Our Kayak Got Stolen

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A couple of days ago, as we were returning to our boat in the afternoon, we found the spot up on the rocks under the bushes and next to a big driftwood tree where we leave our kayak named Junior, empty. Our kayak is our only means to get between the boat and shore. It is our transportation up wild rivers inaccessible to dinghies, and in mangrove swamps home to colonies of frigate birds; it is our silent, clean 100% nature-friendly friend and family member who can carry all of us, our backpacks, and a few bags full of groceries all at once. We love him and need him.

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We love him and need him the same way as a family from Sichuan Province in China loves and needs their one and only water buffalo named Strong Mountain for he pulls the plow in the rice fields, draws cartloads of produce and homemade bricks to the village on market day, and patiently carries the heavy bundles of firewood or bamboo home on his broad back. This family, they take good care of their water buffalo Strong Mountain. But us, we failed to take good care of our kayak Junior and abandoned him unlocked and unattended for hours…

Taking the kayak for a ride.

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It is a three-seat new orange kayak very stable, light and comfortable. A gift from our friends at www.kayakshopbg.com – the one store in Bulgaria where you can buy from sailing and fishing Hobie kayaks, to all MalibuKayaks last models. A few months ago, they became our sponsors and gave us this new kayak, just when our old one got badly damaged by the UV after twelve years of staying under the sun. The extraordinary story of how Kayak Shop BG organized the buying of our new kayak while we were in Puerto Rico can be found and read here:  How We Got Our New Kayak.

Иво и Агент Оранжев-Младши

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We were devastated. Junior was gone. The place where we come on shore and leave the kayak is a small rocky beach where no one of the other cruisers from the anchorage at La Playita (Panama City) comes, as it is inaccessible to dinghies. Everyone else uses the dinghy docks at the marina for a 35-dollars weekly fee. I quickly calculate, that our kayak is worth the dinghy dock fee for a year. We used to lock it to a tree with a long cable and a padlock, but after we returned from Las Perlas Archipelago a few weeks ago, we stopped locking it and this is not a good idea. Abandoning a kayak unlocked on a secluded beach in Panama is asking for it.

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

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday and many families are out and about. Four people are having a picnic up on a small grassy patch overlooking the entire bay, fishermen are stationed on the rocks on both sides of the beach constantly looking at the sea, waiting for fish. They have all seen a single guy climb in an orange kayak about half an hour ago and leave paddling awkwardly, just on one side. He went that way, they point. The weird thing is that the guy has left his clothes on the beach. It is also a hopeful sign that maybe he is planning to return.

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Our kayak among the indigenous Kuna ulus in a river in San Blas

We start running around, reporting the theft to the marina security on the other side, asking people if they have seen an orange kayak, but they haven’t. An officer from the harbor police goes up on a small tower from where ships coming in and out are being monitored and with huge binoculars scans the bay in all directions. Nothing. Then he jumps in a motorboat and for half an hour searches the waters around Amador Causeway for the criminal. But no success.

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One hour later all is left to do is for Ivo to swim to the boat and get the old patched-up kayak, so that we can go back home and be miserable. Right then, we spot an orange kayak in the distance towards the marina entrance heading our way!

I just wanted to paddle around for a bit! I never intended to steal the kayak. I know it is yours, I have seen you before. And this is not the first time I take your kayak for a spin after you leave it; I do it all the time. I take it, paddle around and return it to the same spot!- Sais the guy, never apologizing, accusing us for coming back too early!!!

Ivo, with a big rock in his hand, is ready to whack the kayak thief, but the prospect of spending the rest of his life in a Panamian jail in the company of ex-dictators and all sorts of criminals keeps him from killing the guy.

Don’t you ever touch this kayak again, you hear me!

Lesson learned: from now on, we lock Junior every time.

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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: Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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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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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

Keep following, liking and sharing @Facebook/The Life Nomadik

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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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From Colombia to Kuna Yala

Last time we took you from Santa Marta to Cartagena. Fasten your lifejackets and get ready to sail to our next destination: The San Blas Islands (or Kuna Yala) in Panama!

