Five days aboard a private sailboat, visiting uninhabited Caribbean islands, exploring reefs, relaxing in the tropical sun, enjoying peace and quiet, just we two, the skipper and his wife– those were our expectations. However, the brutal reality of seeing third world slums reflecting the 40% of people living in poverty, rampant rubbish and trash, air and noise pollution, and a rash of peevish details-gone-awry seemed determined to deflate our initial optimism about our week’s vacay in the tropics.
What brought us here initially was a desire to get out to the remote Guna Yala (aka San Blas) islands, located off the northern coast of Panama. This archipelago of mostly uninhabited islands is owned by the native Guna tribes, and harbors some of the remaining healthy, living coral reefs in Central America.
Once I discovered charter sailboats operating in the Guna Yala, it was a matter of delving into the selection of boats to settle on one that we might possibly secure, at the desired time of year (not windy season, not rainy season, not the height of tourist season). I eventually secured a private charter for Robin and myself on the stable, roomy 52 foot Blue Sky ketch for 5 days of island hopping and reef snorkeling.
Podcast: my interview with Chris Christensen of Amateur Traveler podcast about our trip to the Guna Yala islands.
Facing the Challenge
From the outset, I recognized that the most challenging part of the trip was going to be the process of transferring from Panama City to Carti, on the coast. Two plus hours drive from PC through rural countryside and rain forest road would bring us to where we would catch our launcha boat to Blue Sky’s anchorage behind a scenic tropical island.
The common transportation for backpackers and tourists to the Guna Yala from PC is primarily provided by a fleet of SUVs, owned and operated by various individuals and small businesses. Our hosts had made arrangements for our SUV, providing detail about the transfer that mirrored the reviews and trip reports I read on Trip Advisor, repeatedly warning visitors about the nausea-inducing rigors of the hilly, twisting, hour-long passage through the Cordillera Central mountains leading to the coast.
The airline schedules dictated we’d need to spend the night in Panama City (PC) both coming and going, so after much digging and communications on Trip Advisor, I settled on a “4-star” Starwood Hotels property, Le Meridien. We don’t typically opt for expensive hotels but the choices were limited because we needed to stay very near where our driver would pick up the boat provisions after he collected us the next morning between 5-6am. So, it was either a hostel with no hot water, or the Waldorf Astoria, the Intercontinental, or the Le Meridien.
Peevish details-gone-awry started to make themselves known when we arrived at the PC airport, to discover that our ride to the hotel would be late– about an hour and a half late. Should have stuck with my original plan, in which I had emailed our hosts not to worry about having us picked up at the airport, we’d simply cab it to our hotel. However, our hosts asked that we please use their driver. I get it. Always happy to route the money to the families that our hosts depend upon to help their business to run smoothly. But really. We could have been long settled into our room by the time Roger showed up, all smiles and sincerely embarrassed about his having mistakenly set his phone alarm for the wrong time.
Still in the glow of anticipation of the good times to come, we gave up our pique pretty readily and settled in to enjoy the ride in Roger’s air-conditioned van, even if it did completely lack shock absorbers or springs.
We left the airport, suffused in the orange miasma of heavy, oppressive smog that we had seen as we approached PC from the air. The mid-day haze over the ocean and the city seemed to add weight to the fetid, humid air, coated as it was with diesel exhaust pouring in thick black streams from city buses.
Cars zipped willy-nilly across traffic lanes, barely missing fenders and bumpers literally by millimeters. A crazed din of car horns assaulted my ears, and I was reminded of other Central American cities where blowing one’s car horn was apparently the most critical skill for any driver.
Car horns were used totally in lieu of turn signals, to indicate “Hey I just pulled up behind you, get moving!” to warn three lanes of traffic that you were cutting right across them NOW, to encourage people to rabbit-jump a traffic signal turning green, to intimidate drivers to run caution or even red lights, to alert pedestrians that you have no intention whatsoever of giving way, and to say “Hey look at me!” to pretty girls mincing along broken sidewalks.
I had gamely driven my way through such tumult in Cancun Mexico on Christmas Eve, San Jose Costa Rica during rush hour mornings and evenings, L.A. during rush hour in the pouring rain, and Boston during the era of the Big Dig. And of course Atlanta traffic for the past decade. Still. As familiar as the scene may be, each time I experience it, the adrenaline kicks in with a bit of the ol’ pucker factor.
The route that we took into the city generally used high-rise highways and so we didn’t get a good look at the slums (or barrios) that spread out below the highway overpasses, oozing up to the many glittering, modern office buildings, impressive skyscrapers, and high-rise condos of the city central. At first look, Panama was a fairly typical modern, cosmopolitan, crowded, busy, polluted, noisy city wrapped in a veil of smog and haze.
