Monday, November 21, 2011

Big Holiday Weekend

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11/11/11 is also the anniversary of Colombia’s Independence from Spain.  Well, maybe I should say Cartagena’s Independence, since they were the first ones to declare and it seems to have taken a while to get it all together. In any event, it’s the holiday  of the year. Flags are flying. Decorations hang from the trees in the parks in Centro, and line the streets. There’s a  parade somewhere every day, starting with children and getting progressively wilder as the weekend progressed. Being otherwise occupied, we didn’t attend any, but we enjoyed watching the peripheral activities and the TV reports.
paraders forming
Down in the barrio by the boatyard, Doug is ‘held up’ by children operating a mini-toll booth with a string across the road; any coin will get him thru it, and a whole lot of giggling ensues.  Among other popular past=times are throwing water at people (Doug got dumped on by two young women on the fifth floor of a highrise, but the water had ‘fallen apart’ before reaching him), powdering them with Maizena, and squirting them with foam.  You might also get 'held up' by youths with something black and messy looking in their bucket - probably they prefer bills! The boat yard workers have a half day off, and then a full day, and I’m glad for them, considering how much weekend work they put in dodging the rainy season.truck water for splashing passersby
I watched these folks splash a passer-by out of their big blue barrel, but they stopped when the police on the motorcycle passed.
A taxi driver warned us against drunks and pickpockets of course, but after watching some young bucks chugging aguardiente in the back of the bus, we knew that!
Friends in the anchorage reported that the boat parade consisted of large rowing boats each with a beauty queen as figurehead. What we saw from our balcony looked more like a giant raft-up that formed twice, once near Centro and again in front of Boca Grande. There were hundreds of boats. Where did they all come from?
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And each one was packed with folks. Doug wondered if they all had lifejackets; I wondered where all those women would pee!
The main event of Independence Festivities, at least in Cartagena, however, is the national beauty pageant.  Miss Colombia  is selected this weekend. and she will go on to compete in Miss Universe contests, as well as be given sponsorship contracts, clothing, jewelry, perfume, even, a taxi driver told us, a Rolex watch worth two thousand dollars. At least one past Miss Colombia also received ‘a mansion from the government.’ Being Miss Colombia also may guarantee the winner ‘minor celebrity’ status for life. One, out of office for 25 years, was suffering from some kind of botched plastic surgery, I read in a society magazine, in the dermatologist’s office!
From what I’ve seen, these Señorita Colombias look like Barbie dolls, all in matchy-matchy outfits and there’s not a one who doesn’t look ‘perfect’ in every conventional respect; or wasn't helped along by a plastic surgeon, say certain observers. The critique is that they represent the richer, whiter segment of society.
I even noticed, in Boca Grande, posters on the phone poles of contestants hoping to lure votes, plastered over posters of less attractive political candidates from last month’s election. For these women, it didn’t help. So, there’s also an alternative contest, for the Queen of the Barrios (Miss Independence), and here, while the girls are beautiful of course, they’re a lot more varied in appearance, and the prizes are significantly smaller. Last year's crown was donated by a metal-plating company, for example.
The controversy about these contests, according to a report last year in the NY Times, can be summarized like this: href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/world/americas/01colombia.html">http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/01/world/americas/01colombia.html
Here’s the short version-
“One pageant portrays Cartagena as its elite wants it to be seen: rich, white and glamorous,” said Elisabeth Cunin, a French sociologist who studies Cartagena. “The other reflects the reality of the city as the majority of its inhabitants know it: poor and neglected, a complex mix between racial domination and an emerging current of black consciousness.”
The national pageant, founded here in 1934 as a tourism linchpin, employs a multilingual staff at an air-conditioned building in Parque de Bolívar in the old center, attracting sponsors like Edox, a Swiss watch manufacturer. The municipal contest, created in 1937, operates on a shoestring budget from a crumbling structure a few blocks away.
Few nations, with the exception of neighboring Venezuela, attach as much importance to such pageants. In addition to Miss Colombia and Miss Independence, Colombian juries award many lesser titles, like Miss Plantain and Miss Coal. Cellblocks in a Bogotá women’s prison have their own pageants. One town in northern Colombia takes it even further, putting makeup and wigs on its donkeys then parading them for its annual Miss Burro celebration.”
And, if you’ve got ten minutes and bandwidth, here’s a  YouTube video (with music) by a bouncy CuriousTraveler, with bits of video from each contest (last year) which I came across while I trying to find a picture of this year’s winners. http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=-KM2miKhRP4 Drumroll: Here’s the winner of this year’s Miss Colombia “following a rigorous competition of beauty, wits and winning smiles”, says ColombiaReports.com, from whence this picture came. Daniella made the front page and the contest got several pages in the Society section of the paper El Universal.
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In the alternate contest, Miss Independence (Reina de los Barrios)got a full-length photo in the middle of the paper, plus a photo of her parents, but her webmaster maybe hasn’t posted her yet, that I have found.
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There is certainly no shortage of beautiful women in Cartagena. But one taxi driver assures me that there are even more beautiful women in Medellin. In Cartagena, though, they have better bodies, he thinks.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Room with a View

