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Cruising Information for the San Blas Islands

By Sue Richards last modified Jan 29, 2013 08:57 PM

Published: 2012-07-20 18:30:00
Countries: Panama

Many thanks to regular contributors Amanda and Mark of SY Balvenie for these detailed and useful notes, and for the additional notes sent by Anthony Swanston of sv Wild Fox.

Background

We decided to do what is known in these parts as the "National Geographic" tour of the San Blas Islands in the autonomous region of Panama known as Kuna Yala. Most cruisers potter around in the western San Blas in an area covering about 15 miles of palm tree islands with cute sandy beaches, waters every colour of blue, good snorkelling and very few villages. We sailed overnight from Colombia and decided to come in to the chain much further east at Isla Pinos and make our way west, exploring all on offer on the way. Even though the San Blas are part of Panama and just a few metres in some places off the mainland coast they are a world away. Imagine you are going to a remote tropical island group in the South Pacific.

Weather

We planned our visit for the end of the trade wind season but before the rainy season, arriving 26 April and leaving 04 June 2012. In the main we had light and variable winds, pottering around under motor in glassy seas which made the anchorages idyllic. Yachts transiting the canal in March/April and moving through this area during the trade wind season may have a more lively experience.

However, it sure has rained and the thunder and lightening was spectacular. On several occasions it lasted many hours and had us cowering below expecting the worst at any moment. We have experienced monsoon seasons elsewhere around the world but nothing compares with the lightening we have seen in this region so far, bearing in mind the rainy season has just started! The moral is, if you visit in the rainy season to avoid the Caribbean hurricane season - and there are many many yachts doing this - make sure you have deep pockets or are insured for lightening strikes!

Reference Material

We purchased The Panama Cruising Guide - 4th edition by Eric Bauhaus - in Curacao. At nearly $100 USD it is the most expensive guide we have ever purchased, however it is an exceptional guide and has been worth every cent. DO NOT think about doing the route we did without it, as the beginning of our cruise was in unsurveyed waters, the cruising guide was our bible with spot on waypoints, charts and aerial photos. We were given an electronic copy of the charts from the book to run with Open CPN towards the end of our stay in the San Blas, if you can find these online to download then do it, they are great and except for a couple of minor discrepancies we found them superb and easy to use on Open CPN.

There is the Panama Connections Cruisers Net daily on SSB radio frequency 8107 at 8.30am local time. As our SSB died the day we left Santa Marta (we hope to get it fixed in Panama City) we have not partaken in the net, but it is an excellent source of local knowledge, some cruisers have been in these parts for years. Most cruisers in the San Blas stand by on VHF72 as a hailing channel.

Checking In

We checked in at Porvenir, this is almost as far west as you can go in the San Blas, but there is nowhere before this that can process yachts arriving. Our "zarpe" (exit paper) from Colombia was dated 18 April and we checked in 30 May, this didn't appear to be a problem.

The cost of visas seem to change daily. Ours (on our European Union passports) were USD50 each and we don't actually know if they are for 6 months or a year, we forgot to ask and it doesn't say on them. There was also a $10 fee for something, maybe for taking our thumb prints!

Then we moved to the Port Captain - our cruising permit for one year was USD193.00 valid for all Panamanian waters, and he issued a new zarpe to get us to Portobelo which cost USD16.70. So all up it was welcome to Panama and bye bye to USD319.70.

Provisioning

If you spend as long as we did in the San Blas, then you need to do a MAJOR provision before you leave wherever you are leaving from. Basically other than getting random fruit and vegetables (if you are lucky) you should bring absolutely everything you will need to get you to at least Portobelo or Colon.

Also remember the bugs, especially if the trade winds aren't howling - bring plenty of bug spray, personal repellent and mosquito coils with you (we haven't had mosquitoes but have had no-see-ums).

