We are hanging about on the Puffster. Okay, technically we are not just hanging about. We are working our butts off for a jaunt to Galapagos and French Polynesia. Cindy has done a ton of research about what is available and what is not available on these islands regarding food. I am guessing they do not have my favorite Dutch cookies. We have also heard groceries on these islands are very expensive. What we purchase here in Panama can save us down the road later this year. Cindy plans all of the shopping. I participate by pushing the cart at the store. We have made several trips to our large supermarkets and also Pricesmart (just like a Costco). The Puffster is starting to bulge at the seams.
When we were in Martinique three years ago, we met another couple, Negar and Kevin who were just purchasing an Amel boat like Cream Puff. In fact, their boat call Anahita is exactly like Cream Puff. Our boat is hull number 275, Anahita is hull number 276. These two boats were built side by side 20 years ago while being manufactured together at the Amel shipyard in La Rochelle, France.
We became instant friends. Not because they own an Amel or our boats were built at the same time but because they are awesome fun to be around. Whenever we get together we just sort of pick up where we left off even though months may have passed. I know I have said this before, the most difficult part of this cruising lifestyle we live is leaving good friends and never knowing when or if you’ll see them again. We have been lucky with Kevin and Negar.
We bumped into Anahita in Guadeloupe. When we departed we knew we’d be heading west to the ABCs, Colombia and through the Panama Canal. When we said good-bye, we weren’t sure we’d ever see them again. Then in Colombia, where we had planned to stay for about 4 weeks and ended up staying 4 months because we loved it so much they caught up with us. The staff at the marina parked their boat next door and I snagged this picture. It is the first time our two boats have met in twenty years. I am guessing the two Amels had a lot to catch up on. I can hear it now, “Where’ve you been? Where are you going? Do the owners take good care of you? Are you starting to get old boat pains? Does it hurt a little when you go to windward now you are a little older?”
Negar and Kevin left Colombia before us, and again we weren’t sure we’d see them again. We changed our plans a few times regarding the passage from Colombia to Panama. At the very last minute, we decided not to island hop or sail the coastal waters but to instead sail directly to Linton Bay, Panama where we knew we could check in with Customs and Immigration. We hung about in the Linton Bay marina for a few days and guess who shows up? The Anahita crew were there to pick up some visiting family. Sharing our plans with each other we found out we were both heading to the San Blas Islands. So glad to be going the same direction. We said we’d leave the AIS on so they could find us.
AIS is a transmitter sending out our position. Any other vessel equipped with AIS can see where we are located. It was so fun to be anchored on a remote island in a secluded bay and then seeing our friends appear on the horizon and drop their anchor near us. We got to meet Negar’s family along with Kevin’s daughter and we all shared a few adult beverages. Perhaps more than a few. It was one of those memorable moments we will long cherish.
Now here we sit on the Pacific side of Panama. They are on the Caribbean side with no immediate plans to transit the canal. These poor people still have seasonal jobs and have to store Anahita periodically so they can return to work. Negar is really good at reaching out and touching base with us once in a while via email. Kevin, not so much. It’s a guy thing. We love hearing from them. And, we were ecstatic to learn they are back in Panama asking if it would be possible to get together. “Heck yes! Absolutely”, was the response to their invitation. There is no way we’re going to pass up an opportunity to see them. It just becomes a matter of logistics. We have a rental car, they don’t. We don’t mind driving all the way over across the entire country and have lunch.
I chuckle as I write this part. When Kevin and I were hanging about the swim ladders in the San Blas water, we casually chatted about Panama. I was stunned when he said you could take a taxi to Panama City. I was a newbie to Panama then and hadn’t studied it much. How could this be possible, I thought. Taking a taxi all the way across the country has got to be stupid expensive. He reminded me that Panama wasn’t very wide hence the reason they built a canal here. Duh! It finally sunk in. So when I say we are going to drive all the way to the other side of the country for lunch with friends, well, it’s not that far.
It is about an hour’s drive from the outskirts of Panama City to Shelter Bay. However, we are located about an hour and a half west of Panama City. So we have a fun two and a half-hour drive. When I say fun, I really mean it. Driving in Panama is anything but boring. On the Pacific side of Panama, it is very metropolitan with a good highway system. All roads lead to the city. We have to drive almost to the city to pick up the only highway crossing to the Caribbean side.
Leaving our marina and heading to the city of Panama, the first thing we notice is some odd life-size characters on the side of the road. Many motorists have parked on the side of the road to take pictures. This is new. We often drive this road. When we first saw these we had no earthly idea what was represented. We later looked it up and found they are muñecos (dolls). In the rural areas of Panama, it is common to see muñecos, which are life-sized “scarecrows” made to look like actual people. The muñecos may represent bad memories from the previous year one would like to forget, someone who caused them trouble, or an unpopular politician. At midnight they are set on fire and sometimes, the muñecos have firecrackers inside and are blown up for fun. In some locales, there are even public muñeco contests with prizes to be won.
