From Quepos to Puntarenas (65 nm)

On January 30th we left Quepos heading toward Puntarenas, where we planned to leave the boat in a marina for about a month, to explore the interiors of north Costa Rica and south Nicaragua. Since it was a 65 miles trip, we decided to break it into two steps spending one night in Playa Manta, right after Punta Leona.

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January 30th – Punta Leona

Puntarenas is a city laid out on a 4 miles strip of sand, surrounded on one side by the open ocean, and on the other side by a narrow bay with fairly shallow waters. The only two marinas that were built in the area are placed toward the end of the bay, so you need to navigate the shallow waters with the help of a pilot that knows how to dribble the sand banks. Most importantly, it is safe to navigate the shallow waters about a hour before the tide climax, to have the possibility to free up in case you would got stuck in a sand bank. Of the two marinas available we booked Puerto Azul, as they are the only ones to have docking facilities. They provide a pilot service to guide you in the shallow waters of the bay, so we set an appointment at 10.30am at the lighthouse of Puntarenas, about a hour before the high tide. After about half an hour of navigation we were able to moor at their dock with some challenging maneuvering due to the tidal currents.

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January 31st – Approaching the entrance to the Puntarenas bay

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January 31st – Pilot guiding us to Marina Puerto Azul

When we arrived, we were reassured by the dock master that the depth of the slip where we docked was sufficient to withstand the lowest possible tide (in fact, the tidal range is not the same every day, but changes depending on the Moon – Earth configuration). Surprise surprise, the morning of the second day that we were there, we found Zoe 50 cm out of the water. Since the tidal range was going to make the situation worse in the following days, we immediately asked the dock master to provide us with an alternative solution. After some consultations, they proposed us to move to a different slip where they were going to pump away the sand from the bottom with the use of an electrical pump. We soon realized that they did not have the right equipment nor the motivation to solve the problem. They waited until the early afternoon to start the operations, as this was the time when the tide would have been low. However, only then they realized they could not start the pump that they brought since the morning, so they sourced a smaller pump that was clearly not up for a job that should have been done differently anyway (they would have “pushed” the sand away just along the very short dock instead of removing it from a broader area).

February 1st – Marina Puerto Azul

We therefore decided to investigate with the nearby marina the possibility to stay safely at one of their moorings. Having received reassurance that this was the case (crossing fingers…), we asked for a refund of what we already paid at Puerto Azul. The manager on duty confirmed we would receive a full refund, so we immediately moved to the Yacht Club marina, where we left the boat for 3 weeks while we visited Nicaragua and the region of Guanacaste in Costa Rica.

February 3rd – Yacht Club Marina

From Golfito to Quepos (160 nm)

On January 18th around 2:00 pm we set sails toward Puerto Jimenez, where we spent the night before leaving the next morning the enchanting Gulfo Dulce.

January 18th – Puerto Jiménez

We sailed all day to reach Bahia Drake, where we found a good anchorage in calm waters. The following morning we motored to the close by Isla Caño that is a renown snorkeling and diving site. Unfortunately, while we were anchoring we were approached by some local people who warned us that we could only anchor in front of the ranger station, a quite crowded and choppy place. Nevertheless, we followed the advice and took a swim in the surrounding waters, which turned to be not an extraordinary site for spotting marine life. We feel we missed the best spots for diving that likely you need to get to with the local power boats. Taking the chance of the favorable wind that started blowing we decided to return to Bahia Drake.

January 20th – Isla del Cano

One of our dream places to get to was Bahia Ballena, a marine park where – sometimes in this season – you could be fortunate to spot humpback whales migrating from the South to the North Pacific. Amazingly, the shape of the beach emerging during low tide is resembling a whale’s tail. As we do not seem to be lucky in this respect, we in fact did not spot any whale, but really enjoyed the long walk along the beach and the small surrounding forest as well as the snorkeling in the clear waters of the bay.

January 22nd – Parque Playa Ballena

The following day we sailed to Bahia Dominical, where we did not feel to land with the dinghy because of the significant waves breaking all along the beach; we realized it was not bad to be cautious when we watched the carousel made by two people of a nearby boat who spent a lot of time and effort to overcome the breaking waves with their dinghy. This was also the first instance when we saw surfers enjoying the Pacific Ocean waves.

January 24th – Playa Dominical

January 24th – On our way to Quepos

After a couple of days we continued our journey reaching Quepos, where we anchored in front of a wonderful beach a couple of miles south of the city. We deliberately chose not to go to the marina – though we planned to stay in Quepos for a few days – because of its outrageous costs. It was a great decision as the place where we anchored was safe, calm, and with an easy access to the beach and the nearby village with a short taxi or Uber drive. It was also well positioned to reach the closeby Manuel Antonio Park.

