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Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Bliss in the San Blas

We may have found paradise.  The San Blas islands are truly magical;  remote, palm clad and surrounded by crystal clear water and pristine coral reefs.  Of course the rest of the cruising community and intrepid travellers have discovered it too but there are still some remote islands in the San Blas where you can feel completely alone.


After a harrowing time in 3rd world Haiti, a busy 10 days in Jamaica and a tough three day/night passage down to the San Blas Islands, we were ready to relax.  And the San Blas was the perfect place to do just that.  It’s absolutely gorgeous. 


The San Blas, or Kuna Yala, consist of more than 300 islands stretching in an archipelago along Panama’s Caribbean coast.  They are home to the indigenous Kuna Indian who number around 55,000 and still retain their unique culture and tradition.  The second smallest race after the Pygmy, the Kuna live a simple lifestyle in thatched huts on these stunning islands.  Their main source of income comes from coconuts and these are taboo for cruisers – you can’t even take a washed up one!  The Kuna have a strict tribal hierarchy and each village or island has its own chief and it’s protocol to introduce yourself to each one.  The Kuna women make beautiful molas – intricate applique panels that are part of their dress.




Our first anchorage was Waisaladup in the Holandse Islands, chosen for its straightforward access in the late afternoon light.  The San Blas are strewn with shoal ground, coral reefs, scattered coral bombies and the wrecks of those who didn’t make it – sobering stuff.  We came in cautiously and anchored just before sun set.   First up some sleep- a solid 12 hours- then some exploring.

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We had a quiet few days firstly cleaning all the salt from Bandit (inside and out) after our very wet sail and then exploring the two beautiful islands we were anchored between.  The snorkelling off both islands and on the inside of the outer reef was magnificent with gorgeous coral and interesting fish life. 



We spent Christmas in Waisaladup – really enjoying it for the first time in several years.  Last year David was laid low with shingles and the year before we were mid-Atlantic in less than favourable conditions.   This year the bubbles came out and we had a wonderful day.  The Kuna swung by with crayfish which we had on Boxing Day, and the days slowly blended into one another.  With a Pacific crossing looming we had lots of jobs to do so spent each morning working (sanding, varnishing, sail and canvas repairs, repairing pumps, oil changes) and afternoons exploring.   We had a great catch up with American friends Jim and Michelle on Wind Machine who we first met in Santorini and again in Bonaire.  


After a week or so we decided we really should move on so chipped the coral off the anchor and moved further east in the Holandse chain overnighting at several anchorages before reaching the “Swimming Pool” so named for its water clarity as much as its tepid temperature.  As we slowly picked our way in (it’s very shallow) we saw spotted eagle rays, a turtle and even the distinctive black shape of a shark. The Swimming Pool is very close to the main reef and with those strong trade winds blowing a huge swell was crashing onto the reef making snorkelling impossible.

DSC_4757While the constant trades push up the swell they also provide fantastic sailing conditions and we had a lovely morning sail to the gorgeous Coco Banderos group which, unfortunately, were quite crowded.  Anchored off was a huge motor yacht that disgorged its crew to prepare and serve lunch on one of the deserted islands.   They even had a burly security guard keeping curious cruisers (us!) away. 


Despite the crowds – there were 20 yachts in the anchorage and each seemed to have at least six people on board – it was a wonderful spot.  And as the Coco Banderos consist of several islands we managed to find one of our own – tiny and totally deserted.   Magic.



We explored all of the islands and nearby Green Island before opting to head to Nagana to restock as our Jamaican fresh fruit and veges were running out.  Then it’s on to explore some more of these magical San Blas islands.


The gorgeous Kuna children

 We didn’t particularly warm to the Kuna people during our time in the San Blas.  They are an incredibly reserved race and the women, in particular, are very shy – except those trying to sell you molas!  Even speaking our best Spanish we struggled to have more than a passing conversation with most.  We certainly wouldn’t have called them friendly (with the exception of one or two) until we met the amazing children on the beautiful island of Combombia.


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Going ashore for a walk we found ourselves surrounded by these happy, laughing and friendly children who followed us around the island.  Communication was easy when you speak the universal language of “play” and before long we were building sandcastles, swimming and playing frisbee with them.  They were absolutely delightful and made our stay in Combombia extra special.  What we noticed most was how they all looked after each other and played together so well without any fighting.  They swam like fish and were left to roam the island completely unsupervised by parents!



Our visit to the overcrowded island of Nagana, one of the few places in the San Blas to provision, was eye opening.  We’ve been to many 3rd world countries and seen some pretty awful sights but this island was right up there.  The anchorage was a disgusting brown open sewer with endless rubbish floating past. Going ashore we were stunned to see rubbish was piled up in front of the houses and hilarious shabby longdrops, straight into the sea.  Talk about direct deposit!  The thatched shacks were cheek by jowl making us realise the Kuna living on the remote islanders are the lucky ones!




There are many more Kuna islands east of Nagana we didn’t visit, but from speaking to other cruisers they are also overcrowded, surrounded by murky brown water with outhouses and pig stys over open drains that flow into the sea.  Rubbish is a huge problem in the San Blas as the Kuna really don’t know how to deal with it.  For years they disposed of their waste into the sea which was fine in the days before plastics, cans and disposable nappies.  Kuna offer to take cruisers’ rubbish but have been seen to simply dump it at sea.  Some cruisers hold burning parties but we’re not so sure about how good that is for the environment.  We took ours out of the San Blas with us.



After slowly doing a loop through the western San Blas Islands we ended up in the Lemmon Cays which were lovely but, like so many other anchorages, very crowded.  The anchorage in the West Lemmons was not without incident.  As we were upping anchor we noticed a catamaran drifting through the anchorage and soon realised there was noone aboard.  David leapt into action (that’s him at the helm), managed to start it seconds before it would have gone aground.  The Australian boat had been left on a mooring while its owners were away – a lesson learned…never trust a Kuna mooring ball!  The San Blas is one place you definitely do not want to drag – there are far too many reefs around.


We had planned to stay longer in the San Blas but the crowded anchorages were just not our scene and we felt ready to move on.  Despite being in the San Blas for nearly three weeks we still hadn’t officially checked in so headed to Porvenir to do so and checked out at the same time.  We may return but there are some nice spots still to explore along the Panama coast.