Arriving at our hotel in the neighborhood of El Cangrejo on the Avenida Balboa, the “… biggest upscale area of real estate development in Panama City and the most modern road”, we nearly slid right down the slick tiles covering the steep incline at the portico. We quickly snatched our roll-aboard luggage before it sped down-slope into the alley, where a line of cars coughing gas fumes jostled and honked and inched forward, trying to squeeze between parked cars on either side of the street, while dodging delivery and construction trucks backing blindly into the narrow passage.
The cacophony and diesel and gasoline fumes were simply mind-numbing. The doorman was gesturing to us, Roger was yelling something unintelligible, and the hotel parking guy-in-charge was gesturing frantically for Roger to move the van to make room for one of several cars waiting to perch on the slippery tiles and disgorge their unsuspecting riders. Sure hope those folks had on crepe soles!
In the din, I just plain forgot to pay Roger his fee for the ride, although I did manage to tip him the money I had palmed for the doormen. Nothing for it, Roger was long gone. The best we could manage would be to correct the mistake when we saw Roger next, on our way out of PC.
The expansive, brassy, glittering and cool lobby of the hotel greeted us, and we gratefully hauled up in front of the giant check-in desk. While the process unfolded, I looked around, noting the beckoning restaurant and bar area with its outside seating framed by a massive wall of thick glass, the 20-foot waterfall along the left wall pretentious with its see-through bridge across a little stream with colored up-lights embedded in the stream bed.
The elevators sported an array of LED lights, and both cars actually worked. We took one to the “Preferred Guest” floor, reserved for members of the Starwood Hotels guest program. I had signed up for the awards program when making the reservations, more out of curiosity about what goodies the program might offer a new member. As a cynical marketer, I didn’t expect much more than mints on our pillows.
Of course I had been assured by the scowling gent at the desk that we did indeed have a quiet room at the back of the property, just as I had requested. After all, we would be waking at 4:45 the following morning, in time to check out and be in the lobby for our shared SUV to the coast. We had awakened at 4am this day to head to the Atlanta airport. We needed all the rest we could muster.
Well, of course we got a room overlooking the busy Avienda Balboa below, with a view of the huge parking lot across the avenue and beyond that, the Bay of Panama.
I clawed back the heavy blackout drapes and through the grime on the plate glass, and the haze and thick smog, I could just make out the silhouettes of massive ships queuing up to pass through the Panama Canal.
“Well, how do you like our quiet room at the back of the property?” I ruefully asked Robin. She said “What?” as if the racket from the avenue below was louder than it was. Which was loud enough, believe me.
While I tiredly considered what to do if we came back after dinner and that loud TV blaring next door was still on, Robin checked the in-room safe to ensure it worked. Few seldom do, at least for us in our travels. Sure enough it wouldn’t encode any set of digits. Sighing with the inevitability of the runaround, Robin got on the phone to request a security or maintenance person to come check the safe.
Our plan was to pop out for an early dinner, then swing by the nearby supermercardo for a few personal boat snacks and to pick up the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested at the last minute. But we weren’t going anywhere until we could secure our passports and cash stash. We weren’t about to go strolling on city streets with all our valuables on us.
Two “security” guys showed up to check the safe and of course much mansplaining was launched to show two dumb gringas how to work a safe. Their English was sketch and Robin’s Spanish was stretched but her patience wore them down, as she slowly and repeatedly mimed and explained that A) she knew exactly how the safe worked, B) the digital keypad was broken and not accepting any inputs, C) the safe was not operational and we desired either a different room or a new safe.
It took some 8 minutes for these guys to poke, prod and mumble their way to the conclusion “So sorry, the safe is broken!” Sigh. Well at least they offered to fetch a replacement safe, and Robin’s wide smile and enthusiastic nods sealed the deal. In minutes they were back, unplugged the crap safe, plugged in the new one, and waited outside the room at Robin’s request while she checked that the thing would work. Yay! Success! Final gracias and so forth and we could now prepare to head out.
Considering the tiny fridge in the room wasn’t working so well either, some ice was needed for the complimentary, warm bottled water. I headed off to find the ice machine on the floor, but the thing had apparently been out of service for several months, if not years. Up to the fifth floor- same thing. Back to the room to report to Robin. She trotted down to the 3rd, then 2nd floor, with the same results.
