Ecuador

Ecuador was quite different from Colombia, much more arid countryside. Whereas Colombia had been predominantly green rolling hills, farms, pasture and crops, Ecuador was cactus, bare hillsides, deep river gorges and soaring peaks, here we were on the equator and the heat was quite intense unless at a high altitude. We had to be careful of the sun as the UV factor was off the scale and skin burned in minutes, despite our deep tans.
The Ecuadorian people were much more Indian and less Spanish in their origin than Colombians, the women dressed in their brightly coloured dresses topped by a felt hat. The men too were often dressed in traditional costume or sometimes in Stetson, jeans and high heeled boots. As a people they weren’t as friendly to us westerners as the Colombians had been and you had the feeling in visiting the country of a much more distant culture,
At 10.30 in the morning we arrived at the Ecuadorian border and took a taxi to border immigration which was 15 minutes ride away, after a quick clearance out of Colombia we then stood in line for half an hour to be stamped in to Ecuador. After we had cleared in we took another taxi to Tucan, the first town over the border, where we caught a very slow bus to the market town of Otavalo, passing through very arid mountains, lots of cactus, some flowering. 
We stayed in the Flying Donkey hostel (The flying donkey in Ecuador is the UK equivalent to the flying pig in UK) that evening we shopped and in the evening cooked spaghetti bolognese while chatting to the other inmates, some French people and a couple of Brit guys, Tom and Jake who were touring South America after a spell of teaching in China.
The next day Gill wanted to stay over to see the famous market in Otovalo, reputed to be the largest in South America, which turned out to be a big disappointment and nothing very special. I bought a Panama hat, ironically the real ones are made in Ecuador, to protect my ears, baseball caps are great but they don’t protect the ears and mine were getting a bit crispy.
The following morning we left Otavalo for Quito and a 2 hr bus ride. On arriving in Quito we were lucky to meet a local couple in the main bus terminal who showed us how to get across town on the metro bus to our Hostal Juana D’Arc in Santo Domingo Square. The Hostal had a rather grand entrance hall panelled in wood with a sweeping open wooden staircase rising two floors to where our room was. It was quite a hike up with heavy bags and then back down to the kitchen where we prepared our meals. The shower in the room we were first shown must qualify as the world’s smallest, it was much smaller than a telephone box and I couldn’t get in it. The second room we were shown had the world’s second smallest shower but I could get into it by squeezing in sideways. This had nothing to do with my size as I’m quite slim these days but rather the need to squeeze the shower into what had previously been a wardrobe.  
Quito is a vast city lying between high mountain peaks and runs along the valley floor at an altitude of 10,000 feet. It also has a very complicated bus service run by many different operators, it took us a few days to get the hang of who went where. We took a City Bus Tour on our first day which included the Panicillio a large hill overlooking Quito and the 100ft monument of the Virgin de Quito towering over the city. We climbed up the monument to the top and enjoyed great views over Quito.
The next morning we took a walking tour recommended in the guide book, we bought lunch at the Cafe De Teatro for $3 which consisted of soup, prawns and pudding and a drink of fresh juice. Eating out in Quito certainly wasn’t going to break the bank! We also wanted to go to Mitad del Mundo (centre of the earth) a monument which lies right on the Equator and about 2 hours bus ride out of town. Disaster struck though, in the crush Gill got on the bus but I was slowed by an old lady in front of me and the doors shut in my face so I had to catch the next bus hoping Gill would be at the next stop. She wasn’t so I stayed on the bus to the Northern terminus hoping she might be there but again she wasn’t. I assumed she had gone on to Mitag Del Mundo and so caught another bus for the hours journey there. By now it was 5pm and it was obvious that Gill wasn’t in Mitad Del Mundo either so I caught a bus back to Quito getting back at 7pm. Gill was very upset and worried about my late arrival, it got dark at 6.00pm and Quito is not the town to be wandering around in the dark. As it happened Gill had gone all the way to the north terminal and waited for me to arrive but somehow we had missed each other in the crowds.
We had a friendly bunch of Venezuelans staying in the Hostal with us who lived on a diet of hamburgers, tommy k, mayonnaise and crisps or fried spam rolls or frankfurters in French bread. We competed for space in the kitchen with them, us eating our normally healthy option and them with their fast food one but it was interesting to learn about their country and its issues.

The next day we went to the famous Campania de Jesus to see the fantastic gold work in the church, almost every surface is covered in gold leaf, it’s a stunning and a beautiful sight. When it was built in the 16th century of course gold was in plentiful supply in Ecuador but the cost must have been quite something even then. 
We then caught a bus to the museum of culture and I had my pocket picked on the way, I lost $30, my debit card and driving licence, we had been warned about thieves on the buses and I should have remembered to put it in my rucksack after paying our fares. Fortunately Gill had some cash with her to get us back to the hostel but it was nevertheless a disturbing experience and one that made me much more careful for the rest of our journey. In the museum they had put on an exhibition of modern art which was much better than other modern art exhibitions we’ve seen. A man in his 50’s came up to us while we were meandering around the gallery and asked us if we liked the paintings. Fortunately we said we did as he turned out to be the artist! He explained he had studied Goya and Velazquez at the Prada in Madrid who were his main influences it was interesting talking to him however we beat a hasty retreat when he tried to sell us some of his work. We excused ourselves by explaining we lived on a boat and had no space for paintings! 

We both liked Quito despite the light fingered nature of some of its inhabitants, there is a lot to see and do there although it is very noisy and busy some might say vibrant, but definitely an assault on the senses.
The next day we set off for the relative peace of Banos, Ecuador’s gateway to the Amazon jungle. The bus station in Quito was heaving, it was a special holiday, Night of the Dead (all saints day)! Gill after trying several bus companies and much queueing for tickets managed to get us on a bus to Banos in 2 hours time while I guarded the luggage. It was a 3 hour journey passing Cotapaxi Volcano smoking away peacefully and on last part of the journey spectacular views of the deep valley and river on the road into Banos. We stayed at Hostal Balcones overlooking the riverine the outskirts of Banos for 3 days and discovered that Jake and Tom who we had met in Otavalo were also staying there. Manuel, the owner gave us a lift into town into town and we climbed the 1000 or so steps up to the Virgin Mary Statue high on the hill overlooking the town. On returning to the Hostal we found out that Jake and Tom had been hired by Manuel to work for him, which delighted the guys and covered the cost of their accommodation.

There is a famous railway journey up here in the Andes called Nariz de Diablo which we wanted to ride to enjoy the spectacular scenery along the route. The train left from the town of Alausi, a bit of a one horse town, with a Main Street that looked like something from a spaghetti western. The views on the trip to Simbala were as spectacular as promised and we rode some pretty steep slopes with deep ravines alongside. 
The next day we booked on the bus to El Tambo on the way to the famous Inca site of Ingapirka, amazingly the bus conductor came to our hotel to collect our baggage and took it off to load on to the bus. I don’t think it’s a service offered by National Express in England! In El Tambo we hired a pick-up truck taxi on to Ingapirka to stay in the Hospedaje El Castillo with Elsa and Gonzalo the delightful owners. In the afternoon we walked around an inca trail and saw the Sun Rock, an intricate stone calendar used by the Incas over 700 years ago, a rock carved in the shape of a turtle, another with the face of an Inca and a seat for viewing the universe, all Inca or Canari natural monuments. The next morning we visited the temple ruins ruins. The site had originally been used by Canari Indians from 2000 years ago before the Inca invaded from the south. The Inca were very impressed with the Canary and shared power rather than wiping them out. The temple lies on lei lines between the surrounding mountains, judged to be a unique site by both Canari and Inca who then set about building there own temple over the original Canari one and added an extensive supporting infrastructure around about. In the afternoon we explained the concept of the Lonely Planet Guide and booking.com to Gonzalo to put El Castillo on the map and increase their bookings as they operated without any form of advertising. Gill applied to Lonely Planet and I to booking.com and we received an email a month later from Gonzales saying they had been accepted by both and offered his profuse thanks. While we were waiting for Elsa to cook us a dinner of roast Guinea pig Gill taught Jimmy, their son English for an hour and he picked it up very quickly, a very bright boy. The nights up here are very cold at an altitude of 3150m and we find we get puffed climbing hills or steps and notice the degenerating effect of the thinner air. Coming from Panama with its high temperatures and sweaty humidity it a shock to be wearing sweaters and long trousers and be covered by thick blankets at night while right on the equator.
Our next stop was Cuenca about two hours away by bus, but with all the walking we had done over the last few days my ankle mended with plate and screws was badly swollen so I was using a walking stick to get about. We arrived at Chorita’s house by taxi and the next morning we took an open topped city tour bus and we did a complete circuit of the town. At Tuni, a village on a high hill just outside Cuenca everyone got off to take in the views over the city and I stayed on rather than put more strain on my ankle. The bus suddenly took off back down the hill with only me on board upstairs. Gill was left behind and I had her rucksack with all her money etc. Thinking the driver had finished for the day and was on his way home I hobbled downstairs to tell him I was still on board. Fortunately he said we were off to get some fuel and would return in about an hour. Gill worried when she saw the bus leave without a word of what was happening but all was well in the end. The following morning our landlady Chorito drove us to the hospital to get my ankle X-rayed it turned out to be ok and I was just told to rest it, Afterwards Chorito drove us to the bus station and we caught the 11.30 to the next major town going south, Loja which proved of little interest. This was where we split up Gill going to Villacamba and me to Puria in Peru. The plan was I would make my way down the Amazon to Iquitos and take a boat 300 miles down the Amazon to Letitia in Colombia from where I would fly back to Bogotá where I would meet up with Gill. Meantime she travelled back up through Ecuador and Colombia to visit places we missed on the way down. Gill had already boated down the Amazon and wasn’t interested in doing it again. For me it was a great experience and I went off to explore the river and jungle for a few days with some local Indians, sleeping in the open on their canoe. They knew where to find medicinal plants,sacred trees, snakes, mammals, birds, and we fished for and caught and ate piranha and went on a night hunt for alligators. It was the experience of a lifetime, short but intensely interesting in such a remote area so different from anything I had ever experienced. I then took the fast ferry down from Iquitos to Letitia in Colombia. While there I walked over the border into Brazil just go have a look, it was that easy, no customs or immigration, I just ambled over the border had a look and walked back to Colombia. The next day I flew up to Bogotá to rejoin Gill and then we both flew back to Panama and the boat.

Caressed by Colombia

We have spent a couple of months touring Colombia, Ecuador and for me, Peru as Gill had toured Peru a few years before and I wanted to travel down the Amazon so the next blogs are on these countries but we have very limited bandwidth Internet when travelling in these countries so there are no photographs. If I can add these later I will.Thoughts on Colombia as a country – The Colombians have recently opened up to tourism and are trying very hard to overcome the image people have of the country,- guerrillas, drug barons, open warfare, dangerous streets, muggings and rape! Nothing, nothing could be further from the truth, this is a delightful country with the most hospitable, helpful, open people we met anywhere in Central and South America. Visit Colombia before it becomes like everywhere else and they start ripping off tourists as will happen. I am sure there are bad guys around but in a month of touring around Colombia we didn’t meet one. Because there aren’t many tourists they are very interested in where you come from and desperate for you to like their country and it is a country of varied beautiful scenery, soaring mountains, arid deserts, deep river valleys, great beaches, clean towns (unlike most of their neighbours) striking Spanish architecture. It’s a big country to see and very diverse, our bus journeys were cheap but long. You could reckon on $1 per hour of journey. Our longest journey being 21 hours from Carthagena to Medellin but mainly because of an accident. The standard of driving is grim and even our bus drivers were eating in one hand, on the phone with the other and steering with their elbows round hairpin bends with drops of hundreds of feet. The roadsides are littered with crosses and shrines to those who didn’t make it!

Much of Colombia is over 10,000 feet and we thought we might be affected by altitude but this was limited to puffing up hills a bit. We didn’t have to resort to any coca remedies to get us up to the top.

