Boat Blocked!

Road block in Panama City (Photo Credit: AlJazeera)

At the end of 2023, we returned from France to Panama to civil unrest. Main roads were shut down throughout the country, and some regions were paralyzed as illegal, semi-permanent blockades completely stopped vehicular traffic. Nothing could get through by land – not people, goods, or even emergency vehicles. Some roadblocks were emplaced for just a few hours each day, while others were several weeks old, and the protesters showed no sign of acquiescing and reopening the highways.

The national police were employing a balanced strategy of aggressively disrupting violent crowds, while minimizing confrontations with peaceful protesters. In some areas of Panama City, the police frequently used tear gas to break up large, ruckus gatherings. To prevent looting, most businesses near hotspots were boarded up with only one door open, which was usually guarded by armed security.

Crowds protesting in Panama City (Photo Credit: Bloomberg)

While still in France, we had read the news about the protests and had decided to delay our launching of ¡Pura Vida! for a couple of months hoping the situation would improve. The area where we wanted to sail on the southwestern coast of Panama was severely impacted by the closures. Friends sailing there told us grocery store shelves were bare and fuel was difficult to get. We needed to look for land options away from the hotspots until the roadblocks were dismantled.

Our timing was excellent. Through an online service, we found an opportunity to do a house and dog sitting gig near the beach in a remote location that was not as affected by the protests. This would give us a place to stay in a safe area for the entire month of December – and we would get to play with dogs every day! We applied for the position and within days, we were chosen. We still had a lot to do in November between our arrival and the house sit, but we felt more confident about our return.

When we arrived, the situation in Panama was actually worse than expected. We have a trusted person in Panama City, Jorge, who takes care of our car while we are gone. Jorge used to work in high-level security and advised us to get a hotel near the airport for our first night after arriving. He was concerned we would not be able to safely reach our intended hotel in the middle of the city because, at night, that neighborhood was a hotbed of clashes between protesters and police. We heeded his counsel and spent our first night at an airport hotel considering how we would get things done in the following weeks.

The next morning, before the break of dawn, we drove out of the city towards our marina to check on ¡Pura Vida! We expected four areas of concern along the way, but we heard reports that the roadblocks on this part of the Interamerican Highway were not permanent, and put up only occasionally, usually in the afternoons. We rolled the dice… and lost. We breezed through the first area of concern, giving us a false sense of hope. When we reached the second area, however, traffic halted. We quickly turned off the main road. Following other cars into an impoverished neighborhood that seldom saw traffic, we drove on some terrifyingly narrow and rutted dirt roads, with sheer drops and no guardrails, to bypass the blockade. The entire time, I was trying to keep our car from falling into massive ditches or colliding with oncoming aggressive drivers. Kimberly was checking our progress on Google Maps and Waze to seek the best route.

After an hour, we reemerged on the main road just one kilometer beyond where we had turned off. Fortunately, the blockade was now behind us and the open road lay ahead. Onward!

We were less than thirty minutes from our destination when traffic stopped again. People parked their cars and sought shady spots on the side of the road to wait. We chatted with pedestrians coming from the other direction who told us a roadblock had just been erected about a quarter kilometer ahead of us. This time, there was no bypass. We had to park and wait in the sweltering tropical heat. We could only hope this was a temporary roadblock and we would not have to spend the night in our car. Approximately two hours later, the blockade was lifted and we resumed our drive. What is normally a ninety-minute drive from the city to the marina turned into a five-hour trek, but we finally reached ¡Pura Vida!

We planned five days of boat work before we needed to return to Panama City. As anyone who has ever lived aboard “on the hard” in a boatyard will tell you, it is an absolutely miserable existence. We opted for renting a small cabin near the marina where we could rest in the evenings after sweating our butts off on the boat during the day. Our few days on ¡Pura Vida! were productive, but flew by.

We had to return to the city to meet my sixteen-year-old nephew, Oliver, at the airport. He was scheduled to spend a few days visiting us. We did not want to risk missing his arrival, so we gave ourselves an extra day to travel the 90 minutes back to the city. Unlike the trip to the marina, our early morning departure paid off on the way back. We later learned that the main highway had been shut down just hours after our journey. Close call!

We spent the next few days with Oliver doing what we could in a city that was partially paralyzed. Many of the outings we had planned were no longer feasible, but we still managed to see ships passing through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, and zipline between skyscrapers 500 feet above the bustling streets. When it was time for Oliver to return home too Costa Rica, we drove him to the airport without incident, but got caught in a roadblock on the way back. We spent a couple of hours detouring though neighborhoods to make only fifteen kilometers of progress. We were beyond ready to leave the city for a while and not worry about driving.

View from the zipline skyscraper

We had three weeks to kill before the dog sitting job began. We decided this was an opportune time to discover a new side of Panama. Our countryside destination was a six-hour drive away on the western shores of the Azuero Peninsula. We packed the car with lots of water and food just in case we got detained, and left Panama City at one in the morning. We felt like fugitives fleeing under the cover of darkness. Our timing worked in our favor as we drove though empty streets, and passed multiple hotspots before protesters had awakened and erected tire, stone, and log barriers across the highways. In several towns, we could see the implements of roadblocks lining the shoulders of the road, anticipating another day of clashes with motorists.

We arrived at our rental cabin in the jungle shortly after sunrise. Our host was most accommodating and allowed us to check in early. With most lodgings in Panama experiencing cancellation rates of over 90%, I think our host was just happy that we had arrived.

The village of Torio, near our cabin, is a sleepy surf community. The protests and roadblocks seemed worlds away. The only evidence of the national unrest was the sparce selection of fruits and vegetables in the small village grocery stores. Roadside markets still had plenty of local produce, so we did not suffer. We had found a peaceful oasis nestled in the jungle.

