The San Blas

In the San Blas: Puerto Escoses – Mulatupu – Isla Pinos – Ustupu – Achutupu – Aridup – Snug Harbour – Nargana – Green Island – Holandes Cays – Coco Banderas – East Lemmon Cays – West Lemmon Cays – Chichime – Porvenir – Wichubwala

In Colon: Isla Grande – Isla Linton – Panamarina – Shelter Bay Marina

We were restricted to a time limit in Cartagena, without buying an expensive cruising permit.  Our last official day was The Independence Day carnival, and with it followed strong SWly winds and driving rain, which delayed our departure by another 4 days.  Even though we had checked out, happily no official bothered us.

Our first stop was Baia de Cholon, a mere 15 nm away, but with a tricky passage through reefs to sheltered waters.  Adrian and Jackie from Oceans Dream very kindly came out in their dinghy to guide us in, and after Cartagena it was heaven, with clean water and beautiful scenery to take in.

Navigation literally THAT close to the sunshades!

Happy Hour takes place on a converted fishing trawler, owned by Robert, who lives in The Crows Nest, a house he has built on top of the hill overlooking the bay.  It was a great place to relax and meet other cruisers and we were privileged to be invited to see his house on top of the overlooking ridge, with great views of the bay on one side, and the Caribbean on the other.

Pipistrelle from Crows Nest with entrance to Cholon on left

Regrettably our stay in Cholon was shortlived, as there was a weather window to get us to the San Blas, which would also mean that we missed out on two other groups of Columbian islands – the Rosarios and the San Bernados.  In company with Oceans Dream we set off and apart from hitting a large piece of driftwood during the night, had an uneventful passage to Puerto Escoses.

As we approached the coastline in daylight we had to navigate round large collections of seaweed and also floating tree trunks, which were a real navigational hazard.

Avoiding action needed!

We entered Puerto Escoses in the early afternoon, and were delighted to find it deserted, a very pleasant change after the large communities of cruisers in the ABC’s and Columbia.  Oceans Dream arrived shortly after us, and we spent a very enjoyable few days exploring and also removing the heavy growth of barnacles that had accumulated in Cartagena.  There were so many on the propeller it seriously affected the efficiency of it.  Here we had our first experience of the Kuna dug out canoes, called Ulus, which are paddled with a single blade, and also sailed downwind with a makeshift mast, and sails sewn together with old rice bags.

Sail away!

Friendly young paddlers!

The San Blas islands and associated mainland territory are called Kuna Yala by the Kuna Indians who effectively control this quarter of Panama.  There are no fences or individual properties, and forests are treated in the same way as we would treat an anchorage, tribe members can pass through and benefit, but do not claim possession by development.  Hence the landscape is unchanged since the first explorers arrived.

The Kunas are physically small, rivaled in tribal shortness only by the pygmies.  Foreigners cannot buy land or invest in Kuna Yala.  The mainstay of the economy is coconuts which grow en masse on the islands, and each coconut palm used to be owned by a tribal member, and even now collecting them is restricted to Kunas only.

Coconuts for sale!

Aged Kuna woman – heavy coconut burden to carry home

The Kunas fish by either diving for crab and lobster, or by handline. Nearer to the mainland they also grow fruit and vegetables, but it can be a two hour trek to their crops.

Fresh spider crab ready for the pot!

The women wear and make money by selling “molas”. These beautiful appliqué squares or oblongs of cloth are intricately made by cutting and handstitching different layers of colourful cloth.  Though geometric patterns are more traditional, they more usually depict birds, animals or marine life.   We are told each “mola” takes about three months to complete.   Not surprising that many of the older Kuna women need specs – they were most grateful for the offerings we had brought along from the UK!

Pretty Kuna ladies in traditional dress. The mola is sewn into a blouse

See the next article – “Mola Impressions” – for more photos

We therefore entered a world and culture that is totally different from anything that we have experienced so far.  The eastern end of the territory is little visited by yachts, compared to the western end where many cruisers are long term, for example an American called Reg has anchored off BBQ island in the Holandes Cays for a considerable number of years, and considers it his anchorage!

