Tropical Paradise: The San Blas Islands

James & Amelia Gould
Sun 6 Apr 2008 18:45

3 – 9 March 2008 : San Blas Islands


We sailed from Cartagena with a slight sense of trepidation, as we were heading back out into the same bit of sea that had treated us so unkindly when we last dared sail through its waters.  We had decided to head for the San Blas islands, an archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast which is renowned for being one of the most beautiful cruising destinations.  We did initially consider heading straight for the Panama Canal, but as other cruisers raved about the islands we decided we had better stop for a few days to see what all the fuss was about.  I am pleased to say that we were not disappointed.


We left Cartagena as the sun set so that we would make landfall at the San Blas in daylight.  The first night was another bumpy, windy ride, but nowhere near as bad as on the way Cartagena.  We sailed in company with our Austrian friends onboard Sleipnir II and it was a testament to how well matched the boats were that we managed to stick together for most of the passage (well we had to slow down for them occasionally…J).  We kept in contact with Wolfgang and Eva on the VHF, and we could always see them on the horizon.  At one point we sailed the boats close together for a photo opportunity, as we don’t have any pictures of Rahula under sail.  Unfortunately as the swell was still quite big most of the hull was buried below the waves in the photos!


On the morning of our second day mainland Panama became dimly visible through the haze, and as we got closer we could make out the outline of some islands lying offshore.  These blurry shapes soon morphed into round, sandy islands covered in palms as the water shoaled and turned from a deep blue to a gleaming turquoise.  We could see masts poking out above the tall palms and identified the anchorage we were headed for, so we picked our way slowly through the gap in the coral reef that protects the islands and looked forward to a swim in the clear water.  The main anchorage at the Eastern Holandes Cays is nicknamed “The Swimming Pool”, but we as we neared as saw at least 20 boats anchored inside we figured the water would not be so clean.  We were also looking for some seclusion in this tropical paradise, so when we saw another small coral fringed lagoon with only two boats in it we decided that would be a better stop for the night.  Sleipnir soon came and joined us, and by the end of the day we had 10 other boats swinging to their anchor around us.  We realised that the San Blas secret was out, and seclusion would be hard to find, so decided to make the most of it!


We went for an explore in the dinghy and landed on one of the uninhabited islands, hoping to have a bit of a walk to stretch the legs.  There were coconut palms everywhere, and thick bushy undergrowth below.  We managed about 10m before being confronted by mangroves in all directions, and we started getting eaten by tiny little flies called “no-see-ums” so we returned to the dinghy and decided to go for a snorkel instead.  We chose to swim over a patch of coral between two islands, where unfortunately there was quite a strong current.  We worked our way up the reef against the current enjoying the clear water and colourful fish.  There wasn’t much marine life about (we had been spoilt by the abundance of fish in Bonaire!) but what was there was still pretty interesting.  Luckily there was a shallow patch of sand in the middle of the reef where we could stand and take a rest from fighting the current.  The swim back to the boat was, needless to say, a very easy drift!


Cabos Cay

Standing for a rest

(Photo taken by Eva)


The next day while sat in the cockpit having breakfast I noticed a disturbance in the water near the boat.  As I looked up to see what it was, I saw a turtle stick its head up and look right at me.  I started calling James, but the turtle disappeared below the water as quickly as it had appeared.  After a long morning spent in the water scrubbing Rahula’s hulls to remove all the barnacles she had accumulated in Cartagena, we went for another snorkel on a reef right next to the boat.  This time there were plenty of fish, a nurse shark hiding under a rock (which James and Wolfgang kept teasing by pulling its tail to try to get it to come out from its hiding place), and a huge stingray gliding over the sand.  Wolfgang spotted a lobster hiding under a rock, and there ensued a lot of manly hunter-gatherer grunting as the two men tried to catch it.  A moray eel poking its head from under the same rock saved the lobster in the end, as neither hunter wanted to go anywhere near it (it was huge with big snargly teeth…it would have killed me! J).  There were also plenty of conch shells lying on the seabed, and we decided to collect them and have that for supper instead.  James and Wolfgang dove down to the seabed to collect the conch and filled a bucket with the shells.


While Eva & Wolfgang returned to their boat to shower, we sat on Rahula and tried to figure out how to get the meat out of a conch shell.  James’ fishing book gave some pretty clear instructions complete with diagrams, but the execution was rather harder.  James put his first unlucky victim on the chopping board, and while he reached for the tools to crack the shell (hammer and a chisel) the conch poked two little snail like eyes out from under the shell and started slithering away!  We started to hesitate, but all that fishing has taught James not to be squeamish about alive food, so he proceeded to give the poor conch a real headache by banging against his shell to try to make a hole.  Unfortunately, the required hole which looked so easy to make in the book did not appear.  So it was time for a bigger hammer, and a bigger chisel.  That did not make a dent.  So James got the hacksaw out.  By this stage the poor conch was ready to walk out of its shell alone, just to get some peace and quiet.  Finally the shell shattered in the required position and James was able to reach the muscle inside with a knife.  I won’t describe the gross, slimy mess that ensued, but suffice to say that we decided that the conch meat was far too small to get out in one piece, and took far too much effort to get out.  So the whole lot went straight back into the sea, and will live to grow to a better size, when they will make a delicious conch chowder… (One American friend called Rick gave me a tip afterwards - freeze the conch and then the meat just pulls out.  oh so easy………… as long as you have a freezer to hand! J)


