Shelter Bay Marina is a brief stopover for us. The marina is nice but it is in the middle of nowhere. It is a 30-40 minute bus ride to the closest grocery store in Colón. The marina is located on the old US Army base Ft. Sherman from pre 2000 when the USA controlled the Panama Canal. The power goes out on a regular basis and the bugs are horrid. Even something as simple as barbecuing requires a defense strategy from being eaten alive. On the positive side, the marina staff and clientele here are really friendly. The Panamanian Government is building a huge bridge over the canal linking Colón and Ft. Sherman. When it opens it’ll make the marina a lot more attractive. Cruisers arrive here from all directions. Some have traveled a similar path to ours. Others have arrived from Mexico, Honduras and Costa Rica. The groups of sailors arriving are split into two main categories, those wishing to haul their boats at the boatyard for storage or maintenance or those readying for a Panama Canal passage, like us. With these commonalities it is easy to strike up conversations on the docks or in the bar and share stories about where we’ve been and where we’re going.
We have a reservation at a marina on the Pacific side of Panama were we plan to sit for a few months. The sitting for a few months is because the season to cross the Pacific is late and if we went now, we’d be playing catch-up to stay ahead of the next hurricane/typhoon season. Our dawdling in Bonaire, Aruba, Colombia and the San Blas islands has finally caught up with us. But, if we had to do it over again, we’d dawdle some more. Our experiences westward from the Eastern Caribbean islands are better than our greatest expectations. However, we recently read some not so good posts about the marina from some disgruntled cruisers posting on FaceBook making us question our plans for a lengthy stay.
Before transiting the canal to the side with limited options for a long-term stay, we decided to take a trip to the pacific side of Panama to check it out and decide for ourselves. We are so glad we did because we are now more motivated than ever to get there. One of our key leanings in this wacky adventure is to make our own decisions and do our own homework. An example of this is what many cruisers posted about Aruba on cruising sites. Many have an opinion without ever actually being there; they have heard. They posted the check-in with Customs and Immigration requires tying the vessel at a dock certain to damage the hull. Once there we found this to be a complete exaggeration and two points of check-in are available both with acceptable piers using fenders. Aruba turned out to be a gem and one of our highlights. So glad we did our own homework.
The adventure to Panama City began with an off-book Uber driver some of our friends recommended, Carlos. Carlos speaks fluent English (like many Panamanians) and also owns a tour company and travel agency. We hired him to drive us to Panama City on Wednesday leaving us to explore on Thursday and then on Friday to drive us to the Marina and back to Ft. Sherman/Colón (a full day). As we crossed the Panama Canal to Colón, he reminded us we are crossing from the continents of North America to South America. This hadn’t dawned on me when we went to the grocery story on the same ferry last week. It took a little while for this to sink in. Now it has, I wonder if there is anywhere else in the world where people change continents by car to do a little shopping. Wow! Right?
Panama’s economy is doing very well. The highway infrastructure is growing and the country offers tremendous advantages for people wishing to retire here (more on this in a later post). We learned Carlos’ take of the newly elected president, Laurentino Cortizo, as we made the hour and a half ride over the mountains and though the rain-forest from sea to sea. Okay, again another wow moment. At 10am we are on the Caribbean Sea. At 11:30 we stand in Casco Veijo (Old Panama City) looking over the Pacific Ocean. I know Floridians are saying whoop-de-doo at this since they can do pretty much the same with the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico but I still think this is pretty cool. We went from North America to South America and from the Caribbean to the Pacific within ninety minutes.
Our first stop was the Panama Canal Museum. Okay, that’s a bit of a fib. Our first stop was lunch and then the museum. Cindy is much more versed on the canal than me. She read the monstrous 10,000 page tome of history: The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914 by David McCullough. It’s actually 698 pages, not 10,000. She said it was a fascinating read. I was lucky enough to have her do all the reading and then give me the highlights. The museum was really educational; in fact, it is one of the better museums we have visited. Most of the displays were in Spanish but with English translation headsets we had no issues following the remarkable history about the building of the canal. The museum is a little on the expensive side at US$23.00 each but in my opinion well worth it. We spent most of the afternoon there before heading to our hotel.
