San Blas Archipelago, PAN

May 31, 2017, Trip: Panama
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 Note:  couldn’t get Google Maps to plot this route so hope the above makes sense as most of it is by boat!

May 31, 2017

The next big day had arrived; we were heading back to the Caribbean coast one final time to begin our journey through the San Blas Islands of Panama, leaving Central America, then on to open ocean to South America beginning in Colombia!

We were picked up by Blue Sailing’s private shuttle from our hotel in Panama City (Hotel Victoria Clarion) and after picking up seven or so others, we were driven to Puerto Lindo which is about 20km past Portobello, where we had spent the night before Tigger was dropped off at the port on the 19th.

Upon arriving at the meeting place, Casa X Restaurante, we met our captain, Charlie, the chef, Sophie and the final crew member, Yuri.

We were given a few instructions, handed over our passports and then we had some free time while awaiting others and before boarding a launcha with all of our luggage and heading out to the Wildcard – our home for the next five nights.

We were asked to only keep with us what we needed for the journey with us and have the rest placed in the hold of the boat. We were shown our “quarters” and told we could go for a swim while the crew completed the readying of the sailboat.

We had the only private room on the boat which was at the lowest level at the back. In the same area were two shared toilets and a sink as were six single bunks, making for cramped quarters. At least we had a door (which we rarely closed to keep some air circulation), two port holes (that didn’t open) and two narrow windows, the latter of which rarely allowed a breath of air to travel. We had a double bed and some floor area as well as small narrow shelf for our use. There were two 12 volt fans at the head of the bed.

Our room – with our stuff piled on the bed:

That swim in the water before departing was lovely and a welcome respite from the humidity.

The center of the boat was the entrance to below deck and held the captain’s bridge along with a wide  bench that doubled as  his bed, then down three steps to four more bunks, (Charlie’s 12 year old son, Keenan, was aboard with us and he slept in this area) then down a couple of stairs was the galley and a three piece bathroom and at the front were two more double beds and a single.

The Wildcard is 64’ long and there is no dining area per se. Aboard with us were two motorcycles tied at the front of the main deck which belonged to two young American men travelling the PanAm like us. They cost the same price as a passenger and this way their means of transportation arrives with them and they deal with customs upon arrival. Mitch & Justin began their journey in Denver and are currently travelling with a young lady friend, named Antonia, who meets up with there here and there.

The lounge/sitting/eating area was outside on the main deck with padded mats and about ten large bean bags. At times, a cover for shade was erected.  Yes, it was cramped.

Around 3 that first afternoon, we were called back on board from our swim to the lounge area and through a hatch above the galley (nicknamed the “magic box”) came bowls of spaghetti Bolognese for lunch. It was delicious and plentiful.

The Wildcard apparently holds 20 passengers but we only had 17. Doug and I were, of course, the eldest while the others ranged in age between 20 and 33. There were four women, 13 guys. Conversations tended to get raunchy and rules were not always abided by nor did many hustle when it was time to do anything which of course, annoyed us but more so frustrated the captain. There were people from Germany, Australia, 2 Americans, a couple each of Swiss and Dutch and one each from NZ and the UK; for the most part an okay bunch but definitely way bigger drinkers than we are. Luckily when they partied on deck, we couldn’t hear them down in our cabin.

Drinking water is provided as well as coffee and tea at breakfast; otherwise you bring your beverages of choice, alcoholic and otherwise. There were two coolers (nicked named “happy boxes”) on deck in the lounge area. We ourselves brought bottled water in large jugs, a case of diet coke and a case of beer.

Later that afternoon the sky got pretty dark and the sea began tp get rough. We were beginning our journey well northwest of the San Blas and would arrive at the immigration point at El Porvenir later tonight so although we still seeing land in the distance, the sea became full of swells. Darkness came and the rain came with it. It was a little surreal looking and Fran wished she had her camera on deck with us but it was too rough to attempt walking below to fetch it. A young German couple is aboard with us, Julia & Johannes, and she began suffering seasickness pretty early on. However, most of us were struck before going below deck to bed and then the seas calmed down. There was some incredible lightning that evening as well. Luckily that was the most rain we had the entire trip.

Dinner that night was chicken burgers but not everyone indulged including Fran as she’d been sick before dinner. Doug ate but didn’t keep it down long. We had packed Dramamine but really had not expected to have to use it until the open sea part of the voyage. And this seasickness came on suddenly; one second you’re fine and then it would strike almost without warning.

Thursday morning we awoke in El Porvenir to calm waters and a sun trying to peak out.  This is where immigration is located when you leave Panama this way:

Meals aboard the Wildcard are served four times a day:

  • Early breakfast is ready at about 7AM – this consists of a serve yourself bin with cut up fresh fruit, coffee, cornflakes and raisin bread upon which you can spread PB & J. Sophie kindly made Doug and I “a cuppa” every morning as well.
  • Hot breakfast was served around 10AM – what was served varied every day; one day fruit compote with pancake-like dumplings, one day scrambled eggs with rolls, one day eggs, beans and sausage,
  • Lunch was served sometimes on board, sometimes on an island around 2-3PM. One day we had nachos, one day a Chinese noodle dish, once a ratatouille and another time sandwiches.
  • Dinner was served around 7-8 and once it was a bbq feast on an island with a bonfire complete with giant marshmallows, otherwise served on board. We had a fabulous fresh lobster feast one night, fancy hot dogs one night.