January 24th – Playa Biesanz

The first day, as soon as we landed on the beach we were surprised by a sloth hanging on the tree under which we were securing the dinghy. After walking a few meters, we came across a large group of capuchin monkeys fearless of the number of people laying on the beach. And, while we were reaching the main road to go to Quepos, we spotted a large group of squirrel monkeys “flying” over our heads. We felt we came to an incredible place!
Quepos is a little village with a live atmosphere also due to the number of tourists lazily roaming around. We could enjoy some good food and, most importantly, be able to recharge our gas tank.
The following day we visited the Manuel Antonio Park; this is probably the most visited park in Costa Rica, ideal for families to enjoy wildlife and beautiful beaches. We entered in the early morning and spent the whole day experiencing numerous encounters such as a sloth with a baby, several young capuchin monkeys playing, as well as an adult monkey trying to steel objects from the bag of an oblivious tourist. As a matter of fact, we were alerted by the guardians at the entrance to not leave any bag unattended as monkeys might steel some of its from it.
It was a great day experiencing not only the close contact with the animals but also landscapes of an unparalleled beauty. All together, our stay in Quepos was a very pleasant experience!

January 26 – Squirrel monkey

January 26th – One of the beautiful beaches in the Parque Manuel Antonio

January 26th – Hawk

Golfo Dulce, Costa Rica (50 nm)

After crossing the border between Panama and Costa Rica, we spent the night anchored in a large, shallow bay in the Costa Rica waters.

January 8th – dawn at Playa Bonita, Costa Rica

The next morning, January 8th, we arrived in Golfito, a very protected gulf within the larger Golfo Dulce. We decided to spend a few days in the Banana Bay marina where Claudia, the marina manager, kindly briefed us on how to deal with the formalities to check in Costa Rica and described the amenities of the area, including several natural parks and the duty free zone.

Banana Bay marina

After weeks of solitary life in wild and mostly uninhabited places, we felt suddenly catapulted in the civilization again! The formalities to check in required us to move to different places (the immigration office, the customs and the port authority) and took us most of the afternoon. Then, we had dinner in the restaurant of the marina that was referenced as one of the best in Golfito; we celebrated Gemma’s birthday enjoying an excellent meal and a bottle of good white wine. The following morning we received the visit of the inspector of health who, after a fast check to our fridge, enthusiastically described the natural beauties of the places around us and especially the wildlife: several kinds of monkeys, the easily to be spotted red parrots (Ara macao) and suggested us a few walks close by Golfito. So, as soon as he left, we decided to follow his advices and reached by taxi Parque Naranjal. This is a small natural park at the edge of the village, just after the airstrip used by small touristic aircrafts. We followed a trail that took us to a pond of fresh water where two guys where standing armed with cameras and binoculars. Since we were curious we asked them what they had spotted; they, a Swiss couple, explained us that the day before, in the same place they were surrounded by dozens of small monkeys and had seen, in the thick of the woods a tucano. Envying them for such an “extraordinary naturalistic experience”, we continued walking hoping to be as lucky as them. Unfortunately it was not the case, though we truly enjoyed a very nice walk. When we reached the main road, all of the sudden we spotted a tucano ignoring the roaring of the departing aircrafts; we started developing a theory by which wild animals in fact prefer the urban life.

January 9th – Tucan near Parque Naranjal

Since it was time for lunch we decided to go to the nearby restaurant of another marina in Golfito, a bit more luxurious place than where we were docked. While choosing our table, we saw the Swiss couple we had met in Las Secas, the owners of the catamaran Kianga, who welcomed us to their table. We talked about our respective stories since we met in Las Secas and our future plans. They were going to leave the boat in Golfito for a couple of months and then recover their journey toward the Sea of Cortez. Since they were going to rent a car to visit the nearby area, they invited us to join and we readily accepted. We agreed to leave in two days. In the meantime, we spent a day walking for 14 km to reach “Las Torres”, that we discovered not to be ancient towers but rather very modern antenna towers. Nevertheless, we enjoyed a fantastic landscape of Golfito and spotted our second tucano.

January 11th – On our way to Las Torres – View of Golfito

January 11th – On our way to Las Torres – A different type of tucan

On Sunday morning Daniela and Beat, the Swiss couple, picked us up at the marina and we left towards San Vito, a small town founded by Italian settlers in the years after the second world war. In search for the road to get to a small church on the hill, we ended up in a villa that we found out to include the church as part of the property. We were welcomed by Cecilia, a woman who amazed us for her personality and very welcoming attitude, and that we discovered to be the daughter of the founder of San Vito. It was very enjoyable to listen to the story of his father, an official of the Italian navy, who felt in love with the nice of the President of Costa Rica whom he met at an official party. The second world war interrupted their love story, but seven years later they met again in Paris, got married and transferred to Costa Rica; he later founded the Italian colony of San Vito, where immigrants arriving from Italy could thrive thanks to the coffee plantations.

January 13th – Cecilia Sansonetti (center), Daniela & Beat, us

January 13th – The private church overlooking San Vito

The following day we went to Altamira, where we met Pancho Quesada, an artist following the footprints of Gaudi in a very personal way. He invited us to visit his “atellier”. We were fascinated by the number of objects he is collecting to create his artifacts.

January 14th – Pancho Quesada

January 14th – Pancho’s workplace

January 14th – An ice cream shop designed by Pancho

Upon his advise, we went to visit the Boruca People, an indigenous tribe of more than 2500 members, who are known for their art and craftwork, mainly painted balsa wood masks and textile works. We visited their small museum and enjoyed some live demonstration of textile production.

January 14th – A very cute Boruca child

The day after we went to Puerto Jimenez where, walking in the streets, we heard the unmistakable sound of some Scarlet Macaws (Ara Macao, a large and colorful parrot typical of the area) sitting on a branch above us.