Back in the room I was unpacking and Robin was on the phone to the front desk, again, explaining that no ice machine on any floor was working (we hadn’t checked the 6th floor, but no sane person would believe they’d find a working ice machine there, either). Mr. Scowls at the Front Desk begrudgingly sent someone up with a tiny bucket of ice.
Honestly, we are not the demanding, high-maintenance pain-in-the-butt gringas. We never send meals back, we are always saying thank you and smiling, we tip well. But man I was parched, tired, grimy and not a little put out with the “services” we’d experienced so far as “Preferred Guests” in this supposed “4-star” hotel. I bit down on angry frustration, and settled for a bit of a funk.
The Mean Streets of El Cangrejo
Off we strolled to find the restaurant and the market near the hotel. I had mapped both, but we found it difficult to traverse the broken sidewalks, smashed curbs and dangerous intersections in the din of the city streets at rush hour. Tripping around in the heat and smog, we practically shouted directions to each other as we walked for dozens of blocks, retracing our steps past a city park, and past a forlorn 19th century hotel apparently converted to low-rent apartments, its once-splendid facade now reduced to cracked plaster, peeling paint, and broken concrete steps flanked by the remains of giant concrete planter pots. The sagging edifice was shaded by a massive ficus tree supporting a leaning, rusted bicycle. A dog tied to the bike casually lifted its leg on one of the numerous roots jutting through large sections of cracked sidewalk.
Our evening stroll continued, past the fancy glass fronted auto dealership flanked by yet another hotel or high-rise condo entry. Just one block off Avienda Balboa, the neighborhood mutated from glass upscale-veneer retail to a jumble of overhead power lines, narrow, crumbling storefronts with bars across the windows, overflowing dumpsters, and numerous empty lots strewn with garbage, plastic, and cast-off appliances rusting in the rubble.
The only eatery open in the area that wasn’t outside food service in the noise, dust and searing sun was a Mexican restaurant. We were greeted by welcoming if anemic air conditioning and the owner, who was perched at a shaky table with his laptop.
Twenty minutes later we paid and left the remains of our unappetizing meals of slightly “off” meat served in oil-soaked tortillas, and headed to the supermercardo. The familiar act of food shopping in a foreign market was somehow reassuring, as we negotiated narrow aisles and the crush of impatient workers on their way home after apparently a grump-inducing day.
I idly realized that so far most of the folks we’d run into, except for poor unpaid Roger, had proven to be ill-tempered and impatient. Ah well, maybe it was the heat, and that unremitting city din getting on everyone’s nerves. We certainly weren’t in Costa Rica, the land of the friendly Ticos, any more, Toto!
We found suitable snacks and drinks to bring aboard Blue Sky (soft drinks and beer offered only at lunch and dinner, water free, all other potables the guest’s responsibility). Paying for them was an adventure, but Robin’s Spanglish prevailed.
I waited outside in a speck of shade, collecting another coat of street dust and grime, while Robin trotted to a small store up the street to purchase the prepaid phone cards our hosts had requested.
Purchases in hand, we returned to our room and to the neighbor’s TV blaring incessantly. Once again Robin phoned down to the desk, where a more helpful person assured us we could get ice for our small travel cooler in the morning- at 4:30am. We might even get a cup of coffee. We rolled our eyes and hoped for the best.
The gringo couple next door was kind enough to turn down the TV volume upon my respectful request, and after showers and re-packing for our journey to the boat, we turned in for a somewhat restful night’s sleep, the traffic and horns and sirens on the avenue below barely muted by earplugs.
A Panama City Dawning
4:30am Panama was 5:30am Atlanta, so we felt positively refreshed as we blearily dragged our roll-aboards and backpacks down to the lobby. Hurrah! Coffee and little slices of breakfast cake were on a sideboard and ice appeared in the small cooler we passed off, ensuring that at least 3 cold beers would make it aboard Blue Sky.
The SUV ride through the barrios of PC was eye-opening, as much as we could see of derelict buildings. The SUV’s headlights swept over old colonial apartments with peeling stucco and bars over every window, litter in the gutters, and scrawny and mangy dogs picking through the garbage in the alleys and empty lots. We picked up a couple of backpackers at a hostel, its narrow facade faint under a wan street light. Police cars with screaming sirens passed in the street below. Everyone aboard was quiet, struggling to wake up in the predawn.
After thirty minutes winding through the narrow streets of the city’s barrios, we collected another young backpacker couple and were brought to a large food market tucked into the ground floor of a high-rise of some sort. Various tricked-out trekker SUVs were parked among the building’s support columns, sporting heavy roof luggage racks, snorkels, and a host of dings and bashed-in fenders and rear hatch doors.