We stopped at the store to pick up a couple of items for Kevin’s boat project. We noticed new parking places which have caused me to think the women of Panama must be the most fertile women in the entire world. I think a new law was passed requiring special parking spaces for expecting mothers. Places where we shop have been painting parking spots over the past couple of months. They are pink. And, there are a lot of them! Please note in the picture below there are two handicapped parking spots. There are fifteen pink spots!
We cross the Panama Canal using the Centennial Bridge. This bridge is so cool as it goes over the Culebra cut and offers a spectacular view of the canal. I try to keep one eye on the road. During this trip, we cross the canal twice. The only road from Panama to Colón is on the east side of the canal. Shelter Bay Marina, our destination is near Colón on the west side. So, we have to cross the canal again at the end of the trip.
On the outskirts of Panama City, we take a shortcut on a narrow road through the rainforest and Soberanía National Park. Ironically, it isn’t raining. However, it is here we find a Police checkpoint. This is not uncommon in Panama. They check random vehicles and ask to see a driving license. Most times we get waived through. Not this time. I power down the window and politely say, “I’m sorry. I do not understand Spanish”. The policeman responds in English, “No problem, can I see your papers please”. I know I have said this before, but the Panamanian People are so polite. Even as the officer asks for our paperwork, he is smiling. By “paperwork” they mean driving license, car rental agreement, and passport.
As tourists in Panama, we are required to carry our passports at all times. The officer thumbs through the passport pages looking for the stamp showing where and when I entered Panama. He laughs as he sees all the country stamps and jokes about how I travel a lot. He is looking for the Panama stamp because even though we are granted a 180-day visa entering Panama, we can only drive on a foreign license for the first 90 days (not everyone is granted 180 days). I’m not sure he ever found the stamp where we arrived back into Panama from Argentina. We exchanged some really nice pleasantries and he waives us on. Both of us sigh with relief because he doesn’t ask for Cindy’s passport. Her’s is being held at the French Embassy for a couple of days while they put in the long-stay visa for French Polynesia. We are not sure if this would have been a problem, or not. I’m very glad we didn’t have to deal with it.
Once out of the rainforest, it starts to rain. We enter the major highway joining Panama and Colón. The speed limit on this road is 110 kph (about 70 mph). Cars pass us like we are standing still. I don’t understand this about the Panamanian drivers. Cops writing tickets are everywhere. We see more motorcycle cops with radar guns here than anywhere else we’ve visited. They sit on the side of the road and most often have someone stopped already. The consequences of speeding must be minimal (I’m assuming) because the efforts of the police don’t seem to slow the traffic. I double-checked the speedometer and have a good laugh when I see the plywood cop.
Once in the outskirts of Colón, we travel away from the city westward to Shelter Bay Marina located in Fort Sherman. From this point on the road becomes narrow and full of potholes. The exception is the brand new Pacific Atlantic bridge that opened a few months ago eliminating the need to take a ferry over the canal. The closer we get to Fort Sherman, the worse the road becomes. Perhaps because of the new bridge, this area might develop one day. But for now, it is still very isolated.
The last leg of our trip feels like we are driving in the jungle. It is because we are driving in the jungle. Monkeys and sloths are common. We keep an eye out for sloths crossing the road. People here will stop to pick up sloths and carry them to the side of the road. When we lived in Texas, Texans did this for turtles. I wonder who is slower to cross the road, the sloth or the turtle.
We spot a massive pothole in the middle of the road. Someone has put a car wheel inside the pothole to prevent a young child from disappearing into it. They also put a flag on it. You’ve got to love Panama when seeing stuff like this. I wondered if the wheel inside the pothole belonged to the last car to hit it.
Fort Sherman is an old US Army base. It was deserted 20 years ago when the USA gave up control of the canal. I would have thought in twenty years that a developer would have snapped up the property but I think the location is on the wrong side of Panama to be of much interest. The Caribbean side is very remote with sparsely populated small towns. The closest city of Colón is very dangerous for tourists. I can see why no one wants to live on this side. It is night and day compared to the Pacific side. We arrive safely in Shelter Bay Marina right on time. It doesn’t feel like we just drove 2 ½ hours. Panama is an incredibly beautiful country. Like I said earlier, it is anything but boring driving here. And now, lunch with friends.
Cindy and I wish you a very merry Christmas wherever this message happens to find you. We hope your holidays are special and filled with happiness. From our home to ours, we wish you peace, love, and joy.