Travelling west with Oceans Dream we visited many delightful anchorages and villages, such as Mulatupu, Isla Pinos, Ustupu, Achutupu and Snug Harbour.  We caught blue tuna and wahoo, so the freezer filled up with delicious fish steak.  Navigation has to be precise, as both paper and electronic charts are inaccurate.  Our bible is The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus, a German who has spent years cruising Panama, and has created his own accurate charts from devices he has developed to survey the Panamanian waters.  We use the waypoints to accurately navigate through the reefs, and for the first time created our own waypoint file, with hundreds of 12 and 13 digit waypoints to reference.  We had purchased a Geonav cockpit chartplotter whilst at home in July.  This is now wired in as a cockpit display, making the task of navigation easier and safer, and it is easy to see at a glance as to whether the chart is accurate or not, and following the track from waypoint to waypoint, a lot easier!

At Ustupu we enjoyed lunch ashore, and Adrian conveniently sat beneath a Kuna flag. Note: In 1925 there was a rebellion against the Panamanian police, and the flag of the rebellion was a large swastika, which can be seen occasionally today.  It has no political connection to the later Nazi symbol.

Adrian and Kuna flag

We also visited an adjoining island where “hotel” accommodation has been created, with guests flying in from Panama for a stay of a few days, which will also incorporate a visit to the virgin jungle on the mainland.

Kuna Hotel ……

…..and sundeck!

All the Kuna huts are made of bamboo woven together, with palm thatch for roofing.  The floors are compacted sand, and even in torrential downpours the huts remain totally dry.

Hut construction

Kuna huts on Isla Pinos

…and more huts with sea view (note location of privvy!)

Each village has one or two oversized huts, called congresos, which is a meeting place for the villagers each evening.  The chiefs will sit in hammocks, and the history of the Kunas will be discussed or the current situation.  The other large hut is a Chicha hut.  Chicha is an intoxicating drink brewed from sugarcane that is used for spiritual events.  The juice is extracted by a special press.

Extracting the liquid!

We parted company with Oceans Dream at Nargana, and enjoyed a couple of delightful days anchored off Green Island, where whilst snorkelling we saw our first spotted ray.  Unfortunately did not have a camera with us, but did in Chichime….

….spot the well camouflaged stingray!

We then moved on to the Holandes Cays and the West Lemmons, where the weather deteriorated from bad to terrible.  It rained non stop for 5 days, a lot of it torrential.  Happily there was a bar and internet connection on Naguarchirdup (otherwise known as Elephant Island), which we were able to make use of.  We experienced 35 kn of wind on the 2nd night there, and finished up with 60 metres of chain out, the most we have ever had to lay out so far!  We watched complete trees floating by, and numerous logs entered the anchorage, so the VHF was busy with warnings from one boat to the next.

Before the storm…(mainland Panama in background)

Getting breezy……

…blowing a hooley – day 1!

In Panama the Canal was closed for the first time in history, a number of roads closed due to landslides, and in Portobelo, which we visited shortly afterwards, 11 people died in landslides.

Path of destruction

Serious landslide – looking from Isla Linton anchorage towards Panamarina

Finally there was a break in the weather, and even though the light wind was on the nose, the sun was shining and we motored 40 nm to Isla Linton, as we were due to take delivery of new house batteries at Shelter Bay Marina, Colon.  In the event we never went there, as we were advised that due to the debris and trees floating in the Bay of Colon, it was a navigational hazard.  Whilst we wrestled with Panamanian bureaucracy, we took the dinghy through reefs and then mangroves to visit Panamarina, a delightful marina like an oasis run by Sylvie and Jean Paul who are from France, and have established a French community around them.  They managed to find us a mooring, which made our stay in this area most enjoyable, as the weather was still very unsettled.  French food and wine, walks and a community spirit!

Christmas Eve – Elaine in foreground, Panamarina in background

Pipistrelle in Panamarina

Elaine’s birthday and then Christmas were upon us, and on both days the weather was kind, and we were able to take the dinghy back through the mangroves and reefs to a delightful French restaurant on Isla Grande, some 30 minutes away.  Recommended by Sylvie, El Nido del Postre is run by Francois and his wife, Olga.  On Christmas Day we were able to meet up again for lunch with Adrian and Jackie and two Canadian couples.  Jackie had made everyone party hats, and the food was excellent.  So much so that we spent about four hours dining!  Our departure was somewhat hasty because we had to negotiate the reefs on our return journey in daylight!