With no explanation, our driver jumped out and joined the other SUV drivers milling about. We all sat quietly in a stew of confusion mixed with a tiny tinge of apprehension. Someone in the rear of the SUV muttered something followed by a nervous laugh.
Our driver’s door was suddenly wrenched open and an in-charge kinda guy leaned in, announcing in a loud voice in Spanish that, well, the gist was “Pay me your $25 per person fee now and soon your driver will return and we’ll all be on our way.”
It’s amazing what you can do with a smattering of a foreign language, talking to someone who has a smattering of yours, followed by gestures and lots of facial expressions to reinforce pleasure, agreement, confusion, and the fact that you do not intend to move until we work this all out. Yeah we didn’t need to go there just now, but the time would come, I could just sense it.
This is where we have learned to trust arrangements made by hosts or whoever our in-country connection may be. I could see that Tito, the guy who managed his little fleet, ran a tight ship, reflected in the deference shown him by several drivers, including ours.
As suggested by our hosts, I pre-paid for our return SUV trip and watched Tito put our names into his phone to hold our seats, exactly as our hosts had said he would. A smile, a nod, a quick handshake and we were assured we’d have a ride back to the city. Not everyone knew to do this, which would catch some folks unprepared.
To the Guna Yala Islands
Tito doled out some cash to his drivers, who all dispersed smartly to their respective SUVs. We were finally headed out to the Caribbean coast of Panama, a line of SUVs in various states of repair, swirling up clouds of dust and street litter, madly accelerating and decelerating, scattering dogs and pedestrians as we muscled our way, horns blaring, through crowded roundabouts and around delivery vans parked with their butts protruding into the street.
We passed the newer Metro city buses plugging along in their reserved lane, coughing clouds of oily black diesel smoke and past gaily painted Diablo Rojos (Red Devils), converted school buses that are owned by individuals and painted with crazy colors and designs, each spewing its own oily diesel clouds.
The poverty and the filth in which many of the poor live was on display right outside our tinted windows. People crouched beside shanties and cobbled-together hovels growing like mushrooms under overpasses, dotting the vista of construction rubble, refuse and garbage. Behind, a line of large fading images proclaiming the glitter and glamour of the “Coming Soon” mega-mall and surrounding luxury high-rise condos and hotels.
Giant beautiful faces and photos of jewelry and well-dressed families were mounted on plywood sheets and attached to hurricane fencing, which marched up and over a steep hill, disappearing in the haze. Behind the fence stretched an expanse of weed-choked, refuse-strewn dirt and rubble, tiny figures of people and dogs crossing into the distance toward the line of skyscrapers, giant cranes and highway overpasses. The entire scene reminded me of the set of a dystopian science fiction movie or other world online game, the middle and far distance filled in with clever computer graphics.
Soon we were on the highway out of town. The scenery changed to large tracts of weedy land decorated with windblown plastic bags, litter and refuse, interspersed by large commercial warehouse or transportation facilities, then the airport and its surrounding blight, then on to the countryside of gently rolling hills and scrub, a few ranches and cattle estates beginning to dot the middle ground between the highway and the Cordillera Central mountain range on the horizon.
We were leaving PC just as rush hour was building, as attested to by the miles, and I do mean miles, of traffic gridlock in the opposing lanes. Compact and sub-compact cars, delivery trucks and buses honked and inched their way toward the city receding in our SUV’s side view mirrors.
An hour or so later, we came to the turnoff for the infamous Road to Carti, where we would catch the launcha to Blue Sky. This road was not too long ago a muddy morass or roughly graded road. In spite of being paved, the route is still a nausea-inducing, bat-out-of-hell twisting, turning, roller-coaster ride that had many SUVs in the line of vehicles stopping to regurgitate vomiting passengers.
Luckily nobody in our SUV succumbed to the “scenic” ride through the mountainous rain forest to the “port” where we, and dozens of other green-faced visitors, finally unloaded bags to make our way past the rough-and-ready restaurant, and over muddy gravel to the concrete dock where launchas in various states of repair awaited passengers for islands and charter boats.
Unfortunately, this location on the northern coast of Panama is absolutely downwind from the prevailing winds and currents of the western Guna Yala islands. This means that all manner of plastic and other flotsam and jetsam washes up on these shores. As far as we could see, a virtual wall of garbage washed back and forth in the waves as they lapped ashore, the heaps marching well inland.
