Panama City to Galapagos

After final farewells at Balboa Yacht Club and last minute shopping done, we left Panama City.

A_IMG_7476This passage was the most pleasant we have had by far. We had steady winds on our beam, a 2knot current behind us and calm seas. Having JoAnne and Bill on board meant lots of sleep, laughs, good food and fun for all.

The only hiccup was the burning out of our fan belt when the idler pulley failed. Pretty scary to have black smoke coming from the engine room, but a relief to find it was not a fire. Ian and Bill spent the next day building a replacement pulley from bits on the boat, and it worked!!

We crossed the equator during the night, so postponed our celebration until the following day.

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Crossing the equator was celebrated in style. We wore crowns made by JoAnne, while we told stories, and sipped  French champagne as we toasted our conversion from shellbacks to polliwogs (or is it the other way around?).

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As we wouldn’t make it into port by the evening, we hove to off the top of San Cristobal to clean the hull and to take many photographs posing with our new friends, a pair of red footed boobies perched on our pulpit.

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As the sun rose over Leon Dormido (Sleeping Lion) we drifted down in the current towards San Cristobal Wreck Bay anchorage with the dolphins and sea lions swimming around us.

LandHo2_IMG_3210GA_IMG_3216Bill pushed Sea Cloud along using the tender and we safely anchored. Very exciting to finally be in the Galapagos!

 

 

 

 

Las Perlas Islands

Carnivale over, we left Panama city and its very busy waterways headed for Las Perlas islands, about 40Nm from Panama.

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Our first day out we caught our only fish for the trip. Hard to believe as there were fish everywhere!

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Bill demonstrated the art of filleting the tuna for sashimi.

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The islands were lovely.  Contadora, is the closest to Panama City. It is the most populated island, a popular getaway spot for Panamanians.  It was a very pleasant spot to anchor and explore.IMG_2886

Contadora has a colourful history. The abandoned hotel with its beached ferry were apparently owned by a Colombian drug lord. Once his plane exploded mid air with him aboard, his wife was no longer able to afford running the resort. Such a shame to see the graceful old wooden buildings in ruinIMG_2897The bird life, especially around the southern islands was incredible. Huge flocks of black birds would pass the boat in formation, congregate on the beach for about 30minutes, then leave again. An amazing site.IMG_3047

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We never tired of watching the pelicans flying past and then diving for dinner.IMG_2909

To our great excitement we spotted whales off Elephante Island. It was rather scary but wonderful to have these giants frolicking in the water around the boat. We slowed right down to watch the whales and the huge schools of rays which swam past the boat.

IMG_2921IMG_2920IMG_2956IMG_2981We were all very keen to visit Isla San Telmo, the location of the wreck of a 1860s pearling submarine. The sub was abandoned in 1869 following many deaths due to decompression sickness.  JoAnne and Bill had been wanting to visit this treasure for years.  Low tide was the perfect time for viewing the sub. It is a such shame that this important part of history is just rotting away in this isolated location.

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Anchored on the south coast of Isla Del Rey, we explored the Rio Cacique River by dinghy. Beautiful and fun, but didn’t spot any crocs or other wildlife.

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JoAnne, a ham radio operator finally proved that our SSB worked by chatting with some ham operators in Virginia. We are looking forward to using it to communicate with other cruisers as we head out into the Pacific.

IMG_3244We anchored near San Bernando Islet, on Isla Pedro Gonzalez, looking forward to the walks ashore amongst the herb plantations described in Bauhaus, our very good pilot book. Unfortunately the beachfront has been taken over by the Ritz Carlton, so although we could anchor there and take our dinghy ashore, access any further was forbidden.

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It was great to meet up with Karen and Chris on Skabenga for beach walks, drinks, dinner and hilarious card games….

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We’re now back in Panama city to await our French Polynesian visas and to do a final provision before our much anticipated trip to Galapagos.

