Costa Rica to Panama 2020

Sänna - Wildlife Park

“Little did we suspect the whole world would soon tumble off an enormous cliff. The virus fermenting inside Chinese bats near the city of Wuhan was just a background news item when we returned to Costa Rica back in January, there was nothing to indicate the awful crisis that was to hit hard just three months later. We never paid much attention to the mounting media frenzy – we were too concerned with making plans to get ourselves south through the Panama Canal. Just like the rest of the world, we were unprepared – given that we spend most of our time taking care of the risks we face on a day-to-day basis then crisis planning is something not unknown to us – but not this, this was science fiction stuff, this was the doomsday prophecy those cranks and conspiracy psychopaths bang on about without anyone taking notice. Nowadays, we know the virus is a deadly threat that’s gonna change everything – the world, we think, has changed forever…” Dave

Costa Rica
We’d had a good Christmas back in the UK, but we needed to get back to Marina Papagayo where we’d left Sänna since mid-December – because of the eye-watering marina costs we were being charged then the longer we were away the more expensive Sänna’s layover became. Like everywhere in Central America, the scramble to pile up the American dollar is a sophisticated commercial wealth enterprise designed to feed off the world’s richest nation – so we were keen to spend the least time possible paying the nightly marina mooring fee that’s not unlike that of a four-star land-based hotel. It was time to move on.

Marina Papagayo is nearly thirty kilometres from the nearest sizeable town of Playa Del Coco, provisioning for our proposed long voyage southwards was just not financially viable from the marina, although they would willingly arrange for taxis, the fifty bucks each way taxi ride was no joke. Car rental was just as expensive, so we asked our taxi driver from the Liberia international airport to stop at a small convenience store to buy basic bread, milk and eggs – enough for a couple of days until we could sail out of the marina to anchor once again off Playa Del Coco. There were extremely good supermarkets in Playa Del Coco, although the precarious beach landings through the surf and equally wet dinghy launches back out made food provisioning an extremely interesting exercise. Welcome back to Costa Rica!

Sänna - Food markets Costa Rica
Fresh food markets in Costa Rica are culinary delights

Like before, we enjoyed Playa Del Coco. We’d been there the previous November when we’d arrived from San Juan Del Sur in Nicaragua. Playa Del Coco was our nearest port of entry into Costa Rica, we were by now well used to the idea that Costa Rica does not make it easy for transiting sailboats. There are few mooring or docking facilities which renders things hard going, for example, if one wishes to get ashore. We had learned a wet lesson the last time here, this time we’d purchased a set of sophisticated dinghy wheels that we had then transported from the UK in our luggage. Given time, we’d become experts in their use, or so we believed. For now the beach surf in Playa Del Coco wasn’t so bad, we were able to restock Sänna relatively easily. After a week anchored off the beach, frequenting the town’s many bars and food stalls, we were ready to leave – until the night before our departure when the infamous Papagayo winds blew up to forty knots overnight. We were shocked, I stuck my head out of the hatch the following morning to see that we’d dragged our anchor for nearly two-hundred metres – and that somehow we’d dragged a perfect path through a myriad of moored boats and rocks. This was, I tell you, a nerve-racking experience – and we had to wait three more days for the winds to ease so that we could safely pull up Sänna’s anchor to head south.

Our first anchorage from leaving Playa Del Coco was Bahia Guacamaya, a fabulous little bay located only seven nautical miles or so from Coco, we had a pleasant day sail with nice winds across our stern to this quiet sheltered anchorage where we stayed two nights. Gone was the hustle of Playa Del Coco, though on both days we were there a noisy tour boat dumped large groups of tourists onto the secluded beach complete with their dogs – but by four pm in the afternoon they left us in peace. Our next anchorage was eighteen miles or so to Bahiá Tamarindo…

