Journal 24; Panama City to Ecuador
November 26, 2009 - January 16, 2010
After spending several months in the San Blas Islands of Panama, where the most sophisticated means of transport is a panga with a 15hp Yamaha engine, arriving  Panama City was like returning to ‘the real world and civilization’. Panama City, with its population of 2 million and Miami Beach skyline, offers a vast variety of inexpensive restaurants, goods & services.  It has a modern shopping mall that’s as big as most in the U.S. that has the basic necessities; like Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren and Dunkin’ Donuts. I went to an emergency room at a modern hospital for an earache.  There was no waiting and the charge was $40.  There are some things in the U.S. we don’t miss.  We both got our teeth cleaned for $20 each and afterward felt that we paid too much for the assault.
Getting around Panama City is cheap and easy.  Cabs will take you most places for less than $5 and the bus system that we use cost only $.25/destination.  The buses, called Red Devils, are retired U.S. school buses that have been reincarnated as roaring demons with interesting paint-jobs.  The front windshield has the destination painted in the outside top half with the inside elaborately decorated, the engines are loud, the speakers can be deafening and its best to avoid rush-hour when the buses are packed with people.  But we have traveled over most of Panama City for $.50 each.
We anchored off the former U.S. controlled Canal Zone.  I’m sure that former residents of the Canal Zone would be disappointed to see the housing upkeep has deteriorated, however most of the offices are well maintained and are now used by various government services.  Unless authorized, Panamanians were not allowed inside the Zone and they still get a kick out of driving through it.

The anchorage here is very  open and, unlike many places we anchor, is used by big commercial vessels such as this fishing boat and large barges.
One day after returning from an all day shopping trip, a squall suddenly developed.  As the winds increased, to our horror we discovered a huge unattended barge previously anchored about ½ mile away was dragging its anchor and rapidly headed towards El Regalo. I immediately started the engine and JoDon started picking up the anchor which meant heading toward the barge.  Fortunately the chain came up without a hitch and we safely moved away.  The barge’s anchor soon took hold, exactly where El Regalo was originally anchored.  It was certainly a case of ‘someone’ looking out for us. We don’t even want to think about the damage that could have been sustained if we had still been away shopping  Several days later, local gossip was that a dead man with a bullet hole was found on board?????
Eating in Panama City is varied and cheap.  We avoid most American fast foods, rarely eating at the omnipresent KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and Burger King.  For Thanksgiving we enjoyed roasted duck from Panama’s Chinatown. We reminisced about Hong Kong over Dim Sum at a traditional Chinese restaurant.   We enjoy grocery shopping in Indian and Oriental shops for specialty items.  Panama must have a large and concentrated Jewish population because there is a section of the city with kosher delis, specialty shops and a large kosher grocery store.  It certainly had the largest collection of Israeli and New York wines that we had ever seen. 
Panamanians are very friendly people and Panama is safe, at least during the day.  We are told by the locals that some neighborhoods are infested with gangs and illegal Colombians and the local police have lost control.  But, we have not seen any of this so we know Panama to be a nice city.  Our only complaint is the air pollution.  Our brand new canvas now has black streaks throughout from the smog. 

The weekend before Christmas was quite an event in downtown Panama.  Since November they had been setting up booths, stages and huge Christmas displays along the ocean front boulevard, Balboa Avenue.  On Saturday night we made a rare venture out at night to see the Christmas lights and have dinner.  When we arrived we discovered Balboa Avenue was closed for a series of parades that included Paso Fino horses, bands, fireworks, etc.
It was a family event with about 100,000 people strolling around.  It was very well patrolled and there was no alcohol sold.  The stages had an eclectic mix of performers and our favorite was the belly dancers. We’re not sure what they had to do with Christmas but it was entertaining.  We chose King Neptune with Christmas decorations as our "where were you in 2009?" Christmas card.
After spending six weeks here we’re shaking our heads trying to figure out how we spent that much time….  We replaced some of our navigation components that were damaged by an electrical storm and sent two items back to the U.S. for repair. Fortunately both items were repaired and shipped to Panama hassle free.  We now have everything working again with out too much expense.