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We’re living in the lap of luxury here in Cartagena,  during our time in the boatyard, at least for three weeks. We’re in a  Gleaming Contemporary Studio Apartment full of Nice Stuff, on the 12th Floor of edificio Vista in the Manga district, up where the pelicans fly,  with a Most Scenic View  Over Historic Cartagena and Castillo San Felipe.  We stroll in after our 15-minute bus commute from the boatyard, take off our clothes and put them in the Washing Machine, get a Cold Drink with Ice from the Full Refrigerator (Shelves! Light! Self-Cleaning!) and then drift up one floor to the Rooftop Jacuzzi and Infinity Pool – fine places to bask and admire the sunset pastels and rehydrate after a hot day. The Big-Headed Shower with Hot Water pours down unstintingly, although the 5x5 (that’s feet!) Mirror has Shocking and Malign powers. Sometimes we even eat Food Not Prepared At Home. Then we Relax in Air-Conditioned Comfort before our various Entertainment Devices until the Lure of the Most-Comfortable and Well-Clad King-Sized Bed proves irresistible.

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And it’s all ours until the middle of November, when we retreat back down to earth. Life is Grand.

The  voyeur in me is happy for such a good spy perch, the neatnik (yes, there is one!) mops and fluffs and makes the bed every morning;  the wastrel lavishly fills the spaghetti pot all the way full of water, and has left lights burning in non-occupied areas. Doug claims that somewhere in India there’s a power failure because of me. I think he’s going to wear out the TV remote. For extra fun we take the trash to the chute and listen as it tumbles down 12 stories. As you can see,  we’re Living Large.

We’re supposed to be strolling the town in the evenings, but between the nice digs, the pool and the balcony and the luxurious ease and ambiance of our aerie, not to mention the fast internet, the satellite TV, and climate control, we generally stay put and let the entertainment come to us. The big sky, the passing scene, we gawp at it all.  Last night Cartagena delivered fireworks, front and center.

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Meanwhile, the other half of life is at Manzanillo Marina Club down in the Bosque barrio, where Galivant is propped on a few locally-built jackstands. Its innards are torn  open and it’s a veritable dustbowl on deck as we make some fiberglass repairs and get ready for painting.

“We” mainly means Flavit  and his crew who are doing the dirty work. Not doing the work turns out to also be a chore.  Every day offers a new illustration of the ways in which assumptions can mutate. Good thing that we’ve gotten a little less anal as we ourselves become a little less perfect. ‘It’s only a boat’ we remind ourselves. And a good thing too that Flavit is so pleasant and accommodating. Doug has lots of carpentry projects, and I am relieved to be the designated shopper,  researcher and communicator. I can do a lot of that from ‘home’.

The fact that we can escape the heat and grime each day has a lot to do with our mellowness. I sure will be sorry to descend that elevator for the final time, get  buzzed out the plate glass doors by the security guard, knowing that if my smiling face appears the next day I won’t get past the desk!

A few associated photos can be found here:

http://galivant.smugmug.com/Other/CartagenaRoomWithAView/20060616_f55c83

PS: even on the twelfth floor, the ants trek up over the edge of the balcony. How did they know I was here?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Quick Flight to Florida

From the slow lane to the jet set, she does it all! Climbed down the ladder at 9:30 in the morning in Cartagena and laid my grateful head to rest on super-deluxe high-thread-count sheets in Lake Worth Florida a mere 12 hours later.