There is a ban on commercial fishing for April and May so cruisers are asked not to purchase fish, crabs or lobsters off the locals during this breeding season, although we saw several buying lobster. I will note below what was available (if anything) where applicable. There was a cruiser that offered a service of provisioning in Panama and bringing it to the boat in the Western San Blas, he added 30% but your shopping with your receipt got delivered in a chilled environment right to the boat. Sadly he recently passed away, but there is some talk that someone is taking over the business - but don't count on it.

Communications

Phone
There are a few cell phone towers, they seem to get hit regularly by lightening - or that is the general excuse for them not working. On the seldom occasion we did have coverage we were able to use our international Gymsim simcard, however Panama is in the 2nd highest rate zone in the world and it was very expensive. Our satphone was actually cheaper per minute.

Internet
Learnt to do without! Supposed to be available at the school in Nargana but not when we tried. Available via plugin at the small shacky bar (no power or lighting) on Naguarchirdup in the West Lemmon Cays, worked at random when we were there, but when it did work it was good enough to skype. Cost USD3.00 per hour. Some boats that had come the other way had a Digicel sim (sim/chip US$3, one month internet US$14.95) that they had enabled data packages on and either used dongles or tethered their phones, however signal at best was very poor and they were even having problems getting a good enough signal to do text only emails (while climbing the mast to get a better signal!).

Money

Panama uses American Dollars. Get these in Grenada at a bank or out of the money machines in Bonaire or Curacao and maybe Aruba (money machines in Colombia did not dispense USD,) and bring small denominations, as many one dollars a you can.

We arrived with USD780.00, as I write this we are anchored at Isla Linton, one anchorage away from Portobelo which has an ATM (we hope). We only have $9 left, so have spent around $770 from 26 April until 08 June. We had to pay to anchor in a few places, bought food and alcohol whenever we could, got a few molas, went out for dinner once and spent most of it on officialdom.

Wildlife

Firstly the bugs - bearing in mind the trades had stopped blowing we had very little wind to keep the bugs away. When we got any sort of breeze, just 3 or 4 knots was enough, we would normally be bug free. We had no problems at all with mosquitoes, heard only one during our stay. No-see-ums were a problem, they really are tiny and you don't see them but you feel the bite and they last about 4 days. We tried all the preventions we read about - applying baby oil, personal bug spray, fly spray, burning mozzie coils which all helped, but we still got bitten on occasion. We expected the outer islands to be better, some were, some weren't. We generally managed to keep them out of the boat at night by spraying before bedtime, and we doubled up the netting on our mozzie nets. Flies came out in some places, as did big dragonflies and moths the size of small birds - they all came and went.

In the water we often got stingy bites, we don't know what from. Crocodiles, now you don't want to get bitten by one of those! We didn't see any, don't know anyone who has seen any, asked locals swimming up rivers and at mangroves edges and they all said "no problem". We jumped overboard everywhere (except downstream of the villages with outhouses!), when it was murky we got out quickly.

AND NOW TO THE ANCHORAGES - FIRSTLY THE "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TOUR"

Isla Pinos (08 59.790N / 77 45.440W)
Anchored 7.5m off sandy beach and before sandspit and village. This was a little further south than the suggested anchorage in the guide but the winds were almost Nor'west and this had better shelter. We decided to make landfall here from Colombia as it has no outlying reef to navigate, so made for a safe easy landfall. Ulu (dugout canoe) came out to collect US$10 anchoring fee, receipt given. Cellphone tower on island but there was no signal. Took dinghy to dock at village for a look around, small not much there. Managed to buy some fruit off David our unofficial tour guide. Swam here off the sandy beach. Flat water.

Ustupu (09 07.748N / 77 55.765W)
Anchored in 5.9m thick mud between village and mainland in some very murky waters. US$15 anchoring fee, didn't have change for $20 but told us he would wait ashore for us at 4pm with change, when we went in he was there with our $5. Quite an amazing town really, it is the largest in San Blas with over two thousand inhabitants, (looked like 75% under 18) all in thatched huts built inches apart from each other - very cosy! Felt extremely overpopulated. There were waterways running through it all, outhouses built over them. A few small stores but didn't look to be much. Made welcome ashore but no photos (just a few sneaky ones with no people in them). A small bar/restaurant but no beer. Cellphone tower but again no signal. Airstrip. Bad No-see-ums. No swimming here. Flat water.

