After remaining in Cartagena for almost three months, it was time to head out to the next big destination: Panama!
There were tearful good-byes with all our new friends in Cartagena, Colombia, after which we made a short twenty-mile jump down the Colombian coast to the Rosario Islands to spend the night.
There is a significant difference in the equipment used during the day to day operation of a boat underway/at anchor versus a boat tied up in a marina. The Rosarios were a good place to run the generator, re-commission the water maker (that we pickled for the long stay at the docks in Cartagena), and make sure we had no mechanical problems before heading to sea in earnest. If all systems are “go” and after a good night’s sleep, we’ll head out the next day for a 150 mile overnight hop directly from Colombia to the San Blas Islands on the northern coast of Panama.
It looks like we’ll have a "doable" weather window. The forecast calls for calm seas initially with slow swells in the six to eight foot range aft of the beam. But then, as the trade winds pick up into the 20 to 25 knot range, wind-driven seas of four to five feet should kick up at an angle that is significantly different than the swells, making for a jerky, wild ride. The good news is that we will not have to endure these conditions for more than a day, nor will our course require us to head directly into the building seas. We expect to make landfall mid-afternoon on the following day, before the seas really build up.
In no time we arrived in the Rosarios and went about checking all our systems and all went well. By mid-morning of the next day we were underway toward our new destination: Panama's territory known as Kuna Yala where Kuna Indians live in island villages scattered amongst over three hundred tiny islands that comprise the San Blas Archipelago.
We’ll “study up” on the Kunas and Panama while underway.
ROSARIO ISLANDS, COLOMBIA, TO THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA
Upon our departure, the winds were very light and aft of the beam. We raised the mainsail fully, simply because it is easier to do so at anchor in a calm bay versus offshore. It was not worth trying to sail in these light conditions, so the engines came to life and we began motoring.
Then the winds came up to ten knots and we killed the engines and put up the spinnaker for a while, but we knew it would not be up for long. We were in the transition between flat calm and trade winds.
That’s often the tradeoff in the tropics. The wind BLOWS 20 to 25 knots most of the time, but once in a great while the wind dies altogether. There is not much "in between" and the wind seems binary, either a “1” or a “0”.
The tropical weather commands that you either sail in strong winds and rough seas, and somewhat stressful conditions, or you can choose to wait for a lull and motor in calm and relaxed conditions, all while wishing you could be sailing. On this little passage, we’ll get a dose of both.
While preparing for offshore passages, both large and small, a natural sequence of planning events has evolved over the last four years. When we head to a new destination, the day before departure I peruse the charts, design a route, double-check distances and fuel requirements, study the weather forecasts I have been looking at for a week prior, and I predict sailing speeds, motoring speeds, ocean currents at play, and what departure and arrival times are most preferable so as to arrive in new territories in good light.
Good light. It is of paramount importance on arrival. When you exit the U.S.A. you leave all those fancy channel markers and aids to navigation behind. The farther you go south and west into the Caribbean, the fewer channel markers you’ll see.
Yes, the only dependable “aids to navigation” in the Western Caribbean are real paper charts, eyeball navigation through reefs in good light, and experience and confidence in using those skills.
Thus, things have changed for us over the last couple of years. For decades, before going cruising, my navigational efforts often included inquires such as “Do you see a red buoy yet?” or “There is supposed to be a green marker number 21 close to here, do you . . . Oh! Never mind! There it is; I see it now!”
Now things have flipped 180 degrees. I don’t like buoys and markers and I am quick to question the proper positioning of any buoy or marker (a real concern in the Caribbean) and nowadays I look comfortably to paper charts and coordinates of my own derivation as the primary method for navigation.
All that said, route planning on even short hops can get more complicated than one would imagine at first blush. For example, perhaps you are in a reef-rimmed anchorage that will not allow for safe departure at night. But, in order to arrive in good light at the next planned destination, you really need to leave at midnight. Then what? Or perhaps the forecast calls for light winds on day one and 25 knot winds on day two. And add in currents, especially in areas like the Western Caribbean where eddies and strong currents can be virtually unpredictable and all of a sudden estimated arrival times can vary wildly.
So, multiple route plans usually result, all reflecting potential variables and numerous parameters applicable to that particular passage.
Once I have a plan, I lay it all out and explain the specifics of what variables I see at play in that particular passage. Melissa listens carefully and studies all my work; she checks and double-checks everything, taking on the stone-faced demeanor of an auditor. I tend to fidget and wait for her final remarks, like I am in elementary school waiting for a pop quiz to be graded.
Melissa always asks a few pointed questions, and she’s good. If there is any “fluff’ in my plan, or a weak spot where I am glossing over something, she sinks her talons into exactly that spot. It keeps me on my toes!
After we have both signed off on the plan, I can go about marking charts, entering waypoints in the GPS, and getting all systems calibrated with the plan.
When we get underway, I am always at the helm and on watch first.
Melissa kicks back in the cockpit and entertains herself by reading up on the new destination we are pointed toward. She absorbs the Lonely Planet, Blogs from other Cruisers, Magazines, Cruising Guides, and whatever else she can get her hands on about the new destination. And she starts giving me the highlights.
So, while I am at the helm for the first day, testing our real headway against the passage plans we carefully crafted the day before, Melissa recites interesting facts about where we are headed.
And then it is my turn to ask questions from the helm, sending her looking for answers about various questions: What is Panama’s economy most dependent on? What is its political structure now? Were there ever slaves in Panama? Who owns the San Blas Islands? Is it Panama, or is the Kuna Yala Territory independent? What about the Kuna Indians themselves? What is the current status of the Panama Canal, etc.
