Monday, April 29, 2013

Leaving the Boat in Panama - What Can Go Wrong?

A developing country like Panama has its beauties and charms: the weather is always hotter than in our home countries, nature’s attractions are abundant and there are new adventures around every corner. But, when it comes down to efficiency, responsibility, and common sense, this Central American country has a long way to go. Having spent a whole year in this region overland in 2005-2006 and another twelve months this time around, Mark and I know what to expect – or better – what not to expect. Last year, when we started talking about leaving Irie in Panama for a couple of months, to take a break from the boat life and catch up with friends and family in the civilized world, we realized we should plan well ahead of time and do whatever we could to have things in order for ourselves and our floating home.

But… the longer we travel in this part of the world, the more we realize one important fact: no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you plan, prepare, organize, expect, and confirm, things will not go the way they should. This is the short story of sorting out our past summer visit to the United States and Belgium, just so people know what to expect when trying the same thing, or to understand what it means to “abandon ship” for a while. With a lot of patience, determination and acceptance, solutions were found, but that doesn’t mean we were totally happy with them!

Already in February 2012, we contacted the French owners of Panamarina, between Puerto Lindo and Portobelo to secure a safe spot. This is a small marina with only mooring balls, which fills up quickly. The only thing we got accomplished via email was a notification that there was no room. Not willing to give up and knowing people secured a spot later in the year, we visited the French owners in person, European style. This was the way to go and after a short talk in French, we had ourselves a mooring ball for the duration of our absence.  I confirmed the reservation orally and electronically and we were assured we could go ahead and book our flights. Which we did, all based on dates that would work with the marina’s bus transport and operating days/hours. We needed to make sure that we could leave Irie the day of our departure from the airport and get back to her the day of our arrival back into Panama.

A few months went by and we started looking forward to our trip “home”. Big was our surprise, astonishment and disbelief, when – a month before take-off – we received a blunt email (in my junk folder) from Panamarina, saying that they cancelled our reservation! The boat that was in “our” spot wasn’t able to leave, because of the owner’s disease. .. What??? A few phone calls to the Frenchies led to rudeness and us being treated very poorly, unprofessionally and disrespectfully. We were laughed at in our faces and had to find another solution, pretty much last minute. The expensive Shelter Bay Marina ($900 a month for our size boat; catamarans pay 1.5 X the usual amount and there is a minimum of 40 feet you have to pay for; we are 35 feet) was out of the question and the marinas all the way in Bocas del Toro were not part of our travel plans.

After a few weeks trial and error in the West Lemmon Cays in the San Blas islands, where cruisers have left their boat successfully the last couple of years, Mark and I secured a mooring ball in the much cleaner waters. A German guy was in charge of the friendly, reliable and well-running operation, while the Kunas were the owners and cashiers. His wife was known to vigilantly check on boats, air them out and make sure all was in order, while the owners were absent. Even though we never were able to meet the couple in charge (we sure tried and planned our departure around this) and we saved a dragging boat which barely missed us, the day before our departure, we were OK with the new solution, based on positive reports and experiences of other cruisers.

Everything was booked and planned ahead of time for our trip to the US, to little avail. We waited over an hour for boat transport to Carti, mainland Panama, where our assigned driver had already left. A different jeep driver brought us to our B&B in Panama City, trying to get more money out of us. The following morning, the “arranged and confirmed” (unbeknownst to him) taxi driver did not show up on time. We called him out of bed and with less than an hour to spare, he managed to swiftly drop us off at the airport. Thanks to Roger’s commitment and responsiveness, we didn’t miss our flight.

Once in the US and Belgium, we could breathe again, but not for long. After continued inquiries about how Irie was doing in the San Blas, we finally heard that the German and his wife were no longer there! Nobody was watching our boat during the heavy summer storms, lightning and winds, while irresponsible sailors were anchoring their boats on shelves surrounded by very deep water. Once an anchor would drag, the boat was free to hit everything in its path… When the subject of Irie came up in conversations, Mark and I stubbornly avoided the topic. There was nothing we could do from thousands of miles away. Towards the end of our western world visit, we had friends confirming that our floating home was looking all right and everything seemed in order. Pfew!