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PHOTO aerial view of somewhere in Broward County

Momentum was building – we needed more stuff, a new computer with an American keyboard, and without Colombia’s crippling import duties. Bottom paint  that we could use without sanding off all the previous applications. Odd bits and pieces like blades for a Fein tool,  a GPS receiver for a computer. Upholstery and awning fabric. Mail for the last six months. So by golly I hopped on a plane and got it all. This after I heard what a friend had paid to have some prescriptions Fed-Exed to Colombia – it cost more than my flight on Spirit did!

Funny how you can just slip right back into the 65mph life, warm up the credit card and sign sign sign as if there were no tomorrow.

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PHOTO Our new stuff on the pallet at International Business Cargo, Miami to Barranquilla shipping service.

I packed up a couple blue plastic crates of ‘hazardous materials’ lined with a new wardrobe from my aunt (and Goodwill!), schlepped them down to Miami and with only a few bumps they arrived at the boatyard in Cartagena a couple weeks later.

The worst part of the trip was the 2-hour drudge march through the line in front of US customs, which had my Colombian seatmates laughing about American pride in their superior ways!

Clearly the real estate bubble has had a real bursting effect on many lives- tales of woe abound -but the malls and highways of the former Everglades peninsula are still full. Florida seems like its same old oblivious self, so many constituencies at cross-purposes.

I enjoyed my visit, enjoyed my stay with my uncle and aunt, but also enjoyed getting back to a life for which I am perhaps a little better suited.

 

caribbean water and cloud reflections from 30k ft

PHOTO water streaks and cloud reflections over Caribbean

Monday, October 17, 2011

Colon anchorage, Club Nautico

From the water, Colon, Panama is an interesting place to be, especially if you’re interested in ships. At most hours, day or night, something is moving through the harbor.   Sometimes it’s crew boats, maybe 40 feet long, but moving through at about 40 knots (the Resident Exaggeration Detector has flagged this number). About 40 times a day we all roll  insanely. To be fair,  there are a few crew boats who slow down, maybe to watch what happens.We're watching them too!

PHOTO DRAGONWING ROLLED BY CREW BOAT

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One of our neighbors came home to find his galley stove thrown out of its gimballs.  *

SCREEN SHOT OF COLON HARBOR CHART

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The Club Nautico anchorage is a pretty compact piece of water,  between some semi-derelict commercial boats along a piece of waste ground,  and the red channel markers for the container- and car-carrier port called Manzanillo. Ninety percent of the time it’s actually a pretty good anchorage. What I like is the constant port activity – ships are coming and going all the time.

PHOTO CARGO SHIP

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From our perch in the cockpit, we see them waiting at the breakwater,  until the pilot boat comes, then, the tug  joins them, and they slowly progress down the aisle of buoys. Will this one  be turned around and pushed into one of the slots just opposite us , or is it’s spot under the other set of cranes further down the quay?

PHOTO WALL OF HAMBURGSUD CONTAINERS ABOARD LIVERPOOL EXPRESS

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Cranes slide into place, and the containers are clamped and lifted, shuffled and stacked. One ship is entirely offloaded. The next leaves within the hour. It's not just containers either; we saw one shipful of brand new buses. We haven’t a clue what’s going on, which gives us endless theoretical headroom. Only the choreographer knows for sure. But who is the choreographer of this ballet of titans? 

Having read recently that  Panamax ships with 13 containers across the stern can be carrying 5000 to 7000 containers, the main question is:  how do they make sure the one they want is where they can get at it?  What specialty design education teaches that kind of organization? Also, What’s in all those containers?  And, imagine, the new SuperPanaMax ships carry 9000 containers. How can a sniffer dog keep up? Cruise ships in St. Thomas have small boats constantly patrolling their seaward sides. But here, with many more ships, there seems much less visible security. This kind of meditation, and a pair of binoculars, keeps us occupied for hours. I’ve got more pictures than any one needs of  colorful containers, and industrial machinery – can’t say why it fascinates me so.

Down the channel, near the Colon 2000 shopping center and the big duty-free zone is shipping on a different scale. I wish I knew what was going on here, beyond all the appliances being stevedored out of trucks and on to this small ship.

PHOTO APPLIANCE LOADING, CARMEN II

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As for Club Nautico itself:  there is no club, only an office that wants $5 every day we park the dinghy, and never has change. Also in the fenced and guarded compound are  a pretty good seafood restaurant, a small marine/fishing store,  a fuel dock, and docking for one of the  crew-boat services.   In the several days we’ve spent here we’ve been in the company of less than a dozen other boats; there’s not space for too many more. You could probably walk to Colon 2000 where there is a super-something-supermarket, but the cab drivers won’t let you!

