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Archpielago Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro: Bocas Town

Matt and I spent 13 days exploring Bocas del Toro before Wayne arrived.  Several people told us that these islands were very touristy and nothing like the San Blas island chain (which we loved).  We typically prefer the isolated, quiet islands, but we thought we’d give them a try.  Our first stop, Bocas Town.

The islands that make up the Archipielago de Bocas del Toro are listed below.  We entered the island chain between Isla Colon and Bastimento, then motored around the bottom of Isla Colon to arrive in Bocas Town, the capital of the Bocas del Toro province.

Archpielago Bocas del Toro

Archpielago Bocas del Toro

Bocas Town has a friendly population of about 8k residents.  The town is divided into 8 avenidas, running east and west starting with Avenida A, then Avenida B, etc… Then the streets running north to south are numbered, Calle 1, Call 2, etc….  It is a very laid back atmosphere, with a lot of tourists and even more backpackers.

Bocas Town map

Bocas Town map

There is one main road were most of the shops and eateries can be found and they are crawling with people milling about.

Typical road in Bocas Town.

Typical road in Bocas Town.

The coasts are peppered with bars and restaurants which makes it fun to explore.  Who has the best wifi and happy hour?  So, far El Pirata has smokin hot wifi, great view, and friendly staff.  Buena Vista also had good internet, food, and friendly staff.

Places to eat and drink line the water's edge.

Places to eat and drink line the water’s edge.

Of course Matt sniffed out a local pub that offered beer on tap – the Bocas Brewery.

Bocas Brewery offering beer on tap.

Bocas Brewery offering beer on tap.

We found the local fire station and they had restored a beautiful American France fire truck that was acquired in 1926.  This truck was made between 1914-1916.  This is a car water bomb, not a tanker, its bronze pump is special to work with sea water. The last time it worked was in 1981.

1900 Fire truck.

1900 Fire truck.

A fun little photo op at La Buga – Matt does have his head inside the dive mask but it is hard to see it – you can only see this arm and hat sticking out the side of the statue.

Surfer and diver at La Buga.

Surfer and diver at La Buga.

Matt took a moment out to rest at Hotel Olas as he had a taxing day walking from bar to bar.

Matt's happy spot at Hotel Olas.

Matt’s happy spot at Hotel Olas.

Another cool map of the Archipielago Bocas del Toro:

Map of Bocas del Toro.

Map of Bocas del Toro.

We took some of the down time (while it rained) to work on more projects.  A few months ago, I replaced the helm seat back covers with a tan sunbrella that did not match the rest of the cockpit sunbrella.  Long story short we ordered 15 yards of the wrong “tan” back in St. Maarten.  We used the majority of this fabric for new rain shades to cover our phifertex sun shades.  Anyway, I had wanted to change them out to blue to match the rest of the boat. Yes, a total frilly, girly thing, I know!

We also needed to do some paperwork with the government of Panama.  You are supposed to get a “zarpe” each time you leave a port in Panama.  Our Zarpe had us going to Linton Bay/Portobello so technically we should have gotten a new Zarpe to San Blas, then another one to Bocas del Toro.  We sort of missed those steps.  So, we went into Port Authority to get a new Zarpe to Panama City so our agent can clear us out of the country once we transit the canal.

The port authority agent was off over the weekend, then they took Monday-Wednesday off for Carnival so we had to wait 5 days before making the visit.  The first man was a little put out that we did not follow the rules and told us we had to go back to Portobello to get a new Zarpe (that is well over 200 miles away) – yikes that sucks!  But he then said that this was not his department and we had to go to another department down the hall.  So, we did.

This lady could not have been nicer!  She was all ready to give us our new Zarpe until we told her we would not be leavinft, drat.  Well that is a Sunday and they are not open and if we came on Saturday it would cost us overtime.  So, we changed our departure date to 2/24 and told her we would see her on 2/23.  Done!

Next, we needed to go to the airport to see an Immigration officer.  We entered the country on a Panamanian Mariners Visa which was good for 90 days.  That visa is set to expire on 6 March, the same day that we will be transiting the canal.  You are only allowed to renew the visa the day before or the day of.  If you come after your expiration date it is $50 per person late fee.

We can’t go the day before as we have guests and are supposed to be staging for the transit.  And we can’t go the day of as we will be in transit.  The immigration offices are in Colon or Panama City which is a taxi ride so it looks like we will have to pay the late fee.  Bummer!g the Bocas until 2/26.  She said we had to come back the day before we left.

It was raining a lot here, so we got productive and started working on multiple projects.

One of Matt’s first sewing projects was a cover for our man overboard horse shoe.  He did a great job considering he had no pattern.  In addition, he made it while at home and the horse shoe was on the boat.  But, it was in grey fabric and needed an update so I replaced it with a red cover.