Overflowing trash barrels festooned with flies, sodden cardboard boxes, boat parts, rusted equipment, bedsprings, toys, plastic water bottles, plastic ware, clothing, sheets of plastic, torn tarps, ropes and lines and string and god knows how many single flip-flops, crocs and other footwear decorated the ground no matter where you looked.
In the midst of the sea of crap was the crapper, a concrete structure raised some 4 feet above ground, featuring 4 individual stalls for ladies on the left and 4 for gents on the right.
A Guna woman dressed in her typical colorful native attire, slumped in a broken-down chair in a strip of shade, her tiny worn and wrinkled hand extended for the quarter paid by each guest. I was glad I kept tissue in my pocket, although it, like all paper, was deposited in the plastic wastebasket beside the toilet. No running water here, in the Guna Yala (land of the Guna people).
For me, this entire scene was worse than all the garbage, trash, dust, sick and scrawny dogs and urchins we’d seen as we made our way through Panama city to the outer reaches and into the litter-strewn countryside. I was beyond funk and dismayed beyond description. My photo of a Guna woman, sitting dejectedly on the dock, her head covered and her back to the wind, her face to all that garbage, really captures the essence of the refuse heap that is the port of Carti. What Man Hath Wrought.
Blue Sky– and Beyond
The hour-long ride in the launcha, out to Blue Sky’s anchorage, through a heavy wind-driven chop, tested our pain threshold as our butts took a real beating on those hard benches. The launcha slammed down hard in rapid succession the entire way. We deployed our inflatable pads to cushion our backsides and provide some relief to our backs. As luck would have it, we were both in physical therapy for swollen discs– therapy that was interrupted for this trip.
Here’s a quick video capturing our launcha ride! And below, we’re aboard the launcha, with inflatable butt-pads nestled between us and the wet bench seat.
What a welcome sight to pull up beside Blue Sky! It only took a bit of Cirque-du-Soleil twisting to step over bench seats, under the Bimini top, and clamber aboard Blue Sky’s deck some 4 feet above the bow of the launcha. Thank goodness for the help with our bags and backpacks, I was pretty much out of steam, even as I stood in that hot sun on the deck, greeting our hosts with a big grin on my face. I saw Robin visibly sag with relief as she stepped under the wide expanse of blue canvas providing ample shade on the broad after deck of the boat.
A steady breeze wafted faint cinnamon aroma from the tiny island off the bow of the boat. I drank in the scene: the sun glittering off the waves and reflecting the blues and turquoise colors of the sea around us, the bright green of the palm trees waving hello from the island, the bright yellow-white of the sandy beach and tongue of sandbar seeming to anchor the island.
Layer in the waves breaking over the fringing reef to the windward of the island, the salt air, the gentle movement of the boat as it swung on the anchor. Oh my, how many decades had it been since I had experienced these all at the same time?
The blue funk, my painful back, and too many nights of poor sleep all simply fell away. It may have taken real stamina to get to this point, but here we were. I was determined to absorb every morsel out of the experience that I could.
Aboard and Below
Our hosts skipper Breeze and his wife and first mate Debbie knew we were here to snorkel. They had a logical if fixed order of islands to visit each day, an itinerary that found us, on the first two bright, sunny days of our 5 day stay in the Guna Yala, anchored off exotic-appearing tiny islands with glittering sandy beaches, surrounded by rather blah patch reefs with few fish.
I knew that the mid-term NOAA marine forecast for the region predicted the last 3 days of our trip to be beset by rain, wind, and thunderstorms. I was hoping we’d get to snorkel a decent wall, with more soft and hard corals and a lot more fish, while the sunny weather lasted.
Each day we moved to a different tiny, uninhabited island, where a short dingy ride would bring us to a series of patch reefs and, on two occasions, very nice reef walls near two of the uninhabited islands/islets in the western Guna Yala islands.
On the first wall we snorkeled, highlights were spotting three Porcupine fish, one of the talismans we seek on every dive.
These cute, shy members of the puffer, or balloon, or blowfish tribe, typically tuck well back into deep crevices and holes within the living reef, making them difficult to see. We luckily spied two swimming free, which was a treat. The largest fish was playing hide and seek under a pillar coral, but we could easily see it was about the size of a fat adult dachshund, which is large for these guys! And really, who can resist that timid, wide smile?
Sighting the Porcupine fishes pretty much signaled the end of the wonder. On our second day, we slipped off the dingy and into warm, soothing seawater. Almost immediately, I realized we were swimming through a sea of trash, garbage, plastic sheets, torn tarps, pill bottles, shoes, and assorted crap. It was so bad that I had to keep wiping my hairline at my mask skirt, and untangling crap from around my snorkel. There was no way I could realistically collect all the trash I saw floating around and below me, which is what I usually try to do. I couldn’t help but be struck by a deep sense of dismay and foreboding. What are we doing to our planet? The seas? Where are the fish? Where are the living coral reefs? What is this liquid dystopia?
