With five years of cruising under our keel—mostly in the Caribbean—we’re old hands at riding the local buses and safaris, and used to small island countries where we can travel from one end to the other in an hour. Panama is different. Of course, there are no buses on the tiny islands in the Guna Yala region; there are also no opportunities for provisioning. Stocking up requires a trip to the mainland, and most cruisers opt for a day sail to the area near Isla Grande. From the nearby anchorages or marina cruisers can ride the ‘chicken bus’ to Sabanitas, the first town where one can find grocery stores and banks.
You know you are a cruising sailor when you get excited about spending two hours on a ‘chicken bus’ to find cash, bacon, bottled wine, and chocolate. If you need more esoteric items like boat parts, kitchen gadgets, or clothing then stay on the bus for another twenty minutes and go to Colon. (Those who really want to shop or tour, will change buses in Sabanitas and ride for another hour in air conditioned splendor to Panama City.)
The ‘chicken buses’ are US school buses well past their sell-by date. Many still have safety signs in English, but none of those rules now apply. These are privately owned vehicles and the more successful drivers will have pimped their ride with airbrushed art, lights, and curiously large plastic streamers like those hung from the handlebars of kids’ bikes in the 1960s. Inside, the gear shift and brake levers are entirely covered with colored tape, mirrored hearts light up when the brakes are applied, and music blares from the speakers. Two pipes run fore and aft along the ceiling so that the bus can exceed the design engineer’s capacity by at least 30 adults. Small children and bags of groceries are held in laps and the last ones aboard whether young, old, pregnant, or carrying a toddler, all stand holding the pipes and swaying around the curves. Seated or standing, it is not a comfortable ride.
The last row of seats has been removed and the emergency exit is a loading dock. Returning from Colon, my husband EW once sat in the last seat, which required him to assist passengers who handed up groceries, a few cases of drinks for an island store, a child’s tricycle, and (incredibly) a washing machine. The buses leave Colon from the depot on a strict schedule, pulling into their slot a half hour before departure. While waiting for the appointed hour, the passengers are offered CDs, drinks, candy, toothbrushes, and tools by vendors, who step on, call out their wares, and make deals before stepping off to meet the next bus.
We were in Linton Bay for weeks, working on an electrical problem that required EW to make frequent trips to Colon for parts and alternator repairs. One day he was delighted to report, “There were chickens on the chicken bus!” On the way to Sabanitas a gentleman climbed on the bus encumbered a large cardboard box full of tiny chicks, crying “peep, peep, peep.” It made EW’s day.
Now sailing in the Western Caribbean, Barbara Hart lived aboard with her husband year-round in Maine for eight years. She has an active blog: www.HartsAtSea.com sharing what she’s learned about living aboard, cruising, and staying married.