March 17, 2011

Heading South from Panama.



With the Canal behind us we spent a week unwinding in the Peralas Islands just 40 miles SW of Panama City. The Peralas are a group of small islands, half of which are uninhabited.  The Panamanian elite come out here to unwind.    It was nice to get away from the busy canal zone after spending nearly 3 weeks going through the transit process.

From Panama we sailed 740 miles south to Ecuador.  The first two days we landed a few fish and had nice following winds to push us along with full sails out to Isla Malpelo, a small lone Columbian island 250 miles out at sea.  I thought the fishing there would be excellent and would be worth the 100 mile detour.  We circled the island which was a giant rock jetting out of the sea covered with sea birds and brought one small fish aboard. A variety of fish I have never seen but which turned out to be very tasty!

 With the “100 mile fish “in our bellies we headed toward the coast of Ecuador. The sun set as we sailed across the offshore bank on which the island was located.  At around 10 PM the depth sounder started acting up?  The charts showed 3000 feet of water and the sounder was showing 17 to 25 feet!!  What’s going on!!  Was there actually land here? A school of fish?  A whale??  We took out a few fishing poles and tied some weights slowed the boat and dropped them down, whew…no land at 20 feet down the weights continued into the abyss… no land here, just some electrical phenomenon with the sounder?

As we sailed closer to the equator the winds diminished and the seas became flat, time to burn some diesel.
This area along the equator has little or no wind 100 miles north or south and is known as the doldrums. We thought at least the fishing should be good right?  Wrong!!!  Along the coast of Ecuador there are hundreds of miles of “long Lines” Basically a 20 to 40 mile pieces of fishing line with a baited hooks every 100 feet with a floating piece of plastic in the form of a empty pop bottles or empty bleach bottles marking their location. The biggest problem is that they use Polypropylene line that floats on top of the water between the makeshift buoys.  When we sailed across them the lines hung up on our rudders 5 feet below, thankfully not around the propellers!! Time for a swim Tommy to free the lines!! Again…..  Needles to say we did not catch any more fish on our way south.  The few fishermen we encountered along the way had no fish to sell either?  This part of the world is seriously being over fished!!  For the price of a good fishing pole these fishermen can string a few hundred hooks and kill anything that will take the bait, by the time they get back to retrieve the fish, the caught fish has drowned and every fish is brought to market.

 Having traveled 4 months by sea it was time to jump on land for a while.  Daria and I left Downtime  in Salinas Ecuador in the trusting care of Tommy. Tom is from Perth, Australia  and had sailed on Downtime last season from St. Martin to the Bahamas and came aboard this season in Colon, Panama.

The first thing you notice in South America is that it is much more difficult to travel.  There are fewer roads and  flights than in the states.  We traveled on a mini-bus from Salinas which brought us to the airport in Guayaquil, Ecuador.  This was a two hour trip to where we caught the flight for our first leg of the trip to Lima, Peru.  The mini-bus driver kept things very exciting along the way!  He was one of those drivers that surely failed the vision part of any driving test and yet wore no glasses.  I rode shotgun and was ready to grab the wheel on several occasions!   At one point he veered off into oncoming traffic and with a jerk corrected himself as if coming out of a daze? On another occasion we were traveling through a construction zone and he ran strait over a huge orange traffic cone apparently never even seeing it?   He would drive along doing 90 KPH in 4th gear and then finally decide to shift after jerking along with an over revved motor.  All the while I am thinking shift, shift!!   Then finally the shift to 5th would come but just before a small hill then the motor would bog down along with our speed.  Going down hill was another form of excitement.  Our speed would get up to 110 KPH or so until we encountered traffic, then the brakes came on.  I think his vision was so bad that he could not tell what lane trucks in front of us were in until we were close enough I could read the license plates on them!  With the traffic coming up in front of us he would slow way down and pass while honking his horn to let them know we were there.  Then after getting around the traffic he would gradually get back up to speed and stay in 4th gear as usual! 

