Sunday, December 9, 2012

Ucayali River trip towards Iquitos

The view from top bunk cabin 1 Tuky III
Reading the guidebooks as we motored down the Ucayali towards Iquitos, (or up, since we were going generally north!) I learned that more than half the land of Peru is spread out flat to the east of the Andes, and it contains more than ten percent of the entire "Amazon rain forest". (Brazil has the most.)
 But only five percent of Peru's population lives there.
It's said to be an area of extreme biodiversity, with many species of birds, mammals, butterflies, orchids and more (all this via Wikipedia). I must have had some expectations about what I'd see in a rainforest jungle because I was surprised (and a little disappointed, silly me!) several times that the view from the Tuky III  wasn't heavily wooded, with big trees full of monkeys and snakes. No butterflies or orchids visible from the river! Just muddy banks, scrubby cecropia (trees), and the illusion of something mysterious, perhaps,  beyond. Doug took a 'float' trip down the Mississippi one time, and reported something similar; that you'd look up at the banks and wonder what was beyond them!

Purple marks the Ucayali River; Iquitos is where
it joins the Amazon proper.
Looking out of our cabin, I learned a few more things. The land is not entirely flat, as illustrated by this chain of cloud-topped hills. In fact we were still 300 to 400 feet above sea level, said the iPhone's GPS, and we were traveling with sometimes a knot or two of current. There are a lot more people living on this branch of the river than I had imagined. And plenty of logging is taking place - we saw several shore encampments and more logging barges by far than any other kind of boat on the river.

It's not all either "jungle" or "river" either. There are big sandbanks  throughout. We were traveling at the end of the dry season. Low water uncovers beaches  which are used to grow food, squash, watermelons, tomatoes, and lots of rice. As the river was just beginning to rise with rains, it was time to harvest. Scattered solitary lean-to or tent-style shelters were inhabited by people looking after the crops, and trying to chase birds off, I was told. Or perhaps they were fishing, then drying or smoking their catch. Hard to imagine what it will be like with another 20 or 30 feet of water in a couple months from now.
Topiary is a popular art form in Contamana and elsewhere.
Between the hubs of Pucallpa and Iquitos, there are quite a number of settlements along the Ucayali. The big ones, Contamana and Requena, may have at least 10,000 people each, plus cell towers, schools, and hospitals or clinics. These towns have old Catholic missionary churches from colonial times (1800s), and other buildings from the rubber boom era (late 1800s) so some development isn't recent. Settlements behind the bluff can be recognized by the river landing steps cut into the bank, and by the fact that Tuky nosed up to the shore and dozens of people would appear, or a  lancha would zoom out, at any hour of the day or night.

Also, at each settlement we came to, at least during daylight, we were met by vendors, usually women and children, selling consumables, like soda, breads and some fruits. Quickest (best)sellers were the fried fish, but there weren't many sellers of those. And in one bigger place, people came aboard with a wireless phone-calling device I'd never seen before. But we usually got off the boat for a quick peek at wherever, so I missed the details on that technology.

More interesting to me was that no one I asked could really describe just where the people in these settlements did come from. They clearly weren't indigenous people. Some were displaced by the Sendero Luminoso activity of the last generation, some displaced by poverty in their native areas; maybe it's just a better place to live than where they were before. There are lots of pueblos called Nuevo Something.

We crossed paths with several other freight boats, and with carriers of 'combustibles'. But what we saw even more of were these log carriers, by the dozen, not counting what passed  while I wasn't awake and watching.  Several fellow passengers told us that this logging was illegal, and a big problem, that the trees came from far inland, three or four days by truck. Of course a road needs to be made for the truck, and they need machinery for loading. It's a big issue - maybe I can address it later. Every Peruvian we were able to chat with repeated that "the trees are the lungs of the world", a saying we also saw on several billboards throughout the country.

