When you get the chance to visit the San Blas Islands, you take it. I accepted a position as first mate aboard the Solitaria, a 39 foot Fountaine Pajot catamaran, sailing from Barranquilla, Colombia to Portobelo, passing through the fabled San Blas Islands (published April 2016)
We departed Marina Puerto Velero for Cartagena at about 6 a.m. With northerly winds 14-18 knots, we sailed 50 nautical miles, arriving in the late afternoon. The city skyline contrasted with the flatness of Puerto Valero and the green hills of the coast. Dropping anchor, we watched the skyline all lit up, the cranes of the port working non-stop through the night, and the statue of the Virgin Mary watching over the the middle of the channel.
While the captain chased parts, I explored the old city of Cartagena, the sky glowering with impending rain. I discovered that it was Independence Day of Cartegena and that there would be parades and celebrations. I lingered over lunch in the cathedral square, near Fernando Botero’s bronze sculpture of the fat lady, watching fruit vendors in their traditional dresses with basins of fruit on their heads, itinerant musicians, and a flamenco dancer, who wore a little pork pie hat and danced beautifully on her own square of plywood in a tattered skirt. Later came a military parade, with platoons of marching armed forces. The military marching band followed, boots and drums thundering, and what a giggle I had when the marching xylophones busted loose with “Jingle Bells”. Another parade featured troupes of young dancers and the crowd was colorful and fun. The sky continued to lower, then it sprinkled, then it poured. The parade went on undiminished, with streets and dancers awash in water.
In the morning, we headed to the grocery store to provision, then returned, made ready for sea and got underway for Isla Grande, our last stop in Colombia. On the approach to our intended anchorage, we nearly drove the boat up on a reef. We would have grounded for sure, but a local man hurriedly paddled over and guided us into the anchorage. There were free mooring balls provided by the government and we snagged one. Posh homes once belonging to drug lords lined the waterfront, but life beyond was much poorer. Ashore, we walked in the gathering dusk to see a local aviary. After snorkeling and an afternoon rest, we establish a watch schedule and got underway for the San Blas Islands by 5 p.m. Around midnight the topping lift parted and we hoisted the captain up the mast, where he discovered that the internal halyard had slipped down inside the mast. He rigged the passerelle line to hold the boom up.
Nobody slept the first night or day. In 24 hours we made 55 miles. Floundering with little wind, the second night was the same. We slept better, and the wind came up to 25 knots during my watch. Following swells pushed us along. Mid morning a pod of about 20 dolphins joined us and stayed for a couple of hours. We all went up on the trampoline to watch. One more night at sea, with the same watch schedule, only this time we motored.
We arrive at Cayos Diablo, in the San Blas Islands of Panama at 6 a.m. After a 60 hour passage, 179 nautical miles, with an average speed of about two and a half knots. The village caicique, chief’s steward, came aboard to greet us and issue us a Kuna Yala cruising permit which cost $5. I offered him coffee, which he accepted with great dignity. He told us they were having a village chicha party, where they party for a couple of days, good natured and fun. You could hear andean pipes and drums playing from time to time. Later we went ashore and were escorted on a tour of the village by the caicique, then ended the visit with buying molas. The people in this village were very friendly, but camera shy and no photos of people were permitted. Later some men from the village came alongside in their dugout canoe and sold us two big lobsters for $10. We enjoyed them with fresh potatoes and garlic butter as a treat.
We sailed for the Eastern Coco Banderos group. We anchored off a small islet occupied by a family of Kunas who operate a backpacker hostel consisting of several palapas with running water and a nice privy. A large group of “San Blas to Colombia Advernture” backpackers were there, on a three week trip costing less than $400 inclusive. They had “gone tropo”, wearing Kuna headbands and beaded anklets and painted red nose stripes. We dinghied around the neighboring islands, one jewel of an islet with a turquoise colored sandy spit off one end was perfect for lolling under overhanging coconut palms. Many cruisers felt that way, too! Another island was occupied by a Kuna family, who are caretakers of a Kuna coconut plantation. On the islands of the San Blas, coconuts are the sole cash crop for the Kunas, and every tree and nut, even fallen coconuts, has an owner. Cruisers are asked to leave coconuts and other edible flora untouched.
We bought three small lobsters for $6, which we enjoyed steamed and later in risotto made from the stock and head meat. While the lobsters were being prepared, I rowed over to the neighboring Norwegian Hallberg Rassey Imagine for a chat. Tor and Jan, lifelong friends, were happy for the novel company. We had a glass of wine and lots of laughs. I invited them to Solitaria for morning coffee, where the captains exchanged information on upcoming ports of call.