Traveling across the country we saw large buildings that appeared to be green houses and chicken farms, tired old tin roofs with vegetables growing under them or fenced in with  chickens.   The terrain for the first hour was rolling hills with scrub brush and little other forms of vegetation growing on the dry red soil   The annual rainfall  in this part of the country is similar to Las Vegas, NV. About 8 inches per year.   I don’t know if climate change is the reason but the hills are barren and there are miles and miles of broken down fence that once held herds of grazing livestock. The fence was lying on the ground with rotted posts attached, with not a cow in sight. 

Further inland at higher elevation things become green and lush. with the hills covered in banana, mango and teak trees.   There are little roadside stands selling fresh fruits and even gallons of fresh milk from the small farms along the way.  The milk is just sitting out on the counter of their little stand apparently never have been refrigerated?  I wonder how the FDA would react to this practice if I tried selling my milk that way back in Kansas?  I would most likely make national news and be looking at the world through steel bars!

After a white knuckled a two hour ride, thank goodness we made it to the Guayaquil without incident other than one dead traffic cone!!  I asked the driver in my fairly good Spanish if we could get dropped at the airport instead of the downtown terminal.  He said it was much farther and would have to go to the terminal first.  There were 4 other people aboard waning to do the same and after stating three times we must go to the terminal  we assumed that’s where we would end up.  A few turns later we came to a stop right in front of the airport terminal?   Oh well works for me! 

The airports I have been to in South America are modern and up to date.  They don’t worry too much about the liquids in your bag but do scan all the luggage and let you keep your shoes on.  The planes are up to date and the flight crews definitely are interviewed for good looks and English speaking ability here!  All of my flights were on time, but I did choose to carry all my luggage with me rather than chance getting a bag lost.  Outside the airports there is no shortage of taxi’s and the fares are cheap.  We did an overnight in Lima on the way to Cusco, Peru and we had a really great taxi driver who was there on time the next morning to take us back to the airport. There are numerous 4 and 5 star hotels amidst the busy city at reasonable prices. 
 Lima is a city of over 9 million people and the traffic is crazy at rush hour,  which we had the privilege of experiencing.  There are no smog or traffic regulations here!  The air is thick with the smell of exhaust and the roads are packed with honking cars and busses that weave back and forth in no particular lane.  Lima is a coastal city with weather similar to San Diego, Ca. with the exception of not having vast inland valleys.  The city is approximately 40 miles long and 10 miles  wide.  Oceans on the west and towering mountains to the east block the smoggy air from going inland.   The mountains are bare and have no trees or bushes  growing due to the lack of rain. The temperatures are mild and dry most the year due to the cool ocean current that flows north along the coast from Chile.  In the morning the cool fog rolls in and covers the city,  this naturally helps make the smog and poor quality air worse.  Being from Kansas, the thing I notice here is the lack of wind?  The Andes mountains tower up inland and stop the few weather systems that come this way. Most the year is cool, dry and pleasant here, February through May are warm and then when the sun moves north of the equator the temperatures moderate.

The first thing that impressed me about Lima was how clean the city is.  There are hundreds if not thousands of people employed wearing bright green safety suits carrying a dustpans on a stick and a cornstalk brooms.  All the trash is picked up and the streets are swept every night by this army of cleaners that do an amazing job!  The second thing was all the beautification projects we saw going on.  There were parks along the coast being built that went on for miles, and in town the street intersections had grass and trees growing that really made the city look well kept.

Peru is a country with an annual growth of 10% and every where you see new construction projects going up.  Peru appears to be a country showing no signs of slowing down or recession whatsoever.

 From Lima we flew to Cusco, Peru.  Cusco is a city located at an amazing elevation of 12,000 feet  tucked in a valley surrounded with  towering14,000 foot mountains.  You can really feel the altitude after living at sea level, headaches and shortness of breath are common.  We stayed in a beautiful old hotel that was built in the times the Spanish occupied the city in the 1600’s.  The view from our room was amazing!  Red tiled roofs and winding coble stone streets as far as you could see.
The buildings here are made of stone or adobe brick and all have red clay tiled roofs. They are old but well maintained.  Spanish architecture dominates the city with stone columns holding up beautiful arches that support covered walkways along the storefronts .  Many of the buildings are constructed in such a way that they have a center courtyard within them. The narrow bumpy streets and sidewalks are paved with stone and brick.  Every few blocks there is a central squares with flower gardens and a fountain at its center.












