Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Portobelo, Panama

Portobelo, Panama
Imagine the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean surrounded by a different island for every day of the Yes, 365 islands. No resorts. The islands are owned by the indigenous Kuna Indians. Each island is covered in coconut trees and surrounded by pristine shades of blue water and beautiful beaches. It isn't a dream, it is the San Blas Islands in Panama. They stretch for 60 miles along the Caribbean side of Panama towards Colombia. I had dreamed of sailing the San Blas islands for the last 2 years. I had read a travel article about the islands and imagined doing the trip. I never knew it would become reality this year. I was scared to death and facing a real fear of the ocean. The trip is typically 5 days with 3 days spent sailing San Blas Islands and then 36-48 hours of open ocean sailing to Cartagena, Colombia. I was fine with the island sailing but I was terrified of 2 days in a 50 foot sailboat crossing the rough sea.

Ave Maria Sailboat
You would think I would wait and go during the calm season. No, I was going on an adventure in the rough season.  Would I survive? How bad is the sea sickness? Do I have enough seasick medicine? Oh my, was this a stupid idea?!?!?! There are no roads between Colombia and Panama so, the only option is to fly or sail. I have always had dreams of sailing and loved sailing the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey. The cost of flying and sailing were the same. So, I made a reservation on the Ave Maria with Captain Paul an Sindry. They had excellent reviews and were recommended by Steph at I Travel by Boat ( I was more excited when Chantal decided to extend her trip and make this sailing journey with me.

We left Panama City early on the morning of January 24. As we sat waiting for the bus to leave, a man entered and handed out religious magazines and bookmarks. Then he started talking about Jesus and some clapping started. I was not sure if I was on a bus to a bible camp or what but I was slightly concerned. Chantal and I looked at each other and smiled. Guess God was going with us to Sabinitas. It should be safe, I heard religious people were safe!  We looked out the window and saw a Jesus bus. Maybe this was all an omen.

Chicken bus in Panama City

The bus stopped outside a supermarket in Sabinitas and we got off. We asked how to get the bus to Portobelo and were pointed around the corner. We sat and waited in the supermarket parking lot of a colorful Chicken Bus to arrive. Chantal and I were hoping for the infamous El Diablo Rojo bus to take us to Portobelo. When I mentioned it to a local he said "Oh no!" as he crossed himself and said a prayer. They are pretty serious about religion in Panama. After 30 minutes, a chicken bus rolled to a stop. The sign said Portobelo. That bus was a classic! It pulled up and was painted with the bright colors of Mario Brothers, Jesus and village scenes...a little of everything. We looked at the boy at the front and asked about our backpacks. He heaved them into the back of the bus and then we squeezed into the crowded bus with the locals. I was standing beside the driver with 6 people between myself and the door. This was my favorite bus. It had feathers around the mirrors and windows and a movie was playing. We stopped every few feet to pick up or let out more people. I was pushed towards the back of the bus.
Nothing like going down the road with no seat belt or a seat. An hour and a half later the bus stopped on the highway and everyone got off. I asked if we were in Portobelo? I was told "No, blah blah blah walk Portobelo." Huh?!? Chantal and I grabbed our bags and followed everyone down the road towards town. Cars were lined up and parked on the side of the road. A mile from the bus we came upon a roadblock. We walked through and on to town as we looked for Captain Jack's Hostel. We eventually found out there was a strike that shut down the road until the mayor was delivered a sum of money to pay road workers. What an idea! Just shut down the road. It seemed to work because the road was opened later in the day. 

Portobelo is a small fishing village that was founded in 1502 by Columbus on his 4th voyage to the New World. It became one of the greatest Spanish ports in Central America until it was destroyed by the British. A portion of the fortress still remains overlooking the bay.

Portobelo Fort
We walked on to Captain Jack's and were greeted by the drunkest man I have met in a long time. It was 11:00am and he had multiple glasses of alcohol sitting in front of him. He was wearing a sleep mask over his forehead, I guessed this was his version of a eye patch? He slurred his words and stared at us each time we asked a question. We asked for 2 beds and he cursed at us. Then he took us down to pick out our beds. I walked in and dreaded the next 24 hours. The dorm was a disaster! Not the type of hostel I would ever pick. There were 12 bunk beds and backpacks had exploded around the room. It was a wet, moldy room. Only 3 fans. I looked at Chantal and said "I am too old for this crap!" She smiled and laughed and said "Me too!" We chose our beds and dropped our bags.
I needed a beer if I was going to tolerate this. As I sat at the bar drinking, I realized 8 of these slobs are going to be on a boat with me for 5 days. Crap! Chantal an I looked around trying to decide who we wanted and who we did not want on the boat. It did not help that Captain Jack's was a dump and got away with it because it is the only place to sleep in town. This made the situation worse. The partying and obnoxious staff were on our nerves and we had just arrived. We had to get out of here. After lunch, we left to explore the town.

As we walked through town, Chantal and I both felt a heavy dread. Had we gotten ourselves into something awful? Was this an indication of what the boat would be like? The drunk/high guy at the bar had told us he was a personal friend of Captain Paul's. Was Paul going to be out of it like that guy at Captain Jack's? We both panicked that we had made a bad and unsafe decision. We walked to the main dock and out to look at the boats. I was turning every decision over in my head. We had time to abort the trip and go back to Panama City and fly to Colombia. I walked down the dock thinking. What is the right choice? Safety is my number one concern with sailing.

I cleared my head and thought through all of my decisions. I trusted Steph's recommendations on the Ave Maria. I had double checked for reviews of Ave Maria online. Everyone recommended this boat and Captain Paul had good safety records. We had talked to a woman that sails the San Blas and she highly recommended Ave Maria. I had time to breathe and I was confident the Ave Maria would be safe. I talked through all of this with Chantal. We decided to met Captain Paul and Sindry in the evening and go with our guts. I think Captain Jack's Hostel was just a dump and we had not been prepared for that shocker.

We stopped at the local Panderia and ordered fresh fruit juices and relaxed. There were four Swiss sitting talking and we overheard them mention sailing on Ave Maria. We introduced ourselves and found out they were 4 of the people on the sailing trip. Afterwards, we walked through the fortresses and past the church with the Black Jesus Christ (Portobelo's claim to fame). We saw everything in town in 20 minutes. 
Afterwards, we walked back to Captain Jack's and looked around the dorm. We found 2 other rooms and decided to move to a 4 person room. It was still a dump but not messy because we were the only 2 sleeping there. Yes!

At 7:00PM we met Captain Paul and Sindry and the other passengers. This journey had 5 Swiss, 2 Swedes and 2 Dutch with us. The Swiss were going to be obnoxious. Our first impression was not positive, time would tell if I was right. Paul asked us to provide our passports and pay him for the journey. He explained we would meet tomorrow at 3:30pm on the dock. Our backpacks would be stored underneath and we would not have access to them during the trip. We could each bring a small daypack for the week. We would spend 3 nights on the islands and then leave for Cartagena. He reminded each of us that this is a backpacker sailing, not a luxury cruise with breakfast in bed. The guys would each be asked to help with the sailing. It is small quarters and we needed to be mentally prepared for the sea sickness and rough seas to Colombia. He highly recommended everyone take the sea sick medications starting at noon the next day and throughout the entire trip. Chantal and I looked at each other and wondered if we had enough medication. We later sat and counted the pills and came up with a plan. We had enough for 7 days each. As we talked with Paul and he explained the trip, all of our concerns were put to rest. We were ready for the adventure. Tomorrow we set sail for the San Blas Islands. Bon Voyage!

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