We walked for about ten minutes and in a small wood a few hundred meters outside the town, we enjoyed an amazing show of hawler and squirrel monkeys jumping all around. This area is in fact quite close to the Corcovado park, one of the most important parks of Costa Rica.

January 15th – Squirrel monkey a few hundred meters from the dock of Puerto Jimenez

We then planned to return to have a guided visit of the surrounding area. A couple of days later we took a ferry from Golfito to Puerto Jimenez where we had organized a driver and guide to come to pick us up at the dock. After a half hour drive we parked the car and continued on foot. During this half day walk we could spot a lot of birds and monkeys. Following is just a small sample!

January 17th – A woodpecker

January 17th – Spider monkey

January 17th – Hawler monkey

When we returned to the boat we decided to take care of a never solved problem with our main sail, that kept ripping off due to the hot weather, for which it is not designed… After a thorough investigation we realized that our preferred option – replace it – was not feasible in Costa Rica due to the outrageous costs associated. We therefore decided we will purchase it in Italy and transport it in a suitcase! So we had to work on an extensive temporary repair…

Extensive patching on the main sail

The last days in Panama (120 nm)

As soon as we left Coiba, we were approached by a number of dolphins who made their usual show. We could not resist making one more video of them!

We mentioned that we love Isla Las Secas, and, since it was on our way to the border with Costa Rica, we were happy to stop there for a night. As soon as we arrived we had an adventurous snorkeling experience being surrounded by a large school of good-sized barracudas; when they started circulating around us, we felt they were not only curious but perhaps also interested!

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January 3rd – Islas Secas

 

The following stop was Isla Parida, a beautiful island composed by several small islets where a few inhabited cabanas were spread around; it was a good chance to explore the area by dingy.

The most convenient place to check out from Panama is Puerto Armuelles, on the east side of the peninsula where the border with Costa Rica is. While sailing toward this little town, we had an extraordinary encounter: just 50 meters away from Zoe a large dark shape emerged from the water; at a first glance we thought it was a whale, but in fact its rounded fin made us figure out it was a shark whale and, actually, we realized they were two, likely the mother and her baby. After a first worried reaction for the vicinity of these huge animals, we stopped the engine and stood still for a while admiring them quietly floating a few dozen meters from us until they dived away.

When we arrived in Puerto Armuelles, we anchored just in front of a huge and run-down rusted peer and adventurously tided up our dingy to a pillar thanks to a boy who jumped into the water to help us. We were welcome by the port master; his name was Omar and took us to his office to comply with the first formalities. Then, when we asked him for advice for a good restaurant, he offered to take us with his car to a nice place where he used to help as waiter in his free time. The day after, while walking around to make provisions, we were approached by a very distinct lady, Maria, who realized we were Italians and shared with us her story. Many years ago she felt in love with an Italian tourist and didn’t hesitate to follow him to Italy where they married and had two kids. Unfortunately, his husband passed away a few years ago and she decided to return to Puerto Armuelles. She kindly invited us for lunch but we couldn’t accept because we needed to go back to our dingy before the high tide. The day after, on January 7th, we completed the formalities to check out of Panama and we were ready to leave.

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January 6th – Puerto Armuelles

While sailing toward the border with Costa Rica we thought back to our wonderful two year experience in Panama. We recalled our days in Bocas del Toro area, with its hundreds of mangrove islets and its picturesque village on the water; the voyage to Shelter Bay passing through the scenic island of Escudo de Veraguas with its primary forest and the turtle nesting, surrounded by a gorgeous coral reef; the river Chagra and its crocodiles; the San Blas archipelago consisting of hundreds of palm fringed and white sand islets; the Kuna population with its peculiar culture and way of leaving; the unique experience of crossing the Panama Canal; the Las Perlas Islands and, most remarkably, the Coiba National Park and the islands around it. Much less worth of mention are the cities, characterized by strong urban degradation that testifies the still unbalanced development of Panama.

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January 7th – The south most border between Panama and Costa Ric

Coiba National Park (85 nm)

On December 27th in the morning we sailed about 5 miles to the nearby Isla Rancheria. Here we found a small paradise on Earth. This island used to be privately owned and when the owner passed away it was acquired by the Smithsonian Society, one of the most important and renowned biological research association in the world.

We anchored in a beautiful bay in the eastern part of the island where we could snorkel among the most diverse population of fishes and turtles. We were amazed how confident and fearless they were, getting close to us at less than a meter of distance. Some of them appeared quite curious and amazed themselves.

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December 27th – Snorkeling at Isla Rancheria

December 27th – Snorkeling at Isla Rancheria

After enjoying the marine life, we landed with the dinghy on the beach and we discovered a trail crossing the forest that shortly led us to an abandoned air strip with a colonial house at one end. There were a couple of guardians who explained us that this was the base camp for Smithsonian researchers specialized in different fields, such as marine biology, primatology, entomology, etc. Nevertheless, they allowed us to explore the island, including the long, wonderful beach facing Coiba.