Opening Conch


Our next stop had to be the island of Porvenir, as that was where the Panamanian Customs and Immigration office was located and we still had to officially arrive in the country.  The sail there took us past more palm filled islands, and we stopped before lunch at Dog Island to snorkel on the wreck of a cargo ship that had sunk in the 1950s.  The wreck was lying in only 3-6m of water, and part of the superstructure was still poking out above the water.  It was eerie swimming above a wreck so close to the surface, and we could still clearly make out the cargo holds, fairleads and capstan.  The wreck has now become home to thousands of fish, and parts of it were covered in colourful coral.  We spent a good couple of hours swimming around the hulk, poking into all the nooks and crannies.  We planned to return after some lunch, but while we were eating a big ferry/cruise ship arrived, and launched boats that landed plastic kayaks and banana boats on the beach.  We figured the beach would soon be transformed to the Costa del San Blas, so we weighed anchor and headed for Provenir.


Dog Island Wreck


James in the wreck



At Dog Island we made contact with our first Kuna Indians. They are the indigenous tribe that autonomously control this area of Panama, and our book promised that they have best preserved their culture and traditions out of all the tribes in the Americas, even eschewing electricity and other modern comforts.  The mainstay of the Kuna economy are coconuts, and we had been warned that all the coconuts on the islands belong to someone and so must not be taken.  We watched as two men approached Rahula in a dugout “ulu”, the younger man paddling while the other old man stooped low at the bow.  We thought, romantically, that this was the village elder, come to great us and welcome us to his island.  They came alongside and I greeted them in Spanish.  The old man then reached into his pocket, pulled out a clear plastic bag containing a mobile phone and a charger, and asked us if we would charge his phone!  It appears that though they may not have electricity, they still need to keep in touch by modern means! 


The main Kuna settlement is on an island neighbouring Provenir, and we wanted to walk around the village to see more of these small friendly people.  Panama turned out to be the most expensive country to clear into from all those we visited.  By the time we had paid for the San Blas anchoring permit, a Panama Cruising Permit, and immigration, we were left with very little change from the US$100 we had with us.  I was disappointed as I had hoped to have enough money to buy a souvenir.    The Kuna women make Molas, which are little colourful squares made by sewing and cutting different layers of cloth.  We saw some beautiful designs displayed to us while we were at anchor and I was really keen to get a good quality hand stitched sample.  I tried haggling hard, showing them the sole $10 in my pocket, but most of the women would not budge on the price, insisting the Americans in other boats would pay $30 for a detailed Mola.  Luckily when we went into the village the following day I met a more understanding old woman, who let me have my chosen design for $15, and a picture of her in traditional dress.


Selling Molas


We wandered around the village on Wichubhuala, noting the contrasts between the traditional thatched huts and the large TV aerials perched high on a long bamboo stick.  Everyone was really friendly, greeting us and smiling.  Even the vendors trying to sell the Molas and trinkets remained smiley when we politely refused.  The village was very cramped and filled every part of he small island. There was no room or a village square or roads. There were only narrow paths between the huts and the occasional vegetable garden.  It was interesting to see the relaxed and gentle way of life, but as we found in Africa signs of the modern world were everywhere.  Particularly disturbing was the rubbish; there is no room for a landfill on these small islands, and most of it gets chucked into the sea to be taken away by the wind and currents.  This was fine when most of the rubbish was biodegradable, but not so good when it includes coke cans and plastic bottles. 




Once we had officially been cleared in to Panama we could head back east and explore some of the other islands in the archipelago.  We looked at the charts of the area and picked a remote destination which required careful navigation around treacherous coral reefs, hoping that we will finally find some solitude.  We left Porvenir at midday to make sure that the sun was right overhead and providing the best light for spotting the underwater coral heads.  I climbed up onto the Genoa furler so that I could look down into the water from a height and get a better view into the water while James steered around the dark brown patches of water we spotted.  It was amazing how clear the water was, and how easy it was the see the channels through the reefs.  We sailed past other islands, including the smallest one in the archipelago which had one lonely palm tree living on it.  Finally we arrived at our destination, an island called Yansaladup, and we were struck by the beauty of our surroundings.  The island was almost perfectly round and covered in coconut palms while surrounded by crystal clear ‘blue-minty-gel’ water.  The scene was straight out of a holiday brochure, and we had anchored our boat right in the middle of it.  As soon as the anchor was set we hopped in the dinghy and explored the island and its surroundings.  The snorkelling here wasn’t so great as the water was full of sediment stirred up by waves crashing over the nearby barrier reef, but we still managed to spot the odd ray and colourful fish.


Spotting Coral


All too soon it was time to leave, as the Panama Canal transit was looming large in our minds and we wanted to get to Colon to start the transit process.  So we sailed to our final island in the San Blas, Chichime Cays, chosen because of the ease of navigating in and out of the surrounding coral reef.  We were planning to leave the San Blas early in the morning and didn’t want to have to wait for the good light to spot the coral on the way out.  Chichime was another popular anchorage full of yachts, and we got to know some Brits on a couple of other boats.  (We also witnessed some psychopathic Australians surfing the reef where the swell crashed out in about 20cm of water over razor sharp coral, but judging by the whoops and ’crikeys’ they seemed to enjoy it…J).  Early the following morning we weighed anchor and said goodbye to this tropical paradise.  We were really sad to only manage a few days here, and swore to return with more time in hand to explore the more isolated islands further south.