You certainly wouldn’t come her for the food, lots of beans and rice and fried chicken, however the Colombians are an attractive people and not as fat as their neighbours. It’s nice to find a country that doesn’t have McDonalds and KFC on every corner.

THE HIGHLIGHTS OF Colombia

We arrived on a flight from Panama City to Bogota and had used Airbnb to find Udet and her families B&B. Her son David collected us from the airport in Dads new car which we thought was rather nice but then he charged us for the privilege and a lot more we found out later than a taxi driver would have been, still it’s the thought that counts!, They were a nice family and good for telling us where to go and how to get there but we had a very hard small bed and not much room for swinging the cat. They also had a scrounging little yappy dog, neither of us liked but it was to be our base for the next five days while we explored Bogotá.

It’s a very noisy traffic ridden city with one of the most confusing bus services we’ve yet encountered but on our second day we ventured into town and as we approached the city centre there was only us and a little “Miss Marples” lady left on the bus. We asked her where to get off for the gold museum and she promised to tell us. When we got to the stop she got off as well and insisted we follow her to her home for tea and biscuits, which wasn’t far. She showed us around her flat and made us welcome, bear in mind she spoke no English so our subsequent hour long discussions were based on our very limited Spanish. I just can’t imagine any one, let alone an elderly lady, in Europe, inviting complete strangers who didn’t speak their language into their home and entertaining them but this wonderful experience proved to be characteristic of the Colombian people.

While we were in Bogota we visited the monastery at Monserrate high on a hill overlooking the city which we reached by cable car and then walked the 13 stages of the cross as we climbed the hill, with depictions at each. We went to the Gold museum which gave the history of Colombia in terms of gold from the times of the ancient tribes through the Spanish period and up to current times. Some of the Inca jewellery was simply stunning and very intricately worked.

We went to see the cathedral and president’s palace the following day. On the way home we got on the bus in pouring rain but when I swiped my card to board it rejected it several times so we had to get off. I then realised I had used my Panama bus pass by mistake. Gill, to put it mildly was furious and drenched to the skin. Eventually another bus arrived and this time I got off too early and we had a half hour walk, fortunately by now the rain has stopped, but the dark cloud of Gill muttering oaths behind me followed on unremittingly.

The following day we didn’t fair much better. We decided to venture out of town and without problem found the bus to take us north to Zapaquiri where the “salt cathedra”l is. This was quite an amazing place, originally a salt mine where, once the mining finished they had cut sculptures of the 13 stages of the cross in salt, at intervals through the mine, culminating in a cathedral deep underground. The cathedral had a huge cross carved in salt at the altar end and lit with blue light, it was quite a sight. The cathedral held 2500 people for the regular services held there for the town and I can imagine the sound of music and singing would be quite moving. After our visit we caught the bus back to the terminus in Bogota, not far from Udet’s place and ordered a taxi through a lady scheduler. We showed her the paper we had with Udet’s address on. The taxi set off and it soon became apparent it was headed into town rather than going the right way. We told the taxi driver who insisted he was right. We told him it was no more than a five minute journey and by now we had been going for 15 minutes and the meter was mounting fast. As we approached the town centre we told him to stop and showed him the address we had written down. He said yes! yes! and carried on. We stopped him again and rang David, Udet’s son and asked him to explain to this numb scull of a taxi driver that we were on the wrong side of town. The taxi driver then wanted paying for the total journey and we refused. To settle the situation David offered to drive into town to collect us and in the meantime we agreed a compromise fee with the taxi driver of $15 instead of the $5 it should have cost us, legalised robbery but to be fair he had been given the wrong address but then didn’t listen to us, we didn’t part the best of friends

After Bogotá we travelled for four hours by bus to visit the lovely village of Vale de Leyva. We toured the nice old cobbled streets and admired the Spanish architecture. The next day we hired bikes from a nice woman in a bike hire shop called Cyclops and pedalled off in the heat to see the blue lagoons which as it turned out were green. Next stop the fossil museum with lots of marine fossils from when this area was the seabed and a fantastical terracotta house/folly that was like something out of a fairy story, a cross between a Gingerbread House and a mini Castle, but no Rumplestiltskin!

Then it was back on the bus the next day for a 24 hour journey north to Tayrona National Park on the Atlantic coast where we stayed in a hostel run by Juan Carlos and his wife, aided by brother Juan. Our accommodation was a little round thatched house which had a very dirty brown water supply straight from the jungle. The following morning Juan drove us to the national park which is an Indian reserve on the North coast of Colombia. We walked for an hour and a half to Piscina, a nice beach where we could buy freshly squeezed orange juice and had a swim. We decided on a horse ride back for an hour which I really enjoyed, unfortunately Gill found it hurt her hips and was very sore afterwards, so that was the end of our horse riding.

Four hours further west, again by bus, is the famous old town of Carthagena where we stayed with a local family at a their B&B at a cost of only $8 per night. In the morning I went off on Carthagena to take a city bus tour meeting up with Gill later in the old walled city. We visited Fort San Felipe De Barajas in the centre of town which held out against 12,000 English and American troops led by Admiral Vernon and his fleet of 180 ships.

The following day we went up the hill overlooking the city by taxi to Convento Santa Cruz de La Popa and got an adultos majores (oap) discount, yeah! Sad isn’t it!. Great views from the top over the city. The road up there however we were warned is very dangerous with motor bike muggers robbing tourists and locals alike, so the taxi waited and took us back again to the old city. We decided what we needed after days off Romano was a boat trip and opted for the launch to Fort Fernandez which was captured by Admiral Vernon in his 1741 attack on the harbour. The fort was well preserved and interesting but we were the only visitors there in contrast to San Felipe Fort in town which was mobbed, mainly by cruise ship tourists who could be seen in their sad crocodiles wending there way around town to get the “been to Colombia” tee shirt. Whoops my prejudices are showing!

Sadly the island on which the San Fernandez fort was based was a disgrace, the village and beaches were disgustingly filthy, the worst we had seen in Colombia. 

Gill quite liked Carthagena but I found it touristy, dirty and unfriendly.

Our next town headed south was Medellin, a modern thriving city, normally about 8 hours away from Carthagena but for us a 20 hour journey because of an accident en-route. When we eventually arrived in Medellin we found a taxi to take us to Liana and Mauricio’s apartment, another Airbnb gem. The apartment was well furnished, spacious and located very near the city centre. Liana and Mauricio, both in their 50’s didn’t live there, this was their “in town apartment” their proper home was about an hours drive away and they had come in to vet us and show us around. They were the perfect hosts, a wonderfully friendly couple who couldn’t do enough for us. After the first night to check us out they headed back home and left us on our own in their wonderful three bedded apartment. We toured the town, took in a free song and dance evening at the local theatre and headed home for bed. The following day we took the bus to a place out of town called La Piedra (the stone) which was a 1000 ft vertical volcanic plug rising out of flat ground with 740 steps up the side to get to the top. We climbed up for the most spectacular views over the surrounding countryside. I managed OK with the heights by not looking down and had my vertigo reasonably under control and Gill managed fine with her dodgy hips.

The next morning we were up at 7.00 to catch the bus further south to Pereira and after 4 hours we got off at Estrada de Santa Rosa de Cabal where we had booked to stay at the Coffee Town Hostel There were fantastic views along the way, high mountains, rolling hills, tumbling rivers and sleepy villages. At the Hostal we met a couple of girls, a French Canadian and a French girl Perrine who worked for the Hostal and offered to cancel our booking as a no show to avoid paying the booking fee. After we left it went badly wrong which ended with Perrine paying for our nights accommodation and despite my assurances to send her the money, she wouldn’t here of it

Our next stop, again south was Popayan, a nondescript town where the only thing we could find to do was visit a coffee farm which was called Coffee Finca which turned out to be much more than just a coffee farm. The proceeds from the coffee farm were used to run a school and social facility for 100 mentally handicapped kids and those who had grown to adults. These were superb facilities and run by very loving helpers. The children were so obviously happy there. We travelled there with children in a brightly coloured chicken bus or Chiva (and we got to sit up front with the driver and I got to blow the air horn) picking them up from their parents along the way. We toured the coffee farm but for us the highlight was seeing what they were doing for the children and we had lots of hugs from these smashing kids.

The next day we got up up early to catch 8.30 bus to Pasto, still heading south towards Ecuador and the 6 hour journey was through spectacular mountain scenery. Bus drivers are a different breed here and we had the Schumacher equivalent who pushed the speed to the maximum on very windy roads and steep drops, but you can only die once! Pasto also turned out to be a disappointment although when the taxi driver had difficulty locating our B&B we had plenty of Police help in finding it. As there wasn’t much to see in Pasto we got up at 6.30 to catch a mini bus to Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border where we walked over a bridge over a river, pulling our suitcases, to leave Colombia behind and enter Ecuador. 

Overland through North East US and Canada.

It may seem a funny thing to say but having spent the last three months on a variety of palm covered islands we were looking forward to some land-based travel and the contrasting adventure of a few days in New York followed by a train ride to Niagara Falls was an exciting prospect.

We took a flight from Panama City to New York and from the airport to Manhattan by train without any hitches. We were staying in the YMCA on the East 47th Street and took a taxi from Penn Station to the hostel. The room was a bit of a shock to say the least it was hardly bigger than a telephone box into which they had managed to squeeze two bunk beds, however we wouldn’t be spending much time in the room as we had places to see and things to do.

m_P1010828

The Manhattan Skyline

We had prepared a list of all the places we wanted to see and in the next three days we walked our socks off. On day one we took a cruise around the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, walked over Brooklyn Bridge, visited Times Square and went up the Empire State Building. You read about these places but to be there and see and experience first-hand was an experience not to be missed; the views from the Empire State, the buskers and bustle of Times Square, the sense of history seeing Ellis Island, the brilliant gold flashing in the sunlight on the Statue of Liberty.

m_P1010485

Under The Statue of Liberty

m_P1010834

Over Brooklyn Bridge

m_P1010851

View from the 86th floor of the Empire State

We were moved by the beautiful water feature at Ground Zero with all the names engraved of those who had died; it was a very peaceful place of remembrance in the middle of busy Manhattan.

m_P1010832

The Remembrance Feature at Ground Zero

On our second day Gill needed to get her iPad fixed which had a cracked screen so we headed off to the majestic and impressive Grand Central Station which has an equally impressive Apple Centre overlooking the main concourse. Apple staff were terrific and without hesitation swopped her IPad for a new one.

m_P1010474

The main concourse at Grand Central Station

After this we had decided to visit the Guggenheim Museum of modern art which unfortunately did nothing for either of us, sadly piles of bricks have spread here from the Tate Gallery and nails in a wall showed little artistic talent or imagination, it was a case of the Emperors clothes for us. The only exhibit which impressed me was some fantastical figures all in white.

m_P1010856

Yup! Pinochio is dead – official

m_P1010857

Fantastical Figures in white

It was a beautiful afternoon so we bought some wraps from a stall and sat in Central Park to eat them. We then meandered through the park in glorious sunshine watching New Yorkers relaxing. No trip to New York would be complete without seeing a show on Broadway so on our third night we went to see Phantom of the Opera. Neither of us had seen it before and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, even if though it was an expensive experience, it was just one of those things we had to do.

m_P1010862

Central Park

On our last day Gill was meeting an old school friend of hers, MaryAnn who lived in New York and who she hadn’t seen for 50 years so I went off to the Air and Sea Museum for the day. It is based on the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid which served from 1943 to 1974 seeing action many times.

m_P1010864

USS Intrepid

The exhibit also houses the Space Shuttle, an early nuclear submarine and Concorde so I spent all day walking around these fascinating exhibits before heading off to an Irish Bar for a well-earned proper pint and a steak dinner. Gill’s meeting wasn’t till after lunch in the morning so she decided to visit The Natural History Museum and met MaryAnn afterwards on the steps of the museum. They wandered through Little Italy (for the essential ice-cream of course), passing through the edge of Chinatown and Soho before going on to see the UN buildings and Dag Hammarskjold dedications.