Uber is everywhere in Panama City and we never had to wait more than 3 minutes for a ride. The fares are in line with Panama prices and our most expensive ride (about 15 minutes) was under US$5. We cashed in some Marriott points to save money and at the same time live it up a little. I once traveled an awful lot in my job and when I retired I had in excess of a million Marriott points and was granted Elite Platinum status for life. Upon check-in at the hotel we were immediately upgraded to an Executive Suite on the Concierge level because of this status. There was a time in my life when this was important to me. A large suite was living high. Now I see things a little differently. I went to reach for my computer and realized it was in the bedroom. Nowadays I think, crap I have to get up and walk all the way to the bedroom. One of the great things about living on a boat is nothing is very far away when you want it. Memories of the 2009 George Clooney movie Up in the Air comes to mind. He absolutely nailed the stupidity of reward programs and how wrapped up people get about them. The irony of all the Marriott points; after staying in hotels so often for work, the last thing I wanted to do in my own time was stay in a hotel. Now, I appreciate the points and ability to stay free.
After a fabulous breakfast at the hotel we caught an Uber and returned to Old Town to spend the day taking in the sights along a self guided walking tour. This area of Panama City is red hot. It is undergoing a massive transformation with the renovation of old derelict buildings to modem apartments, restaurants, night-clubs and shops. It is the perfect area to leisurely stroll taking in the historic buildings of Panama City including the President’s Mansion, the French Embassy, Cathedrals and the city’s municipal buildings. For the heck of it, I looked up the price of a building consisting of just a shell of outer walls. It had no roof or floors and had an asking price of one million dollars. Ouch! The massive renovation costs would be in addition to this.
As much as we enjoyed the isolation of the San Blas Islands we missed occasionally dining out. We went for about two months not eating in a restaurant. It’s not hard for us to do this since we both love to cook. However, it is still a real treat we never take for granted. Carlos recommended an Italian restaurant when he dropped us off at the museum the day before. He didn’t sell it hard but just sort of nonchalantly pointed as he drove by. We decided to give it a try for lunch since we happened to be right outside the building when the urge to eat lunch hit. We learned Carlos has excellent tastes when it comes to food. It was without a doubt one of the best Italian meals I have ever eaten.
The purpose of this trip was to evaluate the marina for an extended stay. We did this on Friday and decided the comments on FaceBook were somewhat unfounded and were probably posted by someone having a really bad day. I rather suspected as such since when I message the person posting and asked for details they hesitated in the response to provide anything verifiable. Other FaceBook users had chimed in on the discussion with more worthless opinions and little facts. It was Aruba all over again. One thing we have learned in this lifestyle, there are some people who just like to complain about everything. They truly believe wherever they travel everyone else should abide by their set of rules.
Carlos drove us from the city to the marina. Forty five minutes later, about halfway, he stopped at a bakery. He raved about the bread, especially the cheese bread. Given his record so far with food recommendations, we knew we’d love the cheese bread. And, we did. The bakery was packed! Carlos told us it is packed all the time. Often times, he said, there is a line around the building. He has never been to the bakery when there weren’t at least five people in line at all of the cash registers. When he said he’d just like to have a business half as successful, I laughed because he took the words right out of my mouth. I was thinking exactly the same thing. Carlos had a shopping list from his wife. If he didn’t return home that night with bread, he was going to be sleeping on the porch.
One of the marina owners met with us over lunch as squashed any concerns we had about a lengthy stay there. What we discovered was a whole new world of adventure awaits us once we transit the canal. We were informed about islands we can sail to for short day trips, a turtle sanctuary where we can see turtles running to the sea, hump back whales and tons of stores and restaurants in the area. The marina appears to be a real first class operation in a great location.
Arriving back on Cream Puff, Cindy has contacted an agent to help us with the transit of the canal. We have a plan! Arriving in Shelter Bay we really felt unsure about where to travel next. I described the feeling as, “The end of part one”. Should we stay on the Caribbean side and sail up to Costa Rica, Nicaragua or Honduras islands? This option really has no appeal due to the poor economic situation of these countries, increasing crime and recent reports of piracy. Should we go back around the Caribbean again? We both felt we have spent enough time there and accomplished all we desired. Besides, we much preferred the western Caribbean. What about spending more time in the San Blas islands? Again, we feel we have explored enough. Our short little day trip confirmed what we would both like to do next. It has put a little bounce in our step. We want to go over the hills and explore the other side.