San Blas Islands, Panama
5-8 May 2011
I've been on the hook for months and the only way a rat might have moved onboard was via the dinghy. The dinghy dock at Club Nautico was thick with rats. We'd see them scurrying about just about every night while we sat at the Table of Knowledge and consumed adult beverages while solving the problems of cruisers; both local and international. I expect my visitor dropped into my dink one night and hitched a ride out. Since I always raised the dinghy to deck-level at night he would have an easy jump onto Galena. Either that or he was just swimming by and climbed up the anchor rode. That's possible, too.
In any event I am now keen to see that there was just one visitor. So far so good.
The voyage to San Blas was uneventful and just long enough to be annoyingly long. At 42-hrs the trip required a half-day, night, full-day, a second night, and an early morning arrival.
What and where are the San Blas Islands of Panama, you ask? Here's a map; they are at the green dot.
San Blas Islands of Panama are about 200 miles west of Cartagena
The San Blas are an archipelago of over 340 islands stretching from the northernmost point on Panama's east coast (Punta San Blas) to roughly the Colombian boarder. I noticed that Google Maps doesn't show most of the islands. When I hit my little Spot device and posted my position as "anchored" the internet link showed me just surrounded by water rather than islands.
The San Blas are the islands of the Kuna Indians. The area is semi-autonomous in that the Kuna's don't want much to do with outsiders. Oh, they will come by your boat in their very primitive dug-out canoes and try to sell you Molas, fruit, etc. They will also daily ask you to charge their cell phones. But other than that…
The 190-nm, 42-hr trip from Cholon, Colombia, to CoCo Bandaro, San Blas Islands, Panama.
The voyage was spectacularly uneventful. I sailed in company with s/v Stravaig. Jeff and José kept me alert most of the trip with radio chatter. I appreciated that.
I had to slow down during the last half of the second night to effect a daylight arrival. During the night the wind had built and with it the seas. I was riding a rough 6-ft swell when I finally saw the land in the early morning light.
I was trusting my GPS and electronic charts as I made landfall. It was still too dark to make out shoals, but I could easily see the spectacular sprays of water as the seas hit the outlying reefs. Shit, I thought, This could be dangerous.
It occurred to me that I had never come in to a reef-strewn island group like this before. As the day grew more light I saw jets of water close to my left and right as I sailed directly toward a palm-studded island.
I had studied the charts and areal photos in the cruising guide (Eric Bauhaus is by far the best). I was entering an area considered the most beautiful anchorage in Panama. All I could see was reefs and crashing waves.
What I saw before and around me made no correlation with what I had seen on the charts. But the GPS showed my route was straight ahead and straight ahead it still looked clear and deep. So I sailed on.
Galena's track into Coco-Bandaro island group of San Blas.
As I said, This anchorage is said to be the most beautiful in Panama. It's even featured on the cover of Bauhaus' book:
The Coco-Bandaro anchorage on the cover of Bauhaus' cruising guide.
On the way in I passed my first palm-covered island. I passed it what I thought was close abeam. In fact the island was about 1/4-nm away. But the surrounding reef was only 600-ft away; and the waves were crashing on the reef with a roaring cadence that I could almost feel.
I was too preoccupied to snap a photo of that particular island. But once anchored I took a bunch of shots of the islands around me.
One of the very first palm-studded islands I'd ever anchored near
s/v Stravaig arrived shortly after I dropped anchor. Yes, I know, it's hard to believe that my Westsail actually arrived somewhere ahead of another boat. But it happened.
Stravaig arriving. José on the bow dropping the hook, Jeff at the helm
When I arrived I thought I might be in the wrong place. There were no other boats in sight. This was supposed to be one of the hot-spots of the San Blas and I was all alone. Strange.
But by nightfall there were several other boats anchored all around me. One was my old friend s/v Kokopelli with Liz and Alan. I had not seen them since April of 2009 in the Ragged Islands of the Bahamas.
During the next week or so we would snorkel, swim, party, relax, and do a few boat chores (but not too many chores).
One evening a few of us gathered on s/v Reach with Mark and Michele (another boat I had met in the Bahamas in '09) where Jeff, Mark, and I entertained each other with our guitar work.
Mark, Jeff, and me strumming up a storm on s/v Reach.