Panama City Carnivale

Transit over, we settled into life on our mooring buoy at Balboa Yacht Club, watching the passing traffic, catching up with other cruisers and enjoying Panama city.

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Las Perlas Islands

We had timed our arrival perfectly, managing to coincide with Carnivale.

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Carnivale in Panama is a huge 5 day event with parades and all night parties. The ‘schedule’ was very fluid, never seeming to correspond with the anything we read, or were told. The police on site (and there were masses of them!) were the only ones who really seemed to know what was going on. Security was a huge issue, everyone (including tiny children) had to show ID and then undergo a body search before entering the fenced off parade area along the waterfront.

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Colourful, lively and loud parades were held each night, with the main parade being held on the last night.

 

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Panama Canal

Having a scheduled canal transit date of 15th February, with high winds and seas precluding a windward passage back for another look at the San Blas Islands and little hope of transiting earlier, we headed north on a road trip exploring inland Panama. Our planned few days hiking in the small hill town of Santa Fe was cut short after one day when we “got the call” to transit in within 48hrs. The only thing predictable about Panama is that nothing is predictable and expect the unexpected! … but we weren’t complaining!

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So we left the very pleasant Coffee Mountain Inn scampered back the 300+km to Shelter Bay Marina for a last minute shop (yes – even more provisioning), boat clean, stowing of goodies and most importantly, to find line handlers for our canal transit.  We were delighted when JoAnne and Bill (both qualified commercial captains) from SY Ultra, stepped up to the plate. We were very fortunate to secure their help – both great fun with wicked sense of humour and experienced hands. This would be their 3rd canal transit.

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Delays and change of plan were very common throughout the transit. We left later than scheduled from ‘The Flats’ the anchorage just outside the start of the canal. Apart from the 3 yachts transiting, the only other boat in the choppy, windy anchorage (25-30knots) was the one below.  IMG_7160Ivan, our ‘advisor’ boarded us at the Flats for the transit from Colon to Gatun Lake. We passed under the new bridge which will soon connect the Shelter Bay marina side of the bay with Colon, avoiding the car ferries and water taxis which are now used to cross this busy stretch of water.IMG_3080IMG_3086This first stretch of 3 locks up to Gatun Lake was done in the dark. Once close to the locks, we were rafted up to our friends on SY Panache, a Canadian 48′ Catamaran whome we got to know in Shelter Bay.  Manoeuvring the rafted boats with a 15-20kt tail wind required intense concentration and coordination a among the skippers to avoid passing ships in the channel – especially when we were rafted together. Following the large tanker into the lock then maintaining position with the tail wind and turbulence was the next challenge. Every step of the way was a totally new experience!

IMG_3098IMG_3099The line handlers are incredibly important, dropping a line can rapidly deteriorate into the rafted yachts spinning around out of control and a high probability of hitting the very unforgiving lock sides.

IMG_3141Once the boat is secured the large lock doors close and the locks fill.

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IMG_3107IMG_3149IMG_3125Once the lock is filled, the linesman on the shore pull us into the next lock (there are 3 here) and the process is repeated.

 

IMG_3152Exiting the locks at about 9.30pm, we tied up on a mooring in Gatun lake, ready to repeat the process the following day.

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Luis, our line handler

IMG_2719After a leisurely breakfast, our advisors arrived. We were very privileged to have one of the first female trainee advisors for our transit.

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IMG_2762She was very conscientious and pleasant. She should do well, as she even managed to stand up to Ian. Not an easy task for a young woman.

We were very lucky to have a beautiful day and to transit in the daylight. Below is the Culebra Cut, the most difficult part in the construction of the canal.

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Once we had tied up in the lock we could relax for a while. Well, until the big guy started moving towards us.

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Bill thought he looked a little too close..IMG_2759

I guess its all in a days work for these guys.

