Quick update from Guatemala

Hey y’all,

I know it’s been a while. Our last month has been super crazy (more on that later) so we decided to take a break from “the world” (I know, I know, you already think we do that but this time we *meant* it :).

Now, we’re checking back in and it feels good. We’re lucky enough to take a break from the boat and have been on the road travelling overland exploring:

  • the super-serene mountain villages of Lake Atitlan,
  • and, the colonial city of Antigua (a UNESCO World Heritage site).

This weekend, we’re headed to

  • the limestone pools of Semuc Champey,
  • and, the land of the Ewoks ancient ruins of Tikal.

It’s a super-quick trip that is reminding us how much we like travelling with our house (hostelling is work, y’all!).

But, “what about Kemah?” you say. Right. He is living large on S/V Mother Jones with the awesome-rad folks of Over Yonderlust who were amazing enough to use our dog-sitting needs as a big, fat excuse to come back to Central America.

While we’re away (and not posting long-winded, stream of consciousness ramblings here), you can always keep up with the latest, day-to-day brain farts gems from the S/V Mother Jones crew on our facebook page.

See y’all back on the water!


D, L (& Mr. K from the boat)

San Blas or Bust?

We spent the holidays in the autonomous region of the Guna Yala, formerly known the San Blas Islands of Panama.

We had actually been to the Guna Yala, when it was called the San Blas*, back in 2011, when we were mere 30-something backpackers taking a brief sabbatical – ha! look how that turned out!

*fun fact: the name “San Blas” was “given” to the Guna by the Spanish (invaders). So, needless to say, they prefer to refer to their own land by their own name: the Guna Yala. The people are the “Guna”. You may have read/heard them referred to as the “Kuna”, with a “K”, but alas, they have no “K” in their language. So, Guna Yala it is. Fair enough, I say.

Here are a few great pics of our 2011 trip (pre-life as live-aboards on our very own boat):

Landing in the jungle

Landing in the jungle on the little “airport” at Aligandi


our lodge in 2011

Our lodge

Our lodge from the air


sailing cayuco

where we had lunch!

where we had lunch!

shallow much?

shallow much?

beautiful Kuna, beautiful molas

beautiful Guna, beautiful molas


sewing molas


crowded islands in the Guna Yala

thatched roof and solar panel

thatched roof and solar panel


Guna women with the mainland in the back



hammock time for the Jones’


Mom in the San Blas

Pretty awesome, right?

Needless to say, we were excited to return to these awesome islands.

So, off we went, from Linton on a mission to re-discover these islands on our own boat. Look at the welcome gift we got on the way!

en route to San Blas

en route to San Blas

We had heard a ton of amazing stuff from other cruisers and were super excited to explore the famous “swimming pool” and “BBQ Island” of the Eastern Holandes, to snorkel the wreck at Dog Island and generally become part of the cruising culture of this unique region.

The "Swimming Pool" made by the reef in the E. Holandes

The “Swimming Pool” made by the reef in the E. Holandes

the wreck at dog island

the wreck at dog island

On approach from Linton, the Guna Yala basically look like a mirage of trees sticking out of the water, until closer and closer you get and then you see it: small bunches of palm trees on small spits of sand, sticking out of the water, behind barrier reefs.


Porvenir with the mainland in the background


Porvenir with Panamanian Navy boats docked out front

And, it’s pretty darn cool to (safely & comfortably) watch the force of the Almighty Atlantic Ocean stopped by the walls of coral which run the north side of the Guna Yala’s island strings.


a storm coming in off the Atlantic

We spent just about a month in the islands and I’d say our experience was very mixed.

On the positive side, the islands are picture-postcard beautiful, the water is gin-clear, there is total (safe) solitude if you want it and just enough veggie boats coming by and tiny outposts where you can get anything you need.

the best way to see if your anchor is set

now that’s some clear water!

One of the major highlights for us was spending our Christmas and New Year’s anchored off the tiny little island of Wasaladup; Kemah could run around, there weren’t any bugs, there was a really nice breeze and soft, white sand.


Our own private island for the holidays

For about a week, we had the whole place to ourselves. Then, our best buddies on S/V Adamastor joined us and together we made a big ole Tex-Mex Christmas dinner of spanish rice, homemade tortillas and TWO different kinds of enchiladas: chicken with green sauce and cheese with a chipotle-pasilla “beef” sauce. (By the by, I’ve made these enchiladas from Homesick Texan twice on the boat – they are that good! And, I use TVP instead of beef.)

Needless to say, we were in the Yum Zone, with Elf on in the background, twinkle-lights up and a few Santa hats and ornaments hanging around the boat. Life was good.


Xmas dinner aboard S/V Adamastor

By New Year’s a few boats joined us and we had a little party on the beach to celebrate. I had some wish lanterns on the boat and they made for good fun. (Just make sure the dinghys and big boats are clear out of their path if you’re gonna play with fire. Almost learned that one the hard way . . .)

Another experience in the Guna Yala I really liked was dinghy-ing up the Rio Azucar just off Nargana. I guess isn’t so surprising that I loved this, given I always enjoy a good “dinghy ‘splore” and especially if it involves fresh water. However, this river was rumored to have crocodiles in it – so I was a little nervous to jump right into this adventure.

But, after a month in the boonies, we need to wash a few items of clothing (’cause you only need to wear a few items of clothing when you live in the boonies, Tropics-style). And, we needed some fresh water – which we harvested from the river (yes, people do this, including us, you just find a good clear spot that’s running, toss a little bleach in and you’re fine – at least we are, twitch, twitch ;).