The ladies were suitably impressed.
On one of the nearby islands was a building where the local Kuna women sold Molas. The ladies went in to do some shopping and have bracelets made.
Local Kuna Indian lady selling molas
Trish, José, and Liz shopping for molas
José had to be different and get an ankle bracelet.
José getting fitted for an ankle bracelet
The week went by quickly. Each day was perfect; even those that included heavy showers. It was clear that we were entering the rainy season of Panama. We were running late when judged by the standard cruising schedule. But we were having a blast.
Everywhere I looked there was a picture perfect picture.
José snapped this picture perfect picture in Coco-Bandaro
From Coco I sailed north to the west end of the Hollendes group. There's a cruiser-famous spot called the "Swimming Pool." I came around the protecting island and counted 23 boats. Yep, there's an anchor symbol in the cruising guide right here. Where ever you see an anchor of the charts, you'll find a bunch of boats.
One morning I noticed a pram motoring from boat to boat. Someone got on the radio and announced that the Panama Customs and Immigration people were checking paperwork. I had not yet cleared in to Panama; even though I had been there for a couple of weeks.
My plan was to wait until I got to Portobelo. But, no. Here they were. When they got to my boat they asked for my Panama cruising permit. "Don't have one; haven't cleared in yet."
"Oh, well, we will take care of that right now," the man said. He had two heavily armed soldiers in the boat with him; I didn’t argue.
All in all it cost me just over $200 to clear in and get a one-year cruising permit. I was clear to cruise from San Blas to Panama City. The only annoying thing was that they came around on a Sunday. They, of course, charged an extra $20 for the "weekend Clearance."
Here in the Swimming Pool I was re-acquainted with Sonny and Blake on s/v Slow M'Ocean; another boat buddy I had not seen for a few years. I've been doing this long enough now to have friends scattered all over the Caribbean. In a few years I'll have friends scattered all over the world. This is a cool life I lead.
I then made a quick stop in Chichime, a island group right at the north end of the San Blas. The last stop before rounding the hump and heading southwest toward the Canal.
As usual I was joined by Stravaig. s/v Columbus also joined us. Fitz and Trish were in Cartagena for a short time and we had gotten to know each other. They have been cruising the Pacific for a very long time. They have a lot of information I need about the Philippians. They are also good party people as well as good people.
One day I was diving to clean Galena's hull. I was in the water for about an hour or so. When I was drying off I felt like there was water in my ear. Nothing unusual there. A half hour later, there still was that "water in the ear" feeling/sound. I kept pouring water in and draining it out. I was almost convinced there was something in there. I was about to hop in the my dinghy and go see Stravaig (Did I mention that Jeff was a retired Veterinarian?). He would be able to tell me if there was something in there or not. Just then I felt something moving on the outside of my ear. It was a very small crab. This guy had been crawling around in my ear for the past hour or so. Icky!
Crab that came crawling out of my ear one day
On May 10th, Stravaig hosted a full-moon party for Columbus and Galena. This was just before we took off for Portobelo, Panama. Lots of wine and lots of stories.
There were even a few pictures of the five of us sitting around on the deck of Stravaig:
Jeff of s/v Stravaig. A fine British Gentleman
José of s/v Stravaig. A fine Dutch Lady
Fitz of s/v Columbus. An Ausie; what more need be said?
Trish of s/v Columbus. An Ausie, too. Great fun to have at any party
And me. Kicked back with my hair let down enjoying the evening
That's the crew. We've been together off and on for a couple months now and will probably stay together till after the Canal.
I had been talking about getting to Portobelo for months. It had developed into a mantra of sorts: "I'll get to Portobelo and make up my mind as to where I go from there." Part of that was because of that Jimmy Buffett song, "Cowboy in the Jungle" where the line is: "Now he's stuck in Portobelo since his money all ran out." This is also a terminus for the backpackers. They sail from Cartagena to here. There's a cheap bus from Portobelo to the Canal Zone.
I made an overnight sail from Chichime to Portobelo. Throughout the night I could smell the flowers and vegetation of the jungles of Panama as I sailed along the coast. That was the first time I had actually 'smelled land' as they say.
Sunset was the usual sunset at sea: beautiful.
Sunset on the evening before my arrival in Portobelo