Panama City

Well, I was expecting to write a blog with fabulous pictures of the San Blas right now, but unfortunately, I lost 4 days and $400 to El Capitan Kevin and his half-functioning sail boat without a trip through the San Blas since we had to flee the boat the moment we saw land to ensure our sanity… and to keep him from mutiny. We sailed towards Puerto Obaldia just after sunset and it looked like we had arrived to the middle of nowhere – just 2 bright lights guided us towards the small town of 500 and even then, Kevin almost ran us aground on some coral reefs skirting the shore. We paddled towards the only dock and were relieved to discover a hotel only a block and a half into town. Still everything was cloaked in darkness, so we relaxed in our room for $10 and smoked a cigar in the hammocks outside to celebrate land and our newfound freedom, although we had no idea how or when we were getting out of there.

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some turkeys strut the quiet, carless streets of Puerto Obaldia

The next morning, light arrived to uncover a tourist friendly, extremely safe town with two internet cafes, great cheap eats, and most importantly, an air strip with 2 flights that day to Panama city. After snorkeling for 10 minutes beachside and destroying my supposedly waterproof camera (never buy the Fujifilm XP10) and eating breakfast at a restaurant run by the same people who owned the hotel and sold plane tickets (it almost felt like the entire island was just one big family), we completed our 1 hr journey to Panama city, now only 1 day behind schedule but still without our dreams of sailing through the San Blas archipelago.

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a daunting cityscape, but quite an impressive skyline

Panama city was a bit of a culture shock to arrive to after 5 days at sea with only the same 4 people around you and experiencing quite an extreme case of cabin fever. The highlights were definitely sleeping in a non-rocking, non-moldy bed at Luna’s Castle hostel – $13 per night including wifi and a banana pancake breakfast, which is in the beautiful Casco Viejo neighbourhood. Although an important colonial neighbourhood, it was extremely run down and reminiscent of Havana, Cuba with the decaying facades and lifeless streets. Panama Viejo was a modern neighbourhood built literally ontop of of the oldest ruins from the first European settlements in Panama.

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the Panama viejo ruins, contrasted by downtown’s highrises in the background

Of course I had to visit the Panama canal, and was pleasantly accompanied by Guy East, a retired cyclist who is thinking of biking to all 200 countries. I challenged him to race, but I’m not that great at biking so Ill stick to planes, boats and buses.

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a massive container ship barely fits between the last water lock

Panama downtown looked bigger than Miami beach, and the traffic and complexity of getting from point A to point B made it a little difficult to navigate – especially since taxis are reluctant to pick you up or take you where you want to go, and at least 3 protests/riots/parades in the 3 days we were there blocked some major routes. The Panama independence holiday occurring on Nov 3 is surrounded by the two days before and after also being some sort of holiday or reason to close of roads and prohibit the sale of alcohol, and getting out of Panama was even more difficult when heavy rains, flooding and bridge collapses turned my 15 hr bus journey from Panama city to San Jose, Costa Rica into 40 hrs.

Sailing Across the Caribbean… and just barely making it

The hardest part of my journey was always going to be figuring out how to get between Colombia and Panama but everything fell together when we couchsurfed a sail boat in Santa Marta last Sunday. Captain Kevin told us he needed to go to Panama anyway, so we found 2 more people by Tuesday to come with and pay his fee of $385 – cheaper than most boats and including all food, but still such that he made money off us. He offered ‘crew discounts’ which only I got, but not because I worked for it but said I could only go if it was closer to $335 and he needed 4 to sail so he agreed. What we didnt realize is that all of us were his crew, and as soon as we set sail Wednesday afternoon all the alarm bells started ringing.

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the sails were really beautiful, but in that antique kind of way were they should just be looked at, not used

First of all, almost noone sails from Santa Marta to the San Blas – all the boats leave from Cartagena, which is a 20 hr sail south west of Santa Marta and avoids going through the fifth most dangerous waters in the world (according to Kevin, so worth speculation). We also knew he was a little ADD and immature, but he was more of an ADHD, ‘dumbelievable’ pot head that decided to get super high when the biggest waves started trashing us about once we reached open sea. We then sailed all night through what he called one of the worst storms he’s ever seen, but instead just kept screaming “YEAH!” *long pause* ‘WOOOOOH!” *fist in the air*… *loud, awkward laugh*. None of us had ever sailed before but he thought a two minute lesson in handling the rotor qualified us to sail so that he could go hang upside down off the front sail admiring how psychedelic the deep blue sea was.