It is like Melissa is preparing us for competition on the television show Jeopardy. We get into it and by the time we reach a new place, our minds are full of interesting data that helps us better appreciate what we are looking at. At a minimum, we know what questions we want to ask when we get there.
By now, you might have noticed that our trip reports have taken on that same natural form wherein I tend to explain the route we are taking and what we have to do to get to the next destination, and then I turn to an introduction of the next location so that the readers here can absorb a little history about the destination and better appreciate things.
So, now you know. The structure of the trip reports evolved to actually present information to you in the same sequence and fashion Melissa and I digest information during our actual cruising experiences.
We are going to take on Panama in two different trip reports. This report will cover the San Blas Islands and the northern coast of Panama up to our arrival in Colon, Panama, the northern (Atlantic) entrance to the Panama Canal.
We will cover Colon, Panama City, the Panama Canal, and inland travel in the following report.
So, before we get too far out to sea, let’s review the San Blas Islands and the Kuna Indians (information derived from wikipedia.com):
SAN BLAS ISLANDS’ HISTORY
The San Blas Islands are comprised of 365 small islands that are situated just off the north coast of the Panama Isthmus, all located east of the Panama Canal.
The islands are inhabited by Kuna Indians and the territory is referred to as Kuna Yala (meaning Kuna land or Kuna mountain). It is an autonomous mostly self-governing territory within Panama, and the capital of Kuna Yala is the seaside town of Porvenir (poor-veneer).
Kuna Yala covers an area of 924 square miles (2393 km²) and had a population of 36,487 in 2004. The coastline of Kuna Yala stretches 232 miles (373 km) along the northeastern coast of Panama.
Roughly 36 of the 365 islands are inhabited by Kuna Indian communities. An additional 13 communities are located on the mainland coast, for a total of 49 Kuna communities.
The Kuna Yala territory came to fruition via the Kuna revolution of 1925. The police had been involved in the violent suppression of Kuna cultural practices and police abuse was rampant in various communities, resulting in a Kuna uprising.
The Kuna revolution was led by Nele Kantule of the island of Ustupu and Simral Colman of the island of Aligandi. It took place after many meetings with the Panamanian government and even a delegation to the United States proved ineffective as to improving Kuna rights and preserving their culture.
In the strange but true department, after the success of the revolution, the Kuna Yala adopted the swastika as the emblem for the Kuna Yala flag. The swastika is an ancient symbol in Kuna culture.
In 1942 a ring was added to the center of the Kuna flag to differentiate it from the symbol of the Nazi party, but the “we are not Nazis” version subsequently fell into disuse. Today, the flag is most often seen flying on islands that were directly involved with the revolution, such as Ustupu, Aligandi, and Ukupseni.
The autonomous status of the Kuna was officially recognized in 1930 in response to political pressure by Kuna leaders. The Comarca of Kuna Yala was established in 1938, under the name of Comarca de San Blas. The governmental structure of Kuna Yala is defined in the Carta Orgánica, of Law 16 of 1953.
The Kuna General Congress is the highest political authority of Kuna Yala. It consists of representatives from all of the communities in Kuna Yala and meets twice yearly. Each community has one vote regardless of population size. The Kuna General Congress has a permanent office in Howard, in the former canal zone.
Tourism is now a major industry in the Kuna economy. There are several Kuna-run hotels in the archipelago offering ecotours, fishing, snorkeling, and touring of nearby villages. Most tourism in Kuna Yala is centered in the region of Carti, where there is a greater number of uninhabited islands and beautiful beaches. Other popular areas for tourism include Ukupseni and Isla Pino.
With an estimated 365 islands in the Kuna Yala territories, many tourists arrive from Panama City by plane and stay in small lodges run by locals where they have an opportunity to sleep in active fishing villages and during the day are shuttled over to vacant islands in motorized canoe for a day of swimming and lounging in hammocks.
Also, the San Blas Islands are popular with the young and hearty "backpacker" crowd of young hippie tourists making their way on foot through Central America. With tiny bank rolls and huge backpacks, they live primitively and brave the elements while on a true adventure.
The San Blas archipelago is also a world-famous destination for cruising sailors, some of whom spend months, or even years, anchored in and around the 365 islands – one for everyday of the year.
There are great opportunities to do humanitarian work in the Kuna Yala islands. In many cases the people lack adequate healthcare facilities and other basic needs. The Peace Corps, Red Cross, Latter Day Saints, Roman Catholic Church and various Evangelical groups actively work with the Kuna.
The Kuna Yala people are in a state of transition. As with most cultures in today’s modern world, young people in Kuna Yala feel a strong pull from civilization and the "bright lights and big cities" call to them. Panama City (simply called “Panama" ) lures young Kunas away from the San Blas islands.
The Kuna’s society is matriarchal. Women are significant breadwinners through the production of Molas, embroidery works of art that are traditionally used as appliqué upon Kuna women’s blouses. The Molas are produced and sold.
Aside from income from Molas sold to tourists and exported to shops in cities like Cartagena and Panama, the Kunas survive on the natural resources of the islands such as coconuts, fish and lobster.
Due to the matriarchal nature of the Kuna society, homosexuality is not uncommon. For example, an only child son will routinely dress in woman’s clothes and live as a transvestite and learn the trade of sewing Molas. This is an accepted Kuna practice.
Also, it is reported that homosexuality is widely accepted and that there is a lot of “hammock swapping” and sexual promiscuous behavior amongst the Kuna people. Outsiders are not permitted to marry into the Kuna nation as a rule. Finally, with modern times comes modern disease. Aids is now a concern in Kuna Yala.
Those are the highlights and that’s a good start into understanding San Blas basics. Hey, I'm still at the helm here while we are learning all that, so let’s take a break get back to our passage from Colombia to the San Blas!