As fresh water is precious about the boat, we were asked not to use the indoor shower until the end of the voyage IF there was sufficient water remaining in the tanks. There was a “hand pump shower” at the back of the boat that held 3l of water only and you were able to shower with that after swimming. However, we learned on the last morning when Doug asked about showering, that many of the others had been “caught” sneaking in showers and there was little water left but we could try. Fran managed to get her hair washed and most of it rinsed that last morning.

While Charlie went ashore with all our passports to get us stamped out of Panama at immigration, Sophie arranged for a local Kuna man to take us to his tour his island and learn about their lives. Nestor and his four year old son took us in two panga loads and we walked around his village where about 500 Kunas live. They live in huts, have a town hall, a school, a church, a large general store, and one bar/restaurant that has cabins you can rent as well. They are across the water from a sister island where their cemetery plots are located.

We were asked not to take photos of the women at all unless we paid them something. These women also made some handicrafts of beads and embroidery which they were selling. Fran bought a beaded anklet from them. They seemed like happy people, you can hear them singing but the saddest part was how much garbage they live with around them.

There was an enclosure where they were keeping a turtle which had so much plastic in it and the kids would poke the turtle with a stick to get it out of its corner to show it to us and the turtle looked forlorn, if that’s possible?

KUNA Facts: The Kuna, people, also known as Guna, and historically as Cuna, are an indigenous people of Panama and Col0mbia and their language is Dulegaya, literally “people-mouth”. They live in three politically autonomous reservations in Panama, and in a few small villages in Colombia but most live on small islands off the coast on the reservation Kuna Yala better known as the San Blas Islands. They once occupied the central region of what is now Panama as well. In 1925 the Kuna people fought to not be a state with Panama and therefore have self-governing authority over this region. They celebrate this on the 25 of February each year.  

In Kuna Yala, each community has its own political organization, led by a saila (pronounced “sigh-lah”). The saila is traditionally both the political and spiritual leader of the community; he memorizes songs which relate the sacred history of the people, and in turn transmits them to the people. Decisions are made in meetings held in the Onmaked Nega, or Ibeorgun Nega (Congress House or Casa de Congreso AKA town hall), a structure which likewise serves both political and spiritual purposes. Traditionally, Kuna families are matrilineal, with the groom moving to become part of the bride’s family. The groom takes the last name of the bride as well. Today there are about 49 communities in Kuna Yala. They grow much of their own produce (plantains, coconuts, fruits) and have some domestic animals but still rely on items from the mainland. Their economy is agriculture (mostly selling coconuts to both Panama and Colombia) and fishing (lobster) based and they manufacture clothing especially their embroidery cloths called “molas” and traditional clothing.

Note: it is illegal for tourists to remove coconuts from the islands.

Woman in traditional garb:

Molas:

When Charlie returned from El Porvenir, we officially entered the San Blas Islands and lost cell reception completely. Here you pay the “Kuna tax” of $20pp. There are 374 islands in this archipelago and approximately 60 of them are inhabited. After second brekkie, we sailed to a pair of twin islands. Firstly we had a lovely lunch at a small bar on the beach and then were free to wander, swim, relax or best of all: snorkel!

Waters in some areas was crystal clear but the tide was coming in and the deeper into the reef you swam, the murkier water was.  All of the days we snorkelled we saw large schools of tiny silver fish.  Each day their numbers seemed to grow.

Around five o’clock we were taken back to the sailboat, where we showered and changed and then were taken to the second island where Sophie barbequed shishkabobs and potatoes which were served with pasta salad and freshly made Kuna coconut bread. The Kuna family that lives on the island helped Charlie build a large bonfire and for dessert Sophie had giant individually wrapped heart or strawberry shaped marshmallows for roasting; these were sickly sweet though and one was enough, even for Fran!

On the morning of Day 3 we sailed for a couple of hours between breakfasts and were treated to a pod of dolphins swimming towards and alongside us for a bit.

That afternoon we spent the afternoon on an idyllic deserted island with some good snorkeling spots. We saw plenty of starfish and Fran saw an eel and we both saw a ray, otherwise it was just the lovely colourful fish. The waters here were so clear and the sand is so white. Coconut palms abound and it was spectacular. A boatload of Kuna people dropped by that afternoon trying to sell their wares; we’d meant to bring pencils for the kids but had forgotten them on board so Doug and Charlie went back to the boat and Doug gave a set of them to the family’s children.

Later Charlie took those that were interested out to a further reef by panga and we were taken to two spots and then swam back to shore. Even though we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, the numbers of fish and the clarity of the water was great. This reef had a huge drop off and just seemed to go on and on.