A beach in Kuna Yala

A beach in Kuna Yala

It was one of our strangest passages so far. One of our “longest” passages too. After over a year island-hopping in the Eastern Caribbean, where the average distance between islands is 20-30 NM, and you can almost see your next destination before you lift anchor, 200 NM is “a long passage”…. It should take us 2 days to get to the San Blas Islands in Panama.

We start on sail at 7 in the morning from the sleepy anchorage in Cartagena and very slowly head for Boca Chica, the southern exit channel from Cartagena. The current inside the bay is strong against us, and the wind (2-3 knots from northeast) is not helping us much. After 4 hours we are only 3 NM closer to destination, barely out of the channel, it’s almost noon, but Ivo is proud that we didn’t have to use the engines at all.

We first head for Isla del Rosario, a small uninhabited island archipelago in Colombia only 17 NM southwest of Cartagena, where we plan to spend a day or two, but when we get there at around 4 p.m. after a very pleasant slow sail with the wind 12-16 kts on a beam reach, we cannot find a good place to drop anchor. The island is low, covered in tangled bushes and trees, with a small sandy beach on the south side. It looks like rocks and coral heads everywhere all around it though, and as there is no cruising guide information about this place, no detail depths and coral head areas, we decide not to risk getting closer to shore and wreck the boat, so we just keep going- 180 NM more to San Blas.

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

The wind picks up at night- 18 to 24 kts from northeast and the swell is 2 to 3 meters. The sky is covered with clouds and in the distance orange heat lightings illuminate the southern horizon. Then the wind drops to 10 kts and shifts from southeast, the swell still 2-3m from northeast and the ride gets bumpy. I feel seasick, which doesn’t happen normally. But the next day it gets worse. We are 100 NM from destination and 100 NM from the closest land, north of Golfo de Uraba in Colombia. The swell is still big and utterly uncomfortable, the wind dies and not only our speed drops to 0, but a 1 -1.5 kt current starts pushing us back to where we came from. Normal people turn on the engines in this sort of a situation and keep going to destination. That’s NORMAL people… Ivo, who is not part of that group, drops all sails and starts hand-steering trying to keep the boat into the current so our drift back would be as slow as possible. Thus we drift for almost 6 hours, from noon to 6 p.m., very slowly going backwards. Before the wind picks up, and not much but just enough for the boat to start moving forward again, we have lost 2 NM going backwards, and half the day.

The second night we are rewarded with a very pleasant 12-18 kt wind from northeast and just about 1 m swell and Fata Morgana is back in business doing 6 kts. By sunrise we have only 30 NM left to San Blas, two tunas in the freezer and everyone is feeling great.

It’s noon, the sky grey-and-blue with scattered clouds, the wind still about 20 kts and the sea 1-2 m when we spot the first of about 340 islands covered with coconut palms, home of the Indigenous Kuna people. We clear the reefs where the waves crash with violent roar and beyond them begins paradise- serene, blue, enchanted world of sea-stars and little dark people in small dugout Cayucos.

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

We arrive in San Blas without ever turning on the engines, we tack between the reefs in a shallow channel and around 2 p.m. we finally drop anchor (on sail) next to Banedup, an island part of the Cayos Holandes island chain, in a place popular among cruisers as The Swimming Pool, for its waters are as shallow and clear and as deliciously blue as the waters of the most luxurious swimming pool on earth.

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

San Blas is the official name given by the Spanish of this vast archipelago stretching near the eastern largely uninhabited and partly unexplored shores of Panama. But for centuries, the local Kuna people have used a different name for their islands which are today an autonomous territory within Panama- Kuna Yala. And so, we decided to respect and use the indigenous name.