UNDERWAY FROM ROSARIOS, COLOMBIA TO SAN BLAS, PANAMA
We have decided to speed up a little. We have hit a strong counter-current and the spinnaker is not pulling us fast enough to make our "good light" arrival time tomorrow. So, it's time to motorsail. We were supposed to be in a following current. Just one of those passage-planning variables you must be ready for.
I sat at the helm, watched the fishing rods, scanned the horizon for traffic (or better yet dolphins), and calculated our progress as Melissa continued schooling me on Panama and the San Blas Islands.
As if on queue, the winds quickly kicked up over 20 knots just at sunset and we killed the engines, unfurled the jib and trimmed the sails. It was a great angle and we were really cooking under sail alone, making speeds in the 8 to 9 knot range, with no slamming under the bridgedeck between the hulls.
It was a "washing machine" ride, though. Just as I predicted, the fast-building wind-driven seas were 40 degrees off the angle of eight foot swells, making it wholly unpredictable as to how and when the boat would quickly pitch and yaw at any given moment.
The night was rather uneventful except the ride was violent in the confused seas. No slamming, and good speed, but the motion of the boat was enough to tighten even the strongest of stomachs.
We made great headway, though, and even overtook a 42 foot catamaran on the same course. There was no moon to speak of, and we encountered numerous ships and other traffic all night, but no surprises. As usual, our Furuno radar and GPS systems didn't miss a beat and it was a routine night watch.
The next morning, I put the fishing lines back out, looking for a nice Mahi Mahi or Tuna or Wahoo. But, all I got was a huge seagoing Barracuda hanging out way offshore in 500 foot deep water! So, it was a false alarm and we had no other luck on the passage.
As the day wore on, we found ourselves encountering more opposing currents and our arrival time had been set back about three hours. Still plenty of light, but pushing the envelope. It is not good to arrive at any reef lined location after three p.m. because the sun angle is too low in the sky to brightly reveal the shallows and reefs.
Anchored in the 'hot tub', we were in eight feet of water with clean sand bottom all around us and the anchor dug in perfectly. About an eighth of a mile away to windward was a cut between two mangrove cays, and another quarter mile past that was the sea, pounding huge swells over the outer reefs, sending a current of almost a knot under our keels in the hot tub!
Also, the spray from the surf was carried in on the brisk trades and wafted right over the mangrove cays, covering our boat with salt and moisture. We would soon learn that this is a main feature of anchoring within a mile of the outer reefs of the San Blas. If you want to marinate a boat in saltwater spray and test the rust and corrosion-resistance of various products, the San Blas can’t be beat.
By the next morning, the whole exterior of the boat was “beaded up” with salt water spray and we kept the dodger up thereafter at all times to help cut down on the salt spray invasion.
Our first full day in the San Blas was spent kayaking around the anchorage, buying some crabs and lobster from the Kunas who stopped by the day before (we put in an order), and getting our bearings in this unusual setting that looked more like Pacific Islands than the Caribbean.
And so what’s for dinner? Well, how about fresh crab and lobster pasta? The Kunas who welcomed us yesterday afternoon promised to bring me a bucket full of lobster. But, alas the lobster hunting was not that good today so they brought me one lobster and a couple of crabs. Gee, I guess we’ll have to rough it!
All the crabmeat and lobster meat went into a nice rosemary and tomato-garlic sauce over pasta. Yummy! So far, the San Blas are awesome!
The next few days were spent in and around the hot tub and swimming pool areas. At the swimming pool, Reggie aboard Runner is the "Local Mayor" of cruisers. He and Deb have been living there on the hook for years. Reggie cleared brush from nearby BBQ Island and has turned it into a beautiful park-like setting where cruisers come for Monday night potluck dinners and to socialize. How cool is that?!
The first things that reveal Reggie’s status as a “permanent swimming pool resident” are the real saltwater aquariums in the cockpit of his sailboat. It would be awful hard to maintain those on a moving sailboat!
Anyway, Reggie is a great guy and does a fine job of care taking BBQ Island and helping new arrivals like us with local knowledge about anything and everything.
Melissa and I took advantage of attending the first scheduled pot luck dinner at BBQ Island so as to get to know everyone including permanent "residents" and those on the go like us. It was quite wonderful to be able to enjoy the food and fellowship in such a spectacularly beautiful setting.
The next day we simply hung out and goofed off. I tried a little fishing, but had no luck. So much about fishing is local knowledge. Fishing skills and tactics honed in the Louisiana marshes might render nothing but starvation in other areas of the World. No matter what I tried, I had no luck. I even went casting in the shallows and caught a small barracuda and cleaned him to use for “cut bait" for deep water fishing on reefs, but I could not get a strike anywhere.
Well, okay, the fish won’t bite. . . so . . . I’ll shoot the bastards!
After hearing cruisers bragging about all the great spearfishing in the San Blas I decided to drop the fishing rods and pick up a speargun to try and get something to eat.
My first run yielded enough small schoolmaster snappers to have a good dinner.
And wouldn’t you know it, just after cleaning the fish, my new Kuna buddies came by with a few lobsters. So we had plenty to eat.
We enjoyed snorkeling around the boat at the hot tub in the clear water over perfect clean sand bottom . . . at least for a few days until a BIG barracuda decided to move in and live in the shade of Indigo Moon.
Although it is common knowledge that even the biggest barracudas are non-threatening, it is still unnerving to dive into water where you know that a big cuda is standing watch a few feet away. What if the bubble cloud around me, as I plunge in, obscures the cuda’s clear view just enough for him not to realize that I am an old, fat, bald man who would taste like crap?! Or what if the cuda is just plain bored and figures it would be fun to take a shot at whatever just fell in?