Upon our return to Panama, we shopped and stayed an extra night in the capital, before the jeep drive (not without complications and extra costs) and boat ride – all in heavy rains – to Irie took place. We were very happy to be back home and to find her in good shape. We found no extensive mold inside and the bottom was in the same shape as when we left. We managed to deal with all the hassle and best of all: we were back in paradise and ready to enjoy it!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Isabela´s Wild Side

A while ago, on our third day in the Galapagos, Mark and I visited the Interpretation Center in San Cristobal and studied a 3D-model of the island group. The west coast of Isabela (the biggest island of the archipelago, and created by five connected volcanoes), with the small island of Fernandina settled in its bay-like western shore drew our attention. This area was supposed to offer some wild looking scenery and an abundance of sea life. If we would ever do a tour in the Galapagos, this was the one we wouldn´t mind spending money on! A few weeks ago, some cruisers here in Isabela must have had a similar thought. They inquired about a “West Coast Tour” and, upon finding none, appointed one of the local dive companies to create a custom built boat tour. The friendly, helpful and English speaking Paco was in charge of the new venture and the “West Coast Tour” was born.

Cruisers that had been on this tour, were blown away, utterly amazed; they recommended the tour full-heartedly. It was so worth the $120 per person. It included snacks, drinks, lunch, snorkeling, wild life viewing, and with a maximum of ten people, the long ride up the coast was comfortable enough. We heard stories about swimming with penguins, heaps of giant marine turtles, marine iguanas, sharks, and manta rays. We listened to reports of dancing Blue-footed boobies, an amazing and invigorating boat ride through lava gorges (The Tuneles, a tour arranged by itself for $80 per person) and sightings of orcas. We were sold! All we had to do was put a group of ten people together and reserve a day on Paco´s busy schedule. That day was eight days out. Ten people were found within the first hour. The price had gone up to $130.

The big day of our West Coast Tour arrived. Like the other passengers, Mark and I waited on deck to be picked up by Captain Julio and his crew. We saw the tour boat stop at different sailboats and … leave! Was this a joke? Luckily, our friends Birgit and Christian from SV Pitufa, who we organized the tour with, were on board, and a bit later, the motor boat turned around and stopped at Irie. Not such a funny start of the day. The fact that we counted 13 people in the boat (including us), plus three crew, was a surprise as well. Everybody settled in, basically on the lap of a neighbor, and the long ride started. We heard that the tour boat had crashed into one of the cruising boats while picking the owners up and had left a big gash on the side. The whole scene, unfortunately, set the mood for the day.

The ride along the south coast of Isabela, around the corner and a bit up the east coast took about three hours. We watched out for wildlife, but only saw a few manta rays. One of them made some spectacular jumps in the distance; the others just showed the white and black tips of their wings along the surface. It gave us a good idea about their massive size.  We slowed down along the solidified lava flanks of Volcan Cerro Azul, where one of the crew – unsuccessfully – tried to catch lunch. Usually, a tuna gets caught within minutes and the day can go on as planned. Today was different. During the fishing efforts, we all enjoyed the barren lava landscape on shore, the crashing waves on the rocks and the empty fishing line. After 20 minutes of anticipation, we moved to the first snorkel sight. Little penguins and flightless cormorants were posing on the rocks. Once in the water, the visibility was awful. Sea lions would swim within three feet of us and we would not see them through our masks. We all resorted to swimming towards the animals and then observe them above the water surface. It proved to be a good tactic and Mark and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the amazing creatures up close. Less used to people than their peers in harbors, these penguins and sea lions were a bit shyer, but nevertheless tolerated us in their habitat.

Some more fishing without results slowed us down and had us caught in a rain storm. Being wet already from swimming, we continued to the next snorkel spot along the way back. Here, we saw tons of turtle heads poke out of the water. Because of the crappy weather, the cold and cloudy sea water and the hungry stomachs, nobody felt like jumping in and joining the sea turtles. We had an apple, one piece of chocolate and a drink. Only four cups were available, so we all needed to share. People were not very happy; the hopes were set on food and the main attraction: Los Tuneles. In the drizzle, we slowly followed the coast line back, while the lure on the fishing line was changed. Excitement arrived when a yellow fin tuna was hooked. With no back-up plan for lunch, this was great news. We all watched when the 15 pound “beast” was reeled in. The guys were not satisfied with one catch, so the fishing continued until we collected three similarly sized yellow fins. The spirits lifted. We could smell lunch!

The Tuneles are reached by driving in between breaking waves. It is a tricky endeavor during which tourists have broken arms and backs and which only a handful of captains are capable of doing. Julio is one of the experienced fellows, but… when the swell runs too high and all that is to be seen are white caps and foaming waves, even he has to bail. Many times, there is a substantial swell here in Isabela and today was, regrettably, no different. We had to skip the Tuneles and another wave of disappointment followed. Paco had been talking about an alternative bay, behind the waves, where it would be calm enough to make a lunch ceviche from the fish and where we could snorkel. Instead, we kept going and he started talking about dividing up the three fish, so we could all take some home. It was 16:00 already What about lunch? What about that last stop?