Rio Azucar

I am happy to report that we did not see any crocodiles (does that mean they were just lying in wait for us???). But, we did have a little wildlife encounter – emphasis on the “little”:

I had one leg slung over the side of the dink, the mouth of one of our water jugs shoved down into the water* and I was feeling pretty confident – after all, this was my 3rd jug to fill that afternoon, which is harder than it sounds, given you have to basically sink a 6 gallon plastic jug full of air mouth-into running water. And, so far, so good: water jugs were filling without any sign of crocs = win/win! 

But, just at the moment I seemed to feel most relaxed, the water started to boil and churn at the mouth of the jug and, startled, I jumped (and screamed a bit). “What the what!?!” It seems a small school of minnows happened by, got swirled to the mouth of the jug and one even made it in! “What the what!?!” Yup, after a year on the boat, this minnow, at the bottom of our water jug, was the 1st fish I’ve ever caught while living aboard . . . and, his presence at the bottom of my jug meant I had to completely empty and refill it lest the little critter end up in the bottom of my water tank aboard Mother Jones – I’m not sure how much bleach would fix that sitch!

Aside from our accidental fishing fun, I found it to be really a neat experience to join in with the locals washing our clothes and getting drinking water from the river. Given how wealthy we “yachties” seem to so many communities we visit (even when we don’t seem wealthy at all to ourselves, when we are in fact super wealthy compared with the majority of people on this planet) it’s basic needs like potable water and clean clothes that show us all to be in the same boat – at least for a few minutes, even if ours is inflatable and theirs is made out of wood.

Rio Azucar - where we got our fresh water & did the laundry!

Rio Azucar – where we got our fresh water & did the laundry!


filling the tanks is hard work

filling the tanks is hard work (note the bleach above my sleepy head)

Unfortunately, in addition to the fun stuff, some crappy things happened during our month in the Guna Yala. (hence the title of this post . . . get it?)

Crappy Thing 1 and Crappy Thing 2 happened one right after another, within days of arrival. The first of the crappy things was a terrible stomach bug I got when we first arrived.  It lasted for four days, twenty minutes at a time. Yuck. Ouch. Just get me out of here!

Thank goodness we had Where There is No Doctor on board to walk us through some re-hydration techniques and confirm our suspicion that if things did not turn around by Day Four, we needed to get professional medical help (luckily things turned around ON day four).

Two days into Crappy Thing 1, Crappy Thing 2 happened: our fridge broke. “Broke” as in leaking stinky ammonia, no way to fix it “broke”. Awesome! Here we sat, in the middle of nowhere, stocked to the gills of provisions for the month we planned sitting in the middle of nowhere with no way to keep said provisions from spoiling. Luckily, our good friends on S/V Adamastor offered – and had space to – keep a few things in their fridge. But, for the month we spent tooling around the islands, with and without them, we mostly went without refrigeration. All-in-all, minus the hours we spent online trying to figure out how to get a new fridge to Panama, I’d say it was a pretty okay experience, being without a fridge that is.

We took it as a (short-timer’s) opportunity to be those super-cool cruisers who go without a fridge full time. And, we used not having a fridge as an excuse to eat fresh food – like super fresh food.

1st Hawaiian Sling Shot

1st Hawaiian Sling Shot

crab for lunch!

crab for lunch!



And, as it turns out, there are a whole lotta things that don’t need refrigeration. The main pain for us was not being able to keep left-overs and therefore having to cook every meal, hurry up and eat the same thing all day if we made something big or eat processed foods in single servings. Luckily, we had our boat buddies around to help us eat through big meals and keep some stuff in their fridge (like beer and New Year’s champagne!).

Onto Crappy Thing 3: Damon got a staph infection just above his ankle that swelled to the point it was really painful and immobilizing.

Damon's Xmas present: a festering wound

Damon’s Xmas present: a festering wound

We knew to watch out for dark, spider-like veins heading up his legs – signs it was turning serious (as opposed to just seriously uncomfortable). But, given our circumstances (being in the middle of nowhere) and our general approach to medical intervention (conservative) we basically had no choice but to let it run it’s course, aided by multiple hot compresses and a dose of Cipro we had on board. It was almost two weeks of immobility (no snorkeling, no beach-combing, no pulling up anchor, no FUN) before he was ready to pop, be milked and back in action.

In case you’re keeping score, that’s 3 weeks of Crappy Things that happened during our month in “paradise”.

“But, these things are merely circumstantial” you might say. “Surely, the Guna Yala is paradise and not to be missed, right?”. Well, it depends.

In addition to these totally circumstantial farts on our wet-dreams of paradise, there were also a couple of things we found less-than-desirable that are worth pointing out, including:

  1. “Change” aka the unavoidable paradox of “untouched” places & cultures being “touched” by curious outsiders (including us? yes, us). Where there once was no in-organic trash there are now plastic bottles, plastic bags and other flotsam & jetsam. Where there was once abundant fish and lobster, over-hunting has taken a toll. Where there was once peace & quiet on islands like the Lemmons or in Nargana, there is the loud humming of generators to power TVs broadcasting Telenovelas, speakers blaring pop music until 6am and fridges cooling down beer. Speaking of which . . . where there was once only a yearly festival where sugarcane was fermented in a long process to make “chicha” and everyone (Grandmas, included) got hammered (by 9am) in good spirits, there is now Panamanian beer widely available for anyone who wants to experience getting drunk (not just sipping a few) on a daily basis (this mainly involves men, especially young men). And, of course, the traditional dress unique to Guna is going by the wayside – especially in men. Hmm . . . I’m beginning to see a pattern here. Of course, all of this is influenced by “outsiders” (like us, but more likely everyone they see in Panama City or on the tee-vee). Now before you get all “lookiehere, Missie” with me, I don’t have any romantic notions of change always being a bad thing – I know it’s not always as simple as “Vaccines, good; Plastics, bad”. But, like the tip of an iceberg, it’s hard to see what deeper societal transformation from the “modern” world lie just beneath the surface. *And*, I TOTALLY get the irony of an outsider (me) complaining about a bunch of outsiders (“other people”) changing things (it’s like that bumper sticker I see on cars while I’m sitting in traffic: “You aren’t sitting in traffic, you *are* traffic”). But, I try. We try. We try to respect the native ecology and support the local culture as much as we can – like, say, throwing back a small lobster or buying a HUGE crab from a local fisherman. (I kid, I kid, but not really) Seriously, we try to tread lightly and play by the rules (even if there are none, you know there are basic rules, c’mon people!). But, I can’t speak for everyone. 
  2. Speaking of other people . . . we saw some bad behavior in the Guna Yala aka Don’t be these people! The Guna Yala, as an autonomous region, has clearly laid out the law of the land that no one except a Guna is allowed to own land or make money in the Guna Yala. It is a place for Guna, by Guna; and they are gracious enough to allow us as guests. However, we met several folks specifically flaunting these regulations: one cruising couple openly told us they were breaking the law by advertising and accepting charter guests for the PAST SIX YEARS; another has created a permanent mooring in The Swimming Pool for the PAST TWELVE (they go so far as to say they aren’t cruisers anymore -”we’re liveaboards” – afterall, they don’t ever move the boat. These folks even have a salt-water aquarium IN THEIR COCKPIT if that tells you how little they move). And, then there’s the much-debated “backpacker” boats which shuttle travelers looking to bridge the Darien Gap through these waters. At around $500 per person, these sail boats and their captains ferry up to 14 passengers at a time from Panama to Columbia – in an unregulated industry, in all kinds of weather with varying degrees of respect for the Guna and their regulations. It’s bad boaters like these that have caused the Guna to recently enact a 30-day limit on permits to cruise their waters. Only time will tell whether this will slow  the unwanted changes in their region.

Finally, even if we weren’t sick and our modern conveniences didn’t break and I wasn’t pre-occupied by my over-active conscience and my martyr’s bleeding heart, I would still say this: the Guna Yala just isn’t for us. We found it boring.

*gasp* shun *the horrors of horrors*

It’s almost as if all of the sand-ringed, waving-palm, reef-fringed islands all started to look the same – because they did all look the same to us.

And, we found some of the long-term cruisers to be kind of snooty ala “I can’t believe you liked Bocas! San Blas is the best!” said the nose-upturned-rule-breaking-over-staying-guest-of-the-Gula-Yala

“Yeah, we did like Bocas. Have you ever been?” – us

“No!” – them

okay, whatever

as in, seriously, “whatever” you like is great for YOU (just like whatever I like is great for me, right? it’s not a competition, right?)

The Guna Yala just didn’t hold much appeal for us – for a month. I would totally recommend these cruising grounds to an avid snorkeller, diver, spear-fisher, windsurfer or even someone who just wants to do nothing and read until the cows come home (this is good news for all you bibliophiles as there are no cows in the Guna Yala so you can read FOREVER).

We just don’t like to do those things. And, I didn’t always know that. And, it was interesting to learn that about myself.

So, what do we like? All sorts of stuff, including the stuff in the Guna Yala (clear water, beautiful islands, swimming, solitude). Confused yet? I can understand that. Let me say this another way: we like variety. While it was beautiful in the islands, we had had too much of a good thing and were ready for something else.

I realized I missed architecture, I missed salad (shocker), I missed the diversity of people (locals, travelers, expats, boaters) in places like Bocas, Portobelo or other coastal cruising grounds, where the proximity to (even off-the-beaten-path) transport can provide exploration to more than just a few fortunate boat-owners.

island, normal sailboat & the "Nautalis"

island, normal sailboat & the “Nautalis”

If it sounds a little bit like I’m complaining that my diamond shoes are too tight, forgive me. It’s just that we were ready – oh so ready – to move on at the end of our month in the Guna Yala. Just in time for Damon’s brother to arrive in Carti.

picking up Dylan at Carti

picking up Dylan at Carti


picking up our newest stowaway, Damon’s young brother Dylan

We spent our last few days in the islands playing host and had the welcome opportunity to rediscover the wonder of the Guna Yala through his eyes – before confessing that it is, in fact possible to get tired of “paradise”.

That being said, we’ll end this installment of Adventures with D, L & Mr. K with some more pictures of the paradise we got tired of ;)


MJ anchored in the Central Hollandes

a big ol' ray in the Holandes

a big ol’ ray in the Holandes

East Lemmons

East Lemmons


sandbar off the reef in the Central Hollandes


And, as always, you can check out even more pics of our adventures on our Facebook page by clicking here.

The “plan”

During our recent hibernation, D and I had a lot of time to reconnect and focus on what we want for the next 6 months/couple years/lifetime. We call this “dreaming and scheming”, it’s super-fun and we highly recommend it.

You may remember the “We did it, now what?” post back in June referring to our goal of sailing to Panama and then “figuring it out”. Well, we’ve done some figuring and here’s the plan for next Season (hold please on any impending “Life Plan”).

