Monday, January 30, 2012

The Swimming Pool anchorage, San Blas, Panama

Ever since we've been within radio range of the Southwest Caribbean, we’ve been hearing about the Swimming Pool. It's one of the best known anchorages in all of the San Blas islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama, the kind of place where people stay for months, even years. The careful radio listener will also hear about the Hot Tub, Bug Island, Green Island, and more, but good luck finding out where any of these places are, because these are the cognoscenti cruiser names, not the Kuna names that appear on the chart.

The Swimming Pool turns out to be in the Eastern Holandes, beyond Quinquindup and north of Banedup (aka Bug Island). The Hot Tub is south of Ukupsuit and Kalugirdup- you can see whyfor the nicknames, but it's nice to know the real ones as well. The Holandes Cays make a convenient landfall, and to quote our number one source, Eric Bauhaus’s The Panama Cruising Guide: 'since they are the islands furthest from the mainland, the waters are clear nearly year round. Their natural beauty and easy navigation have made the Holandes Cays a popular destination…a very scenic area of calm, translucent waters and towering coconut palms". This anchorage is behind an extensive barrier reef as well as the islands, so the wind generator is in its element, whirling day and night to power the watermaker to refill our tanks with non-chlorinated product.

We were so slowed down by current on our 180+-mile passage from Cartagena this week that we had to hang out offshore an extra night, the dark one where the last of the old moon and the start of the new pass their baton under the bright eye of the sun.

The pretty pink tracks on our electronic charts might have been sufficient, even after dark, to get us into the anchorage we had entered several times before. But the story of a boat on the reef at Sail Rock near Porvenir as of Christmas Eve reminded us yet again of how fast things can go wrong. What exactly worries you about this, I asked Doug. He answered - the same thing that worries you, the reefs all around, the dark. Not much more to say, so we hove-to twenty miles away and kept the kitchen timer working all night, admiring the stars and the clouds, and not too far off, some kind of schooner cruise ship all lit up, heading slowly east.

Much of the Pool area is 12 or 15 feet of flat clear white sand, so the namer did a good job. I've swum around this Pool before, but when I jumped in the other day during a period of stronger trade winds there was such a current I had a hard time staying in one place, much less progressing. There’s a lot of salt spray on the boat too; the Pool is a nicer place when the wind dies down a touch.

I’d say we’re at the height of the boating season here in the San Blas. The Saturday Jan 28 2012 Panama Connection radio net boat count revealed 128 boats anchored in the western San Blas area this week. Some anchorages had two or three, others had fifteen or twenty, and there were probably 10 or 12 anchorages mentioned.

The present attraction at the Swimming Pool is the presence of Mark on Melody. He makes regular runs to Panama in his 40-foot sloop, carrying backpackers, and also carrying groceries, including frozen stuff, batteries, parts and other cruiser supplies. Some of these he stores on another sloop which he leaves anchored in the PooI, waiting for a buyer.

Send him a list, double-spaced, capital letters of what you're looking for, and he'll shop for it in Panama City and bring it back to the Pool for cost plus thirty percent. His main, but not his only, source is PriceMart, where he can be seen with a line of shopping carts, a section of each devoted to one particular customer. When he gets back to the Pool and starts to unload, he calls you on the VHF for you to come pick up. It's quite a service, and next time, if there is one,  I hope I can speak from personal experience of it, instead of just being an envious voyeur. Doug knows about the Peanut M&Ms, so watch out!


Or, maybe no photos – trouble uploading. We're back in the land of very few and far away cell towers and very slow service even at 3AM, so forget that panorama video too. But we’re here, and happy about it.

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Sunday, January 1, 2012

Feliz Año 2012

"La Gorda" is a famous sculpture by Botero, Colombia's best-known sculptor.
Every time I pass by, something interesting is happening here.
The rainy season in Cartagena has been over for almost two weeks now, and the holiday season is in full swing. Lots of new folks in town, the high-rise apartment buildings have many more occupied units,  and I can report with secret pleasure that Americans are not the only tourists who sometimes fail to impress.

Little bits of masking tape everywhere!

For us, the end of the rainy season means that work in the boatyard can finally proceed. Masking tape is coming off. Things like canvas and cushions are going back on the boat. We stagger home at the end of the day ready to vegetate. Still can't quite say when we'll be out of here, but it is getting closer, faster!  And, much as we have enjoyed being part of the city, we'll be ready for water we can swim in and fish we feel comfortable eating,

New Year's  seems a bigger, more festive, more holiday-like holiday than Christmas. We spent both days in the boatyard, where our celebration was the use of the scaffolding, accompanied by some pretty nice music coming in from the barrio. When we left the boatyard on New Year's Eve, the children were making 'scarecrows' of old clothes stuffed with dry leaves, (using a bottle of Johnny Walker Red as a prop) and today we saw the ashes of same in the middle of the road, custom being to start the new year fresh with new clothes, paint on the house, etc.
Since we were up anyhow, auditing a party around the corner, we walked into town to see the fireworks. It was quite the event, streets full of cars, sidewalks full of people hanging out, from 3-generation families,  to golden youth, the girls striking poses for their friends'  cameras in their skin-tight short dresses and impossibly high heels, everyone well behaved.

Lots of lights and action downtown.

I know from last year that there are elegant catered parties set up on the city walls and in certain of the plazas and I'm pretty sure the parties continued for hours. But I didn't.

Party being set up for New Year's Eve 2010. I'd have stayed awake for this
party if only to see how the use of the VIP portable toilet compared to the

Where we're staying now is quite near the Club de Pesca in Manga, a residential district which is to Cartagena Centro or Boca Grande as Eastport is to Annapolis. We're in the back yard of a waterfront house directly across from a small parking area which has revealed itself to be quite the party spot. Kids with cars (so, clearly fairly well-to-do) have tail-gate parties that sometimes last into sunrise. While I am glad I don't live on the front side of this little parcel, I have to say that there is some fantastic music in this country, even at 3 AM. I wish I could get names, because there are also opportunities to buy CDs on the street, but I'd have to wander out in my nightgown. Also, people are remarkably tolerant. Sometimes I do get up and peer through the gate, waiting for the neighbors to get irate. Instead I  see a police officer casually strolling the opposite sidewalk, as the party goes on, really, just like in the beer ads. At daybreak the barraderos/sweepers are out in their orange suits and the morning vendors are calling out their wares, even on New Year's Day.
The waterfront paseo also features every little kid who got a new bike for Christmas, plus skateboarders, nannies and their charges, joggers, dog walkers, ice-cream vendors, young lovers, and a few older ones too, fishermen and photographers and people practicing some kind of Brazilian 'judo'. It's an ever-changing scene and I'm pleased to be privy to it.
So, I'll wish everyone all the best in the new year, health, prosperity and good karma; and a little extra for me - Spanish verb tenses and some greater understanding of the Mac mind. But don't hold your breath for big progress in the latter two!