This was positively the worst, a real capper to the godawful scene of the shitshow ashore at Carti. Over three decades, I’ve grown steadily disenchanted while observing the results of the steady, unremitting trashing of our seas, the death of reefs, the depopulation of fisheries, the sorrow of silent, bleached and abandoned reefs waiting forlornly and pointlessly for the fish to return. This time I really did cry behind my mask. As I write, I am filled with loathing, revisiting the scene in all its vivid, revolting detail.
Getting a grip, I realized that pissing and moaning or getting all wound up in a harangue against the gods would make no difference and would certainly rain on everybody’s parade. As it was, we were gonna see plenty of rain.
Tranquilo and Meeting the Locals
Our hosts Breeze and Debbie certainly did their best to help make our stay aboard their home Blue Sky a pleasant and safe one. Our water and drinks were kept chilled in a fridge, the meals were terrific, and safety first reigned– even as the music played, all day, every day, until after dinner. I could have used a break in the unremitting tune fest, to listen to the waves slapping Blue Sky’s hull or the waves breaking over the exposed reef just beyond that little island.
Here I will digress just a smidgen to point out that, for me, quietude and tranquility are THE primary reason I seek the great outdoors. Whether on vacation or after a hectic week of work, trading human-made racket for the sounds of nature is a critical component of getting away from it all. Check out this article, by Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge, which makes my point more eloquently than I can do here.
Robin enjoyed tranquility on several occasions when she kayaked around an island where we were anchored, or way off to the south, toward the coastal mountains. She was careful to remain within sight of the boat, and the sure knowledge of chitras (sand flies) that inhabit every island kept her aboard her little craft. A newly-developed case of persistent bursitis in my right shoulder meant I couldn’t join her in the second kayak. Too bad, because I would have greatly enjoyed just sitting and floating upwind of Blue Sky and in the lee of the reef, listening to the waves crashing over the reef top, the wind in the palm trees, and the call of frigate birds when they cruised overhead.
Not all was doom and gloom. We enjoyed spotting a turtle on the surface, and Robin enjoyed watching a spotted eagle ray cruise by the reef on two occasions.
We also had a visit from the fruit boat and a lovely Guna couple, friends of our hosts who were happy to show us the wife’s stunning Molas. These well-known and collected examples of traditional Guna skills are each hand-stitched, using the technique of reverse applique. This process requires patience, time, imagination, and extraordinary stitching skills.
Our third day aboard, we dared darkly threatening skies to jump into the dingy with Breeze to motor over to a shallow anchorage near the reef off yet another pretty little island. Robin and I slipped into the water and we all made our way against the moderate current over a (thankfully) lovely wall that started some 4 feet below the rain-patterned surface and disappeared into the limited visibility some 40 feet below.
The light was gloomy, making it difficult to see much of the reef’s denizens. Still, it was heartening to be surrounded by more fish here than we’d seen at any patch reef the previous two days. I could hear the typical snap, crackle, pop of a healthy reef populated by parrotfish that crunched coral, unseen shrimps that popped and snapped, and the odd grunts and groans from the many types of fish that produce sound.
Those sounds were soon overshadowed by the rumbling from nasty thunderheads to the east– and west, and south, and north. Thick curtains of rain headed our way, which was fine, except lightning was in those clouds. Drat. We turned around and finned directly back to the dingy, the wind slapping waves against our ears. I tugged on the anchor line and fed it to Breeze as he quickly drove up on the line, took in the slack and anchor, and off we buzzed back to Blue Sky.
The rain and wind steadily increased, and the lightning in the area encouraged us to do the quickie rinse-off on the swim platform and hustle up the ladder to the after deck, where Debbie was just putting the finishing touches on battening down and zipping up for the oncoming deluge.
The master stateroom, with its king mattress, was the most comfy furniture to stretch out on as we wiled away the day reading, listening to the rain slam against the hatch and closed portholes.
Just forward of our stateroom, the salon area featured two ramrod-back wicker chairs and a short, somewhat padded settee where Breeze tended to spend his time on the iffy internet, attempting emails and downloads pertaining to boat parts, provisioning and arrangements for the next guests to arrive the same day we departed.