Some of Gill’s recollections of New York were, “friendly immigrants and ethnic people, bags of rubbish in streets, safe, vibrant, presence of police (for me an unease about so many armed police at the fireworks venue), many people taking selfies, so many Delis (cheap), expensive restaurants, lack of taxis, street hustlers in Times Square and slow, tired and inefficient Amtrak trains”

We were both exhausted by our four day sightseeing and the many miles we had covered but we saw what we came to see and weren’t disappointed. My ankles and Gill’s hips had held up well but we were both looking forward to sitting down to our 10 hour train journey up through New York State and into the Canadian side of Niagara Falls where we were due to meet some friends of Gill’s, Fred and Liz, who she hadn’t seen for 20 years.

The train followed the wide meandering Hudson River upstate for many miles, passing through a handful of scruffy, nondescript towns. Although restful the journey was disappointing from an experience point of view, trees, trees and more trees in a flat landscape, hour after hour of sameness. We arrived 2 hours late and then spent an hour going through Canadian immigration and customs where we saw a much more welcoming attitude from staff who actually seemed pleased to see us, a pleasant change from the surly unwelcoming attitude we encountered entering the U.S.

Fred and Liz were still waiting for us and whisked us off to the hotel they had booked for us all into. It couldn’t have been better, our room was a suite on the 27th floor looking right out over the falls, which are lit at night. They had arrived the night before to make sure we got the right room which they insisted on treating us to. This was only a taste of the fantastic hospitality we experienced from these two lovely people. After breakfast we put our bags in Liz’s car and Gill and I walked along the promenade past the falls, doing the tourist thing and taking pictures.

m_P1010928

The view from our bedroom

m_P1010633

Maid of the Mist getting wet

They picked us up and drove us the 40 miles to their lovely home in Mississauga on Lake Ontario.  We spent 5 relaxing days with Liz and Fred, meeting their friends and family and joining in their social life. We drove up to their son John’s house for a barbecue and he drove us around the area to see the many Mennonite farms. The families live very simple lives and shun modern conveniences like cars, computers and mobile phones. Many of the farms had no electricity and the farming was done by hand in old traditional ways, although we did see a few tractors around.

m_P1010664

Mennonite pony and trap

John’s now a man of 50+ with two sons and the last time Gill had seen him he was a gangly teenager of 15 but John remember her clearly from their time together in Nigeria.

m_P1010668

John to the right of Gill

We also attended a Rotary Garden Party, Fred and Liz are both very active members and past presidents. Liz was presented with the trophy for the annual Bridge championship. Her prowess doesn’t stop there however Liz is still playing tennis competitively at 76 years old after representing Canada in her earlier years.

m_P1010697

Liz being presented with the trophy

On our last day with them we went into Toronto by GO train which took us right into the city centre. We visited the museum there with its very interesting Inuit exhibition. It was too misty to go up the CNN tower, apparently the view from the top is marvellous, maybe another day!

m_P1010694

A brief glimpse of the CNN Tower

We had a wonderful time staying with Fred and Liz and from here we planned the rest of our tour of Eastern Canada, with helpful advice from Fred on where to go and what to see. One of the places they recommended was Mont Tremblant, a mountain ski resort in the Algonquin highlands and Liz booked our hotel for three nights using points they had accrued on their travels, lovely lady that she is.

m_P1010709

Liz and Fred with Gill outside their house

We wanted to hire a car for ten days to visit Ottowa, Montreal, Quebec City, and Halifax in Nova Scotia where we could then get a ferry to Bangor in Maine, dropping off the car in Halifax. All the car hire companies however wanted extortionate drop off charges of around $780 which was more than the car rental so we abandoned our plan for Nova Scotia and decided to return to Boston by bus from Montreal. I found a really good online deal with Budget and no drop off charges but being suspicious that it was just too good, Liz drove me to the office where they confirmed they would honour the quote. When we came to pick it up the car the next day it wasn’t the economy compact I had booked, it was a 7 seater Chrysler which they needed returning to Montreal and all for the same price, we were delighted and loaded our bags and said our farewells to Liz  and Fred, two of the nicest most hospitable people you could hope to meet and headed off to Prince Edward County on the shores of Lake Ontario.

Then it was on to Prince Edward County where we hoped to meet up with Larry and Jan who we had last seen in St Martin, in the Caribbean and who had hoped to sail through the Pacific with us on Romano when sadly Larry fell ill and I broke my ankles. Liz kept her boat here on Lake Ontario and Larry kept his in the Caribbean and they swapped around summer and winter which gave them the best of both worlds. They were getting Liz’s boat ready for the summer in Canada at a marina and we had booked a B&B nearby.

Picton was our first B&B booking through Airbnb who as many of you may know let out rooms in people’s homes which for us was a great way to meet local families. This first night was booked with a lady called Sherlyn who wasn’t able to meet us but had arranged for Gene a permanent resident to let us in. Gene as it turned out had had a massive stroke and had difficulty in speaking but we managed fine and he looked after us very well throughout our stay and was completely unfazed by his handicap, a really nice guy. Sherlyn was a collector and the house was packed with nick knacks of every sort you could find but there was nowhere to put anything, even the bathroom and the dining room table were piled with stuff, it must have taken weeks to dust. We commented on this in our review and Sherlyn was very sniffy about it.

We had checked in for two nights and that evening we went off to explore the surroundings with the intention of meeting up with Jan and Larry in the marina. After much searching and back tracking we eventually found the marina down a little country lane, not at all where we thought it was. Jan and Larry had just fired up the barbecue and threw on a few more chops for us. It was great to see them again and catch up with their news over a couple of drinks and dinner. We arranged to meet again the following evening at a pub recommended by Larry where they played live music and occasionally Jan was known to sing there. She came from a musical family and her sister was Lee of Peters and Lee from way back in the 60’s for those of you who can remember that long ago.

The next day we set off to explore the island it was a very pretty with lovely views over the water, rolling wooded hills, tidy clapper board houses, clean streets and immaculate “yards”. Nothing was out of place anywhere. We visited an unusual lake high on a hill overlooking the sea which had been used to provide water power to timber and flour mills and power generation plants and ensured the prosperity of the towns around for nearly 100 years until steam took over and the whole area went into decline.

m_P1010719

We found an unusual sandy beach on the banks of Ontario and spent the afternoon chilling out.

m_P1010721

In the evening we met at the pub and had a nice meal with Jan and Larry. The guitarist was someone Jan didn’t know so she was happy to sit and chat and listen to the music.

In the morning we packed up the car and headed for Ottawa and on the way passed through Kingston one time capital of Canada and a pretty town with lovely buildings and waterfront at the end of Lake Ontario and at the entrance to the St Lawrence.

m_P1010745

The pretty town of Kingston

This was our second Airbnb accommodation, this time with Abdul, who proved to be the perfect host. We had the run of his very modern house and could use all the facilities we needed. The only other person staying there was a Lutheran minister from Virginia called Christine. Christine was large in every sense, big lady, big personality, big sense of humour and we got on famously. Her idea of religion was based on love and tolerance and pretty much anything went! She was on a Sabbatical and travelling by car up to a convent in Saskatchewan where she was planning to meditate for three months. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall!

m_P1010761

Parliament Buildings in Ottowa

We drove into the centre of Ottowa that evening and went for a walk around. It’s a beautiful City and everywhere is so clean and tidy and well organised. It was a”Rib Fest” when we were there and a whole street near the parliament buildings had been closed off to allow stalls to be set up, each selling their own version of “prize winning” ribs. We queued to get into a pub where people were taking their meals in with them, so they could have a drink and a seat and the pub was surprisingly cool about it all. I have to say the ribs there were excellent although we probably paid a lot more than the street vendors were charging. The following morning we were back in town and took a “hop on hop off” bus, twice, first time without stopping to see what was worthwhile to visit, the second so we could get on and off at various places, it’s a great way to see a city and the commentary gives you an insight you wouldn’t otherwise have. The influence and links with the British are everywhere and the Canadians clearly value their Commonwealth membership and links with UK, even many of the state flags are defaced Red Ensigns and the currency carries the Queen on all there coins and notes so we felt very much at home. As you drive around Canada the place names are also familiar, Portsmouth, Bath, Halifax, Bristol, Yarmouth, Edinburgh but they are all in the wrong place so you find St Andrews next door to Cornwall which is all very confusing.

All along the banks of Lake Ontario on the way to Ottawa there are Loyalist Towns where the Union Jack is still flown. These towns were settled by people fleeing the revolution in the U.S. and we also learned something new, that the U.S. declared war on Canada and Britain in 1812 and invaded Canada but were repulsed with a mixed army of Canadians, Loyalists, Indians or First People as they are now known in Canada and the British Army. The war lasted two and a half years, I didn’t know that the U.S. had invaded Canada, my history lessons at school missed that out either that or I was asleep.

Leaving Ottawa and heading north we went to Mont Tremblant, in the Laurentian Mountains where Fred and Liz had booked us into the Le Sommet des Neiges hotel on the side of the mountain. We had lovely suite with a kitchen, lounge and dining area and a balcony overlooking the town. The town was host to the Iron Man contest with the winners representing Canada. There were events all around the town and crowds were urging on runners who looked half dead. We went out for a walk on our first evening and were immediately attacked by voracious biting insects, it was straight into the nearest outdoor shop to buy a can of insect spray, we had left ours on the boat thinking we were done with biting things for a while. The following morning we took the cable car just outside our hotel using the complimentary tickets from the hotel.

m_P1010900

On the cable car looking back to town

The views from the top were terrific, it was a beautiful day and you could see for miles over the town and lake beyond.

m_P1010921

The view over the Laurentians

Mont Tremblant is a major ski resort and has all of the facilities you would expect with ski runs and snow sprays all around the mountain. We had noticed they also had a luge so Gill and I went off to have a go. First Gill went down and I stayed behind as camera man to capture her blasting past and then me and then we had a race. As a male and naturally modest I can’t say who won, despite being blocked and rammed at every attempt to pass by the very aggressive competition.

m_P1020009

Eat my dust!

Our next stop was Quebec City – beautiful with a definite French influence in its architecture, cobbled streets, cuisine and people, a very different place in terms of culture, very but not as well maintained as other cities we had seen in Canada and not as friendly.

m_P1010958

Heep big totem pole

If we stopped and opened a map anywhere else people immediately came up and offered to help, there was none of that in Quebec. There were numerous references to its early history and many statues of French heroes but very little about the English conquerors, apart from one lone statue of Wolff on their Parliament building.  Quebec was very much a “country” apart from the rest of the other 12 “English” Provinces.

m_P1010951

Quebec City

On the first evening we decided to go to a Music Festival up on the heights, this involved hundreds of steps and steep streets to get up there. After an hours hard climb we joined the throngs of people headed the same way, the streets were closed to traffic to allow the crowds through. The festival was held on The Plains of Abraham and is free to all.

m_P1020101

We stayed for a couple of hours and listened to a few acts and then headed back to our B&B, at least it was all downhill. The following day we toured the city and ate lunch overlooking the St Lawrence Seaway and watched the cargo ships and yachts passing to and fro. Gills father who was a young deck officer at the time was here on the St Lawrence when she was born, so it had a special significance.

m_P1010956

St Lawrence from Quebec City

m_P1010950

Old Quebec

In the morning we left Quebec for Montreal where we would catch our bus back to Boston. After Quebec Montreal was huge and sprawling, we went directly to our B&B so we could drop off our bags and return the car. We were met by Alex who owned the flat which was really student accommodation but clean and comfortable and we had use of the kitchen and the other two guys living there were friendly and accommodating enough to us oldies. We dropped off the car on the other side of town and made our way back to our temporary home by metro. In the morning we set off to visit the Olympic Stadium and Botanical Gardens and then the old town where we watched live music outdoors on the street including some excellent opera.

m_P1020130

The superb rose display in the botanical gardens

The next day we were up early to catch the 8 o’clock bus to Boston. The bus station wasn’t far so we dragged our cases through the streets which being Sunday morning were very quiet. The journey to Boston was 9 hours through the wooded valleys of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It would have been a spectacular drive in the autumn. We were both very sorry to leave Canada, the hospitality had been superb, the people kind and open, the country so neat and tidy.

