Panama, Portobelo – Topping up the cruising kitty

We love the cruising life.1-beach with Quinn

I love the beaches and swimming, while the humans love meeting new people, seeing new places and exploring below the waters surface.  There has always been a new adventure around every corner.

But unfortunately it takes money.

No mater how cheaply we try to live and eat the boat always takes up the majority of the budget. Major systems are always wearing out and maintenance is always required.  Unfortunately every time they put the word ‘marine’ before a product label they also add a few ‘zeros’ to the price tag.

So nothing comes cheap, especially when we rarely have an address to have it sent to.  Do not forget that most of Central America does not even have a postal system!

Send to:  Sailing Vessel Spirit of Argo,  anchored somewhere off the coast of Central America?

Chart of Panama with Portobela marked


So here we were anchored up in Portobelo stocking up to return to the San Blas Islands for a ‘at least’ a few more months when one of my humans spotted an employment opportunity.

Sail repairs

Not about to walk away from an opportunity to ‘top up the kitty’, of course she inquired if they might need an extra hand.   Casa Vela is a bar/restaurant on the waterfront with a sail loft in back.

Casa Vela view out to bay

Casa Vela run by Birgit and Ray

Picture of Ray and Birgit

The German owners Ray and Birgit were mad enough to hire her.   Ray runs the sail loft and Birgit runs the bar/restaurant.  You can guess where my other human hung out.

Every little bit helps towards affording to replace some worn out systems on the boat.  So the humans were happy to make a little extra money while Ray was happy to have some free time to work on his own boat.

Besides, Portobelo is not so bad.  It is a bit of a ‘run down’ town that needs a ‘bit’ of a clean up.  But there are good enough grocery shops, hardware stores, restaurants and bakeries.   Fresh fruit and veggy trucks visit most days and their is a cheap regular bus service to the next biggest town, Sabintas, where there is a large ‘American style’ grocery store.  Or Panama City if you really need something from the Capital.

Bus to grocery store

One of the colourful old school buses that plow the route along the Panamanian coast and Colon City.




Festival in town

Festival action in the town centre of Portobelo  (Opps,ignore the faulty time stamp)

Anchorage off of fort

Anchoring on the north side of the bay, off the fort, gives me a beach and trails to run about on.  It is also cleaner water for the humans to cool off with a swim after a long sweaty day in the sail loft.

NOW that the idea of perhaps WORKING during the summer had come up for the humans, they decided to research what WORK was available out there.

That is when they found an old advertisement for a sail maker at Shelter Bay Marina.

Shelter bay Marina map to

ShelterBayMap close up


Situated at the mouth of the Panama Canal they have a ‘captured market’ for boats needing work before passing through to the Pacific.

Remarkably they were still looking for someone to develop their canvas and sail loft.  Us ‘cruising lot’ do have a habit of ‘sailing off into the sunset’.  And that is exactly what the last few people running the place had done.

Shelter Bay were offer ‘quite a bit’ more pay,Shelter-Bay-Marina-in-PanamaPool at Shelter Bay Marina

but with that ‘quite a bit’ more ‘head aches’ and responsibility.  Did my humans really want that?  As nice as the Marina is, did they want to give up beaches. snorkeling and any chance of privacy?

Needless to say they needed to take some time to decide.

Unfortunately, just as my humans were trying to make a decision there was a  spree of thefts in Portobelo Harbour.  A French boat was robbed at gun point and Ray’s boat (owner of the sail loft) was broken into and the generator and some tools were taken.

All of a sudden things did not feel very secure remaining in Portobelo.  The humans felt it was time to leave.  Either back to the San Blas Islands or on to Shelter Bay.

With another 10 years before anyone on this boat sees a pension and expensive systems breaking down and work available, the logical choice was to try and see how things panned out in Shelter Bay Marina.  So the humans called up the Marina, accepted the job and gave a weeks notice to Ray at Casa Vela.

Since accepting the job, Portobelo Harbour has again become a safer anchorage.  This is primarily due to the persistence and efforts by Ray.   He traveled down to Colon police head quarters to complain about the situation here.  They set up daily patrols by the navy and arrested the group of thieves.  A thorough search retrieved the gun, the generator and a majority of the stolen goods.

Sunset in Portobelo Harbour

Our last few nights at anchor.  My humans will soon be joining the rest of you lot in full time employment.  At least we will not be needing any jumpers or catching the Go train!


Portobela is a very handy anchorage for stocking up.  What you can not find in the local shops you will find, only a short bus ride away, in ‘Rey’ supermarket in the town of Sabinitos.


All the busses have their destinations clearly painted on the front windshields.  They will pick you up anywhere along the main road if you wave your hand.  There is a shaded seating area in the central square in town, in front of (what everyone calls) the second Chineese market.  You wait on the shop side of the road for busses going in the direction of Sabinitos and Colon.

You pay when you exit the bus.  Try to have small bills or exact change.  The fair was $1.75/each way at the time of writing.  Buses seem pretty regular both ways.  We never waited longer than 15 minutes for a bus.  They do get very ‘packed’ at peak travelling times.

You pick up the return bus right outside the Rey supermarket.  The bus will have ‘Portobela’ clearly written across the front.  They are usually pretty full before they leave Colon, so expect to have to ‘squeeze’ in.  They emply on the way to Portobela, usually, but you do not want to be carrying many groceries.


You have two choices.

  1. You take the bus to Sabinitos and a taxi back with your groceries.  There is a queue of taxies waiting right outside Rey’s supermarket.  At the time of writing it was about $20 for the trip back to Portobela.
  2. You can pre-book a return taxi driver from Portobela who will wait for you, and hold your purchases from town, while you shop.  They know where the good automotive supply and hardware shops are.  You usually finish off at Rey supermarket last before returning to Portobela.  At the time of writing Tommy, fluent in English, (507-6765-4845) charged $30 for the round trip.


We are going to have to get used to saying goodbye to friends as they head on through the Canal to the Pacific.  That is what a majority of the boats that come to Panama have come here for.

CIMG5597Most of this crew we met in the Rio Dulce, Guatemala last hurricane season.

Gene and Bill (furthest to the left) are taking their boat (s/v Out of the Bag) through the canal with the help of friends Sue and Brian (s/v Sea Rose) and Becky and George (s/v C-Level).  Their friendly faces my be familiar to a few of you.

They stopped into Portobela to do a stock up and we were able to quickly catch up with them before they left.