We have never been bitten nor attacked by a barracuda, but my pal Nick Chiapinni (on Morgan Out Island Blue Bonnet) and I did have to hold off a crazy barracuda at spear-point in the Bahamas one time. I think that fish was nuts and, no kidding, that it had mental problems.
Anyway, at the hot tub anchorage in the Holandes Cays, a big barracuda moved in and staked out his territory under Indigo Moon, making swimming a little less enjoyable, especially for Melissa.
But, in the meantime we saw some nice squid swimming nearby and enjoyed being in the clean clear water. We also saw numerous spotted eagle rays swim by.
There are numerous groups of Cays in the western San Blas: the Holandes, Coco Banderos; East and West Lemons, and on and on. Our arrival in the Holandes put is into the hot tub and one of the only anchorages that is less than ten feet deep in some places, huge in area, and offers the great holding over flawlessly clean sand.
It spoiled us.
We thought the rest of the San Blas islands would have similar anchorages. We were disappointed to find that most all other anchorages were 30 to 35 feet deep and crowed if more than a couple of other boats showed up. Deeper water means more anchor chain/rope must be deployed and swing circles get bigger. Add to that tighter anchorages and the two variables work against one another, making for anxious anchoring sometimes. More on that later.
We spent a week at the hot tub, with only one or two other boats in the anchorage. Soon we needed to get rid of trash. Local cruiser wisdom mandated NOT paying a Kuna in a dugout to take trash because allegedly they just pocket the money and throw the trash into the mangroves, etc. So, it was recommended that we burn trash at low tide and keep jars and cans and then throw them overboard in the 80 foot depths that one encounters when making passages between groups of islands.
After our first week in the San Blas in the Holandes Cays, we decided to move to the Coco Banderos Cays. New friends from Cartagena, New Orleans folks Julie and Tom Bennett on yacht Gris Gris, gave us waypoints to their all-time favorite anchorage in the San Blas. So, we figured we would check it out!
Our sail over was fun - 18 knots of wind just behind the beam, smooth seas behind the reefs and only large, spread-out swells while crossing openings in the reefs. Perfect! 8.5 knots and just enough "ocean motion" to make it a big adventure.
As we arrived at the Coco Banderos, we were bowled over by the post-card picture-perfect setting. Even for jaded Caribbean Cruisers like us, the Coco Banderos were nothing short of eye-popping spectacular.
We motored around the small set of cays and checked out the anchorage areas. It was clear that there was ONE perfect spot in 15 feet of clean sand in the lee of the prettiest island, but someone was already there. The rest of the area was open to fetch and swells and rather bumpy, but we anchored anyway to get a good look at this fabulous place.
Envision the perfect island paradise and I bet the photos of the Coco Banderos will be closely aligned with you daydreams of island perfection.
After getting anchored, we went in with the kayak and walked the perimeter of the island. The nice thing about these little cays is that they are rimmed with pretty sand beaches and it is fun to stroll all the way around the islands and hunt for shells, etc.
One sought-after beach treasure was plentiful in the San Blas: bean pods known as "sea hearts." They are good luck charms and have historically been used for necklace pendants and even sawed in half and hinged to make snuff and pill boxes. We found a lot of them!
After exploring the middle cay we paddled over to the next cay to the west and explored it as well. That island had a camp area for Kuna fishermen. All during our explorations of the islands, on any given night locals might pull in at dusk in small boats, build a campfire and spend the night.
While stopping over, they collect coconuts (coconuts are like money to the Kunas and it is forbidden to disturb coconuts on any of the islands).
Well, what could improve the perfect sailing day and arrival at the perfect islands for a perfect kayak to the perfect beach?
Hey, how about cooking up some of those perfect lobsters for perfect lobster pasta?! Yeah, that’s the ticket!
I made the rosemary garlic-tomato-cream lobster sauce to pour over angel hair pasta. It’s an easy recipe that works well with any seafood and breaks the monotony of always grilling everything.
We enjoyed our first foray into the Coco Banderos, but being in the outer anchorage was bouncy and windy and we moved on in a few days. Five miles further inland lay the Green Island set of Cays. It's another 30 to 35 foot deep anchorage, and was already full, but we set the hook at the "back of the pack" and enjoyed a smoother ride at anchor than we experienced at the Coco Banderos.
In no time we had a distinguished guest. Master Mola Maker, Venancio Restrepo paid us a visit and came aboard with scores of Molas for sale. He is so famous that his works are pictured and referred to on wikipedia.com as prime examples of fine Mola artwork. Venancio is one of a small handful of prestigious Kuna Mola masters.
Here is a link to the page that explains Molas and displays some of Venancio’s works: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mola_(art_form)
We bought several Molas during our stay in the San Blas. Some have been earmarked as gifts for friends and family while others will be framed and hung in our home one day, whenever we move ashore again. These artworks are unique in many ways and we were excited to have a real-life master artist sitting on our boat!
After a night at Green Island, we moved to a small cay just to the southeast where it is a “one boat island.” Jack and Desire Foard on Admiral 38 catamaran Famous Potatoes had just departed and called on the VHF to tell us they had a grand time there.
Jack takes advantage of the amazingly shallow draft of their Admiral catamaran (2’9”) and often drops a bow anchor and then backs up to the beach, tying off on a palm tree so that he can step right off the back of the sugarscoop transoms onto the beach.
So, as they pulled out, we pulled in and enjoyed our own little slice of heaven.
