Sunday, October 10, 2010


We arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama at the beginning of July and immediately felt right at home.  The layered mountains (OK, tall hills), of the Central American cordillera, often shrouded in clouds and rain, the numerous islands and bays in protected waters, reminds us of parts of the BC coast. But maybe that's just because its been so long since we've been home!  The 32C water temperature is a nice bonus.  Sometimes even a bit too warm - not that we're complaining!
Given that this is the rainy season, we have been surprised by how pleasant it is here in Bocas. We had expected lots of bugs and endless days of rain and cloud, and lots of stinging jelly fish among the numerous mangrove islands and lagoons.  But the bugs really have not bothered us on the boat at all, though the no-see-ums, called chitras locally, can be a bit vicious ashore in the evenings. We have had rain and/or overcast skies only about 1 out of 4 days (and some spectacular lightning shows, after all we are in the Inter-tropical Convergence Zone, Toto), and the "stingers" have only been occasional and easily avoided. So we are liking this place. Like they say, "Its Better in Bocas!".

Cathy and Kathy (from s/v Makai) paddling among the islands and looking for good snorkeling spots for later.

Cathy paddling again. This time up one of the many rivers that run into the Bocas area.

We've made it about a mile and a half up this rio past two fincas (farms) cleared out of the jungle by the local Indians.   Gotta duck to avoid the overhanging trees (not to mention that there are huge spiders in those trees!).  Wish we could see the birds making those exotic calls.

Time to get outta that jungle (and away from those spiders!).

Went for a walk with friends on a large eco-estate created by a Texas millionaire.  Unfortunately he died a few months ago, but the estate manager was very welcoming and encouraged us to wander about on the miles of chip trails that they have cut through the jungle. It's like a tropical park - beautiful.  We saw many of these little green guys as well as smaller blue ones. Supposedly they have poisonous excretions on their skins - so look, but don't touch....

Bright splashes of flowering trees contrast with the multi-green jungle foliage.

Anchored with friends in one of the lagoons.  The owners of the house from which this picture was taken were cruisers themselves until they found this property and built their home in the jungle. They are very supportive of cruisers and provide free wifi and invited us up for sundowners. Thanks Carl and Mary!  And Juanita for the dinner!

Our friend Fred on Makai. Little Rohilio would paddle out from the nearby village multiple times a day to ask us if we had anything for him.  We gave him some paper and pencils but he wanted hats and clothes and money or anything else he spotted on the boat. When we didn't give, he eventually stopped begging.  Obviously there had been some positive reinforcement somewhere along the way.  Unfortunately when we visited a few weeks later, he had a couple of friends along in their ulus (dugout canoes) and they got organized and distracted us while one of them stuck his arm through an open (but screened) porthole to see if he could grab anything of value. They managed a paperback book from us and another from our friends' boat, which we only discovered after they had paddled away.  Being that they were 11 or 12 year old boys it was probably more of a dare than anything, and must have been very disappointing that the books were in English - with no pictures!  Nonetheless, not wanting this to escalate and potentially cause more trouble for all parties concerned, we contacted the village's Peace Corp worker (Michelle) and she paddled out with the school teacher the next day to talk to us about what had happened. Rohilio then had to paddle out, dressed in his good clothes and return the books and apologize. Evidently, when he returned home, he packed up his little backpack and was ready to leave the village!  Interesting and often challenging dynamics between the indigenous populations and the yachties, who appear to them to have unlimited wealth.  Makes one think....

And indeed we often do feel like the luckiest people on the planet!  Relaxing on the front porch with Fred and Kathy.

Our son Tristan and his good friend Dave, down for a visit from Victoria.  Life is good!

Wake boarding on a surfboard (thanks Fred!), behind the dinghy.

We all had a turn. Thanks to patient coaching and towing by Tristan and Dave, Cathy and I both managed to get up - in style! Unfortunately it is off season for surf but we did take a lesson and have both been up and actually surfing a few times.

Tristan and Dave loved spearfishing and each of them managed to bag a lionfish. Not only is it good to reduce the population of these invasive and voracious predators, but they are damn tasty, if a little tricky to fillet with those toxic spines - he snipped them off with wire cutters.

A mixed bag.  All tasty - the parrotfish were probably our favourites from this selection. Which is not a bad thing as there are lots of parrotfish around.

The invertebrate life in the shallows is amazing, making for some of the best snorkeling we have experienced.  Usually brittle stars hide during the day in crevices and under rocks, but here there are millions of them twining around brilliantly coloured sponges and tunicates everywhere, all the these little undersea gardens. 