Headline: Keep Cruising

Byline: San Blas – Isla Mujeres via Western Caribbean

That’s right, we’re headed out again into the great blue yonder. Some of y’all may have thought (because we told you) that we were likely to settle here in Bocas and open a small movie theater. You may have even seen our architectural and business plans or even been on a real estate tour of Bocas with us – because all of that happened.

But, we, being cruisers, with a full cruising kitty and a BOAT, have decided to make a wild, 180 and use both to keep exploring – we can always settle down “some day”, right?

So, here’s the rough plan for this Season’s adventures:

  • Mid-November: make our way down to the San Blas via our old stopping grounds of Portobelo buddy-boating with our good friends Jess and James aboard S/V Adamastor
  • December-mid January: pick up D’s brother Dylan in the San Blas and head back up to beautiful Providencia from Portobelo (a much better angle than from Bocas but it means that when we leave in a couple weeks, we likely won’t see our Bocas friends for a looooong time, which is a real bummer!)
  • February: From Portobelo, we’ll do a long stretch over pirate-infested waters to the Bay Islands off Honduras and then duck into the Rio Dulce, Guatemala. Fun times!
  • March: We’re likely to spend a month or so on the Rio and travelling overland to explore a lot of Guatemala, like Tikal, Semuc Champey and hopefully hit the amazing Easter celebrations in Antigua. This will require us leaving the boat in a marina with a dog sitter, so if you’ve ever wanted a free stay on a yacht in Central America, now’s your chance!
  • April: Weave our way north through the reefs of Belize on our way to Isla Mujeres, Mexico. D and I spent our honeymoon in Belize and we’re looking forward to getting back, especially to Caye Caulker. And, D traveled the Yucatan extensively before we met, so I’m excited for him to show me around!
  • Then???
We figure by the time we’re in Isla, we can choose whether we’re ready to head back to Panama and start again on Cinema Toro or head back to Austin for life on land again. Or, maybe we’ll flip another 180 and do something entirely different!
For those who love following along, in maps (as much as I do), you’re in luck! Here’s a link to a map:

View 2013 Season Plans in a larger map

Anywho, that’s the plan (for now). Just in case you’re keeping track :)
See y’all out there on the water!
L, D & Mr. K
ps. If you have any experience sailing these legs or visiting these anchorages, please don’t be shy and let us know what you loved and what you didn’t, willya?



Mom’s Visit

At the end of August, almost half-way through my time single-handing/Damon’s working time in Austin, my Mom came to visit! It was a quick 10 days, but we packed a whole lot in: 3 days in the Highlands sandwiched by 3 on either side in Bocas.

This visit was actually the second time she came to visit us in Panama – the first being last year, when were travelling overland and dropped the big bomb on her that we had no plans to return to “the real world” but instead planned to sell everything buy a boat and return to Panama. What a difference a year makes . . .  we had done it and were back were we started, showing her sights she hadn’t seen in 2011 and, in general, what our life was like on the boat (or at least what my life was like singlehanding on the boat until D came back from working in the States).

And, of course, in between showing her the sites and in’s and out’s of our new life aboard in Panama, we had this totally typical Mother-Daughter conversation:

  • Me: “Soooo, do you have any big questions for me?”
  • She: “ehh, no” (she’s a totally bad liar)
  • Me: “like, maybe: ‘What am I going to do with my life and how am I going to pay for it?’”
  • She: “sure”
  • Me: “Man, I don’t know. But, I’ll when I do, I’ll let you know!”
  • She: resigned, “okay”

I had a great time showing her my life aboard in Bocas, including the local flora:



peanut clover

peanut clover

one of my fave jungle plants

one of my fave jungle plants. Doesn’t it look like a sparkler in slow-motion?


the bamboo cathedral at Jim Jackson’s





at Camrykaland

shampoo ginger

shampoo ginger at George & Sue’s

and, the local fauna:

Wildlife in Tierra Oscura

a dolphin & sea bird in Tierra Oscura



moon jelly

moon jelly – you can actually pick these up and the feel like breast implants, weird

Mom got to see the process of turning cacao into chocolate from my friends George and Sue:


Cacao on the tree

cacao aka pre-chocolate

cacao aka pre-chocolate


cacao bean to nibs


powdered cacao


frozen chocolate, yum!

And, some practical solutions in the Banana Republic:

bathroom key in the jungle is an actual banana

bathroom key in the jungle is an actual banana

She also got to see what life on the boat is really like, 8 months in:

doing dishes

doing dishes* 11/12 update: when Damon got back he installed a salt-water pump in the galley so this is a thing of the past!

getting around in the family car;


driving the dinghy

Mario & I (ok, mostly Mario) fixing the motor when it refused to start;

fixing the engine

fixing the engine

me, fixing the head when it slipped a nut;

classic plumber shot

classic plumber shot

and, me (again) pulling up anchor (while Lorenzo supervised) when it was time to go sailing.

I am the windlass!

I am the windlass!

But, ultimately, the tropical heat did not agree with Mom.

Mama's hot!

Mama’s hot!

Mom cools off

Mom cools off

So, we headed to the hills where we could enjoy some R&R in the cooler climate in Boquete and I could do some major provisioning in David.



One water taxi and one five-hour bus ride later and we were up in the lovely, lush mountains of Panama. And, boy was it a lot cooler than Bocas – about 30 degrees cooler!

how much I like cold weather

how much I like cold weather

But, it was also a beautiful change of scenery. While it was so much cooler than Bocas, it seemed just as wet; allowing Boquete’s gardens to really thrive in this temperate rain forest.

it's wet in the rainforest!

it’s wet in the rainforest!

But, oh so pretty . . .


“downtown” Boquete from across the river


these hanging lillies were everywhere!