I’m glad we paid the extra for the master suite. It had a hatch overhead for better air flow, and two busy little fans over the bed. It was comfy enough that each night we were gently rocked to sleep in a different, quiet anchorage, the boat swinging placidly on anchor, the stars (when we could see them) brightly crowding the sky, the tiny sliver of the moon floating above looking all the world like the Cheshire Cat grin.
I found myself grasping at those mental images of the stars, the moon, the mist-shrouded coastal rain forest mountain range towering just to the south, the silvery light bathing the skies, clouds and surface of the seas after a squall. I needed those mental, and photographic, images to tamp down the creepy, dreadful images of a planet choked with human detritus, trash, and garbage. I needed images of wonder and hope, not despair.
And so it rained. And thundered. And squalled. When not slaving away in her galley below and forward of the salon, Debbie would perch on one of the chairs in the salon and read on her Kindle. With the hatches and portholes dogged down, the boat tended to get rather airless, the diesel fumes from the small generator on the forward deck mixing with the bilges and the used TP cooking in the waste basket next to the toilet in the master stateroom head providing a noxious perfume that threatened to send me off into waves of nausea. The only way to avoid the miasma was to sit up on the after deck under vast, if dripping, canvas, in plastic garden chairs that our backs simply wouldn’t tolerate for long.
Up anchor in the rain – brief video clip.
While snorkeling was relatively easy if I didn’t push the leg cramps, the climbing up and down the ladder to the swim platform, the clambering in and out of the dingy, and negotiating the up and down sets of steps in the boat was a bit tiring. And this after two flights in commuter-sized aircraft to get to Panama City, walking the streets for way too long, a lurching ride in a top-heavy SUV, and a butt-sore transfer to Blue Sky aboard the launcha. No doubt, our backs were definitely funky.
Back to PC
After our 5 nights aboard the Blue Sky, we awoke again at 4-something AM for the transfers back to PC. Debbie prepared another lovely breakfast, and fortified by coffee and gritty determination, we said Ta to our hosts, and performed our Cirque-du-Soleil twists to clamber aboard the launcha for the hour long ride back to the trashy Carti docks, to await the SUV from PC.
But first, we found we were aboard the “local bus” launcha, which stopped at several islands and boats to gain and lose various passengers. The final stop before scenic Carti was a larger, heavily populated Guna island, apparently built on a giant heap of garbage, flotsam and jetsam, the makeshift hovels crowding each other to the water’s edge.
The photos capture what appears to be a third-world island scene in Malaysia or Thailand. As we approached a rickety dock, an elderly gent was picking through the garbage at the water’s edge. Two neatly attired nuns in pristine, starched, full-length habits complete with wimples waited serenely at the end of the dock, apparently unaffected by the morning’s heat and humidity. With dignity, they quickly climbed aboard with an ease borne of practice, and quietly chatted as we pulled away from the dock.
Why was I surprised that this scene of overcrowding and floating garbage surrounded by clouds of flies and the reek of fish should disgorge two tidy, together women of faith? Surely their work was most direly needed and deeply appreciated, in spite of the mean surroundings– or because of them.
Once back at Carti, we hefted our backpacks and lifted our heavy roll-aboards to hump across acres of mud and gravel to the restaurant where we awaited our SUV for the ride back to PC.
There were few amusing moments in our entire trip but the one that stands out was provided by the two obviously French women approaching their 30s, possibly sisters, standing with stringy arms akimbo outside the restaurant, looking wind-blown, beyond trendy thin, in matching well-washed tight black short sleeves. One sported ragged short-shorts and the other dark leggings. Long, frizzed, and massively tangled manes of indeterminate washed-out color blew across their pinched faces as they gazed about them with noses high. I pegged them for upper-tier backpackers, some might label Eurotrash. They were wearing little flat slippers instead of the ubiquitous crocs, and dragging rolling carry-ons through the muddy gravel, vs hefting large backpacks.
Those two were right out of Central Casting: disdainful, and impatient with me when I didn’t take the photo of them with their camera quite as quickly as I should have, then rapidly switching on smiles when they saw the shot I finally did take after I waited for a couple of ogling young boys to get out of the picture frame. The men all hanging about waiting for launchas or new tourists to arrive in SUVs were chatting and rolling their eyes and gesturing at the two women, who studiously ignored the stir. I desperately wanted to capture the essence of these two, their attitudes, and their impact on the immediate surrounds, but there was no easy and discrete way I could get the shot I wanted, so I took mental pictures for this blog post description.
Our SUV soon showed up. We were joined by two young German women who seemed somewhat confused and out of place, glancing nervously about them and carefully watching the drivers in a group, chatting among themselves while passengers settled into their vehicles.