What can we tell you about Tamarindo. This touristy surfing town is nice, we enjoyed it, but getting ashore in our dinghy was once more a nightmare – with or without dinghy wheels. Straightaway, Tamarindo’s surfing tag should tell you this means big rolling sea swells – and we needed to both land then launch our dinghy through these large incoming waves. We decided to head ashore through the moored tourist boats previously launched direct from the beach, we eventually got ashore saturated wet by timing full-throttle burst from our outboard motor with Marie jumping into the water to heave on the painter line whilst I battled to get the beach wheels down then lift the outboard – all before the next big wave came in. We once more got wet, but we made it – except that we then had to walk through the busy town wringing wet. As usual, we couldn’t find anywhere with clean water or a tap to wash ourselves down, and ‘friendly’ local bar and tourist-boat owners were less than keen to help us. Even so, we quickly dried out in the hot sun, then found a bar with good western-style craft beers and gin. Marie suggested pizzas for late evening dinner, but I was not happy to risk the dangers of a dinghy launch through the surf in the dark – so Marie found a restaurant with good reviews who were more than happy to give us takeaway pizzas – they were good too, except that Marie asked for them to be wrapped in black bin-liners to keep them dry. The waitress laughed, saying only leftovers ended up in bin-liners, she laughed even more when Marie explained we would be launching from the beach with our hot takeaway pizzas. Well, it really was a disaster, we got swamped in the dinghy in the pitch dark before making our way through the swell to climb onboard Sänna once more dripping wet – but the pizzas in their bin-liners were perfectly dry. We washed them down with nice beer and white wine.

Sänna - surfing Tamarindo
Tamarindo – Costa Rica’s surfing capital and a dinghy landing nightmare

Costa Rica is a well developed Latin American country with a sophisticated tourism industry, the locals are not much enamoured with the few sailboats that make their way down or up their coastline. However, the jungle scenery is exquisite, it’s a beautiful country that’s politically stable, that unusually for Central America countries offers clean fresh drinking water everywhere and is relatively crime free. There are both advantages and disadvantages to Costa Rica, but we had to work hard to access these relatively developed facilities from offshore. The few marinas are hugely overpriced and anchorages are prone to pacific swells rolling in to make overnight stopovers a challenge just to get sleep – and the continual beach landings were beginning to wear us down. Once ashore, we enjoyed this beautiful country, but already we were tiring in what should have been an easy and enjoyable coastal voyage – but the best and worst of Costa Rica was yet to come.

From Bahiá Tamarindo we had a long fifty mile hop to Bahiá Samara, we’d heard this was a good anchorage providing we could tuck in behind the island of Chora to get out of the relentless swell. To do this we had to feel our way around the extensive reef located in the middle of the bay, we were able to do this relatively easily as the tide fell. It was a good anchorage, we could get ashore quite easily although the friendliness of the local all-inclusive hotel staff was a nightmare – even trying to rid ourselves of our bagged refuge proved to be a problem – all the beachside rubbish bins were locked and out of bounds to us, until we found a friendly local resident who allowed us to dump our refuge in their own bins. We couldn’t even access the hotel bars as paying customers. Nevertheless, a long dinghy ride along the edge of the reef took us into the delightful little town of Samara, where we found nice beachside bars, a small supermarket to restock and good local food. We stayed in Bahiá Samara a few days, the swimming from the boat was superb, it was quiet and we were well sheltered behind Chora island. Next, leaving Bahiá Samara, we had another longish day-hop to round Cabo Blanko, the White Cape, a notorious headland before making the fifteen miles or so to sublime Bahiá Ballena.

Sänna - Tamarindo

By now, we were at least beginning to lose the worse of the pacific swells that poured into the open anchorages – Costa Rica is a surfer’s paradise for one good reason. Ballena is a large open bay but rounding the headland cape at least placed the bay outside of the direct line of incoming swell. We were able to anchor off in the extreme southwestern side of the bay behind the protection of a protruding headland. Heading into the bay late in the afternoon we encountered a US flagged catamaran heading northwards, we at first didn’t recognise the catamaran until our VHF radio cackled into life – it was our old friends Ankyrios whom we’d left El Salvador with the previous year. We’d anchored in Honduras with Ankyrios then found them once more in San Juan Del Sur in Nicaragua. Dennis & Brandy, with their five wonderful kids Hope, Caleb, Sarah, Micah & Seth, are making their way under sail doing missionary work for their church by assisting in local prayer group communities – this family are a treasure, we’d got to know them well and it was fabulous to see them again. Ankyrios suffered prop damage making their way south the Nicaraguan Papagayo winds, they’d hauled out of the water further south in Quepos and were now returning north to their homeland US.

