Panama Canal Here We Come


“I’m looking forward to the prospect of civilization” announced Tom as we sailed away from the San Blas islands en route to Portobelo. After three months of almost ideal weather conditions in that ideal, isolated archipelago, just so we wouldn’t rest on our laurels, Mother Nature slammed us with portentous, charcoal smeared skies, deafening thunder, lightning and torrential rain, curtains of rain (enough to fill our tanks to the brim), three days of it.

We waited patiently for the system to pass and were rewarded with clear skies and 15 knots of northeast breeze for our 54 mile passage to mainland Panama. Perfect. Now 54 miles might not seem like a ‘big dealio’ but recall that since anchorages are so close together in Kuna Yala, we’d been doing day hops of only five miles on average. A fifteen mile day was a major event, so when we realized it was a whopping 54 miles to Portobelo, we thought Whoa, major passage! Okay, I am sometimes given to hyperbole.

Another fitting comment came forth from Tom as we were nearing our destination: “What’s more fun than a landfall?!” Those were my feelings too as Feel Free made her way into the wide and lovely harbour enveloped by sparkling, luxuriant hills, old forts overrun by centuries old foliage and funky, colourful buildings, a church spire, a winding path. No wonder old Chris Columbus dubbed it Portobelo, “beautiful port” when he discovered it in a hellacious storm, apparently by accident, with his weary crew back in 1502. What a marvellous sight it must have been for them when the storm lifted, just as it was for us more than 500 years later.

One major difference now from the day Columbus arrived though, is the presence of boats big and small, and lots of them, punctuating the entire large harbour; boats getting ready to head through the Canal and then on to cross the Pacific, or up north to Isla Providencia, Honduras, Mexico or Florida, commercial cargo boats destined for Colombia or the Caribbean islands, boats that have been there for years, lying derelict, unattended.


The old Customs House museum, like an elegant but aging grand dame of the Renaissance in her fraying finery, was where we learned of Portobelo’s fascinating history.

Because of its convenient location and magnificent harbour, it was chosen in 1586 as the Caribbean trans-shipment center, becoming one of the most important sites for transferring South and Central American riches.

Fleets of galleons carrying tons of plundered gold and silver flowed from Portobelo to Seville, the commercial capital of the Spanish empire. For a century, more than one third of the world’s gold passed through Portobelo and not surprisingly, the town was the constant target of bloody pirate attacks. Henry Morgan and Frances Drake were probably the most famous of them all.

During the high season, crowds of traders, soldiers and fortune seekers swarmed the streets at the world’s largest trade fair. It became notorious as a dangerous town, a “hideaway for thieves and a burial ground for pilgrims”. Tropical epidemics resulted. According to legend, one fleet brought in approximately 4,000 men of which about 500 died in two weeks’ time.

A rather ramshackle little town is what we found on shore, a forlorn, tired place in need of repair. Walking the storied cobbled streets, you feel its former glory is sadly, dead and gone. Cheerful murals decorate houses and buses though and people are mostly friendly, welcoming.


According to legend, one fleet brought in approximately 4,000 men of which about 500 died in two weeks’ time.


We learned that the rites and beliefs of the Portobelo people of African origin are different from those in other parts of rural Panama. The “congo” ritual is an Afro-Panamanian tradition that reflects the adaptation of the slaves to their coastal-jungle environment. We were sorry we missed the fantastic folk theatre that takes place here ‘en plein air’, a delirious expression of songs, dances and theatrical performances.

Shooting the breeze with some of the old salts of Portobelo was part of everyday life while there. Dave of the sailboat Eileen has been in Panama for six years and is setting up a consignment shop in the “to be established in the near future” Yacht Club, and WOW, does he ever have a lot of tales to tell. Tom and I sat mesmerized, for hours, listening to his stories of his lifetime at sea, stories of murder, shipwrecks, buried treasures, groundings, you name it. He never runs out. “Wait til I have a few drinks, then the real juicy ones come out” he teased. Captain Jack’s is the newly finished local watering hole catering to backpackers and yachties and there we hung out for internet, book exchange, laundry, happy hours and the occasional meal (my birthday dinner!). We were back in “civilization” again!

An easy 20 mile beam reach brought us to our next anchorage off Club Nautico which is a just a stone’s throw away from the infamous town of Colon. I say infamous because Colon has a serious reputation for being a “bad ass” town, dangerous, dirty and stinky. For a long time I’d been dreading our arrival there. We knew we had to spend some time there as it’s where we were to haul out and it’s where you go before entering the Panama Canal. So, it is hard to avoid. Cruiser friends had given us countless warnings and tips: “don’t ever, ever walk by yourself; don’t ever, ever walk around at night; always take a taxi wherever you go; if you buy things and carry them, use see-through plastic bags so any would-be muggers can see they are not valuable; never carry a purse; carry money and valuables like passports in a money belt, on your person, hidden; be careful especially in the bus station and the vegetable and fruit market where muggers attack in broad daylight.” And the list goes on.

The anchorage by Club Nautico is a bit of a circus. You certainly don’t have to go anywhere for your entertainment. Just sit in your cockpit and let the show begin. Cruise ships, megalithic monsters towering over you and freighters and container vessels come and go constantly as do pilot boats, zooming around the anchored boats like so many bumper car drivers at a country fair, sometimes hollering at you to move.

It’s a designated anchorage yet they think they have the right to kick you out! One poor boat was rudely awakened at 0300. The stunned yachties did re-anchor feeling they had no alternative. The so called “Club” is anything but. There is a dinghy dock for which you pay $5. No problem. It’s security. They want to charge you $20 to use the facilities. What facilities? Oh, there’s a shower (open air hose) and you can obtain drinking water (from the same hose, we didn’t need it). There is a bar of sorts, but, well, it didn’t look appealing. The Restaurante Arrecife, on the same grounds, is very nice, air-conditioned, with wi-fi and a very good, reasonably priced menu, highly recommended. And, there’s a small super-mercado and plaza within walking distance. Great. But, DON’T WALK THERE! they told us. We did, with no problemo. But coming back to Feel Free, with backpacks full, and no see-through bags, we did succumb to the warnings and took a taxi. “It’s not worth it” warned someone we met in the supermarket. “I’ve lived here for thirty years. I know what I’m talking about. Trust me.” We took his word for it.

The Club Nautico anchorage is a good place to get your boat ready for the transit through the Canal. We watched others as they set up their tires and lines in anticipation of the big event.

Our plan was to haul out at Shelter Bay Marina, a half hour away, so we used our time to ready Feel Free for that event as much as we could while at anchor, removing, folding and stowing sails, deflating and stowing dinghy, life raft, and other paraphernalia, flushing outboard with fresh water, changing motor oil, etc. etc. By doing these things on the water, we could minimize the amount of time on the hard in the dusty boat yard, before leaving Feel Free on her own again, in dry storage, for another short spell. Our turn for the Canal will come soon enough.