Sunday, July 27, 2014


June 20, 2014

I meant to leave earlier, but didn’t get out of the hotel until after 11:00 because I needed to finish my blog post before leaving the civilized world for a few days.  I shouldered my pack and walked up to the corner of the main road, where I managed to grab a cab to the bus terminal for the correct price of $3.  There was a bus to Colon leaving right away.  The fare was $3.15.  I panicked at first because there was no one at the ticket window, but then I saw the small sign that told me to buy tickets on the bus.  The bus to Colon was air conditioned and fairly nice.  I gave my bus pass to the woman sitting next to me, since there was still about $8 left on it.  After about an hour and a half, the bus line ended at the terminal in Colon and I walked straight onto a bus for Portobelo.  That bus was the sorriest chicken bus I had seen on my whole trip.  The bus itself was in decent shape, but the seats were decrepit.  There was nowhere to put my pack, so I chose a collapsed seat that probably wouldn’t have been occupied, anyway.  For two hours, I rode on the outboard part of the seat that only sloped about 20 degrees towards the aisle.  Even so, people perched on the collapsed part when the bus got full.  The route to Portobelo followed the coast, taking narrow bumpy roads.  I wasn’t sure I was actually going the right way until we arrived.

Spanish Fort in Portobelo
I foolishly got off the bus at the first sign for Captain Jack’s, which was actually just an advertisement.  I had to walk quite a way to the actual hostel, which was up a hill on a street to the right of the center of town.  Portobelo is the sort of place that looks attractive from afar, but is actually kind of a pit when you are there.  There is a nice anchorage full of sailboats and a ruined Spanish fort.  The town straggles along the shore to a church and small plaza at the center.  There were three grocery stores, none of which had anything but crummy American beer at $1.25 a can.  Fortunately, I didn’t buy any because I later learned that there would be no way to chill drinks on the boat.  I went to Captain Jack’s, despite knowing it was overpriced, because our captain was meeting us there.  I had made a cursory search for another place to stay, but hadn’t seen anything between where I got off the bus and Captain Jack’s.  Somewhere in town, there is a place that rents private rooms more cheaply than Captain Jack’s rents dorm beds, but I never found it.

Portobelo Looks Attractive from Afar
Captain Jack’s had no private rooms.  Dorm beds cost $13 not including breakfast, although there was coffee in the morning.  The terrifying reviews on the internet are mostly the product of a deranged individual who has it out for Jack.  Jack and the staff were friendly and helpful.  That said, there were definitely issues with the place.  When I arrived late in the afternoon, I was given clean sheets, but the other beds were still covered with dirty sheets and abandoned clothing.  There was only one toilet.  The smaller rooms had their own showers, but they were over the basins, so the areas tended to be wet.  The upstairs restaurant was pleasant enough, but the prices were about 50% higher than elsewhere in Panama.  At least the food was good and they had Thai curries, which weren’t common in Panama.  Beers were $2.  I shared a dorm with three people who would be my shipmates, anyway.  The space was cramped, but there was a louvered window and two fans, so the temperature was bearable.  The neighbors were celebrating Colombian Independence Day with a very loud party, so the noise was deafening until midnight or so.

It hadn’t occurred to me until I was already on the bus to Portobelo that I needed $500 in cash to pay for my trip.  Portobelo didn’t seem like the sort of place that would have an ATM, so I wasn’t sure what I would do.  I asked the clerk at one of the grocery stores in town if there was an ATM and she said that there had been one at the bakery, but that it seldom worked.  I walked over there, but couldn’t find an ATM at the bakery.  I thought maybe it had been removed.  Later, I asked again at Captain Jack’s.  They told me that the ATM was across the street from the bakery, but they also said that it was usually out of money.  I hurried straight there, which was fortunate because it was locked after 5:00 and I got there about 4:50.  Miraculously, it worked and I got my cash.  I took that as a good omen for the trip.

Our captain and crew showed up to meet us about 7:00 pm.  The Italian captain was named Andrea and his Italian mate was named Enrico.  Andrea's girlfriend, ChiChi, was visiting from Italy.  An English girl named Rose rounded out the crew.  She had joined the boat in the Canary Islands and never left.  They all seemed nice enough.  Enrico showed me where we would be going on a chart application on his phone.  Andrea took our passports and money so that he could go to the port captain in the morning, while Enrico and Rose saw to the provisioning.  The entire group chatted and got to know each other for a couple of hours while we waited for Hannah and Matt, a brother and sister from New Zealand, who had accidentally taken the wrong bus and ended up back in Panama City.  I went to bed when our little party broke up and read for a bit until some of my other roommates came in and wanted to go to sleep.

