Exploring Almirante Bay

On October 1, we cheerfully left the dock, picked up 100 gallons of fuel, and headed out with four other boats from the marina for a week to ten days’ worth of relaxation. In the group were Pamela Jean, a 50-foot Formosa cutter from Texas with Bill and Pam aboard; Mariah, a 63-foot Choy Lee sloop with Evelyn and Dave from Key West; Serenity, with Steve (who’s the staff captain on NCL’s Norwegian Jade); all following Guavi, with Ariel and Michelle from Puerto Rico out to some of the islands and anchorages in Bahia Almirante.

Cayo de Agua (Water Cay)

Our first stop was Cayo de Agua (Water Cay), where one of our marina-mates has property he’s hoping to turn into an eco-resort. The weather was fantastic – the sea flat as a table – which was a good thing, because Cayo de Agua is right up against the Caribbean. We anchored on the south side of the cay, off Daniel’s dock, where we were greeted wildly by his three mixed-blood hound dogs who have the run of the place when Daniel isn’t there.

An afternoon walk showed us that “eco-resort” is a stretch – Daniel has a couple of local guys who watch over the place; who have hacked a few steps into the hillsides; who have built a palapa-covered platform with hammocks for barbecuing and lounging; and who have dammed a little creek in the hopes of providing a fresh water reservoir. Primitive would about cover it.

Zapatillas National Park

After a calm night at anchor, that featured dinner aboard with Steve and Amy of Serenity, we rounded up a dinghy flotilla for a tour of the north side of the island and a bit of snorkeling. The beaches were beautiful, the sea was flat, and the company was great. In the evening, we gathered in Daniel’s palapa for a pot-luck barbecue, drinks, and stories.


Jan doing Cheesecake at Zapatillas

The next morning, we formed up to motor over to the Zapatilla Cays, twin islets that comprise a national park here in Panama. On the way over, the starboard engine overheated, so we ran on one engine, dropped anchor, and Ole set out to discover what was wrong. Jan was off with the rest of the dinghy flotilla to explore the easternmost of the cays. It’s beautiful – a storybook white sand islet ringed with palm trees and featuring well-maintained walking trails through jungle and mangrove. We cut through the center of the island, then waded around the western half, back to where we started.


When I got back to the boat, it was to discover that the starboard engine would NOT turn over, no matter what Ole did to it. Luckily, Steve on Serenity has the same Ford Lehman engine, and a stash of extra engine parts that Ole can try to cobble the engine back together.

We pulled anchor in the early afternoon, and then motored just half an hour to an anchorage off of Punta Vieja. Again, couldn’t fault the weather. The seas were bathtub flat. We would never attempt this anchorage for an overnight if there were any hint of wind. All of us agreed to meet at the bar at a little resort called Natural. It’s one of those all-inclusive places where, for about $150 a night, you get accommodation, three meals a day family style, transportation, and use of snorkel equipment, kayaks, and the like. The bar was charming, and Martin, the host, had made a special trip back to Bocas to stock it for us, as the ten of us added about 60% to his business. The dinghy trip back was spectacular with bioluminescence the locals call “estrellas” (stars) in the coral. The next day, Ole opted to stay aboard and work on the engine, while I went out for a snorkel with Steve and Amy. Still no luck getting it started. So another evening was spent at the bar, commiserating with the locals and telling stories to each other over several gin and tonics.

Salt Creek Ngobe-Bugle Village

In the morning, we caravanned up a little river to a Ngobe-Bugle village called Salt Creek, where friends from Marina Carenero have established a mission. The tiny Indian village is neat, tidy, and friendly, located about a quarter-mile up a paved path from the dock. Mike and Christine, the missionaries, are working with the village to establish itself as a tourist destination and craft center. The crafts, though primitive, are well-priced and include bags woven of natural fiber, carved and painted fish and sea creatures, and jewelry made of shell.

We must have touched bottom in the river on the way out, though, because the dinghy wouldn’t get up to speed – the propeller just freewheeled past a certain point. Jeez, it’s always something.

We all opted to move to Crawl Cay, a snorkeling spot popular with the lancha traffic ferrying backpackers from Bocas. We arrived right at lunch time, found a calm spot to anchor in about 25 feet, and dinghied over to a great little over-the-water restaurant for lunch – some of the best conch ever! And very expensive, for here. Two plates of conch, two beers, and a rum punch set us back about $50!

The next morning, all of us decided to head back to the marina. It was a full few days, but not nearly what we wanted. Engine troubles being what they are here in the third world, it made sense for us to head back – but we were disappointed not to have had more time away.

As soon as we were tied up, and the engines cooled, Ole was back down in the “basement,” still trying to troubleshoot. Finally, after a couple of days of trying a, b, and c, he discovered water in the cylinders (not good) and traced it to a shredded exhaust manifold which, of course, is not available in Central America. Several phone calls and boat units later, we have the parts coming from American Diesel in Virginia, hopefully in time to have them installed before Ole has to go back to work on November 17.

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