Monday, 10 March 2014

Panama to Ecuador

Approaching Las Perlas Islands
We set off from Las Playitas anchorage , Panama City at 7.30 am on 15th February for  Contadora island in the Las Perlas archipelago some 40 miles away . We motored through a sea of container ships and tankers all awaiting their slot through the Panama Canal .

At midday the wind arrived and we had a lovely beam reach all the way into our anchorage on the south side of the island. We were accompanied by scores of Pelicans, all fishing off the islands. 
Our flying escort to Contrdora

Condatera used to have a native Indian population, but they disappeared with the arrival of the conquistadores, who hunted them down with dogs. It is now a playground for rich Panamanians who come over in large motor boats and go sport fishing. On the island is a big hotel that is often used for hosting South American peace conferences. Security is so much easier on an island!
Restaurante Romantica

We dinghied ashore to a beautiful palm tree lined tropical beach, bought perishables at the local store at twice the panama price, and after a swim had dinner at the Restaurante Romantica, where you could sip your drinks to the sound of breakers on the beach. The restaurant was run by a Frenchman in his fifties who had shoulder length hair with a headband, a fashionable tropical shirt and, although he looked a bit of a poseur, provided a very good meal.

In the morning we sailed 20 miles to an anchorage inside Cana Island on the Isla del Rey. The pilot and the Chart Plotter disagreed about the location of the rocks, so we went in gingerly at near to high water, dropped the hook and were mortified the next morning at low water to see a ring of completely uncharted rocks not very far from us. We were lucky. It was however a beautiful anchorage. The Indian village of La Esmeralda, as the name suggests famed for its pearls, lay 2 miles to the South and we were enveloped in sounds from the jungle .
Colin and Andrew went ashore to a nearby beach  returning with fresh coconuts. I put up our new hammock slung between the forestay and mast . The dinghy zoomed around taking photos and then quell horreur! the motor failed. Colin immediately stripped off, jumped in and towed the dinghy back to Kika. He said that next time he might think about putting the oars in the dinghy first as Andrew was quite a large chap to pull.
Never a moments rest!

Colin impersonating at tug!

We departed on our next 630 mile leg for Puerto Amistad, Ecuador first thing on 17th February . Nearly all the way we had ideal 15 -20 knot Northerly winds and a favourable current. Kika rolled along at 6-7 knots over the ground and her crew sat back and enjoyed the ride.

Peter with the improved fishing tackle, pulled in a mystery fish which tasted absolutely delicious and a large Spanish Mackerel  which recieved mixed reviews. The new Mark 2 fishing method involves stronger braided line, trailing a large lure along the surface, and using the line wound round the winch which goes zing when the fish takes. After playing the fish it is hauled in quickly gaffed if it's very big, and landed head down in a bucket. Veterano Osborne Brandy is then applied to its gills which knocks the fish out. It is then gutted and with Peters new filleting technique all the bones are removed. You can eat a bit straight away for fresh sushi,  marinade the fillets or just fry it in oil. It always tastes better than fish in a restaurant ashore.
Spanish mackerel

and an exceedingly tasty mystery fish!

Andrew and I have been taking daily sextant sites. We're pretty accurate with the noonday latitude but still have difficulty getting longitude from the forenoon site.
We've also started a Kika chess tournament with Colin firmly in the lead. Andrew is determined to beat him but Colin is relentless. In the evenings after dinner Pete's new supply of DVDs has rejuvenated the cockpit cinema.
Sail-in cinema

Spascky and Karpov take so long that the umpire drops off!

On day 5 we approached the equator and things changed. The sky went grey, the wind came round to the south on the nose and we experienced an adverse current of some 0.5 knots.  We crossed the equator at 9.30 in the morning. It was just like a day on the Irish Sea with Kika bumping and crashing into the sea and our progress slowed to 3 knots. Eventually the wind veered a bit and by motor sailing we were able to set a course just North of Bahia de Caraquez . We reached the anchorage off Bahia at 7 in the evening, having talked to another British yacht, Alba, which was just setting off for the Galapagos. They told us we had no chance of a pilot on the tide that evening, so we talked to Puerto Amistad on the phone and arranged one the next day. We could just see the anchor lights of an   American single handers yacht who was also waiting for a pilot. We dropped the hook with 40metres of chain and celebrated our arrival in Ecuador with a cold beer and dinner.

