Sail Gemini -- Panama: The Pacific Side
Updated September 10, 2004
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Panama City Las Perlas El Valle The Canal
Note: Click on any small "thumbnail" photos to see the large photo.
The Bridge of the Americas
This is the famous landmark at the entrance to the Panama Canal on the Pacific Side. Fortunately, we had the luxury of spending six months exploring Las Perlas islands, the tropical forests along the canal and some mountainous inland locations before bringing Gemini through the Canal into the Caribbean Sea. Following are highlights of this well-kept secret called "Panama".
Entering Panama City
The journey from Costa Rica to Panama was a bit rushed because we had to make our flights out of Panama City for Thanksgiving. We anchoraged overnight at Quepos, Drake, Las Secas, Cebaco and Naranjo and were blessed with favorable winds rounding Punta Mala, so headed straight for the Balboa anchorage, bypassing the beautiful Las Perlas Islands until after Christmas. Shortly after seeing huge ships and a clear entry into the anchorage, we were greeted with a sudden storm and, after getting clearance from vessel traffic control, had to navigate by radar in nearly "white rain" conditions.
Panama City is huge--full of restaurants, shops, technology stores, high fashion and, yes, marine supplies. It is truly the crossroad of the world, where ships of all shapes and sizes pass by the humble anchorage where "mere mortals" await their turn to pass. While waiting, we enjoyed a lunch at the historical Pedro Miguel Yacht Club in the middle of the canal, a facility that is being phased out, unfortunately.
The land travel in Panama was easy, affordable and just as exotic as Costa Rica, but the attractions are harder to find. One trip was a three-hour bus ride to El Valle for $3. The Los Capitanes hotel was immaculate and the German owner was friendly and extremely helpful. Yellow frogs abound in the hotel pond, and the "bloop bloop" sound from creek frogs made the nights enchanting. Bird watching on the grounds was most productive sitting on your private veranda with a cocktail, waiting for a mot mot or a Baltimore Oriole to alight on a branch a few feet from you. I was embarrassed to admit how much I enjoyed that! Still, when Les and I took a one-hour hike, we saw a four-winged dragon fly-type insect that looked like a bola in action, and a beautiful red bird we have yet to identify.
Our visit to the Pacific side of Panama was wonderful, as you can glimpse from the remaining story. The grand finale was transiting the Panama Canal on April 21, an experience so unique, no description can do it justice. (Except possibly The Path Between the Seas.) The engineering was fascinating and a sense of history overwhelmed us--but I have to admit, it was stressful just thinking about all the things that could go wrong! Of course, with agent Enrique Plummer, everything went perfectly. (You can contact him at (507) 674-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org) Click here for more photos of our transit.
Las Perlas Islands
These islands lie only about 30 miles out of Panama City, yet offer a variety of wildlife, seafood and tropical plants, which kept us amused for two months. The most well-known is Isla Contadora, a relatively sophisticated island with small grocery stores, restaurants and even an airstrip. Recently, however, this island became famous for its "Survivor" television series episodes, where mere mortals were challenged by "the elements". As you can see from the photos, things weren't all that uncivilized.
We enjoyed the atmosphere of Contadora and were entertained by retired German Gunther, who runs the disciplined "Pacific Island" ham net in the evenings.
This was our favorite anchorage by far. The waters were calm, the hikes were inspirational and there was even good snorkeling nearby, an experience we cherished since leaving the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. The primitive environment meant we had to negotiate with the locals for coconuts (4 for $1), bake bread and catch our own dinner, but it was worth it.
Isla San Jose
Isla San Jose in Las Perlas is usually the first stop for cruisers, and a glorious island it is! These photos capture some of the magic that we discovered: mysterious rock formations, wildlife and a 5-star resort where we enjoyed a gourmet lunch amidst manicured paths overlooking the bay.
In strong contrast to the resort atmosphere, unique personalities like Dieter and Gerta maintain a "Robinson Crusoe" lifestyle on the far end of the island. This German couple arrived by sailboat over 20 years ago and are a "must visit", as we think Freebird crewmembers would agree. More on Dieter & Gerta.
The beauty of San Jose is captured here in a tropical path and a mesmerizing root system. Les had to leave early--the no-see-ums got him immediately.
Isla Caseya & Isla Del Rey
Not all the islands were prosperous, but each one had a beauty all its own. A visit to Caseya for a Valentine's Day pearl revealed only an abundance of vodka for sale, but we were rewarded beyond our expectations by the beautiful canoes and charming children. Do cruisers Linda & John from Hawkeye and Charles & Theresa from El Regalo look like they're having too much fun?
A distinct benefit of the nearby anchorage was delicious seafood like the scallop and conch proudly displayed by Hawkeye's Linda. When "hunting", we took advantage of extreme tidal ranges (up to 14 feet) , but it was sobering to put down the anchor with a benign-looking sandbar behind you then wake up in the morning surrounded by treacherous rocks.
Another treat: a phone booth in Ensenada (population 183) on Isla del Rey--and it was working!
We were sad to leave riends like Mason & Nan from Run Free, Gus from Nakiska and John & Susan of Compaņia.
Goodbye Las Perlas!
Tough place to leave, but leave we must! After 6 months on the Pacific side of Panama, we decided to go through the Panama Canal and test the waters of the Caribbean. "Laid back" in the Caribbean makes the Pacific side look like "Type A"!
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