Bocas, Canals & the San Blás

Published: June 22nd 2011
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La Gruta CaveLa Gruta CaveLa Gruta Cave

Mid air stalls...
Just 32km over the border from Costa Rica is the Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro, a series of six forested tropical islands surrounded by the turquoise waters of Panamas oldest marine park, a excellent place to chill (or more accurately bake) for a few days. Trying to maintain my pastey whiteness I ignored the beaches for my first afternoon & headed inland to La Gruta limestone caves near the centre of Isla Colón. The caves are known for the thousand of bats that roost within during the day & so having paid my $1 entry fee I set off armed with a head torch and a camera. Following a trail through the forest I quickly came to the first chamber which was alive with bats, the whole ceiling was a writhing mass of furry little bodies making an incredible din squeaking away as I passed beneath, the cave was quite low & I felt I could've reached up and touched them. The first chamber opened back into the forest where the path followed a deep gully into the second principal cave. This one extended far back into the strata & had a deep stream running through it so was only accessible by wading through waist-high water. Within a few minutes the natural light faded and I had to navigate by torch, the bats were more widely spaced here clustered in small groups on the ceiling; when I passed many were disturbed by my flashlight & dropped to fly around the cave, many heading for the exit & some flying close enough that I could feel the brush of air as they passed. Being a large obstacle in a small round cave many a bat was quite surprised by the blockage & performed spectacular mid-air stalls right in front of my flashlight, I found that by holding my camera out in front of me I not only deflected the flyers from impacting with my face but could also get some spectacular action shots. The cave continued underground for several hundred metres & I waded through the cool water throughout, eventually the passage got quite low and narrow & I headed back to leave the bats to there slumber.

The following day I wanted to explore the beautiful waters of the archipelago so booked aboard a catamaran for a day-trip round the islands. The first stop was called 'dolphin bay' after the
La Gruta CaveLa Gruta CaveLa Gruta Cave

Can you count the wee beasties
large family of bottlenose dolphins which frequent the area, they didn't disappoint on our visit and swam near the boat for a good ten minutes. The captain has been taking tourists round the islands for ten years & has become so familiar with the pod that's he's named them all, my favourite was one unfortunate inexplicably called Gladys? Unfortunately we could not swim with the dolphins as the water was thick with jellyfish.

Sailing on round the bay we came to the captains secret snorkeling spot, or so he said, which stretched for 100m right alongside the mangroves. It was impressive, probably the healthiest reef I've seen in central America, multicoloured sponges, corals and starfish were plentiful plus some cool urchin which looked like miniature underwater mines. Throughout the day the wind picked up & by the afternoon the boat was really flying, a really relaxing way to travel. Two Dutch girls on board were on the last day of a three week holiday & had clearly decided to pack all there sunbathing into one 6 hour period, they ended the day with strap lines to last a month, odd.

After the sun and sand of Bocas I
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These weird insects were all over the cave wall.
headed south to the bright lights of Panama City; quite unlike any other central American capital the city has long been a centre for international finance and commerce which is reflected in the impressive number of skyscrapers lining the waterfront. Of course the source of much of this wealth is the Panama Canal located on the outskirts of the city, the canal has a long and complex history which is inextricably linked to the history of Panama itself. Panama was for a long time a part of Colombia but after the French started but failed to complete the canal they attempted to sell the concession to the states; the Colombian government refused and as a consequence the Americans backed a revolutionary junta for an independent Panama, this came to fruition & immediately the US recognised the new Panamanian government & 15 days later they got their treaty & a concession for the canal, cheeky buggers (which they didn't give back until 1999).
Much of the canal is in fact a huge reservoir but to facilitate the transition of ships between water levels at both the pacific and Atlantic sides a series of huge locks were built. I visited the Miraflora
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Dolphin spotting abord the cat
locks which has recently had a vast visitor centre built next door with commanding views of the action. The locks are a massive 1000' long and 110' wide & many cargo ships are built with these dimensions in mind, the so called pan-max, at Miraflora there are two such locks back to back. I watched several container ships being piloted into and through the waterway at a good speed, surprisingly there were six tethered locomotives guiding them through.

