7-15-2017 – Costa Rica to Panama

Our last week in Costa Rica we spent in Golfo Dulce, the large body of water in the south of the country, between the Osa Peninsula and the mainland to the southeast. We made a circuit, visiting several anchorages in turn. We left the hidey hole of Golfito and traveled north to a corner where an American expat couple established a botanical garden over twenty years ago. Although it’s called Casa Orchideas, they also grow lots of other types of plants, including fruit trees and other trees, landscaping plants like ginger and birds of paradise, medicinal plants, etc. They had a couple of volunteers working for them the week we visited, and we chatted with them about their travels and their volunteering experiences. They told us about seeing snakes in the gardens and enjoying the bounty of the gardens, especially fruits. We came home with a fresh coconut and an armload of mangosteens, a dark globe of sweet, tangy joy. Kathy also got a fruit that we thought smelled like passionfruit but they called a Brazilian guava, which she used to flavor drinking water for a week. The coconut was the beginning of a love affair that we’ve developed. We have since purchased and scavenged coconuts from the beach, and we’ve been learning how to process them into their water, milk, cream, meat and flour. We’re putting coconut milk on breakfast cereal and using the flour in pancakes and sweetbreads. Our latest endeavor was a batch of chocolate ice cream – vegan style.

Casa Orchidea

It turns out that Eduardo is a “flexible vegan”, by which I mean that he prefers to eat in a vegan way, but isn’t rigid with those preferences – and certainly doesn’t impose them on others. Over the last two months while he’s been with us, our diets have drifted in that direction. We are enjoying different foods (like yuca, aka cassava and manioc) and flavor combinations (like avocado with sugar and cinnamon). Dan & Kathy are both intrigued at the idea of continuing along this path, but are not really interested in being card-carrying vegans. We’ll see what the future holds, but for now you can picture us enjoying rice&beans, hummus & homemade tortilla chips, or curried butternut squash on pasta. Our diets seem to change wherever we go and with whoever we invite into our lives, and that’s been one of the unexpected pleasures of taking on crew these last few months.

After visiting Casa Orchideas, we went to the northwestern corner of the gulf, dropped our anchor and headed ashore, hoping we could find a good hike into the hills. It turned out to be less of a coherent town and more like a wide spot in the road – with a surprising amoung of road noise! We walked up the road in search of a shop with produce and found that we had missed the veggie truck by a day. Although we spent an hour or so watching the locals working in their incredibly tiny fishing launches, we decided to move on.

We went south to Puerto Jimenez, the biggest town on the gulf. Although the guidebook said it could be difficult to anchor here because the bottom was uneven, we quickly found a perfectly suitable place. The next morning we went into town to explore and reprovision. We were tickled to find scarlet macaws squawking overhead in the power lines and monkeys frolicking in the trees on the edges of town. We found a nice grocery store and bought enough food to keep us fed for the next few weeks. We were loaded down for the walk back to the dinghy, but made it back to Lungta just moments before a deluge hit. Whew!

Kingfisher on the Pulpit

The next few days were a little crazy because of some timing issues. Our three-month visas were running out in a week, and there was a big swell coming into Pavones that would make for some good surfing for Eduardo. We decided to hop over to Pavones for a couple of days immediately, return to Puerto Jimenez for a day of hiking and then go back to Golfito to check out of the country. (This meant criss-crossing the gulf a couple extra times, not a big deal but a little silly on the map.) When we got to Pavones in the afternoon the swell was indeed large, making for an uncomfortable time on the anchor. By dinnertime we changed our plans again; the swell was just too big, both for surfing and sleeping comfortably. We started the motor and returned to Puerto Jimenez (in the dark).