Ankyrios Family - Sänna
The Ankyrios sailing family and their wonderful mission

We spent a nice few days with Ankyrios, also once more we battled our way ashore through the surf – we wrongly assumed the lower swells would make things easier for us to land the dinghy but we were wrong. In what we thought were calmer conditions and still trying to master the best use of our dinghy wheels, Marie tumbled underneath the dinghy fully submerged during what seemed to be a relatively easy landing – we both then spent a good hour drying out in a beachside bar where the proprietor absolutely refused to allow us to use the outside water tap to clean ourselves or let us inside. We sun dried whilst drinking margaritas and beer on their roadside patio before leaving, without paying the tip the waiter asked for, to find the supermarket and a more friendly bar in the centre of Ballena village. We found a good restaurant serving fresh local produce – and we then braved the dreaded beach launch through the surf, in the dark, with a good measure of drink inside us. It went ok. The next day Dennis & Brandy were horrified when we told them how much we’d risked our lives purely through our consumption of alcohol. Being deeply religious, they frowned upon such poor behaviour and we readily agreed. Next, when we left Ballena, came the best of Costa Rica’s coastal gems…

Only around seven miles northeastwards of Bahiá Ballena is the Curu Wildlife Refuge, pristine rainforest that creeps right down to the beach. We could anchor in the bay then access the park from our dinghy, paying the designated fee to the park Rangers ashore. There are also basic accommodation lodges, a local restaurant serving excellent food and wild jungle wildlife in abundance. We dropped anchor and stayed four days, benefiting from the shelter provided by the Islas Tortugas – the Islands of Turtles. Ashore there were huge bands of howler and capuchin monkeys, deer, snakes, crocodiles and numerous other small animals too many to name. The excellent trails through the rainforest made our daily treks hugely enjoyable, we had a wonderful time – except that thieving monkeys more than once ransacked our dinghy contents whenever we left it tied ashore. Early morning and late evening crescendoes from howler monkeys have to be heard to be believed.

Sänna - capuchin Curu Wildlife Reserve
Wild Capuchin monkeys in their natural Curu habitat

Curu was a revelation for me personally, in my youth I’d kept two capuchin monkeys as pets, something that these days is rightly frowned upon and banned in many western countries. Even so, spotting wild capuchin monkeys rampaging through the small park headquarters and restaurant was a big thing and a fantastic experience, these were treasure days. In the evening sunsets Marie and I sat eating nice food drinking the last of our dwindling wine and beer stocks surrounded by wild seabirds, dolphins and eagles with the backdrop of howler monkeys howling their loudest. Soon, it was time to leave – we needed to make miles towards Panama and the drab central belt of coastal Costa Rica lay ahead.

The region of Costa Rica from Bahiá Herradura southwards to Puerto Quepos is largely devoid of anything interesting for a transiting sailboat. We anchored in Bahiá Herradura, outside of the marina that charged nearly one hundred dollars for a single night, to get ourselves together for the long stagnant voyage on engine to Quepos due to an absolute lack of wind. This part of Costa Rica is driven by excess tourism with miles of beach resorts of no interest to us, our aim was to get through this area as quickly as possible. The supposedly quaint town of Quepos was pretty much inaccessible too, unless one is prepared to once more pay astonishing marina fees to tie up. You can supposedly anchor outside the harbour wall but the marina has the only safe dock to tie a dinghy to get ashore – but there is a guard on their breakwater to prevent any dinghy entering their marina – you get turned back. This is the unfriendliness of Costa Rica in its extreme, it was absolutely beginning to wear us down. In the event, we needed fuel, diesel was only available from the fuel dock within the marina confines. We needed to get approval with a time slot to buy fuel, which should in reality be readily available for any vessel that needs it – it’s a basic necessity of safety at sea.

