Panama's Caribbean coastline is like a box of chocolates for the sea gypsy soul. On the eastern end lie the San Blas Islands that are miraculously untouched by industrial-level tourism. There you find hundreds of postcard-perfect islands inhabited by the Guna Indians, whose exotic clothing and world-renowned molas will dazzle you. In the middle is the mighty Panama Canal, which combines amazing engineering and stunning natural beauty. On the western shores you discover the pristine archipelago of Bocas del Toro. It is a blend of nine large islands and hundreds of small islas. Beaches, reefs, jungles and exotic animals await your arrival. Scattered among these wonders are very nice marinas.
I have cruised this coastline for more than a decade and have worked up an itinerary that allows you to sample all these delights. My suggestions begin in the west, but if you arrive from the eastern Caribbean, you can easily reverse the sequence and get started.
This is a classic velcro port. Sailors arrive here expecting to stay for a month, and then a year swiftly passes. Indeed, it's so alluring that many have tossed out the anchor and built a home onshore. When arriving from sea, the easiest clearance procedure is to call the Bocas Marina on VHF Channel 68 and have them contact the authorities. Take a slip in the marina and officials soon arrive. The Bocas area is home to three marinas. Two are only a five-minute dinghy ride from town, and the third is about five miles away. They all have pleasant and distinctive features.
This marina combines the slow, easy living of the tropics with first-world amenities. It has floating concrete docks with reliable electricity, free water, a laundry service and free WiFi. The shower rooms are sparkling clean, and the gardens are beautiful. The staff is bilingual, friendly and professional. The facility also features a great bar and restaurant with good food, drinks and sailing stories (a few of them even true). It is the hub of the cruising scene with swap meets, potlucks and propane fill-ups. They even have a veterinarian who periodically attends to boater's pets.
If you are looking for a marina with a serious pedigree, this is your spot. Carenero is the Spanish word for careening, and who do you think laid his vessels on their sides to clean their bottoms? It was none other than Christopher Columbus on his final voyage. So, you can tie up in a marina literally floating in history. This option is the least expensive in Bocas and still offers good amenities. It has a friendly, folksy ambiance.
Red Frog Marina
Beside being the favorite destination in the western waters of Panama for mega-yachts, Red Frog Marina also caters to regular boaters. So, even if you didn't get an invitation to Davos this year, you can still enjoy this high-end marina and its protected bay. It provides full services and is just a short walk away is a beach with superb body surfing. That same beach is dotted with laid-back, toes-in-the-sand palapa restaurants.
When you finally manage to escape the Bocas del Toro velcro, a couple of semi-secret stops along the way will dazzle you. The first is about 50 miles to the east and is called Escudo de Veraguas. The lovely island that sits by itself - lonesome and handsome - is essentially uninhabited except for a caretaker family who will direct you to the best snorkeling spots and other attractions.Only about four miles from the Canal breakwater is the glorious Rio Chagres. Want to really get away? You will probably be completely cut off from cell service, the internet and VHF. But what you lose in electronic connectivity is offset by a sensational connection with the untarnished natural world. A gorgeous fort overlooking the river entrance is well worth the short hike up there. And don't miss the nearby tree full of what looks like strangely shaped baskets. These are nests made by the large yellow-tailed weaver birds.
This clean, modern marina on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal is much more than a collection of docks and electricity. It is the best place to settle in while handling the paperwork for a Canal transit. The office staff are experts in facilitating your journey. Plus, they have a top-notch boatyard that can handle both monohulls and multihulls, as well as an up-market boutique hotel and swimming pool on the premises.
From Shelter Bay Marina, the best way to reach the vibrant metropolis of Panama City is the historic Panama Canal Railroad. The trip takes about an hour to dart though rainforests and cross the Panamanian isthmus. Upon arrival in town, you find a dramatic skyline and beautiful seaside vistas. Must-see attractions include the Miraflores Locks Visitor Center and its little museum, which explains how they move massive ships through the canal, and the picturesque old city of Casco Viejo with its charming architecture and tiny streets. Panama City also boasts terrific restaurants, bars, nightclubs and casinos.
Gateway to the San Blas Islands You will find no marinas in the magical Guna Yala, which is the indigenous name for the San Blas Islands. However, three marinas are located nearby, and they are quite different from each other. Continuing our itinerary from west to east, they are:
Tucked into a narrow mangrove bay, most people consider this sheltered spot just a leave your boat for a while marina. Having sampled the social amenities at the bar and restaurant, I can assure you that it's much more than a parking lot. It is also affordable, which leaves more dinero for festive rum drinks.
Linton Bay Marina
The newest marina along the coast has much to offer. A picturesque bay with nice new docks, a big dry storage area and a boatyard where you can do it yourself or hire its workers. The travel lift is something to behold. If the Incredible Hulk decided to go cruising, he would love this 37-foot beam, 120-ton monster.
Turtle Cay Marina
Our last stop is a cozy one. It can handle about 70 boats in a sheltered and almost invisible little bay. Adjacent is a nice beach made even nicer with a bar/restaurant, just perfect for leaving your first-world troubles behind.
I hope this synopsis of Panama's splendid Caribbean coast convinces you that my decade of knocking around these waters was well worth it. However, it would be even better if you come on over and see for yourself. If you're planning a trip to Panama, be sure to get a copy of the Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus at email@example.com.