The border crossing back into the states was about 2 hours south of Montreal where we were reminded again of the unwelcoming nature of US immigration. Everyone was herded off the bus and made to stand at the back of the room while selected suitcases were removed from the hold on the bus for inspection. It took an hour and a half to process the thirty people on the bus, fortunately we were one of the first to be taken and got back on the bus again to wait. It wouldn’t hurt these guys to smile and be polite and treat people like fellow human beings rather than cattle!

When we arrived in Boston we headed for the airport to pick up a car which because we changed the on-line deal was a lot more expensive. The economy car we booked with them had no boot (trunk) and we had lots of cases so unfortunately we had no choice but to upgrade and of course end up paying through the nose. In Boston we stayed with Karen and Andy, a welcoming young couple, he was English and she was an American and they had met in the UK, got married and came to live in Boston where he worked as a carpenter. They were also new to Airbnb and were letting out their spare room for a bit of extra cash. That night Gill and I we went out and had an excellent Indian curry and in the morning set out to explore Boston waterfront in the pouring rain. Our first stop, of course, was the Boston Tea Party Museum based on a replica ship, the whole story told by actors in period costume, well worth a visit. We found out it wasn’t Paul Revere who made the famous ride he was actually captured by the British just after he set off and it was Longfellow’s poem that erroneously accredited him with the bringing of the news to the rebels. The manipulation was deliberate on Longfellow’s part but he needed a hero and Paul Revere was it.

m_P1020021

Symbolic throwing of the tea

m_P1020034

The replica ship

Nor was the Tea Party solely about taxes it was mainly about the right to self-determination. The settlers didn’t like being run from London by people who knew nothing of the country and its issues. George III refused to acknowledge their pleas so they took matters into their own hands. Not everyone wanted to separate from the crown and the loyalists as they were known headed for Canada which of course remains loyal to the crown to this day. The weather was unfortunate and didn’t show Boston off to its best so we headed back to our B&B to cook a meal Karen and Andy were also cooking a meal so it meant four of us worked together and shared the kitchen work space and the cooker it was a challenge but we made it.

In the morning the skies had cleared and we set off North to explore Maine and to meet up with our cruising friend Rich who we had met in Rio Dulce and who we knew was cruising on his boat Kelly Rae in Maine.

Maine has a deeply and intricately indented rocky coastline, dotted with tiny towns and hundreds of islands, well-known for its fishing industry, particularly lobster.  The mainly white or pastel, well-kept wooden clapperboard houses typify this area of New England.

m_P1020151

Camden Town Maine

The first two nights we decided to experiment and stay in a converted Chicken House with Jessica and her family. They lived on a farm which was no longer worked and purely used as a holiday home by the family in the summer. The Chicken House was quite well furnished, no smell of chickens and was about 50 yards from the main house.

m_P1020154

The chicken house outside

m_P1020153

And the inside

The only problem was – no water or toilet facilities. They  were situated at the back of the main house, through the kitchen, through the dining room, through the lounge, through a study and there it was, shared by 5 adults and two children!  At night when nature called the field was a much better option!

During the following day we drove along coast to Rockland, a major fishing port and we visited the fish harbour where they were unloading some of the boats with a giant Hoover which hosed fish into waiting trucks. The place was mobbed by seagulls just waiting for a fish to drop off a truck. Each truck held tens of thousands of herring; no wonder there aren’t many fish left in the sea.

m_P1020043

A scene from the birds!

The next town along the coast was Rockport situated on a pretty inlet with many boats at anchor. Some were beautiful old wooden schooners, superbly renovated by proud owners. From there it was on to Camden where we sat eating our sandwiches, overlooking picturesque harbour and bay at the foot of waterfall and at Belfast the most northerly point we visited, a ship building and repair town, we turned and headed home.

When it came time to join Rich we moved to the Hawks House Inn in South Bristol. The hotel was run almost solely by the new owner, Steve a very large and lovely guy with a very camp style. He was a great host and kept the guests in fits with his quick wit and funny stories. Steve didn’t have a restaurant that was a future plan but the breakfasts were superb, everything we could think of was on offer. In otherwise beautiful sunny weather, we experienced a day of fog for which this Atlantic coastline is also famous so our pictures of Round Pond are somewhat murky.

m_P1020079

our only misty day

Rich was anchored off a friend Cheryl’s house at Round Pond nearby, where we were to meet them that evening. The house was in a beautiful location overlooking the sound and we sat out on the terrace watching the sun go down over a few drinks and a lot of chat. Cheryl and her husband had built the house several years before but sadly Glen had recently died.

m_P1020105

The house that Glen and Cheryl built

Cheryl suggested we might like to join her and some of her friends on a visit to Boothbay Botanical Gardens. The gardens were one of the best we’ve seen combining natural gardens and plants with fascinating and ingenious moving stainless steel wind sculptures, “whale” rocks spouting water, a lovely children’s garden complete with the largest tadpoles I have ever seen(over an inch long), beautiful water gardens, vertical herb gardens, an imaginative Faerie Land amongst rocks and trees alongside the river, it was a great day out followed by a relaxed evening back at Cheryl’s in good company.

m_P1020155

m_P1020160

m_P1020159

Dragonfly resting

m_P1020163

Gill adventuring

That evening Rich asked if we would like to go for a sail the following day in Kelly Rae, his Pacific Seacraft 34 and Gill and I  jumped at the chance to get back out on the water. It was a beautiful day with fair winds as we set off to explore the surrounding islands. Gill helmed most of the way and thoroughly enjoyed sailing the boat. We saw puffins on one of the islands skimming across the water in search of food. You could spend months cruising Maine and never get tired, it’s a very interesting and picturesque coastline.

m_P1020098

Gill helming Kelly Rae, with Rich

That night we took Rich out for a meal, Cheryl had gone cycling with friends. We ate at a waterside restaurant run by the local fisheries company where you brought your own bottle. Gill and Rich ordered while I went off to the local store to buy some wine. Gill wanted to try the clam chowder but they only had a haddock variant so Gill and Rich settled for that, I had a much anticipated lobster and clam dish, a nice meal in a lovely setting.

We asked Rich if he fancied crewing for us across the Pacific. He liked the idea but wanted to think it over depending how his own boat plans worked out. We were in no rush so we agreed he would let us know in September, he’s an experienced solo sailor and we get on well together.

We left Hawks Bay after an early breakfast and Steve’s parting gift of still warm blueberry muffins which he had baked that morning, for the long drive to Boston to drop off the car and catch the bus for the 4 hour trip to New York.

It was the 4th July when we arrived in New York and the hostel told us there was a big firework display was to be held on the water at East River, not far from the YMCA, so we headed off and joined the throngs. We found a great spot right in front of the barges from where the fireworks were launched. After a wait of an hour or so watching the crowds and you could hear many different languages being spoken. The display started at 9.30, it was spectacular and went on for about 40 minutes, lots of ooo’s and ahh’s from the crowd.

m_P1020144

4th July Celebrations in New York

The following day I was flying back to Panama from Newark and Gill from JFK to London so we parted in the subway and headed off in our different directions. Gill went to have a look at the High Line which is a disused aerial railway that has been converted into gardens and a high level walk through lower Manhattan.

m_P1020189

The High Line walk way and gardens

Unfortunately my flight was much earlier than Gills so I didn’t make it but headed straight for the airport. It was just as well I did as the trains for Newark were only every hour and one had just left as I arrived.

Our next blog will be in about 5 months time and cover our journey through South America to Colombia and Ecuador and perhaps Peru if time permits.

Pottering in Panama

There are 300 or so islands off the coast of Panama which are known as the San Blas islands by us gringos and “Kuna Yala” by the indigenous Kuna indians whose way of life has changed little in the last 2000 years. They still live in little thatched huts with earthen floors and bamboo walls, go fishing in traditional dug out canoes, collect their water from the rivers, pick coconuts and wild mangoes from the jungle, and trade with passing Colombian boats.     

 

Kuna canoeing home

 
 The Darien peninsula and the off-lying islands were once part of Colombia but now come under Panamanian control, however the Kuna are given special privileges (government subsidies) to enable them to preserve their traditional way of life, although many have satellite TV’s, solar panels and mobile phones in their thatched huts, and big new Yamaha outboards on their boats, a curious mix!

 

Kuna women make and sell Molas

 
The mainland Darien Peninsula is mostly impenetrable jungle which is why the Kuna live on the coastal desert islands as fisher folk. Each inhabited island has its own set of Chiefs, or Sailas as they call them, who hold open meetings most days in the council hut to hear petitions and dispense wisdom and justice, the way it has been for the last thousand years. They are a happy go lucky people who are tolerant of the yachties who are the only outsiders they really see and who provide them with their major source of income, buying their crafts, fruit and vegetables and fish, lobster and crab. 

 

Canoes selling local produce come by

  
Unfortunately this subsidy dependant people have become greedy over recent years and see us cruisers as fair game nowadays, trying to charge us for anchoring and visiting islands and anything else they can dream up, so there’s a cat and mouse game between the yachties trying to avoid paying and the Kuna trying to collect our dollars. I refused to pay on one occasion which didn’t go down well with the Kuna boatmen and we were ordered out of the anchorage, but we ignored them and stayed till morning when the sun had risen to show the surrounding reefs and our way out. We try to explain to them if they make it too expensive and unwelcoming, boats will stop coming and they’ll lose the revenue from selling goods and services. Some recognise this but most see us as a way of making easy money and don’t want to change. The cruise ships have already stopped visiting the islands because they overcharged, from our point of view that’s good news but for them its a financial disaster they killed the golden goose. It’s the fishermen and their wives who sew the beautiful Molas who will lose out if the yachts stop coming, Some work hard for a living and charge a fair price for their labour. 

 

our guide taking us around his island

 
The Molas which are made from several layers of different coloured material are beautifully embroidered, pulling colours from the lower layers to build a traditional picture of fish, birds, or jungle flowers, or other things which form a part of their lives. The best of these sell for $50 but can take two to three months of painstaking work to make and are a real work of art. Some of the best of these Molas are made by transvestites who dress and live as women in the village communities quite accepted by their society. The most famous of these is Lisa and the photo below shows her sewing her name onto a Mola bought by Gill. These Mola makers and fishermen will paddle their dugouts from island to island looking for customers to buy their goods, often spending 6 hours a day travelling just on the off chance of finding a yacht crew who will buy from them.

 

Lisa sewing her name into her Molas for Gill

 
The islands which are mostly uninhabited are everyone’s dream of desert islands with white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, gorgeous surrounding reefs and coconut palm trees swaying over the warm water. So we pick our way through the reefs, drop anchor in sandy bays, swim ashore in clear waters and go exploring. Sometimes it’s like that but there’s always a downside in paradise – some of the beaches are fringed by razor sharp coral making it difficult to land; some of the islands are owned by biting sand flies and mosquitoes and; the windward side of most islands is littered with rubbish washed up on the shore. When you find a good one it’s great and we have found a few! You do need bright sunshine however to show up the reefs as you move around so we tend to sail from island to island between 10.00 am and 2.00 pm when the sun is high. Twelve boats have been wrecked on the surrounding reefs between January and April of this year and many of them are still lying as a reminder to us all that these are difficult waters to navigate.

  

A quiet anchorage

   
Otherwise this is very relaxed cruising, in the mornings after breakfast of fresh fruit, cornflakes and home baked bread we either clean the boat (at least Gill does) or do maintenance jobs from the never ending list or make bread or cakes and in the afternoons we swim, explore the island where we’ve anchored, talk to the Kuna who come by to sell fish, vegetables and fruit from their dugout canoes in our pigeon Spanish, we read ( I’ve been reading War and Peace for the last 6 weeks and nearly half way through!), snorkel on the reefs or go ashore to burn our rubbish (there isn’t any other way to dispose of it, if you give it to the Kuna they tip it in the water on the way home) which is an excuse for a bonfire and we flatten all our cans in our can squasher and give them to the Kuna who can claim back money for recycling them. I gave up fishing as a pastime and source of food as I don’t think there are any fish left and its a complete waste of time. The Kuna hunt them with spearguns and now you hardly see any eating fish on the reefs anymore. It’s easier to buy the fish off the Kuna for a couple of dollars. We also have to shop on the inhabited islands for fresh fruit and veg and when our fridge packed in we could only keep it edible for a couple of days. There is also the social life and mixing with other cruisers and by listening to the radio net each morning you can find out what’s going on and it’s a useful source of information and advice. So all this keeps us pretty busy and out of mischief.