We entered Quepos marina, tied up at the fuel dock and were told to report to the marina office. There we had to register as guests, have all our documents checked then show proof of insurance – just to buy a tank of diesel fuel. Anchoring outside their breakwater was demeaning and dangerous, but we were not prepared to pay extortionate marina fees which in our opinion is akin to being mugged. Instead, we got our fuel, left and anchored in the lee of Punta Quepos around a mile or so from the marina entrance. There were reefs there that were not accurately marked on the charts but we were fine, but taking the dinghy to the Playa Tulemar beaches to try and land was a joke – besides the surf, the beaches and immediate sea were packed solid with sunbathers and swimmers in their hundreds, under no circumstances would we even try to negotiate our way through, it would be dangerous for both ourselves and the local tourists saturating the beach – we never did make it in to Quepos.

We stayed three nights on anchor, waiting for decent wind really. A US sailboat came in to anchor, they stopped by to ask if there was someplace safe they could get ashore – they experienced the same problem. We drank a couple of beers with them, didn’t record their boat name and the next morning both vessels left – they to head north, ourselves south. We were intending to anchor in the confines of the Manual Antonio Game Reserve park around three miles away, we’d been told it was even better than the Curu park we’d already visited. When arriving off Manual Antonio, a speedboat towing paragliders nearly collided with us even though it was a restricted area, the surrounding sea was littered with jet-skis and the park was located right beside a beach decked out with hundreds of sunshade umbrellas. We never bothered to drop anchor, we decided to engine our way further south. It was a long eighty mile haul, but then we found wonderful Drake Bay.

Sänna - Drake Bay, Costa Rica
Fabulous Drake Bay, Costa Rica

No one is certain if Drake Bay was used by the English privateer Sir Francis Drake to raid the Spanish galleons full of plundered Inca gold in the 16th century, but the legend of his exploits lives bold and well. Located on the remote Osa Peninsula, Drake Bay is one of only two gateways to the pristine peninsula which is largely mountainous rainforest accessible to those who wish to rough-trek along overgrown trails and through secluded villages. Francis Drake supposedly buried his treasure somewhere and it is still waiting to be found. Because of the type of tourist the Osa Peninsula attracts, Drake Bay is more relaxed and basic than most of Costa Rica’s concrete all-inclusive jungle – we loved Drake Bay. What’s more, there is a superb dinghy landing dock that’s sheltered and out of the surf – providing one is brave enough to tackle the river entrance at high-tide to access the dock. Then it’s a picturesque trek along the beachside into the town or you can once more face a surf landing on the beach that’s closer to the excellent backpacker bars and restaurants – we did this once and suffered our ritual saturated ducking, from then we learned to traverse the rive entrance tides.

We had a near fifty mile voyage on engine from Bahiá Manual Antonio, a windless non-adventure that brought us an easy entrance into Drake Bay to drop anchor in clear blue waters just as sunlight faded. It’s a good anchorage. The next day we launched our dinghy to find the fabled dinghy dock, only to realise we could only enter the river at high tide – before this it’s a treacherous area of water even the local tourist pangas avoid. But once inside, the river is a calm jungle oasis well worth exploring, which we did. The dinghy dock is actually hotel owned but, surprisingly for Costa Rica, they do not mind yachtsmen using it on the basis the hotel also possesses a decent restaurant and bar. The dock also sells diesel, gasoline and basic supplies. We walked along the beachside track into the small backpacker town, found a reasonable supermarket and expensive laundry then decided to stay a while. Unfortunately, we were turned away from the first beach-track restaurant we tried – the Kalaluna Bistro menu posted on a chalkboard astride the path looked delicious and inviting but, it turned out, only for all-inclusive guests of the in-house guesthouse. Why post your menu for everyone to read then deny access to it? Costa Rica strikes again. Luckily, the Aguila de Osa Inn that operated the landing dock, also all-inclusive, offered us the unofficial services of their chef who told us verbally what he could cook for us – we ate a fabulous meal with excellent wine. However, by the time we had over indulged it was pitch-dark, the tide had dropped to below half-tide, we were faced with a treacherous ride over the river entrance-bar back to Sänna sitting serenely on anchor. No bother, the chef himself arranged for their security guard to launch their panga, who then piloted us through the dangerous water before waving to us goodbye.