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December 28th – Bay on the east side of Isla Rancheria

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December 28th – Smithsonian Base Camp

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December 28th – View of Islas Cocos from Isla Rancheria

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December 28th – Beach on the south side of Isla Rancheria

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December 28th – Beach on the south side of Isla Rancheria

The footprints of crocodile below were not there when we first walked to the beach!2018-12-28 11.09.10 DMC-FZ200      2018-12-28 11.20.02 DMC-FZ200

After a couple of days, we sailed to Granito de Oro, an islet east of Coiba, that is a paradise for scuba diving and snorkeling. Here we admired even more fishes and turtles than in Isla Rancheria, including a nurse shark (known to be non-aggressive toward human beings). One turtle, while swimming to the surface to take a breath, went just in front of the mask of Gemma. We kept going back snorkeling several time and it was always a unique and unforgettable experience!

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December 29th – Isla Granito de Oro

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December 29th – People come to Isla Granito de Oro even by helicopter!

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December 29th – Snorkeling at Isla Granito de Oro

The morning after our arrival at Isla Granito de Oro, the Park rangers came to our boat demanding us to pay what we thought to be an outrageous fee – 20$ per person + 60$ for the boat/day. When we asked to pay a more reasonable amount, they nicely replied they would need to check with their manager, and left. As after several hours they did not return, we decided to leave and sail to the next spot, the site of the old prisons. In fact, Isla Coiba was a penal colony until the end of the 20th century, where the life condition for prisoners must have been so terrible that sometimes they tried to escape despite crocodiles, sharks and the distance from the mainland. This is also the reason why these islands are still uncontaminated and present such a variety of fauna and flora. We spent the night anchored in front of the old buildings and early in the morning we took the dinghy to visit the area. We discovered that nowadays this is a site for the Aeronaval (the Panamanian coast guard) as a few armed soldiers kindly but firmly warned us to leave immediately Bahia Damas as the entire bay is off-limits.

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December 30th – Former penal colony at Bahia Damas

We pulled the anchor and chose as the next destination Isla Jicaron, south of Coiba. We anchored in a nice bay in the north of the island, and decided to go ashore with the dinghy. This was too quick of a decision, as when we approached the beach we had to go through an adventurous landing due to the breaking waves. The payoff was a show setup by a flock of pelicans which were fishing with spectacular dives into the water.

The next day, the last day of 2018, we sailed to Isla Jicarita where we spent New Year’s Eve at the most rolling anchorage we experienced in the whole year – we can say we danced all night! It was definitely a very peculiar way to start 2019… For those that are curious, our dinner consisted of lentils and a “fake fish” (canned tuna, boiled potatoes, capers, and our own made mayonnaise) accompanied by a more than decent Italian Prosecco bought in Panama.

On January 1st, we moved toward more calm waters at Ensenada Hermosa on the west side of Coiba. Here we spent two days enjoying great snorkeling and a beautiful beach where we could spot a capuchin monkey making his noisy display on a branch just above us. From the beach you could walk up a small stream of fresh, clear water; it was great to take a bath in a lovely, natural cold pool. However, the most impressive close encounter was with a bright yellow fish, about 2 cm long, that followed us for the whole time we snorkeled, and left only when we reached the boat and got out of the water. We wondered what was the meaning of such “affiliative” behavior!

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January 2nd – Gemma and our temporary pet, the tiny yellow fish

On January 3rd, while we were having breakfast, we heard some knocks on the hull: it was again a boat of Park rangers who informed us that we should either go to the Park station to pay the registration fees or leave immediately the island. Since this was really our last spot we meant to visit, we left this beautiful marine park, setting sails back to Isla Secas.

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January 3rd – A sula taking a ride on our bimini sailing to Isla Secas

From Pedregal to Isla Canal de Fuera (105 nm)

On December 22nd we left Pedregal at 13:00 heading to the Coiba National Park, which consists of several islands, including Isla Coiba, which by the way is the largest island in the Pacific Central America.

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December 21st – Night on the river

We followed our way out down the river, where we had to spend a night to wait for the high tide to pass a few shallow areas. The day after we met the same (???) dolphins we spotted on our way in; it was again a great show! We arrived in Isla Parida just before sunset and we anchored there for the night.

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December 23rd – Isla Parida

The next morning, we intended to reach Islas Secas, but all of the sudden we got strong wind and high waves (despite forecasts) so we decided to find shelter in a beautiful bay in the south part of Isla Bolano.

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December 23rd – Isla Bolano

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December 23rd – Isla Bolano

With much milder winds the day after we reached Islas Secas, that are among our most favorite islands. We seem not to be the only one, though… in fact there is a luxurious resort, well hidden in the forest, where (we have been told) an accommodation is priced 2000$ a night.

For once, there was somebody else in the bay where we anchored. It was Kianga, a 50-foot catamaran with a couple of Swiss people on board who approached us by dinghy to wish us Merry Christmas. This is how we met Beat and Daniela who we learned where headed in two weeks to Costa Rica as well. We promised to keep in touch and we set sail toward the Islas Contreras.

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Kianga at Islas Secas

On December 26th we left the Islas Contreras in search of internet signal since we would have liked to communicate with friends and family, so we headed to Bahia Honda, a small fisherman village best looking from a distance than ashore and with no possibility to reach a network. Hopeless, we decided to forget about the world of internet and focus on nature. We went to anchor for the night at Isla Canal de Fuera, the northern entry to the Coiba National Park.

