Sand, Sun and Sea – Sailing Panama’s San Blas Islands

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Central America Caribbean » Panama » Kuna Yala
November 2nd 2014
Published: November 26th 2014
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After a fond farewell to Cuba we embarked upon our next adventure in Panama. The taxi from Panama City airport provided an overview of just how different the culture and industry are between the two countries: Cuba cut off from the superpower of America and all that comes with it, while Panama thrives with international banking and cargo. Our stay at Mamallena Hostelwas comfortable and we celebrated adding another country to our hit list by adding another beer to our hit list! With hundreds of photos and brief contact with family from throughout the first weeks of our trip, we relished the free wifi and uploaded to our hearts’ content!

Our plan of a few days in Panama City to explore before setting sail across the Caribbean for the Colombian north coast didn’t last long as we learnt the only boat departing in the next week would in fact leave the next day. So with that we scooted down to the fish market to sample some local ceviche and repacked our bags for the yacht. With clear instructions for the public buses to catch to Portobelo in Panama’s north, getting on the first bus was no problem despite being over booked already. So we took our seats on little stools in the aisle for what was potentially a 4hr trip. Having settled in for the ride, it was only about 2 hours later that we were ushered to the front, escorted with our luggage to the sidewalk and told (in Spanish) that our bus to Portbelo would go from here. We hadn’t told him we were going to Portobelo but we think he suspected the only reason tourists travel this way was for the sailboats. Gringo trail alert!

Luckily, our overeager first bus driver was right and we soon established there was a local bus stop around the corner. We waited, and waited and waited until we spotted another gringa complete with Canadian flag on her backpack. Agreeing she must be sailing with us, we struck up conversation to while away the hour till the bus turned up. It began to rain, then to pour, then to teem, building to a torrential downpour at the exact moment our bus pulled up. After all the locals pushed in front of us and our bags to get aboard, the usher showed us the back door where we could throw our luggage and crawl in with it. Local Latin American transport, wouldn’t have it any other way!

Arriving in Portobelo we followed the signs to Captain Jack’s and settled in for some more internet usage before another 5 days without connection (#firstworldtravellerproblems) and the best Thai curry since leaving home. 3 hummingbirds set up next to us to use the feeder on our balcony – they really do hum! – and we met more of our fellow sailors (Italian and Swiss). After dinner we met our captain Rudi from northern Italy, who gave us a brief orientation of how the next 5 days might unfold and a walking tour complete with the deafening racket of a marching band and bugle troupe practicing in the streets.

Early morning and we gathered our bags (+grog, mixers and snacks) and headed for the jetty to meet our yacht, Baruffa. We were transported in Rudi’s dinghy carrying all 8 passengers’ luggage, 4 passengers plus captain across the bay – though not without overflow! Unfortunately all our bags were wet, including our brand new camera. We tried to save it our while the others joined us but had fears of its demise. Lucky we had a waterproof backup and 2 phones to capture everything.

Our first day on Baruffa was 8 hours sailing around the peninsula to where the San Blas islands are scattered off the north-east cost of Panama. While sailing Rudi explained how we would catch fresh seafood every day for meals (whether by line or by wallet) as well as assuring us that this was our holiday and he was happy to work for us. Sure enough, he proved himself when we caught 2 tuna and made us pasta for lunch! Along the way we had a pod of 4 dolphins swimming beside the bow of the boat. Upon arriving at our first San Blas island, we swam and snorkelled before wandering ashore to explore. We spent that night by the island, awaiting our customs departure stamp the following morning.

The next morning started with a cooked breakfast before Rudi zipped off in the dinghy to customs. However, typical of Latin American disorganisation, a copy of each passport was required though there was no photocopier on this island… #facepalm. While Rudi took care of business, we swam with more dolphins and just generally did it tough! All was sorted with our departure stamps and we sailed to our next destination, positioned idyllically between 2 gorgeous islands seemingly filled with palms and nothing else. Here the 'Kuna Mall' (local Kuna men in their canoes approach each boat with their day’s catch for sale) supplied us with white octopus for a risotto lunch. During the afternoon we were approached by a motorboat carrying another friend to join our crew. We were a little concerned at first as there were already 9 people aboard and only 6 real beds however we did have 2 extra mattresses and 4 hammocks though so no drama.

Off to another set of islands with a solo palm (aptly named One Palm Island) for some snorkelling and more island wanderings, lobster for lunch ($1 each!) and a new supply of beer. The larger islands nearby us provided plenty of entertainment with massive starfish and Courtney being able to circumnavigate an island on foot for the first time. Dinner was another pasta dish, this time with the shellfish from inside the giant conch. As we were all enjoying our time as pirates, we shared our rum and beers with El Capitan as thanks for his hard work so far. However, none of us realized just how much we were all sharing and it wasn’t too long before Rudi was singing, dancing and laughing his way around the boat. After dinner we all piled into the dinghy with our torches and drinks to have a bonfire on the island, only to be disappointed when the locals were already asleep and explained to Rudi it was too late. Alas, back to the boat for games.

Our final morning in San Blas had arrived and it was with a sad wave and tentative stomach we bid adios to their white sands and tall palms. All passengers took precautionary seasickness medication and the first 2 hours sailing were a test on us all. We all feared the worst that this weather would last the whole time of our open water crossing to Cartagena (26-48hrs weather dependent). We huddled in corners, clutching to handles and hope, reading books, napping or trying to stomach plain crackers for breakfast. Fortunately for the group the weather calmed, with only 1 person being unwell but it seemed to come in bouts every few hours so we were largely unaffected.

The rest of our daylight sailing hours were fairly smooth, with more naps, reading, dominoes and cards to entertain us. With the sails up, our hammocks were out of commission and so it was a little crowded below deck. A few chose to stay above deck with Rudi and enjoy the fresh air and salt spray. We battled through a lightening storm overnight but nothing Rudi couldn’t handle.

Dawn arrived on our last day at sea with a few nibbles on the line for fresh tuna at lunch. We even had a large marlin wrestling with us however it made its escape before we could conquer it! Would’ve been great to catch and enjoy – though not as much as the 300kg marlin Rudi had caught in the same waters last year. Before lunch we began to see Cartagena’s peninsula in the distance with its Miami-esque white high-rise buildings becoming us ashore. Minor engine troubles had us delayed slightly but with land in sight we were pretty relaxed.

Happy to arrive in the harbour we were all awaiting a shower and clean clothes when Rudi informed us customs were detaining us on the boat for another few hours due to Ebola checks. He made calls and went back and forth in the dinghy before deciding to just take us ashore anyway. Here we anxiously waited for the doctor and officials (none of whom looked very official, though they were sporting a clipboard which is the universal sign of someone important!). Here we were subjected to rigorous quarantine questioning:
“Have you been to Africa in the last 3 months?” No.
“Are you sure?” Yes.
“Thank you, you’re cleared to enter Colombia.” No passport checks, no follow up questions, just a bit of money under the table.

We gathered our luggage from the boat, just in time to walk the streets looking for a taxi in the pouring rain and made our way to Mamallena’s Cartagena counterpart ready for Colombian adventures!


1st December 2014

loving reading about your adventures and following your trail!!!!
1st December 2014

loving reading about your adventures and following your trail!!!!
1st December 2014

loving reading about your adventures and following your trail!!!!

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