Sänna - rustic Drake Bay
As basic & rustic as it comes – Drake Bay

We stayed nearly a week in Drake Bay, we were joined by another British boat Susimi with Hazel and Paul onboard with two friends who themselves owned a sailboat currently moored on the Caribbean side of Panama. We got to know them well, sharing their dinghy, eating out and drinking alcohol over a few nights before we both pulled up anchor to leave – ourselves south, themselves north to Nicaragua. We were heading around the long peninsula to Golfito, but faced another demoralising fifty-mile windless haul to this wonderfully sheltered location in the Golfo Dulce close to the border with Panama. To enter this large gulf we had to pass the notorious Cape Roca, giving a wide berth to Roca Matapalo where dangerous shallows and many hidden dangers lurk to trap unsuspecting vessels tempted to cut the gap between the peninsula cape and towering Matapalo rock. Golfito is a fine town, with good supermarkets, marinas and the designated port for both entry and exit for southern Costa Rica. Golfito also possesses a duty-free zone where we could purchase goods and alcohol drinks without paying sales taxes – which at Costa Rican tax rates meant big savings. However, getting into the zone proved to be problematic.

We anchored off the Banana Bay Marina, a good calm anchorage in that we were now well out of any incoming pacific swell. This was nice, the excellent marina facilities were freely open to us even though we were anchored outside – which provided easy access into this nice little town with good services and shops. The people in Banana Bay were so friendly towards us they were almost un-Costa-Rican. A couple of days after our arrival Bob & Carol arrived on their ketch Singularity, a really nice American couple we had got to know well first in Bahiá Del Sol in El Salvador, then back in Puesta Del Sol in Nicaragua. It was good to see them again, but Bob gave us uneasy news about things changing in Panama. Amarulles, the normal port of entry into Panama was closing, we would not be able to head there once we’d completed Costa Rican exit formalities in Golfito. It seemed we would need to head to Pedregal or Boca Chica instead, this was confusing – and there was increasingly worrying news about this Chinese bat virus spreading into the human population from the city of Wuhan in China.

Golfito Town
Golfito Town

In the meantime we wished to stock up with duty-free wine and beer from the TAC zone. We had to take a bus ride to the zone the day before we wished to shop, to be given an authorised entry ticket and designated time. We bussed it all the way there, around thirty minutes or so, only to find the ticket office was closed. So we bussed it there again the next day. The office couldn’t process our entry pass because, they said, they were introducing a new computerised system, they told us to return once more tomorrow. We ignored this and walked into the zone anyway, but the liquor stores inside needed to see our passes before they would sell us wine, beer & spirits. We said that, as foreigners, we didn’t have passes so they sold us what we needed anyway. We loaded a taxi up to the hilt with wine, spirits and beer then drove back to Banana Bay before loading our dinghy to make several back and forth trips out to Sänna sitting on anchor. We loved Banana Bay and Golfito. By now it was late February – and Marie’s birthday. Marie did her usual Trip Advisor research for the best restaurant in town, around a thirty minute walk away from Banana Bay. We got wet – unusually the rains were beginning to kick in, we got caught in an exceptionally heavy downpour but our meal was excellent – we got a taxi ride back.

By now the ominous dark clouds of the coronavirus were gathering, every day there was more startling news. We checked out of Costa Rica with the harbourmaster and customs, a fairly straightforward exercise except that we missed the harbourmaster by five minutes when his office closed on the Friday afternoon for the weekend – so we delayed our departure until the Monday morning, even though we’d already completed emigration and customs procedures. But we needed our exit Zarpe document from the harbourmaster for our next port of call in Panama. No one seemed to mind that we spent the weekend illegally still in Costa Rica.

It was another long drag on the engine to Boca Chica, we crossed the border into Panama one day behind Bob & Carol in Singularity. We voyaged into absolute unexpected chaos as the full disaster of the covid pandemic hit…