Every town had waterfront sawmills and big piles of sawdust and scrap.  And lots of wooden houses of course.
Tuky III at the dock at Contamara.
Tuky, by the way, is short for Toucan, third of the family. We met Tuky II at Iquitos - they came out to free Tuky III from a hard grounding (our second) just outside the Iquitos harbor entrance, but couldn't. Eventually all the passengers, including us, but excluding those few with business and commerce items to look after, jumped ship. We went back to the dock later with a photo of the boat to give to the captain. They were gone three days later.

  There wasn't much biodiversity aboard the Tuky III, but there was some! Here a woman carries a baby (something) monkey in her hair. We had a handful of hens, and a basket of roosters on the cargo deck for a couple days. And huge crates of oranges, the cargo of our neighbors in cabin 3.

There was a young man whose job it was to sweep  the boat continuously from end to end, and he did dispatch a large number of black beetles the size of a penny in the first day or two, but mostly he was after tracked-in dirt and food scraps.

I made sure to bring mosquito coils, but these were about the only insects I saw.
As you can see, most of the passengers made little compounds on the floor and in their hammocks.One smart woman had a carpet. The kids had a great time making friends, racing around and playing games. Sometimes they would come and stare at the gringos reading their books, or lying down.

The number of hammocks ebbed and flowed, but we never had more than one 'layer', and folks had room to sleep arms akimbo, which I gather is sometimes not true aboard other vessels. There is no other way to get to Iquitos save by boat or by plane (tickets were a bit more than $100 per person, I learned when we flew out of Iquitos back to Tarapoto) so that may account for the predominance of young families as passengers.
Still, I think we had it pretty good on the Tuky III compared to some of the other and larger and older vessels we saw. 
I cannot begin to list all of the things that were being carried aboard these river vessels. Everything. It all comes by sea, except in Iquitos where there is an airport and you can fly anything you can afford to, I guess.

This post is getting too long (again!) so I'll cut the part about what you might like to know if you're planning a similar trip, and post it shortly, with more photos. Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

River Trip

Just as happens on ocean passages, on this trip down the river Ucayali from Pucallpa to Iquitos Peru, the days flowed into each other, demarcated only by nightfall and sunrise. So it's hard now to remember just how long it actually took, but I think it was five days. That's not counting the day it rained and the cement bag loading had to be postponed, then cancelled. Also not counting the day the officials came aboard late, delaying departure. Or maybe there was another reason, not evident to 'los gringos' in Cabin 1. There was a lot of speculation and precious little hard information up in our corner of the passenger deck, and that's not a bad thing.

Tuky III revealed itself to be 75 meters long, ten meters wide, and no one cares how tall, because there are no bridges to pass beneath. How critical the draft (how deep in the water) would be was revealed almost before breakfast on day one, when we ran hard aground and stayed pressed firmly to a shoal totally invisible in the 2-knot stream of dilute mud that constitutes the Ucayali.

The 440-horsepower Volvo Penta roared to little effect. Out came the depth sounder, a freshly-cut sapling with paint marks every foot of its ten foot length. Then the captain zoomed off in his aluminum skiff. As a result of the visit he made, a passing tug nudged its barge into the shore, tied it to a tree, and came to push us free of the sandbar. I can't imagine that happening on Delaware Bay!
On we went, doing a do-see-do around the outside of each bend in this very curvy river, then cutting across to the other side. We the gringos 'navigated' with an iPhone app, not much detail, but our dot was always in the river. There was no chart of any kind in the wheelhouse, and no electronics other than engine control, light switches and two horns, and some kind of radio we never heard in use. Instead, the appearance of cell phones in many hands was a sure indicator of an approaching settlement.

Breakfast: sweet watered ?oatmeal? and bread made dry on purpose
 The food bell rang. The passengers gathered their various plastic containers and shuffled before the cook and her ladle. We had misunderstood about bringing dishes and had none, so we were parked at our own little table in front of the TV, which displayed boring old music videos and World Wide Wrestling. The food was well-prepared but it was economy food, obscure cuts of obscure meats flavoring the eternal starch triangle of rice, potato and yuca.