After getting anchored up, it was time to snorkel in and explore yet another San Blas island. Man! There are 365 of these things! It could take quite a long time to set foot upon them all.
anchored at our new private island
After a night at our own private cay, we heard reports that the winds were going to pick up and blow hard in heavy squalls. So, that prompted me to head back to my favorite anchorage at the "hot tub" where there was good protection behind the mangroves and a fabulous shallow sand bar that is a perfect anchoring ground.
Upon our return, we were promptly met by our barracuda and also found several boats anchored very close, ten to be exact. Yes, more and more cruisers were pouring into the Western San Blas, all having cleared out of Cartagena after the Holidays. Some had taken a slower, coastal route, arriving a week or so after us. Others just waited longer to come straight across.
Regardless, that remote and private feeling we had upon our arrival evaporated in a flash! It was now "cruiser central."
The VHF radio became irritatingly busy with non-stop chatter by a handful of "radioactive" socialite cruisers who are clearly beset with some actually pathology that causes them to have severe diarrhea of the mouth. They talked all day long and into the night about nothing.
One woman, I’m sure, takes a hand held VHF to the bathroom lest she miss one second of conversation.
And as the VHF frequencies became more-crowded so did the anchorages. All of a sudden boats were everywhere it seemed.
And then, strike three, bad weather moved in and stayed. It was overcast and squally about 70 percent of the time. And this is in the "sunny season" for crying out loud!
Weather is definitely the Achilles Heal of the San Blas. In the summer, when tropical waves move through the Caribbean, the San Blas area is plagued with terribly powerful squalls with extreme lightning events and heavy rains that can last non-stop for weeks.
Every single cruiser we met who had stayed there for a whole season had their boats hit by lightning, some twice . . . one guy was hit three different times.
It is not surprising. Tradewinds blow extremely moist and unstable air from the east across the northern Venezuelan and Colombian mainlands where monster storms are supercharged by severe convectional heating. ALL of those storms continue west in the trade winds and blow right across northern Panama's San Blas.
Man could not design a better, more efficient machine to produce storms to pound the San Blas. It’s a perfect, natural conveyor belt transporting such bad weather.
So, as idyllic as the San Blas islands themselves are, the weather can be viciously cruel to cruisers who brave the area long-term.
That said, we were happy to be back in a really dependable anchorage. And guess what?! Several of our new Cartagena friends had shown up. We met Tristan on yacht Pangea, and Dave and Judy on Fia, and we were excited to see them in the hot tub upon our return.
It turned out that Tristan had several guests aboard, including two Colombians. But in perfect British planning, Tristan did not have coffee, nor even a coffee pot, aboard Pangea. It was tea, or nothing!
Well, the Colombian guests aboard were having painful coffee withdrawals. So, Melissa and I volunteered to open a “Starbucks on the Moon.”
The next morning, we featured home made brownies, muffins, fruit and other goodies with lots and lots of strong Sello Rojo Colombian coffee. What a great party. We had a lot of fun having Tristan and his crew aboard, along with Dave and Judy from Fia for a fun all-morning party.
enjoy their fill of strong, dark Colombian coffee and delicious pastries on the
We enjoyed another extended stay at the hot tub anchorage despite the fact that it was getting a bit crowded. We hunkered down for the squalls and took care of important tasks such as figuring out what t do with the cute little red devil trademark on the Underwood Deviled Ham can wrappers.
After lunch one day, I began looking at the little red devil on the Underwood wrapper. He’s pretty cool when you get right down to it. He always seems to be summoning me, trying to tell me something. But what is the message? Eat more ham? There's more ham in Hell? What is the message this poco diablito rojo is sending me?
A color printer, too much time on my hands in the yucky weather, and I finally figured it out. Now I have a new sign taped up on the navigation station.
Despite the overcast days, we got outside and went snorkeling anyway. We met a very cool family while in the Coco Banderos. Originally from South Africa, Mike, Laura and their beautiful and brilliant daughter, Liz, have been cruising for nine years aboard an awesome Pacific 2 yacht Gilana. Check out their website at: http://www.seakin.com/gilana/
They took us to see underwater tunnels in the reef near the swimming pool and hot tub anchorages. It was rough and we decided not to venture into the tunnels, but Mike and Liz braved them.
Liz is the ultimate tomboy turned beautiful young woman. She spent her childhood competing with her Dad. And that is not easy. Mike has been a tightrope and trapeze artist and sword swallower in a past life. They are extremely coordinated and agile folks.
Mike and Liz do things like climb the mast with just the palms of their hands and feet. Liz can now free dive to 90 feet. Mike was beaming and proud yet irksomely defeated as he explained to us that Liz has finally surpassed him as a free diver . . . “I’m getting to be an old man, I guess.”
Liz has started a career in the megayacht industry as a PADI open water dive instructor, with a stunning array of other ancillary certifications specializing in wreck diving, underwater photography, dive equipment, propulsion vehicles, nitrox and enriched air diving, and more. She also has a LONG list of other seamanship credentials in safety and emergency training. Add to that thousands of miles and ocean crossings aboard Gilana and I can easily say that Liz is the most awesome young mariner and diver we have ever met.
I predict that Liz will eventually be a Superstar Captain of a megayacht. Clearly, she can achieve anything she wants to!
Of course, Mike is the consummate mechanic and expert mariner as well. He is one of those guys who knows it all (not to be confused with a know-it-all . . . there is a big difference).
He has memorized actual part numbers for anything and everything imaginable, including the carburetor jets in your outboard. He even has a welding machine aboard . . . my kind of guy and good man to have around in a pinch.
As the days came and went at the hot tub, cruisers also came and went and so did various Kuna people in their canoes, selling their wares, or just waving “hello.”
One Kuna fellow was supposed to bring me some lobsters, but came by a few days later to show me that his diving mask was broken. So, I gave him one of mine. He was happy about that.
