Welcome to Panama City

Welcome to Panama City

Panama City Downtown. View from Casco Viejo

In the beginning of July 2015 we cross the Panama Canal and drop anchor near Flamenco Island in Panama City, at the Pacific entrance of Panama Canal. It takes us a few days to visit the most important sites in town and to learn all we need to know about the place: how to get around by bus and where to find the cheapest groceries, fruits and vegetables. The anchorage and the city are our new “home” for the next few months.

Panama City

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View of Panama City from Mercado de Mariscos

Panama City is the biggest city and the capital of Panama with many tall dense skyscrapers standing on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, facing west. Almost half of the population of the entire country (3.6 million total population) or about 1.5 million live in the metropolitan area, creating notorious traffic jams in the morning and evening hours when commuters drive to work or back home using the only two bridges across the canal connecting the suburbs with downtown. The Bridge of the Americas and the Centenario Bridge also connect the South and the North American continents, divided by Panama Canal.

Casco Viejo, Panama City

Casco Viejo, Panama City

After sailing in the Caribbean and some of the Latin American countries, Panama City seams surprisingly developed to us, with good infrastructure and big shopping malls; a globalized place greatly influenced by the United States of America during the construction of Panama Canal. Panama City is a hub for international banking and commerce with the largest and busiest international airport in Central America, as well as one of the top five places in the world for retirement, according to International Living magazine (from Wikipedia). With the very noticeable exception of the infamous neighborhood El Chorillo, poor dirty and dangerous place right in the middle of town, Panama City is a big well developed modern metropolis, a clean good-looking city.

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Panama City Downtown view form Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

The main tourist attraction here, besides Panama Canal, is the Old Quarter or Casco Viejo (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with its colonial buildings, cathedrals, fortification wall and ruins from the time when Panama was the departure point for expeditions and conquests to the Inca Empire in Peru and a transit point for gold and silver headed back to Spain hauled by mules and big canoes through the Isthmus, long before the canal was built.

Church built next to ruins in Casco Viejo, Panama

We walk around the narrow streets in Casco Viejo snapping pictures of the bright Cathedral at Plaza de Bolivar; of the National Institute of Culture; of the president’s residence or the equivalent of the White House, Palacio de las Garzas (Herons’ Palace); of the heavy church at Plaza de la Independencia, all surrounded by the Cinta Costera– an elegant highway built in the sea.

Cathedral at Plaza de la Independencia

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Plaza de Bolivar

House of the President

House of the President

We stroll around Las Bóvedas (The Vaults), a waterfront promenade jutting out into the Pacific, where Kuna women from the San Blas islands sell their handcrafted molas to tourists. From here we can see, beyond the small fishing boats at Mercado de Mariscos (the Fish Market), the high-rise buildings of Panama City’s Downtown to the east and the small twin-islands at the end of town to the west, where all big and small ships and boats are anchored at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, waiting to transit.

Las Bovedas

 

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View from Casco Viejo of Cinta Costera highway and the twin islands Perico and Flamenco in the distance.

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The Anchorage

This is the only anchorage area in Panama City. There is no other option to drop anchor but on the east or west sides of Amador Causeway, near the entrance of Panama Canal.

Panama Canal big ship anchorage, Pacific entrance

Panama Canal big ship anchorage, Pacific entrance

Amador is the artificial road built with the rocks and dirt excavated from the canal, linking mainland with Isla Perico and Isla Flamenco. It is a beautiful scenic road with many restaurants, marinas and shops- a popular weekend destinations for locals and tourists alike.

Amador Causeway, an artificial road linking Panama City with Isla Perico and Isla Flameco built with the excavated materials from the building of the Panama Canal

Amador Causeway, an artificial road linking Panama City with Isla Perico and Isla Flameco built with the excavated materials from the building of the Panama Canal

Both anchorages at Amador are far from ideal. Most yachts chose the bigger east one, facing downtown. It is much more densely populated by boats, access to shore is difficult, especially if you don’t have a dinghy and have to paddle in a kayak, as the spots closest to shore are always taken, the bay is dirty and producing water with the watermaker would clog the filters. It is a very protected anchorage with good holding, except during east squalls hitting the area almost every afternoon in the rainy season (from July to November).

East anchorage, Panama City

East anchorage, Panama City

This is why we remain in the west anchorage near Marina La Playita, even though it is not our favorite anchorage at all. It is the worst anchorage we have ever been to when it comes to rocking and rolling, worse than Barbados. The pilot boats going between the marina bringing supplies to the ships out in the bay waiting to transit the canal, or the motorboats going to Taboga Island 7 miles away, are zooming way too fast through the anchorage all the time creating huge tsunamis and sometimes even bumping into the anchored yachts. A guy on a catamaran once fell from his bed because of the huge sudden wave and got hurt badly, and a boat got hit and damaged right in front of our eyes one bright morning. It took us some getting used to this situation and we still wake up at night terrified from the extreme rocking of the boat and the loud engines. In the beginning we thought Fata Morgana will capsize…

Fata Morgana at La Playita anchorage

Fata Morgana at La Playita anchorage

Another inconvenience here is access to shore. The only option for cruisers is to dinghy to the dock at the marina for a fee of 35 dollars per week, no matter how many days of the week you will or will not use the dinghy dock. And you cannot share dinghy rides with other boaters, as the people at the marina who are huge assholes, super rude and greedy, told us only two people per dinghy are included in the price. And no guests are aloud. The rules and the excessive fees are stupid and offending and we quickly found an alternative- a small rocky beach that can only be accessed “safely” by kayak (dinghies would damage their motors on the rocks here and are too heavy to pull up). In fact it too is a bit dangerous, as there are huge rocks and waves and we have to jump out of the kayak as soon as we land on the rocks, otherwise we end up in the water (happened a couple of times). Then we have to pull the kayak all the way up (about 10-20 steep meters, depending on the sea level), as the tides here are impressive (up to 6 meters), and we don’t want our precious kayak to disappear at high tide…

Ivo tying the kayak to a log at high tide, anchorage La Playita, Panama

Ivo tying the kayak to a log at high tide, anchorage La Playita, Panama

And then, we abandon the kayak, unattended, up on the rocks, hoping no one will steal it. Returning after dark, finding the kayak, getting it down, and walking on the rocks is another matter… But we got used to all this too, and it is the only free of charge option to access shore on this side. (We are the only cruisers doing this. Everyone else in the anchorage is paying for the dinghy docks per week.) Here at least the water is a bit cleaner for the watermaker and we are protected from the east winds. A good thing about both anchorages is that they are safe, away from residential areas and fishermen settlements.

Albrook Mall

We established something like a routine. In the morning we kayak to shore and run. Ivo is training for a full marathon in November (42km) and is following a strict program, and Maya and I are training for 5 and 10-kilometer runs. Then we go back to the boat, relax for a bit and then we go to Albrook Mall, at least once or twice a week.

Albrook Mall

Albrook Mall

The first time we went to Albrook was legendary. After a month in the San Blas archipelago where we met the Kuna Indians living on their small islands without electricity and running water, and with very limited supplies of food, we had depleted our stores and were eager to do some shopping. Off we go to Albrook Mall. As soon as we enter through the doors we start laughing like lunatics who have been let out of the lunatic asylum for the first time in years, and we can’t stop smiling for hours walking through the mall. I can’t explain why…

Main food court at Albrook Mall

Main food court at Albrook Mall

Albrook is a different country. A vast country with its own air-conditioned atmosphere smelling of cinnamon, where it never rains and the streets are always safe. The only traffic jams here are created by people walking around, especially near the food courts at noon, and by the small train circulating on the first floor. Albrook is the biggest shopping mall in the Americas (in both the South and the North American continents). It is the 14th largest shopping mall in the world. Albrook is bigger than West Edmonton Mall in Canada and much bigger than the biggest shopping mall in the United States of America (which is on 30th place in the list). It covers a territory of 380 000 square meters on three floors (Paradise Center in Sofia, Bulgaria covers 175 000 square meters), and it has over 700 stores, 3 food courts with over 100 restaurants, a cinema complex, a supermarket, and a video games and bowling room.

Maya at the Kangaroo entrance, Albrook Mall

Maya at the Kangaroo entrance, Albrook Mall

To navigate in Albrook we follow a map. There are many entrances to the Mall and each entrance has a big statue of an animal. The Tiger entrance has an orange tiger at the door, and the Rhino entrance has a statue of a rhino. There is a Dino, a Coala, an Orca entrance, and many many others. Albrook is also the main bus terminal of the city. All buses to everywhere depart from Albrook and for us coming from Amador it’s just a 10-minute bus ride (but sometimes we wait for more than an hour for the bus to come…)

Maya and Mira waiting for the bus at Albrook Terminal. Record waiting time 1hr 50min.