 

The runway at Nargana

 
 

The terminal building, very terminal!

 
Of course life is never that straightforward, there are our resources to manage on the boat to enable us to survive away from civilisation, fuel, electrical power, water all of which are difficult to come by normally but especially here. Fuel has to be transported by Jerry cans in the dinghy and siphoned into our tanks, a lengthy and laborious job. Our main source of electricity is our solar panels which I had fitted in Guatemala; they’re brilliant but they do need the sun to shine. If it doesn’t then we have a wind generator but this is the calm season so most days there is little wind and if that’s the case we have to run the engine but at 5 litres an hour this is an expensive way to generate power and puts hours on the engine, reducing the service life. We have to check the battery state several times a day as it is a crucial resource for us with so many electronics on the boat and fridge and freezer to keep going and iPads and Kindles and phones to charge.  
Water comes to us from the sky and when we do get a tropical downpour it doesn’t take long to fill the tanks and we can have a “free” shower at the same time. The problem however is that this is now 6 weeks into the rainy season and it hasn’t rained much so we had to make for a village at the mouth of one of the rivers and fill up with river water. Fortunately we have dosing chemicals and a good filtration system on board. The tanks hold 700 litres of water and we have a water maker which is electrically driven but we use a lot of fresh water despite having a sea water tap for washing dishes and cooking. We need to shower everyday partly because of the heat but also to wash off the salt when we have been swimming, so a shower each evening is a regular event to prevent sores and keep clean.

 

Taking on water in Aquadup

 
 Washing clothes probably uses the next most water, we only wear shorts and a bikini on the boat and tee shirts ashore which isn’t much but bedding once a week uses a lot. On one occasion we took our washing up the Rio Diablo in the dinghy and washed it in the river much to the amusement of the Kuna Indians who were doing the same (this wasn’t the same river where we got our drinking water). So all you folk back home with your automatic front loaders, think yourselves lucky, it took us four hours to paddle up and down the river, do our washing in the heart of the jungle waist deep in water keeping a weather eye out for crocodiles but you’ll be glad to know we never saw any.

 

Gill working hard as we paddle up river

 
 

A very different laundrette

 
 

The rinse cycle

 
The other issue we always have to be careful with is weather so we pick up daily area forecasts each day on our long range SSB radio from the US or the local net which also gives us the opportunity to stay in touch with friends who are also cruising the San Blas and exchange weather reports. This season is characterised by light variable winds with squalls and thunder storms. In the squalls wind speeds can reach 50 miles an hour or more and come from any direction. If you’re in an anchorage surrounded by reef as most of them are and the wind reverses it can easily pull out the anchor and off you go! This means we sleep lightly and get up to check regularly. If the wind is light then the bugs can fly in sorties out to your boat in search of fresh meat and although we are well protected with mosquito nets they still manage to squeeze in sometimes through the smallest of holes if we are not careful. The other problem with light wind is the heat, especially at night. We have wind scoops to pick up the slightest breeze but if there really is no wind we stew or put on the fans and consume more of our precious electricity.

 

Storm approaching

 
If stuff breaks down out here and you can’t fix it yourself it stays broken, there are no mechanics or electricians and no spares for 500 miles. Two weeks ago our new fridge unit packed in with a gas leak so we only have a freezer (fingers crossed) but nowhere to keep fruit and veg or milk etc. Gill freezes the milk in small containers otherwise it goes off in a day and we have discovered the novelty of snow milk on our cornflakes. We can only keep fruit and veg for a few days but fortunately the Kuna boats come around with mangoes, banana and avocado which seems to be the only available produce. They are fishermen rather than farmers and a number of attempts to get them to grow produce on a commercial scale have all failed? The Colombian boats bring in fresh produce but you have to know which day or you make a long journey to a village only to find the boats arrive tomorrow and they have nothing. The only meat you can buy is chicken but fortunately we stocked our freezer with meat in Guatemala and still have plenty left. it’s not all bad news though, the one thing in plentiful supply is beer! You can’t buy milk but you can buy beer but without a fridge it’s warm, warm lager beer!
The other two things that broke were the toilet pump in the aft heads and one of the rings on the gas hob, fortunately we have two more rings and another toilet up forward but it’s getting tight now because the second one has started to leak and we don’t relish the old bucket and chuck it toilet routine. We are also getting low on gas and our nearest supply is 70 miles away or a day’s sailing.

 

Just another desert island

 
Despite all of these problems in paradise we are enjoying ourselves and meeting up with old friends and relaxing in the sun. It’s still an interesting cruising ground and with 300 islands in the archipelago we are never short of somewhere to go and it’s not very far to the next island, yet another with white sandy beaches, coconut palms, warm seas and reefs. 

Gill showing the way

 You would think with so many islands you would never see anyone but we were anchored in Snug Harbour, a lovely well protected anchorage between three islands when a shout rang out one afternoon while we were reading in the cockpit. It was some Australian friends Nick and Andrea and daughter Millie on Muneera who had just sailed up from Carthagena in Columbia and randomly stopped for a rest at our anchorage, after their 200 mile journey. We sank a few beers while we exchanged news and experiences. They were en route to pick up their other daughter Ella who had been staying in France with other cruising friends and was due to arrive back in Panama before they transited the canal en-route to Australia to complete the girls’ education. It was great to see them again and a fluky coincidence they happened to stop where they did. 

 

The Disney Family leaving on their way to Australia

 
It happened again while we were anchored in the Coco Bandero islands and some friends we last met in a cafe on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands sailed into the anchorage and dropped the hook next to us. Another occasion for catching up and we spent the next couple of weeks cruising off and on, in company with Hella and David.

 

David and Hella from Barra, Scotland

 
As we were coming to the end of our stay here in San Blas we decided to position the boat ready to head off west to Colon and the canal. We had decided to leave the boat in Shelter Bay Marina at the entrance to the canal while we went off to the US and Canada in June. The marina did a 6 month low season deal which suited us especially since they had credible repair facilities or so we have been told. A convenient place for us to head off from was the West Lemmon Cays, a group of islands with a nice central anchorage which unfortunately was difficult to get into, through narrow passages in the reefs and a winding channel. We had tried to get in on an earlier occasion but the seas had been quite rough, the light was poor for spotting reefs and the entrance very tight and convoluted, so we went elsewhere. This time the sun was high, the seas had calmed and we made for the waypoint (latitude and longitude) marking the entrance. I turned and went to go in but wasn’t happy with one of the waypoints so I pulled back and re-programmed the plotter and we went back to the entrance point and headed in through the tight channel. This took the entire concentration of us both until we reached the anchorage pool where we breathed a sigh of relief and dropped anchor and had lunch. I should have mentioned that this was on my birthday and one of the surrounding islands had a restaurant which we thought we would dinghy ashore to and check out. I went to the stern to get ready but the dinghy was no longer tied to the aft rail, we had both seen the dinghy when we stopped to reprogram the plotter just outside the entrance so we thought it couldn’t have gone far in the intervening three hours and weighed anchor to go off in search. We scanned the surrounding islands with binoculars and followed the wind direction for two hours without luck. Light was failing so we headed back to the anchorage in the Lemmon Cays to wait for morning and report our loss. We had no way of getting ashore now other than swimming so dinner ashore was out of the question. It put a real damper on my birthday, replacing it and the outboard would cost around $4,000 not to mention the inconvenience in the meantime. The following morning I put out a call on our radio reporting on the Panama Net to alert other cruisers. I also swam to the nearby island with the restaurant and talked to the ferry boat guys asking them to spread the word and offering a reward and telephoned some of the Kuna people we knew on downwind islands and we reported it to the Port Captain in Porvenir. 

 

The Lemmons where we lost our dinghy

 
Our friends Hella and David immediately came to our rescue sailing up from a nearby anchorage. David took me around the surrounding islands in their dinghy but we saw nothing. I plotted the wind direction and mapped an area out where it might have gone, drifting towards the mainland and Gill and I decided to search this area, David and Hella kindly loaned us their kayak so we could go ashore when required and the following morning we headed south towards the mainland. On the first island we drew a blank but asked them to keep a look out and I distributed cards with our local telephone number on.

 

Coming back with good news

 
As we were approaching the second island, Carti we sailed in alongside some other cruisers on “Blue Sky” who suggested by radio that we follow them and advised we spoke to a man called Elojio who had his finger in lots of pies. As we dropped anchor they told us they already had his father John on board and he had told them they had our dinghy. We had already met John on a previous visit to Carti and I had already telephoned his other son Germain to explain our predicament and he had offered to keep a lookout. Fantastic, the father then came over to our boat in his dugout and we welcomed him on board, sat him down and gave him a beer. His conversation went all round the houses but no mention of a dinghy, so we asked him directly if he had it, in our limited Spanish, he looked puzzled and said no, it was clear by now that he was very drunk, he suggested we phone his other son Elejio which I then did. 
Elejio was on a nearby island ferrying tourists and explained he would be back at 5.00pm, so we waited. I went ashore on time and he was waiting by the jetty off their house. He told me he didn’t have the dinghy but that he knew where it was. He had visited this island the day before and had seen our dinghy in a fisherman’s hut. He had offered to take it off them to return it to us but the fishermen wouldn’t let him. The dinghy was on an Island 400 yards from where we had been anchored in the Lemmon Cays, at the side of the entrance channel. He showed me a photo he had taken of it on his mobile phone which confirmed it was mine. The fishermen had seen the dinghy come adrift from Romano and paddled out to get it, stowing it out of sight and hoping to sell it. 
They told him they believed they could get a reward of $2000 for returning it to its rightful owner, he laughed and told them they were dreaming so they asked how about $500 as this was the usual fee for returning a lost dinghy (a fortune to a Kuna fisherman). Elejio asked me what I was prepared to pay, I explained the dinghy was 20 years old and the outboard 10 years old and asked him what he thought a fair finder’s fee would be. He suggested I start at $50 and negotiate. I gave him $20 for his help and set off back to the boat to tell Gill the good news. 
We set off the following morning dropped anchor and Gill and I kayaked across to the island, to be met by one of the fishermen on the shore. I asked if he had my dinghy, which I described and he took us to see the head man there. Chairs were brought out from the thatched huts and we started a circuitous conversation. Eventually getting fed up with this I asked if he had my dinghy he asked for a description to ensure I was the rightful owner, the cheek of him, but I wanted my dinghy back and had to bite my tongue. When I had satisfied him and told him the age of the kit, he asked for $100 reward for “saving it”, a far cry from his original ideas and a better place to start negotiations. I asked to see it before agreeing to anything and he took us into his hut and there at the back were the outboard, oars and anchor but no dinghy. His dragon of a wife asked repeatedly for the money but I asked to see the dinghy as well. It was locked in another thatched hut but sitting on a trestle in apparently unharmed condition. Much to his wife’s disgust we eventually settled on $70 which was a lot really to get my own dinghy back from these thieves.
When I related the story to other cruisers on the radio net the following day they said I was “really lucky” as most paid $500 to get their dinghies back. Now I tie it on properly with a second line, it may be 20 years old but it’s a Tinker and a first class dinghy in pretty good condition for its age. The outboard Gill would happily have given to the Kuna, it’s very temperamental and needs a lot of coaxing, but I can operate it!

