Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The (In)conveniences of Portobelo

Back in the Eastern Caribbean, seasoned sailors used to tell us that they liked that area, because everything was easy. Locals speak English, (western) supermarkets abound, gasoline and diesel can be purchased on the water, land transportation is straightforward, cruisers get together regularly, restaurants and bars are everywhere and the sailing is fun, comfortable and … easy. Being in the San Blas for six weeks was a different world: exotic, beautiful, sustainable, but a bit inconvenient. We didn’t expect anything else and planned a trip to mainland Panama to take care of boat errands around the time we planned to help Liz and Axel through the Canal.

Isla Linton in Panama is gaining popularity amongst cruisers and we made it our first stop after the 40 mile voyage from Kuna Yala. The anchorage is quite rolly and the shore side provides nothing but a friendly Dutch restaurant owner (Casa X) serving food and cheap drinks and offering free garbage disposal, fresh potable water and WiFi for customers. To get to civilization (aka shopping), you need to take one of the few scheduled buses into Portobelo or Colon and you’d better not miss the desired one coming back or a long wait or cab ride is in order… So, after a few days in the quite Linton area, Mark and I sailed the ten miles to “busier” and more convenient Portobelo.

The anchorage is deep at places, but pretty well protected and sailboats are scattered throughout the big bay. There is a short cruiser’s net every day at 9am and cruisers like the place and congregate at Captain Jack’s for happy hour, tasty Vietnamese meals or to hang out in the TV room or do some internet. On shore, there are four Chinese convenient stores that will get you by and frequent buses run to Colon or Sabanitas, where the closest Rey supermarket is located and where you change buses to Panama City.

There is a big garbage mount near the Municipal building, where you toss garbage bags, for which you are supposed to pay $1. As a cruiser, I presume, because I cannot imagine locals paying this fee to dispose of garbage. They are used to litter everywhere, avoiding trash cans – if present – throwing all kinds of wrappers, bottles and containers through car and bus windows, or just dropping them on the floor of the bus. The road sides sport a very colorful and disgusting display, wherever you go, and sometimes – especially near Panama City - workers collect the trash in big bags, placed at short intervals along the main road. Kids don’t even think once when they toss their empty juice boxes on the ground.

In Portobelo, water can be obtained at a few spigots near the waterfront, but access is quite inconvenient and water jugs are heavy. Someone recently placed a nice tap at the end of the main dock, but a few days later, it was ripped out. At the moment, you can either pull your dinghy on shore near the big municipal dock or run aground with your dinghy to access the small dock at the future yacht club. 

There are two “good” places to leave your dinghy: the municipal dock or the “publico” side of the Escuela de Ritmo dock. The first one is a public dock (we confirmed this with an important official), but a guy there has asked us for money several times, stating the dock was private and to “keep an eye” on the dinghy, so no holes will be punctured in the tubes (something we never experienced in five years of cruising)… We always lock our dinghy and engine and the only time we ever paid to leave our dinghy was in Cartagena, Colombia, where they charge a weekly fee, entitling other benefits. After a confrontation with this Portobelo guy and involving the government official, we don’t dare to leave our dinghy there anymore. It’s all about principles…

The other dock also has a bunch of kids “watching” the dinghies and you are expected to pay. Some say $1 each time/day, others just hand over some change or just leave again. We are willing to pay some money there, because it seems to be the only safe place to leave a dinghy, even though it is often way too crowded. But, two times we came back while our dinghy was being beaten up, either against the barnacle rich wall (someone moved and climbed all over our transportation device with muddy feet and the engine was lifted in a funny way – but luckily started), or riding against the lifted propeller of another dinghy. We refuse to pay when this happens. Principles…

For most of the errands, one has to catch a “chicken bus”. These are big, colorfully painted and decorated old US school buses; very picturesque. They fill up quickly and the one and a quarter hour ride to Sabanitas, to buy groceries, diesel or gasoline, is loud and uncomfortable. Imagine sitting down (but mostly standing up) like sardines pressed together in a can, music blearing from the speakers, bodies vibrating from the base (it’s like being in a disco, no, more like standing next to the speakers of a pop concert) and sweating from the heat and humidity, hitting the ceilings or jumping up from the benches with each bump on the road. Now do this for over an hour – or two hours to Colon – until all your bones ache and you understand while we feel exhausted after every errand.

Waiting for the right bus consumes a lot of time and the longer it takes; the more you are worried about refrigerated items going bad. When the bus finally arrives, your stuff is packed in the back and if you’re lucky you get piled in as well. Sometimes, one of us ends up hunched over in the springy back, the other up front with one leg outside. While the dance music blares, passengers’ lips move with the lyrics. People are generally friendly and sometimes, women get offered a seat. Other times, three adults try to squeeze onto on school children’s bench. The windows hardly slide open anymore and when the speakers are old, the walls and benches shiver. But, the rides are cheap and… we always make it back home, somehow!

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