Well, there's lots more, but the connection is too slow, the line growing behind me, and my patience, frankly wearing thin. And we're leaving for our 'jungle excursion' tomorrow, so I'll have to hope for time and opportunity to do a better job later on.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

A River Boat Trip

Along the Ucayali River from Pucallpa towards Iquitos aboard the Tuky III is where we're headed, maybe today, or whenever the cargo is loaded. The deck still has space, but the hold, accessed through the small hatches outboard, has been absorbing toilet paper, pasta, sugar, soda, wine, cooking oil and much more esoteric stuff beyond accounting. I´ve even seen corrugated boxes labelled butter  - surely it´s canned?

Stevedore lines snake from trailer trucks backed as far down the hill as practicable. It's blazing hot. There is action everywhere: a  fleet of Henry (a company with 8 in their fleet ) boats are being loaded at the foot of the street 2 blocks up, and at the sawmills next door appear a steady stream of barges bearing big rainforest logs.
It's depressing to think about all the places where all those trees used to be. But I can't deny being excited by all the other activity on the waterfront, and I'm looking forward to this four- or five- day voyage of discovery (on somebody else's boat!).

We're on the Tuky III because of its clean and orderly aspect, because it's smaller than the vessels of the Henry fleet, and because one of its four cabins was available for us. Otherwise we'd be swinging with a hundred  hammocks on the covered second deck.In fact, we also have some budget hammocks, for a place to sit. As it is we still share the six toilets and three showers. The cabin is a small steel box with two bunks (clean mattress covers), a metal door that closes, and a ventilation grill, but it is all the way forward on the second deck and we're hoping for a breeze as long as the boat moves. We've brought drinking water, fruit and juices, toilet paper, chocolate, oh, and some mosquito coils. Can't wait to find out what else we should have known!
And, we just learned one important thing : Tuky III looks good now because it´s straight from the shipyard. We´re on the maiden cargo voyage! Also,  Google Earth for this  area is a revelation, as always.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

I Ate a Guinea Pig!

In Peru, guinea pigs are a local delicacy, hence it seemed they should be  part of our Peru experience. So we made lab rats of ourselves by ordering ´cuy al horno´ (baked in a pizza style oven) in a cuyeria the other day.

They´re served with the head and articulated little feet attached, mouth agape, rodent teeth front and center top and bottom, and don´t forget those ears. Once we had verified their identity and admired the presentation, the man with the big knife whacked ours into more manageable pieces. Then we were left us in relative peace, aside from the cultural burden of eating a childhood pet.
Chewy, crispy, fatty skin: Doug liked that. Not too meaty, a bit of gnawing bones at times. Not quite red meat, rather, pinkish and mild tasting. The gut cavity had been stuffed with mint or something like it, which gave a nice flavor and left me thinking of lamb more than anything else.
Some interior 'corazonita' had been stuffed with potato hash and ??? and was served separately, like turkey dressing, or mini-haggis. And that´s about it for the eating experience. Maybe more than you wanted to know.
But wait! There´s more! We found our cuyeria in a cluster of about eight along the highway near an archaelogical site we were visiting (Tipon). Why so many right here? we enquired, but the answer was unsatisfactory: ´a special zone´. So where are all the guinea pigs now, I asked, thinking maybe they were in a giant cage or barn like chickens, but no, they were just 'in another house' to keep the restaurant clean and free of flies.

Many families keep their own guinea pigs - we´ve often seen them loose on the kitchen floor in rural areas (sleeping cozily under the oven they´ll be cooked in). They make a compact and economical source of protein in the cities too.  Even at the very elegant Santa Catalina nunnery in Arequipa they had a back room for cuy. And there´s always some campesina along the street selling alfalfa or other grass to feed them. They also eat fruit and vegetable scraps.

 To kill a cuy for dinner, the preferred method is 'estrangulo', with a wringing-the-neck graphic. Sounds like what grandma used to do with the chicken. The fur is pulled off with the help of warm water. The guts and later the scraps go to the pigs. Yes, that´s what she said. The rest is 'basura', trash, hence the flies.
Also I´ve read that the currently available species, which is native to Peru, has been so thoroughly domesticated that it no longer survives in the wild; that the domesticators, the Incas, also used the animals in medical treatments and diagnosis (you could say we do the same today). And, there´s a movement afoot to bring them to the US as food. They´re tasty enough, but probably the fourth-graders who have one as a classroom mascot won't want to eat them.