July 21, 2014

There was no reason to get up early, so I lazed around until nearly 8:00, when I decided to get up before there was a run on the shower.  I went upstairs for a cup of coffee and then spent the morning using the internet and talking to Linda, a cruiser who had a boat in the anchorage and was also using the internet.  When the power went out about 1:00, I left my pack in the common room and went down to the grocery store to buy lunch and drinks for the trip and pick up a bit more cash, since I was starting to worry that Columbia might not let me in if I showed up with less than $20.  Once again, I lucked out with the ATM.  As I came out, a local asked me if it was working and seemed surprised when I told him that it was.  While buying beer at the local grocery stores turned out to be expensive, I got boxed wine for $3.55 and a fifth of Ron Abuelo (rum) for under $10.  Enrico said that with two boxes of wine and a fifth of rum he could make 5 liters of sangria.  That sounded like a good solution, since cold beer could only be purchased at $2.50 a pop.

Dock in Portobelo
We were not due to leave until 4:00 in the afternoon.  I spent the remainder of the afternoon at a picnic table behind the hostel, writing and reading my book while my phone charged.  The guest kitchen facilities at Captain Jack’s were extremely rudimentary (BBQ and laundry sink), but there was an electrical outlet rigged under the picnic table and the internet did reach out there.  About 3:15, I shouldered my pack, picked up my provisions and the day pack with the clothing I would need for the trip, and walked down the hill to the dock by the fort where we were due to meet Micamale at 4:00.  Everyone else appeared at 4:00 on the dot, but it was a bit after 4:00 when Rico showed up.  He had been in town looking for ice.  Before he could start transferring us to the boat, he had to take the dinghy over to the shore near where he had found ice and then take the ice out to the boat.  Finally, about 4:30, he came back with the dinghy and somehow managed to load five people and all their belongings into the dinghy and take them out to the boat, which was on the far side of the harbor, without getting swamped.  I went in the first group.  Rico then when back for the remaining two people.

Interior of Micamale and My Bunk on Right
Our professional crew consisted of the captain, Andrea, and his girlfriend, ChiChi, Rico and Rose.  Passengers were Ophelia and Antony from France, Bec and Kieran from Australia, Matt and Hannah, siblings from New Zealand, and me.  There was a crew cabin forward, two double cabins forward of the main salon and two double cabins aft.  All of the cabins had ensuite heads.  Being the odd person out, I slept in the dinette. This was actually fine with me because it was the coolest spot and, being amidships, also had the best motion underway.  Being an early riser (I would never have said that before this trip.), I was up before people began moving about the galley and those who stayed up late hung out above decks where it was cooler.  The only issue with my spot would have been if we were heeled over on a starboard tack, which we never did.

When we finally raised anchor, we only went as far as a house on the shore opposite Portobelo where we stopped to fill out water tanks.  We stayed there while the crew made a delicious dinner of curried lentils, rice and salad.  Unfortunately, there were a lot of no-see-ums that bit me mercilessly and seemed completely immune to bug repellent.  I marveled at how an insect so small could raise a welt so many times larger than itself and cause me to itch for a week afterwards.  Not wanting to arrive at the reefs around the San Blas Islands before it was light, we waited there, being devoured by miniscule torturers, until 9:00 pm before we finally left the harbor.

There was very little wind, so we motored all night.  It was quite warm and humid and lightning flashed continually over the mainland.  The sea was a bit lumpy and, after we turned to the southeast, the swells were hitting us broadside.  Micamale had a 110 hp turbocharged Yanmar engine that allowed us to motor at impressive speed.  Even so, the rest of the passengers, with the exception of Kieran, were all miserable.  They spent the first night puking or huddling in the cockpit.  It looked like a battlefield out there.  I slept fine, once I put my earplugs in, and was surprised to find the cockpit littered with bodies when I got up at 4:30 am to enjoy the early morning hours.  I stayed up, chatting with Rico who was on watch, until well after dawn and then went back to my bunk and slept until 8:00 when the galley came alive.

