Checking Out, And Checking The Mail

Kalugir Tupu 09o 35.201’ North 078o 41. 799’ West

October 28, 2002

In a national post-traumatic terror during which American airport security guards confiscate nail clippers from potentially murderous octogenarians, it’s tough to imagine the lackadaisical attitude that marks immigration procedures in the San Blas. We were here nearly three weeks before we checked in. We checked out three weeks ago, and we’re still here. Nobody seems to care.

| | Photo courtesy of Karen Wolfe| | Four sailboats on a Kuna mola * * *| Most cruisers on the Atlantic side of Panama check in at Porvenir, San Blas, or in Colon on the mainland. Porvenir was more convenient for us. It cost just under $100 and took about 20 minutes, mostly because the official was a slow typist. We could’ve smuggled in heaven-knows-what, because no one inspected the boat.

Checking out was even more lax. We’d planned to return to Porvenir, and one day we sailed right by it; going in would have required tacking, so we went to the Lemon Cays instead, figuring that one day we’d mosey over and process our papers. But about 7 a.m. the next day a large lancha propelled by an impressive outboard surprised us by coming through our sleepy anchorage. It went ashore to pick up a man from Nuinudup, one of the Lemon Cays. As they zoomed by Ithaka, I recognized the immigration officer from his distinctive baseball cap, which I’d coveted when I first saw it: I beckoned them over with a wave, hoping I might hitch a ride over to Porvenir (five miles or so) and return at the end of the day, figuring I could get our passports stamped, load up on some veggies at the local market, and secure our next destination travel permit (a zarpe) for Cartagena, Colombia.


| | Ithaka, under her forward awning, at dawn* * *| They said they’d be happy to run me in with the shuttle, but why bother? _”Estamos aqui ahorra”_ (we’re here right now). Bernadette lowered fenders, the _lancha_ tied alongside, and the immigration and customs man hopped aboard _Ithaka_. Armed with their plastic satchels, rubber inkpads and official stamps, they sat at the cockpit table and went to work, while the other four men in the _lancha_ started fishing. Within 15 minutes they were done, and Bernadette, _Ithaka,_ and I were officially cleared out of Panama. Señor Lopez left with the $30 dollar fee, a few new fish hooks, some monofilament line, and box of crayons for his kids. And I got his hat! He now has a handsome green Interlux model, which had been on my head, and I’m now sporting a cap that reads “KIKE LEGISLATOR.” Señor Garrido Kike (pronounced key-cay) is a Kuna politician in the _congreso_ who ran for _presidente_. I love my hat.

Señor Lopez made it clear that we didn’t need to leave anytime soon, even though we were cleared out. When we asked about the policy, he shrugged, and stressed that whatever’s convenient for us would be fine with him. Can you imagine going into an immigration office in Boston and telling them you’d be leaving the United States from, say, Washington, DC, in a few weeks or so, and could they please, by the way, clear all this for you now, cause it’s kind of a hassle to circle back here later?

Speaking of fees for customs and immigration, we received an e-mail recently from a reader who’s getting ready to go cruising next year and wants to get a clearer idea of how much fees run from country to country. As we get ready to leave the San Blas for Cartagena, Colombia, and as we await the right weather window, now seems like a good time to answer that one, as well as a few other questions posed by readers. We had a chance to pick up our e-mail when we were in Linton a few weeks ago, and read all the letters from you. Thank you so much for so much input, and for telling us your own stories; we really appreciate the perspective, and the kind words.


| | Tom and Nancy Zydler’s comprehensive cruising guide to the Panama coast* * *| Joe L. wrote to tell us that he and his wife have found the 43-footer they’ve been dreaming of going cruising on, and within the next few years, they want to set out to explore the Caribbean. “So, what are we really looking at in terms of money to clear in and clear out of all these countries?” asked Joe.