As I was digesting my cuy experience, I was wondering if I could or would or should eat a dog. Perhaps, somewhere in southeast Asia, I already have. It´s more likely, however, that I´ll move, if not fully toward vegetarianism, at least away from such 'charismatic' species. Wax moth grubs, anyone?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A little about gold mining

Looking at this landscape you'd wonder what could possibly sustain life here. Well, William and Marcos were two taxi/guides who showed us around the desert areas of southwestern Peru and they both had interesting stories to tell. William's family was one of countless driven out of the Andean highlands in the vicinity of Ayacucho by Sendero Luminoso activity, and the counter-revolutionary crossfire,  a generation ago. The guerrillas have been mostly tamed, but many of the displaced campesinos have made new lives in the desert, and in the cities, where their cobbled-together dwellings rise up the hillsides.

William's older brothers have gone back to their ancestral village 'where the air is clean and the vegetables and water are natural' but William is reasonably pleased with his present life and contagiously enthusiastic about Peru. This despite, to my mind, the rather grimy nature of his hometown, Ica. But what stories are behind the dusty gates and ramshackle doors!

One place William took us  to see was a ´gold factory'. We were wary of an awkward tourist stop,  wherein the driver presents the ´walking wallet´ (us!) to his friend for evisceration. Well, there was a bit of that, but also, a pretty interesting story about how the small people of this world make their best effort to survive.

Turns out that the mountains behind the desert, indeed the country, are loaded with minerals (fifty percent of the GDP of Peru is from mining). In the vicinity of Ica, there is gold, and silver, copper and other ores too, and there are men willing to dig for it with picks and shovels, carry out out on their backs, and deliver it to people like William´s friend.

We learned that gold is easy enough to separate out from the rest, if you have mercury, and a  'mixer'. That´s what's happening here. The miners' families stand on the board on top of this rock, and see-saw to and fro for hours at a time, chatting and texting as the ore is crushed and mixed with mercury to precipitate the gold. How exactly it happens I can´t quite explain, but at some point some of the liquid in the cesspit is drained, and eventually there is some gold, and some recovered mercury. (Yes they know how dangerous mercury is, and attempt to recuperate it, according to some government regulations posted on the wall.)
It is much harder to recover the other minerals, so the remaining ore is sold to ´the big company'.´Somewhere I read that ten or fifteen percent of the world´s gold production is mined in this or similar 'artesanal' fashion.*

Marcos had the rest of the story.  He and his brothers and cousins had actually been miners. They went way back into the mountains, with dynamite to make the big holes in the hard rock, and picks and shovels for more delicate work. Weeks later they might have enough product to carry away.

 I had a mental image of  prospectors in old Western movies, but there is much more to it, How many  donkeys might be needed to carry  supplies, like water of which there is absolutely none, food, tools. Was there a road or any truck access?  Some of the men brought their families; some of their wives worked there too. Their children certainly breathed the dust and didn´t get much schooling. But still, it was an income when there were few other resources. However Marcos had put in three years of study for his tour guide license and hoped he'd never go mining again.

 And here´s a picture of my new necklace, the first actual piece of gold jewelry I can ever recall having bought. It´s the monkey copied from the Nasca lines,designed centuries ago and crafted by in the back room of the 'gold factory.' Aren't I a good tourist?!
* Actually this particular form of artesanal mining seems almost harmless compared to what I just read about  in the February 2012 Smithsonian magazine. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

This image taken from
I first heard of the Nasca Lines on some 'news of the weird' Erick von Daniken TV show. The world at large barely registered them until airplanes began to fly over Peru. The Lines are 'drawings' in the sand, formed by removing rocks to reveal the differently colored substrate. Thanks to the extremely dry climate, they remain nearly as built  more than a thousand years ago, other than one inadvertently truncated by the Pan American highway. I've read that they cover an area more than 55 kilometers in length, but there's a lot of discrepant information out there.
Here's a layout courtesy of

There are over sixty images, some hundreds of feet long, and many  radiating straight lines as well. Of course there is rampant speculation as to the meaning of the symbols and the act of constructing them. The builders died out leaving little behind other than mummified bodies and artifacts in graves that were thoroughly pillaged even before the Lines were (re)discovered.
The mummified remains, buried in underground rooms,  were accompanied by tools and household goods, including valuable ceramics, and fabrics, which rarely survived. Grave robbers left the remains scattered about, and archaeologists have been gathered what they could and set back in place. What looks like tails is in fact hair.