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Kuna Yala is mind-blowing, really. Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty of the place. Fenced behind a long barrier reef which breaks and calms the waves of the Caribbean Sea creating a vast lake of flat crystal blue water- an absolute pleasure for cruising, lie hundreds of small flat islands of fine white sand and tall coconut palms. Some of the islands are uninhabited, others are home to not more than one or two Kuna families living in huts with roofs of palm leaves near the beach, without electricity and running water, very much the way their ancestors used to live for centuries before the first European ever set foot in this part of the world. Others yet are heavily populated by dense communities of hundreds of Kuna people, who have lost to some extend their traditional ways, enjoying much of the advancements of modern civilization. And beyond the many islands rise the jungle-covered mountains of Panama’s mainland cut through by rivers providing much of the potable freshwater to the islanders.

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

We spent a month in Kuna Yala completely removed form modern civilization (no internet…), sailing between islands, enjoying the absolute tranquility of the most remote anchorages near uninhabited islands, the exceptional snorkeling in pristine waters and stunning coral gardens, a number of wild kayak expeditions to neighboring islands and rivers of clear waters full of crocodiles and stingrays; we met and befriended a few of the Kuna families in some of the smaller islands and we visited some of the bigger Kuna communities, learning about their history and culture.

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

It was not all 100% pink and positive, though. We became also very much disenchanted, especially Ivo, with the way the locals, especially on the bigger islands, have become greedy for money and are treating us visitors- tourists and cruisers- as “gringos”, trying to squeeze another dollar out of our pockets, like everywhere.

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade... All in one- Kuna Yala

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade… All in one- Kuna Yala

Yet, of all the Caribbean destinations we sailed to, Kuna Yala is by far the most beautiful, authentic, and interesting one. No wonder some cruisers spend here many years, others return again and again. No wonder, I have so many, many stories to tell from the land of the Kuna Yala, and I can’t wait to share them with you!

Mira in San Blas

Mira in San Blas

 

To be continued….

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Sailing to Cartagena de Indias

Pegasos Monument, Cartagena, Colombia

Pegasos Monument, Cartagena, Colombia

The time came to sail again – 100 nautical miles from Santa Marta to Cartagena, along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, past the dreaded Barranquilla Cape and the Magdalena River delta. We waited again for the best possible weather conditions – light 15-20 knot winds and 1-2 meter waves for 2-3 consecutive days. In this part of the Caribbean Sea low pressure meets high pressure and messes up the entire situation. Wind gets crazy strong, sometimes unpredictable and squally, waves pick up height, it’s nasty. Many say that this spot can actually be the worst sailing experience on your way around the world, so we grab the first opportunity we get in a month to sail in calmer conditions.

The lighthouse, Santa Marta's landmark

The lighthouse, Santa Marta’s landmark

We start early in the morning on May 20th lifting anchor on sails, as we usually do. This time it is easy, because there is no one else in the anchorage in Santa Marta but us, and we have lots of space for maneuvering. First, we hoist the main sail, then Ivo slowly starts pulling up the anchor with the electrical windlass, Maya is ready on the jib, and I am steering. As Ivo is lifting the anchor, the boat is heading forward and I am steering slightly in the direction we want to turn. Anchor out, the boat is at a small angle to the wind, Maya pulls the jib fast. We drift for a few seconds backwards until the angle to wind is bigger, then Fata Morgana picks up speed forward and we are off! But there is no wind in the bay that morning. When lifting anchor on sail, no wind means nothing can go wrong, but it also means, that we have to drift and tack back and forth for 4 hours just to get out of the bay and into open sea, less than 2 NM…

Fata Morgana sailing wing-on-wing

Fata Morgana sailing wing-on-wing

Finally we clear the small island with the lighthouse and the wind picks up from east at around 10 a.m. Fata Morgana is moving with 4-5 knots towards destination. We head straight across the gulf of the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta for the Barranquilla cape. This should be the worst area we sail through in the entire Caribbean and a friend told us to make sure we pass it in daylight, as there might be large debris dragged down from the river into the sea- big tree trunks, dead cows, entire rooftops. We approach it around 3 p.m. The waters near the delta of the Magdalena River, Colombia’s main river, gradually become the color ochre. The wind picks up reaching 30 knots, and the sea meeting the river waters becomes agitated, with confused quick 3-meter waves and weird currents. We reef the sails and we surf down murky brownish waters foaming at the top. We watch out for debris, but instead we almost run over a small blue fishing boat with a bunch of people in yellow rain suits busy doing something out here in the biggest mess of a sea. I wonder what are they looking for exactly here? But the sea and wind are actually not as bad as we expected thanks to the fact that we waited for calm weather, and we are quickly behind the cape, the worst over. From now on we keep near the shore in shallow waters, the wind behind us, the sails wing-on-wing, Fata Morgana moving slowly.

