Monday, January 18, 2010

Mysterious Panama – Another Running Adventure

Bologna, mustard, salmon and chips with cheese sauce for lunch!

Log #25 - It's a Mystery
Position: 9 degrees 22.1’ N 79 degrees 57.0’ W
(Cristobal/Colon, Panama)

Remember my run to Fort Lorenzo, the Spanish fort that was built to guard the mighty Chagres River and the riches that flowed down it?

On the running route to the fort there are many side trails that can be seen. I have run down several of these trails and have found nice deserted beaches and some WWI and WWII ruins in the jungle. I have to be careful though because of the crawly things that hide under the leaves or hang from the trees on these trails!

This area is also where the US trained troops in jungle warfare to fight in the Vietnam War. There is unexploded ordnance scattered throughout the jungle so I never get off the trails to avoid blowing something up – me!

So, I ran to Fort Lorenzo again and on the way back I saw a new road that I had not noticed before, probably because of all the sweat in my eyes from the heat and humidity. The road was old and appeared to be just another abandoned jeep trail.

After running nearly a mile down the road through the jungle I saw a huge fence that was topped with shinny razor wire. The wire was not rusted at all and appeared to be pretty new. Hmmmm, I wonder what that is for? Running further I came to a gate that was attached to the huge fence. The gate had a nice big lock on it but the gate was ajar with the lock hanging open.

I did what I normally do, I ran through the open gate of course. What could happen to an innocent gringo runner?

Once inside I stared at an open area with no jungle at all but just a huge mound covered in well-trimmed grass that covered about 5 acres of land. The shiny razor wire fence surrounded the entire area.

There was a set of stairs that led to the top of the mound so instinctively I ran up the stairs. Stairs are always a good workout! The stairs ended at the top at an elevation of about 100 feet. Now I ran across the top of the mound and right over a concrete helicopter platform. That is odd, I thought.

Right then it occurred to me that whoever left the gate unlocked might decide to close it and lock me inside, since they didn’t know someone was here. So I ran down the other side of the mound so I could get a longer run inside of the nicely trimmed area. That is how runners think, instead of going back the same way I came.

I was now running on a jeep trail that traversed around the big mound. Suddenly, you knew this was coming, I heard a generator running. Looking at the mound there was a huge generator station along with air-conditioning units and other black boxes standing against the side of the mound. Life!

My pace quickened now and I nearly flew around the rest of the mound and toward the still-open gate. As I looked toward the mound once more I saw a name, Battery Pratt etched in concrete on what I now knew was a military bunker.

Once out of the secure area I felt much better and continued my run back to Aspen.

Once I cooled down, I went to the computer. Luckily the internet was working so I searched the internet and found all the information I could on Battery Pratt.

Battery Pratt was a communications center used during WWII and up until the time that the canal was given to Panama in 1980. Then it was shut down.

However, as I discovered, the communications center is not shut down. It is very active now! But what is it communicating with???

I think that pirates are involved, Arrrrrrrrrrh!!!

But back to reality:
The World Arc around-the-world sailboats are arriving today at the marina. It is pretty busy here with the docks alive with activity.

Maria fixed a great lunch for us. She is enjoying salmon while I get baloney and mustard! (see the attached photo)

Sail on sail on Aspen…

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Panama City

This is the mall. Notice the full-sized car for scale!

Panama City is in the background

A view of the anchorage and Panama City

Maria shopping!

Mysterious Panama - Today

S/V Aspen – January 11, 2010 – Log #24
Position: 9 degrees 22.1’ N 79 degrees 57.0’ W
(Cristobal/Colon, Panama)

After following in the footsteps of the conquistadors and pirates from so long ago, we decided to rent a car and see what present day Panama is like.

It took Balboa several months of hiking and hacking through impenetrable jungle while fighting fierce Indian tribes along the way before he became the first European to see the Pacific Ocean. But for us, we drove from Colon on the Caribbean side of Panama to Panama City on the Pacific side in 1.5 hours! We didn’t have to fight any Indians either! It is only 50 miles on a nice new toll road.

Luckily we had a GPS in the car because it seems that they don’t like street signs here. Now, picture gridlock traffic, streets filled with pedestrians because there are no cross-walks, busses that stop in the middle of the road to pick people up, and drivers who have junker cars who don’t care about who or what they might run into. Ah, driving in Latin countries is always an experience. But we did live to tell about it!

We visited the old part of Panama where the pirate Captain Henry Morgan attacked the Spanish, sacked, pillaged, plundered and stole all the women from the 2nd largest city in the Western Hemisphere at that time with his band of pirates. Well, not much is left of that place!

After that Spanish debacle, Panama City was rebuilt a mile or so north at a much better place. This is where over half of the population lives - nearly 2 million people.
The old part of the 2nd Panama City is still intact with the narrow stone streets and verandas hanging from the dwellings. Small cafĂ©’s and shops have opened in these old buildings that bring the locals and tourists in to explore them. The presidential palace is located here too. Even General Noriega had many lavish parties along the waterfront next to the Pacific Ocean in Panama Vieja.

But most of Panama City is extremely very poor. There are many no-go areas, some of them right next to these nice areas! We drive with our doors locked and hidden behind our heavily tinted windows.

During our visit to Panama City we got lost – the GPS isn’t always right! We drove through a maze of huge high-rise buildings that we always saw but could not find before. Well, this is where the money is in Panama! We are talking huge money!! It seems that Panama is world renown as the center for money laundering, arms sales, and home to the international drug trade.