Maya and Mira waiting for the bus at Albrook Terminal. Record waiting time 1hr 50min.

Unlike the two biggest shopping malls in the world (both in China) which are in danger of becoming “dead malls” failing to attract business and shoppers, the Albrook Mall is very much alive and booming every day of the week, even though it is not the only big shopping mall in Panama. Why is Albrook so popular, you may ask? Mainly, because it’s cheap. Most of the stores here offer cheap low quality products, as well as some good quality brand names at discount prices. Here everyone from the middle class as well as the underprivileged families come to buy cheap stuff. We cross path with many Kuna families, the women wearing their traditional dress, here to stock up. (Half of the Kuna Indians have moved and live permanently in Panama City and work in the lowest paying jobs- cleaning and maintenance. The women keep wearing proudly their traditional Kuna Yala clothing.)

Multiplaza

The other mall in Panama City is Multiplaza and it is a much more luxurious, expensive and quiet place than Albrook. It also covers a large territory on three floors.

Multiplaza, Panama City

Multiplaza, Panama City

Some of the high-end designer stores here include: Dolce and Gabbana, Banana Republic, Gucci, Guess, Zara, Versace, Massimo Dutti, Hermes, Fossil, Nike, Totto, Michael Kors, Levi’s, L’Occitane en Provence, Rolex, Nautical, The Gap, Bulova, Tiffany, Skechers, Pandora, Tommy Hilfiger, La Martina, Ermenegildo, Zegna, Mont Blanc, Geox, Carolina Herrera, Louboutin, Swarowski, Salvatore Ferragamo, Cartier, Charles&Keith, Roberto Cavalli, La Senza, Tissot, Mac Cosmetic, Mac Store, Yamamay, Victoria Secret, Missoni, Desigual, Hugo Boss, Armani Exchange, Calvin Klein, Givenchy, Guess, Oscar de la Renta, Versace, US Polo, The North Face, Aeropostale and others! No Kuna women are shopping here, but rich expensive-looking ladies with high hills. Us, we like window-shopping here and to check the stores for 50% and more discounts. We also come to Sport Line store in Multiplaza every month to pick up Ivo’s marathon kits.

Maya at Multiplaza

Maya at Multiplaza

Mercado de Abastos

Besides Albrook, where we buy cheap meat, milk, eggs and other groceries from Super99, and anything else we might need from the hardware or clothing stores, and where we sometimes go just to get cheap sandwiches or soup for lunch or to hide from the heat, the Mercado de Abastos is another place we visit on a regular basis. It is not a pretty place but a dirty, noisy, smelly, muddy, crowded place which we dearly LOVE.

Mira with Monique from S/V Heartbeat choosing pineapples at Mercado de Abastos

Mira with Monique from S/V Heartbeat choosing pineapples at Mercado de Abastos

We take the bus from Amador (a bus ticket anywhere in Panama City costs $0.25), get off at Teatro Balboa, and walk for about 20 min. to the largest fruits and vegetables market in town. Like Albrook, this place is massive and impressive. Here you can drive your car through the streets and get lost inside the market. Everything is sold in bulk and in smaller quantities and what is most mind-blowing is how much produce there is.

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Mountains of pineapples next to mountains of watermelons, hangars filled with tomatoes, potatoes and onions, truckloads with bananas, mangoes and papaya. The abundance is unprecedented. I have never before seen so much quantity and variety of fruits and vegetables in one place.

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And the prices…the first time the prices made me hold my breath like a thief in the middle of the night. Everything is one dollar. One watermelon is one dollar. Two dozens of bananas (24) are one dollar. Two small pineapples or one big one is one dollar. Two pounds (one kilo) of any type of tomatoes is one dollar, twenty lemons are one dollar…

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We go every Wednesday with two huge backpacks and a twenty dollar bill and we return to the boat loaded like mules with about 40 kg (80 lb) of produce and some change in the pockets. It is fantastic. We have never eaten so much fruits and vegetables in our lives before, except maybe when we volunteered at the farmers’ markets in Florida in exchange for boxes of unsold produce.

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

 

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Panama Canal Transit

Panama Canal Transit

Maya Ivo and Mira aboard S/V Fata Morgana transiting Panama Canal

Maya Ivo and Mira aboard S/V Fata Morgana transiting Panama Canal

The distance between the Monkey Island (Linton) to Colon (the city-port at the entrance of Panama Canal on the Atlantic side) is 25 NM. We start at 07:00 a.m. in light north winds 8-10kts together with S/V Anka. Our speed is about 2-3 kts. Anka passes us on engine and soon disappears on the horizon. We keep sailing slowly. At about 10:00 a.m. the wind picks up behind us and we fly our undersized secondhand spinnaker which we bought for 150EU in Martinique a few months ago and until now haven’t had the chance to try out properly. It works like charm!

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We make good speed and progress and the captain is happy. There are these rare moments of bliss while sailing and everything is just perfect: the sea, the wind, the sails, and even the fish cooperates. We pull out a nice big kingfish enough to feed two families.

Ivo with kingfish

Ivo with kingfish

Early in the afternoon we approach Colon- one of the biggest ports in the world, a free trade zone, and the gateway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is also one of the most dangerous poverty-ridden cities in Panama where walking in the streets even in broad daylight is not advisable.

Colon

Colon

Many big cargo ships are stationed outside the harbor, at anchor, waiting for their turn to transit the canal. It is the largest community of ships we have ever seen. At night, illuminated, they look like a city in the distance floating on the surface of the sea. We enter between two artificial rock walls in a vast bay. This is the last time we sail in the Caribbean Sea aboard S/V Fata Morgana for a very long time. Inside, the bay is calm like a large blue field with more big ships at anchor and green and red buoys indicating the shipping channels leading to the entrance of Panama Canal.

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We are at the point of no return. A new chapter in our voyage is about to begin. Panama Canal is one of the 7 wonders of the industrial world, along with the Hoover Dam and London’s Sewerage system among others. It connects the two biggest oceans on the planet, and crossing it aboard a boat is the ultimate way to experience it.

I think of my father who was a mariner. It is the anniversary of his death 6 years ago. Today, I am occupying a space, occupied by him before and I am looking for his traces in the air. He has been here crossing the canal aboard a ship some years ago, when he used to work as an officer aboard a cargo ship transporting grain. I look at the containerships getting loaded at the docks, the hge boats heading to or exiting the locks and I imagine my dad up there on the bridge smiling and waving at me. In a way, I share this experience with him.

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Our friends are already nice and cozy at Shelter Bay Marina when we drop anchor just outside the marina’s entrance and invite them for dinner. Breaded fish sticks and beer on the menu.

The next day we move to the place indicated as Small Craft Anchorage on the charts but it turns out there is no way we can access shore from there. The only place around Colon where yachts can drop anchor and dinghy to shore is in front of Club Nautico, with space for not more than a few boats and it is not protected at all from weather. It is just downwind from the huge loading facilities of the port, with ships and pilot boats passing close by all the time. There is a 3-dollar fee per person for the use of the dinghy dock at Club Nautico. No way we can go ashore in Colon for free! Everywhere there are commercial ports and loading docks, fences and no adequate facilities for small yachts at all. This made our preparation for the transit very unpleasant.

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The crew of S/V Anka is in a hurry, so we agree to employ the services of an agent together and cross the canal as soon as possible. An agent will deal with all the formalities around the canal transit: schedule boat survey with the measuring office, as the fee for the canal depends on the boat length and tonnage, providing tires as fenders, special ropes, as well as line handlers, required for the transit, and finally- schedule the transit date and hour. All this is extremely simple and straightforward to do without an agent and we could have easily done it ourselves avoiding the extra fee…which makes Ivo super grumpy. Our friends Ruth and Duncan aboard S/V Impetuous Too have published a great article: How to Transit the Panama Canal as Cheaply as Possible. It is worth checking out.

Getting ready for the canal

Getting ready for the canal

After a few days the time is set and we are all ready to go. Aboard with us are one transit advisor and three local kids whom the agent, Tito, brought as line-handlers. According to regulation, each boat is required to have a transit advisor who will advise the captain what to do in the canal and locks, and four line-handlers besides the captain. Aboard S/V Anka there are another advisor, a pilot, the agent Tito with his wife and daughter and one or two line-handlers. Because Maya and Alex are only 11 and 10-years-old, they cannot be line-handlers, the minimum age is 14. But one of the kids Tito brought doesn’t look much older than Maya and I highly doubt it he is 14 and knows what to do. Plus, the two boats (Fata Morgana and Anka) will be tied side by side inside the locks, a procedure called “nesting” and this means that each boat will only need half the ropes, half the tires and two line-handlers. All the other people who came are just there for the ride and the food. We felt pretty screwed by Tito, even though everything was done according to procedure… The good think about all this is, that Tito runs an organization to take kids off the streets and keep them away from the gangs; he helps them, takes care of them and gives them a chance at decent life. These kids call themselves: Tito’s Sons, and they are many. Three of them are aboard S/V Fata Morgana having a blast transiting the Panama Canal (two of them for a first time), enjoying the ride, helping with the ropes and earning some cash.

