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Panama: Update San Blas April/May 2016

By SY Juliane — last modified Mar 15, 2017 01:57 PM
Checking into Panama at Porvenir.

Published: 2017-03-15 00:00:00
Countries: Panama

General

There has been a few changes for cruisers in Panama and we have been a bit confused by the news we read on the net. To come straight to it, we had a pleasant stay in Guna Yala and were welcomed everywhere we went. About the new fees - more in the text.

The best guide for the San Blas Islands comes from Eric Bauhaus who put a tremendous amount of work in the charts waypoints etc. It's expensive, but a must-buy.

The charts are good but don’t count on every sounding, there is a lot of sand shifting and coral movement going on, so good eyeball navigation is important entering the anchorages. The Navionics charts on the iPad are a great help, but not accurate for the San Blas islands (use the waypoints from the Bauhaus guide).

Check-In

We cleared in at El Porvenir, easy to do but far from cheap! The guide from Eric Bauhaus is from 2015 so the permit fees etc. changed and are not valid anymore. There is only a 1 year permit for Panama waters and everyone staying longer then 2 days needs one.

The 1 year cruising permit cost us in El Porvenir 205$ US (you need to bring cash, there is no ATM).

Then there is the new Guna Yala fees, which are quite simple, per boat 20$ / month and per person 20$ / month. We have never been asked for any additional anchorage fee or island visiting fee, but make sure you keep the receipt from the Guna Yala fee.

In Porvenir, the Guna congresso is in the same building as immigration and the harbour master.

So visiting Panama by boat is not cheap, but if you want to transit the canal you need to pay all the fees** beside the Guna fees anyway, and it would be a shame to miss these beautiful islands.

**There is the 72 hour rule. With the help of an agent it is possible to transit the canal without a Panama cruising permit, but you are officially not allowed to leave the boat so you can’t re-provision in Panama. We didn’t use an agent for the Panama Canal and were surprised how easy it is do the whole paperwork for the canal transit yourself. It’s easy, saved money and it only takes one walk to the canal authorities in Colon Harbour and one to the bank (see Noonsite reports for more information).

Infrastructure

Of course the big shopping should be done prior to visiting San Blas, but basic food can be found in the villages. It's never a problem to buy fresh fish (medium size 3$/fish) or spiny lobster (medium/big about 5$). The fisherman come by most anchorages every day trying to sell their catch. The delicious mangos grow plentiful on the mainland and are cheap to buy (4 to 5 mangos for 1$). Kuna bread are quite small and you get about 5-10 pieces for 1$.

Since 2015 the Kunas are allowed to welcome tourists on the islands for bed & breakfast and so on, so there are a few trying to set up infrastructure with new restaurants and bungalows built. Everything without foreign money, so there is a good chance of a healthy tourism growth. I am sure there will be more to come for the cruisers in the near future, like moorings, water, internet (with the hope that the islands keep their untouched beauty).

Filling water is possible in Rio Azucar at the dock. We filled our tanks on our way to Colon in the Turtle Cay Marina for free (!) at the petrol station, the water you get is river water so expect a little algae and river taste… We originally planned to stay there a night, but reconsidered as we were told that the management had changed. The marina is dead empty, we got no answer on the VHF (Channel 72), there is showers and coin washing machines (cold water only), but everything looks a bit neglected.

The Wi-Fi however works okay and we would have enjoyed surfing a bit longer if there hadn't been so many sand flies and mosquitos, so we left after filling our water tanks.

Things to bring

The Kunas are open and happy to chat, if your Spanish is not too good bring a dictionary, if you find a cheap one buy a spare one as it makes a great present. We met a few Kunas who are eager to learn and the only thing they get to read are the papers from Jehovah witnesses (even translated in Guna!)… so if you have Spanish books that you have already read it would be a good place to share.

They are happy for single fishing hooks or fishing line (medium strength - they use it for the reef fish).

Like always, it's good to have small money bills as often the Gunas can’t change bigger bills, so bring 1$ and 5$ bills or coins.

Weather / Anchorages

In late April the Passat wind died on the Caribbean coast of Panama, so we had to use the engine most of the time. There is a fair bit of rain and thunder - even the rainy season is just starting so make sure your windows are sealed well!

The wind often turns at night and comes from the mainland, so keep that in mind when you put down the hook if you don’t wan’t to get stuck on the coral.

Summary

The San Blas Islands are picture perfect with their coconut palms and we saw stingrays, turtles, dolphins, small sharks and had some of the best snorkelling I can imagine. It sometimes feels like living in a TV documentary about sea life! It's another world, one we were happy to look into a little bit and hope its stays like that as long as possible.

Saludos,

SY Juliane

PS: Enter the „San Blas Cruiser“ Facebook Group, lots of helpful information to be found on there.

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