 

Gill paddling her own canoe

 
After returning the kayak with our heartfelt thanks to Hella and David we set off back to the Lemmon Cays ready to sail to Colon at the entrance to the canal where we were going to leave the boat for the rest of the rainy season. We had been invited by other British cruisers we had met on and Island called Aridup to visit their house in a village on the way to Colon called Jose Pobre. They were taking their pet iguana to shore on Aridup which means Iguana Island, for some hibiscus flowers, which they like. In fact they decided it would be happier there than on the boat and left it happily munching on its own island. We said we would drop in to see Philip on our way through, Linda his partner would be back in the UK by then. We had a great 45 mile sail to Isla Linton, 6 miles from Jose Pobre, in fair winds and sunshine and dropped anchor in a lovely sheltered bay. Sadly however, our freezer gave up the ghost at this point so we had neither fridge or freezer and in the tropics that’s not good! I managed to fit a spare water pump to the freezer and we managed by switching it on and off manually to use it as a fridge until we reached Shelter Bay Marina in Colon where we could buy produce on a daily basis.

Next day we sailed to Jose Poble bay and anchored off the village in 4 metres of water. The bay was exposed to the North and we spent a rather rolly first night. Philip came out to the boat for dinner in his kayak armed with a bottle of red wine and four mangos from his garden. After dinner Philip set off back ashore in the dark, a brave venture for a man who professes not to swim. The following morning we rowed ashore through the reef to find Philip and go for a walk around the next point for a swim in a nearby sandy bay. We spotted his catamaran berthed at the bottom of his garden and went up to the his extraordinary house built into the jungle covered hillside. 

Philips house in Jose Pobre

Philip built this house by carrying thousands of tons of sand and cement and all the wood he needed for its construction, by boat from Portobello 8 miles away by sea and lugging it up the hill to the site, a monumental task by a very resourceful man.

 

Gill and Philip on the veranda

 
When Philip bought the plot 12 years ago for a very modest sum there was only a wooden shack there where he lived while he was building the current house. There is a well in the garden and electricity but that’s it.

 

A hand built staircase from driftwood

 
The view from the property is spectacular over the bay and we sat on the veranda watching a torrential downpour which scotched our plans for a walk. We met some of Philips neighbours, sank a few beers and had a magnificent dinner which included his famed dauphinoise potatoes.

The next day we tried again to have our walk but Philip had a badly infected leg from insect bites and was unable to make it and the heavens opened again so we couldn’t make it on our own. Philip furnished us with bananas, lemon grass and mangoes from garden and told us where we could find more mangoes in the village. We found the spot and collected pounds of mangoes which Gill planned to serve up for breakfast and turn into mango chutney. Back to the boat, ready for our 6 mile trip to Portobelo the following morning.

We entered Portobelo’s large protected harbour passing Drake’s Island where sir Francis is buried in a lead lined coffin and dropped anchor at the head of the bay, off the village. This was the main port for shipping Spanish gold back to Europe and as a result was heavily defended by forts. We went ashore by dinghy to shop and explore, we visited the Fort and went off to walk up the steep hill behind the village where there was a spectacular view of the bay.

  
 As we started our ascent through some fallen leaves there was a commotion, Gill leapt backwards shouting “run, run” and fell into a ditch. I was in front and at first at first didn’t see what was happening and then I saw a brown snake about 3 ft long about 2 ft from me wriggling away through the leaves with a mouse in its jaws. It had struck at the mouse just as we had started to walk through the leaves which was fortunate for us, otherwise we might have been the target. I have never seen a snake in the open that close before and to see it make its kill was quite special but sobering.

  
Back on the boat we prepared dinner from our dwindling stocks of food and settled down for the night when a cockroach ambled through the cockpit. Always a signal to grab sprays and flatteners. After this I went off in search of some large ants I had spotted on deck and in the process of spraying them noticed that a catamaran which had been anchored some distance away was now 15 feet from our boat. 10 o’clock at night is not the best time to have to re-anchor but we had no choice and moved further out into the bay under a full moon which helped illuminate the scene.

The following morning we set off on our final leg of this phase to Colon and Shelter Bay Marina at the head of the Panama Canal. As we approached we passed through a number of ships at anchor waiting to transit and called up Canal Control at San Cristobal to get permission to pass through the breakwater. They gave us clearance, although we still had to dodge the ships exiting the canal. They should really have held all traffic for us, yeah right!

We followed the buoys into Shelter Bay and moored up with a perfect docking, even although we had had no Marina practice for several months, what a crew! This was the end of another phase of our travels. In a weeks time after we have put the boat to bed we are heading up to New York for 4 days and then on to Canada, but that’s the next episode.
Many of you must be wondering what has happened to us as we haven’t posted a blog for a while, but Internet is very limited here and works off the very variable mobile phone system. Weeks go by without word from home or from us, twenty years ago no one would have thought anything of it but in this day of instant communications friends and family start to worry if they don’t hear from us on a regular basis. We have spent 2 months without Internet except for two days in Nargana, an island near the mainland and even there the signal was so weak it took hours to download and send emails. So for those of you we haven’t responded to, apologies but we weren’t ignoring you.

The next blog will be New York and Canada in a few weeks time, now we have Internet again.

Pirates of Providencia

After two months of frustrating delay caused by my broken ankles we finally left Roatan in the Bay Islands with Jocelyn our new French Canadian crew member on board and headed south about 30 miles to the islands of Cayos Cochinos for our first sail for a while. It was a glorious day with 15 knots of wind on the beam and we covered the distance quickly at 6.5 to 7 knots, a great introduction for Joce, or so we thought. We arrived at the islands and sought out an anchorage in the lee of Cochinos Grande, but couldn’t get our anchor to hold in the turtle grass bottom, so we tried around another point only to be met by a local in his canoe who told us that would be fined if we anchored there. It turned out that the military controlled the islands and only permitted mooring on their designated buoys at a cost of $30.00. We returned to the earlier bay but found it too shallow for us to reach some buoys inshore. At that point the military turned up and told us to anchor in the bay at a spot indicated by them, apparently the buoys had been destroyed in a storm.

We anchored as instructed and only found out later when we snorkelled out to check that the anchor had set that we were over a coral bed – not good. The soldiers wanted $30 per day of stay so we decided to leave the following morning and head for the island of Guanaja, about 45 miles to the North East. We intended to check out of Honduras here before going on to Providencia, a Colombian island some 400 miles away. The wind was right on our nose so unfortunately we had to motor the whole way, Joce was very subdued and kept himself apart.

Arriving at Guanaja we crept over the reef with only a couple of inches to spare and anchored in Sandy Bay. That night we went ashore to Manati, a restaurant which had been recommended to us, run by Annette and Claus, a German couple. Monday was their “kitchen closed night” but Annette took pity on us and we had a typical German dinner finished off with chocolate made by her son.

 

One of Guanaja’s stilted houses

 
 

Typical canal between the houses

 
The island has no roads so everyone travels around by boat and the only town is built on stilts on an off lying reef with canals between the houses like a Little Venice. In the morning we all went there by launch to check out and to add Joce to our crew list, however, this was the moment he chose to tell us he wasn’t coming with us but wanted to return home. We had hints before hand that he wasn’t a happy cruiser but we were disappointed in the way he broke the news in the immigration office and that we wouldn’t have his support to get us to Panama, especially with my freshly mended ankles.

Finding crew who fit into the boat’s routine, who are competent and trustworthy sailors and have personalities compatible with the existing crew is a notoriously tricky business. With Jocelyn we exchanged many emails, went through his and our expectations, talked on Skype and I thought from this that he would fit the bill. How wrong I was, he hadn’t been on the boat a day when he insisted on checking all our stores for “use by” dates, he wanted Gill to throw out the flour because it had weevils in it (standard on cruising boats in the tropics and we just sift them out), was fussy about what he would eat despite telling us he would eat anything, had no concept of sailing at sea, was nervous about doing night watches and proved to be a loner with poor social skills. It was as well he left the boat at that time but he did teach us a lesson in crew selection and interviewing, his expectations of cruising were completely unrealistic and I hadn’t realised, despite our extensive communications prior to his arrival. Many people think it’s a life of gin and tonics at sundown, swimming and snorkelling and visiting desert islands but in practice it’s mostly hard work with some time off for play.

Gill and I left the following morning in flat calm for the part of the trip we were least looking forward to, 180 miles straight into the trade winds. The forecast however was for light winds and that’s how it proved to be. We still had to motor for a day and a half but it wasn’t uncomfortable and our fears weren’t realised. Our friends Gordon and Gillian on “N-aimless” went a day ahead of us and said they would wait for us at a group of cays on the reef some sixty miles off the eastern most point of Honduras, “the corner”. After this we hoped to be able to sail with the easterly trade winds on our beam.

We radioed ahead and they gave us directions through the reef to where they were anchored, in the middle of the sea, just behind a small coral mound you could hardly call an island. We were well protected by the reef around us from waves but not wind. That afternoon we went ashore in Gordon and Gillian’s dinghy to find the island covered in hundreds of stacked lobster pots and the main inhabitants, nesting brown Boobies. Mum watched the chick while Dad went fishing and made the run back through marauding Frigate birds who can’t catch their own fish so steal it from other birds. They will also attack unprotected chicks and we even saw them trying to steal fish during the beak to beak transfer from parent to chick. It was back to our boat for sundowners and to watch a beautiful sunset in this bizarre anchorage in the middle of nowhere.  

 

Lots of boobies nesting

 
 

Mother and chick on the Hobby Cays

  

Where’s my lunch, I hope its not fish again!

 After another days resting we set off for the Colombian island of Providencia, 100 miles off the coast of Nigaragua and a 190 mile journey with 2 overnight sails, something we hadn’t tried before with only Gill and I, preferring to limit our sailing to one night only at sea, when we are able. The seas were kind to us although the wind taunted us until we cleared the large reef area off the east coast of Honduras, by playing just off the nose, not enough to sail, so we had to motor/sail for another 70 miles until we were clear of the reef and could turn 90 degrees south. Gordon and Gillian wanted to motor/ sail all the way to Providencia so they left at noon, 5 hours behind us. Around 2pm the following day we could see them catching us up and it was good to have someone as company.

We then had a good sail in variable winds but just right to make landfall at 9.00am on Providencia. We reefed sail when the wind increased to keep the speed right for this arrival. Suddenly, just after we had reefed around 11pm the radio burst into life, it was Gordon, they had moved ahead of us under power and he warned us that they had been hit by 30 knot winds from nowhere and that the squall was headed our way. Fortunately, we already had our sails reefed but even then our speed kicked up from 3 knots to 7 knots in a matter of seconds however we were well balanced to ride it out.

We arrived off Providencia at around 9am as planned and as we came in to the anchorage radioed to Gordon to let him know we were coming in, the local checking in agent (Mr Bush) picked up our transmission and we were instructed to come to his offices straight away to clear in to this Colombian Island. So we dropped the anchor in the lovely bay there and jumped into Gordon’s dinghy and were whisked off to check in with immigration and the port captain. Mr Bush ran the general hardware store in which he also had a desk and a few chairs for those checking in, so we sat among the shop hardware for the lengthy check in process. The other officials came to his store to check our passports and issue our cruising certificate. These check ins are always slightly weird when you have been up all night, slightly spaced out and you launch into formal immigration procedures with officials in a strange country and every country has its own process and forms and charges. Here we had to pay $150, whereas Honduras cost us nothing to check in and out and you always wonder how much is official and how much is for the back pocket when charges are high. Some countries insist you use agents (always more expensive) and some you don’t, Mr Bush was an agent so we guessed he took his cut from our fees. We will probably be the last generation who can do this sort of trip. It gets more and more expensive year on year and the game is on to see how much money the various countries can extract from cruising boats which is a shame because cruisers bring financial benefit especially to island communities and it will eventually prove a killing of the golden goose through greed by a few.

 

The lovely bay in Providencia

 
I called this chapter Pirates of Providencia because the island sits just off the Spanish Main and has a perfect horseshoe anchorage, safe for marauding pirates. It was home to Cap’n Morgan and his moll and many other Buccaneers and the family names in the local cemetery here show names on the graves like Hawkins (Jim lad!) Robinson, Hooker (lots of them), Archibold, Bryan and Black. The Island was also a main slave trading centre, they grew tobacco and traded this for slaves. The island is protected by a tricky reef and there are high points around the anchorage to mount canon, it was perfect for their purpose!

