|CrystalblueoceanSailing and Diving Around the World|
sailing and diving around the world
I'm adding this post, months after I arrived back in Toronto, and I'm too lazy to go find my journal to give the arrival time and other info. It was an uneventful trip on the way over, in any case, but the time spent in Colon wasn't pleasant. It was just Seb and I now, as Markus decided to stay and explore the San Blas Islands, and then head over to Bocas del Toro, the famous, and breathtakingly beautiful, Panamanian archipelago.
I guess this will be my first post describing my dislike of a city. When we arrived in Colon it felt like I was coming home. I've been to Panama so many times now. Every other time I'd been here, though, the owner paid for a slip at Shelter Bay Marina, the place where everyone that is transiting the Panama Canal stays. Seb decided to stick with the usual thing and chose to anchor. However, the first night, we anchored just outside the entrance to the Shelter Bay channel. By the time we set the hook it was dark. We were just settling down for with a cold beer when we saw the flashing blue lights of the Panamanian Police boat. They greeted us in a friendly manner and told us that we weren't supposed to anchor in this spot and that the anchorage was on the other side of the bay. They said we could stay where we were for the night and leave in the morning. Perfect. After our beer, we dinghied ashore and went to the shelter Bay Hotel restaurant. We had dinner and did some skyping and checked emails, the usual stuff. After a few hours we headed back to the boat for some well-needed rest.
The next morning we were up early, pulled up the anchor and headed to the anchorage on the other side of the bay. Once we got there, we couldn't make out the anchorage. There was only one other boat there, which looked more like a commercial vessel vessel. The fact that there were no other cruisers there, and that the entire area is industrial, we were confused as to where we were supposed to go to clear in. After we dropped the hook we got into the dingy and set out to find the customs and immigration office. Now, it's true, we didn't do much research about Colon, but we figured it would be like any other port. Some customs offices are closer than others, some easier to get than others, but they are always located somewhere near the anchorage or marina. I've been all over the world and it has always been this way. Not here in Colon. Whoever put the anchorage where it is definitely isn't a boater. Seb remembered reading somewhere that the old Colon Yacht Club's dinghy dock was still there and we could tie up there while we went ashore to clear in. Some of you might be wondering why we didn't clear in at the San Blas Islands. There are no bank machines anywhere in the the San Blas, so we didn't have enough cash on us.
So, we dinghied into a little bay where the old yacht club used to be and searched for this dinghy dock. We came up on the only building that looked like it could have been a yacht club, but it was fenced in. In fact, this is what troubled us. The entire area surrounding the anchorage was fenced in because it was the customs area, where all of the good coming off the ships were held. We were even looking for a hole in the fence that might be big enough for us pass through, so that we could walk over to the nearest street. Of course we didn't attempt it because we didn't want to get shot by the security people. Besides, once we were back in the dinghy and far enough away from shore to get a better look beyond the fence, we could see that we were in the 'ghetto' part of Colon. Even if we had made it to the street without getting shot, who knows what would have been waiting for us in those neighborhoods. Anyway, we realized that we would have to dinghy over a mile before we could get past the fences and get to a customs office. So, we dinghied out the inlet and headed north, out of the anchorage.
I didn't express the worst of my worries to Seb, but I'm sure he was thinking the same thing...... I hope the dinghy engine withstands. Most people don't use their dinghies for much more than going from their boats to shore. Shore is usually fairly close. The fact that the dinghy engine isn't really ever pushed very hard is also the excuse for many boaters to not pay it much attention in the way of servicing. That's why you see so many old and beat up dingy engines everywhere. Most of them seem to last forever, as long as you don't push them, like we were doing to ours on this particular day. The sea was rough, and we had a long way to go. As we neared the huge cargo docks, with the monstrous cranes hovering over them, we started to see all of the pilot boats and tugs boats zooming all over the place. We had to dodge through them all, including the big ships that were being pushed around by the tugboats. The whole time I'm praying, "please little dinghy engine, don't conk out on us." Once we got past the main docks, we began to realize how far away from the boat were now, and how much further we had to go to get to the end of the security fences. And we still didn't how much further beyond the fences we would have to go. Seb turned to me and said, "shit, I forgot to bring a headlight." I was thinking the same thing. If we had to do this all over again, in the dark, we were in trouble.