IMG_2788IMG_2784The closer we were to the Pacific, the more excited we became. Miraflores lock with its webcam caused the most excitement as our friends at Shelter Bay Marina were relaying their photos to us. Sea Cloud and Beachlands (NZ cat) really do look like toy boats in front of the big fella.IMG-20180209-WA0038IMG_2861The doors of the last lock opened and we were finally in the Pacific. The turbulence in the lock and the size of the ship behind us meant that speed out of the lock was crucial.

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IMG_2840IMG_2845Bridge of the Americas ahead, we were now in the Pacific Ocean, only 7500Nm from Australia!

IMG_2869We are now moored off Balboa Yacht club, a great base close to Panama city. Our visit is perfectly timed to enjoy Panama’s annual Carnivale! Never a dull moment here with ships, water taxis, pilot boats constantly passing. When it’s too bumpy at anchor we retreat to the very pleasant Balboa Yacht club.

 

 

Panama City

Our time in San Blas cut short, entered the Port of Colon earlier than expected and under sail after an engine failure. Here is Ian’s account of our fun.

Made an unscheduled “emergency” passage to Panama yesterday which focused our attention and kept us wondering why we do this stuff. We were about to navigate some very tight shallow reefs in the islands when the engine (aka “green death”) decided to fail. After the WTF’s and teeth gnashing settled (having recently put this engine though a very major service at enormous expense) and only just the day before feeling very smug that I got the generator working again, we needed to decide quickly what to do.  Long story short, we had to turn around, head out to sea and embark on a 15hr (120mile) passage overnight to Panama for repairs. Sat phoned the Canal authority and got permission to enter the harbour under sail first and then had a restless night with fluky winds from 5 – 25kts, and uncomfortable confused sea while trying to keep enough sea room off the coast. Arriving 10miles from the Panama breakwater in the dark & rain, there were ships lights everywhere of course. Waited till dawn, kept out of the shipping lanes and kept the harbour master appraised by VHF each 2miles on approach. He was great and very tolerant! One mile out watching the waves crashing over the breakwater and some very shallow shoals to leeward, he asked us to slip in 10 minutes behind a huge tanker- and keep moving! At this point the wind dropped to 5kts, we had everything up and poled out genoa going nowhere. Fortunately the current wasn’t too bad and the wind then piped up to 12kts, dropped the pole, set the genoa on the other side and entered on a broad reach. We slotted in through the gap 4 minutes behind the tanker. It felt like the start line at the RPA Sat races trying to juggle boat speed and position – would have nailed a perfect start!! Then slipped across the outgoing shipping lane and dropped an anchor out of everyones way (on the edge of the explosives anchorage). Having just a entered Colon harbour and safely anchored I finally relaxed the anal sphincter. I guess it puts hairs on ones chest but some days one feels the one’s rich tapestry has enough threads in it and one just “wants a nice house, a dog and a German car” –  and a lot less adrenaline!! Cathy was absolutely fantastic throughout as we were repeatedly in situations where 2 brains were flat out with sail handling, navigation and pilotage. Even pulled out the Skippers Handbook to revise my lights and shapes with so many ships around in the dark.
Colon is pretty much as the name implies! This end of the canal is a bit weird – definitely not the “oral” end of things. I think many of the sailors, if they are not “going through”,  come here and stay here  for a long time. Anyway, we availed ourselves of happy hour and a hearty meal at Shelter Bay marina last night and crashed out by 8.30pm to fight another day.
The engine fixed (by Ian), Sea Cloud measured and a canal transit date of 15th February booked, we settled in to life in Shelter Bay Marina. There are many ‘boat jobs’ to be done prior to heading out into the Pacific, but the list is almost done! To our surprise, life in Shelter Bay is fun. There are morning yoga sessions, nature walks through the jungle looking for the elusive monkeys behind the marina, cruiser dinners, music nights (with really good music) and many interesting people to meet.
We had our first view of the canal through the marina shopping bus window as we passed by the locks.
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The tourist train from Colon to Panama City was another great opportunity to view the canal and Gatun Lake where we will anchor overnight when we transit.
IMG_6966IMG_6971Panama City was a lovely surprise. The old city is being restored, although the ‘gentrification’ is not popular among many locals who live very cheaply in the old crumbly buildings.
IMG_7067The city is a real mixture of old an new as seen from our rooftop terrace.
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We had our first view of the 5m tides that we’ll encounter on Sea Cloud in a few weeks. This will be the first time in our 7 years of cruising that we will have to think about calculations to ensure that we don’t find our dinghy hanging from the dock if we leave the lines too short. Most of the fishing boats sit on the bottom next to the fish market dock.
IMG_6990We checked out the anchorages and marinas close to Panama City – Amador and La Playita.
IMG_7060IMG_7048Then the express bus back to Colon and the marina. Love the colourful Panamanian buses!
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San Blas, Panama