The food in Peru is typical south American style.  On the coast there is a abundance of fresh seafood and inland the fish is replaced with beef and alpaca.  They grow 50 different varieties of potatoes and the corn on the cob is the giant white hominy style corn.  We also tried guinea pig and alpaca for the first time in our lives and liked them both.  The alpaca was similar to a really good cut of beef and the pig was like eating goat. A little strange eating the pet I remember from my 2nd grade class room!!  The local beer is Pilsner and it is served ice cold in a 1100 ML bottles for only $2!! 

The weather here is cool and rainy this time of year.  Cusco is located 14’ south of the equator and 200 miles inland, which is about how far north Guatemala is located north of the equator.
To get to Machu Pichu you first need to take a 2 hour bus ride to the train station from Cusco.  The bus ride replaces one half the rout the train used to take to Agua Calentes.  The bus winds it way through the country side and down the valley.  The hills along the way are covered with small farms that are divided in small one to five acre plots.  I only saw two small tractors along the two hour ride and it appears the land is worked by hand.  Ranchers have cattle tied to ropes and bring them out to graze during the day and take them hope to milk in the afternoon.  Alpaca here are like sheep in New Zeeland they produce ahigh quality wool that is used to knit warm colorful clothing.



The train continues down the valley to the little town of Agua Claientes.  We chose to spend the night at a little hotel called Gringo Bills for the night.  Gringo’s is a great place to stay and is located  in the middle of town with clean rooms and good rates.   We were up before the sun to catch the bus up the mountain.  The buses are all new Mercedes and the drivers do an awesome job driving the switchback road that goes strait up the side of the mountain. It is a 40 minute bus ride that takes you up 3500 feet  to the entrance of the site.  We went through the 15 minute line and found a guide to show us around.  Our guide was an Inca native and did a great job explaining the site.  As expected, the place is impressive.  The amount of stone that was moved is unbelievable.  The terraced mountainsides are in amazing condition. The Inca really knew how to fit stones together to make the walls that step up the sides of the mountain.  The main buildings are made of finely cut stone that fit together flawlessly.  The stones are assembled without mortar and there are no spaces between any joint.  They estimate it took over 100 years to complete what structures have been found.

Machu Pichu was occupied until the late 1600’s.  The site was home to some 600 people of  high status.  The lower class built all the structures and all the supplies were hauled overland from the coastal cities on their backs or on llamas.   The downfall of the Inca civilization occurred when the Spanish took over Peru in the mid 1500’s basically shutting off the supply rout to the city. Machu Pichu was abandoned and left undiscovered for 300 years.  Then in the 1930’s  a American archeologist looking for the legendary Lost City of Gold came across a farmer who was growing crops on the lower terraces of Machu Pichu.  The farmer described to him the upper terraces and other building on top of the mountain which he had discovered earlier.  The archeologists initially thought they found the Lost City of Gold.  The site was overgrown with jungle and was unrecognizable.  It took years to clear the jungle in order to reveal what we see today. The many artifacts and gold items discovered here were removed to the United States and are on display in museums. 

It was not until the 60’s that the winding switchback road was carved into the side of the stone mountain which made access easier than hiking the 3500 foot mountain side.   The site was then opened to the public until the mid 80’s when Peru experienced a civil war. Eight years later the war was finally over and the site was re opened.  Even with the new road, it is not that easy to get to, but it is worth the effort.




After eight days on land I was ready to get back on the boat and continue the journey. 

Traveling by boat you find yourself dealing with a lot of strange paperwork.  Every country has a different set of regulations and rules. Some are worse than others.  So far Ecuador has been the absolute worst!!  We could find no current information on clearance procedures on the internet or anywhere else for that matter.  We proceeded like we did in the previous countries thinking it should be similar?  Our first thought was to just go to a marina and rent a slip and then clear in.  Great idea until we were quoted over $100  per day to tie to a wall without and power or water at the marina just outside Liberdad.  If that was not bad enough there were globs of crude oil and diesel fuel floating on the surface inside the marina due to a leaky oil pipe which they say occurs naturally?  Well, I for one had enough of scrubbing crude oil off of Downtime, next marina……The Salinas Yacht Club was more like a club for the rich that owned boats.  At first we were not even welcome to use the facilities and renting a dock was totally out of the question.  We were finally allowed to anchor outside the marina and use the dingy dock after Daria worked her magic with the management.

