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Cruising and Enjoying the San Blas Islands – April 2008

By Sue Richards last modified Jun 10, 2008 07:16 PM

Published: 2008-06-10 19:16:05
Countries: Panama

Having spent some time cruising Colombia, we head for the more remote eastern end of the San Blas Island chain, along the Colombian border. Leaving in the afternoon we find more wind from the South West than expected initially so are close hauled and not quite able to lay our course. As darkness falls the wind backs more to the Northwest and sailing becomes easier and we enjoy a comfortable night sail with the wind gradually falling lighter all night until by 0600 there is no longer enough wind to sail. We use the engine for the last 15 miles as we head in to Puerto Perme, our first destination in Kuna Yala.

Kuna Yala
Kuna Yala refers to a region of Panama which has been occupied by the Kuna Indians long before the Spanish Conquistadors arrived. Following a revolution in 1925 they have been granted autonomy to run their own affairs, yet remain a part of Panama. They live both on the mainland and the offshore islands in small communities, they have traditional culture and there is a determination of many to retain this culture and protect the people from the effects of “western civilisation”. Kunas are prohibited from marrying outside their race, there are no cars, few TVs, no mobile phones and virtually no crime. Visitors are welcomed and are free to visit the villages, but are expected to leave before nightfall, a small fee is levied in some of the villages.

Puerto Perme
We spend only one night at Perme mending our deck fittings but failing to rectify problems with the Watermaker, we will need to conserve supplies until we know we can get safe supplies of drinking water or it begins to rain. A lot of locals visit the boat in their small dugout canoes, the men try to sell us fruit or vegetables and the women Molas. Molas are the traditional form of dress worn by most women, consisting of hand stitched multi-layered panels depicting symbols or pictures. Red and yellow are predominant colours. They want to sell us Mola panels and it is hard to resist. We buy one Mola, some Coconuts and some avocados.

We proceed to a village called Caledonia and are met by Castro and Pastrie, representatives of the village who introduce themselves and show us a set of rules of conduct for visitors. These include not giving sweets or biscuits to children, throwing coins for children to dive for, nothing that is non bio-degradable to be disposed of into the water, taking photos without consent and leaving the village before nightfall. We arrange to go ashore the next day at 1000 and are told to just ask for Castro’s Casa.

Ashore in Caledonia we are shown around the village by Castro and Pastrie, our official tour guides. We see traditional houses which consist of Bamboo wattle walls with a thatched roof of Palm leaves, floors are beaten earth. Toilets are elevated above the sea. Pigs live in bamboo cages, again often above the sea as well making for self cleaning pens. We are shown the school, a canoe being carved from a tree trunk, the restaurant where again we are encouraged to buy Molas, which we do, some bread, onions and plantains.

The women do not like their photographs being taken believing that it steals their spirit, so I guess memories of them will have to come from a few pictures in guide books. Children have no such inhibitions and everywhere they ask to have their pictures taken, then immediately wanting to see the captured image on the camera screen. The village has 2 Cable and Wireless telephones, powered by solar panels.

Dugout canoes or “ulas” as they are called here in Kuna Yala, are impressive craft and range from about 8 feet in length to over 20. They are paddled Canadian style with hand carved paddles or sailed using a square shaped sail on a mast stepped in a hole in a cross thwart. The sail rolls around the mast and lays in the bottom of the boat when not in use. These craft are used for everything. Many communities exist on offshore islands but the land for crops is on the mainland (or continent as we have heard it referred to) often up a small river.

Every morning from first light we see “ulas” leaving the village and heading for the river entrance, where they punt across the shallows at the entrance and disappear up the river returning at midday with vegetables, fruit palm leaves for thatching, poles for building and firewood. Others fish going far out into the bays into quite rough waters to fish or to dive on the reefs for crabs and lobster. When they catch fish they just lie in the bottom of the canoe often flopping around in an inch or two of water. They often use live bait which they catch with cast nets and this is kept alive in the bottom of the canoe swimming around in a few inches of water. Larger “ulas” range far and wide and are known to make voyages between here and Colon or Cartagena. Impressive when the freeboard on even the larger “ulas” is only about 12 inches and on the smaller ones barely 4. A baler is a critical item of equipment and we see them baling water all of the time, although these craft are naturally buoyant and must be unsinkable.

To watch these craft sail is a delight and with even a primitive rig of patchwork sails they move really well through the water with the paddle used as a steering oar. Some cruisers have traded for these “ulas” and have bought small ones for as little as $5 or the larger sailing ones for $100, I wish we had room to bring one back, it would be fun to use back home.

We leave Caledonia and continue westwards to Ustupu, one of the largest villages in the islands and anchor off the town. It is not long before Louis comes out with the official welcome and one of the chief’s secretaries to collect the anchoring fee, this time $8, we get the official receipt. We are free here to go ashore anytime. Opposite the town is an airstrip which has a few flights daily to Panama and is the only means of travel quickly to civilisation, there are no roads.

Going ashore here we are met by Louis who shows us an artists studio and the museum, which has a few local artefacts and some photographs. We wander around the town on our own buying supplies in some of the stores dotted around the town. Kuna bread is good and is baked as long thin rolls, each one costing $0.10, so 10 for $1. These villages, although dusty underfoot, are clean with no litter. We eat in the local restaurant a set meal of the day, excellent chicken, rice and plantains and soft drinks for just $7 for both of us.