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December 25th – Washing at Islas Contreras

 

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December 26th – Fisherman village in Bahia Honda

San Josè – Costa Rica and Boquete (by land)

On December 12th we left Zoe guarded by Beto who kindly took us ashore. The bus to San Jose’ was leaving from David (a few kilometers away from Pedregal) at noon, and it took nine hours to get to San Jose’. Even if it was quite a long ride, time went by pretty fast, as the bus was comfortable and we had a one hour stop at Paso Canoa, the village at the border, where we had to go through customs and immigration on both sides. We enjoyed the landscape along the coast, where we admired the extensive cultivations of palm trees for oil production. As soon as you cross the border from Panama to Costa Rica you immediately perceive a strong change in the landscape: lush and wild forest, mostly uninhabited, on the Panama side turns into cultivated land spotted by picturesque villages on the Costa Rica side.

In San Jose’ we had booked a very inexpensive room through Airbnb which turned to be nice and with a very kind host. We dropped the luggage and went to the restaurant where we had an appointment with Nello, the guy from the Italian embassy. He took us to an Italian restaurant where we had a great meal together. He talked about his experience in Costa Rica and shared that he was trying to buy a good-sized sailboat through an online auction for a few thousand dollars. We are anxious to know if he succeeded!

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December 13th – Enjoying Nello’s company at the Italian restaurant

The following day we went to the embassy to renew the passport and we continued taking advantage of Nello’s company at lunch and dinner. In the afternoon we went to the National Museum which contains interesting items of Costa Rica history since the pre-Colombian period. We skipped the Museum of Gold, a cannot miss place, as we visited it a previous trip to San Jose.

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December 13th – The National Museum’s garden

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December 13th – Pre-Colombian artifacts

We returned to Pedregal, but since the starter motor was not yet arrived, we decided to rent a car and to go to Boquete, where we spent a few days. This is an area about 1-hour drive north of David, at an altitude of approximately 1000 meters, at the foot of Vulcan Baru.

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December 15th – Boquete from a distance

Boquete is a vacation spot for Panamanians and a retirement location for Americans. The village is colorful and friendly, full of nice café and good restaurants. It is surrounded by a lush forest and well-marked trails that give you a chance to keep up with your body fitness. The general atmosphere is very friendly and the cool weather made these few days of wait a great break from the marine life.

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December 16th – Celebration at the church

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December 18th – A colorful house in Boquete

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December 18th – Coati in the suburbs of Boquete

December 19th – The dam serving the ENEL Fortuna Hydro Electric Power Plant

On December 20th we returned to David, picked up the new starter motor and visited the SOS Children Village – David, part of the SOS Children Village organization, that offers support to families in need. The village provides hospitality and education to children so to accompany them in a process of development to attain their self-sufficiency and to be active in the society. As we are supporters of this organization, we wished to see how it operates in different countries – we were very positively impressed.

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December 20th – Ana, an operator at the SOS Children Village

When we returned to the boat and mounted the starter motor, we faced exactly the same problem, as the engine would at times not start. This was a real bad surprise, as we could not think of any other source of the problem. As usual in these situations, we relied on the knowledge of Mirko (our friend, marine mechanic), who reassured us it was something around the electrical system and suggested a test we previously excluded with our logic. To make a long story short, we solved the problem by replacing a simple wire!!!

From Las Perlas to Pedregal (320 nm)

We left on December 4th at 4:00 pm from Isla San Jose heading to Isla Iguana, about 80 miles away on the opposite side of the Gulf of Panama, which sometimes can be difficult to cross due to its infamous gusty winds. The forecast was favorable with predicted winds of 10-15 kn. During the night the wind changed direction and speed, making the route to Isla Iguana challenging and with an arrival time at night; this is something we like to avoid when we do not know the place where we are landing. Therefore, we changed our plans to get to Ensenada Benao, an additional 10 miles away, where we ended up anchoring at about 7:00 am on December 5th.

Dec 4th - Leaving Isla San Jose'

December 4th – Leaving Isla San Jose’

Dec 4th - Mogote South of Isla San Jose'

December 4th – Mogote South of Isla San Jose’

Dec 4th - Other Mogote South of Isla San Jose'

December 4th – Other Mogote South of Isla San Jose’

Ensenado Benao is a large sandy bay where a few resorts have been built. We used this stop mainly to rest and repair the main sail that during the passage started ripping off in a couple of spots. We were aware that the main sail would have not lasted long, as its material is not appropriate for the hot weather in this side of the world. Differently from the genoa, we did not replace this sail before the departure from Rome, even if the sailmaker warned us about its light construction. So we took down the sail and used half of the 5 square meters of sticky patch we brought with us to temporarily fix the problem. We know that our next significant expense will be for a new main sail.

Dec 6th - Patches on the mainsail

December 6th – Patches on the mainsail

At this point we need to make a digression. A few days earlier we realized that Gemma’s passport was expiring at the end of February 2019. We needed to find a consulate where to renew the passport. First, we called the embassy in Panama, but we were not able to talk to anyone on the phone. We then tried with the Mexican embassy, where they told us we should get an appointment to bring the old passport, and then wait for about 10 days until they would have got clearance from the police in Rome to release the new passport. We also tried to call the embassy in Costa Rica, and we were lucky to speak with Nello, the employee in charge of the passport office. We immediately got in tune with him as he was very interested and curious about our sailing experience. He offered to request clearance from Italy upon an email with Gemma’s scanned documents, avoiding us to make two trips. Not only this, but also we agreed he would come sail with us during his Christmas vacations. We then set an appointment for December 14th at the Italian Embassy in San Jose’. Therefore, we decided to head to Pedregal, a small village on a river close to the city of David, where there are daily buses to San Jose’.