Then it was off to the Port Captain office.  We walked in and presented our documents.  They told us they would be at the boat in an hour for inspection.  We waited two days and still no one came?  Through Mario, a friend of Daria’s who lives in Guayaquil, we found out we needed an agent to clear in. Mario was a tremendous help, he took the time to take us to the agent’s office and secure the agents services. By day four and $850 later we were officially cleared in.  This was almost what it cost to go through the Panama Canal!!  There were things on the bill we had never paid for in any country!  The agent got his $200 and who knows where the rest went?  Usually it is less than $100 to clear into any country.  This might be the reason we were the only foreign flagged boat taking this rout to the Galapagos?   Ya think?

Clearing out was just as big a pain as clearing in!  When we requested a Zarpe (travel documents) for Galapagos we were originally told it would be another $200!  I said “no way will I pay any more!”  It is the same country!!  We are already cleared into Ecuador we just want to go to Galapagos and we already hired an agent for that part of the trip.  After waiting another two days we were granted our Zarpe for no additional cost. 

The only thing worse than the dealing with the Ecuadorian officials has been what we had to go through to get Daria a visa for French Polynesia.  The French Embassy is apparently run by two faced liars who have no regard for any travelers schedules or concerns.  Our first attempt to obtain a visa in Panama  was met with total disbelief and disappointment with agent Eric Rolle.  He in my opinion is a spineless liar who told us we would have a visa on Friday.  After having all the required information for over a week he notified us the travel insurance which we bought through Lloyds (A French company)  was not adequate?  We replaced the policy with a second policy to be told there would be a delay?  Next Tuesday…Well one problem…We had bought air tickets leaving from Ecuador for Monday 8 days away!  We had a minimum of 5 days to sail to Ecuador and then to clear in, we had to sail on Saturday!  We called a minimum of 10 times he was ignoring our calls but finally took the call due to our persistence.  When we explained our situation that we had purchased tickets and were on a schedule only because we were told the visa would be available Friday.  He just stated “Things change”  No concern what so ever!!   What a @%#hole!!  We Picked up Daria’s passport and sailed to Ecuador with the plan to get a visa in Quito, Ecuador.

When we arrived in Ecuador we contacted the French Embassy in Quito.  We e-mailed the visa application and copies of all Daria’s information we asked to them to review the application and to please let us know if there was any thing else required to obtain the visa.  A quick phone call and we were told all was well and we had an appointment for the following Monday morning with Mathieu Nedelec and it was possible to get a visa by the following Friday.  After our trip to Machu Pichu Daria took a flight to Quito on Sunday to be at the embassy when they opened for her appointment.  When she arrived she was told they would not accept the documents until the Panama Embassy returned their call to explain the reason why the visa was not granted there?  Well, the call never came…Imagine that!! I knew who we were dealing with Eric!!  @$##@!hole   I then took the time to write a detailed letter to explain the situation.  Finally on Wednesday they accepted the application.  After looking at the information apparently for the first time, They said the travel insurance was not the right one again!!  We had to buy yet another policy!!  Our third one!!   We found ourselves in the exact same situation as Panama, told we would have a visa on Friday and now there was another delay!  The visa would be ready on Monday, Just that now Daria was 200 miles away alone in a city known for not being the safest place to be in Ecuador. She took a bus to Guayaquil and rode back to Salinas for the weekend with her friends Denis and Alexa.  On Monday she went to finally pick up the visa and was told it was not ready because the printer was broke?  Please come Tomorrow. WHAT? Daria wound up going to Quito 3 times and spent 5 nights to get a visa that cost $12!  Finally it costs more then $1200! Totally unbelievable! Thanks for the visa from hell France!!

Adios Salinas!!  We are outta here!!  Never coming back by boat!!  Nice town but really bad regulations!!

In the next story I will be telling you about the Galapagos and the new faces on Downtime.

                                                    Until then,   Peace!   Capt. Pedro