Dock at Isla Grande

Ladies who lunch!

Sporting Christmas hats!

Mangrove cut between Panamarina and Isla Linton

After Christmas it became apparent that Customs would not release our batteries unless we made a visit to Colon with the truck driver, so on 30th we set off on the 05.55 bus (an experience in itself which we repeated many times!), and eventually after a lot of waiting around and form filling, were relieved to watch the palette of batteries be loaded by fork lift at about 1100.  We returned to Panamarina by truck with our precious cargo!

Public buses complete with bells, whistles and other decor!

So New Year’s Eve was spent removing the 12 old batteries, and with Adrian’s help, installing 12 new ones.  As each weighed 27 kgs, and had to be lifted out and in of their slots in the engine room, it was a major task.

Battery bank – 12 x 27 kg = exhausted!

Early in January we returned to the San Blas, and with it the rain gave way to warm sunny days, and we were able to see the San Blas at their best.  We returned to the West Lemmons, and found that unusually, the anchor had dragged.  On recovering it we found the reason why, an old sailing ship anchor that must have been up to 100 years old.  It is now an artefact at the bar on Elephant Island!

Bob and the artefact!

Friends Helen and Brian had flown out from the UK to join us, and we welcomed them at Porvenir airport, with Pipistrelle anchored a dinghy ride away at Wichubwala, one of the few islands where very basic provisions can be bought.  Whilst there, a Columbian trading boat arrived with provisions, and because there were no facilities for lifting the fuel drums onto the landing stage, they were simply dropped into the sea, for the Kunas to recover!

T5 Porvenir!

Dumping fuel drums for collection!

Welcoming mural

We took them to Chichime in the afternoon, an idyllic anchorage in this weather, but a backpacker yacht foundered on the reef in bad weather in December whilst we were at the West Lemmons.  The yacht sank, the backpackers who had paid $400 each were rescued, and the wreck is still there.

Mast of wreck still visible

Kuna hut on Chichime

These islands are idyllic, and the lagoon was deep blue turning to aquamarine as it shallowed.  We were visited by Kunas selling crabs and molas (we said yes to both). From what we can tell, their lives are basic but the women especially are always immaculately turned out, even in their ulus!


Kuna girl in ulu

Aquamarine of the reef

Our next stop was the Coco Banderas, reportedly the most beautiful islands in the San Blas, and we can believe it!  Helen was introduced to reef snorkelling in crystal clear water, and we were able to stroll around the islands on clean white powdery sand.

The Coco B’s – what colours!

We spent a few happy days here before heading west again to the East Lemmons, where again we snorkelled on the off lying reef, the closest we had come to a reef plunging into the depths like Bonaire, and with many abundant fish that we recognized.  In the late afternoon we visited the closest island to look (and buy) molas and gifts that Helen and Brian kindly took back to the UK for us.  The Kuna ladies even baked a big batch of tasty bread for us – a life saver as we were running out!

Mola parade!

The weather was so good that we briefly discussed staying on, and H&B flying back from Porvenir, but they would then miss Isla Grande, Isla Linton and Panamarina, where some canvas hatch covers had been made for us.  We set off and caught a decent sized blue fin tuna en route, and were blessed with excellent northerly winds for the 40 nm passage to Isla Grande, where we enjoyed an excellent lunch the following day at our favourite restaurant there – El Nido del Postre!

With Helen & Brian at El Nido del Postre

In Panamarina we were delighted to see Sylvie and Jean Paul again.  Alain and Herve of Canvas Portobelo who have a loft at Panamarina, came on board to fit the covers, and deliver the rain catcher – all expertly made.  For one last time we had dinner at the Panamarina restaurant and enjoyed a very convivial evening in what seemed like the company of old friends.

Shelter Bay Marina beckoned, and we had an enjoyable sail down the coast, navigated amongst numerous anchored ships waiting their turn to transit the Panama Canal, and finally berthed in the first proper marina we had visited in almost 12 months.  It even has a swimming pool!

The next day saw us saying fond farewells to Helen and Brian, who we hope will visit us again in the not too distant future.

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