July 22, 2014

We arrived at Porvenir and dropped anchor just after 8:00.  Porvenir is the capital of Kuna Yala, the semi-autonomous Panamanian province occupied by the Kuna Indians.  The Kuna do not appreciate their islands being referred to as the San Blas Islands.  They prefer “Kuna Yala,” which means, “the land of the Kuna.”  The tribe was decimated by the arrival of the Spanish and only moved from the mainland to the archipelago after their arrival.  Today, their economy is based on coconuts.  Every coconut tree in the region belongs to someone and helping yourself to a coconut is a severe transgression.  The Kuna are friendly and appreciative of the income that tourists bring as long as visitors are respectful of their home and their ways.  It was inappropriate to swim naked or visit their villages dressed only in swimwear. 
The city, which was only a cluster of shacks, covered three nearby islands.  Andrea went ashore on one island to visit immigration and check us out of the country.  Once he came back, we all went to the main island to see the village.  There wasn’t much there and we were all hard pressed to amuse ourselves for an hour.  There were no streets or cars on the islands.  Houses had sand floors, palm thatch roofs, and walls made of cane.  Some were constructed on platforms over the water, including a simple, but pleasant looking hostel that was completely unoccupied.  The dwellings on the windward end of the island had been leveled by a storm sometime previously.  It was obvious that almost any sea level rise would spell the end of habitation on the islands.  Some had already been abandoned. 

As is traditional in Kuna villages, there was a large structure where the Kuna gathered in the evenings to listen to the wisdoms of the chiefs.  A two room concrete block schoolhouse served the children of the surrounding area.  The only other sturdy structure spanned the passageway from the dinghy landing to the town, with a grocery store on one wide and a bar on the other.  Benches lined the passageway and people gathered there to take advantage of the shade.  It was very hot and there was very little shade on the island.  The inhabitants mostly stayed indoors.  Many women sold molas (colorful squares of cut and appliqued fabric, sometimes made into bags or pot holders) and beaded jewelry, but they were not at all pushy.  It only took us about five minutes to see the whole village.  It took us longer to find the cooler full of cold drinks in the grocery store. 

Attracted by a small orange kitten lying on a stump outside his door, I met the local herbalist.  He was reading a medical dictionary (in Spanish) given to him by an American doctor.  He was friendly and, being the only one in the group who spoke Spanish, I chatted with him a bit.  He wanted to know where we were from and was interested to hear that we were such an international group.  As soon as Andrea had a chance to drink a cold beer, we headed back to the boat.  We chilled for a bit and went for a swim.  The crew made tasty pasta for lunch.  Then we hauled anchor and motor sailed a couple of hours further to Cay Holandes where we spent the second night.
Kieran at Cay Holandes

Cay Holandes was the picture of a tropical island, covered with coconut palms and ringed by white sand beaches, it was surrounded by reefs and blue water.  We swam again and then went ashore to build a fire from dried palm leaves and coconut husks.  Andrea and Rico had befriended Julio, the headman of the island, on a previous trip by rigging a solar powered electrical system for him.  Julio and his wife and dog came out to meet us when we arrived.  We invited them to dinner, but only the dog accepted our invitation.  We roasted potatoes and peppers in the coal, grilled chicken, pork ribs and Italian sausages, and ate with our fingers.  Rico had made two 5 liter bottles of sangria and we drank most of one of them.  It was too warm to sit near the fire, but it was fun to sit around on downed palm trunks.  We all felt like we were in an episode of Survivor. Sated, we went back to the boat and were surprised to realize that it was only about 8:30.  I managed to stay awake until 10:00 or so, but was the first one to head for my bunk.

July 23, 2014
Boat at Anchor in Cay Holandes

Our second day at Cay Holandese was devoted to snorkeling and lazing about on the beach.  Rico gave us a ride over to the reef where we snorkeled along towards the gap between two islands where waves were breaking.  The snorkeling was okay, but not stellar.  There were lots of small, colorful fish, but nothing large.  The water was too rough to be really clear, so we couldn’t see very far.  Some people saw small rays or turtles, but I did not.  We eventually swam to the shore and then headed back to the boat.  Lunch was the leftover meat from the night before made into tacos.  They were tasty, but definitely the most Italian tacos I had ever eaten.