We had a harder time finding an anchor spot than the first day; each time we thought we had found a good place the bottom came up too quickly. On the third (or fourth?) try, we ran aground. Ugh! It was almost low tide, and the water wouldn’t come up for a few hours. The bottom was soft, so we weren’t worried; it was just inconvenient. So we dropped our anchor and let out a bunch of chain, went to bed and planned to get up at 4am to reposition. When we awoke at 4am we didn’t find the conditions we expected. There was a strong wind which had pushed us off of the shallow spot that we had been stuck on earlier. We were now in deep water, without enough chain to keep us stationary. And we were moving towards a few other boats that were moored, unoccupied and unlighted. We started the motor and tried to raise the anchor, but then things took a turn for the worse. The windlass motor got a gremlin and wouldn’t pull the anchor up, so we spent a couple of hair-raising hours using the motor to avoid hitting the nearby boats but not being able to move far from where the anchor was rubbing along the bottom. Double-ugh! Once dawn arrived we pulled up the anchor manually, by hooking a line onto the chain and winching that line in, 15′ at a time. Eduardo did most of the hauling, Kathy managed the hook, and Dan kept the boat pointing in the right direction so that there was no additional force on the anchor. Then we moved the boat to a new location and tried to lower the anchor. This time the gremlin ran the motor in the wrong direction and wouldn’t stop when we let off the button – even when power was disconnected by removing the fuse! It ended up snapping a metal “key” that connects the motor to the shaft and provides a “weakest” point in the system, thereby preventing damage to other parts that would be even more difficult to replace. Triple-ugh! We quickly rigged up our secondary anchor and dropped it so that the boat was secured. Then we spent the better part of the day disassembling the windlass to replace that key. In the process we found that the roller chain that turns the shaft had broken, perhaps part of the original failure. We had to piece together a new section from spare links. Eventually we got it all back together again and the main anchor deployed before dark. It was a very long day! We never did identify the gremlin, but have a hunch that it might have been related to all of the rain that we had been getting; perhaps some water got into the electrical system and caused a short between the windlass and another device (most likely the bowthruster, which has its own battery bank).

The next day we went back to Golfito so we could decompress a bit and check out of Costa Rica before our visas expired. While we were there, an unusual ship came to town. It is a transporter of other boats. Although they are necessarily “smaller” boats, they are not all “small”; many of them were bigger than Lungta! We dinghied out to see them load a 40′ sailboat, but the process took longer than we were willing to wait. They already had at least 15 boats on deck, and they were preparing a spot to put another one. The cranes were huge, and so were the lines they were preparing! The boat that was being loaded was going to Vancouver, Canada.

A Boatload of Boats

Checking out of the county was a breeze. We had to stop at the Immigration office, the Customs office, and the Port Captain’s office, but everyone knew what they were doing and did it in a competent and friendly manner. (We’d heard some negative stories about checking in and out of Golfito, so were just a little nervous about what our experience would be like.) Before we left on our circuit of the gulf, we had given our friends on Freya some parts to use to repair their autopilot. They were thrilled when it all finally worked; so the next morning Rafa made a Spanish specialty dish for brunch: tortilla de patate. It’s kinda like an omelette with hearty chunks of potato and onion. It’s so nice to have friends! They’re almost ready to cross the Pacific to French Polynesia. We were torn between wanting to join them and wanting them to delay and go with us next year. 🙂

Very early the next day, Eduardo lowered his surfboard in the water and paddled over to Freya. They all motored down to Pavones for a day of autopilot testing and celebratory surfing. A couple of  hours later, after the sun and wind had  come up, we also pulled our anchor and put up our sails. We had a pleasant day’s sail down to Pavones and arrived in the early afternoon. We easily found Freya anchored a couple hundred yards from the surf break, and soon saw Eduardo – and both Marta and Rafa – paddling towards us. It was sad to wave one last goodbye to Freya, but perhaps we will catch up with them in the South Pacific next year. We did, however, manage to keep Eduardo! 🙂

The three of us sailed overnight, south to the end of a long narrow point and around to the other side – into Panama! We had a rollicking night, with frisky winds and choppy seas. We were all glad to drop anchor in Puerto Armuelles late in the afternoon, and we slept well. The next morning we checked in to Panama. Although the official charges were less than we’d expected – because they have recently allowed cruisers to get a regular (free) tourist visa instead of a special $100 cruising visa – we paid roughly $20 to 4 different officials that we later learned were improperly assessed, essentially charging us overtime service fees during normal business hours. They even wrote us official receipts for these charges. We have encountered very little graft in our travels to date, so our “radar” was not on.