Many visitors came aboard Indigo Moon: cruising friends old and new, Kuna people, and even one totally uninvited guest: a six foot long red-tailed boa constrictor!
Have you heard of the cult-classic movie Snakes on a Plane? Well, our real experiences might provide fodder for a sequel: Snakes on a Catamaran!
We had been in the hot tub for several days and the squalls subsided. It was time to move to another spot. In fact, we figured we would go back to the Coco Banderos to see if that perfect anchoring spot was available. No matter, we were getting bored with the crowded Holandes Cays and decided to set sail.
So, after breakfast I went about readying the boat to get underway. I walked to the starboard transom to start untying the sunshades that surround the cockpit, and something instantly caught my peripheral eye . . . that large dark area on the normally bright-white stern.
I looked down and instinctively blurted out “HOLY SHIT!”
Two feet away from my feet, a six foot long boa constrictor was draped over a cleat and enjoying himself/herself in the morning sun. Melissa called from in the main salon WHAT?! What’s going on?!
In a nanosecond, my mind processed a ton of information. I knew I should have kept my mouth shut at all cost and should not have involved Melissa. Girls tend to have terrible reactions when it comes to personal interactions with snakes.
I learned that long ago as a nine year old in the 3rd grade in rural Louisiana when I brought the most beautiful little green snake to school with me one day.
I caught him in backyard on a Friday afternoon. He was slithering along near the banana trees in the backyard. I played with him all weekend and decided I could not leave him home when school rolled around on Monday. I put him in a Mason Jar with holes punched in the lid.
I was so proud. I just loved that little snake. I could not wait to show my schoolmates. It was a happy Monday!
When I walked into class with the Mason jar and its contents became known, though, the girls instantly shrieked and yelped and it caused a scene. But, considering we were in rural Louisiana, the teacher had the gumption/guts/kindness to not crush my excitement. She let me keep the pretty, well-behaved snake on my desk all day with strict admonitions to keep the lid on the jar.
The girls managed to enjoy the snake a little bit by the end of the day, and I was even allowed to take it out and play with it during recess outside. One girl actually got up the nerve to pet the very tame creature and she remarked on how clean and nice it was and how surprised she was that it was “not slimy at all.”
But it was a “one show only” appearance for my pretty little green friend. By order of the Principal, I had to leave the snake home after that (he had also come around to see “Buddy’s green snake”).
Considering the excitement was over and my fifteen minutes of fame were up, at the end of the day I made a big production of letting the snake go. Mature oaks and pecans lined the western chainlink fence line of the school grounds, and all sorts of honeysuckle and berry vines festooned the fence itself: a jungle barrier that separated the schoolyard from the overgrown property next door. As onlookers gasped and cheered, I let the snake wiggle into a thick patch of vine and nobody ever saw him again.
But no worry! There are plenty more snakes to catch in the Bayou State. One very hot summer Saturday afternoon, with the sun high in the sky, my pal Jim caught a small garter snake in the bayou behind his house. Harmless, the snake was fun to play with and we took turns holding it.
Jim was so proud of the snake that he carried it in to show his Momma who just happened to be napping in the air conditioned back-bedroom with heavy drapes drawn to block out the blinding Louisiana summer sun.
I always found it eerie/creepy when, as a kid, I was invited to enter the inner sanctum of adults’ private areas such as their back bedrooms in friends’ houses. I always got the feeling it was wrong and that nothing good could come from it, but many times a friend (like Jim) would grab my arm and pull: “Come on! Momma don’t care!”
We had been playing in the bayou for hours; hot, sweaty, stinky little boys of the finest kind. The air conditioning was freezing cold on our wet clothes as we tiptoed down the very dark hallway of the small ranch-style house. Our eyes were still adjusting from bright sunshine to the dark doorway of the bedroom.
Jim walked on in, but I stopped at the doorway of the bedroom, very uncomfortable about the whole endeavor. The room glowed in a soft, pastel pink from the backlit heavy draperies that did not let the slightest crack of direct light in. What a great room for napping, I thought!
Jim’s Mom was sleeping soundly under heavy covers. His Dad was at work.
As the next few seconds unfolded, I watched Jim, with snake in firm grip, walk around the bed and approach his mother’s face. I KNEW IN MY GUT that this was not good!
I called out in a whispered shout “Jim! Don’t! Let’s go!”
The proud hunter, he was not to be deterred from advertising his conquest. He spoke up: “Momma? Momma!? Are you asleep?” She rolled a little bit and began to wake, sniffing the pungent smell of two sun-baked nine-year-olds who had been marinated in sweat and muddy bayou.
It was all in slow motion after that. Jim’s Mom’s head rose and she woke up enough to start to focus her eyes. Jim went on “Momma! Momma! Look what I caught!"
She cocked her head back enough to focus on Jim’s hand. There was no ambiguity about determining the exact moment that she actually saw the snake. She jumped straight up in the bed and screamed in a way that I had never heard from a grown woman in my young nine years of life.
The rest was kind of a blur.
In the circus, they sometimes have a motorcyclist who will ride inside a caged globe or inside a walled circle and employ speed-generated centrifugal force to defy gravity and ride the walls and even ride upside down, etc.
Well, I don’t know how she did it, but the same principles were at play. Jim’s Mom ran all the way around the bedroom’s walls twice, and her feet never touched the ground. Down came all the draperies, no kidding ALL of them. In came the brightest sun I have ever seen.
After two blazing, hysterical laps around the first residential “cage of death” velodrome in South Louisiana, Jim’s Mom was lying petrified and shaking uncontrollably in the middle of the bedroom floor in a see-through pink-lace teddy and nothing else. Her eyes were the only things covered as her trembling hands shielded them from the snake and the super-bright Louisiana sunshine.