Fishermen near Barranquilla's Magdalena River delta

Fishermen near Barranquilla’s Magdalena River delta

Then we pass directly over a spot where on the charts a wreck is indicated and we hook something on the fishing line. We hope it’s a fish, but it could be the wreck, as Ivo is unable to bring it in and we end up losing the lure and the entire fishing line… This puts us in a bad mood. Not only we didn’t catch a fish, we just lost about a hundred dollars’ worth of fishing gear…

Another fishing boat on our way to Cartagena

Another fishing boat on our way to Cartagena

It is close to midnight as we approach the lights of a big city. The wind drops and we decide to spend the night at anchor at the entrance of Boca Chica channel, next to the walls of an old fort.

Castillo at Boca Chica entrance

Castillo at Boca Chica entrance

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The next morning, May 21st, we slowly sail in the bay of Cartagena. Large ships circulate in channels indicated with red and green buoys, small fishing boats cross our path, and cayucos with homemade sails glide like ghosts in the shadows of the cold stone walls of a big old fort. In the distance ahead of us, standing tall, still and sparkling white on the edge of the morning seashore, the skyscrapers of a giant young city are greeting us. What an awesome view is Cartagena, what a dramatic moment is sailing in the bay for the first time! Emerging from the barren monotony of the sea- huge buildings- straight vertical and parallel lines reflected in the mirror of the still waters; glass, concrete and iron, looming over the world like the mute and mysterious Easter giants of the Rapa Nui, forever watching the western horizons.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

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It was slow getting to the anchorage on sail in the bay where the wind almost died and we had to tack many times inside the wide shipping channel. At the end, just before we dropped anchor between so many other boats, we saw the pointy roofs and cupolas of churches sticking above the red clay tiled rooftops of old colorful buildings- our first glimpse of the old colonial city of Cartagena de Indias, hidden behind the tall modern skyscrapers of Cartagena’s downtown.

Sailing into the Bay of Cartagena

Sailing into the Bay of Cartagena

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We spend the next couple of days roaming through the plazas and narrow busy streets of the old walled city in the shadows of museums, cathedrals and fortresses, among waterfalls of purple flowers cascading down from balconies of historical buildings housing galleries, boutique hotels and restaurants.

Cartagena Old City

Cartagena Old City

Cartagena de Indias was founded by the Spanish conquistadors in 1533 and thanks to its strategic location, the large bay with its many islets and inlets, became one of South America’s most important port where gold and other precious plunders found in this New World were loaded up on Spanish galleons and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. Soon pirates attracted by this movement of treasure begun attacking and robbing the city and the ships. In 1586 the infamous Sir Francis Drake from England ransacked and destroyed part of Cartagena. The Spanish crown then invested in the city’s defense and built the largest fortification walls in the Americas- a masterpiece of Spanish military engineering.

The walls of Cartagena

The walls of Cartagena

With independence, Cartagena fell into disrepair. Many rich families left the area and the poor settled in. Many of the centuries-old colonial buildings were abandoned and in ruins until a long-term restoration project begun in the 1950s to transform the city once again into the breathtaking global destination which Cartagena is today- a “city for lovers” and the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

Cartagena old city

Cartagena old city

From the anchorage we walk 10 minutes, past the 17th century Castillo de San Felipe, heavy up on its hill like a dinosaur standing watch over the city, and over a bridge that brings us to the walled city covering an area of only about 1 square mile in the northeast corner of town, filled with plazas, churches, museums and monuments.