Later in the afternoon, we put on some clothes and took the dinghy across to the island to visit the village.  Unfortunately, they were entertaining a boatload of Germans when we got there.  Rico was immediately drafted to make adjustments to the solar system he had installed the time before, but the rest of us just stood around until it was time to go back.  The village consisted of eight or ten flimsy huts of cane and palm fronds, some of which were covered with blue plastic tarps.  Only the chief had a solar panel.  He wanted a television, which was why he put in the solar panel, but didn’t have one yet.  They begged us to charge a cell phone for them, but their plugs were inconsistent with our outlets.  We went back to the boat, drank the remaining sangria and played cards until Andrea produced a lovely pasta for dinner.  We ate late, so I managed to last until 10:00 or so before I headed for my bunk.  For once, I was not the first person to pass out.

July 24, 2014

I got up just before six and immediately went for a swim to rinse off all the sweat from the night before.  It felt marvelous.  By the time I had washed my hair and dried off, Rico and Rose were up and raising the anchor.  There was 14 knots of breeze, so we sailed most of the way to Coco Bandero, where we dropped anchor around nine in the morning.  Micamale had clearly begun life as a charter boat.  Her rig was definitely designed to be simple to sail and unlikely to become overpowered.  The mast was shorter than normal, which resulted in a proportionately smaller main sail.  She had no traveler.  What little adjustment could be made to the position of the boom was accomplished through the use of preventers permanently rigged on each side of the boat.  The main could easily be dropped into a cradle with the assistance of lazy jacks.  The headsail was no bigger than 100% and there was not sufficient track to fly a larger one.  The head foil had two tracks, so a second headsail could be raised for downwind sailing.  Micamale was not rigged for a spinnaker.
Coco Bandero

Once we anchored, Andrea and Rose served us a large breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, cereal and cookies.  After breakfast, we all jumped in the water and snorkeled over to the nearest island to look at the numerous large, orange sea stars on the sea floor.  The water was very shallow.  There were a lot of sea stars, but only a few small fish.  I swam carefully over the reefs until I could surf onto the sand and climb out onto the island.  We walked completely around the island.  On one end, the water was undercutting the island and there was a jumble of fallen coconut palms along the shore.  I swam back to the boat and spent the rest of the afternoon on board because we had run out of fresh water to rinse off after swimming.  We had carefully conserved our first tank of water but, unfortunately, Andrea’s girlfriend left the tap on when the tank ran dry, so the second tank just ran down the drain when we switched over.  We had to switch to 5 gallon bottles, so we were required to ration water after that.  Our lunch dishes were washed in salt water.

Matt & Kieran on a Tiny Island
Hannah Rescuing Appio's Boat

After a late lunch, we all went our separate ways.  Kieran and Matt swam to a tiny island a quarter mile or so away.  Hannah and Bec swam to the island with the bar and souvenir stand.  Ophelia and Antony swam to a different island and Rico and Rose took the dinghy ashore.  Andrea bought lobsters from Appio, his local contact and stayed aboard to make pasta sauce from the lobster heads.  Appio was quite a character.  He came aboard and spent a good part of the afternoon lounging in the rear of the boat.  At one point, his boat came untied and started to drift away.  He seemed quite unconcerned and Hannah jumped in the water and rescued it for him.  I stayed on the boat to photograph Kieran and Matt’s epic swim to the island that reminded them of something out of a Far Side cartoon.  The boat was swinging about on its anchor and it was difficult to focus the camera at the extreme range of my zoom.

Bec and Hannah Swimming
Lobsters for $4 Each
                                                                                                                                          It was dark by the time we all regrouped at the boat and wonderful smells were issuing from the galley.  For appetizers, we gnawed on the lobster shells and legs.  Then came the pasta with a salty sauce made from lobster heads, garlic, olive oil, chili pepper and rum.  We finished with delightful lobster tails with butter, garlic and herbs.  I had a couple of glasses of red wine while everyone else drank white.  After that big meal on top of a day of swimming, we were all ready to make it an early night.

July 25, 2014

We were due to leave at 6:00 am, so I got up to take a swim a few minutes before that, knowing that there would not be another opportunity to bathe for a few days.  We were already out of fresh water, so I had to make due with a salt water bath, but at least it got the stink off.  We didn’t actually leave until nearly 7:00 and most people were up by then, having risen uncharacteristically early.    We backtracked for an hour or so until we reached the channel through the reef and then headed out into the open sea.  It became rough almost immediately.  Micamale had a very flat bottom and only weighed 22,000 pounds.  She wasn’t a tippy boat, but she frequently launched off the top of a wave and slapped back into the water, sounding very much like the big, plastic shell that she was.

