Greetings family and friends!  This update from the crew of Southern Belle is coming to you from the tropical
    paradise of Western Panama.  Remember, you can find corresponding pictures by clicking on the Photo Album button
    above.  And don't forget, you can always look at our previous ramblings by clicking on the archived Journal Entries
    (above) and the corresponding archived Photo Albums on the Photo Album page.

    When we returned from our sorrowful visit to the United States, we flew into Quito, Ecuador.  Quito is the capital
    of Ecuador and is a huge city built high in the mountains at an elevation of over 9,000 feet above sea level.  As you can
    imagine, the crew of Southern Belle were huffing and puffing as we tried to acclimate to an elevation that is just a
    tad higher than that of New Orleans.  We spent three days exploring Quito and the surrounding area.  Quito has a
    great Old Town area with many beautiful churches and elaborate Government buildings.  We also took a drive into the
    surrounding countryside to visit Volcan Pululahua, where you can look down into the crater which is now used for
    agriculture.  You can also hike down into the crater, but we opted to just view it from the overlook.  Joshua might
    have been able to handle the hike, but Melinda and George were winded just from walking to the overlook from the
    car.  While on this drive about we visited a small town where the Equator passes through.  Many years ago a French
    survey team marked the location of the equator here in Ecuador and the government erected an elaborate monument
    and park which is almost a town in and of itself.  Unfortunately, thanks to modern technology and the invention of the
    Global Positioning System, they now know that the Equator is actually about a quarter of a mile away from the site of
    the elaborate monument.  Some enterprising locals have built a small, but very impressive museum on the site of the
    actual location of the equator.  We were skeptical at first, thinking these locals were just trying to steal the
    limelight from the giant monument and park complex, but after taking the tour at the museum we were convinced that
    we were standing on the equator.  The one thing that convinced us more than anything else was the draining water
    demonstration.  Our guide took a portable sink and placed it right on the equator line, filled it with water and placed
    some small leaves afloat on the surface of the water so we could easily see how the water would move.  She then
    pulled the plug and the water drained out of the sink without swirling (neither clockwise nor counter-clockwise).  
    Next, we moved the sink approximately 10 to 15 feet into the southern hemisphere and repeated the process.  The
    water drained and formed a clearly defined clockwise whirlpool.  Then we moved the sink about the same distance
    into the northern hemisphere and the water formed a clearly defined counter-clockwise whirlpool!  Amazing but true!  
    So before you go making fun of the French for incorrectly plotting the location of the equator, remember they did
    the original survey over 200 years ago and only missed by less than a quarter of a mile.

    Since we were carrying so much luggage (6 huge bags full of gear we bought in the USA), we opted to take a 30 minute
    flight to the town of Manta rather than the cheaper 8 hour bus ride over rough terrain.  In Manta we were met by a
    driver from Puerto Amistad Yacht Club who took us back to Southern Belle in Bahia de Caraquez after our long hiatus.  
    It was sure nice to see Southern Belle bobbing on her mooring ball just off the clubs dinghy dock.  We moved
    everything aboard and started the process of cleaning and stowing.  It took four solid days to get everything ship
    shape, but it was wonderful to be home again.  We spent the next two weeks preparing Southern Belle and ourselves
    for the long ocean voyage back up to Panama.  Joshua spent his days getting back into a school rhythm and then playing
    with his buddy Gregorio in the afternoons.  On December 17th we said goodbye to the wonderful folks at Puerto
    Amistad and headed out to sea.

    We always feel a little nervous at first when heading out for a long passage.  Will the sea be kindly? will the boat hold
    up? did we bring enough food? etc., etc.  But after a few short hours we all gained our sea legs and it felt good to be
    on the move again and heading for new, exciting and exotic ports.  We left Panama along with 3 other boats that were
    heading for Panama.  Even though we lost sight of each other after the first few hours of the first day, it's nice to
    know that others are out there with you in the wide open ocean.  We all checked in with each other daily at 0900 and
    again at 1800 via HAM Radio.  Two of the boats (Iwa and Villisar) headed for the Perlas Islands in the gulf of Panama
    while we and Encore headed over into Western Panama.  Buzz and Maureen on Encore are still buddy boating with us
    here in Western Panama.  Buzz & Maureen sailed around the world 20 years ago on their previous sailboat, so as you
    can imagine they are a wealth of knowledge for us newbie-cruisers.  Our crossing to Panama went smoothly and only
    took 4 days.  The first day was total sail, but after that the winds died out and we had to motor-sail.  We hated to
    burn up all of that cheap Ecuadorian diesel fuel, but at least the seas were totally calm.  