Our line-handlers

Our line-handlers

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In the late afternoon we enter the first set of locks, the Gatun locks, behind a huge ship which barely fits in the space. Next to him we seem like a joke. (Small yachts always go together with big ships inside the locks.) The Panama Canal is a three-part journey. At the Atlantic and the Pacific ends are the locks- three sets of huge doors and chambers, and in the middle, some 26 meters above sea level, is the artificial lake Gatun and the many winding artificial channels.

Inside the Gatun locks

Inside the Gatun locks

The massive medieval-looking 2-meter thick steel doors close behind us. The two yachts are together in the center, the ropes are secured on both sides. We feel super excited and happy to share this unique experience together with our friends aboard Anka. Our two boats together represent Bulgaria, Romania, Canada and Australia. Pretty awesome.

Ivo and Adrian- the two captains

Ivo and Adrian- the two captains

Krisha and Mira

Krisha and Mira

The two boats raft together; they are "nesting"

The two boats raft together; they are “nesting”

Water starts rushing in, swirling and bubbling like a boiling lake taking us higher and higher. 52 million gallons of fresh water for each set of locks. The chamber fills. We enter the second one. The water-elevator takes us a level higher to the third and last chamber and we go up and up again.

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As the last doors open, we are 26 meters higher and inside a freshwater lake. Gatun Lake covering about 470 square kilometers (180 sq mi) is an artificial lake, result from the building of the Gatun Dam and the summit of Panama Canal. It provides the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the Panama Canal locks each time a ship passes through.

It is already late. The advisor tells us to motor to a big red buoy near the lake shores away from the shipping channel where we spend the night. We feed our young line-handlers hamburgers for dinner and let them find the most comfortable spots to sleep in the cockpit or outside on the trampolines. The next morning the journey continues. Another advisor boards Fata Morgana and we slowly start motoring through the marked channels inside the lake of yellow waters towards the Pacific. A few slow hours to pass the next 25-30 miles. No, sailing is strictly prohibited; no matter how much Ivo tries to convince the advisor that the wind and sails will speed up the boat considerably. We keep to the side of the channels as big ships constantly pass us in both directions. Approximately 40 ships transit the canal every day.

lake Gatun

lake Gatun

The nature here is stunningly beautiful and wild. I imagined something industrial, channels made of concrete and iron all the way, but aside from the locks, the Gatun Lake stretch is wild, green and completely uninhabited for miles and miles. The shores are covered in tropical trees home of monkeys and birds undisturbed in their natural habitat, and in the waters of the lake hides the mighty crocodile. This stretch of the journey is tranquil and slow and one has time to relax and ponder. I think about the people who came up with the idea to build a canal linking the oceans; and of the people who dug up all this dirt one hundred years ago to make it possible. It is all very fascinating.

A big cargo ship passing under the Bridge of the Americas

A big cargo ship passing under the Bridge of the Americas

With the increase of maritime trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, more and more ships began crisscrossing the watery ways of the world and the idea to join the two greatest oceans at the narrowest place of the American continent- the Isthmus of Panama became a project.

It has been done before. The Suez Canal was excavated at sea level and in 1869 it allowed ships to travel between Europe and South Asia. It took 10 years to build and it was a great success for the Suez Canal Company, generating huge profits. Ten years later, in 1881, the same French company signed another contract for the construction of the Panama Canal. But the task proved much harder than the French had estimated. Tropical jungle filled with venomous snakes, spiders and mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria, torrential rains and floods killed 20 thousand workers and made it doubtful that a sea-level canal here is at all possible. Ten years and nearly 300 million dollars later, the corrupted inefficient Suez Canal Company went bankrupt and left the job unfinished.

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Four days after the independence of Panama, which was part of Colombia until 1903, USA received (in exchange for the military supported granted to the new nation) the rights to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone. The construction of the abandoned French project restarted in 1904 under the new American owners.

The Americans replaced the old inadequate French equipment with a hundred new large, railroad-mounted steam shovels, enormous steam-powered cranes, giant hydraulic rock crushers, cement mixers, dredges, and pneumatic power drills, nearly all of which manufactured by new and extensive machine-building technology developed and built in the United States for the largest American engineering project to date- an investment that cost the Unites States the equivalent of about 8.5 billion dollars.

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In 1914, just over a hundred years ago, the 50 mile (77km) Panama Canal consisting of several artificial channels and lakes, and three sets of locks, joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and begun operations with the first transit of the cargo ship SS Ancon. The canal created a shortcut for ships that no longer had to make the long and treacherous passage around Cape Horn- the southernmost point of South America considered the most dangerous area for navigation in the world.

For the next nearly one century, the United States of America had control of the Canal Zone and of course, generate huge profits. On December 31st , 1999- the last day of the old millennium- Panama officially became the new owner of the Canal, which remains to this day the chief revenue source for the country. The canal is also officially politically and permanently neutral, providing service to ships of all nations.

Containership in Panama Canal. The little thing next to it is S/V Anka

Containership in Panama Canal. The little thing next to it is S/V Anka

After a few hours we approach the next locks on the Pacific side. First is the Pedro Miguel chamber- a single set of locks and only a few miles from the Miraflores double chamber. This time we are first in the chambers and our giant companion is looming behind us. There is a big multi-story building on the east side of the locks with balconies filled with spectators here to watch the show.

Maya in Miraflores

Maya in Miraflores

 

There are also satellite cameras broadcasting live from the locks 24/7. People everywhere on the planet can watch the operations in Miraflores live at all times.

Fata Morgana, Anka at Miraflores. View from the webcam

Fata Morgana, Anka at Miraflores. View from the webcam

We feel kind of popular right now with all the public watching us and we are super excited. We are also a bit nervous.

Miraflores locks

Miraflores locks

So far everything has been easy with no problems, but the descent is supposed to be scarier and more dangerous than the ascent, as the draining water creates nasty rapids and currents and the yachts may lose control at the exit and smash to the walls. It also looks super strange being up here, and no water ahead. It is like coming to the edge of a waterfall. I imagine the doors of the last lock will open and we will fall down vertically!

Securing the ropes

Securing the ropes

But it all goes smooth again; the water elevator gently takes us down under the focused gaze of herons and pelicans scavenging the chambers for dead fish caught in the whirlpools.

The last doors open. In front of us is the Pacific Ocean.

The Doors to the Pacific Ocean

The Doors to the Pacific Ocean

Panama Canal Facts

• The size of the locks determines the maximum size of a ship that can pass through them. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long. Ships that are wider or longer than this cannot use the Panama Canal. Most ships worldwide are built to the maximum size allowed in Panama Canal. These are known as Panamax vessels.

• Tolls for the canal are set by the Panama Canal Authority and are based on vessel type, size, the type of cargo carried, weight and water displacement. The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on April 14, 2010 to the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl, which paid US$375,600.

• In 1928 American adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal. Halliburton had to pay a toll based on his weight and water displacement too. His rate? A whopping 36 cents.

• There was approximately about 60 million pounds of explosives used to help clear the way for the canal.

• The canal is 50 miles (80km) long. If a ship had to travel down and around the southern tip of South America they would have to travel 20,000km.

• The United States uses the canal the most, followed by China, Japan, Chile and North Korea.

• An expansion to double the waterway’s capacity is set to be completed in 2016 with bigger locks for bigger ships.

• It takes between 8 and 10 hours to transit the canal. The fastest transit was completed in 2 hours 41 minutes by the U.S. Navy’s Hydrofoil Pegasus in 1979.

• In 1963 florescent lighting was installed, allowing the canal to begin operating 24 hours a day. It never closes.

• Nearly 20,000 French and 6,000 American workers died during the completion of the Panama Canal.

• Between 12,000 and 15,000 ships cross the Panama Canal every year – about 40 a day. Each pays a toll of a few hundred thousand dollars to Panama.

S/V Fata Morgana and S/V Anka crews

S/V Fata Morgana and S/V Anka crews

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Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

A month after we arrived in San Blas Archipelago of Panama we are ready to continue our journey. Together with our new boat-friends on S/V Anka we sail to Colon where all ships and boats have to stop for a few days and get ready to cross the Panama Canal.