In the photo below you will see the pattern for the man overboard horse shoe, and the new helm seat rail covers.

Two new projects complete.

Two new projects complete.

The boat came with hoakie screens for the salon hatches but they are difficult to put in and didn’t stay up well.  They are very useful to keep the bugs and no see-ums out of the boat – especially since these two hatches are always open.

Top image is Matt building a new frame for the screens using the pvc we bought for the ceiling.  The bottom image shows the old ugly screens.

Window hatch screens.

Window hatch screens.

New screens complete.  The problem is that the no see-um screens don’t let much air in so now Matt wants to make two more sets with normal screens.

No see-um window screen

No see-um window screen

Projects completed and or 75% done in Bocas Town:

  • Make new helm seat back covers – blue sunbrella, done.
  • Sew new man overboard ring cover – red sunbrella (see note below). done.
  • Build new salon hatch screens (in progress)
Sugar Shack Puerto Obeldia

Adventures Clearing into Panama

We woke up in the peaceful, serene bay of Puerto Carreto to the sounds of nature. It was delightful, but we had to clear into Panama, so we left and motored the 8 miles to Puerto Obaldia. A local named, Victor Luna helps cruisers with the clearance process for $20. We had a WhatsApp number (because all islanders are on WhatsApp) but without wifi that number is useless. Matt the persistent and patient one in our group, kept searching for wifi, and finally was able to get something off of GoogleFi which enabled us to make a call. The woman who answered told us that she expected to see Victor at 12n and would send a message. We arrived at 10am.

Our friend who gave us Victor’s info, said that sometimes it’s easier to flag down another panga driver and ask them to get Victor. So, after waiting over an hour we did just that. A panga driver was heading into town so I jumped up, whistled, and waved him over. To our surprise, when I asked “conoce Victor” (translation “do you know Victor”) he said “me” how ironic – what luck!

We grabbed our paperwork, hopped into his panga, and headed to the Panama shore for the very expensive cruising permit we so desired. First stop, police station at the entrance of town. It was a makeshift “office’ that reminded me of part of a fort with no doors and long rectangle windows to stick weapons out and hide from incoming fire. He was pleasant enough, asked all the normal questions, verified stamps in our passports. The dates in our passports were different than the exit date on our Zarpe which caused a little confusion. They informed us several times, we must stop back by the police before leaving and after all the paper work was complete. UNDERSTOOD.

Next up immigrations. They need two copies of everything: boat paperwork, zarpe, passports (need two more copies of everything for the cruising permit). Victor took us by the copy place and for $3 we got our first set of 10 copies. Victor as a tour guide/agent is awesome, the down side is it’s all in Spanish and a long, slow process. The immigration office and cruising permit take the longest and require a substantial amount of patience.

At port authority you meet Victor Oreto, Victor Luna’s nephew who is the port captain. This guy can stamp paperwork like no tomorrow. 7+ copies of each of the 5 documents that get stamped twice including the police copies. We also had the added pleasure of clearing in on a national holiday – Mother’s Day which added an additional $40 to the total fee. For some reason, Matt had to pick a Zarpe location of either Puerto Lindo or Puerto Portobello even though the Zarpe is supposed to be good for all of Panama. Guessing it will become apparent when we get the Zarpe for clearing out.

During our waiting periods I captured some photos of Puerto Obeldia, Panama:

Church at Puerto Obedalia.

Church at Puerto Obedalia.

School at Puerto Obedalia.

School at Puerto Obedalia

After we were all done, we head back to the police hut to make sure our passports are stamped. They wanted to come and inspect the boat which was fine, but first they wanted us to move the boat. We had anchored out a bit and they wanted the boat directly across from their dock.

Sugar Shack only a few meters away, but police asked us to move closer.

Sugar Shack only a few meters away, but police asked us to move closer.

Victor our guide and driver.

Victor our guide and driver.

So, Victor brought us back to our boat where we moved it a whopping 200 meters. Wayne stayed on the boat and Matt and I jumped back into Victor’s panga, and back to the police hut to get our passports. We waited, patiently. Then back to the boat, the inspection was routine, but it’s been a 3-hour long process and our smiles were starting to fade. All is good. After $198 for the cruising permit, $315 for immigration, $40 for Victor (since we had so many back and forth trips) we had our boat paperwork, stamps, and cruising permit.

Since our clearance process into Panama took a lot longer than we expected, we had to shift our plans. We still wanted to arrive at the next stop during daylight, so we decided to head to Puerto Escoses, 25 miles away.

Puerto Escoses is a pretty bay that is well protected from the sea. We arrived at sunset in time to hear the orchestra come alive from the jungle. There were many sounds we could not make out, a sort of howling or something gave us pause about exploring the shoreline. But with no other man-made lights, we had a perfect view of the stars, planets, and constellations. It was extremely peaceful and gorgeous.

