While we’re out cruising, I write cruising updates twice a month to send to family & friends and post under Winterlude Updates on the www.sailwinterlude.com website. This was the update I posted when we arrived at Bocas Del Toro – it may give more of a glimpse into Bocas and our commuter cruising adventures in the area than the marina post from yesterday. Enjoy!
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!
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! 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!!!
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.
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!
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 …. their daughter was 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. We visited a Ngobe Bugle indigenous village on Isla Bastimentos. Bastimentos is now a national park, but the local villagers kept 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!