In Mexico we paid $33 coming in and $30 checking out. Plus we got hit for a $5 “gift,” so that the official wouldn’t have to bother coming out to the boat. In Belize, it was $50 coming in and $25 for each 30-day extension. Again we got hit for a gift by an official who didn’t wish to get wet in his lancha. One friend of ours paid $30 there for an extension; another paid $35; and one couple we knew got hit in Belize City for $165 to import their dog. A rule of thumb seems to be that it’s best to enter and exit in smaller towns where the larceny of officialdom is correspondingly diminished. Regardless of the written law, officials are “the real law.” In Honduras we paid $15 coming in and $5 for each month’s extension. Friends of ours paid $20 for an extension in the same office with the same man. I think we paid less because when he told me the price I grabbed my chest and fell to the floor. Apparently he liked my performance. Your capacity to entertain may save you several dollars. We recently heard on the Northwest Caribbean Net that the Honduran government has dropped the entry fee all together.

| | The port captain’s office in Guanaja* * *| We paid $50 to check in and out of Isla de Providencia, Colombia. Fifty-five miles south of there, even though it’s still Colombia, the fees for San Andres were $40, plus $7 for each of us for a “cruising permit.” In Colombia, every time you leave one island and go to the next, you have to check in again, and use an agent, so we have no idea what the “real” costs are. We know of a Spanish boat that maintained they had the international right to lay over for two days with no fee, and managed to do so!


Regardless of the occasional pinch of a few extra dollars, this litany of our fees will give you an idea of what you can expect when cruising Latin America. It’s always a good idea to check on the morning SSB net, and ask other cruisers what they paid to check into a place to which you are going. Then you’re prepared.

| | I haul a friend aloft to check masthead fittings. Cruisers are always quick to come to each other’s assistance on maintenance chores on each other’s boats.* * *| Rick C. of Minneapolis wrote: “Some time back, you wrote about having trouble with your depth sounder. You thought it was caused by your alternator. What ever happened? Do you have a working depth sounder now? By the way, I really like reading all the details of what projects you do on _Ithaka_. It gives me a realistic picture of what the cruising life is really like.”

Thanks, Rick. The cruising life is, indeed, one of constant maintenance and projects. We’re glad you like reading the Logs. Now, on to our depth-sounder saga. When we left the States to go cruising in May 2000, we purchased for our spares inventory a Balmar high-output alternator, and it was a good thing we did. We’d been out less than a year when, out of the blue, the 10-year-old unit on our engine (not a Balmar) gave up the ghost. We put on the replacement and were back in business the same day, pumping amps as usual. However, we discovered as soon as we set out for our next destination, that the new alternator emitted a radio frequency that interfered with our depth sounder, giving us erratically incorrect readings. Not good. This alternator is only for the house bank of batteries and can be toggled on and off, so when we were getting near the shallows, when we really needed accurate depth readings, that’s what we did—we turned it off. But this was not an ideal solution. We added a noise filter, but even that didn’t fix the problem.


| | I swapped one new Balmar alternator with another, and our “noise” problem was solved.* * *| When we coughed up the dough for another alternator, to have as a new spare, I did an experiment. I took the “first spare” off the engine and put on the brand-new identical second one—both Balmars. Sure enough, our troubles vanished, and the depth sounder was happy again. And when I called Balmar and told them what happened, they were surprised, but immediately said, “No problem. We’re happy to replace the first one. Just ship it back to us and then we’ll swap it out.” When I told them we were in the San Blas islands, and had a friend coming down to visit in a few days time, who could bring the new one along if he could get it quickly, they didn’t hesitate. They Fed-Exed it to our friend Barry overnight, all on good faith that we’d return the questionable unit, which we later did. It was refreshing to find a company that stood by their products, and that understood the logistical challenges that face cruisers’, as well as technology. Many thanks to Balmar.

“In one of your recent logs you used the word PIRATE,” noted Morrie B in Galveston, Texas. “Is that an exaggeration? Is there really such a thing today or is this just macho cruiser-talk?”