Castillo de San Felipe

Castillo de San Felipe

Straight ahead, through narrow streets, across the Centenario Park, past the Pegasos Monument we reach the Clock Tower at La Paz Square surrounded by congested yellow taxis. We walk through the gates and we now stand at Los Coches Square full of tourists and locals selling hats and other things, offering to be our guides or to give us a ride in a carriage.

The Clock Tower

The Clock Tower

Next is the old city’s largest plaza- Plaza de la Aduana surrounded by shops. We turn west and after a few more steps we arrive under the heavy cathedral at Plaza de San Pedro Claver near the Museum of Modern Art with fun little metal sculptures in front depicting scenes of everyday life in Colombia.

Maya at Plaza de la Aduana

Maya at Plaza de la Aduana

Metal sculpture Plaza de San Pedro Claver

Metal sculpture Plaza de San Pedro Claver

We turn right and walk two blocks to Plaza de Bolivar where under the shade of old trees we buy a refreshing slice of pineapple from a street vendor woman dressed in traditional creole dress. The heat is intense and we find shelter inside the Palace of the Inquisition– a museum filled with instruments of torture used by the Holy Inquisition against witches and infidels. Another museum nearby offers displays of pre-Colombian gold objects- The Museum of Gold, and further down the road we reach Plaza de Santo Domingo and the Santo Domingo Church. Here we find Botero’s Fat Woman monument.

Botero's Fat Woman Monument, Cartagena

Botero’s Fat Woman Monument, Cartagena

We buy a couple of lifesaving cold beers for Ivo and me and a lifesaving ice cream for Maya and keep walking until the street ends into the large stone city wall. We climb the steps and walk on top of the wall- the Caribbean Sea on our left, a sea of old Cartagena’s tiled roofs on our right- until we get to Las Bovedas– 23 dungeon transformed into tourist shops.

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We are absolutely amazed. Cartagena de Indias is our favorite of four Caribbean Queens, as I nicknamed the four major colonial capitals in the Caribbean: Havana, Santo Domingo, San Juan and Cartagena. There are places we couldn’t visit in Cartagena, like the Popa Monastery up on a mount overlooking the entire city, as we were pressed for time and had to lift anchor in just a couple of days and leave Colombia, because our exit papers from Santa Marta had Panama listed as our next destination and not Cartagena, which could become a major problem if we decided to stay longer. But even this short visit was enough to stock up provisions for our long stay in the remote paradise of the San Blas islands of Panama, to fill our propane tanks, and to fall in love with the old walled city, promising- we will return some day.

Colors of Cartagena de Indias

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Maya in Cartagena

Maya in Cartagena

Cafe Havana

Cafe Havana

Holy Inquisition graffiti

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Frozen yogurt

Frozen yogurt

Orange juice seller

Orange juice seller

Maya in the tree

Maya in the tree

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Plaza de la Aduana

Plaza de la Aduana

Early morning anchorage in Cartagena

Early morning anchorage in Cartagena

Ivo and Maya with the pineapple woman, Cartagena

Ivo and Maya with the pineapple woman, Cartagena

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Diving in Colombia

Водолази

Scuba divers

Underwater the world is different. Dark, cold, dense, slow and mysteriously silent. You hear only your own breathing. You hear your thoughts. You hear muffled sounds sometimes- faraway thunders and gentle bells- but it is hard to determine where they come from. Yet, most of the time the underwater world is mute and silence is undisturbed even in the busy coral cities during the peak hour of the traffics of hundreds and thousands of darting fishes. It is strange.

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The first time with goggles and a snorkel underwater is unforgettable. Often, those who enter the sea for a first time return panting to shore- wet and cold and completely enchanted. And cannot stop dreaming of the deep, of being weightless again- like flying- inside this alien world of strange colors and shapes.

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It happened to Maya. She came back enchanted one day two years ago when she peeked under the water surface in the shallows of a small uninhabited island in Key West, Florida. There, at two meters depth, lied the skeleton of an old ship, its dark rusty bones overgrown with corals and barnacles, inhabited by small fishes, shrimps and crabs. Since then, Maya became a water creature and would snorkel and free-dive all the time, every time going deeper, holding her breath longer.