On December 6th we left Ensenada Benao with the wind on our back heading north west to Ensenado Naranjo, where despite our wish we arrived at night, as the wind dropped significantly and there was no sheltered anchorage before.

The day after we got to Isla Cebaco, an island with a few villages and an extensive banana plantation. Here we spent the whole afternoon searching internet for a new starter motor and the best way to get it delivered. We ended up ordering it from a Yanmar dealer in Miami who would have shipped it in a couple of days to MBE, a freight forwarder that in an additional few days would have delivered the spare part in David. In fact, soon after we crossed the Canal, every now and then the engine would not start, and as the time passed this was happening more and more frequently. So, after a thorough analysis and a phone consultation with our friend, Mirko, from our point of view the best mechanic of the world, we decided we could not wait but order a new starter motor. By the way, in a few days you’ll see that the passport and the starter motor stories will mix.

From Cebaco we made a stop in Isla Santa Catalina (Dec 8th) where we met the first sailboat since we left Panama! Even if we had no chance to interact with its occupants, we felt a bit less alone in the sea! In front of Isla Catalina there are long long beaches famous to surfers for the the high waves, though at the time we were there the sea was quite calm.

Dec 8th - Sailboat at the anchor at Isla Santa Catalina

December 8th – Sailboat at the anchor at Isla Santa Catalina

Time was becoming tight, so we kept going and got to Isla Secas by sunset. While anchoring, we noticed a lot of bubbling on the water, but at the moment we did not pay too much attention. Later, we were astonished and enchanted by a very peculiar phenomenon: hundreds of trumpet fishes, blue, approximately 70 cm long, were making a carousel of jumps all around the boat. They were running over the water for several meters in a sequence of 3-4 jumps,like if you were throwing a flat stone over a patch of calm water. This carousel continued all over the night, preventing us from falling asleep for quite a while. We promised ourselves to return here.

Dec 9th - Sunset at Islas Secas

December 9th – Sunset at Islas Secas

Dec 9th - Trumpet fish at Islas Secas

December 9th – Trumpet fish at Islas Secas

The next morning we left Isla Las Secas heading to Isla Bolanos, an intermediate stop to enter the river leading into Pedregal with the raising tide. After lunch, when it was time to leave, the engine would not start! For about a hour Sergio made several attempts until with apparent no reason the engine turned on! Such an experience convinced us not to turn off the engine till we were safely anchored at the marina in Pedregal. To get there, it is not that straightforward. In fact, you must sail up a river for about 20 miles, with sections that can be navigated only at high tide. This means that a boat like ours cannot make the entire course in one shot, but has to make a night stop waiting for the next high tide. So we did, anchoring in the middle of the river from 6pm until 4am with the engine running! Despite this inconvenience, the experience was really enjoyable; when entering the estuary, we were approached by a school of large dolphins that accompanied us for about an hour, amusing us with jumps and other acrobatics: some of them came so close to the boat that seemed to be looking at us with curiosity (please, forgive the anthropomorphism!!). Also navigating the calm waters of the river, admiring the unusual scenery and the hundreds of birds flying to their nests at sunset was unforgettable.

Dec 10th 4pm - Dophins at Boca Brava

December 10th – Dolphins at Boca Brava

Dec 10th 5pm - Sailing up the river

December 10th – Sailing up the river

Dec 10th 6pm - At the anchor for the night on the river

December 10th- At the anchor for the night on the river

When early in the morning we approached Pedregal we immediately realized that the term “port” was an overestimation; a few fishing boats were moored along dilapidated docks in shallow, muddy waters. Nobody was around apart from a guy who gestured and screamed something to us from a catamaran anchored close to the mangroves. That’s the way we met Beto! He jumped on a dinghy and rowed with energy toward our boat, while trying to communicate with us in a weird (to us) Spanish. When he got close to our boat he succeeded to explain us that the “jefe” (the master captain) of the port would have arrived at 8:00, and offered to call him on his mobile. We were a little anxious because, given the engine problem, we needed to moore and it did not seem so obvious that we would have had a place where to safely leave the boat. The master showed up at around 8:30 and kindly explained us that only one place was available, but that he would not recommend it. In fact, the dock was 3 meters long, good to moore a dinghy; plus we found out that this would have cost us an unreasonable and unjustified amount of money. The alternative was to moore attached to the catamaran and pay a much more reasonable amount of money to Beto who was already taking care for that boat, since the owner, a French guy, suddenly had to return home. We agreed with that solution and it was definitely for the best.

Dec 11th - Pedregal Marina

December 11th – Pedregal Marina

Dec 11th - Zoe moored next to the catamaran

December 11th – Zoe moored next to the catamaran

As soon as the sun started fading out, a cloud of no-see-’em invaded the boat. No-see’em are a 1mm kind of mosquito that byte instead of puncturing, causing hitches that last several days – you typically find them next to the mangroves. The only preventive measure is to “shower” with a very oily and sticky repellent. Therefore, we decided to anticipate our trip to San Jose to the following day, hoping to find the starter motor at the MBE office (the freight forwarder company which we used to ship it from Miami to Panama) on our way back from San Jose’.