Achutupu (09 11.547N / 77 59.299W)
Anchored in 5.6m thick mud, found some much shallower mud before this - whoops! Having just done the village experience we gave this one a miss. We went to Dolphin Island Resort on Uagitupu which had no food, drink or guests, but we stretched our legs. Supposed to be quite good stores on Achutupu, but we didn't need anything. Again there was a cellphone tower, signal came and went at random. Did not swim here. Flat water.

Five Palm Island (09 17.530N / 78.07.332W)
Anchored in 8.5m sandy patch. Just a short stop to visit postage stamp sized island, surrounded by clear waters. Cute island on leeward side, plastic dumping centre on windward. Had quick snorkel, swim and shore excursion. Too rolly to stay overnight. Found an uncharted 3m patch between here and Mono Island.

Mono Island (09 16.376N / 78 07.518W)
Anchored in 4.5m mud, between island and mangroves, not as protected as it reads in the guide unless you got very close to island. Big wooden signs in water apparently said "No Anchoring allowed" but we didn't actually read them, just told by other cruisers later. Nothing there except for a few no-see-ums. Quick swim off beach. No roll but slight chop in the afternoon.

Snug Harbour - Mamaraga (09 19.580N / 78 15.269W)
Anchored in 13m mud. We went north east past all the islands and shallows then turned back south to enter. We could not visually see the 2m shallows. The passes through the islands further east were not clear either (we approached just after midday but it was cloudy). When we explored by dinghy there DID NOT appear to be enough water for a yacht between Yauala, Apaidup and Mamaraga. Sat out 2 days torrential rain and some wicked thunder/lightening here, but lovely anchorage. US$10 anchoring fee. Dugout canoes came by selling fruit, veg, fish and kuna bread. Some had it onboard, some got delivered next day - some didn't! Nothing on immediate islands, but community with stores on Ukupseni (Playa Chico). Another yacht dinghied down when Colombian trading boat came in there and got some diesel. Great beach on Yauala for swimming, watch depth for dinghy through pass (its shallow but just do-able). Also swam briefly off boat. Flat water. Turtles and dolphins in bay.

Isla Tigre and Farewell Islands
Firstly tried Isla Tigre. Made it in through the reef entry but it was extremely hard to see (cloudy again and mid afternoon). Anchorage was empty but there didn't seem much room within the reef. We moved on. Carried on to Farewell Islands which shows only as a fair weather anchorage, but conditions were benign. Struggled to find shallow enough water with 360 degrees swinging room which we need in these light and variables. Lovely looking island but we moved on.

Nargana (09 26.646N / 78 34.975W)
Anchored in 6.5m definitely mud. Came here twice. We entered between Corazon de Jesus and Usdup Airstrip, straightforward entry. The anchorage on the other side of the water pipe between the island and the mainland is much larger, supposed to have less bugs, but it gets the generator noise 24/7 and is a longer dinghy ride.

This is the best provisioning in the San Blas, but don't get your hopes up. It is entirely dependant on what has come in as to what is available. In the way of dry stuffs you could get basic provisions, no choice of brands etc. and you will probably need to visit every little store to complete your purchases. We managed to get cockroach spray (no flyspray or personal repellent but the cockroach spray works real well), mozzie coils, the last couple of boxes, UHT milk, milk powder, cornflakes, canned tuna, fresh chicken (ask for it), lettuce, tomatoes, celery, bananas, pumpkin, onions, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and kuna bread (little dinner rolls- go very stale, very quickly). The produce is not refrigerated and can look pretty sick when you buy it, but does perk up once refrigerated. From passing dugouts we bought mangoes, pineapple and avocado.