PHOTO, VIEW TOWARDS SHORE NEAR CLUB NAUTICO

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Once upon a time, on the other side of the Colon peninsula, there was a Panama Canal Yacht Club. It was a funky but eminently functional place that, half a dozen years ago, was bulldozed overnight by the juggernaut of the Panama Canal Authority, who apparently needed another container parking lot.   You can still anchor at the Flats, and watch the ships passing to and from the locks, but there seems to be nowhere to land a dinghy. You can anchor outside Shelter Bay Marina; not sure what arrangement you’d have to make to use their facilities. That leaves Club Nautico as the best anchoring option.

For a slip in a marina,  you’ll  find yourself at Shelter Bay Marina. This is a fine facility, and getting better all the time. Located in a  sheltered bay (!)  at the top of the harbor breakwater, where the US military once kept patrol and maintenance boats, they have nice new docks, good electric, speedy wifi, a pool, small hotel, a restaurant much improved in recent months. They have a popular haulout, but not much in the way of skilled labor, and a storage yard with some ‘boot camp’ type rules, but this may change as the new, boater-friendly manager John Halley, ex-Club Nautico Cartagena smoothes out the user interface.

The downside is that Shelter Bay is half an hour from town on a marina bus; shopping or looking around can be a rushed experience or an expensive taxi ride home. The bus crosses canal locks, which means that sometimes you can get caught on the wrong side and wait another half hour or so as a ship locks through.

PHOTO ROAD CROSSING CANAL

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Also,  It costs a bit more than I’d care to spend, particularly to be so far out of town.   But it’s the only game in town for hauling and storage, although a new marina at Green Turtle Bay near Nombre de Dios on the way to the San Blas, is said to be getting a travelift soon.   

When we first  got our AIS** , one of the first ships I remember seeing  was the Henriette Schulte bound for Manzanillo, wherever that was. So, it was fun to see the same Henriette Schulte being escorted to a dock just across from us, and now I know where Manzanillo is. Then we saw Simon Schulte  out in the anchorage. So I Googled and learned  that there are nearly 100 other ships in the Bernhard Schulte Ship Management family, (several are quite new); plus a pin-up -(ship centerfolds?) type photo of Simon Schulte in locks of the canal, courtesy of the webcam at MarineTraffic.com. It's gotten five votes, by what standard, I wonder.

SIMON SCHULTE from Panama Canal WEBCAM

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Another sight familiar in the canal transit season for yachts is the Arrival of the Tires. When they land on a neighboring yacht, like the roulette ball landing on their number, we know that tomorrow we that boat might be seen on the webcam. Those tires are cheap insurance against an encounter with the canal walls, and the stock in trade of one particular agent.

GALENA ATTIRED FOR CANAL TRANSIT

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Maybe it will be our turn one of these days.

*gimballs: our stove is suspended on 'pins' on each side so that it can remain level when the boat rolls

**AIS (Automatic Identification System) is a nifty piece of technology. Ships are now required to broadcast certain details, name, dimensions, destination, course speed and other navigation data, and with our VHF antenna and a display unit we can read it, plus be alerted to their presence up to 13 miles away by a perimeter alarm.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

What’s to like about Colon, Panama

Colon is the small Panamanian city at the Caribbean  (northern) side of the Panama Canal,  and it has one of the worst reputations of  any city in my modest sphere of awareness. 

PHOTO IGLESIA METODISTA OVERGROWN AND UNREPAIRED

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In the early 1990s, when we were arranging transit of the Panama Canal aboard Arion , it was indicated that we should take a taxi between stops, especially when ferrying funds from the bank. I got the feeling that I’d be mugged if my feet even touched the ground! When I ventured into the market for veggies, stashing my money in my  bra as I did so,  a local woman told me ‘you put your money in there honey, and they just stick their hand in and take it back out.’ Doug took to carrying his knob-headed walking stick when we went to town, and an older gent passing on the street told him ‘yes, you carry that stick and good, you hit them on the head if they bother you.’  We had a friend whose purse was snatched from beneath the partition while she was on the toilet!

We were even scammed in Colon (this story has never been told, due to extreme embarrassment), by a man who told us  he could get us beer ‘off the truck’  at half price, but that we had to pay the driver in advance. Dreaming of drinking those three (cheap) cases of warm Budweiser in mid-Pacific, we were eager to pay, but for some reason, our guy never showed.