A magnificent feather duster worm 4 inches across.

More brittle stars and sponges.

The boys relaxing after a hard day of snorkeling and boarding.  

Ab Ripper X!  Can't let those six packs ruin the six pack.

Yes, it is the rainy season.  2" in 12 hours.  The longest and heaviest stretch of rain we've had here.  Usually its over before you can even get the soap rinsed off!

Visited a local cacoa (not coca) farm run by two gringos Dave and Linda.  The pods grow straight off the trunk of the trees which thrive under the canopy of a myriad of tall jungle species.

Wait a minute, this doesn't taste like chocolate! The flesh inside the pod is quite tangy and refreshing, almost astringent.  The actual cacao seeds are just big, dark brown seeds that need to be processed before they become anything like chocolate.

First, its all fermented for a couple of weeks.

Then the seeds are dried for several more weeks.  The next step is to roast them carefully (here they are turned by hand in a drum over a propane flame), before grinding and extracting the chocolate liquor to be used in your favourite cake, sauce, brownie or bar.

Looks like this guy could use a cup of hot chocolate - or maybe a double shot of espresso! We were able to bring the dinghy right up underneath this sloth who was huddled in the rain in a mangrove tree about 6' above the water.

The 1/2 lb Riptide Burger.  $6.50 with fries. $3.50 for the 2 liter pitcher of ice cold draft. Together, priceless.

 Waiting for drinks and food and another night of fun at the Calypso Cantina with the crews of Baros and Salida!

Dylan and Darian put on a hot show!

Waiting for the chicas.... on one of the gorgeous outer cays.

Cathy cuddling a kinkajou. It was rescued as a baby with a broken jaw and raised by the couple who own the Cosmic Crab Restaurant.

Vacations have to end some time (or not).  Farewell dinner at the Cosmic Crab in our own little floating dining room.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Headin' South - Mexico to Panama

After leaving the Rio Dulce back in April (yes, its been a while, but we've been away from internet access much of the time, and the rest of the time we've just been having too much fun!), we headed North for Isla Mujeres, Mexico, via Belize. We thought it would take a week or 10 days and then we would head across to Cuba before sailing back down to Panama before the start of hurricane season in July.  Well, once again we found unexpected people and places and took the time to enjoy them. As a result we managed to get as far as Mexico, but we ran out of time and weather for Cuba.  Mostly, we spent a wonderful time (about 7 weeks in total) visiting cays scattered along the barrier reef 15 to 30 km off the Belize mainland, diving and hangin' out with new friends and old.  There are no stores or places to resupply with anything, even water, until you reach the very northern inshore islands such as Cay Caulker - fresh veggies at last! a small island with a few very low end hostels

Idyll Island anchored at Belize's Lighthouse Reef. This, and Glover's Reef 30 miles south are the only true atolls in the Caribbean. Outside the fringing reef the depth drops shear to more than 2000'.  And the diving is spectacular!

Another perfect tropical island all to ourselves!

At the top of the observation tower of the research station at Glover's Reef.

Osprey keeping an eagle eye for fish in the lagoon.  Other local birds also common in BC are the Great Blue Herons and Ruddy Turnstones.

Not always idyllic aboard Idyll Island.  The positive cable on our starboard alternator broke at the terminal and shorted to the case. Derek noticed that we weren't getting the usual charge so opened the engine hatch to find sparks flying and molten aluminum dropping amongst the fuel lines!  We were lucky not to have a major fire.  We were able to get a replacement delivered out to the atoll, thanks to the incredibly helpful and resourceful staff at the Glover's Reef Marine station.

The water was so clear at times that fish (and us) appeared suspended in air.  This barracuda looks mean but he's just hanging out on the reef.

Nassau Grouper. He was bigger than he looks in the picture. The protected marine reserves of Glover's and Lighthouse Reefs in Belize, West End, Roatan  and Bonaire are the only places we have seen grouper of any size. They've been fished out of all unprotected areas. 

Lionfish on a spear.  Unlike groupers, the Pacific Lionfish is flourishing on Caribbean reefs due to lack of predators and its prolific reproduction.  While beautiful, they are voracious predators and will inhale unbelievable numbers of small reef fish.

Sail repair underway. The sacrificial UV strip does its job protecting the actual sail, but needs to be restitched and patched pretty regularly in the tropical sun.

We made it to Mexico! Isla Mujeres was a lively, touristy town.  We spent a couple of weeks here, waiting for decent weather so we could start retracing our wake south and east to Panama for hurricane season.