There wasn’t much to do on board.  The auto pilot was driving and the crew kept a lookout.  The cockpit was spacious, but lacked proper cushions, so I found it difficult to sit there for long periods.  Having decided against coffee on an empty stomach under those conditions, I was sleepy and spent most of the day lying in my bunk, dozing and dreaming.  I got up for lunch and again for a beer about 5:00, but that put me out and I slept through dinner.  All the pasta, rice, beans and bread were getting to me, anyway.  I was happy to swear off eating for a bit.

July 26, 2014

I woke to the sound of Rico tacking the boat and got up to see what was going on.  The waves were huge and what little wind there was came straight on the nose.  Rico tacked a few times and then gave up and doused the sails.  I stayed up for a couple of hours and then went back to sleep.  No one really wanted breakfast.  Once again, I spent most of the day in my bunk, popping out once in a while to get some air.  I got up around lunchtime because I was thirsty.  Andrea really wanted to feed me something, but I declined lunch.  He insisted that I try some of the rice from the night before.  I ate a bit, but was unable to finish the large portion he had served me.

About 2:00, I popped by head out and could see Cartagena in the distance.  The first sight of the city was the skyline of tall buildings built on a peninsula that forms one side of the bay.  There is an island in the middle of the mouth of the bay with entrances on either side referred to as Boca Grande (big mouth) and Boca Chica (little mouth) respectively.  The Spanish built a wall across the larger opening to better protect the harbor.  At one point, the French rammed a hole in the wall.  We entered through that gap which today is well marked with red and green channel buoys.  Once we rounded the peninsula, we could see the bay spread before us with the marina and old town ahead, modern city to the left and container and cruise ship ports to the left.  Many boats were anchored in the bay, but we headed for the marina.
Cartagena Anchorage

The marina in Cartagena is very European in that there are no finger piers.  Most boats put an anchor (or two) forward and then back into the pier.  We milled about for some time, trying to contact the marina to determine where we should go.  Eventually, they squeezed us between two boats where we didn’t really fit.  This involved three men jumping into the water to move lines.  We banged into the boat beside us and there was lots of yelling, but we eventually managed to secure the boat to the dock and stretch a very narrow and flimsy looking plank across to the dock.

Andrea offered us the opportunity to stay aboard overnight and eat dinner for an additional $50.  It seemed like a lot, but I elected to do so because I would have had to return the following day to retrieve my passport and I figured hotel, dinner, breakfast and two taxi rides would come to nearly that, anyway.  As soon as possible, I scampered ashore and took a shower in the newly renovated bathrooms.  The shower felt heavenly.  Everyone else had left by the time I got back from my shower.  Andrea, ChiChi, Rico, Rose and I went up the street to use the free internet at the grocery store and to buy food for dinner.  I stopped at an ATM in the grocery store and got some Colombian cash.  There are about 1800 Colombian pesos to the dollar, which makes for some large numbers.  The ATMs dispense 50,000 peso bills.

Cartagena is All About Contrasts
We were all in the mood for steak and salad.  Andrea cooked delectable rare fillets that melted in our mouths and we had a big green salad and fresh bread to go with them.  Colombia definitely got the award for best lettuce on my trip.  The grocery store was very modern and upscale.  Cartagena, at least, was very first world with prices to match.  Rico and Rose excused themselves to go enjoy some private time and Andrea, ChiChi and I sat in the cockpit, drinking wine, enjoying the balmy evening and talking about the state of the world in a combination of Spanish, English, and Italian.  It was a thoroughly satisfactory evening, a good way to end our adventure, and well worth my $50.


  1. Hello, I searched for Micamale and found your post. I wonder if you think this boat would be suitable for our family (kids aged 1.5 and 4.5). They have space available and we are hoping to sail (if all safe and okay for the kids). We know nothing about boats and sounds like you definitely do. Hope to hear from you.

  2. Dear Karie,

    I haven't been blogging lately, so I apologize if my answer is too late. There is nothing about Micamale or her crew that would be unsafe for children, although you would want to bring life jackets for them. The only problem might be the other guests, who tend to be young and tend to drink a lot. It's not really a family friendly environment. I think that would be true of any of the boats sailing that route, however.

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