My jaw was on the floor! Jim was in shock and he could not compute what went wrong and why. I lingered just long enough to make eye contact with Jim and give him a good glaring glance of “I told you so, Dumb Ass!” and then I ran, and I kept running for three miles until I was home in the “safe zone” of my own Momma’s back bedroom!
It has been 43 years since that summer afternoon at Jim’s house. But I can see it all like it was yesterday.
It’s profound what a nine year old can learn from such a bizarre incident. One: heavy drapes are a must . . . what a great place to nap! Two: young thirty-something females with great figures look pretty doggone good in see-through lace teddies! Three: never ever let your friends talk you into their parents’ back bedroom no matter what. Four: life ain’t fair and if something really bad happens while you are visiting your best friend’s house, it might be your last visit (even if you had nothing to do with causing the incident).
And, finally, of paramount importance, I learned that one should NEVER EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES surprise a lady with a snake!
They say the human mind is faster than the fastest computer and I am always amazed at how many things can be pulled from our mental "hard drives" and considered in an instant when the heat is on.
And so, within a second of seeing a big boa constrictor on Indigo Moon I blurted out “Holy Shit.” Within the next second, I had already been back to grade school with my little green snake and again appreciated the spectacular beauty of the green snake and also the beauty of the perfect specimen of a red-tailed boa constrictor sunning at my feet. And in that same second I revisited the bedroom where I saw a practically naked women defy the laws of physics and destroy her bedroom as a result of her primal fear of serpents that probably started with her first hearing of the story of Adam and Eve.
Moreover, I instantly knew that this incident would surely result in hours weeks and months of Melissa-mandated programs dedicated to anti-snake measures such as hatch cover screen reinforcements and “snake patrol” inspections all hours of the day and night.
I thought for one second more and by the third second I quickly concluded that dealing with a big boa constrictor was not something that could be done surreptitiously on a 38 foot catamaran anyway. I might as well spill the beans!
So, I answered: “Hey Melissa, come see! There’s a pretty snake on the back of the boat! He’s really cool! Come see! Don’t worry, he’s harmless!”
I grimaced and braced myself for all potential reactions, but thankfully there was no hysteria. Melissa came out and went on the port transom and looked under the dinghy to the starboard transom to see the snake. And things went smoothly.
I started working the problem. Hmmm . . . we can’t get the dinghy down. The snake is in the way.
I called on the VHF and made a general announcement that anyone in the “hot tub” or “swimming pool” anchorages who would like to see a boa constructor should come be and take pictures before I evict the snake.
Dave and Judy from Fia dinghied over, as did Mike, Laura and Liz from Gilana.
We discussed options. Melissa had a camera but had climbed up to the top of the bimini, the highest thing on the boat upon which a human can stand. I think she was on her tiptoes too!
After a photo shoot the time came. There was a fierce current running and there was a little bit of spectator concern voiced for the snake: “What if the current carries him into the large bay behind us and he gets tired?”
My response: “Well, come get him and let him wait out the current on your boat!”
Then, there was talk of how I should handle the snake. Boas are pretty tame and easily converted to pets. The snake was not aggressive or agitated. I contemplated simply picking it up with my hands, grabbing it behind the head.
Mike on Gilana talked me out of it: “Buddy. They have filthy mouths. If he bites you it will not be poisonous but you will get a nasty infection out here in the middle of nowhere! I wouldn’t risk it!”
Hmmm….. good point.
So, boat hook it was. I managed to get the boat hook under him and lift him gently off the cleat (heavier than he looked) and let him slide off. He was perfectly behaved about it all.
As soon as he hit the water the current took him and in a spilt second he was ten feet , then twenty feet aft of the boat and rolling underwater in the turbulence of the swift waters.
Then he woke up! He must have been half-napping in the sun and drowsy, but when he hit the cool water and woke up, he came up to the surface and started swimming. Good Lord! The current was a non-issue! That boa came swimming back to Indigo Moon at about five knots against the current, no problem.
I kept trying to get him to swim away, but he kept coming back. I tried picking him up and throwing him farther off the beam, sometimes failing to launch him when he would not clear the hook end of the boat hook.
Melissa screamed continually and every movement of mine and every movement of the snake was accentuated with Melissa’s full repertory of tremendous screams and yelps raining down from the Bimini, all as if she received a severe electric shock whenever I or the snake made a move.
Finally I had enough: “Good Lord, Woman! Would you please SHUT UP! I am trying to concentrate!” In little-girl whiney-voice, mixed with nervous laughter, Melissa retorted: “I can’t help it . . . . .” and then, another shriek that was probably heard in Venezuela! We and all the spectators all started laughing uncontrollably and that had to die down before snake eviction efforts resumed.
Finally, Mike had a plan: “Buddy, carry him all the way to the bow and throw him in and then throw me the boat hook. I’ll pick him up before the current carries him to the stern and I will take him back to the mangroves.”
That plan worked. As soon as the snake saw the mangroves he went home. Mike said that as soon as the boa so much as touched a branch of the mangroves he “disappeared” with perfect camouflage.
Here is the photo journal of Snakes on a Catamaran:
Our reptilian guest left many impressions, but we quickly busied ourselves with getting underway. We decided to head back to Green Island and then to the Coco Banderos again, a truly wonderful area.
We had a nice, easy three hour sail to Green Island during which I checked all areas of the boat for snakes. By the time we got to Green Island, I was able to report to the Admiral that the catamaran was absolutely and positively clear and that we had no stowaways aboard.
As soon as we got settled in, we got the kayak out and explored Green Island. We came to love the little islands in the San Blas, each of which invited us to kayak in and then stroll around the entire perimeter of the island with the kayak in tow.