We took advantage of Panama’s low cost of provisioning by shopping in a warehouse grocery store.  We expect the French Polynesia to be expensive so we bought as much dry goods as El Regalo could store, about $1600 worth of ‘stuff’.  Getting it all back onboard via the dinghy was an adventure and somehow we got everything into a new home.
One of our last requirements was to officially check out of Panama by going to the Balboa Harbormaster and immigration.  Although in many ways Panama is sophisticated, we got the royal Third World Run-around.  After being sent to three wrong buildings in and around the waterfront, we found a Panama Canal worker who drove us around (in his work vehicle) and even he got frustrated with the bureaucracy.  But, there was a happy ending and we gave the gentleman a generous tip for his assistance.
Leaving Panama City we had a lovely day sail to Las Perlas Islands, Panama, about 40 miles offshore.  En route we had some good luck catching three Mahi-Mahis.   We arrived on New Years Eve to an empty anchorage and were treated to a short but professional fireworks display.  The following day a large contingency of local Panamanians rafted their boats close to El Regalo. We had a very entertaining day listening to their live band, which at times included many of the boat boys playing percussion instruments. 
The Perlas anchorages were so tranquil and beautiful that we extended our stay to include time to varnish El Regalo while taking in the bucolic wonders.  We were treated to a VERY active display of jumping rays. They would fly out of the water and then belly flop onto the surface creating a loud slapping sound. There were large schools of them and we would hear them hitting the surface well into the night. We saw over a hundred jumps and only once did we see one do a flip in the air as you can see in the last photo with its tail above its body. While doing chores and watching rays, we closely monitored the weather looking for a good weather window south to Ecuador, about a five day journey known for its prevailing southerly winds and a lot of motoring.
With predicted 20 knot north winds for our southbound trip, we weighed anchor on Sunday, January 10th.  Winds were light when we first departed so we raised the spinnaker with no mainsail since we were sailing almost dead-downwind.  Our sailing instructor, Matt, stressed to us the rule for reefing (making your sails smaller when winds are getting stronger) as, “When you ask yourself, ‘do you think its time to reef?’ It’s time to reef.”  The winds picked up and JoDon asked “Do you think its time to take down the spinnaker sail?”  We didn’t.  Five minutes later we knew we had made a mistake.  After a few smashed toes and rope burned fingers we discovered that our spinnaker can also become a sea anchor.  Not good.  We got the sail back on board undamaged, can’t say the same for our pride, and certainly no photos.

We replaced the spinnaker with our staysail and jib sail, still without the main sail.  During the night the winds continued to increase to a steady 35-40 knot winds.  The seas also continued to build with the strong winds so we reefed in our jib sail to stabilize El Regalo.  One four hour boat speed average was 9.25 knots, which is very fast for El Regalo.  Once when sliding down a big wave our speed over ground measured 13 knots, way too fast.  Long night made short: it was like sailing with our hair on fire, we didn’t break anything and although intimidating with high seas and strong winds, we always felt safe.  In a good 24 hours of sailing we travel about 150 nautical miles.  On this trip, we made 193 nautical miles the first 24 hours and we do not hope to repeat this record in the near future!
On Wednesday, January 14th we crossed the equator for the first time while aboard El Regalo.  As cruisers, it was a special event with calm and flat seas so we celebrated by popping the cork on a bottle of champagne to toast King Neptune and celebrate the moment.

We timed our arrival to Bahía de Caráquez, Ecuador with high tide.  The entrance to the bay is so shallow and tricky that having a pilot on board is mandatory.  The pilot charged $30 for his services and it was some of the best money we’ve spent.

We are now at Puerto Amistad Yacht Club and plan to leave El Regalo behind while traveling in the Ecuador Highlands.

Next destination: The Galápagos Islands.

Fair winds,
Brian & JoDon