The tourist can be flown over the Lines in a small plane, or can climb a metal tower beside the highway for a quick peek at the nearest image, which is the option we chose. Some of the images can also be seen from nearby foothills.

Even if one of the figures may resemble an astronaut, I'm not buying the 'aliens in spaceships' theory about the origin of the Lines. I like the idea expounded by the astronomer who gives the nightly planetarium show at the Nasca Lines Hotel. He points out that this was a desert culture necessarily focused upon water, who perhaps made processions of prayer or praise along the straight Lines which might have been oriented towards a particular source.


 Spiral wells built by the Nasca people still exist and are still in use. This is one of several which channels an underground stream from several miles away. 

 The figures, the condor, hummingbird, monkey, spider, hand, and others (the astronaut?) might have been intended to remind the gods (the Sun?) of the presence of the Nasca people. If so, I find such earnest and laborious supplication very touching, and more rational than von Daniken.
Dr. Maria Reich, a German mathematician, was so fascinated by the Nasca Lines that she spent  her life researching them, right here in this room, now a museum. You could say she was the one who put them on the map and gave Peru's tourism a big boost.

As usual, Wikipedia can tell you a lot more.

Here are a few more pictures taken in the area

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Peru's Desert

If you read the atlas you{ll learn that much of southern Peru is a desert, but nothing puts that so firmly in mind as a ride along the Pan-American highway south from Lima. From the second floor of our behemoth Cruz del Sur bus, we looked out over an ashy-tawny expanse of mainly sand,  interspersed with small stones and rocks, and ranges of mountains - the Andes!- moving in and out on the eastern horizon.

Sometimes we ran closer to the Pacific, where towns like Pisco lay at the end of dusty spur roads. This area was subject to a major earthquake five years ago, which accounted for at least some of the battered and crumpled look of what we saw. The country performed a wide-scale simulation of earthquake (sismo) preparedness strategies on the anniversary.

Our destination this day was Ica and Huacachina. The former revealed itself to be an agricultural center for the production of onions, celery and grapes, particularly the grapes from which the Peruvian form of brandy known as Pisco is made. Agriculture in the desert, you might wonder how they manage. I saw an Israeli breakfast in a restaurant, so maybe those desert-renewal experts are in town helping out.

So far the water  has been mainly from wells tapping underground streams draining from the Andes, and from Andean rainfall running down riverbeds during three months of the year. The actual annual rainfall here is measured in scant fractions of an inch.  But they are running short, the wells are getting deeper, the rains not as reliable, and it is a wonder that an estimated 220,000 people can support themselves here. Among the things we were told, and, as usual, there is no knowing what is really true  is that there is a strict prohibition on the construction of any new well, but also that the Chileans (who seem to be the villains in many matters) are buying up land and planting cheap grapes to flesh out their own wines. 

Huacachina is an oasis just a few kilometers from Ica. The oases (?) of my imagination rise up from flat desert, whereas here the oasis is a fold among high surrounding dunes, but it is a classic, pretty little lagoon that you can walk around in twenty minutes. It is surrounded by palm trees, and small hotels and restaurants. The attraction here, other than the sheer shock of the scenery, is that one might go sandboarding, or careening up and down in a dune-buggy. We clambered up to one of the tops to take in the sunset and on the way were overtaken by a squad of incredibly fit military types who ran through the sand like it was asphalt.