Мая

Underwater Maya

But her dream to breathe underwater – where the lobsters, the stingrays, the eels hide- without having to come out for air, only came true recently, after we met Cata Aponte Bohoquez and Sebastian Hernandez Gaviria. A cruiser we met in October 2013 in Rio Dulce, Guatemala- Dale McDaniel- told us his brother-in-law live in Santa Marta, Colombia with his girlfriend. “If you pass through there call them, they are great people and could show you around.”, Dale said and he was right.

Cata and Sebastian, a young couple who just got married a week before we met them, welcomed us in Santa Marta, drove us around town to all the travel agencies and the airport and helped us find and buy cheap airplane ticket to Bogota, took us to their favorite restaurants in town and to the place where they work.

It turned out they are both professional scuba-divers and scuba dive instructors, the owners of a scuba dive shop Deep Coral near the aquarium in Rodadero- one of a few dive shops in Santa Marta area. With 15 years of diving experience all around the world: Indonesia, South Africa, Europe, The Bahamas, many of the Caribbean islands and USA, and with an ever-growing passion for the underwater world, Cata, along with her partner Sebastian, is the best scuba diving instructor on the entire Caribbean cost of Colombia.

It also turned out that both Cata and Sebastian love the idea of sailing and dream of someday cruising and living aboard a sailboat. And just a few hours after we met, the idea that was brewing inside our heads after realizing that we would love to scuba-dive and they would love to sail, became a plan.

After returning from the three-day visit to Bogota and three-day camping trip to Tayrona, we organized our next Colombian adventure: an epic sailing-diving-beer-drinking trip with our new Colombian friends Cata and Sebastian.

Ката и Себастиян на борда на Фата Моргана

Cata and Sebastian aboard Fata Morgana

We went shopping, loaded the scuba-diving equipment, 15 scuba bottles, many bags of food and countless cases of Colombian cerveza Agila aboard Fata Morgana, and set sail for a lonely little bay on the southwest shores of Tayrona, only 4 nautical miles north of Santa Marta.

Гости и провизии

Guests and provisions ready to go

15 бутилки с въздух в камбуза....

15 air bottles in the galley

We dropped anchor not far from the rocky shores where the last hills of Sierra Nevada plunge in the Caribbean Sea.

Фата Моргана на котва в Тайрона

Fata Morgana at anchor in Tayrona

The land here is wrinkled with soft hills, thirsty and desolate, covered with yellow grass, withered cacti, and scorched spiky trees, lifeless, sun-eaten victims of the constant hot dry winds. The hills wake up from their coma only once every 1-2 years, Cata told us, when from the east the rain approaches. Then the grass gets drunk on green juices, the cacti are full like balloons and covered in flowers, and the branches of the dark dead trees become alive adorned with tiny green leaves. It is really beautiful, a brief spectacle, Sebastian said, the land celebrates and nature triumphs. And then everything dies again after the rains…

Брулени хълмове

Burnt hills

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A few days of dreams-come-true followed. Our friends learned some basic things about sailing and navigating and experienced life aboard a boat, and we learned to scuba dive, to breathe underwater.

Мая и Ката

Maya and Cata

Мира

Mira

Иво

Ivo

Иво и Мая водолази

Ivo and Maya

Ivo and Maya together with Cata and Sebasian did 2-3 dives per day, every time learning some new skills: to breathe without holding their breath, to equalize regularly, to regulate their buoyancy, to remove and put back on their equipment underwater, to simulate emergencies and share air underwater, orientation with a compass, helping the other diver, communicating underwater etc. Back on the boat, they had to read and study for hours the theory for their PADI Open Water Diver exam. It turned out scuba diving is not so simple and can be dangerous if you don’t follow the rules.

Мая и Ката правят подводни упражнения

Maya and Cata practicing new underwater skills

Мая

Maya

Мая

Maya

I did less dives and didn’t go as deep, nor learned all the skills besides the essential safety ones, as unlike Ivo and Maya, I did not have the ambition to obtain the Open Water Diver certificate at the end of this crash course, but only wanted to do a few fun dives.