Our pilot, Pedro, arrived by launch the next morning. He was a little late and we set off at high water, rather than 1 hour before. The approach to the river is difficult. There are no buoys and constantly shifting sand bars. We grounded in mid channel,fortunately on some sand, and took advice from some local fishermen who guided us into deeper water. Even with a pilot on board it was a bit dodgy!
Pedro, our pilot, approaches.

The building that is Puerto Amistad.

Fore and aft mooring at Puerto Amistad

We moored up in the river on large fore and aft mooring buoys and dinghied ashore. Puerto Amistad is a great institution. It's run by an ex cruising sailor Tripp Martin who knows what everyone needs. His staff sort out the visas. Cold beers and good food are readily available. There's a book exchange , a lady who does laundry and loads of long distance cruisers who seem to have stayed for quite a while.

We've made friends with Ron Lucerne, a 62 year old Californian single hander who looks fit as a fiddle, still rock climbs and surfs on the big ones . He speaks fluent Japanese and Spanish and keeps two boats running by selling top dollar real estate to silicone valley high rollers for six months in the year. Honestly some people!
Our pal Ron

Bahia de Caraquez is a lovely unpretentious little town that attracts domestic tourists during the holidays. The people are mainly mesquitos, a mixture of South American Indian and Spanish. They are invariably friendly and helpful, laugh with us at our appalling Spanish and sell everything at ridiculously cheap prices. Diesel is $1. 07 a gallon! There's an interesting museum in town that displays some of the beautiful 2000 year old ceramic pottery of the Coastal Indians . They traded on sailing rafts with Balsa wood logs for floatation and there was a sophisticated trade in gold, minerals and goods all along the South American coast. 

We've been fixing a few systems. On passage we couldn't get any coastal radio stations. Andrew delved around in the stern locker and found that the antenna connection to the tuner had become disconnected, so we're hoping for improved reception!

We took the overnight bus inland to Quito. It only costs 10 dollars for a 9 hour journey in an air conditioned bus with reclining seats. Everyone was frisked before getting on the bus and I understood why when my iPad went on the floor and slid across the floor as we rounded some bends. I couldn't find it when we got off despite a thorough search of the bus. Malcolm remember some little toe rag scrambling around on the floor during the night. So apologies for the sketchy nature of this blog.

Quito is a spectacular city. It is situated on the equator at 2,800 metres above sea level, surrounded by a ring of mountains, so it is quite cold at night, which we were unprepared for. Our hotel, the Portal de Cancuna, run by the delightful Sonia Boscketti and her friendly staff was situated in the heart of the old town built by the Spanish. The colonial architecture is impressive. In pre Spanish times it was the headquarters of the Incas. There was a long conflict between the Incas and the Spanish . After a stalemate Pizzaro the conquistador invited the Inca king to a summit conference. He then slaughtered all the kings attendants and demanded gold for a ransom for the king. When the gold arrived he had other ideas and put the king on trial for incest. It was common Inca practise to marry close relatives. The king was duly executed and Quito is full of ornate gold painted Catholic churches built on Inca holy sites
Interior shot of our B&B

Church San Francisco

The Cathedral, a Gothic monstrosity

It glitters, is it gold?

Kika's crew salute the president!

El Presidente Correos

In the streets there were many Indian ladies wearing pleated skirts, shawls, their waist length hair in a ponytail and a pork pie hat on their heads. They were selling alpaca scarves and shawls as well as fruits and vegetables. They seemed to be towards the bottom of the social spectrum. 

We passed the Presidential palace and saw the president arrive. He was a big man, full of charisma . He waved happily at the crowd who seemed to genuinely like him. Ecuador has a chequered political history . It borrowed heavily after discovering oil and when the oil price crashed, their currency, the Sucre, collapsed under huge foreign debt with Presidents coming and going almost every year. Political demonstrations and coups were the norm, and the country has had a number of new constitutions. The last one was in 2004. The currency is now the American dollar.

The current President has been there for some time. He is a socialist who has started a number of programs for the poor and has invested in infrastructure  for the country. He irritates the Americans playing host to Julian Assange, of wiki leak fame in London, and is accused of being Ecuador's  Hugo Chavez. However most people think he's done a good job.