After breaking 5 batons on the sails, we realised that the front mast of his schooner had to be repaired in Santa Marta because his boat was just kind of a piece of crap. We just thought his boat used to only have one sail and he needed our help posting the 300 pound pole to have an extra sail. ‘Repairing it’ meant him free climbing up and down the mast over and over, dropping wrenches and screws (that either fell in the sea or a few feet from our heads), and commenting to himself ‘woah, thats some pro-shit! hahah! uhh… wait, the rope is on the wrong side.’ We stopped in Cartagena for him to do all the necessary repairs, and offered to do more grocery shopping for him. We had also filled up all the fresh water and diesel jugs for him the day before, and realised we basically did all the prep work for him to avoid him taking another 2 days to get us out of the harbour. We also had to prepare all our own food (including his meals) on board even though he promised fresh seafood and great recipes which we never saw. When we were anchored in Cartagena, we could compare how junky his Chinese junk rig actually was in contrast to all the other, shiny, safe looking sail boats, and ran into a few other sailors who warned us ‘you should always fear for your life with Kevin’ and ‘move that boat away from us because it doesn’t have insurance.’ At this point we seriously considered forgetting the trip, but we had already lost 4 days and paid him in full that we thought the adventure with a crazy captain would prove worth it.

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sunrise during our disembarkation from Cartagena was a beatiful, special sight

We finally left Cartagena the next morning (he was tired and needed to sleep), and sailed out of the harbour completely on the wrong side of the safe markers and ran his ship aground on some shallow mud. After being pulled out by a speed boat, we carried on, all a little tense, for better deeper waters. The first day seemed ok, until he changed our route destination from Porvenir to Obaldia, which is another 100 nautical miles south of Carti – the only road from the San Blas to Panama city. He said it was because the boat wanted to go there and sometimes you just have to listen to her (in fact it was just the wind not being harnessed in our favour). Then we sailed, or rather, Steve sailed, the boat all night long through 5 storms in 6 hours, with pouring rain and lightning and Kevin’s only help was popping up with sandals in his hand and saying, ‘here, wear these to protect you from the lightning,’ to which Steve responded, ‘umm, I’m in a metal boat covered in water, I dont think thats going to help.’ Kevin did that loud awkward laugh and said ‘haha, yeah, you’re right’ before disappearing back to sleep and leaving Steve in charge. When Steve finally retired at 6 am, soaking wet, Kevin pretended he couldn’t find his towel and handed him my sweater to dry off with, and when Steve refused, retorted ‘geez, just use it, I dont get what the big deal is!’ All the blood boiling anger was always reprieved by some beautiful natural occurence, like the scenery floating by, the sunsets, or with a visit by a pod of dolphins to our stern.

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sometimes a dozen dolphins would dance in front of us, hitching a ride with the stern

I could go on and on about all the scary things he said, but one of the funniest ones was when we ‘crew’ all sat him down and gave him a talking to about safety. We said we needed to know where lifevests were, how to sail properly, what to do with a man overboard, and other relevant information just incase we decided to carry out some pirates of the caribbean style mutiny. When Steve suggested he have a life line to throw out to a man overboard, he said ‘hey, yeah, thats a good idea man, Im gonna do that!’ and went and fetched some yellow rope and fastened it to the front of the boat.

He looked and acted just like Captain Ron, if you’re familiar with the movie, but in a more dangerous, life-threatening kind of way, for us all really since we considered ways of getting rid of him secretly to ourselves probably once every hour. We decided instead to just abandon ship once we finally arrived in Obladia, since the thought of spending another 24 hrs on that boat with him sailing north to our original destination wouldn’t be worth our sanity, even for the beautiful San Blas.

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watching the boat sail away from Puerto Obaldia, leaving us stranded in the remote town of a few hundred