Internet is supposed to be available at the school, we tried 4 times without any luck. Cellphone tower on the island, was out probably 80% of the time we were in range. Diesel and petrol are said to be generally available but we didn't need any. We ate out at the cafe right on the end (there is only it and Nells - Nells was closed), just Chicken and Chips and cold beer, they had nothing else (not even coke) but it was cheap and tasty. We tied up the dinghy at various spots along in front of the cafes and dinghy repair place. There is a bank but no ATM. We were not charged to anchor, but some boats were.

NOW ONTO THE GOOD BITS - "WESTERN SAN BLAS ISLAND PARADISE"

Coco Bandero Cays (09 30.776N / 78 36.967W)
Anchored in 8m sand, wow, it's just beautiful. Four small islands with white sandy beaches. Clean water, reasonably clean beaches. Can walk around all the islands in minutes. Popular with the backpacking boats that do the Panama - Colombia run, so can get a little noisy. One island had caretaker family, rumour has it they may do meals sometimes. They also came around selling wine, beer and soft drinks - wine 1 litre boxes US$4 each. Excellent snorkelling all around by dinghy or just off boat on reef at western end between outer two islands. Very good protection from all quarters, flat water and wonderful swimming. Ladies paddled out in ulus selling molas. Cellphone coverage if Nargana tower working and boat swinging the right way. Do not pay the locals $1 to dispose of your rubbish, we saw them paddle out with a huge bucket full of rubbish (mainly plastics) and tip it in the middle of the anchorage - most then washed up ashore! Sort it all and have a rubbish bonfire every now and then. Didn't get charged here to anchor.

Green Island (09 28.829N / 78 38.099W)
Anchored in 9m sand. Another lovely spot although water was quite murky and very hot, may be under water fresh spring. Beach not as nice and lots of rubbish on windward side, but you can walk all around the island. Cellphone coverage if Nargana tower working. Nothing ashore. Swimming and snorkelling not so good as murky and lots of big stingrays. Flat water. Didn't get charged here to anchor.

West Cocos (09 31.067N / 78 38.838W)
Anchored in 6m in sand off end of little Two Palm Island. The recommended anchorage already had 3 catamarans in it so left little room for us between the bigger island and the breaking reefs, so we were more exposed. Very good snorkelling around the little island, can snorkel right round it, a small wreck on outer side, good corals and some good fish, does get some surge. Good swimming clear water. Did rubbish burn on Little Palm Island one sundowners. Cellphone coverage on and off (getting further away from Nargana). Charged US$10 just as we were lifting anchor to leave. Slightly rolly but not too bad, would have been flat in with the cats.

East Holandes Cays - Swimming Pool (09 35.364N / 78 40.480W)
This area is a popular "landfall" for boats coming straight from Colombia or further afield in the trade wind season, heading onto the Panama Canal. There is a big break in the outer reef close by and you can do a big loop around the bottom of the reefs and islands to get into the lee and some flat water. A recently wrecked yacht on one of the reef edges is a reminder that any landfall should be done in daylight, in good conditions and with a keen lookout.

Anchored in 2.6m sand with gin clear water. We would normally not anchor in such shallow water when there is deeper water right there, but it was so beautiful we just couldn't resist. Stayed 10 nights. Many choices for anchoring. Frequent rays under the boat, the occasional shark, lots of starfish. Amazing water activity at night - very noisy and lots of splashing.

Several surrounding islands, Banedup is known as Bug Island so didn't venture ashore there. BBQ Island at end has caretaker family, heard if you want to go ashore for sundowners, pot lucks etc. you need to pay US$1. We went ashore for walk around and swim off sandy beach, some backpacker boats despatch their customers here. Very good snorkelling off northern end of BBQ Island on coral bommies, then further out from there to the inside of the outer reef. We tired to get out to where there is a tunnel though the reef further west in the reef, but tried unsuccessfully twice to find dinghy passage through the shallows.

