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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We left Curacao on 16 November 03 and sailed west to Aruba, which is the smallest and most western of the ABCs. Aruba, like Curacao sports an oil refinery that is also stinky and ugly with enormous amounts of dirty smoke heading west via the trade winds. Fortunately, the refinery is located on the south end of the island and the main town of Oranjestad is located on the northwest end. Aruba has the most highly developed tourist attractions of the ABCs - miles of beautiful beaches, first class hotels, casinos and stage shows. There is always at least one huge cruise ship in harbor and sometimes three at a time. The airport is very busy with lots of tourists coming and going from Europe and the states. With the exception of the refinery, the island is clean and very neat with excellent roads. The people are very friendly and, most of the time, go out of their way to be helpful. It is said to be the safest island in the Caribbean and the island motto is seen everywhere, "Aruba, one happy island." No doubt, the prosperity from tourism has affected local attitudes.
The only drawback as far as cruisers are concerned is the lack of a marina for services and supplies other than fuel. One of the large casino/hotels operates a small marina and fuel/dinghy dock in the heart of town, which is convenient. And there is a large anchorage area between the airport and the reef, but it is a shallow area for the most part and therefore of limited use to deep draft boats. Sojourner, being a catamaran, had no problem. The only other good anchorage is off hotel row on the extreme northwest end of the island. There, the water is clean enough for swimming, although not as clear as Bonaire. And there is a public dock and boat ramp area where cruisers can get ashore and safely leave a dinghy. Very clean and new (Volvo) buses can be caught in front of any hotel, for the short ride into town. Once in town, there are four huge supermarkets within walking distance of each other that made us feel we were back in the states, with the tremendous choices of products available. Although Aruba is officially part of the Dutch West Indies, the Aruba Florin is different from that used in Curacao or Bonaire and is not accepted anywhere. We had to go to a bank and exchange our Curacao/Bonaire Florins for Aruba Florins. However, U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere. All of the cash registers we observed could convert between dollars and Aruba Florins with the press of a button. Obviously, Aruba considers itself rather independent from the other islands and Holland. Prices for goods and services were about what we would expect to pay in the states. And the postal service was reliable. We received a mail delivery while in Aruba and it went very well. First we went to the main post office and a very helpful person there wrote out the exact address we should use for a general delivery parcel. We emailed that to our mail forwarding agent and in one week we had our air mailed package.
Upon the recommendations of other cruisers, we first anchored on the south side of town just off the airport. This was very convenient to the center of town, but was a little noisy at times. Although it was fun to watch the planes come and go as well as the huge cruise ships. However, after a few days, we opted to sail to the north end of the island and anchor off hotel row, which was not as well protected from the winds, but it was more interesting in that there was so much going on all the time. All sorts of water sports were available through the hotels from water skiing to para-gliding and wind surfing. Plus there were many dive boats coming and going as well as tourist cruise boats that would go sailing or take tourists on sunset cruises. The hotels also offered convenient access to the internet, ATMs and international telephones.
Since the whole island seems to be geared up for cruise ships and tourists arriving by plane, the live aboard cruiser is not given much consideration. In fact cruisers are almost discouraged from bothering the bureaucracy. We had been told that the immigration and customs offices were hard to find and hard to deal with, so we were prepared to spend a day getting checked in. But, when we first anchored, we asked a cruiser in a boat not far from us where we would find the official offices. He advised us not to check in as it was too much trouble. In fact, he was leaving the next day and asked if we would help him check out since he was solo. He explained that the customs office insisted that all boats arriving or leaving must go to the large commercial pier for check in and check out. He said it was a terrible place for a yacht as the piers were difficult to get tied up to because of the wind and swells and waves caused by all the commercial boat traffic. He said he had a terrible time and almost damaged his boat when he checked in and he would really appreciate our help since he had to do it again, to check out. We agreed to help him. The next day we took our dinghy and followed him to the commercial pier area. It was as he described and after getting our dinghy tied up, we stood on the pier and waited for him. He threw us lines and it was all we could do to quickly secure the boat and prevent it from crashing into some of the rougher areas of the concrete pier. Holding the boat lines was like holding the bridle of a horse that didn't want to be held. I got the line around a cleat seconds before a big wave put a tremendous strain on the boat, which would have pulled the line right out of my hands. When the officials finally showed up, the cruiser complained again about the stupidity of the rules, but I am afraid his comments fell on deaf ears. After that experience we decided this would be the first country where we would not check in or out.
After 23 otherwise very enjoyable days, we left Aruba on 9 December 03, at
1100 hours and set a course direct to Panama. Five days later we arrived at
Isla Porvenir, which offers an informal, one-room, one-man official immigration and customs office. Isla Porvenir is actually the western most island of the San Blas archipelago. The San Blas islands stretch along Panama's Caribbean coast for over 100 miles and include over 340 islands. The entire area is controlled by the Kuna Indians, whose attitude toward life is "the simpler, the better." Consequently, there are no commercial developments and the islands are pristine and totally undeveloped. The trip from Aruba to Panama was uneventful. We had monitored the weather reports for several days before leaving and picked a weather "window" that turned out very well. The trade winds blew from the east or northeast
continuously between 10 and 25 knots. Seas varied from three to eight foot swells. Very little rain and no squalls were encountered. We took three hour watches and whiled away the time off watch by reading, sleeping or cooking. All went well. It was our longest crossing to date. Stay tuned.