We convinced the crew to give it a go and soon after, we meandered through the waves and arrived in a very calm bay.  A little bit more effort from the captain, avoiding shallows and maneuvering along exposed rocks – it was low tide- and we anchored on the opposite side of Los Tuneles. Reputedly less spectacular, the area still offered some interesting scenery of funky looking lava rocks. Some of us went back into the water with our wetsuits and snorkeled through narrow channels and past caves, while the crew made ceviche and the seabirds stood by. Our little sea bound group spotted two white tip reef sharks and a couple of marine turtles, one of which was humongous; the biggest one I´d ever seen.  Back on the boat and dried off, we had a small bowl of raw fish “cooked” in lime juice. The ceviche was very tasty, but not quite enough for our hungry stomachs. It was a 6pm lunch. The sun was going down, creating a pretty spectacular sunset with a volcano backdrop. What followed was a 45 minute boat ride in the dark and the rain, our shivering and shaking bodies trying to stay warm. When we arrived on Irie at 19:00, all we could think was “Home sweet home!” With a last effort, Mark turned one of the freshly caught tunas into two giant fillets, promising four scrummy dinners for Pitufa and us. Too bad we missed out on collecting the only rain in weeks…

Crowded boat

 Flightless cormorants

Galapagos penguins

Cutting the tuna for ceviche

 In between snorkels

Small volcano on the flank of a big one, Cerro Azul

Painted toe nails to join the Blue-footed boobies

Magnificent sea turtle

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Isabela´s Desolate Highlands

The Galapagos islands are expensive to visit. That is nothing new. Not only does it cost a lot of money to “just be here” on a cruising boat, but the sightseeing can also set you back hundreds of dollars. While in San Cristobal and Santa Cruz, we could get a good feeling of what there is to see by exploring the area ourselves, in Isabela those options are limited.  There are only a few places where you are allowed to go without a guide and those we visited the first days of our stay here. We enjoyed every bit of it, but Isabela has more to offer than the Wall of Tears walk, the Concha y Perla snorkel lagoon and the turtle hatchery.

A trip to the volcano Sierra Negra costs $35-$45 if arranged with a tour agency. A small group of us managed to cut out the middle man and booked it for $25 a person, box lunch included. Even though this sounds like a good deal, you need to know that everything that is really needed for this excursion, is transportation (a 45 minute bumpy ride) to the well-marked trail. By taxi, that would cost $40 return for up to 7 people. But, as with many places in the Galapagos, a guide is required to babysit you along the way. If you´re lucky, the guide speaks English, you can follow his or her pace, and you can learn a lot. Our group counted 18 people and walked at a comfortable speed. The trail was 8 km each way, so quite a distance had to be covered.

From the trailhead, the climb towards the massive crater, at an altitude of 1124m took about a half an hour. Volcan Sierra Negra reputedly has the second largest caldera in the world, and last erupted in 2005.  When staring into the giant collapsed crater, you can see where the most recent lava destroyed the vegetation and which area remained lush and untouched. The walk followed the crater wall for many kilometers and offered free pickings of ripe fruits from the introduced guava tree. After a while, we descended towards another volcano: Volcan Chico, where we hiked up and down for 2 km and scrambled over black volcanic rock. 

The landscape was very desolate and beautiful in its own way. We were surrounded by residue lava in many different shapes and colors; the area representing a moonscape full of bizarrely formed rock formations.
At the highest point, with a view to behold, we all had lunch: a plastic bag full of surprises. We found a ham & cheese sandwich, a juice box in the form of a race car, a small bag of chips, a chocolate cookie, a banana, and a bottle of water. The hike back was a reverse repetition of the first part, but with a full belly and tired muscles. The semi-permanent cloud surrounding Sierra Negra let go of some of its contents, making the trip back refreshing. After moving for 16 km in shoes, our feet – only used to flip-flops – were happy to get rid of their burden. Blisters were found and soles had come loose. The tropics are harsh for glued things and white bodies, but we were all happy to see the sun again, after the metal benched “vehicle” dropped us off in town. Shaken but not stirred.

Volcano expedition with Birgit and Christian from SV Pitufa and Kate from SV Iolea