Very poor cellphone coverage (using Nargana cell tower). Charged US$10 for anchoring here, valid for one month. "Vegetable boats" came twice - while there was a poor selection the quality was not bad (they stop at all the other islands first), but better than nothing and kept us going. Also had fresh chickens, some sausage and wine. Very protected and flat but heard it can be rolly too with big swell over the reef (it's a huge high and deep reef) in strong trades, but can easily move 100 metres to better protection.

East Lemmon Cays (09 33.791N / 78 51.600W)
Anchored in 8m sand. Not much space when we arrived, little anchoring pockets with shallows around. Snorkelling ok off reef at southern entrance. Several islands to swim or dinghy to. A couple had people camping and lodging ashore and had small "bars", very laid back. Another "vege boat" visited us here, quite well stocked with produce and chicken, also wine and beer. We had no cellphone coverage but other boats did. Flat water.

Porvenir (09 33.381N / 78 56.898W)
Anchored in 9m sand. We didn't intend to stay the night and probably would have gone further around the island to the west if we had. Slightly rolly, could be very rolly. The approach into here is a reasonably narrow entrance between the island outer reef and another reef on Sail rock. Would not be advisable in a lively northeast wind and swell coming down the San Blas Channel, but you can go right around them all though and anchor in the lee of the island group on the south side and dinghy through if necessary.

You would probably only come here to check in/out at Porvenir (see check in info right at top of posting) or get provisions at the adjacent islands. Also airstrip, small hotel and restaurant on Porvenir. Cellphone coverage from tower on mainland but it wasn't working either! Nearby Wichubhuala had a main grocery store by the big concrete dock. A very poor selection but I did get flour, yeast, milk powder, cornflakes and little else. The only produce they had were pumpkins, the nearby bakery had no bread till after 2pm. There looked to be a liquor store opposite the grocery. I tried to get a Digicell Sim card from 3 places that had Digicell & phone posters up, they all only had recharge cards.

West Lemmon Cays (09 37.719N / 78 54.028W)
Anchored in 9m sand. We came around the bottom of the reef in through the 2.5m shallow entrance between the islands as it was better light and flat water. We can confirm that there is 2m shallow ledge between the two anchorages, it is spot on on the Bauhaus charts and quite hard to reverse off!! However the Bauhaus depths in the rest of this side of anchorage showed much shallower than we had, it was over 20m in much of it and the shallows were only around the edges by the 3 islands. There are many laid moorings in the other part of the anchorage, all occupied.

The snorkelling on the outside southern reef by Tiadup was very good and possibly saw the best, most varied and colourful corals during our time in the San Blas. Not such a pretty anchorage, the main island of Naguarchirdup had a swampy spit that looked very unappealing at low tide but they have a shacky bar with 3 internet connections (only one was working), good enough to skype on. Internet US$3 per hour, cold beers and cokes US$1.50 each. They have no power for laptops (so make sure laptop fully charged) and no lighting - its a daytime, head torch or type by Braille thing. We managed to get our New Zealand 9kg LPG Gas bottle filled here, they decanted it and did it same day for US$16 - we think we were very lucky with our timing as believe it is not often available. They also offer a panga (fast boat) service to Carti where you connect with a 4 wheel drive through to Panama City, (takes 3 hours) you need to stay the night in PC then can come back next day laden with provisions for another few weeks in paradise. It's an expensive option I believe, but many cruisers seem to do it.

We exited through the deeper pass to the north and motored out into the Caribbean Sea - the end of the San Blas.

To read all our postings on our journey through the San Blas Islands complete with great photos go to http://www.yachtbalvenie.blogspot.com/ and click on the San Blas or Kuna Yala label on the left hand side bar

Another wrecked yacht lies abandoned on the inside reef in the Lemmons as a reminder to us all that in these waters you always must proceed with utmost caution.