Our return to Marina Santa Marta coincided with the onset of 2 weeks of gales. The wind howled day and night, night being worse when the wind was often was in excess of 40knots. Fortunately, there was a great group of cruisers, also stuck there. We had a few days with our new friends in Minca, the small hill town high above Santa Marta. It was great to do some walking and to escape the wind, heat and grit for a few days.

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Kenny, the host where we stayed in Minca made a very good mojito.IMG_6805Christmas was a good time to be in Santa Marta. The street music and performers were fantastic

 

IMG_6755We found some great restaurants, our favourite Lulo’s (Ian’s vote for best mojito) and Ouzo where we had a delicious meal on Christmas Eve.

IMG_6765 Christmas was spent with a group of new friends on one of the party boats (ie catamarans).

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IMG_6826The marina put on a lovely party for the cruisers on the 26th December, the wind dropped on the 27, and on the 28th, we were out of there!  After an uneventful 2 day passage we navigated our way through the tricky shoals for which San Blas is notorious. We had 3 navigation systems going. Open CPN, which we’d only just installed was invaluable.

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We anchored near our Austrian friends on Fenua in a piece of paradise, Green Island.

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IMG_2575  Coconut palms swaying in the breeze, pelicans diving, calm water and no bugs!

IMG_2596Not long after we anchored the lobster boys arrived.

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Now this is the life – $5 each and absolutely delicious barbecued.IMG_2581

New Years Eve was spent sharing drinks and plans with cruisers around a bonfire under the coconut palms, before BBQ lobster on Sea Cloud with Katharina and Friedl. The only problem with this lovely sight is the thought of sharing the waters with the resident crocodile.

Check in to Panama is not easy these days as formalities can  no longer be done in Porvenir  in the San Blas. So, we’ve just covered 60Nm to Puerto Linton to check in and will head back to the islands tomorrow. Hoping the trip back will be okay, as its usually a beat to windward against the current. At least we can get some shopping done in Portobellow, as apart from the lobsters and occasional veggie boat, there is not much in San Blas. All part of its charm.

Although you can buy molas made by the local women…

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Quilotoa – Otavalo – Quito

IMG_2457I’d read lots about the “Quilotoa loop”, a must do 3 day hike in Ecuador with spectacular views and contact with villagers living a traditional life. Most of the online articles were by fit looking 20 somethings, saying it was one of the most difficult hikes that they’d done. So, I found the ideal alternative, the Black Sheep Inn, an eco lodge in Chugchilan, one of the stopover towns for the loop.

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From here we could experience all that the area had to offer, without carrying packs from place to place. What a great find. Our room our room high on the hillside had the most stunning views over the valley.

IMG_2352 IMG_2357We had great vegetarian meals and interesting company. I even had an excellent massage by one of the local women. The inn was set up about 25 years ago, and what we liked about it was that the money goes back to the local community as all of the guides, drivers and staff are locals. You could easily spend a week or more hiking around here.

The manager, Edmundo, recommended we use a local guide for the Cloud Forest Walk. We were so pleased we did. Our guide Humberto has lived all his life in the area and has an incredible knowledge of the native animals, the plants and their medicinal uses.