Dec 12th - Birds at Pedregal Marina

December 12th – Birds resting on our boat

Islas Las Perlas (250 nm)

On November 14th at around 4:00pm we completed the passage of the Panama Canal and disembarked the pilot and the added crew. Since it was still early in the afternoon we decided not to anchor at Las Brisas, the large bay in front of Panama, bur rather continue to the Isla de Taboga, a few miles South of Panama, where we dropped anchor at sunset.

Taboga is a small, cute island used as a weekend spot by the Panamanians. Unfortunately you can see not too far all kind of cargos and oil tankers which take away a bit of the feeling of an uncontaminated place.

Nov 14th - Isla Taboga

November 14th – Isla de Taboga

Therefore, the day after we decided to head toward the Islas Las Perlas, that is an archipelago of nearly 250 small islands, most of which still uninhabited. The name originates in the Spanish colonial period for the great amount of pearls found around these islands. We motor sailed (no wind!) about 40 miles to reach Contadora, that is the most touristic island of the archipelago, featuring a small airstrip and many luxurious villas. The island of Contadora became famous when the Shah of Iran retreated there in exile. We anchored on the South side of the island; the next morning we had our first experience with the Pacific currents due to the tidal excursions. Gemma took a swim and immediately realized that though she was trying to swim back to the boat she was not making any progress forward. Fortunately Sergio was still on board and with the help of a line and a lifebuoy he could easily retrieve her back on board. It was a great lesson learned!

We landed on Contadora by dinghy to make some provisioning. The island is not huge, but long enough to appreciate the nice attitude of the local people who gave us a ride both ways into town and back by kind of golf carts.

The following day we explored the nearby Isla Bartolome’, a very scenic place where hundreds of birds (pelicans, fregata magnificentis, seagulls, cormorants – to name some)  entertain complex interactions within and between species. For example, we saw a group of fregatas nastily attacking and persecuting a poor seagull that had no choice than rapidly escape. This was the first time we tried the brand new wheels that we were recommended to add to our dinghy once in the Pacific. In fact, due to the high tides, the beach can become very long to transport the dinghy/engine that all together weight about 70 Kg. Unfortunately, this wonderful addition contrasted with the poor dinghy whose life was about to its end. In fact, although we stored it in a locker in Shelter Bay to prevent the sun to deteriorate it, the tropical heat still caused the PVC material of the dinghy to unstuck in several places.

Nov 20th - Isla Bartlomè

November 20th – Isla Bartolomè

Nov 20th - Pelicans at Isla Bartolome'

November 20th – Pelicans at Isla Bartolome’

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Dinghy on wheels

The following day we went to Isla Chapera where we felt quite unwelcome as soon as we tried to land with the dinghy and we were approached by some barking dogs and three armed soldiers who ordered us to leave immediately as that area was off-limits. Needless to say, we felt compelled to obey. We went to Isla Boyarena, a little gem which disappears with the high tide and becomes a huge dune of white sand at low tide.

Nov 23rd - Boyarena

November 23rd – Isla Boyarena

Here we had a disappointing accident. While we were raising the dinghy to try some extreme intervention to repair it, one of the two wheels felt in the water and in a matter of seconds it was out of our sight due to the strong tidal current. All efforts we made to rescue the wheel were useless. We knew it was floating somewhere, but after more than one hour of research on a semi-deflated dinghy, we decided it was time to take a turn. In a mixture of feelings between disappointed and sad, we came to the decision it was time for a new dinghy. We spent the following day at Isla Mina searching  internet and posting entries in forums to make an informed decision.  We found out that the only place where we could source a new dinghy was in Panama, so with the wind in our favor we quickly sailed back the 40+ miles that separated us from Panama City.

Nov 25th - Between Boyarena and Mina

November 25th – Between Boyarena and Isla Mina

Nov 25th - Tuna fish between Las Perlas and Panama

Nov 25th – Some catch

 

 

Nov 26th - Back to Panama

November 26th – Back to Panama

Nov 26th - From Las Perlas to Panama

November 26th – Boats transported by a huge cargo

Choices were limited, and basically the only dinghy available that would fit our needs was a Caribe dinghy with a fiberglass keel, 2.5 mt , 45 kg, manufactured in Venezuela. Believe it or not, the first hours with the new dinghy were a nightmare. In fact, one of the chambers was deflating after a few hours!!! We brought it back to the shop ready to ask for our money back… fortunately it was just a valve that was not properly lubricated!

Dec 1st - Back to Las Perlas with two dinghys

November 30th – Back to Las Perlas with two dinghies

With the new Caribe dinghy and some disappointing adventures behind our shoulders, we headed back to Las Perlas going through Isla Otoque, an island where the Smithsonian Society has established a research center for the study of the birds. From there, on November 30th we headed to Isla Pedro Gonzales, the third largest island of Las Perlas acrhipelago, where a luxurious marina and villas were recently built. We then sailed to the west side of Isla Bayoneta, that is famous for its long white sand beach full of small cowries (cipree).

December 1st - Isla Bayoneta

December 1st – Isla Bayoneta

Dec 1st - Bayoneta 1

Sergio at Isla Bayoneta

We made the next stop at Isla Viveros, where we spent the night, before circumnavigating it to  get to the village of San Miguel at Isla del Rey. While the most populated of Isla del Rey, this is an extremely poor village, where we could barely find a few apples and eggs to buy. Even staying at the anchorage was not very pleasant, so we decided to leave and spend the night on the north east side of the island, were we found a beautiful and sheltered spot.