The Mayan seaside ruins of Tuluum. Having visited the extensive site at Tikal, these were pretty low key.  The interesting feature, at least to us sailors, is the beacon they developed to guide their canoes through the very narrow reef entrance. 

After a hot time at Tuluum, we cooled off in a secluded ceynote. The water was cool and crystal clear and you could see down into the cavern, were the river returned underground.

Our driver and friendly hustler. He talked us into attending a time-share presentation at one of the fancy resorts in Cancun by promising us all kinds of stuff for only 90 minutes of our time.  Turned out to be more like 3 hours, but we did get a nice breakfast out of it and a car rental for the day, plus the company of Jose (or whatever his name was)...  And no, we didn't buy any time share.

It was great to meet up with the crews of "Mystic Moon" and "Hooligan" again.  All are keen divers and rum drinkers, so a very good time was had by all!  We hung out together for a couple of memorable weeks, then it was time to once again say, "so long".

Finally dragged out our portable compressor to fill our scuba tanks, as way out on the reefs there are no other options. After 2 years stored away, it fired right up and worked as advertised.

Blue Tang.  These guys typically cruise the reefs in schools of dozens, overwhelming the feisty little damsel fish to raid their algae gardens. We call them the Tang Gangs.

Time to leave the fabulous reefs of Belize. We have a weather window that looks good for heading into the prevailing winds and seas to get east around the corner of Honduras.  So with hurricane season fast approaching, its time to go.

But not before stocking up on some (OK, lots) of excellent (and cheap) Belize rum!

After bashing our way to windward for four days, mostly under power, we were relieved to reach the Hobbes (pronounced "hobbies"), a few little cays strung out along a protecting reef about fifty miles of the most eastern point of Honduras (Cabo Gracias a Dios), where we met "Astarte" and "Ivory Moon" and spent over a week snorkeling, spearfishing and socializing. Fabulous. 
Getting there was no fun; motorsailing straight into 15-20 knots and 4-6' seas. Broke a rigging fitting due to the constant pounding but managed to get it fixed in Guanaja, Honduras, thanks to helpful cruisers and locals.  While there we had a couple of very enjoyable social evenings. Best was in a little beach bar in the torrential rain; the German owner and his son cooked us pizzas on the outside bbq - at one point the grease in the pan of bacon exploded due to the raindrops; while we sat at the bar in the semi-dark drinking beer, chatting and watching a rat tentatively make his way down the kitchen wall to try to grab some of the pizza fixings - he didn't get any 'til after we were finished. Ended the evening drinking homemade Jamaica Berry wine (Derek, not the rat...).

A successful shot. Hogfish headed for the barbie.

They are very strange looking fish, but damn tasty!

Damn tasty!

From the Hobbes we headed south on calm seas to the Colombian island of San Andres.  While there we rented a golf cart for a day, along with another cruising couple and toured the island. Met these guys at the central nature reserve. They were starting to brew up a fish stew that had generous amounts of rum in it as did the cooks! The guy on the left turned out to be our assigned guide. He almost fell into the crocodile infested (we did see one) pond a couple of times, but they were very small crocs.

Gotta take a picture of any tree you can walk through...

Opted to not eat the fish stew back at the nature reserve, so found a great seaside spot with surf breaking right below us.

The whole family (there are four of them and a dog!) heading home with the groceries!

Sometimes it just doesn't work out like you thought....

After leaving San Andres we continued south and stopped at the remote Albuqurque Cays for 8 days.  A couple of small islands behind a 4 km reef, 25 nm south of San Andres. There were no other cruising boats there - anchored about 1/4 mile to the north of the northern cay right on the edge of a sand bank in about 6' of water. There is a Colombian military detachment (about 20 guys in their early twenties wearing a random collection of gym shorts) there which we visited to check in. Had the tour of the island from the only guy who spoke even a few words of English - very friendly. The rest of the detachment were busy watching daytime soaps on satellite TV! We snorkeled (suits not required) every day and saw lots of interesting fish including a very active and curious 6' reef shark.  Right off the back of the boat we watched thousands of tangs getting together in their mating aggregation. And there were a couple of sand tilefish that we watched doing their very sensuous mating moves. It was quite the voyeuristic show!

The Albuquerques do not provide much protection from weather, so when it started to become unsettled it was time for the last leg back to Panama,  We had a mostly flat calm 26 hour motor to Boca del Toro except for the 30 knot squall that we (Derek) should have reefed the main for.  But no harm done, just ran off in front of it, screaming along in blasting rain at 10+ knots for 30 minutes.