Lava tunnel near Volcan Chico

View from the top of Chico volcano - our lunch break

Once in a while something green pops up: slow-growing cacti

The ride back to town was as bouncy and as painful as the first one

Friday, April 19, 2013

First Impressions of Isabela, Galapagos

Isabela has a very different feel to it than San Cristobal or Santa Cruz. It is challenging. It is wild. It is inconvenient. It is special. It feels remote. It grows on you. Isabela is the biggest island of the Galapagos, but the differences lie in the smaller details of the cruising life. The anchorage is surprisingly small and surrounded by rocks and reefs. The amount of cruising boats is surprisingly big. The combination of the two calls for tight quarters and close neighbors. The swell rolls in frequently and the best spots are in the front, which means re-anchoring is a common occurrence, and – for the first time in five and a half years of cruising – we see a new phenomenon: cruisers are anxiously waiting for a boat to leave, inquiring about the time of departure, sometimes moving in closely on little scope, to then quickly scoop up the newly available, and better, spot, without considering anyone else. I shall call this the “bird of prey” symptom…
The holding is good in white sand, the tides are substantial and the water ranges from murky blue-grey to turquoise blue. Its temperature is doable and the wildlife is amazing. Sea lions playfully stroll by (in lesser numbers than San Cristobal), Blue-footed boobies dive in unison (a sight to behold, every time, it is amazing how they all hit the water at exactly the same moment!) and groups up to five, pelicans curiously fly or paddle by, resting on everybody´s bow, frigate birds soar high above or bug other birds while fishing, and penguins brighten our day with their presence; swimming, diving, cruising under water and popping back up elsewhere. Funny little creatures! The weather is close to perfect: blue, sunny skies, a little breeze and pleasantly cool nights. We could use some rain to collect water, though. With this being the rainy season (with one decent rainfall in San Cristobal, four weeks ago), I´d hate to see what the dry season looks like!

While in San Cristobal and Santa Cruz going to shore means a quick and easy ride and then entering a well-taken care of town with plenty of stores and conveniences, it works a bit differently in Isabela. Once in the dinghy, there is a tricky “high tide” path to the Embarcadero and a trickier “low tide” path that is longer. You have to navigate reefs, moored boats, breaking waves and shallows and deal with the sun in your eyes and reflecting on the water. Once close to the “parking area”, there are more reefs, sea lions, lines and stern anchors of fishing boats and local vessels to avoid. You have to take the tides into consideration, put a stern anchor out and hope nobody trips it. And that you can leave and get back into your dinghy without getting wet. Once the dingy is settled to your satisfaction, a process that can take from five to twenty minutes, you are still a mile or so removed from town. A hot walk on the asphalt road or a “short cut” over the beach brings you into Villamil, a town of scattered houses, little stores, tour agencies, and restaurants, with little traffic and a relaxed atmosphere.  Further along the bay, the blah beach turns into a beautiful and vast expanse of white sand.

Sven had a few days’ vacation left, when Irie arrived in our third and last Galapagosian island. We immediately set to work exploring the area with a visit to town and one of the salt ponds – was that one flamingo in the distance? – taking in the scene. In the afternoon, we snorkeled at the Concha y Perla site, where a bunch of loud local kids ruined the experience a bit. Nevertheless, we did see a couple of sea turtles and had a refreshing swim, before we observed the sea lions on a small beach.

The following day, we had a taxi drop us off at Muro de las Lagrimas – the Wall of Tears – a wall of big stones, built by prisoners of a penal colony some years ago. The view from the top of the wall was worthwhile and when walking back on a different path, we met a few wild tortoises. We had decided to walk the eight kilometers back to town and stop at all the different sights along the way. We climbed a hill for an amazing view of Isabela, saw different ponds, watched more giant tortoises, entered a small lava tunnel, and observed swimming and sun bathing marine iguanas. Despite the heat, it was a very pleasant and interesting excursion, completed with a tasty lunch and a cold drink at a beach restaurant.

The next thing on the agenda was an organized trip to Las Tintoreras. We had to wait for more than an hour and a half, before the tour boat picked us up. “Forced relaxation”, I will call times like that. We were dropped off at an island next to the anchorage and a guide gave information while we walked a path through black lava and colonies of marine iguanas. The highlight was a tunnel in the rocks, filled with sea water, where white-tipped reef sharks hung out, bred and slept. The second part of the trip was a snorkeling moment in a pretty rough bay, where more marine turtles were observed as well as interesting school of fish and a small spotted eagle ray. That night, Sven treated us to cocktails on the beach and a tasty local meal in town.

The morning of Sven´s departure, we walked back into town and followed a well-built board walk over ponds and through the brush until we reached the local tortoise breeding center. The exhibition and wildlife pens were interesting and informative. The animals had just been fed and that caused some funny noises and frenzy activity. Who thought these ancient looking creatures could be so active? In the afternoon, Sven was dropped off at the ferry dock for his trip back to Santa Cruz, and Mark and I disappeared back to our floating home for a few more weeks of Isabela time! We said “bye bye” to our tourist attitude and “hello” to our back-to-the-boat-business mode…

Giant tortoise in the wild, near the Wall of Tears

Sun bathing marine iguana along Villamil´s long beach

Staring into the "shark tunnel" of Tintoreras

Feeding frenzy with the juvenile tortoises at the breeding center