At the time, crime was blamed on the very recent Operation Just Cause, the US military operation that overthrew Manuel Noriega, the military dictator who ran the country from 1983 to 1989. Popular wisdom indicated that there were a lot of loose guns on the street which had trickled down into, or maybe just consolidated the strength of, a criminal element.

But I gather from recent readings (The Canal Builders, by Julie Greene) that Colon has always been a sort of lawless place. Certainly an early 20th century ‘frontier town’ full of  men imported from all over the globe as  labor for Canal construction, used hard and put away wet, wouldn’t produce much else. The proverbial drunken sailor temporarily off his anchored ship  isn’t a noted law-abider either, nor are those who ‘service’ him.

PHOTO PASTEL FADED PAINT AND TIN ROOF

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It’s still hard to find anyone to say anything nice about Colon, except, now, me. From my vantage point  anchored near town, off the Club Nautico. I am rather enjoying myself here. While we haven’t been out at night, and actually haven’t walked around much either, and occasionally have seen some pretty rough characters on the street, mainly what Colon looks like is a bustling Central American city, a watered-down Havana, or La Ceiba, Honduras. It has the advantage of good bones, since so much of it looks built to US standards back in the ‘sturdy’ era.

PHOTO COLON STREET TAXIS 3STORY BUILDINGS POWER LINES

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One of our taxi drivers showed us around; this park was a highlight, but, despite living across the street as a kid,  he couldn’t remember which politicians these were (all white, though!) Several buildings in the vicinity had been restored as apartments by the government and were being offered for rent. Pay for 20 years, and it’s yours forever.

PHOTO POLITICIAN BUSTS IN PARK

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Colon/Cristobal may not always be a ‘garden spot’ but its central median ‘parque’ continues down the length of the main road, until it runs into an ordinary, undistinguished, more traffic, shopping center zone.

We always asked (or tried to) our taxi drivers about the security situation. Several drivers told us there had been no problems whatsoever in Noriega’s times; they seemed to yearn for the peace of the dictator. One man blamed TV for changing the expectations of Panama’s youth, for the worse; I can see how he might think that. Personally, I had the idea that the drivers weren’t too worried about their own safety, beyond some precautions about who they pick up at night; professionally, of course, they think people like us should always take taxis, and for the dollar or two most rides cost for door to door service, air conditioning, a chat and some local knowledge, I tend to agree.

It’s a town which, no matter what low-life element it possesses, is also full of normal people (you and I, I was going to say) just trying to raise their kids, keep a roof over their head, a cell phone in their ear, and some fashionable shoes or shirts on their bodies. People bustle about, chat, shop, sweep the streets, do their work.  The people who sell lottery tickets, umbrellas, watch batteries, and bits of candy on the street greet each other like old friends at a club meeting. Women and girls walk alone on the street, with purses. People are happy to help us if we ask, but otherwise leave us alone. It just doesn’t feel like a scary place, at least where we’ve been, downtown. Just, as usual, everybody doing the best they can.

One thing that makes me feel better is evidence of a public relations campaign manifested by dozens of street signs

PHOTO PARQUE CENTRAL TOURIST SIGN AT MARKET

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like this one: On the Tourist Depends Your Future and That of Colon. Take Care of Them(/it?)

Others say: More Tourism, More Richness; The Tourist Appreciates What You Offer; Offer Your Best Smile to the Tourists. 

PHOTO TOURIST SIGN AND STREET LIFE

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The Colon 2000 sign refers to a shopping center that was built as a cruise ship destination, not far from the Club Nautico. It has a casino, but is otherwise just a small  local-style shopping center; hard to see that being a big draw. But the Canal, the jungle out by Fort Sherman, Fort Lorenzo at the mouth of the Rio Chagres, all are on the cruise ship bus tours.  And the tourists in their ‘yachtie’ form hit the big supermarkets and hardware stores like deprived junkies after their months in the San Blas, as they may have been. We ourselves were thrilled to see peanut butter, and kosher salt, and now Doug owns 3000 FLAT toothpicks.

There is also a huge (2500+ merchants and acres of warehouses) duty free zone in Colon. But before you reach for your wallet, know that it’s not really for the likes of us, and nothing like the duty free tourist centers of the eastern Caribbean. It’s meant mainly for the wholesale merchants of South and Central America to procure the goods from all the containers that pass through Panama. Want to buy thousands of caps? Here’s the motherlode, Casa de Gorras.