We had heard that in addition to the beautiful gardens, many folks come here to bird-watch, especially hoping to see the ever-elusive Queztal. Can you believe we saw one without even trying???

A rare queztal spotting

A rare queztal spotting

OK, well, we didn’t really. It was just some fun painted rocks :)



That evening we took a bumpy ride several kilometers outside of town to stay even higher in the mountains (read: colder). We stayed at The Boquete Tree Trek (named for it’s ziplining through the trees, which we did not have time to do).

to/fro town from the mountains

to/fro town from the mountains in the back of the ziplining truck


the main lodge and cabins

our cabins

our cabins

in the main lodge

in the main lodge

With its log cabins, roaring fireplace, and super-comfy beds, it was the most cozy and romantic place my mother and I ever stayed, together.


looking into the Boquete valley from the lodge

They even had tame rabbits roaming about – yes, tame rabbits roaming the grounds!!!


so tame!

caption this?

caption this?

One thing Boquete Tree Trek also had on site was an amazing suspension bridge (which I think are so cool, as long as I’m not on them).

suspension bridge at Boquete Tree Trek

suspension bridge at Boquete Tree Trek

as far as I went (1 foot)

as far as I went (1 foot)

Our stay at the lodge was wonderful. I would love to return (this time with my hubby): they had great food in the main lodge (pork chops with fresh cherry compote, etc), the cabins were beautiful and the grounds were amazing.

But, we were on a whirlwind tour and headed out to David so I could do some power shopping aka treasure hunting for everything not available in the islands.

First stop was La Casa de las Baterias, which is exactly what it sounds like: The House of Batteries. Basically, the battery bank on Mother Jones was fried. So, we needed new ones. For any of you cruisers out there who are curious about our new bank, after many, many conversations with other sailors we ended up going with three, 12v sealed, deep-cycle batteries mainly because of where ours are located (we can’t top them off easily, which means we won’t top them off regularly).

battery shopping - about as fun as it sounds

battery shopping – about as fun as it sounds, plus it’s expensive!

Another project on my to-do list was re-upholstering our boat (re-covering all the salon cushions and making new curtains for each thresh-hold – my clever idea to use lightweight, affordable muslin for the old curtains was foiled by mold, which loves the sugars in natural fibers).

I was so happy to find a wonderful fabric store in David. The owner was super helpful: he showed me lots of options, made sure I had everything I needed for the project (piping, good thread, etc) and he even helped me re-calculate all my measurements when I thought “maybe I want the stripes to go the other way . . .”. Needless to say, I’m super excited to get started with the makeover on Mother Jones!

new upholstery!

new upholstery!

If you’re keeping track (like I was), we had only been to two places but I now had about 60 lbs worth of batteries and 15 pounds worth of fabric to schlep home on the bus – which was not going to work. Luckily, there’s a super-advantageous service for Bocas residents where you drop stuff off in David to be trucked to Bocas in a weekly shipment (with everyone else’s goods that won’t fit on the bus) and then when it gets to Bocas, you run the truck down and get your stuff = amazing!

So, each shopping errand actually turned into two: one to get the stuff and one to drop the stuff off. By mid-day, we were ready to re-charge our (human) batteries, which we happily did at the best restaurant in David, Cuatro.

somebody likes sangria

Shopping fuel: somebody likes sangria @Cuatro

Next stops were Novey’s (home & garden store), Pricesmart (Costco) and Conway (Target) – man it felt good to get a few t-shirts without boat smell on them, it’s the small things in life!

treasure hunt find #863: dowels

treasure hunt find #863: dowels

Yep, I found the Panamanian Costco!

Yep, I found the Panamanian Costco!


treasure hunt treasure #6489: Panamanian TARGET!!!

treasure hunt treasure #6489: Panamanian TARGET!!!

And then, after a good night’s sleep, it was back to Bocas for just a few short, sweet days with Mom before I was back to single-handing again (read: installing the new battery bank & starting to re-upholster, pfew!).


Mom and I at the mirador at Red Frog Beach just before she left


Transiting the Panama Canal

Transiting the Panama Canal was truly an amazing experience.  How appropriate, that the 2nd leg of our journey, we got to see Amazing follow us.

D and I through the Miraflores Locks
Damon and I really wanted to transit the Panama Canal.  And, there are several ways to do this involving lots of money.  We did not want to do it that way.  So, off we went to become line-handlers.  Line-handlers, as you might surmise, handle lines (aka ropes to you land-lubbers) that are attached to boats, which help a boat safely transit the Canal.    
Why is this needed and how does it work?  Well, you can imagine that transiting the Canal is kinda a big deal.  It is.  You want it to go right, ie, you want the boat to go through the Canal without hitting the sides or other boats that are in the locks with you.  Add 267 MILLION gallons of swishing, swirling water for EACH LOCK and you can see why you might want some safety measures in place.  Here come the lines.  
If you imagine a boat as a sheet that’s blowing in the wind and you want it under control, you’d want a rope (line) on each corner, attached to something which keeps it taught.  That’s basically the idea for getting ships through the Canal: the lines help guide the boats through the middle of the Canal.  Small boats like sail boats have people attached to each end of those lines.  Big boats like tankers have machines (lovingly called mules) attached to those lines.  