Our SUV had no bench seats, just individual seats like those in a converted van, thus, one butt for every seat. This came into play when, a short drive from the port, we pulled off the Carti road and followed a rutted dirt track down to the edge of a river. Several launchas were pulled up on the shore and a group of around 30 backpackers were milling around in the shade of an open pavilion, applying bug spray with gusto.
Our driver seemed resigned as he dismounted and slowly made his way over to a guy-in-charge-of-drivers. In the next few minutes, several SUVs pulled into the area, the drivers joining their fellows.
Much gesturing, scowls, shaking of heads, pointing to the parked line of SUVs and back to the backpackers in the shade of the pavilion ensued. It was clear that there were far more passengers for PC than there were SUVs and things were in a state of flux.
I muttered “Oh yeah, here comes our driver and the news isn’t good.” Behind me, Robin muttered “Oh. Swell.” The German girls’ eyes got bigger as our unhappy driver opened the door and, in a mixture of Spanish and English, communicated that this SUV needed to take two additional passengers aboard.
I laughed and gestured to the seats, saying “Oh? And where will they sit? (Gesturing)– on the roof luggage rack?” He just shook his head and closed the door.
The German girls, who had been mute until now, both started speaking in German, clearly quite concerned. I waved a “stay cool” signal and watched as Mr. Guy-in-Charge-of-Drivers opened the driver’s door and said, in clear English, “We need to put two people in here. One or two of you may need to jump out and change to a different SUV or wait for…” I cut him off, my voice ice cold and Army tough. “Oh no you don’t. We (gesturing to myself and Robin) paid Tito for this return trip, in advance. We are NOT giving up our seats. Call Tito if you like, but we are not moving. No way.”
His eyes locked with mine and we had an instant understanding. The German girls piped up and, together, made it quite clear that they, too, refused to leave their seats. He shrugged, snapped the door closed, and within a couple of minutes here came a young couple over to the SUV. With muttered apologies and a surprising lack of fuss, they squeezed themselves somewhere into the back of the SUV. I’m not sure where they both ended up. I sat in the front passenger seat, looking out the windshield, my jaw set in the universal don’t-mess-with-me signal.
Robin may have thought me a bit rigid when it came to nailing our butts to our paid seats in the SUV and even the launcha, but the truth is, people who don’t pay for tickets always hitch rides of convenience when they can. People who just don’t plan ahead or who aren’t capable of adjusting to conditions on the fly can easily be intimidated to give up their seat, their money, and information. You simply must look out for yourself when you travel, because nobody else is going to. End of lesson.
Hey, like I said, this trip wasn’t totally a bummer. I’m sure if we’d spent a lot more time in country, and a lot more money, we would have experienced many more of the delights of Panama and the Guna Yala. Still, in my attempt to provide a clear-eyed report and to help travelers understand conditions as we find them when we travel, I believe that any description of Panama City that describes the upbeat vibe and majestic skyscrapers and high rises should rightfully include the fact that those soaring buildings, expansive highways and broad avenues are surrounded by barrios and slums, harboring abject, third-world poverty that no “cosmopolitan” veneer can possibly begin to cover up.
Like a tart, Panama City aims to impress, but the lightest scratch reveals the crushing poverty underneath the surface, and the massive divide between the rich and everyone else. All the hoopla about the new, improved Panama Canal can’t whitewash the fact that, as a 2016 CIA analysis notes, “…Panama has the second-worst income distribution in Latin America”. Check out this brief article from David Brancaccio, NPR’s MarketPlace host.
Here’s another article that will lend perspective about how Panama’s canal divides the country into haves-and-have-nots.
By the same token, any description of the Guna Yala islands must scratch beneath the surface of scenic islets gently washed by a virgin sea, surrounded by healthy and productive seas and reefs. These islands are no longer peopled by an ancient tribe of natives living life as they have for centuries, paddling or sailing in their hand-crafted canoes, producing their unique crafts for trade, enjoying the benevolence of the tourists who visit private cruise boats and the islands. Instead, the Guna people have adapted to 21st century technology, and embraced mobile phones and gas-powered engines. The indiscriminate netting of fish has rapidly replaced the age-old selective spear fishing these gentle people practiced in the past, and the Guna now find their archipelago over-fished, even as they sell out-of-season and undersized lobsters by the ton to cruisers and island guests who either don’t know or don’t give a damn about how they are contributing to the inevitable degradation of a people, their culture and the very islands they call home.
You may wish to read this eye-opening report on the state of the Guna Yal and its people.