PHOTO SHOP WINDOW CASA DE GORRAS

A wholesale seller of caps in the duty-free zone, Casa de Gorras, might supply all of Central and South America.

No, the real reason I’m presently smitten by Colon has mainly to do with the downtown market. It’s a hive of activity, full of life and happening,  vegetables and meat. The few blocks around it which I’ve also wandered are a real hodge-podge of goods,  much of it Chinese, as are many of the merchants.  You’d have to be really motivated, and optimistic, to want to dig through some of the stuff for sale on the streets. But I love the market and the friendly people therein.

Here are some photos. I know that some of them, being fuzzy, are only worth maybe 250 words, but think of the scribing they still save me!

TEN PHOTOS MARKET SCENES

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And there are more photos here.

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http://galivant.smugmug.com/Panama/Colon/18840275_d8rvb6/ I hope the captions made it; if not, I’ll be working on it, manana.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Bocas del Toro, Panama

If, like me, you didn’t quite know where Bocas del Toro was, you’d soon find out.  According to  the SSB radio realm of the Southwest Caribbean Net,  Bocas is the West pole  of the universe, Cartagena being the East, and the San Blas starring as the Shangri La of the tropics.  Where is Bocas and why are so many people going there?

Eyes top left!

Map copied from the blog   peaceinpanama.blogspot.com, by a Peace Corps volunteer in the Bocas area, nice-sounding woman, as I find generally of Peace Corps workers, and worth a look.

 

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this map courtesy of escapethatcube.com. If this were a chart, you would see that the water depths are surprisingly inconsistent; the water is often clear, but the bottom holds many surprising contours.

Bocas del Toro is the indented bay and its half-dozen neighboring big islands at the far western end of Caribbean Panama, abutting the border to Costa Rica. The Bocas del Toro province itself extends halfway to the Pacific; the mountainous interior is populated, if at all,  largely by Ngobe Indians in an often subsistence condition. Bananas are the primary export of the coastal mainland part of the province. Once they were the economic mainstay of the islands too, but diseases crashed the crop years ago and nowadays the economy is mainly tourist-based.  C. Columbus was here on his fourth and final trip and named a few more things. Bocas del Toro lies 130 miles mas o minus, from the Rio Chagres, basically due west.

Bocas the Town is on Isla Colon. The mainland hub, such as it is, of these islands, is Almirante, a twenty-minute lancha ride away. A car ferry like you’d see in the Outer Banks of North Carolina also arrives every morning laden with delivery trucks which do their business then depart every afternoon.

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There’s another  town, Chiriqui Grande, in the next bay south, and you could also arrive in Almirante by bus from the Costa Rica border at Changuinola. Otherwise, there are a few planes from Panama City which land at the Bocas airport, just  a short stroll from the waterfront. The other islands are accessible only by water taxi, lancha or private boat. P1080894

 

So, what’s this place all about? To me it looks like Bocas del Toro is Shorthand for: don’t worry about hurricanes, or, really, any weather beyond rain. Be a gringo in the bosom of your tribe.  Eat in restaurants! Drink wine and eat fresh vegetables every day! Wash your clothes in automatic washing machines! Ride a bicycle if you’d care to! Test your powers against the persistence of mildew and no-see-ums. Plug into  shore power if that’s your wish. Get on an airplane connecting to anywhere! Watch the rest of the careworn world from a respectable distance.

PHOTO HARBOR VIEW OF COASTAL MOUNTAINS

Bocas morning water front

Many of the turistas are backpackers, big hairy guys and tiny little girls  both laboring under the same-sized packs.

Surfers come here – not too many in this  rainy season (US summer but the Panamanians call it invierno winter) when the trade-wind generated waves don’t pile up on the reefs and beaches so  much.  But it’s fun to read the surfer descriptions of the area. Apparently you need to be ‘confident’ because a couple of the best breaks end on top of a reef which I’m sure could scrape you up pretty badly.Bocas Del Toro Surfing – Isla Colon – BLuff and Paunch

surfboard bike pedestrians Bocas town

Bocas is the kind of town where the main street contains more pedestrians and cyclists than cars and you can easily stroll the six or seven blocks of its length down either lane of the street, without dodging anything but a backpacker,  bicycle or chat group. The bikes are generally fat-tired ‘beach’ bikes – we always think of them as luxury rides compared to our little boat bikes.