    Our first sight of land was Isla Jicaron and the much larger Isla Coiba just to the north.  We decided to pull into Isla
    Jicaron and stay there for awhile if it turned out to be nice.  We were not disappointed.  The Island is beautiful!  We
    anchored on the north end off of a beautiful white sandy beach.  The beach is lined with coconut palms and flowering
    trees and has a lovely fresh water stream that drains out into the ocean.  The jungle is so thick you can't walk into it,
    but standing at the edge you can hear all of the exotic birds and the howler monkeys calling to each other.  It was
    wonderful to stroll along the beach smelling fresh flowers and looking for shells.  Encore showed up the next day and
    we both stayed at Isla Jicaron right through Christmas.  Other than a quick visit by the Panamanian Navy for a safety
    inspection on our first day at the Island, we did not see another vessel the entire time we were at Jicaron.  The Navy
    guys were very nice and polite.  Joshua had fun checking out their guns.  He must have asked them each a hundred
    questions concerning their weapons.  We think they finally left to escape the inquisitive child.

    After Isla Jicaron we visited Isla Canal de Afuera, Bahia Honda, Isla Medidor, Bahia Dona Juana, Bahia Muertos, and
    Isla Seccas.  After over 2 years of exploring the western coast of Mexico, Central America, and South America,
    Western Panama is the most beautiful cruising ground we have yet to visit.  The Islands are beautiful, the water is
    crystal clear, the people are very friendly and helpful, and the fishing is great.  Some of the highlights are as follows:

  • In Bahia Honda we met a nice family with children close to Joshua's age.  They invited Joshua to spend the day
    at their house which is right on the water.  Senior Domingo, the patriarch of the family, gave us a bunch of fresh
    fruit and sold us (at a very cheap price) a couple of nice bowls he had made out of the local wood.  Domingo also
    took us on a trip up a small river to visit the town of Salmonetta.  The closest road to this lovely little village
    was a 5-hour ride by horseback over the mountains.

  • In Dona Juana we met another nice family who manage a Company Farm.  They had many pets which was fun for
    Joshua.  He especially like their pet baby Howler Monkey, Sophia.  Alfredo and his wife Elizabeth gave us a tour
    of the farm and loaded us up with fresh vegetables and fruits.  Elizabeth taught us how to make a tasty juice
    drink using "Lulu" Fruit, which we were unfamiliar with.  They also gave us fresh fish they had caught.

  • A pod of Humpback Whales swam around the front of Southern Belle in Bahia Muertos as we were watching the
    sunset.  They came really close!  It was fantastic.

  • The snorkeling has been terrific in all of the Islands, but none more so than at the Isla Secas where we are
    now.  Here the visibility has been 50 to 60 feet everyday.  It's like living in a big swimming pool with fish.  Lots
    of fish!  The Secas are a group of islands and the largest one, Isla Calvada, is privately owned.  The owners have
    built a small but beautiful Eco-Resort where you stay in tent-like structures called Yurts.  "ECO" stands for
    ecological not economical.  The going rate is $650/person/night!  They allow cruising boats to use the
    anchorages but usually prefer that we do not go ashore at the resort.  Right now the resort is closed and
    manned by a skeletal crew.  Their main engineer, Juan, lives on his boat here in the anchorage with his wife,
    Yarderlis, and two children, Jeremy (5) and Luisito (2).  They are very friendly and one day took us on a hiking
    tour of the resort.  They are also allowing us cruisers to use as much of the water as we like from the resorts
    fresh water system.  An interesting side note, Juan is 72 years old and Yarderlis is 25 years old.  A bit
    different, but they seem happy.

  • We celebrated Melinda's 49th birthday here at Isla Calvada.  Our friends on Hooligan (Tim and Paula who we
    have not seen since Zihuatanejo) and Encore, plus Juan and his family helped us celebrate.  They all came over
    to Southern Belle to enjoy some of the chocolate cake that Joshua baked for Melinda.  Everyone made
    something for Melinda utilizing the local flora and fauna.  Yarderlis made a necklace and earrings from shells
    and pieces of drift wood.  Buzz and Maureen made a card that everyone signed.  Paula made some nice shell
    earrings, and Tim and George hunted for fresh fish that was made into a Thai-Curry stir fry that fed the whole
    anchorage.  While we were enjoying cake and singing Happy Birthday to Melinda aboard Southern Belle, we were
    treated to an incredible double rainbow where we could easily see both ends of the rainbow.  Spectacular!  All in
    all, a very memorable birthday!

    We will continue to explore Western Panama for a few more weeks and then work our way east into the Gulf of
    Panama.  In the gulf we will visit the Perlas Islands and spend some time there before heading to the metropolis of
    Panama City.

    The above photo was taken At the location where the Equator passes through Ecuador.  Until our next update we wish
    you all fair winds and following seas!
Ecuador to Western Panama