Well, through a series of posting signs at a couple of yacht clubs, pouring over internet postings and the good ‘ole fashioned hanging at the local sailor bar, we found a boat and they invited us to crew with them.
Santorini is a ’48 foot Ketch and a beautiful boat – in fact, it was a show model and even had a washing machine and china cupboard on board!  Captain Tom and First Mate/Galley Queen Dawn were wonderful hosts as well as their crew, Canaan – from Georgetown!
Capt. Tom and Dawn with the San Pedro locks in the back

Canaan at the bow at San Pedro Locks

The first night at anchor on the Pacific side, we got to know each other a bit and talked about what to expect.  We hoped to tie up to a tug boat which means you basically glide through with them in the locks so it’s super-easy.  Then, the next morning, we set off to transit the Canal!
When you transit, you are boarded by an Advisor who works for the Panama Canal Transit Authority and they guide you through the process.  Pfew!  Our Advisor was really great: calm, nice and knowledgeable.
Here we are underway passing under the Bridge of the Americas!
The mast of the Santorini and the Bridge of the Americas

Approaching the Miraflores Locks, first set of locks on the Pacific side, I was once again blown away by the sheer magnitude of the Canal, the volume of traffic and containers that pass through daily and everything that is required to make THAT happen. 

Check out the size of these cranes, which move the containers of the tankers!  

The tugs, which push the tankers around!  And, the City in the background.
Headed into the Miraflores Locks it’s surreal to look up at the Visitor’s Center and all the tourists watching you go through.  To think we were “them” just a few days earlier!
Miraflores Visitor’s Center – we were one of those tine on-lookers just last week!
Passing through the locks is a cool experience with the water raising or lowering your boat along with the others.  Rising tides do life all boats!  
You do have to stay on your toes a bit, though when the locks open as there is likely to be a shift in the boat because of the shifting water – remember 237 MILLION gallons are at play!
Once through the first set of locks, we entered Gatun Lake and passed under the Culebra Cut – a 7 mile cut through the mountains – impressive!
The Culebra Cut

Because sailboats generally are much slower than tankers or cruise ships, it usually takes 2 days to transit the Canal.  This means a night on the Lake moored on the biggest mooring ball any of us have ever seen.  Look at the size of that sucker!

A mooring ball so big you can dance on it!
In the morning, it was time again to pass through the Locks and this time we’d finally be in the Caribbean.  We lucked out being in front of a HUGE tanker named “Amazing” – quite appropriate, don’tcha think?
Notice the mules pulling Amazing and notice how little room she has between her and the locks.
All in all, it was a truly Amazing experience – yes, I did that on purpose.  Phrases like “the 8th wonder of the world”, “they don’t build things like the used to”, etc do tend to fall out of your mouth during journeys like this and they did.
If you have further questions about this trip or the Canal, just ask!
The end

Panama City, Panama

Downtown seen from Casco Viejo
Bridge of the Americas
Cerro Ancon (the big hill in the middle of town)


Revolution Tower – the floors spin!
Nickle Tour: Panama City is a bustling capital and a world city.  It’s a diverse city of contrasts complete with Chinese bankers, Afro-Antillean immigrants come Panamanians, sky-scapers, slums and of course, the Canal.  However, we found the City (and surrounding region) to have a relatively un-developed infrastructure for tourism, which can be both good and bad.
Travel Tip: If you’re on a long journey and need “it” or simply missing the States, visit any of the City’s malls and you’ll find anything from movie theaters (including an Alamo-esque dine-in cinema), Cartier, 4-star restaurants (and KFC-food courts), Payless shoes and outdoor stores.

See:  Below is a suggested itinerary for 24 hours in the City.  If you have more time and/or are interested in a couple of day-trips from Panama City, check out this post
At the Miraflores Visitor’s Center overlooking the locks


Morning: The Miraflores Locks and Visitor’s Center is a must see.  *Hot tip* The best time to see ships pass through these locks is from 9-11am or 3-5pm.  The museum offers a great overview of the Canal: its history, the layout and construction.  The movie, however, views like propaganda  . . .  You can view ships, tour the museum and have lunch at the restaurant ($20 pp for a buffet that’s ample but not extraordinary – just do it anyway) in about 3 hours.  *Hot tip*While you can get a taxi to take you to the Locks and then another to take you back, often a taxi will wait for you to complete your visit.  This should cost you about $20 (from Amador).

Panal Canal Administration Building
 In regard to the Panal Canal Administration Building, unless you’re an art/history freak or have the time, you might want to skip it.  The murals and the view is cool, yes, but I wouldn’t consider it a “must-see” on your bucket list.  More interesting to me is the fact that they paid the artist $30K in commission – not bad for the early 20th – or the architecture of the surrounding gov buildings which look exactly the same as all of the Texa A&I buildings my Dad taught at in Kingsville, TX, because they were built by the same military funds.

Afternoon: You can easily wander around Casco Viejo in a couple of hours.  Stay towards the southeast portion of the peninsula as the area is surrounded by slums.  Highlights include meandering around neighborhood to view the restored, semi-restored and crumbling buildings, the beautiful little square of Plaza de la Independencia, which houses the Panama Canal Museum,  and Parque Bolivar which houses the President’s Palace, and the Embajada de Francia Park at the tip of the Peninsula with views of downtown and the Causeway.  Hungry?  Drop by the Fish Market for cheap seafood that you pick out downstairs and they prepare upstairs.   Need a drink?  Try out the classy Havana Bar.

Typical Casco Viejo building

this is not an effecient bike

Other things to do include getting a panoramic view of the City by hiking to the top of Cerro Ancon, the big hill in the Canal Zone, and biking along the man-made, 3-mile long Amador Causeway. 

Along the Causeway, you’ll pass the Frank Gehry-designed museum (under construction) and a branch of The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (pet starfish anyone?).  At the end of the Causeway there are a couple of restaurants.  I’d recommend stopping at Barko for their name-sake ceviche (ceviche made with coconut milk and jalapenos, yum).