The word “pirate” is used a lot in this part of the world, because many of the people in the islands on the western side of the Caribbean trace their ancestry to actual pirates who ended up living down here, and mixing with the local population. But to be realistic, cruising sailors today are more likely to have an outboard or dinghy stolen than they are to be boarded by pirates. However, sometimes it does happens. During the past two years, we’ve heard little of violence, but mostly of thefts, everywhere from the Rio Dulce ($2,000 from an anchored boat), Belize (a dinghy, near Belize City), Mexico (a dinghy, at Cozumel), and Cuba (shoes).

So, are there pirates? Sure, although they’re mainly interested in commercial ships. If you want to keep current on where they are and what they’re up to, log on to the net and check out the weekly report from a division of the International Chamber of Commerce called The IMB Piracy Reporting Centre, which is located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Their website is

| | While I scan the piracy reports, which confirm my outlook on life, Bernadette kicks back and refuses to worry about it.* * *| The IMB defines piracy as “An act of boarding or attempting to board any ship with the apparent intent to commit theft or any other crime and with the apparent intent or capability to use force in the furtherance of that act.” This definition includes attempted attacks whether the ship is stationary or under way. As recently as August 13, 2002, for example, the IMB transmitted the following “urgent message” to all vessels that have an Inmarsat-C receiver. “Recently a number of ships have been hijacked by Somalian pirates who then demand substantial sums as ransom from ship owners. Ships should keep at least 50 miles and if possible 100 miles from the Somali coast. Use of radio communications including VHF in these waters should be kept to a minimum. Ships anchoring near or passing close to the Somali coast should note that they will be seized by pirates.”

The most recent violent act against a cruiser that we’ve heard of in the southwest Carribean was in San Andres in August, when a Canadian sailboat, Day By Day, was boarded at night. They’d arrived earlier that day and dropped anchor among a number of fishing boats, somewhat distant from shore. That night, men with flashlights and knives taped and tied them up, robbed them of their money, and much of their electronics, and stabbed both people, one in the arm and one in the leg. Fortunately, the wounds were not life-threatening, and Sylvette from Day By Day announced on the morning net that as soon as they recover they intend to leave! One can only guess at how awful this experience must have been. Their recommendation is to avoid San Andres altogether, but if you do go (and we very much enjoyed ourselves there and would happily return), it’s recommended that you anchor not with the fishing fleet, but closer to shore, off the Club Nautico docks, which is where 99.9% of the yachts anchor and experience no problem.

| | Once we find a secluded anchorage, and get the hook firmly planted, we like to stay awhile.* * *| Alain K. writes: “Sometimes you write about lobster hunting. How actually does one ‘hunt’ a lobster? I thought lobsters were caught with traps…”

Ah, one of my favorite subjects! There are lots of tools used to hunt lobsters. But first you’ve got to think like one. Lobsters are like people who prefer to back their cars into the garage, sleep there all day, and only go out at night to play. So to find them you need to dive down to look for underwater garages, which normally mean holes in the rocks, little caves or ledges. Because lobsters are nocturnal, it’s rare to see them in action, but when you do, they’re inspiring. Their strong tails flex hard and pull them backwards at an impressive clip, usually in the opposite direction from you.

People hunt them all different ways, but first you have to find them, and often their only give-away signs are the tips of a pair of antennae sticking our from some hidey-hole. I’ve seen a variety of hunting instruments. Some people prefer a two- or three-foot stick with a sharpened shepherd’s crook at the end, fashioned either from a mammoth fish hook or from some old rebar that’s been bent and ground down. The key with this gaff-style tool is to snag the lobster with the hook and pull him out of his hole. Other people shoot them with pole spears or spear guns, and I’ve also seen clever noose systems, some commercial but most home-made. The wide open-wire noose is slipped around them from behind and then snugged tight. The advantage of this system is that if the “bug,” is too small or a pregnant female, it can be released unharmed.

| | The spiny Caribbean and Spanish slipper lobsters* * *| Unlike the cold-water New England lobsters, Caribbean spiny lobsters don’t have claws, which makes them easier to grab, although without a pair of gloves (I wear black plastic industrial work gloves) their-rock hard shell, with plenty of sharp barbs, can carve a quick number on your hands. Here in the San Blas, we’ve also been eating Spanish or slipper lobsters, which look much different from the spiny. We buy them from local fisherman for a dollar apiece. The Red Lobster airplane, which stops at several islands twice a week to pick up the haul, doesn’t want Spanish slippers because, we’re told, “They look different, so Americans won’t buy them. They don’t look like what Americans are used to.”