The lady at the hotel Curasi told me that there used to be seven oases like this in the area; hers was the only one left, and they been topping it up with water from a truck for several years now. Her family had been waiters in the restaurants, saved their money and were able to built their hotel on the proceeds, so they have a sure interest in keeping the oasis irrigated.

Like everywhere else we have been in this Peruvian winter, it is pleasant during the day, and two-blanket chilly at night. And I forgot to mention that in this up-side-down hemisphere, the toilets, given the chance, do in fact flush clockwise.

Ica has a flag-raising ceremony in the downtown Plaza de Armas every Sunday morning. These were among the many schoolchildren, boys and girls,  taking part. They enjoyed having their picture taken, and wanted more!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Liking Lima

Whatever I was expecting from Lima it was not surfers and paragliders, olives for breakfast and old VW bugs and vans on the streets. Nor was it Saturday night dancing in the Parque Kennedy, just a stroll from our hostel in upscale Miraflores. Old and young, they were all out in force, in jackets, scarves and boots (high-heeled for the many fashionistas) against the chill, dancing, strolling, snacking, until way past my bedtime. There were more people out in the park at night that during the day, it seemed .

In the neighboring streets the waiters wage polite but determined warfare, with each other, and with us, but very good humoredly,  for patronage and the restaurants don't close down until the wee hours. My fantasies of daily ceviche are easy to realize here.

Each Sunday there is a fifty-block 'take back the calle' street fair on Avenida Arequipa, where in addition to the bikes, skateboards, rollerblades, baby strollers and dogs, there was high-energy dancing, tai-chi -like something, free sports drinks, climbing walls, acrobatics, even an outdoor beauty parlor, all of which we surveyed from our rented bikes.

Later in the day, down on the seaside cliffs, we gawked as the 'parapentes' parasailors stepped the cliff and tacked effortlessly above the Sunday strollers and shoppers at the Larcomar mall which also sort of hangs from the cliff. When is the last time you did something for the first time -that thought has been with me recently, but somehow I avoided the opportunity to glide in tandem with a presumably experienced glider for twenty minutes and sixty dollars. Maybe next time?

All this activity took place under a chill and dreary cloud - the garua, a sort of fog bank, which blankets the coast from ?April to December. Thankfully, it doesn´t seem to quite reach the ground.

I think it's partly because of the cold Humboldt current which comes up the coast. The surfers, and we could see dozens, were of course in wetsuits but the waves looked nicely formed and regular, so much so that we were wondering how boats could access the nice yacht harbor we saw. According to the guard, it's not always quite so rough, and sometimes the harbor is just closed. Also it was a private harbor behind high walls, holding only local members' boats of the Wellcraft and catamaran type  Anyone thinking of sailing to Peru should read the comments on (and avoid Paita).

The two best attractions we saw, other than the streetscapes of Miraflores, Barranco and the center of the Old Town, were the Larco Musuem and the nighttime display of fountains at the Parque de la Reserva I think it's called. The museum is nicely presented, with signs also in English, the pottery is admirable and you can learn a good deal about the various cultures which preceded the Incas in this area.

The park is popular with everyone. The fountains are colored and lit and computerized; we laughed and laughed as people tried to wend their way dry through the randomly timed jets of the Labyrinth, then tried it ourselves. Wouldn't want to get too wet though. It's the dead of winter here, July and August, temps down to the fifties at night and always gray  It doesn't seem that anyone has heat, just jackets and scarves and for us the comforting press of heavy blankets in our hotels.  I'm really glad to have my flannel pajamas which emerged from four years of zip-lock but are most welcome now.

I'd also like to mention an ambitious construction site we saw. Like everywhere downtown traffic can be horrendous. The solution here is to make a tunnel beneath the Rimac River starting just about where Pizarro planted his flag to found the city (in January when the sun is shining say the guides)  It's a three year project - in the meantime the river has a little channel alongside. That's the famous Pan-American highway which runs the length of the continent that they're burying.

Next, off to the desert. I hope I'll be able to add my buckets of photos to my SmugMug site but right now seems not. Things are going to be a little rough for a while.  Later!

Saturday, August 11, 2012

And They're Off!