Frank Gehry art house in progress, Cerro Ancon, at right


While we stayed the first night in a hotel reminiscent of the Shining (Hotel Casco Antigua), we promptly moved out of the noisy and dangerous section of Casco Viejo to the Balboa district and into the Hostal Amador.  We were very pleased with The Hostal Amador which is more like a hotel than a typical hostal.  It’s $35 per night, has AC, is safe, is in a quiet neighborhood, includes breakfast, is  close to the Albrook Airport, the causeway, a $15 cab ride to Miraflores Locks, a $3-5 cab ride to Casco Viejo and $5 cab ride downtown – what more could you ask for?
  • Downtown:  Eurasia is a quaint, up-scale place that serves up delicious fusion meals. 10 Bistro is another up-scale eatery with two locations downtown (1 in the Multiplaza mall, where we ate before a movie.
  • As previously mentioned, the ceviche at Barko at the end of the Causeway is worth the bike ride
  • If you want to rub elbows with “the locals” try the Fish Market and Café Coca-Cola in Casco Viejo.  They both serve up good dishes in an authentic atmosphere.
Thoughts on the Canal: I’m completely blown away by the Canal.  It’s clearly an engineering marvel – sure, let’s survey an impassable jungle, invent new equipment for the project and dig the equivalent of through the Earth and then some.  But, from my public-policy-perspective, it’s a whole ‘nother miracle.  Consider that in order to build the Canal, the Americans had to build an ENTIRE CITY to support it – complete with a new-fangled socialized public health and roadway system (Don’t want malaria?  Pave ALL the streets and give everyone window screens!).  And, don’t forget the comforts American workers want at home: Rotary Clubs, the Boy Scouts, etc. Import, import, import, funds, funds, funds.  Again, as a public policy sucker who has witnessed tons of (awesome) government-funded projects go by the wayside (or not), it’s absolutely A-M-A-Z-I-N-G to me to think of the grant requests to fund a bowling alley for officers, approved (or maybe not).

All about Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ferry Port, Bocas del Toro
Nickle Tour:  We love Bocas.  Because it’s a series of islands, we found life on the water to be just what we have been looking for so while we came for just a week, we stayed for three and we’ll back for two months in March.  Bocas has so much to offer:  “city” life in Town complete with great food and nightlife, secluded beaches, diving, snorkeling, caves, hiking, jungle, surfing, sailing, wildlife (monkeys, red frogs, starfish, etc) and months and months of places to explore on land and by water.  There’s also a great mix of cultures in Bocas anchored by a diverse group of native Panamanians (indigenous tribes, Latinos of Spanish descent and Afro-Antillians) and supplemented by expats and cruisers from all over the world – including a lot of Texans!
Travel Tip:  You may notice Isla Caranero is barely mentioned in this post.  That’s because the threat of the bugs has kept us away.   You can definitely feel them on the other islands, so I’m not eager for an increase in irritation.

Spending time in Bocas town:
Starfish Beach:  Take the bus to the northern tip of the island and get off at Drago Beach($5 RT), walk around the point to view hundreds of starfish laying in crystal clear water.

Rent a bike and explore the town.  For a nice ride, continue out of town and take the right towards Paunch and Bluff beach.  (An easy ride that’s about 2 hours round trip.
Learn Spanish.  If you’re staying for a while, take a refresher course at Spanish by the Sea.  I did and it was muy beuno!
Take a tour.  Many outfitters can arrange experiences ranging from day-sails and snorkeling trips and the ever popular DoDolphin Bay-Red Frog Beach-Zapatillas day tour.  The Bocas Sustainable Tourism Alliance is a good place to look for reputable tours.
A day on Bastimentos:
  • Pack a cooler of drinks and snacks and take a water taxi to the Red Frog Marina, take a short walk to the sea-side to bodysurf on Red Frog Beach and check out the Beach’s namesake.
  • Suspend yourself above the canopy on Red Frog’s ziplining tours!
  • After enjoying a few hours on Red Frog beach, hike south along the beach towards Wizzard Beach, which is great for surfing and Up the Hill (an almost-always hot, muddy hike) for a taste of refreshing  lemongrass tea or other locally-made organic products (many made from coconuts from their property).
  • Just past Up the Hill is The Thai Place which overlooks the bay and will satisfy your hunger with a spicy plate of yum after a day of fun in the sun.
Even though are house-sitting on Dolphin Bay, we spent some time in the area before and after our gig and can make the following recommendations:
Bocas Town:  Staying in Bocas town is very convenient but while you’ll definitely find the parties, you’ll have a hard time finding that deserted island feel unless you go further out towards Paunch Beach.
  • Las Olas ($40) is on the water, offers nice rooms with AC, TV, wi-fi, is safe and pleasant and has an on-site restaurant and bar which closes down early so it’s not noisy.
  • Spanish by the Sea ($20) is located on the school grounds but accepts non-students.   They have dorms and a few private rooms (as well as home-stays for students).  Internet and a kitchen is included.
  • Azucar Surf Retreat is on the other side of town (5 minutes by bike) and has 3 or 4 super-cute little cabinas, a private dock, kitchen/hang-out room overlooking the water. Plus, they have an on-site “spa” which is a lofted studio run by the wonderful Donna who does waxing, massage, etc at very reasonable prices. You can even get a massage on the dock, at sunset!

Bastimentos:  It’s just a $3 water taxi ride away (during the day and $5 at night) but is world’s away from the “hustle and bustle” (yeah, right) of Bocas town.