Arriving in Panama City a month ahead of schedule, I felt I'd seen and experienced the best of Central America and that it was time to move on. Within the last few years Colombia has again become safe to visit after decades of civil conflict so I thought I´d make the most of my visit and carry on through to South America. The border with panama is still closed but some entrepreneurial yacht captains have devised an attractive alternative means for backpackers to enter the country, they pack as many as possible aboard their ships and sail via the stunningly beautiful San Blás islands to the north coast of Colombia. This collection of 365 tiny islands are home to the Kuna,
Bocas del ToroBocas del ToroBocas del Toro

The middle one id Gladys
an autonomous indigenous community within Panama who live in small family groups spread across the islands.
After a few emails I found my captain in the small fortress town of Portbelo a couple of bus rides away from Panama City & paid for my four day passage aboard the 46' sloop Flamboyant. The ship was operated by Captain Eric and his Colombian wife Isabelle and although quite nice inside, seven occupants was a bit of a squeeze, certainly naval architects don't have 6'6" Englishmen in mind when designing boats.
The voyage began with a twelve hour overnight sail down the coast to the San Blás, this first leg proved to be quite violent, the boat rocked so much that I was repeatedly thrown out of bed, the ordeal did eventually end when we arrived into the calmer waters of the Archipelago but I did wonder what I´d let myself in for. Luckily the San Blás were very tranquil & what a place, the tightly packed islands vary in size from a few acres to no more than a patch of sand with a couple of coconut trees, all the islands are picture postcard perfect; turquoise waters, squeaky clean white sands
Captains ReefCaptains ReefCaptains Reef

Mine Urchin
and palm trees growing over lawns of grass, the whole chain looks like a child's impression of a desert island. We spent three days sailing between various islands, snorkeling, having picnics and visiting backpackers on other boats. On the third day Eric our captain decided to visit a new group of islands called Coco Banderas, unfortunately he was not very familiar with the surrounding reefs. He posted lookouts at the front of the boat to look for reefs but the water level changes so rapidly our warnings didn't come in time & we got grounded on the reef. Eric did what any sensible man would do, blamed his wife and anyone else in earshot, after a lot of expletives ( mainly from Eric) a few of us jumped overboard with snorkels and guided him off the reef. I took a couple of photos of his damaged keel but was advised by Isabelle to wait till the following day to show him.
The reefs surrounding the islands had a number of rays and a few barracuda but with the Kuna fishing daily in their dug out sailing boats there are not many big fish left. There were however vast schools of
Captains ReefCaptains ReefCaptains Reef

The local Seargent Majors had a taste for pinapple
sardines which swam in a shifting cloud of bodies near the beaches, it was great fun diving down into the cloud of swirling fish and watching them form a tunnel around you & then for it to instantly close up once you had passed.

After three relaxing days in the San Blás we set sail (carefully avoiding the reef) for the north coast of Colombia, the route crossed a corner of the Caribbean & would take a full day and two nights of sailing, obviously after the first night I wasen´t thrilled by the prospect. Sailing away from Coco Banderas the boat picked up a pod of dolphins which swam about the bow for 10 minutes to see us on our way. I spent most of the crossing lying in bed feeling awful but did emerge to watch some vast tankers chug by & for some fairly spectacular sunsets. After 36 hours we reached Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia, during the final night an ill advised school of flying fish tried to make there escape but inadvertently flew straight into the side of the boat leaving the deck strewn with little winged bodies. Saying my good byes
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City skyline
on board I headed ashore to a new country and indeed a new continent, but that can wait for next time...

Additional photos below
Photos: 17, Displayed: 17


Panama CityPanama City
Panama City

This striking builing in the centre of the financial district is called the Revolution Tower
Panama CanalPanama Canal
Panama Canal

Locomotives shifting one of the ships
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San Blás Islands

Kuna fishermen in there dug out sail boats.
San Blás IslandsSan Blás Islands
San Blás Islands

A bunch of Kuna kids came to visit the boat & I gave them all balloons.
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San Blás Islands

Desert Islands
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San Blás Islands

Sea stars littered every beach on the San Blás, there were literally everywhere

23rd June 2011

Hello sailor !
Love the pic of the bat in flight, excellent blog.
23rd June 2011

Well done with that photo of the bat - you should submit it to the National Geographic wildlife photography award - its very good! Loved the blog too - obviously the Viking blood is getting very thinned out by the land locked Slavic influence.
25th June 2011

Nearly home!
And you mocked my seasickness in the Gambia! All sounds amazing Will, I'm particularly jealous of all your dolphin spotting. I think the name Gladys is excellent, by the way. Great photo of the bat. See you very soon! xxx
14th June 2014
La Gruta Cave

Amazing Photo!
Absolutely love it!

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