Here we are at the airport in Panama City.  Off the boat. Off the land. Off our familiar  hemisphere. The toilets may flush the other way 'round where we're going. I'll let you know. 

Peru, a place completely new to me, will be at the bottom of the ramp, I hope.  
We're trying to travel light, one carry-on each. We think they each weigh about 22 pounds.  My backpack (mochilla) is new so i know it's capacity is 35 liters.  The weight is okay but i'm a little concerned about the density of what I've stuffed in there, much of it compressed in  Ziploc bags. I think I'll be pretty tired of this 'travel' dress when I'm done!

No computer, just this little sort of smart iPhone loaded with books and maps. 

We'll be gone a couple months. Galivant is hauled out in the Secure Storage Yard at Shelter Bay Marina, Colon, Panama with a dehumidifier humming away - it's been shocking to see how mold or whatever it is, grows even when we're there with all the hatches open and the humidity streaming through. 
But we're not letting the moss grow under our feet. Peru here we come!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Postcard from Portobelo, Panama

image copied from
Portobelo, Panama, is the unofficial capital of the Costa Abajo, that stretch of Panama's Caribbean Coast that runs west from Kuna Yala/San Blas.  Behind the narrowish coastal plain there are big hills/small mountains (the tallest, Cerro Carti, is 748 meters).
The bay is nice and big, deep in the middle, shallow around the edges. Although open to the west, from whence can come some powerful rockin’and rollin’ when the tradewinds are in abeyance, it’s a pretty good harbor most of the time. The land is still quite wooded, but more and more now cleared in the service of cattle (McDonald's, we hear you!) and small agriculture (spindly corn, bananas, tubers like yuca). A couple rivers come in at the east end, which make for nice dinghy excursions through the cattle bottoms.

 To someone coming the 40 miles from the San Blas islands Portobelo feels like a big, even modern, place (5 Chinese grocery stores! buses to Colon! 3000 people! maybe). Also on our ‘haven’t seen that for a while’ list are wheeled vehicles larger than baby strollers, such as taxis, pickups, and dump trucks. There's even a front-end loader in town, for moving the trash pile. Different body types, not just the small-framed Kuna people, but Anglos and Africans and lots of blended. The sound of howler monkeys is back with us (really makes me wonder why they’re never heard in the mainland areas of Kuna Yala) in an early morning duet with the screech of bus brakes (Bluebird ex-schoolbuses, splendidly painted and speaker-powered).

The buses have their own distinctions - and you'll learn quickly which ones have the biggest speakers, and the hard-to-open windows, but you'll get in anyway. Colon is an hour and a half away, and Panama City another hour or so, depending on traffic!

The Chinese groceries have distinct personalities too, and are full of surprises, but often short of fresh fruit and veg. For your nutritional needs, you listen for the loudspeakers screeching something from the top of a pickup-truck. If you’re quick you can usually find the truck somewhere in town, or wait around until he comes back a couple hours later from 'the end of the road' at Isla Grande/La Guiara.
The Portobelo of today is a funkily pleasant place that makes me think of all the complementary forces in the universe, feng shui and the ebb and flow of styles, fortunes, cultures partly in ascendance, partly in decline, like all of us. There are good things here, and friendly people, and some puzzles too.

What put Portobelo on the list of World Heritage sites is its history. The Spanish conquistadors began to use Portobelo as their major Caribbean loading place for the riches they were removing from South America. Gold and silver and others items valued by the Spanish were transported overland through the jungle to the Caribbean and loaded into convoys for shipment to Spain.  Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the wrecked treasure ship that is the foundation of Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum in Key West, sailed from here.
Nuestra Senora de Atocha, courtesy of