The beach we spent most of the afternoon on was the best of all and we enjoyed just sitting in the shallow water surrounded by turquoise water and white sand imaging we were on Survivor discussing who was going to get voted off the island!

Later that afternoon, we watched Yuri, the Colombian crew member, cut up lobster which Sophie cooked up for dinner with an amazing garlic butter sauce served with mashed potatoes with a seafood sauce. Quite surprising what she sends up the magic box for us to eat.

Here is a pic of dinner that night:

We spent the anchored night off the island and decided we’d watch “Romancing the Stone” in preparation for our arrival in Colombia.

We sailed some the next morning to another paradise of an island with amazing snorkeling right off shore. Fran couldn’t get enough of it and went out several times.

The numbers of fish and the clarity of the sea was amazing. Doug had been suffering from a leaky mask again this trip so he never stayed out as long but enjoyed some reading time under the coconut trees.

We were taken off the island around 2, given lunch and began the long sail on open waters to Cartagena, Colombia. This can take 24 – 48 hours depending on the conditions of the ocean. Our friends, Josee & Joe did it last week and they told us that they had 26 hours of calm seas; we were hoping for the same!

We both took Dramamine and trip began. Charlie hoped we’d get to port before 6AM Monday morning. Both Saturday and Sunday while sailing we saw no other sailboats but were treated to a few sightings of flying fish.

We saw one freighter out on the water late on Sunday afternoon (headed the other way in the distance) but other than that we were the only souls out on the deep, blue sea. Doug took three doses of meds and Fran took four and only two people got sick on this part of the trip.

Most of the day was spent lounging around on the deck in swimsuits, reading, chatting and “resting”. Dramamine made Fran groggy so she closed her eyes a lot but never really slept; really not much else to do and you don’t want to spend much time below deck.

In the middle of Sunday afternoon, Charlie had a treat for us all: he and Yuri served up rum in real coconuts. It was very smooth and tasty.

The Wildcard did pretty well with its sails and despite one shower Sunday morning for about 20 minutes, the weather held, the sea was not that rough and we made it to Cartagena by 10:30 Sunday night where we slept in the harbour.

View of the part of Cartagena where Tigger will be arriving:

After first breakfast, we were told that Canadians and the bikers had to come ashore with Charlie to meet his “helper” who would handle immigration for us. The bikers needed to go ashore to sort out customs for their bikes and the Canadians needed to go ashore to get Colombian Pesos to pay their entry fee (as Canada charges Colombians to enter Canada, they do the same to us). Now since we have both Canadian and US Passports, we brought both with us and the “helper”, named David, felt we’d be able to use the latter (even without a Panamanian exit stamp) and avoid the fee. We all got cash anyway and Charlie handed over all our passports in a plastic bag. It was a little unnerving.

While waiting for our passports to return we went back to the Wildcard and Yuri arranged for a launcha to remove the motorcycles from the boat. They hoisted them up one at a time and made two trips to the docks.

Then Charlie got the call and went to get our passports and the luggage was brought up from the hold and we were taken to shore in a few trips with our bags. Using our American passports had worked – yeah! saved us $150!

We checked into a hostel called Mi Llave (my key) and immediately turned on the AC to cool down and then showered before going to do a few errands (like cell phone service). We got that done fairly quickly and then found a Subway for lunch and that night we met up with everyone from the boat  at the bar of another hostel for drinks and we all went for pizza near Plaza la Trinidad. Charlie brought along his wife, Natalie and of course, their son and Sophie brought her boyfriend, Pablo, who proposed to her at dinner!

We called it a night around 9:00 but the rest of the gang hung out longer. Despite us mentioning a few times on the trip about taking a group photo it was never done until that night AFTER we left the pizza place so the pic below does not include us.

Now for our thoughts on this voyage:

PROS:

  • We absolutely loved the islands; the water was amazingly crystal clear for the most part and the fish were abundant. The beaches on deserted islands, palm trees and warm waters we highly recommend.
  • This is a must for anyone travelling to Panama.
  • The meals served were good and more than enough food; snacking was not needed.
  • Charlie and his crew were super nice and helpful.

CONS:

  • Boat life is not for us (as we know from the cruise we took a few years back) and being on such a small boat with a good number of people is cramped, hot and humid and free and easy movement is greatly constrained
  • We don’t like not being in control of our travel
  • If the boat had had AC it would be been SO much more bearable but sleeping at night was uncomfortable even with fans which really just blow hot air around
  • coolers were often lacking ice which meant not always having access to cold drinks.
  • Not having proper places to sit and eat meals, let alone to lounge in the shade at all times was not very appealing either; 10 bean bags, 17 passengers – not conducive to everyone being comfortable.

We would definitely recommend visiting the San Blas – but unless you get a more luxurious boat, skip the sailing to Colombia. We understand there are trips that just do the San Blas staying on the islands (instead of onboard) closer to shore and they take you to the Colombian border from where you can take buses/ferries to get to Cartagena – not sure how long the second part takes, but it doesn’t look short.

REMEMBER: THERE ARE PLENTY MORE PICS IN THE GALLERIES SECTION!

 

 

 

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