Puerto Escoses

Puerto Escoses

Puerto Obeldia proved to be a great clearance port.

Aruba Bound

The time had come to leave Bonaire (“again”) and it was much harder the second time around.  Matt and I had been here close to 70 days, met a lot of good friends, got into a comfortable routine, accomplished a lot of projects, and dove a lot of beautiful sites.  But we needed to head to Aruba.

On Friday, Jane, Cindy, and I went on our normal early morning walk and had planned to end it at Gio’s Gelataria and Cafe.  As we finished our 5 mile walk, we padded into Gio’s all nice and sweaty. To my surprise, all of our spouses were there awaiting our arrival for an impromptu going away party.  Jane and Cindy brought brownies, provided a super cool Bonaire hat, and stunning photo cards.  It was so sweet and touching and made me feel so incredibly blessed to have met such caring and generous friends.

Bonaire at Gio's

Going Away Celebration with Gelato

Gio's in Bonaire

Walking group with Priscilla at Gio’s

After a full day of cleaning and preparing to leave, we headed to dinner with our friend’s on Ad Astra: Eric, Max, and Kyle.  We went to Blue Garden, the Brazilian place which was a fabulous night of tasty food, great company, and lively conversation!  Unfortunately, I did not manage to get a group shot – slacker that I am!

It was time to go as our good friends from Texas (Shawn and Sharon) are due to arrive in Aruba soon.  We decided that it would be best to leave Saturday around 1500 for the best weather and the best shot at arriving in the morning.  The weather apps and charts indicated a 12-14 hour downwind sail.  After a little mooring shuffle, we set off toward Curacao. Our plan was to sail over the western tip of Curacao to Aruba’s lower tip.

Matt expertly set our big spinnaker and we were on our way.  At a comfortable 8-9 knots we were going to be really early and would arrive at dark, but we held our course and sail plan.  Matt set the fishing rods and teasers with the hope of catching some fresh fish, we ate dinner, and got ready for the night sail.

Spinnaker Sail

Spinnaker Sail on our way to Aruba

After several hours, we decided that we could not hold the course as we were heading directly for Curacao.  So, we took the kite down and put up the main canvas with one reef in the main.  At least now we should be able to point better and go around Curacao rather than through it.

I don’t do well at night when I cannot see the horizon, so I decided to take the first down shift to catch a few zzz’s.  The hope was to have the moon come out to light our way.  However, after a few hours, Matt was still going strong and told me to sleep some more. This routine happened several times.

During this time, Matt had turned on the engines when the wind died, then turned them off again when the wind returned.  Lots of sail tweaks, but maintained course.

It was not until 0400 that the moon finally came out, as a sliver, barely illuminating our path.  I finally took the helm and gave him a small reprieve. Normally I am not this useless on a night passage so it felt good to be at the helm for a small bit.

We arrived at 0830 just in time to clear in.

Aruba

Arriving Aruba – Paardenbaai Key

We had received some good intel about the check in process and even received a photo of the dock where we had to meet customs and immigration.

On the way to the dock you pass by the cruise ship terminal between the cruise ships and the reefs. Makes for an interesting passage.

Passage between cruise ship and reef

Passage between cruise ship and reef

We had heard the dock is hard on your boat as they have large, black tires which often mark up your hulls.  But evidently, enough sailors complained so they put out a 40′ section of plywood between the tug boat landings.

Aruba customs and immigration dock

Customs & Immigration Aruba

Aruba customs and immigration dock

Sugar Shack is too long for the plywood area, but we managed to avoid the tire marks.

Aruba customs and immigration dock

Local official helped tie us off at the dock

Matt had a good plan, we approached the concrete wall, on the port side, in between two tug boats slowly to get a look at it.  We then passed it and circled back to have a starboard approach.  Just as we were approaching, and I was preparing to jump off, an official hopped out of his car to catch our lines – yeah!

The officials were super nice, very friendly, and extremely professional.  They come aboard, hand you the paperwork, leave and wait for you to finish completing it.  Then they take all of your paperwork and passports back to their office to copy it.  Kind of weird arriving into a new country and handing your passports off to someone you don’t know and they drive off.  But they came back.  They did a quick check of the boat, processed our paperwork, and gave us some advice on anchorages.

After we were legal, we decided to head to the anchorage in front of the hotel row to check it out.  We did a drive by and then turned around to park Sugar Shack in the airport anchorage, Paardenbaai Key.  As we were getting ready to drop the hook, we received a call on the VHF radio and a friend of ours, Barry on “White Shadow” from Curacao was here – giving us a welcome.

More from Barry, Adventures of an old Sea Dog later.