We were hoping that Puerto Armuelles would be a population center where we could find some repair parts, especially a 24V inverter to replace the one that was damaged by lightning back in Quepos. It turned out to be a much smaller town than we’d expected, but many people pointed us to a nearby border town that they said carried many items at great prices. So the next day we caught a bus to Paso Canoas and went to see what we could find. The hour-long bus ride was unremarkable, but it was fun to be on the road for a change. The town was like your usual border town, except ever-so-much-more-so. In addition to the plethora of auto repair shops, barber shops and hole-in-the-wall eateries, there were malls, yes malls, with clothing, furniture, electronics, etc. Many of the stores straddled the border,and with entrances in both countries (and no officials checking paperwork). It seemed an odd arrangement. We looked hard for a 24V inverter, and managed to find one at the very end of the day. Yay! There was a crowd waiting for the same bus as us and there was some impatient jostling to get on, so there was standing room only, but we made it back before dark. It felt like a successful outing!

The weather in Panama seemed immediately distinctly different than that of Costa Rica, even though we were less than 50 miles away. We’ve read that the Osa Peninsula and Golfo Dulce have a climate of their own, and our experience sure seems to support that. Although it’s the rainy season in both places, the amount of rain in Costa Rica is dramatically higher. We were getting significant rain almost every day, and ever since we crossed into Panama we have only had rain for an hour or two at a time, and roughly every few days. There is some lightning during most of these showers, but not much. We had actually gotten happy with being able to capture rain into our water tanks and are now a bit disappointed that we aren’t getting that much any more. Poor Mother Nature, she just can’t please everyone!

We had enough of civilization, and decided to move on to a beautiful spot to play. The Secas Islands were just the ticket! We sailed overnight and dropped anchor first thing in the morning right near a pretty white sand beach. There were palm trees and craggy corners where the waves crashed majestically. We took the dinghy for a short “explore” of the area and were pleased to see lots of coral heads scattered around the white sand bottom. Our view included a land bridge between two small islands which disappeared during high tide. Eduardo was thrilled at the opportunity to bring his new drone ashore and fly it in a remote tropical setting, and got some very nice footage of the anchorage with Lungta and us snorkeling in it. Hopefully he’ll put together a fun video of our time together that we can share here. We spent a couple of idyllic days here, but were starting to feel the end of Eduardo’s time with us approaching so we moved on a little further south (actually, closer to east at this point).

Catching Some Dinner

We pulled into Bahia Honda, which is a fairly large bay with two areas that boaters anchor. One anchorage is near an island with a town of about 150 people, and the other is near the home of a family whose patriarch has been greeting cruisers for many years – you could call it Town & Country. 🙂 We arrived as evening was descending, and decided to anchor near the town first. Just after we got our anchor down, a panga driven by a surprisingly beautiful young man pulled alongside Lungta. He had a few fruits for sale and we happily purchased a bunch of bananas and a papaya from him. Before that transaction was done a second panga arrived on the other side of Lungta carrying a man, two children and another batch of fruit. We also bought some fruit from this guy and he stuck around for quite a while, chatting and periodically asking for various items that he needed. Before we cut him off, he had asked for some shoes, a hank of line, some gasoline, some AA batteries, children’s clothing, some cookies for the kids and some pencils for their school. During his stay the first guy left and a third panga arrived with a man and woman and two children. Again we bought some fruit and shared some cookies with the kids. This man was the son of Domingo, the patriarch that we had heard about from our guidebook and a few other cruisers. This last couple was curious to see the boat so we showed them around and they stayed to chat another half hour. We learned that almost all of the land surrounding the bay had been bought about a decade ago by a wealthy American. All of the landowners walked away with a fantastic sum of money, tens of thousands of dollars in hand at one time – except for Domingo, who felt his land was more important to him than money. Today it appears that most of that money has been spent. Everyone has a nice panga and a fairly new outboard. All three men had commented on our outboard motor, including asking how much it was worth, which had made us just a little bit uncomfortable, but this helped to explain that behavior. Apparently some people drank away much of their fortune and a few even spent it on drugs for a while. We didn’t see obvious signs of home improvements, but there was almost certainly a building boom in town for a while.