Notes on the Islands from Anthony Swanston

Puerto Obaldia
There are two jetties, the inner one leading to the army base. A prominent rock lies to the NE corner of the bay. If you cannot see this rock over the jetties and the point when you drop your anchor then you will be too close to the shore when the wind is NW. Remember this bay is famous for breaking seas and you do not want to end up in the surf.

Clearance
Land on the beach by the army base and they will check you through. Over the footbridge, past the port captain’s office to Immigration on your left. You will need $30 and two copies of your passport (copies available at the Internet place (one of the few in the islands) – turn left after Immigration and it is on your right no sign).
After Immigration take your Zarpe back to the internet place and get a copy – the army want one. (You will need the original Zarpe and passports every time you come in or go out through the army base.) Back to the port captain’s and you need $205. His process on a manual typewriter takes about 45 minutes.

Carreto
An idyllic and pristine village. Come into the centre of the bay and anchor well out. I anchored at 08° 46.97'N and 077° 34.49'W but you may want to work a bit more into the corner behind the island. Going ashore at the village – watch the surf very closely and judge your arrival on sand.

There is a small shop in the centre of the village. Wade across the stream (watch a local first to get a route). The beach walk is worth the effort with some very spectacular driftwood.

Puerto Escoses
Keep to the S and E of Roca Escoses and keep mid channel until the village bears abeam. Apart from some huts on the beach there are three huts built on the shallows some distance from the shore. I anchored to the SW of these. Coral/limestone extends to the N and S of these huts – the depth goes from 10 metres to 10 centemetres without warning (apart from water colour, of course).
When I was there they collected $10 very quickly; I suspect more if you are not single handed.

I took the inside passage to Malatupu; very calm but careful pilotage needed.

At Nianeka island there may be a temptation to go west and leave the small islands to starboard. My pilot book suggested this and I went aground. Carry straight on paralleling the Nianeka shore.

At Malatupu opinions vary but there are three parallel reefs. The one in the middle has a pole on the end of it as does the next one in. Keep well out and line up between the channel between the two poles – it should be about 175 T. When clear on the inside drop anchor wherever you like.

The short trip to Islas Pinos is easy. Anchor off the prominent church, north of a small islet – too far north of the church and you could be in shallow water if the wind goes south and too far south of the church and you will be in shallow water if the wind goes north. I paid $10 and got a receipt. Seek out David – turn left off the dock and when there is a gap in the huts bear right and you might find him. He is trying to encourage tourism. Make your own judgement about his "restaurant". A walk around the island is a must. Simply wonderful and enchanting – three hours will do it at a relaxed pace.

I went out to Iguana island but a strong swell was hooking round and breaking on the beach; otherwise this would be a lovely day stop.

As you approach Ustupu from the East you will see huge breakers on the east shore. As you close on them turn south and parallel the shore. The shallow water coming out from the SW corner of the island will be clear to see as will the shoals towards the mainland. Gradually turn north and you will see the small cemetery island on your port bow and the town dock on your starboard bow. You should also be able to see limestone shallows ahead of you. If the wind is north you do not want to be too close to the town dock – I have seen six traders there at one time. If the wind is south you do not want to be too close to the limestone shelf.

Snug Harbour
I actually anchored a bit further south at Iskartupu which has a small hotel where you might go for a drink. Good holding off their dock. Although nearly a mile from the settlement of Playon Chico an indian still made the journey to get $10.

Nargana
You can anchor either in the East or West anchorage. West has more shelter but you are under the generator which runs 24/7. Better vegetable shopping than anywhere but I was sold rotten eggs. Don’t be fooled by the bank – you cannot withdraw money only change Colombian Pesos. There is a rumor of internet at the school from 1700 weekdays.

On the way to Colon I staged overnight at Playa Chiquita, recommended in my pilot book. Dreadful anchorage with shallows all around. Very rolly.

Anthony
sv Wild Fox

Whilst published in 2002, this cruising report for the Eastern San Blas still has some very useful information.

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