Мира

Mira

Мая

Maya

Иво

Ivo

When we were not diving, we were preparing food, eating it and drinking lots of beer.

Ката и Себас правят гуакамоли

Cata and Sbastian: The Making of The Guacamole

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Иво , Себас и Ката

Cheers!

The last day we decided to sail to the next little bay where a small fishermen’s village popular with tourists and backpackers has a strange reputation. Taganga.

Рибарска лодка в Таганга

Fishing boat in Taganaga

Индианци от племето Коги на плажа в Таганга

Kogi indigenous people in Taganaga

At the foot of the burnt hills, on the edge of a shallow sandy bay we were greeted by a row of a few houses, shops and restaurants, two or three hostels facing the sea, lined up along the main street. The street runs parallel to a long beach populated by colorful fishing boats. Tourists and sun-stricken dogs roam the town in the heat of the day.

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Таганга

Street in Taganaga

In the late afternoon, the fishermen emerge from the sea and like fathers extremely proud with their kids (unless they are disappointed with them for some unrealized expectation) they arrange and exhibit their catch for all to see. Small noisy groups of men holding beers form under the palm trees, discussing the sea, the fish, the football and all other existential universal cosmic problems of the world.

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Рибари и риба

Fish and fishermen

It was burning hot in Taganga. All the thick good shades under trees and roofs were occupied by sleeping heavy-breathing dogs and sleeping heavy-breathing homeless people. Our only chance for survival was near the ventilator of a cozy little restaurant serving ice-cold beer and sea-food delicacies. Food in Colombia is notoriously good, yes it is. We still keep the memory of the stuffed avocado and roaster royal shrimp…

Авокадо пълнено с морски дарове

Avocado stuffed with sea-fruits

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Себастиян

Sebastian

Ката, Себастиян и Иво с бири в Таганга

Cheers from Taganga!

At night Taganga transforms. We were warned not to roam the streets after sunset if we were to avoid trouble. The small quaint fishermen village where time almost stops in the heat of the day, becomes the playground of drug addicts, gamblers, and prostitutes, we were told. All sorts of criminal activities were taking place in Taganaga each night. (The only uncertain proof of that fact we could find during the noon hours was an enslaved paranoid rooster on the beach waiting for his next fight.) As we were drifting to sleep in our beds that night we listened tensely for any distant symptoms of criminality.

За бой с петли (нелегално)

Rooster ready for the next illegal cock fight victory

Around three o’clock I awoke with a start. I heard voices. Intruders had boarded the boat! Maya saw dark feet passing outside her window. Ivo darted out to investigate and defend. Three drunk English-speaking tourists, a woman and two men, had decided to swim from the beach to the only anchored yacht in the bay (Fata Morgana), because they could see the lights of the boat (like moths attracted by the lamp?), explained the girl shortly after Ivo popped up to check what’s going on. This was of course a very bizarre explanation and an unacceptable reason to board someone’s boat at night, unless you are properly drunk and/or high. Angry Ivo sent them back swimming to the beach. Freaks.

Таганага след залез слънце

Taganga after sunset

These three days full of so many shared emotions and new experiences were the best most fun days of our visit to Colombia. For Cata and Sebas the time spent aboard Fata Morgana was an inspiration and a dream-come-true. For us learning to scuba dive was also a dream-come-true as well as a unique opportunity for Ivo and Maya to take the course, pass the exams and obtain an international scuba diving certificate (which normally costs hundreds of dollars). This will assure not only many more underwater adventures to come but also gives Ivo and especially Maya another valuable skill for the future which they can develop to a professional level. For this we are forever grateful to Cata and Sebastian.

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ll of us

 

*If you ever visit Santa Marta be sure to call Cata and Sebastian at Deep Coral and organize a fun dive in Tayrona or get PADI certified with the best diving instructors in the area. Add another unforgettable experience to your Colombian adventures with Deep Coral!

 

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