On the way to Colon we decide to stop overnight at Isla Linton. It’s over 50 nautical miles from Cayos Holandes in San Blas to Linton and in favorable weather conditions it can be a pleasant day sail. We start at 06:00h in the morning on June 27th with 6-10 knot north winds on a beam reach and 2-3 meter waves. The wind picks up a bit to 10-14 knots around 09:00h, and with the current in our direction we are doing steady 6 knots. Anka is within sight slightly behind us at all times. The two boats are sailing with the same speed which makes it ideal for buddy-boating. We keep contact on the VHF radio and Adrian announces that this stretch of sea between San Blas and Linton is his favorite sail since ages: ideal wind strength and angle, the waves not too big and nervous, a beautiful sunny day at sea.

We love it too. We catch two tunies. The first one is small and we decide to release it and give it a chance to grow up, but the second one we keep for lunch that day.

Ivo got a fish

Ivo got a fish

At 16:00h in the afternoon we round the small cape, tall and rocky, at the entrance of a big calm hidden bay and we drop anchor among a population of about thirty other boats in a large pool of deep murky water protected by wind and swell from all directions.

Cape at the entrance of the bay to Isla Linton

Cape at the entrance of the bay to Isla Linton

We kayak to the small beach on Isla Linton- an uninhabited island with hills covered in thick green vegetation. There is an abandoned building ashore reclaimed by nature that was once a research station of some sort but today is an empty ruin invaded by spiders and a family of spider monkeys. Linton is The Monkey’s Island, their home and their prison.

Isla Linton, Spider Monkey

Isla Linton, Spider Monkey

We spot a couple of spider monkeys up in the palm trees as we approach the shore and surely they have spotted us too. One is hanging from a palm leaf in a rather bizzare position, holding on with arms and tail, its legs dangling in the air.

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The other is sitting comfortably in his throne of green with a tragic expression on his face.

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We are super scared to approach them, especially after our friends aboard S/V Amelie-4 had such an awful misadventure here only a few months ago. Meagan, 12-years old, was bringing fruits to feed the monkeys and was on the island with her mom when one of the monkeys grabbed her hand and viciously bit it to the bone. She had to go to a hospital for stitches and treatment, as there was no telling if the monkey was rabid or not. The family’s sailing trip was in jeopardy, as Meagan’s life was at stake. But fortunately, the girl didn’t get infected by any disease, the wound healed well, and they continued their journey at sea crossing the Panama Canal, visiting Mach Picchu in Peru, sailing to Galapagos, crossing the Pacific Ocean, spending a few unforgettable months in French Polynesia, heading to Fiji right now.

Maya and a Spider Monkey, Isla Linton

Maya and a Spider Monkey, Isla Linton

Knowing what happened to Meagan, we are keeping our distance and moving very slowly keeping an eye on the monkeys at all times once we step on the beach. The monkeys get excited, barking and screaming and swinging from branch to branch, but as soon as they spot the mango and banana pieces we have brought they descend down from the palms and approach us to get their treats.

Spider Monkey walking like a man

Spider Monkey walking like a man

Walking upright towards us like a little man dragging his very long arms almost touching the ground beside him, the spider monkey is a surreal looking creature.

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With disproportionately long and thin arms and legs, equipped with a tail that is almost like a fifth arm, covered in black fur, and with a human expression on their faces, these are the descendants of the third unsuccessful attempt of the Mayan Gods to create people, according to Popol Vuh. The next “successful” attempt is us, the humans of today.

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The spider monkeys are one of the largest New World monkeys, the most intelligent New World monkeys, and one of the critically endangered species in the world.

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They live in bands and families occupying large areas of evergreen tropical forests from Mexico to Brazil. Their habitat continues to diminish due to deforestation, and their number continues to dwindle, as they are considered a tasty meal by local communities, hunted, killed and barbecued.

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Soon we get used to the creatures and they get used to us.

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The darker one with the warrior’s look on his face is nervous moving up and down the coconut palms, emitting his ungodly screams showing the dark interior of his mouth with big yellow teeth. He is the protector.

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The other one looks younger and has lighter brownish fur. He is very gentle and has the most melancholic heartbreaking expression, as if suffering from devastating nostalgia for the forests and freedom beyond this island.

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He sits motionless most of the time and accepts handouts with slow feminine gestures from Ivo’s hands.

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As we are getting ready to leave, a third monkey rushes towards the beach from the shadows of the forest. This one would be the Father or the Chief. His fur is grey at places and full of scars, his face is fierce, his look is provocative. Don’t mess with me! We immediately sentence him as The One Who Bit Meagan and leave his kingdom in a hurry.

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The spider monkeys of Linton Island have become the local tourist attraction. Cruisers passing through dinghy to shore to bring them fruit and take their picture, which doesn’t bother them much, but in the afternoon organized excursions from the nearby town of Portobello bring hordes of tourists who scream at them from the small crowded motorboats like paranoid savages until the animals become very irritated and start jumping up and down the trees, swinging from the palm leafs, and screaming back at the tourists, which is what they are paying for and amuses them a lot. Seeing this most perverse situation was disturbing and disgusting: humans acting worse than the animals, no respect whatsoever, stressing and torturing the monkey-prisoners of the island for money and for fun.

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Motorboats bring tourists to see and irritate the monkeys on Isla Lonton

I imagined someone saving them and releasing them on Panama’s mainland to be free, but then they would be in danger of being captured and eaten… Who are we “the successful people, created in the image of the Mayan Gods”; what have we become ?

Tourists

Tourists

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

 

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Friends from S/V Anka

Friends from S/V Anka

Alex, Krisha and Adrian aboard S/V Anka

Alex, Krisha and Adrian aboard S/V Anka

One day in June I get a message, thanks to our blog, from Krisha, a Bulgarian woman who writes that she, her husband Adrian from Rumania and their 10-years-old son Alex are buying a sailboat named S/V Anka-1 in Curacao and sailing it to Australia, where they live since four years. “We are in San Blas and you are sailing from Curacao to Panama, so if you have any time to spare, it will be great to meet you! You will not lose much, as the deviation from your route is just a few miles and the place is worth it; surely you will like the San Blas Islands and we would love to get to know you!” , I write back.

They don’t have any time to lose. They have to hurry up and sail from Curacao directly to Panama, then from Panama across the biggest ocean in world to French Polynesia and on to Australia in just four months, almost at the beginning of typhoon season.

Anka and fata Morgana in the same anchorage in San Blas

Anka and fata Morgana in the same anchorage in San Blas

Yet, five days after they left Curacao Anka-1 shows up in our anchorage in San Blas and we become instant friends, thanks to Alex who is a kind of kid that starts talking to you as if he knows you since ages, thanks to Krisha who is the sweetest person, always smiling and giving gifts, and thanks to Adrian, who is the funniest guy and can make you laugh even if you are in a bad mood; even if Ivo is in a bad mood (which is worst).

Ivo and Adrian aborad S/V Anka

Ivo and Adrian aborad S/V Anka

Adrian is from Rumania but he used to live in Bulgaria and he speaks Bulgarian fluently with a very cute accent, using all sorts of funny words, sayings, curse words and baby words. It’s amusing just listening to him. And the stories he has to tell are priceless. His life, starting from early childhood in Rumania, is an action-adventure epic saga (based on a true story) in which the academy award for best supporting artist would go to his father, or Sean Connery who would be the best actor for the role. But Adrian asked me not to reveal too many details, as he is planning to tell his own story himself one day, so I will just share with you a passage from their blog as told by his wonderful wife and first mate- Krisha at Anka Travels:

Adrian is from a city deep in the Romanian country, around 400 km away from the coast of the Black Sea. His family didn’t have the chance to visit the seaside very often during the communist regime at that time. One of his first memories of the Black Sea, was when his father Marius Albu took him to the beach and asked him – “What do you see”, “I see water” Adrian replied, “No” – he said – That is your passport to freedom.” During the regime, Marius was able to build his first 6m sailing boat, which was illegal in Romania at the time, where people weren’t allowed to have passports, buy maps, or go abroad freely. In 1989, when Adrian was 14 years old, Marius took his son and secretly fled from the regime aboard the Phoenix, through the Black Sea, Turkey and then Greece. That was Adrian’s first sailing experience. Since then, sailing for him wasn’t a recreational choice, it was a way of life.

After 8 years spent in Greece, Adrian and his father left with Phoenix once again to sail to the Caribbean, where they parted ways. While Adrian spent a few years in Trinidad & Tobago, purchased his own sailing boat-Maove and sailed through the Pacific to Australia, his father continued his circumnavigation to become the first Romanian, who sailed around the world under the Romanian flag.