"PORTOBELO ON THE SPANISH MAIN   “The city was also victim of one of Captain Henry Morgan's notorious adventures. In 1668, Morgan led a fleet of privateers and 450 men against Portobelo, which, in spite of its good fortifications, he captured and plundered for 14 days, stripping it of nearly all its wealth. This daring endeavour, although successful, also proved particularly brutal as it involved rape, torture, and murder on a grand scale.” from Wikipedia, and more in The Sack of Panama by Peter Earle.
We were anchored in the harbor on the 344th anniversary of this attack, during inclement weather, and it was interesting to go ashore with 'new eyes' after reading this.
Then, also according to Wikipedia, after another humiliation by the British under Admiral Edward Vernon, (in the War of Jenkins’ Ear), the Spanish redesigned the defenses. Vernon took a big loss in Cartagena, but the world was changing. The Spanish finally learned to make their fleets smaller; then ships more regularly sailed to western South America via Cape Horn. So the forts whose ruins decorate Portobelo today never were used as forts; they became quarries supplying stone for early Panama Canal construction. Also, mustn't forget to mention that Sir Francis Drake died of dysentery and was buried at sea in a lead-coffin not too far away. Maybe someone will be finding that someday soon.

Today the Customs House, once reputedly so full that silver ingots were stored outside on the street, has a museum on the ground floor, and an evolutionary 'garden' on the roof. Plus, those are supposed to be the scars of British attack on the wall.

The forts have restored areas, reader boards and visitors who dutifully wander through.
The hills are steep and all I can think as I myself trudge about, redoubt to lookout, is how dreadful it must have been to be the slave, conscript or flunky on any of these projects. Charged with clearing jungle, digging, shaping and moving stones, humping stuff up the slope, no matter the heat, humidity, insects, disease, nutritional deficiency - and for what? Such big 'public works' for so little 'public.' In hindsight it looks pointless and even at the time, it must have been difficult to muster enthusiasm, unless it was whipped in.
So Portobelo’s other big attraction is its church, Iglesia de San Felipe, whose interior features the Black Christ of Portobelo. The history of the life-sized image of Jesus carrying the Cross is shrouded in the mists of time, and imagination - carved in Spain? Washed ashore in Portobelo?  But there are so many stories of miracles associated with the Black Christ that tens of thousands of pilgrims visit the Church (the new building, eventually completed in 1945) every October 21, some crawling on hands and knees. Reportedly, their number includes penitent rapists, muggers and thieves, the Black Christ being the patron saint of criminals, this according to
Nowadays Portobelo is where many backpackers come to find a ride to Cartagena by sea -  as traffic can't get through the Darien peninsula by road. It's where a wide variety of craft come to make a bit of money on that trade, some excellent and some downright dangerous. It's the first 'big' place people come to after cruising the San Blas, heading for the Canal, or for time away in Shelter Bay or Bocas del Toro. I'll bet Captain Jack's Canopy Bar, restaurant, hostel and gathering place up the hill sells a lot of hamburgers to long-deprived carnivorous cruisers.

Maybe something in the air from all those centuries of soldiers of fortune has provided leavening for new generations of their descendants. Portobelo has more than the usual number of gnarly single-handers and boats which may never leave here - a regular little community of them in fact. One fellow got his boat to rest high and dry on a reef, on purpose. He's always pointed out of the harbor, but never going.  Here's my favorite: Absolute Absolution, a 53' catamaran built via creative recycling of scavenged materials by someone not a naval architect. A mast on each hull. We're all individuals out here, and there too. I need to find a better picture when I have access to my 'stacks', but you'll perhaps get the idea. 

"This is a "Fourth Way" project which will change its direction and details many times along the way." This website is pretty dense.

Unfortunately, the most famous Floating Neutrino died not too long ago - here's his obituary from -yes -the Wall Street Journal - worth the read, IMO.

Another thing that can be said about Portobelo is that it rains a lot here. Rust, mildew, damp, facts of life. Some of the ruined houses were knocked over in landslides last year.  There are also an inordinate number of Black Vultures in town. They congregate on the roof of the cathedral, on the cemetery walls, on the trash pile (of course). Not the most charismatic of birds, but there are others!

Now, I think I've said enough about Portobelo. If you want to know more, you'll just have to visit for yourself.

More photos here:!i=2005529624&k=GpfnrKz
Books about history:
David Cordingly, Under the Black Flag
Earle, Peter.The Sack of Panama New York: St. Martin's Press, 1981.

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