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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We took an air-conditioned bus, from Panama City to David. It was an eight-hour trip, but the scenery was very interesting and three movies were shown enroute. The bus made one 45-minute stop for lunch, which was a nice break. The highway followed the Pacific coastline sometimes within sight of the ocean and sometimes too far inland to see it. But to the north we could see the central mountain range with peaks well over 6,000 feet. The Pacific side of Panama is much drier than the Caribbean side and because of the generally higher elevation it is also cooler and the farms reflected it. There were farms growing wheat and corn instead of bananas. The city of David was very nice with lots of stores and restaurants. It is also safe to walk the streets at night. Most people come to David to shop or catch a bus that goes into the mountains. One day we took a bus to the mountain town of Cerro Punta, which means Hill Point. It is a small farming community at about 6,000 feet altitude. When we left David, the air conditioner was running on the bus. About 3,000 feet higher the air conditioner was shut off and the windows were opened and by the time we got to 6,000 feet the women were putting on sweaters. The air was cool and refreshing like the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina in the spring. Because of the cool climate and rich soil this area of Panama is famous for its potatoes, onions, carrots, lettuce and cabbages. Some coffee is also grown in the area. We walked out of town and up a gravel road into some farming areas and thoroughly enjoyed our outing. We had lunch at a small hotel with a wonderful view of the hills and a few hours later caught our bus back to David.
The next day, we took a bus to the mountain town of Boquete, which is larger and more commercial than Cerro Punta. Boquete is famous for its flowers and beautifully manicured gardens are everywhere, most with an admission fee. The area was beautiful with a wonderful small river rushing downhill right beside the town. This area of Panama was settled over a hundred years ago by some Swiss immigrants and many of the people still reflect this ancestry with some having blue eyes and blond hair. We even heard some modest yodeling, in Spanish of course, on the radio. Some cruiser friends were building a home just out of town and we met them for lunch at a restaurant run by an American from Nevada. The menu had both local dishes and typically American dishes like hamburgers and grilled steaks. Like Bocas del Toro, this area is becoming popular with Americans because of the climate and low cost of living. After lunch, we caught a bus back to David. After another day in David, we caught an early morning bus that took us to Almirante on the Caribbean coast where we could catch a ferry back to Bocas. This bus trip was similar to the previous trips into the mountains with spectacular views and clear, cool air. Almirante is not a pleasant town at all. Its sole reason for being is the port for shipment of bananas. Other than that, it is squalid and depressing. We were more than anxious to get on the ferry for the one-hour trip to Bocas. Back in Bocas, we decided to leave the marina and anchor out. There is no fee for anchoring and there is more privacy. A couple of days later, we received an invitation to visit some friends of friends, who live across the bay on a cacao plantation. So, we sailed over there to visit with them. They have a beautiful 40 acre farm on a quiet bay they called Dolphin Bay, and indeed there were many dolphins in the bay. Our new friends were Americans and had lived in California before getting the wanderlust. During their travels they discovered Bocas del Toro about seven years ago, bought land, and stayed. So far, they have about 4,000 cacao trees plus lots of other trees ranging from coconut, mango, papaya and breadfruit to almonds. But, it is the cacao that is their real interest. They don't depend on the income from the trees for their living, but they enjoy the work as a hobby. Each tree produces about seven pounds of cacao seeds (beans) per year. The current price for the seeds is about a dollar a pound, so they make a little money after the labor and processing costs. If the price of chocolate goes up, which they predict, it will, they will have a valuable investment.
The cacao tree is interesting in that it is not large, being about the size of a mimosa. The seeds grow in a pod about the size of a grapefruit that grows right out of the main trunk. The pods are green at first, but slowly turn black as the fruit ripens. When picked, the seeds are dug out of a very white pulpy flesh. They are not washed, but instead, the fleshy pulp is allowed to ferment. After fermentation, the pulp is washed off and the seeds are dried in the sun. They are then ready for shipment. The chocolate processors roast the seeds just like coffee and then grind and filter the remains to obtain pure chocolate, which is very strong flavored and bitter. After sugar is added, it is delicious. We bought several pounds of chocolate processed on the farm and it really made good cookies and brownies. We met another American couple, who had purchased 30 acres nearby. They were in the process of clearing an area in order to build a house. The area we visited was populated by local Indians of mixed descent. Being very small, we figured they must have some Kuna blood, but we were also told that the original Maya were also small. The Indians had obtained a "Right of Possession" to use the land. Clear title to land in this area is not common. Most of the land belongs to the government, but settlers can obtain a Right of Possession, which gives them exclusive use of the land. Rights of Possession can be bought or sold, but if the government ever decides it needs the land it can re-claim it after compensating the occupier for any improvements made. Not unlike condemnation proceedings, but not quite like a clear title either.
We had been looking for good weather to head north for some weeks and it finally arrived right in the middle of carnival. The correct procedure before leaving Panama required that we obtain a "Zarpe," or departure document. Since we could only depend on good weather for 48 hours, we were in a hurry to leave. Naturally, during carnival, no offices were open, so we left without the Zarpe and headed due north to Isla Providencia, which lies some 300 miles north of Bocas and 120 miles off the east coast of Nicaragua. Providencia actually belongs to Colombia and is a popular stop over point for cruisers going north and south along the Central American coast. After 50 hours of motoring in virtually calm seas we arrived at Isla Providencia just before the wind piped up to 30 knots. The highlight of the trip was the 10-pound dorado we caught. Dorado is also called mahi mahi or dolphin and is one of the best tasting fish in the sea. Stay turned.