We passed the time happily between shopping, visiting museums and art exhibitions including some devastatingly powerful press pictures from the conflict zones of the world and the House of General Sucre . He was Simon Bolivars general who liberated Quito from the Spanish in the 1820s, defeating them in a decisive battle. The house is a pleasant building on two floors with a central courtyard surrounded by elegant verandas. There were portraits of the general and his associates who were clearly locally born upper class revolutionaries. It's always the intelligentsia who start all the trouble !

Colin very kindly returned to Bahia to meet Ceri Roberts (my old pal from Medical School and fellow ENT surgeon) while Andrew, Peter and I  took a two hour bus ride to Mindo in the rain forest to see the birds. It was predictably raining the afternoon we arrived , so apart from watching the beautiful humming birds at a feeding centre, we saw just one white headed wagtail in two hours with a guide. He was given his marching orders. The following morning we took a ride up the mountain to the zip wire ride across the forest canopy. There's a circuit of ten or so cables and you hook on and whizz over the trees. One or two members of the crew tried compromising positions to speed things up. Our group of kikas crew and some Ecuadorians consisted almost entirely of engineers, doctors and medical students... must be something about zip wires. It was great fun.
Humming birds at Mindo.

buggering about on the zip wire!

A more conventional approach
Crew happy for the skipper to go head first!

We returned to Quito where we said goodbye to Malcolm who is flying home via Madrid. He admitted to having a web cam of the Panama Canal in his bedroom at home, so we're eager to know whether it will be switched off now he's featured on it. We took the cable car ride up to the volcano above Quito but emerged to thick mist and no view. It was just like being back in North Wales on a bad day. The night bus ride back to Bahia turned into a bit of an epic when 2 hours after Quito we sat in stationary traffic for 2 hours before turning back to Quito after a presumed landslide. After 14 hours on the bus we emerged in Bahia dazed, but relieved to be there, and met Ceri who had had an equally tricky time coming from Guayanquil. He ended up in an old taxi that just about staggered into town.
Overloaded dingy delivers drinking water. 

We've had a  great time in Bahia. The locals are universally friendly and helpful and many of the sailing community have been here for some time. As a result we were sent up to a nature reserve run by Marcelo and his father before him. 
We arrived at 6.30 am and walked on a trail through the forest where we saw huge numbers of colourful butterflies. A flying moth called the devils horseman that attacks tarantula spiders by jumping on their backs and injecting poison. Numerous birds including parrots and a nightjar that lays it's eggs on the ground. Marcello explained that Bahia lies at the junction of the cold air coming up on the Humbolt current from the South and the El Ninya warm air current from the North. As a result there are different micro climates within a small area . One can go from tropical forest , to hot arid areas, to marine marshland in a few hours with the animal and plant life to match.
We were particularly taken with a tall tree that started life as a cactus and through a process of evolution had developed leaves at the top so it could photosynthesise. The spiny stem gradually changed into a green bark and the tree stood over 100 feet tall and was some 200 years old.
We had breakfast with Marcello and his family of volunteers one of whom was a botanist trying for the first time to catalogue some of the flora and fauna in Ecuador and develop a guide for interested tourists.
We moved on to our friend Suzy's house. She is an Australian local business woman who has built a fine house almost entirely out of bamboo. If you spit a bamboo cane with a machete ,take out the core and flatten it , it makes great boarding for both exterior and interior panels , with ventilation between them. She had just used her local handyman and his mates to build it as they could turn their hands to anything - rather like North Wales.

We've had the bottom of the boat scrubbed by Carlos and his mate. I don't know how they did it as I went down to clean the propellor and with all the silt coming down the river I could only see 6 inches in front. The winds are very light for the Galapagos so the foredeck is stacked with extra fuel cans. We're somewhat apprehensive about the Galapagos as yachties are being stung with new regulations and charges by the day, however it's right on the route and we want to see the turtles, so we plan to sail on Tuesday 11 March when there will be 5 knots of wind on the beam.

Marcello and the Seno tree

Forest finche

Suzy in her bambo home

Lift off! ...We're off to the Galapagos!