There is an enormous new mall in the middle of this maze of wealth. This mall has the most expensive and best stores from throughout the world within its 3 stories. There is even a grocery store called Riba Smith that has every US product you can imagine at cheap prices. We were shocked to say the least. Maria didn’t want to leave!! We even found Taco Bell there, and they had jalapenos!

We managed to find out way back to Colon and the rental car office where we returned out undamaged car, much to the manager’s surprise!

Sail on sail on Aspen…

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Exploring Panama Pictures

Maria is holding the bark from a tree - notice the nice sharp spikes!

Leaf cutter ants marching with their leaves to who knows where

Wildlife in Panama - why Steve runs fast!

The harbor at Portobelo - where the Spanish loaded their ships with the immense wealth from the new world (and the pirates tried to take it)

A street scene from the once magnificent Portobelo

The cannons are silent at the forts in Portobelo, Panama

One of the Spanish forts at the harbor in Portobelo, Panama

Our friends on S/V Stray Kitty transiting Mira Flores lock at the Panama Canal going toward the Pacific Ocean with the huge Dockwise Yacht Transport ship behind them. The view is looking back towards the Caribbean Sea.

Another view of Mira Flores locks with the tourist boat Discovery in the foreground and three smaller vessels behind it.

Inside Fort Lorenzo's chambers

Fort Lorenzo (1597) - overlooking the mighty Chagres River

A quick picture of the town - Colon, Panama

The mighty Chagres River from Fort Lorenzo. This is where all the gold and silver were transported by the Spanish and plundered by the pirates.
Where have all the pirates gone,
Long long time ago...

The Black Christ at Portobelo, Panama in the golden cage

A local bus in Panama - note the big silver exhausts at the back!

Fins to the left!!!

Our bus that takes us shopping from the marina

El Diablo Beach near the marina in Colon

Aspen at the Dock in Shelter Bay Marina at the Panama Canal

Exploring Panama

S/V Aspen – January 2, 2010 – Log #23
Position: 9 degrees 22.1’ N 79 degrees 57.0’ W
(Cristobal/Colon, Panama)

Welcome to 2010 and the continuing saga of the voyage of Aspen! (There are pictures that go with these stories posted on our blog if you are interested.)

Yes, we are still in the same place, tied securely to the dock while the strong Christmas winds and huge sweep across the Caribbean Sea.

Except for the Panama Canal, the riches that were once Panama are no longer. We rode with some new friends and visited the countryside in their jeep. It was great having someone else drive us around!

Our first visit was to Portobelo. Portobelo, the most important port in the new world from the 1500's to the mid 1800's is in ruins. The old forts that lined the harbor are silent, long ago destroyed by pirates and the ever present jungle. In it's heyday gold and silver was literally stacked high along the streets and businesses in this city by the sea. Much of the gold and silver came overland from the Pacific side of Panama and ended up in Portobelo, ready to be loaded on sailing ships to make the long journey to Spain.

Well, the pirates had other ideas and then the fun began. Among the most well-know pirates, Sir Francis Drake sacked Portobelo in the 1600's and Captain Morgan literally flattened the city into oblivion in the 1700's. Yet Portobelo would not die, or at least the Spanish would not let her lie in peace. So today we can see only traces of this fabled yet foreboding place. Arrrrrrrh!

A visit to the Church called San Felipe was something we wanted to do in Portobelo. The church was built in 1814 and is home to the famous wooden statue called the Black Christ. This statue has a very mysterious origin, mostly surrounded in legend. It seems that in the early 1800's a sailing ship, bound for Cartegena, Colombia had the statue on board. The ship decided to leave Portobelo but each time it attempted to leave a huge storm would form and drive the ship back into the harbor. After repeated tries the ship was finally able to sail away from Portobelo. Within days the ship sunk and the statue washed up on the shores of, you guessed it, Portobelo! Today the statue is revered by thousands of pilgrams who think the statue has spared them from cholera epidemics and other nasty things. It is pretty impressive sitting on display in it's golden cage!

Our next stop was Colon. Colon is the city nearest our marina and it is on the Caribbean coast. Colon is considered notoriously dangerous by sailors throughout the world. We quickly went through town on the main street with doors locked and our darkened windows disguising our visit. It is said that if you want to shop anywhere you WILL take a taxi, sprint into the store from the taxi, exit the store and throw yourself back into the taxi while slamming and locking the door after you. You would then repeat this maneuver again at the next store you wanted to visit, even if it was right next door. So we decided not to shop here!

Then it was on to the Panama Canal locks. We watched ships cross from the Caribbean to the Pacific in less than two days. The trip around South America would take months and is a very difficult journey for these huge ships. For small sailboats that same journey is the stuff of legends, if you survive! Hmmmm, it seems like an obvious choice to us!

Finally we headed back to our heavily guarded marina on the old grounds of Fort Sherman. Luckily, Fort Lorenzo lies within the guarded boundaries so it is a great drive through the jungle to this old Spanish Fort that stands guard over the mighty Chagres River. Maria was able to finally see this fort since we drove to it, instead of running with me for many miles through the jungle. Maria enjoyed seeing the tunnels within the fort and the view it offered of the Chagres and Caribbean Sea. As we said before, the history just oozes from this place. No, we didn't find any left over gold unfortunately.

We lament that it is 95 degrees everyday with 95% humidity here. But hearing about the snow, ice and frigid temperatures back home helps us appreciate our weather! Remember to look at the website show below for the pictures.

Sail on sail on Aspen…

Steve and Maria