The next morning we visited the island and the town. There wasn’t that much to see. 🙂 It has a high point, perhaps 200 feet above sea level, which we walked up to, just because we could. There is a school there, but nobody there that Tuesday. We also visited the one store in town to get some veggies; all we came away with was a bag of potatos, a few tomatoes and a root that had an unfamiliar name. We spent the next week laughing about whether it was “yamay”, “maya”, “yuma”, “mama”, etc. (Later we found it again in a grocery store and learned that it’s “ñame”.) With nothing much to recommend it, we relocated to the spot on the other side of the bay, going around the island the long way to avoid uncharted and potentially shallow ground. As we arrived, Domingo came out in his kayak to greet us, and told us where we could anchor safely. (We had to go back out and around another islet to get to a deeper section with a flatter bottom.) Domingo had purchased a used generator unit which died after just a few hours of run-time. He was hopeful that we could help him figure out what went wrong. We spent 3 or 4 hours altogether (over 3 visits) opening it up, measuring voltages, and installing some spare parts that his friend had suggested might be the culprit, all to no avail. We were sad to disappoint Domingo, who is a very sweet man in his 80’s, with a crooked grin, a ready laugh, and a warm sense of companionship. Later the first afternoon a boat came to visit, and we met Domingo’s daughter Rosalin and her husband and 9-year-old son, both named Edwin. They invited Euardo out fishing in the morning. Although Eduardo didn’t catch any fish that day, he learned a lot about how to spear-fish. They gave us a few lobsters and we enjoyed a magnificent meal. We all went out fishing with them the next two days, with only marginal success, but the personal connection that was formed was much appreciated. We invited them to have dinner with us one night, and Edwin Jr was delighted to have an ice cream cone for dessert.

Rosalin & 2 Edwins

Just as we were returning from our last day’s fishing expedition with them, a fream storm kicked up. The wind howled, the rain came down in a torrent, the main sail somehow came partially unfurled and was banging and clanging in the strong gusts. At some point we realized that we were not exactly stationary, our anchor was dragging slowly but surely towards the far shore. We started up the motor and kept the boat in place for 15 minutes or so until the storm blew itself out. Whew! Rosalin said that she’d never seen anything like that before, and we learned later that Domingo’s corn had been flattened. We spent a few days here getting a couple of boat projects done (some more sail repairs and a new attempt to address the long-standing issue with our cuffs on the mizzen mast slipping down as the mast has shrunk over time), and then prepared to move on. It was hard to say goodbye to this sweet family, since it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear from them again. As we were pulling away, Edwin and Rosalin drove up in their boat to wave goodbye – and ask for a roll of toilet paper! What a different cultural norm than we are used to!