IMG_2292 Our walk passed though many ecosystems, the initial pastures were drier, crop and sheep country, on the top of the hill there were lush dairy pastures, then we descended into the cloud forest, which prior to land clearing, had covered all of these valleys.

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IMG_2286The scenery was spectacular, there was now way we would have found our way into (or more importantly out of) the rainforest maze without Humberto. Although he had limited English and we have pathetically little Spanish, he was an incredible communicator. We found out so much about life in the valley over the last few generations.

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Our planned hike to Quilotoa postponed because of rain, we visited the local Sunday Zumbahua market. The animal market had just finished, so there were many people taking home their new acquisitions.

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We’d hope to see Laguna Quilatoa with the clouds reflecting in the water as we’d seen in so many other photos, but it wasn’t to be. Sunday was obviously the day for locals to visit. They were charging down the path to the lake in not so good shoes, obviously not thinking of the climb back up. That’s where the mules come in…

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A local driver dropped Humberto, Ian and I off at Quilotoa to do the hike back to Chugchilan. As there had been rain the day before, there was some discussion as to whether we should do the walk via San Pedro (which we did), rather than the safer route via la Moyà.

What a spectacular walk, not nearly as difficult as we’d been led to believe. There were some steep spots, but fine with the right footwear.

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IMG_2383IMG_2394Our last day at Black Sheep was another seriously spectacular walk, Edmundo’s sky walk. Appropriately named! We could see why they did not recommend it for those afraid of heights as the narrow path along the ridge had serious drop offs both sides.

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Yes, the path goes right along the ridge line!

IMG_2435Sad to leave Black Sheep, we stayed overnight in Latacunga, then on to Casa Sol Andean Lodge, just out of Otavalo.

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IMG_2448Once again, great accommodation, and a perfect base for hiking around Cuiocha Lake, lunching and shopping at Cotahachi, the leather centre of the area, and in the artisan town of Peguche, and of course visiting the famous Otavalo markets. Everywhere we seemed to meet Americans who have either retired to or were planning to retire in Ecuador. Of course, we had to visit the Otavalo Saturday market, finally arriving early enough to see the animals at the local markets.

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IMG_2551IMG_2553and then visit the touristy markets.

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IMG_2557Car returned to the airport, we headed into Quito for our last few days in Ecuador. Arriving on Saturday afternoon was totally overwhelming after being in countryside. So many people and cars. Sunday is great, no cars, just lots of pushbikes in town for the morning, much more pleasant. Our little hotel, Portal de Cantuna, was in a fantastic spot in the old town, just off Plaza San Francisco. It was quirky, very economical, had a good breakfast and very helpful staff. With our savings we ended up having 2 great meals at the 5 star Hotel Casatenga restaurant next door.

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Portal de Cantuna

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Plaza San Francisco

 

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La Compania de Jesus – 7 tons of gold inside

The (not so easy to find) Vista Hermosa was a great spot for a drink overlooking the city lights of Quito.

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IMG_6714There are some excellent museums in Quito. The Casa del Alabalo and  were very relevant with their archeological, historical and cultural displays of the areas we had visited.

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Our last day was spent at the Capilla del Hombre and the Museo Guayasamin, showcasing the work of the important, prolific and influential Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guaysamin. Highly recommended.

Our trip to Ecuador was planned so that we’d have 3-4 days in a few places in which there was some good walking. We rented a very small chevy -would get a 4WD next time. Driving was fine, but in the areas in which we drove it was slow because of winding roads and at times stressful. We’d been using maps.me for navigation – a great app which you can download and use offline. The problem is, it didn’t differentiate between minor and very minor (rough dirt) roads, a real challenge for our tiny rental car. We really only saw the middle of Ecuador – for a small country, it is so diverse. There were a few other places we wished we had time for – Cuenca and Mindo in particular, but you can’t do it all.