 

Harbour at Providencia

 
The island is very pretty with proper hills, trees and beaches and we hired a beach buggy for a day with Gordon and Gillian to tour the island. It takes 3 hours to drive all the way round but we spent a day exploring all the nooks and stopped off at South West Bay, a spectacularly beautiful bay and beach for a swim and a lovely lunch of lobster and fish at a restaurant where our table was set out under the palms, digging our toes into the soft sand we dined well.

 

The beach in Southwest Bay

  

Gordon and Gillian tucking into lunch

 
We continued travelling round the island to the east side which was protected by a long reef with an extraordinary array of colours in the water from the palest turquoise to the deepest blue. Gillian (as opposed to Gill) had a liking for visiting cemeteries and we visited yet another one behind a quaint old church, equally interesting, with plaques commemorating more British settlers from the 18th century. Before our return to the “city” with a little time still to spare on our rental, we decided to utilise our rented mini-moke to collect fuel in 5 gall jerry cans from the local petrol station. This was a lot of easier than previous trips where we had had to lug the cans 100 yards from the petrol station to the dinghy and ferry them over to the boat anchored half a mile away. It was too shallow to get the Romano any nearer

 

one of the old cemetries

 .

Upon recommendation from Gillian, Gill and I then visited a shoreside restaurant to sample their famed homemade corn ice cream, an unusual flavour but very rich and creamy.

 

Colombian navy patrolling at sunset

 
The following day after checking the weather and getting a favourable forecast we cleared out with Mr Bush and left at the crack of dawn the following morning for a two and half day sail to Porvenir in the San Blas islands of Panama a journey of around 250 miles.
The weather forecast proved accurate and we had fair winds to carry us down to Panama which was a relief considering we were shorthanded and I was still very wobbly on my ankles.
As we left Providencia we were escorted from the island by a large school (fifty or more) dolphins who stayed with us for the best part of an hour, jumping and performing alongside the boat, each competing for attention. It was interesting to see their communication with each other and instructions being given by one of the larger members of the school with a slap of the tail. Each time this happened some of the smaller dolphins turned for home until we were left with ten and then finally one (who waved his flipper and wished us bon voyage!!!)

 

Our lovely send off with the dolphins

 
Mid-way we picked up an unusual radar target moving very slowly (3 knots), which as it came into view, it turned out to be a large ocean-going tug towing an old and partly dismantled aircraft carrier and heading for Houston, as indicated by the AIS, we guessed for scrapping.

 

Aircraft carrier under tow off Nicaragua

 
During the night we crossed the main shipping lanes into Panama and the Canal, which was a busy time watching the tracks of numerous ships crossing in front and behind us. This kept us awake playing dodgems until we had cleared the area.
Because of the many reefs around Porvenir, which alone sported two wrecks of recently grounded yachts, we had timed it to arrive in daylight hours and this worked to plan arriving off Porvenir at around 10.00 am.  

  
We dinghied ashore to check in on this tiny sandy island where we discovered a 400 yard concrete airstrip which runs its entire length, together with a couple of shacks and a scruffy little hotel. There are regular flights coming in each day with charter crews. One of the shacks housed the Immigration, Customs and Port Captain’s offices where “piracy” was the name of the game. The fees demanded by the various offices amounted to almost $US400 which didn’t include an additional tax payable to the Kuna National Congresso of $US60 for one month’s cruising in the islands. This was the most expensive place we have yet visited and we were soon to discover that further charges were yet to be levied by the Kuna chiefs on each of their islands we visited.

After 800 miles of sailing from Guatemala we had finally arrived at our next cruising ground with the intention of staying here for a couple of months to explore the 300 or so desert islands that make up the San Blas archipelago.

The Road to Recovery – by Gill

Who would have thought that a simple game of volleyball would have changed all our plans for a whole year as well as placing us for seven weeks in the “World’s Most Dangerous City”! It just goes to show that you never know what’s “round the corner” and the “best laid plans”, and all that … But here we are at long last back on the boat and the last few weeks are already fading into the past. Mike is still wobbly on his two healing ankles but every day sees an improvement and a totter along the sandy beach and long daily swim is reaping great results.

A single out-of-action ankle was one thing but two was quite a different matter. With one, Mike could have returned to Roatan and the boat and with his crutches he would have managed, albeit we could foresee a number of logistic difficulties, but with no legs and in a wheelchair it was impossible. The surgeon was adamant, Mike had to remain in San Pedro Sula and be available every day for physio – no hardship as Estella, a young Colombian girl, was pretty, chatty and firmly insistent when she wanted results.
imageO

Estella cracking the whip – faster, harder, quicker.

Mike progressed from the wheelchair (didn’t quite make it to the wheelie stage), to crutches, to a walking frame and finally on the threat during the last few days that he wouldn’t be allowed to leave unless he could walk without any other aid, to just a cane and his “special” thick black hiking type socks and very sexy supportive matching boots.

The standard of care provided by the hospital was outstanding and would be hard to beat anywhere in the world. The scars on his legs have healed to pencil lines, no infections (and remember this is the tropics) and it would be difficult to tell he had ever had the operations. He has healed well and quickly due in part to the skill of the surgeon but also the post operative care given by Estella. When Mike was due to leave for the apartment and needed a wheel chair they went out and bought a new one and loaned it free of charge. When he needed to progress to a walking frame, Estella arrived with one, everything he needed they provided and offered in such a caring way, he could not have been in better hands.

image   image

Progress from walking frame to cane in two weeks

During the last couple of weeks the therapy progressed to the swimming pool where he was cajoled, threatened and entreated to walk, swim, kick and generally exercise twice a day under water pressure. The tiny swimming pool, sometimes a little on the green side, was the saving grace of the apartment and was somewhere to not only exercise, but just to sit and be outside, although we were still enclosed by high padlocked gates with armed guards manning the premises day and night.

The apartment itself was large and airy with great views out to the nearby mountains and along the valley. Watching the large variety of birds, both domestic and wild was interesting. Trying to close our ears to the incessant crowing cocks (they are obviously oblivious to the fact that they are only supposed to greet the dawn) became irritating. And the pop, pop of gunfire, near and far was unnerving but we were on the fourth floor so we reckoned that any stray bullets wouldn’t reach us!

One very pleasant surprise in all this was the response from our travel health insurance company. Mike contacted them from hospital to let them know he had had an accident and from that moment on they were supportive and responsive. You hear lots of stories of stalling, indifference and taking a hard line by insurance companies but once they understood the situation they agreed to meet all out of pocket expenses including the apartment, all treatment expenses, marina charges for the boat an our flights to and from Roatan Island. They even offered him the opportunity to return to the UK but with everything here going so smoothly that was not necessary.

From our balcony we could look down into the adjoining property, a huge parklike area with a river, trees, paths and lots of birdlife but we were told that we couldn’t go for a walk there and with the ferocious barking at night we thought it better not to chance our luck. So, we were pretty much “under house arrest” except for our weekly outings with Luis, our regular taxi driver.

Luis was an affable, always helpful guy but he had failed to develop his muscles and he struggled manfully with the wheelchair and loading and unloading into his already crowded boot (he ran on LPG and the boot was already half full with the tank) was a two-man operation, but we managed and were always grateful for his ready smile and helping hands. His time keeping was another matter though and on a couple of occasions he just forgot us. Once when I was catching the coach to Copan and Luis himself had set the time, the appointed hour came and went and upon calling him, he made the excuse that his engine had failed to start, but miraculously it came to life again and he got me to the bus station in the nick of time.

When you have little to occupy your day, little things take on a much greater importance and breakfast which was provided by the apartment complex was one of the highlights of our day. The highlight wasn’t so much what we were actually given because that was usually greeted with a groan rather than pleasure, but just the guessing and looking under the cover. I might add that the cleaning ladies who also prepared the meal would enter the apartment and leave the plates on the table any time from about 6.00am onwards. Plates of long ago cooked scrambled egg, cold shrivelled up indescribable bits of sausage, black bean puree (served with everything on every occasion, or so it seems, in Latin America), cold, chewy tortilla and a piece of rubbery tasteless cheese is not something you feel inclined to leap out of bed for, let alone pour yourself at speed into a wheelchair. The other two variations were cold toasted sandwiches complete with limp lettuce or our favourites, pancakes with honey which we heated in the microwave. I did ask for more pancakes and they came for a while but then we reverted to their favourites – scrambled egg, etc. I gave up and Mike ate the reheated scrambled eggs and the rest ended up in the bin. Needless to say we didn’t rely entirely on the provided breakfasts.

One of our few pleasures after the confines of the boat was having a gigantic fridge so we happily shopped without having to think of space or lack of it. The fruit and vegetables in San Pedro were fantastic quality and on one occasion a large sweet melon was added to the shopping to supplement our breakfast fare. Half was plenty for one meal so the other half was left in a bowl in the fridge. Imagine our surprise when by lunchtime the half was down to a quarter and that without any sign of mice or cockroaches in the fridge. Not an important matter but a mystery never the less and one we thought we should raise with the manager as the only other people with access to the apartment were the cleaning ladies and we had trusted them around our belongings and valuables, etc. “No, not me” was the answer given by the lady of the day to me and to Hector, the manager. So who raided our fridge? It remained a mystery but the word had gone out that we were watchful and not to be trifled with! Hector returned later with another huge melon and his heartfelt apologies.

Another pleasure which we had imagined would be ours in the apartment was a long, hot shower. Disappointment again. If we waited a couple of minutes the hot water finally came – scalding – 30 seconds later it disappeared again and we ended a very quick shower in a freezing burst. If we cared to wait another few minutes, already wet and soaped up, more hot water repeated the process. Washing my hair was a lengthy matter turning the taps on and off with a lot of hanging around in between. Mike had to be even more adept with his tap control as he found the most convenient way to have a shower was to sit on the floor with plastic bags covering his feet, so he couldn’t leap out of the way when the water was either too hot or too cold and on occasion a few choice words were uttered!

When they first removed the plaster, we all reeled from the smell of his stinky feet with their thick crust of dying skin and Estella who was at the receiving end requested that he do something about the offending problem toute suite. With no access to shops and a good scraper needed promptly, I volunteered to go in search of a substitute, remembering some rough waste ground opposite the complex. I returned with a selection of small rough stones which served the purpose admirably and after a good hard scrub, two shiny, pink feet emerged. Not sure whether the plughole ever recovered though!

Knowing we were within striking distance of Copan, the Mayan ruins, we had talked about the possibility of both of us taking time at the end to visit for a few days. It soon became obvious that Mike, even on his feet, would not be up to the venture. So, it was decided that once he was self-sufficient, with everything within reach, I would go to Copan on my own. Also a few days out of the apartment might save my sanity!

Copan is only about three hours by coach from San Pedro Sula and I was excited to have the opportunity to see a little more of the countryside. Like Guatemala, it’s beautiful with its mountains, valleys and rolling lush countryside. Tiny villages along the way indicated a mixture of modern and traditional life with the ubiquitous mobile phones in evidence everywhere, smart modern cars parked alongside the rusting wrecks half hidden under covering vines and horse-drawn carts trotting along dusty tracks. Women still gather in the rivers to do their washing and lay their clothes out on the rocks to dry. It was amazing to see people planting their crops, plant by plant on near vertical slopes (or that’s how they appeared to me) and slashing at crops with only machete-type tools. The fields stretched into the distance – what a hard life.

image

The steep roads in Coban

Copan is a lovely little town set on the side of a hill with picturesque buildings and steep cobbled streets on three sides. The main square was only one block from where I was staying and I was very happy to spend the afternoon exploring the town and then sit on a wall nodding hello to the friendly passersby watching a kaleidoscope of surrounding activity. As always, there were women selling fruit and cooking unfathomable dishes – usually something including tortillas of some kind.