In the winter of 2002, Adrian had a car accident where his ankle was broken into pieces and he wasn’t able to walk for a year. Unfortunately, he had to sell his boat in Australia and return to Romania to recover. Shortly after his full recovery in 2004, he was invited to participate in the Odysail regatta, as a skipper on the Phoenix. The same regatta, that changed both of our lives.

During this time, I as working as an Art Director in an advertising agency in Sofia and I thought my life and career were set in the right direction. My father, Yancho Barakov- also a wild dreamer and believer, similar to Marius built his first 10m sailing boat during the Communist regime in Bulgaria. For 10 years the construction took place in the parking lot in front of our apartment building in the small city called Yambol, 100km away from the seaside. In the year 2000, with the boat construction experience he had, and even more courage, he began work on his second 12m yacht – Barracuda. The boat was ready in four years and in 2004 he was invited to participate in the same regatta – the Odysail. Despite being around boats all my life, I hadn’t had much experience in sailing, so for me that was all new, exciting and a bit scary at times and to be honest it still is.

This is when I, as part of the crew on my father`s 12m yacht Barracuda, met Adrian. It was a romantic love story that could have only happened at sea. A year later, we were married and our son Alex was born. Since then almost every summer we sailed from Bulgaria to Greece as we never get tired of the beauty of the Mediterranean.

In 2011, we moved to Australia where we have been living and working for the past four years.

In November 2014, Adrian once again joined his father aboard the Phoenix and they sailed for 45 days through the roaring South Pacific, from New Zealand to Chile to conquer the Everest of the sailors – Cape Horn. For four months they sailed through beautiful fiords and glaciers, anchoring near icebergs. They had reached Porto Williams, the most south port in the world, the final stop before the cape, but unfortunately the weather was closing and Adrian had to leave the crew, as he was running out of time before the hurricane season starts in the Caribbean. In his mind, the vision of Anka and his own voyage was already taking shape.

*Read more about their adventures and follow them @ AnkaTravels.com

Powerful stuff, isn’t it…. And the details including tragedies at sea, escape from Turkish prison for refugees, and a number of other fortunate and misfortunate events told and reenacted in the cockpit of Fata Morgana over some beers, Adrian’s famous beef tail soup, and Mira’s homemade bread- unforgettable…

Krisha taking a bread-making lesson from Mira aboard Fata Morgana

Krisha taking a bread-making lesson from Mira aboard Fata Morgana

We take them to our favorite anchorage at Cayo Hollandes for a couple of days, and to the small island to get some molas from our Kuna friends. Adrian even finds time and tools to help the local Kunas fixing one of their old ulu’s. We spend a few days together in San Blas, and the evenings we share beers, stories and food.

Anka arriving in San Blas, Cayos Hollandes

Anka arriving in San Blas, Cayos Hollandes

Maya and Alex become inseparable, watching films, playing games, or being bored together when they “have nothing to do”. And just like that, spontaneously, we decide to cross the Panama Canal with S/V Anka, to extend the time with them. Our plans to stay in San Blas until September just changed! We are leaving the next day together with our new best boat-friends Anka!

Maya and Alex

 

Playing dominoes.

Playing dominoes.

Playing cards.

Playing cards.

Discussing the world.

Discussing the world.

Playing video-games.

Playing video-games.

Taking the kayak for a ride.

Taking the kayak for a ride.

Reading about bugs.

Reading about bugs.

Giggling.

Giggling.

Making art.

Making art.

Watching films.

Watching films.

Watching very funny films.

Watching very funny films.

 

Just hanging out while being bored.

Just hanging out while being bored.

....or is this yoga?

….or is this yoga?

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page: Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

 

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Kitesurfing in San Blas

Ivo and his kite

Ivo and his kite

Most of the 360 islands of the San Blas Archipelago are near Panama’s mainland and away from the trade winds. But there are a few outer island groups near the barrier reefs to the north still getting the effects of the trades and these are the island you want to visit if you are going to San Blas to kitesurf. The best spot with fields of waist-deep clear water, sandy bottom and sweet east winds is at Cayo Holandes island group, near the anchorage nicknamed by cruisers The Swimming Pool.

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There is a $10 anchoring fee valid for one month and a Kuna man named Viktor will swing by in his ulu (a dugout canoe) to collect it as soon as you drop anchor. No matter how long you are planning to stay you have to pay 10 bucks. Almost everywhere you go in Kuna Yala (San Blas) you will have to pay a few dollars for anchoring near an island or for stepping on it. To Ivo this was very disturbing, especially after we paid the record amount of $430 for 1-year visas for Panama and a cruising permit, plus a separate $60 fee paid to the Kuna Yala Office on the island of Porvenir for anchoring anywhere in Kuna Yala territory. In two years of cruising and visiting over 30 countries we have never been required to pay so much when checking-in in a new country. So Ivo just couldn’t grasp the logic of having to pay again and again and again and again almost every time we drop anchor or we go ashore in San Blas. And Ivo can get very negative when it comes to ‘unfair’. But it’s not just this.

One day we kayak to a small uninhabited island bringing only a photo camera, sunscreen, and a towel. There we see a few huts currently in construction, an ulu and two Kuna men on the beach. One talks politely with us, explaining how much a traditional ulu costs and how it is made up in the mountains on the mainland by masters ulu-makers. I ask if I can take a picture of this canoe and he says sure. But then the other guy approaches and asks for a dollar for photographing his friend’s ulu. Then he says that each one of us has to pay $3 for stepping on the island- a total of $10 for 3 people + 1 picture, he quickly calculates (even though Ivo and Maya remain in the kayak and technically never set foot on land). He gives us as an example he obviously used many times before: “If you go to a restaurant and order food you have to pay for it at the end, and similarly you have to pay for stepping on the island and taking a picture of the ulu.” I try to argue politely that this is totally unexpected for us, that I had permission to take the picture from the ulu’s owner, that we have no intention of stepping on the island, and that we don’t have any money on us right now. The two guys then search very thoroughly my bag, where they find a towel and sunscreen, and when they don’t find any money, they are very disappointed and tell us to leave. But first they explain, that to them “all white people are gringos (rich Americans) and they have to pay.” Ivo is furious; I can see fire coming out of his nostrils. But he manages not to kill anyone. We leave.

I’m including this information, because we have heard that people have been asked to pay up to $100 for permission (or rather for a fine) to kitesurf near some of the islands in Kuna Yala. At Cayo Hollandes you are welcome to kitesurf for as much as you want and with no additional charge, as long as you pay your $10 anchoring fee.

Thus, after Aruba, where Ivo took his first kitesurfing lessons, this was the next spot where he could practice and improve his new skills. At the beach we meet two other guys kitesurfing which always doubles the fun.

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page

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Two Years of Sailing Anniversary

Two Years of Sailing Anniversary

In July 2015 we celebrated the beginning of our third year of cruising and sailing around the world. As if it was yesterday when we moved aboard our new floating home in Key West (Florida)- a 38-foot Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana, and sailed south. Two years is not much, yet so many things happened in those first 24 months, it’s incredible!

We sailed for over 8,000 NM, with 5.7 kt average speed, visiting over 30 countries and 100 islands. We fueled 150 gallons the first year and 10 gallons the second for a total of 160 gallons of fuel taken in two years! We caught and ate a lot of fish and tried many new foods.

Fata Morgana sailing wing-on-wing

Fata Morgana sailing

In July 2013 we sailed to Dry Tortugas where we met a small group of scientists researching sea turtles and we volunteered to help them excavate and count hatched turtle eggs.

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Fort Jefferson, Florida

Next, we crossed the mighty Gulfstream to Havana (Cuba) where we met some very poor people and we almost starved to death.

Viktor, Maya, and Ivo walking with bug-repellent palm leaf hats, Cuba This is how we showed up at the beach.

Viktor, Maya, and Ivo walking with bug-repellent palm leaf hats, Cuba
This is how we showed up at the beach.

In August 2013 we visited Isla Mujeres in Mexico for a couple of weeks, and we checked the Mayan ruins of Tulum.

Mira in Tulum

Mira in Tulum, Mexico

September and October 2013 we spent with new awesome friends in Rio Dulce (Guatemala) going on many crazy adventures. We jumped from a hot-water waterfall, we swam in a dark cave, we crawled in a huge canyon tied with ropes, we met howler monkeys, and we were the first white visitors to enter a cave full of human skulls in Sierra de las Minas Mountains.

The boulder.

With friends in Boqueron Canyon, Guatemala

In November 2013, after surviving our first storm in the Yucatan Chanel, we returned to Key West to add more solar panels and lithium batteries to the boat, making her a unique off-grid vessel.

