…the fastest growing metropolis in the Americas
Panama City is connected to three islands immediately south of the city by a causeway. The Amador Causeway was built out of some of the spoil from the Canal, and links the islands of Isla Naos, Isla Perico and Isla Flamenco. Between the last two islands on the east side lies Flamenco Marina, and north of Isla Perico lies the Las Brisas anchorage, where we spent most of our time. The area is popular with Panamanians. It is sheltered from all winds apart from the NE. On one occasion it became so rough and uncomfortable that we weighed anchor, moved round to La Playita for 48 hours and calm in the lee of the island.
On the other side of the Causeway from Las Brisas lies another marina, La Playita, and cruisers also anchor there. Also on the same side and closer to the exit from the Canal is the Balboa Yacht Club where mooring balls (buoys) can be rented for $0.65c per foot per night.
Further to the south dozens of ships lie at anchor waiting their turn to transit the Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
A VHF net operates on Ch 74 each morning at 0800, and this was extremely useful in learning about the various different services that are available – laundry being picked up on a Monday, propane cylinders on Tuesday, diesel Wednesday etc.
Adrian & Jackie on Oceans Dream had been most helpful in providing a list of stores to visit, and introduced Rogelio de Hoyos, (Roger) who used to work as a Dockmaster at the Colon Yacht Club, until it was demolished to make way for the new container port. Now he operates a service driving cruisers around the city, finding the unfindable! He is absolutely brilliant, and we only failed on a couple of items! His wife also did some sewing for us, so now the saloon seating is covered with material the Kuna Indians wear as sarong skirts!
They also provided a link to the Panama Taxi Tariff, which saved us a considerable amount in taxi fares. The aim was always to get the fare as close to the tariff as possible, with each city zone we went through adding to the cost. Many taxi drivers simply demanded what they believed a tourist would pay, and we sent them on their way!
We met Edgar again (see the last blog) who operates a superior taxi service for hotels in Panama City. Helen and Brian used him during their stay in the city and we have kept in touch with him and his lovely wife Valentina. He took four of us to PriceSmart, a membership store, where we were able to buy items in bulk at significantly discounted prices.
Panama City is a city of contrasts. The best view is probably from where we were anchored, as the towering hotels and blocks of apartments look out over the bay, and are far enough away to provide a striking skyline. Within the city are retail stores and shops by the thousand, or so it seems!
Our first visit was to the old quarter, founded in 1673, Casco Antigua, at Santa Ana and San Felipe, which has a lot of character with street markets, buildings which have been completely restored to their former glory, some still in a reasonable state of repair, and buildings that are little more than shells occupied by squatters. There is a long way to go until it is all restored. We also visited the Museo del Canal de Panama in this area, which one could spend all day at, such is the amount of graphic display, and reading material. Regrettably it is all in Spanish, but the foreign visitor understands the general drift nonetheless. At the Visitor Centre at the Miraflores Locks it is in Spanish and English.
We spent two days with Roger, and saw a lot of the city, but were in provisioning mode and did not take cameras. One sight that we had never seen before was a sign on a city store saying “No Guns”. One becomes accustomed to the police and security guards being armed, but this took us by surprise! The other sight we are now used to is Brinks Matt armoured vans delivering and collecting cash, with the guards armed with what look like sawn off shotguns. The advice is always to keep well clear, as innocent people have been shot in the past.
There are areas of the city which specialise in certain items, like a Chinese area dealing in electronics and mobile phones, another area dealing in computers, and another in automotive parts.
Finally there is the old city, which was sacked and plundered by the English pirate, Henry Morgan in the 16C. Only recently have the ruins been recognised as having considerable architectural and visual value, and they are now incorporated into a park.
Provisioning took on a scale that neither of us has attempted before, far more than for the Atlantic crossing! Quantities and cost took our breath away but we now have enough cans of vegetables, fruit, UHT milk, soap, shampoo, shower gel etc. to stock a small shop and Bob at least is extremely thankful that we will not be doing the equivalent of 10 supermarket runs within one week for the foreseeable future. Getting to the various supermarkets and back was not straightforward, involving going by dinghy to the dinghy dock, getting to the road, flagging down one of the numerous yellow taxis, negotiating a price, joining the inevitable traffic that is Panama! So once there, finding the produce is always a challenge, because the layout of each store is completely different! In some fresh fruit and vegetables have to be weighed before getting to the checkout, in most they don’t. We were caught out just once in a very busy supermarket! Successful checkout completed and numerous bags and rucksacks packed, we then hailed a taxi back to the dock, unloaded said wares, lugged bags down the long ramp to the dinghy dock, loaded the dinghy and set off for Pipistrelle. At times getting bags on board when the dinghy is moving one way and the boat another is a fine balancing act! Fortunately nothing has gone overboard – yet!
Before stowing in various dry bilge areas, the lid of every single can is labelled. All excess and especially cardboard packaging is removed and taken ashore (cockroaches love cardboard). Very soon all the normal locker space was used up, and now the aft shower is temporarily a food store. We have had to provision for basic necessities that we know will be unavailable, or can be purchased at an extortionate cost. Elaine even found Weetabix at Riba Smith, a select superstore in Panama on a par with Waitrose. Bob hasn’t enjoyed the Northamptonshire cereal since hunting down the last supplies in Curacao. Freezer, fridge and freezer compartment of fridge are full of various cuts and types of meat, all individually repackaged in Ziplock bags – polystyrene trays have no place in the freezer!
With friends, Elaine also went to the fresh vegetable and fruit market one morning. Unfortunately again, the camera was left behind because the area is supposedly not very safe. But what a picture it would have been – piles of different sorts of pineapple, melons, watermelon, sacks of oranges, onions, potatoes, dasheen, green bananas and more. We did not feel at all threatened, enjoyed tasting before buying, hired a local with a sack trolley, gave him $1.50 and gradually loaded up. Fresh, unrefrigerated and cheap!
We did take the camera with us to the Panama Canal Administration Building where we collected our buffer fee. It dominates a hill overlooking Balboa, and has been the headquarters of the Panama Canal Authority since 1914. Inside is a rotunda with impressive paintings of canal construction scenes.
Over a month since our last day sail on the Caribbean side, we can finally go sailing again and leave the humdrum life of the City and a memorable stay behind us.
We are now on our way to the Las Perlas isles in the Gulf of Panama and from there we sail to the Galapagos.