The Spanish lobster (Sycllarides aequinoctialis) is sometimes called a shovel-nosed lobster; they’re usually 6-12 inches long, with a fat meaty tail that can be three inches across and four or five inches long—plenty of meat! They live at 30-130 feet and are much harder to spot because they don’t have long, barbed, red and brown give-away antennae but instead flattened, rounded plate-like antenna that are short and smooth. They tend to have a mottled, reddish-brown or orange-brown body—perfect camouflage among the rock sand coral—and sometimes they have light purple spots on abdomen and body. Their legs, which you can’t see until you catch one and turn it over, are short and yellow with brown markings.

The lobster that most of us are familiar with in warm water is the Caribbean spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus). With its brighter colors and long antennae, it’s easier to spot. (Like the slipper lobster it, too, is from the order Decapoda, or ten legs.) The spiny is gloriously prehistoric looking. It has rhino-like sharp horns above its black and beady eyes. Spinies can grow as large as two feet. They tend to live in depths from 3 to 100-plus feet, and often cohabitate with moray eels. Best not to stick your hand directly into their bedroom.

| | Bernadette likes to do the shopping for veggies herself. Otherwise, I come back with carrots that look like this.* * *| “Is it difficult to get provisions in the San Blas Islands?” writes Jeanette R. “We’ll be following your path down the Northwest Caribbean almost exactly, starting this month, and hope to be in the San Blas in a year or two. There’s so much to learn! Thanks for forging the path for us…”

Good for you! We’ve been very pleasantly surprised how easy it is to get fresh foods here in the San Blas. First of all, it’s important to provision seriously with all your staples when you have the chance to shop in modern supermarkets along the mainland coast, or at the more populated islands. That said, once you’re in the San Blas, there are enterprising Kunas who make it their business to drive around in their big ulus, with their powerful Yamahas on the back, and to offer the cruisers fresh produce, as well as chicken, eggs, and all manner of other foods. One or two will also order stuff for you from Panama City for about a 20% surcharge (always negotiate a firm price before ordering). The Kuna towns on the mainland are also fairly decent for picking up tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onions, eggs, cucumbers, pineapples, mangoes, oranges, bananas, and a few other vegetables and fruits. Provisioning isn’t a problem down here.

| | We haven’t done much bread baking since we arrived in the San Blas, because the Kunas make these long little bread loaves and sell them everywhere.* * *| Linda E from Scituate, Massachusetts, writes, “Of all the places you’ve gone to and will go to, how many of those countries accept American dollars? If you have to do currency exchange, is it a convenient thing?

While we hide some cash in large bills for emergencies, and small bills for odds and ends, mostly we use credit cards in ATM machines to get local currencies. This has never been a problem in Central America. In Belize and Panama, American dollars are the currency of choice; their national currencies are pegged directly to the dollar; in neither country did we bother to get local money.

| | Illustration from a wall mural in Nargana.| | We’re as slow as turtles, and like it that way. * * *|

Samuel G. writes, “I’ve been reading these logs for more than two years now, and I’m absolutely addicted to them. But with all due respect, I’ve got to say you two must be among the slowest cruisers in the entire universe…”

Thank you; we gratefully accept your compliment, no matter how you meant it! Perhaps the best way to respond is to quote Jane Hamilton, from her grand novel, A Map of the World. “When I was a kid I used to think that bravery involved action… Now I realize that… the only thing you really need for bravery is standing still.”

e-mail the Bernons: [email protected]


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