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels.

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels, Key West, Florida

In December 2013 we celebrated Christmas and New Year in the Bahamas enjoying some of the most beautiful turquoise waters and deserted beaches.

Mira, Bahamas

Mira, Bahamas

From January till March 2014 we were island-hoping in the Bahamas, and everywhere something new and exciting would happen. We met the swimming pigs and visited the Thunderbolt Grotto, we spent some quality time anchored at a private cruising ship island, we had friends visiting us, we helped to repair a hermitage damaged by a lightning, we went to the deepest saltwater blue hole in the world, we met a whale, we swam with dolphins and we shared an anchorage with hundreds of migrating flamingos.

Maya swimming with pigs

Maya swimming with pigs, Bahamas

In April 2014 we were in Luperon (Dominican Republic) for a month. We left the boat at anchor and rented a car to explore the island and its many attractions. We Climbed Pico Duarte- a two day hike with mules and a guide, we jumped down a river with 27 cascades, we went to Santo Domingo, we learned to surf in Cabarete with awesome new friends, we checked out the crocodiles in a lake lower than the sea, and we slept in some pretty weird motels and hostels.

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The Nomadiks at Damajaqua Cascades, Dominican Republic

In May and June 2014 we sailed around Puerto Rico and the US virgin Islands where we had friends staying with us again. We saw a WWII tank on the beach and training torpedoes underwater.

The Nomadiks & Friends at Caja de Muerto, Puerto Rico

The Nomadiks & Friends at Caja de Muerto, Puerto Rico

In July through August, September and October 2014 we sailed south the Eastern Caribbean island chain spending a few days in each island: BVI (snorkeling in The Baths was the best), Saba (an unusual tall and steep island with incredible history), St Martin (too many tourists, but great beer and cheese), St Barth (a luxurious stop for the rich and famous), St Kitts and Nevis (we hauled out the boat for a routine bottom job, we met Sejah, a local kid who took us to a small waterfall in the forest and we met green monkeys in an old fort), Montserrat (we visited the ruins of a capital destroyed by a volcano), Antigua and Barbuda (got drunk during carnival in Antigua and we made fire on a 12-mile deserted beach with pink sand in Barbuda. Here our son Viktor left for Canada and we continued our journey without him), Guadeloupe (hiked up an active volcano), Dominica (our favorite island, so many things to see and do! We snorkeled in bubbling underwater volcano, we hiked The Boiling Lake, and we found unlimited mangoes, avocadoes and bananas in the forest), Martinique(another volcano to conquer) and we stopped in Grenada, where we celebrated Maya’s birthday and Halloween with twenty other boat-kids.

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Boat Kids, Grenada

In November 2014 we sailed with our sailing buddies Mel and Caryn aboard S/V Passages to Trinidad and Tobago. There we saw the biggest pitch lake in the world, a temple in the sea, an abandoned leper colony, and we observed the scarlet ibis colonies on the Caroni river at sunset.

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Mira, Maya, Ivo in Tobago

December 2014 found us in Barbados, where Ivo ran his first 10 km marathon and we spend some quality time in amazing caves full of centipedes and blind spiders. We celebrated Christmas with friends and sea turtles in the Grenadines and the New Year found us back in St Martin where we met a cool Bulgarian-Italian family.

Maya and Robert at the beach, Grand Case

Maya and Robert at the beach, Grand Case, St Martin

In January 2015 we went back for some awesome reunion with old friends in the BVIs.

Ivo, Mira and Maya with Harley and April S/V El Karma

Ivo, Mira and Maya with Harley and April S/V El Karma in BVI

February and March 2015 we spent in Puerto Rico stocking up the boat with provisions and waiting for a window to sail to Aruba.

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Kayak expedition, Puerto Rico

April 2015 was like vacation in one of our favorite islands- Aruba. We befriended a great family who took us to some incredible places, and we learned to kitesurf and windsurf.

Maya Ivo and Mira in Aruba Мая Иво и Мира в Аруба

Maya Ivo and Mira in Aruba
Мая Иво и Мира в Аруба

May 2015 was all about Colombia- camping in Tayrona, visiting the capital Bogota by plane and its many tourist attractions, spending a few days in Cartagena.

Maya at Tayrona, Colombia

Maya at Tayrona, Colombia

June 2015 found is in the San Blas archipelago of Panama where the Kuna Indians live, our last Caribbean stop, before crossing to the Pacific Ocean.

Maya in San Blas

Maya in San Blas

In July 2015 we began our third consecutive year of cruising in Pacific Panama- new adventures are ahead of us. We are planning to visit many of the Central and South American countries by land- Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia) until April 2016, when we will begin the crossing of the biggest ocean in the world to Galapagos Islands and on to French Polynesia.

Fata Morgana

Fata Morgana

After two years, we have learned many new things about the world we have passed through, about sailing, cruising, fishing, and boat maintenance. We have become used to a more simple, more exciting and sometimes much more difficult way of life. We have everything we need and Fata Morgana has proven to be a worthy sailing vessel and a comfortable off-the-grid home. We have met and befriended hundreds of incredible people from all around the world from whom we have learned a lot and we hope to meet them again. Every new friend and every new experience has been a new lesson in the School of Life, and we are so grateful for the opportunity to be able to travel as we do.

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Maya and girlfriends in the Grenadines

We had some difficult moments too of course, some scary, sad and unfortunate moments, but we have managed to pull through, and today we continue. We are proud with the choices we have made and we are proud with the way we live our lives and the way we raise our daughter Maya. And we are curious and excited, as much as you may be, to find out what the future has in store for us.

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Fata Morgana with flamingos, Bahamas

Thank you all for the overwhelming interest and support you have demonstrated throughout this past 24 months, for liking, sharing, commenting, donating, asking questions, and giving us advice and encouragement along the way. Without YOU our journey wouldn’t be the same and we are happy to share it with YOU!

The adventure continues!

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The Nomadiks in San Blas

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Kuna Yala: Water

Water

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How many times have I written about “the small idyllic islands in San Blas with white sandy beaches and tall coconut palms, surrounded by crystal blue water and corral garden of exceptional beauty; where just a few Kuna families live in small huts near the shore fishing and collecting coconuts and wild mangoes”? How many times have I compared this place with “Paradise on Earth”? I dare anyone to find an article or a story or a blog post written by some other visitor in Kuna Yala who doesn’t think that these are the most beautiful of all Caribbean islands, and who doesn’t compare the place with “heaven”. A difficult task.

But one thing is visiting Paradise and enjoying its natural beauty for a short period of time, another thing is living in it, stuck for eternity with all sorts of problems which don’t exist back in the normal boring civilized world. Like nasty mosquitos and no-see-ums (which torture even the short-term visitors), lack of all sorts of facilities like hospitals, dentists, schools, banks, post offices, stores and shopping malls etc.; lack of electricity which means no TV, no computer, no refrigeration, not even lights in the evening. Can you imagine surviving without internet for a week? For a month? How about a year? Impossible! But even if you get used to this simplistic way of life, there is one thing that is missing and you, as well as the local Kuna Indians, will never learn to live without. Freshwater is not a commodity but a necessity, and it is a major problem in Kuna Yala Paradise.

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But the indigenous people have learned to cope with the situation and the lack of freshwater on the majority of the islands has become something almost normal. Generation after generation they have gone to the mainland rivers with their ulus (dugout canoes) to bring back to their riverless islands freshwater for drinking and washing; precious water which they have learned to appreciate, conserve and use vary carefully.

Washing the dishes

Washing the dishes

Everywhere we go we see plastic containers, jerricans, buckets and bottles piled around houses for water storage.

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All the time women and men are crisscrossing the waters between the islands and the many river deltas on mainland their ulus hauling loads of water supplies for their households.

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One Saturday we jump in the kayak for another river expedition up Rio Diablo near the twin islands of Nargana and Corazon de Jesus, which are heavily populated, hoping to see monkeys and caimans again.

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But instead we encounter lots and lots of Kuna families in their family ulus heading to the place where everyone is collecting water, taking a bath and washing their clothes directly in the river- a place that reminds us faintly of the Varanasi of the Ganges River in India. It is the weekend washing ritual.

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The water situation in Kuna Yala is different from island to island, depending on their location. The large overpopulated island communities are generally within less than a mile from mainland and from a river delta, so that the inhabitants are closer to freshwater and getting it is faster and easier.

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There is even one island where a pipe coming down from the river is supplying fresh river water to the islanders- Isla Rio Azucar (the Sugar River Island). They even sell water to cruisers who don’t have watermakers. You can go and fill up your boat’s tanks for 20$ at the dock.