From Bahia Honda we made a short hop to the island of Santa Catalina. Eduardo was happy to visit another famous site, one where his father had actually visited many years ago (and broke a surfboard in two)! We tucked inside the island and found a nice place to settle in for a few days. There was already another sailboat there, but it appeared to be unoccupied. We dinghied out to give Eduardo a look at the site and figure out which break was likely to be the right one. It appeared that the most likely candidate was more than half a mile away. The swell was quite large, exciting but also a little intimidating. There was no one surfing, which was a bit surprising. The next morning we returned and eventually saw some surfers, so we dropped him off and went back a few hours later to pick him (and his happy smile) up. The swell for the rest of the forecast period was too big for his comfort level, so we only stayed a couple of days. One afternoon there was another freak wind-storm, similar to the one that we’d experienced in Bahia Honda. Again our anchor dragged under the forces of the sudden winds and we ran the motor to keep the boat in place until the storm blew over. This time there was so much rain that we couldn’t see the island for reference, and we were in a somewhat narrow channel so we didn’t have a lot of latitude. We felt for a moment as if we were driving blind, but quickly realized that our radar and compass told us all we needed to know. We ended up less than a quarter mile from where we began, but the nearby boat ended up in the channel more than half a mile from his original location. We were considering what we could do for him, but an hour or so later a panga with 3 men came out and towed the boat back to its spot. It was good to know that the owner had someone looking after the boat while he/they were away.

Santa Catalina Weather

Later that afternoon we visited the nearby beach on the little island and came away with 8 fresh coconuts that had fallen. We tried several techniques to remove the husks and eventually got them all down to the hard shell. We’ve been enjoying those coconuts for a couple of weeks now, opening one or two at a time, draining the sweet water and cutting out the meat. Often we blend a handful of the meat together with about the same amount of water, producing coconut milk that is good in most places that we had been using dairy milk before. We even made a batch of chocolate coconut ice cream, although admittedly we need to tweak the recipe a bit; although it’s quite tasty, the texture is not as creamy as we had hoped for. This is exciting, though, because it means that we can continue to enjoy (homemade) ice cream next year when we are in the islands of the South Pacific far from any dairies. (We’re spending more of our time anticipating that trip!)

Removing Husks

... is Hard Work

Our next stop came in a few hops, the first just 8 miles away. We’ve arrived in the Gulf of Montijo, which is a big body of water to the west of the last big peninsula before the Gulf of Panama. We stopped one night just inside the gulf, and motored the next day further “up-stream”. There was a strong current coming out, so we motored most of the way. We were just about a mile short of where we were headed when we hit a rock, hard, and came to a sudden, lurching stop. Ouch! Our chart showed us in 50 feet of water, but our depth sounder showed us in 9. There was a “reported” rock .15 miles away from where we sat unable to move – which was from 1953, long before the accuracy of GPS was available. It was scary as we checked all around the boat for water coming in, but fortunately found nothing. Also fortunate was that we were at nearly the lowest point in the tide for the month. In almost no time, we began to bob around (which made painful crunching, scratching sounds on the hull below). Within an hour we were floated up a few inches and were able to back up off the rocks and limp with our tail between our legs to the anchorage where we stopped for the night. It was still early in the afternoon, and we had time to pull out our dive gear and the snuba compressor so that we could jump in and inspect the damage to the hull. It isn’t pretty, and a fiberglass or wooden boat would probably have been ruined, but Lungta’s strong cement hull has once again come through wonderfully. There are many feet of scratched off paint – our newly applied bottom paint 🙁 – and perhaps 25 feet of the outer edge of the keel has scraped off cement as much as an inch deep and two inches wide. We may end up hauling out again in the Panama City area if we can find a place that can accomodate us (although a previous search when we were in Costa Rica didn’t look very promising). For now we are safe and dry. But we will have to continue cleaning the bottom more frequently because the damaged areas will be interesting to the critters who like to attach themselves to boat bottoms. The next day we again motored up-river as far as we thought we could go without bumping the (sandy) bottom. We’ve been anchored here for the last couple of weeks.

Bahia de Montijo


Subsistence Fishing

We’ve made a few excursions into the mangroves and the nearby town, but since this posting is getting long, I’ll wait until next time to tell you about this area. We expect to be here a while. This last month was exceptionally full of more extreme events, and I report them here because they’re part of the fabric of our lives. Rest assured that we are happy and healthy, and that the good things far outweigh the bad for us. I hope that each of you feels the same about your life – and if not, then it’s time to think about making some changes! 🙂

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