Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | March 20, 2013

Whirlwind through Panamá

N 9° 33.35′   W 79° 39.57′

Portobelo, Panama


Civilization!!! Approaching downtown Panama City

We made a fast-paced one-day outing to Panama City, leaving Portobelo early morning and getting back around dark.  Amazing that we could drive from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean in only a couple of hours time.  The dogs have not been too happy with our long day trips recently. At least there are plenty of dinghies and small vessels zooming around the harbor to bark at which keeps them occupied.

Our goals were to see Panama City, the coastline, the Pacific part of the Panama Canal and to collect some remaining provisions. Mission accomplished, except I didn’t find canned dog food that met my requirements. The dogs got an extra supply of fresh meat to stow in the freezer for homemade dog chow which was a better deal than the high-priced canned products with suspect ingredients. Our pooches are so spoiled.

First stop was the Miraflores Locks Visitors Center along the Pacific part of the Panama Canal. There were no large vessels in transit while we were there but we got to see a couple of yachts in the 70 – 100 foot range go through the locks which was interesting. We had made the transit through the Gatun Locks many years ago on a cruise ship and the experience on a small boat looks more intimidating than on a vessel that totally fills the width of the locks.

Then we drove along the coast which was not so pretty at the time we were there. Tidal ranges on the Pacific side of Panama can be as much as 12 – 16 feet, compared with 1 – 2 feet on the Atlantic side. We saw a lot of mud flats at low tide.

Downtown we stopped in a huge 4 level shopping mall with a convenient parking garage. We had lunch and time for a very quick look around. There were many familiar stores like Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste, & Crocs and if you were in the market for clothing, housewares and electronics there was a great selection. We zoomed through the food court and found KFC, Cinnabon & Subway among unfamiliar chains.

Riba Smith was recommended as a high-end grocery store with very good selection and I focused on provisions for my carnivores since I had skipped the supercrowded meat department with few pre-packaged products on the very busy Saturday at Reys in Colon. The store was not quite what I had envisoned.  It was probably an aesthetic issue. I found just about everything on the list on my dash through the place and wished there was more time to slowly cruise the aisles that carried many familiar American products.

Bob got high marks for navigating around town and not adding any new dents to the already bunged up rental car. The big highways in and out of town at rush hour were not as crowded as we had expected. We got stuck in a few local traffic jams related to road construction which was being done just about everywhere we went. We saw huge crowds at the bus stops, and found that the recycled US school buses we used in Portobelo and Colon – called “Diablo Rojos” or “Red Devils” had been discontinued in Panama City this very week. Sounds like some of the buses provided a more colorful experience than the pristine image the city wished to project. A new firm was contracted by the government, putting the individual “Diablo Rojo” drivers out of business. The new system seemed to be lacking vehicles or vehicles in the right places and people had to wait hours for buses we were told. The Panamanians seemed more patient with the situation than we Americans would be if something similar happened back home. Still, another week or two of this and we would not be surprised to read about more protests in Panama.

After we got back to Colon with our goodies – mostly stuff for the freezer – Bob noticed that appliance was not working properly. He is very attentive to the freezer, watching its habits carefully much like a mother observes her baby. We didn’t want to risk freezer failure with such a full load. We had played and lost the “let’s wait” game with the aging hot water heater recently. (Believe it or not, we miss the hot water heater even in this warm climate and were lucky to find a pseudo-suitable replacement here in Panama that is on the “to do” list to be installed.) Bob had noticed one of the Chinese Grocers in Portobelo carried small freezers for about 200 bucks so we purchased one here. We decided it made sense to downsize to a slightly smaller appliance that looked better insulated than our current model.

Then we had to figure out check-out logistics. We had heard on our arrival in Panama that Portobelo was not equipped to issue exit zarpes. One story was that immigration was not located here. The other was that the Port Captain was out sick. The process requires both officials. We got lucky and found that immigration does in fact have an office here and the Port Captain was back on the job this week. We were able to get all of our paperwork accomplished quickly, eliminating the need to run around Colon to accomplish that task.

Then – another 1 ½ hour drive to Colon to return the rental car – and a ride back on the “Diablo Rojo”. Fun for we tourists, but it would be a brutal commute if you did it every day.

Looks like our weather window is holding. We are planning a Thursday evening departure for two nights and one day at sea and a Saturday morning arrival in San Andreas. Two to three-foot seas and 5 to 10 knots of wind, picking up to 12 knots on Saturday are forecast. Sounds too good to be true . . .


The canal transit for these two vessels in the Miraflores Locks looked uneventful. The locks were not filled to capacity and rafting boats together was not needed. The first boat is center tied and the second side-tied. We have heard stories of difficulties and occasional chaos for small vessels in the locks. This looked easy.


The muddy Pacific coastline at low tide


Most of the Panama City bus stops had enough people waiting to fill an entire bus


Once out of Panama City roads were not busy. We liked the frequent “retornos”, or “U-Turns” that made it easy for we tourists to get around.


En route toward Sabanitas, then a right turn for the last hour to Portobelo. They have many pedestrian overpasses here which is really nice.


The new “congelador” makes its way to the Mar Azul


The dinghy crane was the easiest way to get this thing aboard


Success! Now we need to nurse the old freezer along until I can downsize enough to fit everything into the new one.


Waiting for departure from the Colon bus terminal. REALLY hot aboard these unairconditioned vehicles and our advisors said get on early to get a back seat since we would ride to the end of the line. Vendors came on to offer cold drinks, snacks and general goods for sale like stainless flatware(?) Major gridlock for a time . . . lots of horn honking exchanges . . . then the driver managed to exit, fully loaded.


It was standing room only until about 45 minutes into the ride. Most of the many buses around Colon were filled to capacity.


Our bus at the end of the line in Portobelo. Each is creatively personalized. As you can imagine, they make a lot of noise and would not meet all the pollution controls we have back home. Based on our two bus rides, it seems that the driving varies. Once out of the city, this one clipped along the winding country roads at speeds that kept the adrenaline rushing.


Portobelo has been pleasant but it is time to say “chau” and Mar Azul (near the right) will be pulling up anchor soon.


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