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But the smaller outer islands are many miles away from mainland and rivers, and for their inhabitants detting freshwater is a bigger problem.

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For washing clothes, dishes and showering, they use the water from small waterholes dug in the sandy ground where seawater filters in and is less salty.

Ivo helping a Kuna women to get water from a waterhole

Ivo helping a Kuna women to get water from a waterhole

They also collect rainwater, even though we haven’t noticed any efficient rainwater collecting system, and regularly have to navigate great distances to collect river water which they boil for drinking back home.

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Because of this situation, the Kuna’s drinking and cooking water is sometimes infested with bacteria and they often suffer from poor hygiene related diseases.

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We become popular around these small island communities with our watermaker, and we give the Kuna Indians a few gallons of potable freshwater every time we have surplus. In exchange they give us mangos, avocados and bananas.

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Modern technology has already made its way into the Kuna Indians’ lives, yet they have managed to preserve to a large extend their traditional ways. We notice solar panels here and there on the smaller islands, and on the bigger ones with hundreds of inhabitants electricity through diesel generators is present since decades. But nothing much has changed regarding water, except that now they are aware of the existence of reverse osmosis machines which can turn seawater into freshwater and they are beginning to inquire more about it. Maybe in the not-so -distant future every Kuna community will have their solar power installation feeding with energy a watermaker producing enough freshwater to satisfy their needs in a completely ecological, self-sufficient way.

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Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:

Paradise at The End of The Sea 

Slums of Paradise

Children of The Moon 

Ulu Men. Cowboys of The Sea

Master Mola Makers

Rivers and Crocodiles

Nightmares in Paradise

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 

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Kuna Yala: Nightmares in Paradise

Nightmares in Paradise

 

The San Blas archipelago of Panama, with its hundreds of small idyllic islands with white sand beaches and tall coconut palms, where the colorful Kuna Indians live in huts made of bamboo sticks and palm leafs, surrounded by crystal blue waters and coral gardens of exceptional beauty, are often portrait by visitors as “paradise on Earth”. That is how we saw them too- the most beautiful place we have ever been to after two years of cruising in the entire Caribbean region, to almost all the Caribbean islands and countries. San Blas is the crown jewel of the Caribbean.

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But unfortunately it is not always bright and blue in San Blas. Sometimes Hell replaces Paradise, when the sun gets lost behind darkness, and the sky descends with terror upon the world bringing thunder and lightning, wind and pouring rain.

We are anchored near one uninhabited island, Isla Moron, famous for the abundance, diversity and beauty of the coral reefs around it, enjoying the exceptional snorkeling. But the anchorage is not very protected from the winds and waves and as the island is isolated, standing alone with no other islands nearby, cruisers rarely visit. For the five days we spend snorkeling in the reefs, we are the only boat.

It’s around 10 in the morning. Clouds begin to gather fast from east heading our way- grey heavy masses charged with electricity, filled with rain, coming to vomit their mess over us. The day turns into night. We start hearing mountains crumbling, buildings falling down like dominoes one after another, bombs exploding all around us. Yet there are no mountains, no cities and no war zone nearby, only sea. Wind howling, carrying sheets of rain, temperatures dropping- the nightmare begins. If a lightning hits the boat, some or all expensive electronics aboard- the GPS, the chart-plotter, the radar, the depth-finder, the AIS, the wind-vane, the computers and TV- everything can go to hell. If a lightning attracted by the tall metal mast sticking alone in the sea next to a low uninhabited island strikes, the boat may suffer structural damage and our trip around the world will come to a long halt… Worst case scenario- we’ll lose the boat.

It’s rainy season here which means lots of rain and thunderstorms between the months of June and November, when is hurricane season in the Caribbean. The San Blas islands have never been hit by hurricanes and are considered a safe cruising ground during the hurricane season, but then many boats get hit by lightning here each year. This year however is exceptional. A very strong El Niño phenomenon is causing an unusual drought- the worst in more than 100 years, and the rainy days are rare, which works perfectly for us. For the one month we spend in Kuna Yala we get only a couple of thunder storms and not more than five days with rain.

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This one is the worst of the two storms with the most rain. We are terrified. We count the intervals between the bright electrical flashes and the loud roar of the thunders. Less and less seconds, until they merge and strike right next to us, thunder and lightning at once. In such moments, even if you don’t believe in God, you prey. Or you just leave it to faith and try not to care- if it happens it happens; fearing and praying will change nothing. But how can you not care? How can you ignore the thunders raging around you and not fear?

And then- a strange apocalyptic vision. Behind curtains of grey rain, thick and heavy, hiding the island and everything within a few meters from the boat emerge a dark ghostly silhouette- an ulu (a dugout canoe) with two soaked men heading our way, like two bugs hanging on to a stick in the water. One is paddling frantically with all his might, the other is scooping rainwater out of the ulu with the same great emergency. Two sorry fugitives from Hell hoping for salvation. And salvation they found in the form of a bright white catamaran, which to them looked, with no doubt, like a mirage or an optical illusion amidst the rain- a dry shelter from the storm, a Fata Morgana.

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They come next to the boat, their heads down, their eyes blind form the rain, and without looking to see if there is anyone aboard, without hesitating and without asking permission, they tie their flooded ulu to the stern on the starboard side, climb aboard one after the other, take their soaked shirts off, and squeeze the water out. They remain on the steps, shivering, their backs turned to us, looking out at the storm. We are watching them from behind the glass door of the boat with amazement. And disbelief.

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We go out of the saloon to greet our unexpected visitors and invite them in the cockpit which is completely dry, warm and cozy, protected from wind and rain by the full enclosure. I offer them hot coffee and sandwiches. They are glad. They are shy and very polite and answer all the questions we ask them, but don’t ask us anything in return. The older one is named Ubaldino, 44-years-old, and his wife’s name is Veti. The younger one is Edisio, 30-years-old, and his wife’s name is Seciliana. They are both from Isla Narascantubiti, which is not very far and is a small island with just a few Kuna families living on it. Ubaldino and Edisio were fishing in the reefs when the storm hit. I ask them if sometimes people die in the sea. Of course they do. They die when they dive too deep for fish, when their ulu sinks in the middle of nowhere, and one guy even got struck by a lightning once.

While making the coffee and the sandwiches, while talking to our guests, we forget all about the storm. Only the occasional thunder interrupts our conversation. From time to time Edisio who is sitting quietly in the corner sipping hot coffee, goes out in the pouring rain and into the ulu to scoop the rainwater out, so that the ulu won’t overfill and sink.

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Thus the storm passes, the rain eases off and our guests leave us as quickly and unceremoniously as they have arrived.

-This one was not too bad, I tell Ivo and I mean the storm.

I even don’t remember the terror I just felt a few minutes ago. Only two wet apparitions who appeared and disappeared in time of deluge remain in my memory, Ubaldino and Edisio from Isla Narascantubiti in Kuna Yala.

The sunset that day

The sunset that day

 

Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:

Paradise at The End of The Sea 

Slums of Paradise

Children of The Moon 

Ulu Men. Cowboys of The Sea

Master Mola Makers

Rivers and Crocodiles

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 
 
 

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Kuna Yala: Rivers and Crocodiles

Rivers and Crocodiles

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After a couple of weeks around the small outer islands of the San Blas archipelago we sail to an island near the continent, named Rio Azucar (Sugar River) after a small river that runs down from the Darien Mountains and enters the sea. We drop anchor in the calm shallow waters not far from the river delta. Early the next morning we are ready to visit Panama’s mainland for the first time.

Entrance to Rio Azucar

Entrance to Rio Azucar

With long pants and long sleeves against sunburn and bugs, hats and sunglasses, we pile on the kayak. The wind is hush under a bright sky with a few clouds stuck in the mountain tops. We enter the place where the river’s freshwaters mix with the sea. Nothing moves. Dark blue mountains in the distance covered with thick impassable forest and no sign of civilization for miles and miles in all directions.

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The river is wide and shallow in the beginning, surrounded by mangroves, some so tall they form dark tunnels and we pass under them.

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Further, the waters are still and completely transparent. The world admires itself as if a mirror has been placed at its feet. Our kayak now glides in a shiny sky without bottom, over clouds and upside-down trees.

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The river-water is cool and clear. No industry upriver to pollute it, no human settlement to exploit it, only forest and mountain.

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And animals. Stingrays sleep on the bottom and panic as our kayak approaches, creating small muddy clouds as they make their escape.

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Stingray

Birds fly away as we pass by the shores: herons, cormorants, a dark ibis, jacamars and kingfishers, warblers and woodpeckers, toucans and many more.

heron

heron

A group of dark feathered azure-hooded jays hidden in a bush hanging over the water fill the silence with a cacophony of loud weird chatter, like frogs’ croaking, that goes on for a long time and suddenly stops very abruptly, all at once. Right when the rattle has become part of the silence and we don’t pay it any attention, it stops and it’s strange mystic silence again. A black falcon surveys his kingdom with a most respectful gaze from the highest branch.