Pupusas turned out to be the popular dish of the day – soft tortillas which are slapped into shape with a meat or veg filling poked into the middle, flattened and then cooked on a griddle or pan – delicious. The sights were simple but fascinating and it was therapeutic to sit in the sunshine and observe the scene.

image

Making papusas in Coban

The jolly icecream man with his handcart attracting attention with a little bell, the orange man pushing his wheelbarrow full of wonderfully juicy, sweet oranges stopping upon request to quick peel an orange on his machine, the local men in their Panama cowboy hats and the children in their mini fashion outfits. Overlooking all of this was the usual pretty church with a poster at the entrance, requesting that gum should not be chewed in church and please do not stick it under the seats!

IMG_0293

Coban fruit seller in the man square

image

Just passing the time of day

IMG_0298

Orange seller at at work with his peeler

The following morning it was overcast and cool, not a bad thing for a day of ruin-climbing and exploring. I followed the road back to the nearby ruins, skirting the heavily policed roadblock (apparently drug runs are frequent and this morning was no exception) and was amused that the police in the midst of their duties still had time to wave to me – lone gringo women hikers are probably still a bit of a novelty. The national bird of Honduras is the red macaw and these magnificent birds welcome you to the site. Dozens of them fly freely through the trees, encouraged to remain by being well fed and they are obviously very used to tourists, swooping low over our heads.

image

Red Macaws at the Coban ruins site

I had come to Copan because it’s there and not with any real hope that I would find it much different from the other sites we have seen, but I was wrong and so pleasantly surprised and impressed by the incredible stelae – the carved columns with their intricately sculpted integral hieroglyphics which document so much history of the Mayan culture, most of it still to be deciphered. The hieroglyphic staircase must have been magnificent and the still visible relief on so many of the remaining buildings is remarkable.

image

Beautifully carved stellar

image

The heiroglyphic staircase

During my wander through the site, I talked to a number of fellow sightseers, including an American doing voluntary work in El Salvador and his companions, a Salvadorian priest and a young woman from his village (I learned later that her father was the current mayor). They invited me to join them and we later explored another smaller but none the less interesting site where the nobility and scribes (very important people in that day) had lived away from the hoy poloi, a couple of miles down the road. To finish off a great day I drove back to Copan with my new friends and enjoyed their company and a great dinner whilst also having to practise my limited Spanish with non English speakers.

image

Dinner with new friends

San Pedro Sula seemed to us like any other bustling, affluent city with busy malls, modern buildings, plenty of evidence of industry, billboard advertising, just about everything you would expect and no obvious signs of poverty. It was hard to believe that we were in the midst of gangland, but apparently that’s where we were. It was brought home to me when I had been to the dentist and was waiting outside in the street for Mike and Luis to return for me. I started talking to a lady in one of the “hole in the wall” type snack places and she insisted that I join her inside her “hole” as it wasn’t safe for me to remain on the outside especially carrying a bag, so I sat and chatted for half an hour or so being questioned on personal information that no European would ever dream of asking about!

We had thought, mistakenly, that San Pedro Sula might have something of interest in its centre and so for something different to do, we got Luis to drop us off at the museum. Mike was still very reliant on his wheelchair at the time but with some help from a kind passerby, we lifted him up the 3 steps into the entrance. We had been assured that everything was on the ground floor. Once inside and about to pay for our tickets it became obvious that the exhibits were on the first floor with a magnificent stone staircase being the only access. My shoulders are not that broad and a fireman’s lift was out of the question so unfortunately we had to abandon the whole idea. Getting him back down the three steps was bad enough, none of the women were strong enough to help me lift the chair with Mike in it, so he resorted to sliding out and shuffling down on his bottom and then being heaved back in again at the foot of the steps.

image

The lifting crew

He then endured the uneven pavements and difficult to mount kerbs, not without a little complaining I might add, back into the centre and we manoeuvred our way around the square and into the side streets to await Luis’ return. Sightseeing in San Pedro Sula was off the menu!

image

Shaken but not stirred

Shopping in the modern, well stocked and laid out malls was a different matter though and was our treat of the week. We had no trouble filling the trolley with Mike whizzing up and down the aisles in his wheelchair, returning with goodies. Despite its obscure position and very narrow access, he soon located the beer and wine department, of course, like a well trained sniffer dog and returned with a big grin on his face and the week’s supply on his lap!

The standard of care provided by the hospital was outstanding and would be hard to beat anywhere in the world. The scars on his legs have healed to pencil lines, no infections (and remember this is the tropics) and it would be difficult to tell he had ever had the operations. He has healed well and quickly due in part to the skill of the surgeon but also the post operative care given by Estella. When Mike was due to leave for the apartment and needed a wheel chair they went out and bought a new one and loaned it free of charge. When he needed to progress to a walking frame, Estella arrived with one, everything he needed they provided and offered in such a caring way, he could not have been in better hands.

Apart from a missing filling and a trip to the dentist, I thought I would take the opportunity to visit an acupuncturist to try and alleviate a problem in my wrist and lower arm (not greatly painful but causing some discomfort during the yoga exercises I had been doing to pass away the hours and keep the joints working). The doctor diagnosed tendonitis but I hadn’t banked on having deep massage as well as acupuncture and certainly not from a shot-putting, sadistic torturer who had thumbs of solid steel. “It’s OK, it’s suppose to hurt, I’m just moving the pain along and it will be better next time”. Huh … I didn’t feel the acupuncture and was happy to endure the relief of just the needles! I was told that I needed at least three sessions and despite the bruises and the fact that most of my upper body now hurt, I thought I’d better return as directed. The second session was a repeat of the first and my slight discomfort had been replaced by a large discomfort down the whole of my arm. To cut a long story short, I did return for the third session, but just for a session of acupuncture with electric needles – a walk in the park after the massage. I can’t say that I feel any better but the expensive cream, pills and wrist brace will hopefully do the trick in time!!

It’s good to be home and back in French Harbour although the place has changed in our absence, our friends have all left, the marina is even more of a shambles than before, although we are assured that the palapa is about to be rebuilt, there will shortly be wifi and the bar will be re-opened. We’ll believe it when we see it, if it happens before we leave.

Joce, our new Canadian crew member, arrives on 7th March and we hope to be able to leave here a week later, first a gentle initiation for Joce and for Mike’s newly mended ankles with a sail to the nearby Cayos Cochinos, tiny islands which are supposed to be well worth a visit and then on to Trujillo and finally Guanaja to check out and head south to Panama and the San Blas. Fingers crossed …. We understand that internet will be a problem once we are in the San Blas but watch this space and we will be on line again with the next episode, probably in May.

Drama at French Harbour

When Gill and I were staying at Nanuana Marina on the Rio Dulce we met a great Australian couple, Nick and Andrea who were cruising with their two teenage daughters Ella and Millie. They left the Rio a few weeks after we did and arrived in Roatan a couple of days after I left for hospital. Since Gill’s departure they have been checking on our boat and communicating regularly on what’s happening at Fantasy Island, French Harbour. On one of their emails they sent a dramatic account of a rescue on the reef outside French Harbour which I thought might be interesting to people following our blog. Rob, mentioned in the text is crewing with them for this part of the voyage.

image   image

Nick and Andrea

“Last night there was meant to be a “pot luck” (bring your own meat to barbeque and a salad or side to share) on the beach but the easterly built steadily during the afternoon, blowing at about 35knots at dusk. We have protection from the open sea due to the barrier reef but no protection from the wind. The harbour became choppy and blinding rain blocked out other boats near us. Everyone (myself included) was batching their anchors, being on a lee shore. There is very little sunset/sunrise here so therefore no real dusk. Just on nightfall the topic of conversation on the VHF radio was the fact that a few boats had clocked 51knots – it was howling.

Then, a few minutes later a call came over the radio, “attention any boats in the anchorage, I have lost steering and am on the reef. My keel is pounding on the rocks. I am a 43 foot monohull, can anyone call a tug or assist in any way?” An American Lady who is sort of a permanent resident here took control and organised a sort of work/dive boat to assist. A smaller dive boat with an 85hp outboard also headed down. We were all listening to the radio as the two boats tried to drag the monohull off the reef. The breeze dropped to about 20knots so Rob and I took the opportunity to scoot to shore to pick up Robs bag which contained the meat for the barbeque which was not going to happen now. Still in our tender having arrived back at Muneera we heard a not so good conversation over the radio. A female voice was shrieking for a knife to cut a rope and then “we are tipping, we are tipping, we are over, the boat is over, the boat is up side down”. We grabbed a couple of buckets, told the kids (all four of them) to monitor the radio, Andrea jumped into our tender as well and the three of us zoomed off into the black.

It took us a little while to find the yacht which was still on the reef but just on the edge, mostly floating. I was surprised to see only one boat assisting, a sort of work boat with an inboard engine, about 20 feet long, with only one guy on board. There was a man and a woman on the yacht and the work boat was trying to get close enough to grab a tow line from the yacht but was having trouble. We gunned it to the yacht and asked what we could do. The couple were clearly flustered so Rob jumped onboard, headed to the bow and sorted the line out, passing the end to Andrea. We motored backwards in our tender (better steering under load) and managed to pull the bow of the yacht around and therefore creating enough length in the line to pass it to the work boat. I motored back to the yacht and asked the guy what else we could do. He asked me to check on the other boats that were helping him and pointed into the black. Rob stayed on the yacht to help with the tow as the yacht had no steering, Andrea and I headed toward a light against a black shore line.

Approaching at speed and I thought I noticed someone in the water beside the boat ahead of me and quickly slowed down. There was another work boat similar to the one we had just left and beside it was a narrow dive boat, about 18 feet long with three or four rows of seats, on its side, completely submerged, with three people on the work boat trying to right it with lines and two people in the water on the other side of the submerged dive boat. I drove around to the other side and jumped onto the work boat while Andrea did the same, tying our tender to the rear of the work boat. With Andrea’s and my help we managed to right the dive boat and hold it upright, beside the work boat, albeit submerged, while the work boat drove slowly to the Roatan Yacht Club which is situated on a sort of canal and is quite protected, a trip that took about 30 minutes. Once there the work boat guys used a barge with a crane to lift the dive boat by its transom while the bow was tethered to the dock. Once the dive boat was lifted above its gunwales it able to be bailed and float on it own. This is the only time during the operation that I became cold. Another squall his us while we were bailing the boat and because I was only stabilising the boat and not physically doing much, the wind and heavy rain made me quite cold. Sensible Andrea was wearing a wet weather jacket, I was not. The dive boat looked in ok condition, the outboard being a 85hp Yamaha two stroke which should flush easily enough.

Talking to the lady from the dive boat while it was being bailed I found out the following; The work boat was pulling the yacht forward off the reef while the dive boat was pulling the yacht over to the side with one of the yacht halyards, coming from the top of its mast. The dive boat pulled the yacht forward at speed which pulled the it backwards as it was attached to the yachts halyard by its transom. This drove the transom of the dive boat under the water and it flipped. Nobody on the dive boat had a knife which had the halyard been cut, the incident would have been avoided.

Andrea and I motored our tender back to the harbour with one of the guys that was on the dive boat. The yacht was being moored in front of the resort as we arrived. We picked up Rob and had a brief chat to the couple on the yacht. They had been entering the harbour having motored from Utila that morning. They said they had done this many times before and had their previous tracks on their plotter. There is a natural channel that dog legs through the reef, not something that you would attempt on a nice day without way points or a track. They said they were half way across the reef heading to the first dog leg when a large fishing trawler came barging through the natural channel and literally stopped in front of them, causing them to stop and loose way. Upon loosing way they were picked up by a wave and thrown onto the reef, smashing their rudder or breaking their steering mechanism. Don’t forget it was between 40 and 50 knots at the time. They have no idea why the trawler stopped in front of them. We headed back to Muneera for hot showers and a late dinner. The kids were all fine having fed themselves. ”

That was a very courageous thing for Nick and Andrea to have done, braving 55 knot winds and seas to go to the aid of a stricken yacht on a reef but typical of them. It’s a great example of cruisers helping other cruisers, we all share the same risks and you know one day it might be you. You find this spirit of selflessness and mutual support with many cruisers but this was a sterling effort.
Well done you two but I would have thought the girls could have had dinner waiting for you!