Torio was a world away from the unrest

Our respite, unfortunately, was short-lived. After only a week in Torio, the town experienced a 30-hour blackout. While we are somewhat acclimated to the tropical heat of Panama, living in a cabin nestled in the jungle without window screens, air conditioning, or even fans was rough. From dusk till dawn, we were devoured by mosquitoes, no-seeums, and who knows what else. We told our host we had to leave and she was incredibly understanding.

In our haste to depart the jungle seeking dryer, cooler accommodations, we made a rookie mistake. We set off driving to our next lodging without checking the national news. When we reached the main highway, we realized we had screwed up. Laying before us was a formidable roadblock spanning all four lanes of traffic. When we parked and walked up to talk to the protesters, we realized we had picked the worst possible day for our three-hour journey. If we had read the news, we would have realized this day had been declared a “complete national 24-hour shut-down” by the protesters. They were friendly and polite, but firmly told us that there was no way they were letting us through. They also told us that the blockades would be lifted promptly at 7am the following morning.

There was a glimmer of hope. While the main highways were shut down, small neighborhood streets were still open. We set off to bypass the first roadblock and after an hour of driving on some of the bumpiest dirt roads we have ever encountered, and barely getting through some sloppy, muddy areas, we re-emerged on the main highway with the roadblock behind us. We drove uninterrupted for almost an hour when we hit the mother of all roadblocks. There was no way around. The protesters had built an astounding barrier at a four-way intersection. Once again, they were friendly and polite, but firm. None shall pass!

We accepted defeat and turned around to return to a town with a small motel, and stay for the night. To our surprise, another roadblock had been erected behind us after we had passed. We could not even get to the hotel and there was absolutely nothing between the two roadblocks where we were. We started contemplating the real possibility that we would spend the night in our car on a desolate stretch of highway.

We had one last hope. Google maps showed a dirt, country road that would let us backtrack to another town where we might find a hotel. Our SUV is not a 4×4, so this was a chancy proposition at best. We reached a fork in the road. To our left was a washed-out river crossing. To our right, a precipitously steep slope with a soupy mess at the bottom. Neither option seemed feasible, then we saw a small pickup truck plowing through the mosh pit and climbing up the hill towards us. Stunningly, he made it after much effort and sliding. The driver told us that after the muddy pit at the bottom, the road was better. We decided to chance it. Afterall, we had gravity on our side to build up momentum.

We lined up the car with the slope ahead, put it in low gear, pressed on the gas, and hoped for the best. When we hit the bottom of the slip-and-side, a wave of muddy water splashed over us and completely obscured the windshield. We kept going blindly forward until we felt a thud as our front wheels grasped for purchase on bits of broken asphalt road beyond the mud. We did not stop to clean off the windshield until we felt certain we were on solid road. We made it! After over six hours of getting nowhere, we finally arrived at a modest hotel with vacant rooms.

True to their word, the protesters lifted the blockades promptly at 7am and we drove to our lodging uninterrupted. Once again, we were in the remote countryside, this time next to a beach, and the problems of Panama seemed a world away. Our good fortune in being able to relocate far from the troubles was not lost on us. We felt incredibly lucky to relax and enjoy a stunning location in comfort and ease in a quiet beach area called El Uverito.

View from our front door in El Uverito
El Uverito Beach. We stayed in the house with the blue roof.
Walking the tidal flats at low tide

When our house and dog sitting gig started, we felt even luckier. We would spend a month in a beautiful house just a short walk from a secluded beach in the company of three adorable dogs. Each day we would take them to the beach at low tide and turn them loose. Watching their different personalities was a joy. One dog, Bubbles, would skirt the rocky cliffs searching for iguanas. Another, Saphira, would run around looking for sticks and would bound with excitement when we would throw one. She would then carry it in her mouth until she determined the best spot to bury it in the sand. The third dog, Sunny, is a tiny bundle of energy. She would take off like a rocket down the beach, turn back to us, then run at top speed to dance in circles at our feet. She was a constant source of entertainment.

Each walk was about five kilometers and the turnaround point was magical for us and the dogs alike. A huge outcropping of rocks stretched from the cliffs into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, leaving a multitude of tidal pools exposed at low tide. We called it the jacuzzi. The pups would hop from pool to pool swimming and looking for fish while we lounged near the surf to let the waves crash gently over the rocks and on top of us. We never saw anyone else there. It was our private slice of paradise for Christmas and January.

These girls stole our hearts!
It felt like our own beach, not another person for miles
They loved road trips!
Winter solstice in Pedasí
The Jacuzzi, our own private playground
They would spend hours “fishing” in the tidal pools
The amazing Jacuzzi

It was during these blissful weeks on the Panamanian coast that we decided not to put ¡Pura Vida! back in the water. Under the best of conditions, we would have a short sailing season and feel rushed. If the civil unrest continued, we could find ourselves in ports without food available and needing to end our sailing even sooner. We made the call to stay in Panama long enough to get some work done on ¡Pura Vida! and return to Europe earlier than originally planned.

Redecorating the galley was a hot and dusty job
Kimberly’s “murder room” for containing all the dust from the sanding
Look at the gloss on the new countertop surfaces!
Out with the old radios! We removed the remnants of an outdated communications network
(NMEA 0183)
Flushing the outboard while twenty feet in the air requires some improvising
Main prop shined up and greased

The French canals would not open until mid-April, and because Ziggy B was moored in a miniscule and remote town in France, living aboard was not a viable option. Once again, we found ourselves without a home. We needed to find a place to live and something to do during February, March, and part of April. Dog sitting to the rescue again! We made the impulsive decision (we seem to be good at those) to winter in Poland, but that is a story for another time.

After several hot days of work, we found a canyon where the locals go cool off

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