D at the Point on our balcony

The Point ($30) maintained by the friendly Canadian John, is, you guessed it, at  the point of the island.  If you’re looking for high ceilings of a wood framed cabina overlooking the sea with breezes and waves crashing below, this is the place for you.  Free kayaks and surfboards.  One drawback: no internet or kitchen.  But, a fridge is included for your cold drinks and food.

Good Eats in Bocas Town (in order of my faves):
  • The Ultimate Refugio is fantastic!  Weekly specials of seafood fusion keep me coming back to see what’s on the menu – and soon to be in my belly!  As for the pitcher of Jungle Juice, it’s a good thing you won’t be driving home.
  •  The Casbah serves up Mediterranean dishes that are faboush!  We had an excellent starter of shrimp and then fig and goat cheese stuffed chicken breast, yum.
  • Bocas Marina on Friday nights serves up ribs and fire-dancing – fun!
  •  John’s Bakery is the place to get your choripan (chorizo “pigs” in a blanket) and enchiladas (flaky pastries stuffed with chicken and spices).
  • Starfish Café has great breakfasts.
  • Lemongrass has good thai-fusion apps overlooking the water.
  • Toro Loco is the local bar which serves up typical bar food and cold beer.
  • Late-night food carts serve up grilled meats for cheap prices.
  • Super Gourmet is a good place to satisfy your need for sushi, an Italian sub or whatever else you’ve been craving from “home” (sweet pickels, Tofutti, etc).
  • Oh, and don’t forget to stop by the Barco Loco for a stumbling-great time for dancing and drinks (and watch your step!  the “stumbling” is due to the Labyrinth-esque docks as much as the Abuelo :)
Good Eats elsewhere:
  • The Thai Place on Bastimentos is worth the hike “up the hill”
  • Rana Azul is south of Isla Cristobal, about 10 miles south of Bocas Town by boat. They serve up brick-oven pizzas and a weekly specials on Friday nights and Sundays at noon.  Get there early (by boat only) to get a parking spot!
Rush hour at Rana Azul
More:  Bocas del Toro is an archipelago of over 9 islands, 52 keys and 200 islets just south of Costa Rica on the Carribbean coast.  There are several large islands, including Isla Colon, where the main town “Bocas” is located.  Directly across from Bocas is Isla Caranero – notorious for sand flies (chitras) – and a 10 minute boat ride away is Isla Bastimentos.  Click here for a map of Bocas and other sites of interest in Panama.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Dolphin Bay at dusk

             As you may know, Damon and I, have been invited to house-sit in Bocas del Toro from March 15th-May 15th.  We arrived early in January to pinch-hit for a week awaiting the January-March crew.  The house is about 8 miles south of Bocas del Toro on Dolphin Bay and is only accessible via boat, which the owners have included in the deal.       
Just before dusk

      The house backs up to the rainforest, is flanked by howler monkeys and a chocolate farm and overlooks a beautiful bay.
We have the pleasure of watching over two dogs, Indie and Gellie, as well as a parrot, Jasmine, who has really taken a shine to Damon.

Damon and Jazzie

Laurie and Gellie
We’re enjoying being off the grid and living on solar, rainwater catchment and boating to town on a weekly basis to provision.  We look forward to our two months back in Cerro Valero come March.  Until then, it’s time to do more exploring!
Ships in a bottle (kinda) from our deck


Border Crossing #2

Crossing the border

Crossing into Panama was fairly easy except you should know that you have to have proof of departure from Panama in order to enter.  We first encountered this in Costa Rica but instead of requiring proof, we simply got a lecture.  No such luck in Panama.  But, the good news is you can (conveniently) buy a bus ticket scheduled to leave Panama back to Costa Rica 1 block from the border crossing.  Consider it your departure tax . . .

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Sunset at the beach 
Nickle Tour:  Manuel Antonio is an a-mazing national park in Costa Rica and you should go.  Albeit, “when I was there 10 years ago things were different!” you should still go.  You’ll see a wide array of wildlife, gorgeous beach and won’t be disappointed.  However, if you’re looking for solitude, go elsewhere.  The secret is out and the area is crowded.

Travel Tip:  While you can stay in Quepos and take a $.50 bus to and from the beach or through the main (only) road, I’d recommend staying along the main road.  If you do, you can walk to restuarants, bars, the beach, etc.  You’ll feel kind of isolated in Quepos, even though it’s only 7km to the beach.  But, you came to see Manuel Antonio, not Quepos so stay close to the park.

Also, hire a guide to tour Manuel Antonio – it’s well worth your money to have a trained eye pointing out camouflaged wildlife, and isn’t that why you came?

See: In addition to the Park (more later), we took a sunset cruise which shoved off at 3pm, included drinks, snacks and snorkeling before settling in to dinner and the beautiful sunset.  At $70 pp, it’s a splurge (for backpackers) but otherwise a great deal.

The Park, of course, is a must-see

That dark spot is an agouti

No joke!
Capuchins rule the beach

Alligators on the drive to Manuel Antonio
Mapaches (racoons) checking out tourist loot
An Ibis in the park and Pelicans on the beach

A three-toed sloth hangs out


Across from the Avion bar (the giant plane sticking out of the mountain), there is an Italian place we stopped in because it had half-priced food on Sundays.  Check out this bacon-wrapped shrimp!

El Avion Restaurant & Bar

Sleep: There are an overwhelming number of hotels along the main stretch ranging from hostels to 4-star resorts.  So, look around and you’re sure to find something that suits your tastes. But, once again, I’d recommend staying closer to the beach than in Quepos.