Dec 2nd -West side of Isla Rey

December 2nd – West side of Isla Rey

On December 3rd, we started heading south. We stopped at Ensenada, a tiny, colorful village, where people sustain themselves by fishing and harvesting fruit and vegetables on the hills of the island.

Dec 3rd - Ensenada

December 3rd – Ensenada (village at Isla del Rey)

In the afternoon we enjoyed passing by the island of San Telmo, getting for the night to an anchorage in a bay in front of Rio Cacique.

Dec 3rd - San Thelmo

December 3rd – Rock at Isla San Telmo

Here we encountered  three teenagers who approached us to sell fish freshly caught with their nets. Our plan for the day after was to navigate up the Cacique river that was advertised in our guide as a great place. Unfortunately, the next morning at 10:00. when in our mind the tide should have been at the perfect level for entering the estuary, we found no river! It was clearly too early and the estuary was still fully covered by the sand. Since we spent the night fighting the mosquitoes and the no-see-‘em, we decided it was time to start heading north west. After a short stop at Isla San Jose, at 4:00pm on December 4th we started the 80 miles crossing of the large Panama bay.

Dec 4th - Between Isla Rey and San Jose

December 4th – Between Isla Rey and San Jose

The Panama Canal (2 days, 60 nm in total, of which 43 nm in the Canal)

The 13th of November is the “d-day” for the passage! We woke up early in the morning to make the last minute preparation works as at 12:00pm three line handlers were booked to meet us in Shelter Bay where we were moored. At 1:00pm we all left the marina to get at 3:00pm to the meeting point (the Flats, just in front of the Canal entrance) with the “transit advisor”. In reality, at 4:15pm we saw the tug approaching us and two people boarded our boat: the “transit advisor” and a pilot trainee. So we ended up being 7 people on board: 3 young boys as line handlers, two “pilots”, and us.

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Transit advisors boarding Zoe

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“Global Rose” – Large Cargo paired with us for the Gatun Locks passage

We left immediately the “Flats” heading to the Gatun Locks. The transit advisor informed us that we were assigned to transit this first set of 3 locks behind Global Rose, a huge cargo. In fact, to optimize the use of water and time in the lock basins, the Canal authorities pair small boats together with a large ship. We were very excited and wondering what to expect from this unusual experience. The pilots were very friendly and open to reply all questions that we posed them. We entered the first lock at about 7:00pm, after a delicious spaghetti dinner cooked by Gemma for the whole crew. The Gatun locks consist of 3 basins connected by 4 huge lock doors; each of the 3 basins raises the boat by about 9 meters. As we entered the first basin, the door behind us was immediately closed and each of the line handlers, including  Gemma, received a pilot line to attach one of the four 40m lines that we boarded in Shelter Bay.

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Line managers keeping Zoe at the center of the basin

On the edges of the basin there were four line managers who secured the boat to keep it in the center of the basin and to prevent it to hit the walls. In fact all of the sudden, hundreds of cubic meters of water were flooded into the basin filling it in few minutes. The challenge for us was to keep the boat in the center despite the turbulence caused by the water coming in, plus the effect of the propeller of the cargo in front of us. The same thing happened two more times in order to reach the Gatun Lake that is 26 meters above sea level. We reached the Gatun Lake at about 9pm;  we were directed to a huge buoy where we moored for the night. The two pilots were collected by a tug, as we were going to get a different “transit advisor” for the second part of the passage.

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Large buoy we used to moor for the night

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New transit advisors boarding Zoe the second day

Around 9am in the morning a tug approached us disembarking two people: a new “transit advisor” and another pilot trainee. With this new company we navigated the Gatun Lake for about 20 nautical miles to get to the “Culebra Cut”, the large cut in the hills, 7.5 nautical miles long, that separate the artificial Gatun Lake from the Pacific. We were informed that this time our accompanying ship was a cargo named Maersk Nimes, and that we had to keep up with her speed (impossible!) to avoid being re-assigned to another way-behind ship. Fortunately Maersk Nemis had to stop at the entrance of the Culebra Cut to give way to a very large cargo coming from the opposite direction. We could therefore reach her and keep our schedule. After passing the Culebra Cut we found the Pedro Miguel Locks in front of us! This is a single lock station, lowering vessels by about 9 meters. As the final step we had to go through the Miraflores Locks, just a few hundred meters ahead, where vessels are lowered additional 17 meters through two locks for a total of 26 meters from the Gatun Lake to the exit of the Canal. In fact, the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans are at the same level (not taking into consideration the tidal effects on the Pacific side)!

 

 

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Going through the Pedro Miguel Locks

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Maersk Nimis, the large cargo we were paired with the second day

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Gemma holding the line – In the background the Maersk Nimis getting closer and closer

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The last door to the Pacific

 

At around 3:00pm on November 14th we were in the Pacific Ocean! From the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean in 2016 and now into the Pacific Ocean! All together it was an outstanding and exciting experience for us (and for Zoe as well) that was also very informative and made us appreciate such an incredible project and human achievement!

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The Bridge of the Americas, the gate to the Pacific Ocean!