But we did get those out for a few rambles, including one up and down and up and down across the middle of Isla Colon. There it’s sometimes lush and untouched, and in other places cleared for cattle, pretty in a rolling Pennsylvania Dutch kind of way, minus the barns. Signage indicates something in the law permitting ‘reforestation projects’, one of which might be the increasingly-popular teak tree plantation we saw.http://www.panama-guide.com/article.php/20041121094452818

 

PHOTO BIG TREE HANGING VINES

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Yachts have been coming here in ever -increasing numbers – but as we’ve found in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala and other places, often the boats are parked and empty while the owners have flown back to Europe or the US for a few months. There are three marinas in the Bocas area, and rumors are flying about a soon-to-be-contructed haulout facility in Almirante. This, if true, would really change the cruising equation; the nearest haulout otherwise is back in Colon at Shelter Bay, with a reputation of being pricey and prickly in some of its policies. The other alternative, Cartagena, is hundreds of up-wind miles away.

Bocas has a number of old houses converted to hostels, and a handful of modern ones too, lots of bars and restaurants, a surprising number of Chinese-owned grocery stores.  You can buy computer parts at the pharmacy, and motor oil at almost any grocery.You can get  a massage, a tattoo and who knows what else where else. To my mind, if the cornucopia that is Chow Kai Ferreteria doesn’t have it, I don’t need it!

 

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PHOTO WATER TAXIS

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Being a tourist town, and a group of islands, prices are a little higher than other places in Panama. The locals who profit from the present invasion are probably pleased by increasing ‘gentrification’ but in the background, or sometimes right next door,  is  a basically rural, undereducated, poor indigenous population who might not do so well.

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The slow global economy may be delaying development just now but in the meantime the Panamanian government is actively encouraging US and European investors  to settle in Panama if they have a certain monthly income or other resources. I’ve been told it is an effort to replace some of the ‘economic stimulus’ that disappeared when the US population of the Canal Zone left twenty years ago. And the newcomers are not all old people either – we’ve met a few young couples living in Bocas and Boquete (inland, another post)who work via the Internet, or start restaurants and other small businesses.

One hotel displays photos from over a century ago, when the Bocas area was prime banana growing territory.  Every time I see old photos like this, I wonder where the trees are.

PHOTO OLD BOCAS FRUIT CO HQ

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The bulk of banana plantation activity has moved to the mainland, but Bocas town still has a few of the older buildings, despite fire, storm, earthquake and development, including some charming raised up wooden cottages with porches and gingerbread, now often serving as backpacker hostels.

PHOTO OLD WOODEN HOUSE

Bocas houseo

The surrounding islands have varied personalities. Solarte seems to attract the jungle-loving new arrivals.  Bastiamento, has a small town, Old Bank, the newest marina, Red Frog, a good surfing beach, and a national park. We had a great hike out there one day (another post). Others have jungle,  some specialized production, like gourmet chocolate (I’m practically addicted to one of the locally manufactured brands), or have been substantially cleared for low level cattle  production.

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All in all, until the great tourist boom comes, it’s active but not frantic around here, at least not in the rainy season.

If you’re reading between the lines, you might discern that I sort of like it, and I sort of don’t. We look at the  number of gringos in their new ‘tropical estates’ with a mix of emotions. How can they commit to this? The bottom line, for those we’ve been able to ask, is that their money goes farther here, they think. But I keep wondering: How can they build a wooden house on a low-lying island, often cheek by jowl with some other self-important ex-pat, or next to a poor native village,  in a country where they don’t speak the language and don’t understand the work ethic, where they often don't have much nice to say about the people, even if the hurricanes don’t come here and the internet service can be good?

Of course, there is way more to Bocas del Toro than the little I’ve stumbled through here. We, as usual, have more questions than answers out here in our floating palace.

Clearly, there are advantages to Panama, particularly for the investor (tax concessions and relatively low, although rising, prices),and the retiree: ( ‘third age’ discounts, less expensive decent-quality medical care). A stable government and a semi-Westernized culture familiar with US methods and products from generations of American presence in the Canal Zone works for everyone. There’s a lot to like,  but is it all that nice? It would be easy to get stuck here, on a lee shore, at the far downwind end of the Caribbean.

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