Snug Harbour
We leave Ustupu the next day continuing westwards past Isla Pinos, where there is a traditional Kuna burial place on the hillside. Bodies are left to decay in small huts. These sites are sacred and we are told not to go ashore here. On then to Snug Harbour, a good anchorage well protected by islands and reefs. The snorkelling here is not great and we lose enthusiasm for this when we watch a crocodile swimming along the edge of the Mangroves presumably looking for fish for supper.

We are visited again by an “ula” with an old man who asks us if we need anything. He offers to get bread, fruit and vegetables from the nearby village some 2 miles away. We give him $10 on trust hoping he will return next day with our supplies. He does and we get bread, eggs and most of what we asked for.

We leave the next morning and go just 2.5 miles to Aridup, a small island with a great reef for snorkelling. This is the best coral we have seen for a long time, although there are not a lot of large fish. I guess the Kuna have over-fished here. This is a temporary stop as a swell makes it way into this anchorage.

Rio Diablo - Nargana
Onward then to the Rio Diablo arriving there in the late afternoon. The island of Nargana has a population who have decided to give up the traditional Kuna ways and the village is very different. There is a bank complete with armed guard, a police station and even a jail. Shops here sell a little more, you can get beer and coca-cola. Girls here wear modern clothing although a few still wear traditional Molas. More canoes have engines and there are other small boats as well speeding around the anchorage. The shop here has a TV loudly playing some pop video channel, it seems out of place to us.

At night we can hear some loud music playing until 0200 and generators run most of the night lighting up the island’s street lighting. We stay just one night and buy fresh fruit, vegetables and chicken before departing.

Green Island
Green island is a quiet anchorage well protected by the island and reef, we just hang out swimming, exploring the island unaware that this is home to a crocodile as well, although it has not been spotted for a while. There is a local radio net daily and we learn of a regular Monday evening Pot luck on Barbecue island in the Hollandaise, and decide to head there to join in and meet up with other cruisers.

Swimming Pool – Eastern Hollandaise
Entering the anchorage called the swimming pool in the eastern Hollandaise, we anchor in sand in crystal clear water in 4 metres with good holding. We enjoy dominoes and the evening pot luck, having been on our own for 10 days with only Kuna Indians to talk to it is strange to suddenly be back in company with 30 other cruising boats. We stay a couple of days. We make contact with other friends we have not seen for a year over the morning radio net, learning that they are nearby and heading our way.

East Lemon Cay
East Lemon Cays is a beautiful anchorage protected by reefs and islands. There are a few people who live here and we are able to buy bread and fish. A supply boat also visits the anchorage with fruit, veg, eggs, wine etc. The fish is really good and we buy a small tuna for $1 all filleted and ready to cook. We visit Dog island and dive on the wreck, before heading west.

Isla Robeson – Western San Blas
A splendid sail west downwind with the cruising chute brings us to this group of small islands. We drop anchor and are soon surrounded by 6 or 7 “ulas” all trying to sell us Molas. It is a bit daunting to be surrounded by so many. We give lots of pencils away to the children and silks to the ladies and girls to use in their craft work. This anchorage is affected by swell so we move to a smaller island and anchor again. This time we are visited by Breddio, a local Kuna who collects the official anchoring fee and offers himself as tour guide. We decide to take a tour to a local river by motorised “ula” the next day, it will cost $20 plus $10 for the fuel for the engine.

Next day we set off at 0700 however our expedition is cut short by a log jam in the river. We arrange an alternative trip the following day. This time we attempt a trail through the forest to a Kuna village in the hills. We are shown around the village and pay our fee of $2 each for visiting. Returning to our boat we are exhausted after this 10 mile trek through the jungle. We did find out why the locals all wear Wellington boots while working, it is to protect themselves from snakes!

Carti Islands
We leave the Islas Robeson and head to the Carti Islands, spending a night there. Ashore we discover this island is the nearest to a dirt track road passable by 4 wheel drive vehicles, 4 hours to Panama City. There is a back packers hostel here, really basic, but they bring small groups from Panama. The temptations of the big city are big here and several of the men we talk to have worked in Panama. There is a cultural museum here which we visit and for $5 are given an hours talk by the museum curator about the culture and the lives of the Kuna. We find that the traditional Mola patterns all have a purpose of providing protection to the women from harmful spirits, we learn that traditional medicine men invoke the spirits to provide a cure but also that these spirits are about the village in the hours of darkness but disappear into the ground with the dawn not re-emerging again until after midday. So being sick in the morning and asking the medicine man to come is no good, he will not come until the afternoon when the spirits are about again. Fascinating as this is, we also note that villages often have a health centre providing conventional care as well, so we wonder which system is relied upon?

We cruise along enjoying really good sailing in calm waters and visiting other islands along the way until eventually we find ourselves back again in the swimming pool anchorage in the Hollandaise. We find there friends we met in Cartahegna who were heading east to the ABC islands and Venezuela, but found the trip so bad they turned around and came back to Panama instead. We plan to leave and head west towards Colon but are delayed by a whole day of Tropical rain storms. Eventually we leave and head to our last anchorage in San Blas at Chichime island.

We leave early in the morning for Linton and have an easy sail along the coast until the wind falls light and we use the engine for the last 10 miles into the well sheltered anchorage of Linton.

We have really enjoyed our stay in the San Blas islands and can understand why some cruisers hang out in this area for years. However, our itinerary keeps us moving, we need to reach Honduras and the Bay Islands before the onset of the Hurricane season.

SY Vindomar