Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | March 17, 2013

Cruising Panama’s Costa Arriba

N 9° 33.35′   W 79° 39.57′

Portobelo, Panama.


Travel day along the Costa Arriba. Overcast skies, 6 – 7 foot seas with a few whitecaps and waves crashing along the lee shoreline. Better than the usual winter weather.

We have spent the last three weeks on the north coast of Panama between Colon and San Blas, sometimes referred to as the Costa Arriba, or “upper coast”. Not on my favorites list, but an interesting place. The coast is pretty and rugged. At this time of year it is tough to find pleasant sea days and we have done okay in this regard.  Wouldn’t want to have to make a long passage in these seas, but for 2 to 5 hours at a time it has been doable.   The skies have been mostly overcast and  dreary. The area is sparsely populated and the logistical issues to get to civilization – while easier than in the San Blas – provide some patience-testing hurdles.

Bob is uncharacteristically disenchanted with Panamanian culture at the moment. The man with a talent for overcoming obstacles has been temporarily stymied in finding a cost-effective way to ship in boat supplies. He has found high and ill-defined fees in addition to the actual freight cost in order to get the mostly duty-free items released after they arrive in Panama. We are beginning to believe there might be truth to the rumored corruption in the process. Since we are not in absolute urgent need of any of this stuff Bob has postponed the shipment for a future port in light of an approaching weather window to leave Panama. I’m sure we could eventually figure it out if we had more time and were located conveniently to the city.

We are currently in Portobelo, a small town with a large harbor providing good shelter from northerly and easterly wind and seas.     Most days there are about 60 to 70 boats in the anchorage and a high percentage are occupied. They have a helpful daily cruisers net on VHF Channel 72 at 9 am. Portobelo is a fairly poor town with a few modest shops and restaurants. There are 5 Chinese grocery stores, with much more selection than the Kuna tiendas but not appealing for a major reprovisioning.  There are many Spanish fort remains and a rich history here.

We caught up with Sue & Earl on S/V My Bonnie, who we had gotten to know in Colombia, and they gave us the run-down on Portobelo logistics including how to get to the closest supermarkets and navigate the whole process on the public buses. Sue has it down to a science, including best times of day to travel and where to sit on the buses.  Shopping via bus did not sound like much fun. Especially the part about having to stand for the first hour of the return trip on the overcrowded vehicles, unless you take another bus to the central Colon terminal and change to a fresh bus just starting its run back to Portobelo. Maybe it would work if we were each carrying one bag, but I haven’t provisioned in over three months.  It would take a week of daily bus shopping trips to catch up.

So we decided to rent a car for our excursions. This required a 1 ½ hour bus ride to Colon to pick up the car. Plus a taxi ride to the Sheraton when the bus took a different route than we had expected into the city. If we can keep the car from coming to any harm in this land of crazy driving the cost of $35/day including insurance is a pretty good deal.

I was not enthusiastic about venturing into Colon. A few years ago it was recommended for gringo tourists to totally avoid that city because of high crime. It seems that is changing, and if you know where to go and where to avoid you can safely transit portions of the city. The couple of places we walked and shopped seemed fine, at least in the daytime, and the people really were very friendly. Lots more English was spoken than we had heard in quite a while.

We are planning to drive into Panama City which will be a carefully organized day outing with the logistics of boat and dogs. We are excited to see the Pacific Coast. Those familiar with Panama tell us that Panama City is a whole different world from the rest of Panama. When the locals talk about Panama they mean Panama City & vicinity.  For example, someone will say they are going to Panama, and we are thinking, well, you are already in Panama, but they really mean Panama City.

Our exit from Panama  – the country – may be quickly approaching. How and when to make our way out of this southerly point in the Caribbean is one of the passage planning dilemmas we anticipated. The turbulent winter seas normally offer calmer windows by April or May and we hoped for an early exit so we don’t have to rush through Belize and Mexico.  We want to cross the Gulf of Mexico to Florida by hurricane season. The sooner we can start moving the better. We are watching a promising early spring blip in the typical trade patterns that might be our ticket north.

I have been dreading the route between here and Belize for a variety of reasons – often challenging seas along the first part, safety concerns with piracy and drug-running issues in this area, and the length of a couple of these multi-day trips. I will be happy to find weather opportunities, keep moving and check off this part of our journey as “successfully accomplished”.  Bob is the usual confident Captain and really looking forward to having time to spend in the stops along the way.  Next port:  San Andreas, Colombia, a tiny resort island off the coast of Nicaragua.


Howler monkeys are common in this area. Mostly we hear them but we met this guy face to face on Isla Linton. Possessing the last of the decaying Kuna bananas probably helped to facilitate the encounter.


Thought we were hallucinating when we had a camel sighting. This one housed on a private ranch. We are still trying to figure out what creature roars like a dinosaur, something we have heard in several places along this coast. Another hallucination?


We visited Isla Grande one Sunday, a very quaint town frequented by Panamanian beach-goers


Statue of the Black Christ on the Isla Grande waterfront. There is another in Portobelo, in a church. In October people from all over Latin America make a pilgrimage to attend the Black Christ Festival.


Isla Grande is accessible by boat only. It was another wild dinghy ride from Isla Linton through the swell accompanied by our friends Jens and Dani. Daytime travel was the key. Probably won’t be returning soon.


Retired school buses take on a new life here in Panama as public buses, particularly along the rural routes. They are named and painted in colorful schemes. The bus horns have two distinct tones and the drivers are skilled in tooting out Morse Code-like messages as they wind through the hills and towns. Still figuring out the bus horn language.


Portobelo’s restored Spanish Customs House built in 1630 was the processing point for exporting gold & silver and importing slaves many years ago


One of the sunnier moments in Portobelo. It is overcast again and raining as this post goes to press.


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