So, on and on we went, with me listening intently for any changes in the sound of the little dinghy engine. The security fences finally ended and we could see the shore. In fact, we were close enough to have called out to some of the people on shore. When I got a good look at the condition of the neighborhoods I started to really get worried. This part of Colon looks like a bombed out city. There were wrecked cars everywhere, and lots of shady-looking characters. Most of the building looked deserted and hollow. I could see the headlines in my mind, 'Canadian man found dead in an alley in Colon. Apparently, the motor on his dingy broke down and he drifted ashore, where he was then robbed and killed by unknown assailants." Please little dinghy engine, don't break down.
We came to a part of the shore that looked a little more civilized because we could see a couple of fishing boats tied to a pier and the buildings behind looked fairly well-maintained. We pulled in behind the fishing boats only to discover that they were obscuring the pier, which was made of concrete and was at least four or five feet above the water. We tucked the dinghy between two smaller boats, tied up and climbed onto the pier. We didn't know it at the time, but we totally lucked out and ended up in the right spot after all. I spoke Spanish to one of the guys that was standing around and he called over to a woman that happened to be standing nearby. Turned out that she was the customs officer. I wouldn't have guessed it by looking at her. It was a little after noon, when she led us into her office, a short walk away.
She cleared me through right way, and I didn't have any fees to pay because I was leaving Panama the next day. Seb, however, had to pay for a cruising permit and one other thing that I can't remember right now. He was also asked to pay a $75 fee that he didn't know anything about and they wouldn't tell us. Then they told us it was an overtime fee. Seb refused to pay, pointing out that we arrived well before the cutoff time and if they had gone past normal office hours it was because they didn't have any English speaking people there. I don't think it's unreasonable to expect there to be at least one person that speaks the language spoken by the majority of cruisers that come through those offices. Anyway, she and Seb argued, with Seb constantly reminding her that the process took so long because of them, not us. Seb and I ended up leaving her office, but she refused to give Seb his passport back before we left. We ended up standing on street, outside of the security fence. Just at that moment, a group of police officer on bicycles came by and stopped. They didn't pay much attention to us so I'm fairly certain that the customs woman hadn't called them. Seb took the opportunity to grab one of the locals and had him explain the situation to the police. Then the customs lady came out was babbling away in Spanish to the police officers. This went on for a while, until one of the officers came over and motioned for Seb and I to follow him. We followed and realized he was instructing us to get into the back of a police paddy wagon. This is just freakin great.
On the way over to the police station I noticed that the customs lady was sitting in the front seat of the police van. At no time was there any threatening behavior shown to us by the police, but I still had no idea what to expect at the police station. Once at the police station, they took us into the station and place us in a holding area. Most of the people were in there were women. The first thing that hit me was the stench of urine. Now, I could have sat this one out, that's true. I was already processed and good to go. But there was no way I was going to abandon Seb. The customs lady began telling her story to an officer that seemed to be in charge. He spoke a little English and told Seb that it would be better to pay the $75. I repeated to the officer, in Spanish, that Seb didn't know what the $75 fee was for, and that we wanted to speak to someone that spoke English, at which point he called over one of the women that was in the holding cell to be translator. She hardly spoke English and we started the round robin again. At that point I was sort of standing off to the side while they were talking and I happened to look around the corner where the cells were. There was a man standing with his face pressed out between the bars, with a maniacal look on his face, going through the gesture of pulling on an imaginary rubber glove. I quickly went over and whispered to Seb that maybe we should just pay the $75. He saw the 'uneasiness' in my face and paid the money. We got into a cab, with the customs lady, and went back to the customs office, where the dingy was tied up. We were hoping that the dingy was still there. It was too far to walk to check, and we just wanted to grab a beer and chill for a bit. We paid for six mores beers each and went back to the pier to find that the dinghy, and the engine, were still there. About 40 minutes later we were back at the boat. Of course, it was dark by then, but we made it one piece. The next morning we did the same dinghy run, got into a cab, and went to a different office with the customs lady, so Seb could fill out his forms. I caught a bus at the Colon bus station, the next day, and left for the airport in Panama City. Of course, Panama City is the complete opposite of Colon. In fact, in my opinion, Panama City is one of the most interesting cities in the world.
Colon is exactly what all the reports say it is, run-down and dangerous. You can see that it used to be a beautiful place once, by the architecture and the way the streets are laid out. It's as if they simply decided one day to not care. I guess I now know why everybody goes to Shelter Bay marina and uses an agent to clear in. My advice to all is to avoid Colon at all costs.