We sailed next to Nargana, on the Rio Diablo. It was only the second real village we had seen. The streets are of sand, raked clean and tidy, with lots of little kids happily playing. We checked in some local shops and saw oranges, potatoes, onions, cabbages and tomatoes, all produce with a good shelf life. During several stops, we bought Kuna bread in small pointed loaves, passion fruit and sour oranges. I talked with a local man about the apparent general good health. He said that there was a full time doctor in attendance, and also made a point to tell me that they are happy people. It shows. Late in the afternoon we loaded the dinghy with 118 liters worth of containers and went in search of fresh water. Because the distribution system had fallen into disrepair, the people took their dugout “ulus” or cayucos, three miles up the Diablo River to fetch water. One large, 20 gallon barrel will serve a local family of four for around four days, I was told. Some ulus have one barrel, others have three or even five, a precarious load in any but calm conditions. We passed over a sandbar littered with tree roots and trunks at the mouth of the river. Further on the river got clearer and shallower. The banks were covered with lush greenery, and there were patches of sugar cane, mango trees and lots of coconut groves along the river, blending in with the surrounding jungle. Along the winding river we passed ulus coming down stream, some with motors but most being paddled. We gave a tow to a man in a dugout, with two small children on board, making his day much easier. We came to a shallow spot at a bend in the river where a large sandbar formed. Children splashed and mothers sat in the water doing laundry and chatting. Just upstream from this, the men were dipping water into the barrels in their canoes. We stopped and filled our jugs, then enjoyed a cool freshwater dip ourselves before heading back down. We used this water for domestic and bathing purposes. The author of the Cruising Guide to the San Blas Islands, Eric Bauhaus, claims to drink this water regularly, but doesn’t recommend it. In my estimation, the Bauhaus guide is essential to cruising this area.
We sailed under main and Code Zero with 10 knots of wind from the east, for Cayos Limon and our eventual stop at nearby Porvenir for clearing in. We arrived in Cayos Limon late afternoon and were immediately approached by the famous “Mola Lisa”, who is a master mola maker. I bought a really lovely traditional design, with incredibly tiny stitches and several layers of appliqued colored fabric. Lisa is a transvestite, which is socially accepted in Kuna culture. That evening, the no-see-ums from the surrounding mangroves were a real nuisance. I treated myself to a call home to the U.S. From this remote place, cell phone coverage was available almost everywhere, and phone calls and text messages to the U.S. are possible.
In the morning we motored to nearby Porvenir to clear in. Our Zarpe, obtained in Barranquilla, permitted us some leeway for clearing in due to the remoteness of the San Blas islands and vagaries of weather. Clearing in entailed a large and unforeseen cost; for a boat greater than 9.9 meters in length, the cruising permit for one year cost $193 ( for up to 9.9 meters, it costs $95). For each soul aboard an entry fee of $100 for Panama plus $20 for Kuna Yala is charged, and is good for six months. This fee is not charged to passengers arriving by air or land. After giving them all our money, we lingered at the adjoining hotel and browsed the molas of appealing but less traditional design, and also items such as eyeglass cases, little purses and oven mits made from molas.
It rained. We were rigged to catch water for the tanks, but the spout came out of the fill hole and the water from the one big downpour washed away over the decks. In the morning, the wind shifted and in the early morning most of the boats left for better places.
BACK TO CAYOS LIMON
We headed back to Cayos Limon, arriving around 10:00 a.m. I had a great snorkel, seeing the best fish so far; lionfish, pink goatfish, lots of grunts. After this, I joined my shipmates on the island. The Kuna ladies had chakiras for sale there, beaded bracelet anklets, and I decided to buy two, charmingly mismatched. I was permitted to take pictures of the Kuna ladies from whom I bought things; plain offers of a dollar were generally declined. I walked around the island, and visited with some Kuna people in my limited Spanish. Later, the three of us snorkeled the reef and came ashore on a tiny sandy islet. In the early afternoon we motored to another Limon Cay. We put up the shade tarps since it was intensely hot and lounged for the rest of the day.
I went ashore around dusk, since it looked like a bonfire was going to happen. It didn’t, but I met Phil from California, who’d been here since 1997, and Phillipe from France, who’d been living here for 20 years. The cruisers we met here are either long term residents who have befriended the Kunas and feel at home, or cruisers in transit to the Canal. There are often around 200 boats passing through the San Blas islands during high season, starting in December.
The next morning we set out for the Cayos Hollandes. Rather than trying too hard to explain how to negotiate the reef, California Phil was good enough to get in his dinghy and guide us through the reefs into open water. We made for the Hollandes Cayos; cays farther out, uninhabited, and there is evidence of the coconut palm yellowing disease which could have an economic impact on the Kuna. These islands are of limestone edged with mangroves, as well as the usual sandy keys; some are steep too. We passed a French catamaran at anchor on a lovely turquoise sandbar in the middle of nowhere, a picturesque spot. We med-moored to a sandy key, quite a lovely situation but sandflies soon made themselves known. We were forced to loll in the water. After this we moved to the main anchorage and anchored among a friendly group of mainly Norte Americanos. Since we had neglected to stock up on cabbage and carrots at Nargana, we were out of fresh vegetables other than onions and potatoes, and were down to dry stores for the remaining week of the voyage!
Thanksgiving Day (for me, the only American aboard) in the Cayos Hollandes was a windy, squally lay day. It was nice to be tucked in well behind the reef enjoying the sights.
Diane Gorch loves sailing, and enjoys crewing on different boats in faraway places. She has her Captain’s license and has logged nearly 10,000 sea miles. She will be sailing in the Med this summer. You can follow her travels at www.ricochetOK.blogspot.com