make chocolate!  Their chocolate is all hand processed every step of the way & is sought after from Europe to San Diego!  Unfortunately, with only Dave & his wife, Linda, at the best, they only make 30 lbs a month & that leaves people BEGGING for his chocolate!  The tours are free, he enjoys showing people the biodiversity on his trails & land — we even saw dozens of small neon green & black tree frogs!  At the end of the tour, you can buy a little chocolate … maybe…. unfortunately, he sometimes only has a few bars that he can allow tours to buy because he hasn’t made anymore that day!  We were lucky enough to snag a few bars, but everyone on our tour was limited in what they could buy due to high demand & limited production!   🙂

After the cacao plantation tour, we visited a Ngobe Bugle indigenous village on Isla Bastimentos.  Bastimentos is now a national park, but the local villagers were allowed to continue their centuries old village location.   They have constructed a cement sidewalk through the main part of the village to facilitate tourism, but they still live just as they lived hundreds of years ago… the biggest difference is the “rich” have metal roofs on their wooden bungalows rather than the traditional palm fronds.  The rest of the village has traditional palm fronds.

The houses are all up on stilts, but not due to hurricane surge since hurricanes don’t get down this far (we’re at 9 degrees north & the hurricane belt ends at 10 degrees north).   It was puzzling until one of the villagers explained that it’s so hot that they build their houses on stilts because they can hang hammocks underneath & it creates kind of a basement effect, much cooler.  Chatting with the indigenous is difficult because they speak primarily their own dialect, some are learning Spanish to facilitate tourism, but very few, at least in this village!   David & another cruiser picked up a “trash” plastic lid & proceeded to toss it back & forth like a frisbee in front of three fascinated young boys. Keep in mind, they’re playing in the mud, but the kids were watching with rapt attention… after a bit, the “frisbee” was thrown to the oldest kid watching … he watched it land near him & didn’t move.  David picked it up & tossed it back to our other friend.  A few minutes later, the young indian boy & the two cruisers were playing frisbee together like old friends.  The smiles all around were an incredible experience, the smaller boys were looking on even more interested now that one of their brothers was playing.  I’d love to know what happened after we left … did the older boy teach all the boys to play frisbee with the plastic lid???  One of those life experiences that nothing else touches!!

A bit later, an enterprising young man that spoke excellent spanish took us on the sendero (trail) tour … they have created a nature trail where you see all sorts of wildlife.   The thing I find fascinating in Panama is that the wildlife is like nothing I’ve ever seen … they’re telling us we’ll see caisons … hmmm, what’s a caison?  Turns out it’s a small alligator type creature, we weren’t lucky enough to see them.  We were lucky enough to see the thumbnail size neon red & black poison dart frog!  Obviously, in days gone by, the natives used the frog to poison the tips of their darts & spears!  It was beyond cute, but almost invisible despite it’s bright coloring due to it’s small size!    We also saw western night monkeys … we’ll we didn’t see them well, just shadows swinging through the trees, but they were definitely there!  And do you know what the slowest moving creature in the jungle is????  We saw a sloth hanging from a tree branch!  The guide informed us that this particular sloth was of the three toed variety, apparently there are two toed sloths as well!     That’s another first for Winterlude, we’ve never encountered a sloth before, not even in a zoo!!!   🙂  And I have pictures to prove it!!!

Look closely!  You can see my first sloth!

Look closely! You can see my first sloth!

We spent a second day visiting another Ngobe Bugle village on Isla Cristobal … this village featured a tour of how the ladies make really cool bags, from tiny to large totes from green plants … they are colored with bright colors courtesy of local plant dyes & watching them spin the fibers from the green leaves through their toes & then dying them with all natural dyes was fascinating…. obviously we had the opportunity to purchase some bags, which all of us did.  We also had lunch in a native dwelling… up on stilts, fish with the eyes looking at me were NOT appetizing, but the coconut rice was the best I’ve ever eaten… accompanied by, of all things, orange Tang to drink!  We all looked at each other wondering about the water quality, but due to the intense heat, most partook of the Tang & I have yet to hear of anyone suffering ill effects.  We had a tour of the village where there were 92 kids in a village with a total of 600 population…. there was also a soccer field with bamboo poles make into soccer goals and a basketball court!  They are busy at work constructing a secondary school for the older kids.  The tour was odd in that, there were an abundance of youngsters & women, but young men & ANY men were conspicuously absent.  Turns out they’re all out fishing for the good of the village!   Our hosts for lunch had several families living within the same residence, including a beautiful young women, nursing a brand new baby…. turned out she is 14 years old & her “husband” is also 14 … he was there for part of the lunch & was captivating when playing with the baby!

After just enjoying the very tip of what Bocas Del Toro has to offer, it was time for David & I to fly to Panama City & return to the U.S.  We placed tourist for 2 1/2 wonderful days, watching ships lock through the Pacific side Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, spent some time looking for our friends on s/v SailAbout who we understand made it through the canal & will now be headed across the south Pacific… looked at marine stores, ate at a Bennigan’s … YES, Bennigan’s at an upscale (i.e. mega-million dollar boats) marina, explored Casca Antiguo where the Panamanian Presidential Palace and other old cathedrals and historical buildings reside, as well as another great canal museum.   Finally we caught a cab to the international airport & enjoyed a flight back to Houston & then on the Indianapolis via Continental Airlines.

Can’t wait to return to Bocas & Winterlude…. but in the meantime, we are busy enjoying daughter, Aly’s wedding celebrations!  More soon, will update the blog with all the photos from this winter’s cruise, but it may be later in the spring when I have time!!!  STAY TUNED!!!!!


J&D, back at the lake in Illinois … where it was 75 & sunny, but blowing 20 + today (Sunday, April 22nd)!!!

Winterlude stayed behind at Bocas Marina in Bocas Del Toro, Panama, being ably looked over by marina workers and friends…. hopefully all will be well for September!!!






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