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Green Kingfisher

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Flycatcher

Falcon

Falcon

Our favorite river-dwellers are the little brown basilisk lizards, known as Jesus Christ lizards, for they and the son of God share a rare skill- walking on water! And if you ask them, walking on water is piece of cake, they sprint over it! What a spectacle every time they cross before our amazed doubting eyes from one shore to the other speeding as fast as their feet can carry them on the river surface (as fast as 7mph)!

basilisk lizard

basilisk lizard

His divine abilities aside, the basilisk is quite a sight even when sitting still, concealed, pretending to be part of a rotten tree trunk or branch on the shores. Brown, scaly, with a high fin-like crest down his back, head and tail, like miniature dinosaur, and large feet equipped with flaps of skin along the toes allowing the lizard to remain on top of the river when moving quickly, just a bit slower than his land speed.

basilisk (Jesus Christ) lizard

basilisk (Jesus Christ) lizard

Youngsters can run up to 10-20 meters on water, while adult Jesus Christs can cross only a few meters before sinking, not because they move slowly, but because they are heavier and cannot sprint for too long… Once he falls in the water the basilisk continues swimming but only when necessary, when running from predators for example, because some other aquatic animals would eat him too…

basilisk lizard

basilisk lizard

Suddenly we hear a sweet tiny chirping, like a gentle bird’s cry, and it is a monkey! And another one! And another one!

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A family of Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys (titi monkeys, the smallest Central American monkeys) are in the trees above our heads talking to us! Wonder what are they saying? These are different than the ones we saw in Tayrona (Colombia) with short hairstyles- white Mohawks and bald spots above the ears. We nickname them “punks”

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Yet, the one animal we are here to find is the crocodile, master of the river. It is a strange and scary feeling being in a river full of crocodiles, alone, without a guide, having to get out of the kayak when it gets too shallow or when the current gets too strong to paddle against it, and to step in the water barefoot, in a river home of the Central American caiman.

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And sure enough we find him. Hiding in the shadows ashore, camouflaged like the sand and the rocks, completely still, he is watching us with his cold yellow eyes.

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Another one! As we approach a small rocky beach just where the river makes a sharp turn, another croc tanning ashore hurriedly drags himself to the water edge and slides in with a spectacular silent motion. He swims away and disappears.

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It seems that the caimans are more afraid of us than we of them, yet Maya, like most 11-year-old girls, is terrified and almost cries, but as soon as the third one (and they are all small) runs away from us panicking, she is convinced that they have nothing to do with the horrifying monsters depicted in films. And the river safari continues.

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There is even a baby caiman sitting on a tree trunk and we all (even Maya) find him cute.

baby caiman

baby caiman

We keep going. At places the river is shallow, wide and calm-too shallow even for the kayak- and we have to walk and pull it behind.

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Other places are narrow and deep and the river runs fast. It is hard to paddle against it. Going back downriver, we pass these rapids quickly, and it is exciting and fun.

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We would love to go further and further until the river ends, but it doesn’t. It only becomes more and more difficult to paddle, the mountain begins to rise, rapids appear, and so we turn back. We pass again under fallen trees which the leafcutter ants and other forest creatures use as bridges over the river.

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We paddle by the big ceiba tree adorned with the hanging nests of weaver birds. It is much faster going back downriver, and easier.

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Fata Morgana is waiting for us, and a few more wild rivers to explore in Kuna Yala, full of elusive jungle creatures, the sweet-and-sour smell of wild rotting mangoes fallen near the shores, and the sounds of birds and monkeys.

River Photos

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Sponsored by www.kayakshopbg.com

 

Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:

Paradise at The End of The Sea 

Slums of Paradise

Children of The Moon 

Ulu Men. Cowboys of The Sea

Master Mola Makers

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 
 

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

 

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Kuna Yala People: Ulu Men. Cowboys of the Sea

Ulu Men. Cowboys of the Sea

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In the morning, very early, before the first rays of sunlight gently touch the top of the tall palm trees with pale pink light, they crawl out of their hammocks, of their little huts, and disappear into the sea. We watch them every day passing near our boat, returning in the afternoon, their dugout canoes filled with coconuts, a few mangoes, fishes and conchs.

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Here comes Victor again. Victor is the skinny guy, about 60-years-old, who came to collect a $10.00 anchoring fee (valid for 1 month and only for one island group) the very first day we drop anchor near one of the islands in Cayos Holandes. His main occupation is harvesting coconuts from the nearby islands, and he paddles his dugout ulu slowly from island to island for a few hours every morning collecting coconuts. He brings us a pile of mangoes, avocados and bananas. In exchange, we charge his cellphone and all the cellphones of all the rest of the men living on his island (because they have no electricity, not even a generator, and we produce more electricity than we need sometimes with our solar panels). We also give him a couple of bottles with drinking water.

Viktor

Viktor

“I’ll bring more empty bottles for water” he says, but we have to explain that we can only produce a certain amount of freshwater per day with our watermaker (desalinating machine) and only if there are no clouds and the solar panels work full-power to make the electricity needed for the watermaker.

“When it’s cloudy and rainy we can’t make freshwater and we can’t charge your phones.” We tell him. He seems to understand and slowly paddles away from the boat.

We have become the local “Water&Power Station”. And we really love the fact that we can help the Kuna Indians of the small islands and we gladly charge their phones and give them water everywhere we go.

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The wind has picked up a bit and suddenly our friend in his narrow long twenty-years-old ulu made from one single piece of hard wood, is rigging a sail! First the mast is up and then a piece of whitish cloth, like an old bed sheet, flaps for a few seconds. Victor fiddles with the “mast” and the “boom” and soon the “sail” catches the wind. The ulu slides faster now, like a snake on the surface of the water. Our friend uses his paddle as a rudder to steer in the right direction. Glorious sight: this slender dark canoe a foot over the sea, suddenly sailing! It turned out that the Kuna Indians are excellent sailors.

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The next day I ask Victor about his sailing ulu.

“We have always sailed these waters, ever since we came down from the mountains and moved to live on the islands, many years ago, before you white people showed up with your big boats. Only, in the old times, the sails of our ulus were different shape and made with different materials. Now, we met you, the cruisers, and since we have learned, we make better sails now. Some cruisers have old broken sails which they don’t need any more and they give them to us. For us an old sail is a treasure, we need just a piece. And we make better shape for our sails now. Everyone has learned how to make better shape and now we all have good sailing ulus.”

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An ulu is a dugout canoe made of one single piece of hardwood tree up in the mountains, on the mainland. The islanders usually buy their ulus, which are extremely expensive for them ($100-$500, depending on size and quality) from ulu makers. It is their most treasured possession- an investment that lasts twenty-thirty years, even more.

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Like the cowboys in the Wild Wild West who were dependent on their horses and defined themselves with them, the Kuna Indians, who live on the small isolated islands in the San Blas archipelago are extremely dependent on their ulus. They use them for transportation between the islands, when they go to visit their relatives on other islands or to buy provisions, to go fishing, to bring freshwater from the rivers on the mainland, and to harvest coconuts, plantains, mangoes and avocados. When there is no wind and the sea is clam, they paddle their canoes, but as soon as the wind picks up, they shoist the sails, which are often made of found and recycled materials, some more elegant than others.

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The Kunas’ main food is fish, coconuts and plantains. Typically, the men and boys from each family wake up very early and go out spearfishing in the shallow reefs until the early afternoon, when they return to their islands and relax for the rest of the day. On the way back, they may stop on some of the uninhabited islands or on mainland, to collect coconuts and fruits. They sell the coconuts, as well as all exotic catch such as octopus, lobster, and crabs to Colombian boats for export.

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Soon we get used to seeing the sailing ulus crisscrossing the watery ways of the Kuna Yala territory. Sometimes they create traffic between the bigger island communities early in the morning (going to “work”) and in the afternoon (returning from “work”), a regatta of small wooden ulus with sails, like one-winged moths. When sailing between the islands, we ourselves are very vigilant not to run over a silent little one-winged moth.

The Kuna Indians we meet in the Kuna Yala world also get used to seeing us and demonstrate a great respect for us as well, maybe because we too are paddling around in a “ulu” between the boat and shore- a plastic orange kayak- a precious gift from our sponsors www.KayakShop.bg.

 

Kuna Yala Sailing Ulus

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Find previous stories about Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea , Slums of Paradise and Children of The Moon

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 
 

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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