While at Green Island, we hooked up with the catamaran Famous Potatoes, with Jack and Desiree Foard aboard, along with their Jack Russell terrier “Lady Pitkiethly.”
We met the crew of Famous Potatoes in Cartagena about the time the article in SAIL magazine came out featuring catamarans under 40 feet. As fate would have it, both Famous Potatoes and Indigo Moon were featured in the same article. Read the SAIL magazine article here.
Anyway, we caught up with Jack and Desiree and we all decided to head in to the mainland coast to the small island of Nargana where there is a Kuna village just offshore and a river that could be explored by dinghy and kayaks.
And so, we both pulled anchor at Green Island and headed to Nargana only five or so miles away. After anchoring the boats, we decided to take one dinghy into the river and tow the two kayaks.
But first, we had to dinghy into Nargana and pay a few bucks for a river permit. The Kunas have tuned a corner and become a “pay” society and they want five or ten bucks to anchor in their cays, or go up the river, or say hello, or take a picture. A hand is always out wanting a dollar.
Molas used to be five to ten dollars. Now the nice ones are fifty and we heard tales of “rich” folks forking over three hundred dollars for a single Mola. Anywhere you turn, there is a demand for payment and the prices are climbing.
And it is alleged that a few cruisers have encouraged the Kunas raise prices and become more commercial. It was explained to me that “a prominent liberal cruising couple” came through in recent years and had “sit downs” with the Kunas to explain to them that they should be charging much more for Molas and that the cruisers could, would and should be paying a LOT more for everything in the San Blas.
It may just be that such actions, although certainly well-intended, have altered the culture and will affect the people negatively in the end. Good intentions paving the road to Hell, folks from the U.S.A. meddling in other cultures with no way of predicting the outcome, and all that.
The Kunas are getting pretty pushy and money-minded in ways that result in an unfortunate diminution of goodwill.
Anyway, we had to buy permits to enter the river with kayaks and got that out of the way before heading out.
So let’s go up a river into the jungle for a picnic!
We all decided to simply leave the kayaks on a big sand bar and hit the trail inland for a while to see where it would lead us. It looked like a well-traveled trail that paralleled the river and would lead us farther inland.
We found a nice spot for a picnic and had a good time with Jack and Desiree, and their Jack Russell Terrier “Lady Pit.”
After lunch we made our way back down the trail and to the kayaks. Melissa and I opted to paddle all the way back to Indigo Moon and had a fun workout.
We soon pulled anchor and made it back out to Green Island before dark, a better more-protected anchorage. It was a fun day of inland exploration that wet off without a hitch as we found ourselves watching the sunset safely back at Green Island.
The next day we enjoyed a sunset get together with Famous Potatoes and a single-hander named Roy from Ireland. What a cool cat! We enjoyed good conversation and a top-of-the-line sunset.
The next day we decided to go back to the Coco Banderos because our old friends from the Los Roques and Bonaire from two years ago, Mike and Gloria aboard Respite were there.
So off we went for a reunion with our old cruising buddies!
And guess what?! The ONE perfect anchoring spot is wide open. Yes, it’s true. We hit the jackpot and got to anchor in the one of the all-time best locations we have ever had the privilege of experiencing on Indigo Moon. Sometimes I got the feeling that I dare not blink my eyes lest I wake up and it only be a dream.
So, since we got lucky, why not put up a few sunshades and spend a whole week! Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that a week off from work used to be VERY hard to come by. Basically, we enjoyed a perfect, flawless week’s “vacation” at the Coco Banderos that would easily have been worth ten to fifteen thousand dollars and maybe even twenty thousand by “vacation value” standards.
We had a great run of good weather while anchored in a small bay surrounded by three picture-postcard-perfect islands protected by a fourth island to windward, and all just a mile inside the barrier reef. There were only two other boats there in the Coco Banderos. Seafood was there for the taking, either through spearfishing or rod fishing or buying lobsters and crabs from Kunas paddling by.
It was one of those weeks that actually lived up to the idyllic cruising dream that we have all daydreamed about.
By the end of the week, however, an honest to goodness gang of San Blas Socialite Cruisers arrived en mass and anchored seven boats too close to us, and too close to each other, and clogged up the little harbor of the Coco Banderos.
True irony: on the next morning’s VHF Cruisers’ Network Program, the gang’s "leader" checked-in on the air and complained that the Coco Banderos were too crowded this year.
You have to be there to realize how ludicrous it can be when the cruising socialites show up. They anchor on top of everybody, burn up the VHF airwaves with constant incessant chatter, and grate on the last nerve. It makes you wish they would get out of cruising and get on with assisted living and shuffleboard, a life where they can do everything is unison 24/7 and get instant feedback from the whole dining room as they line up for the lunch buffet
Anyway, at least we had a perfect week before we got invaded. Here is what the perfect week at the Coco Banderos looks like:
Mid-week in our perfect vacation getaway, we decided to explore all the little islands and pack a picnic lunch. Now, of course, the islands are all only a hundred yards apart, but we decided to go on an expedition, kinda like tent-camping in the backyard. And what a spectacular backyard it was!
The next day, the anchorage was really getting crowded and one more boat came and elbowed into the anchorage and could not resist anchoring 40 feet from me, barely catching an anchor into the edge of the small shallow sand bar adjacent to the island.
If you remember, the first time Melissa and I came through the Coco Banderos, someone was already in our perfect spot and we knew it was out of the question to crowd in on the tiny sandbar. So, we went to the other side of the island and anchored in deeper and somewhat rougher water. It’s called common sense and courtesy.
But, every now and then you can count on a real jerk coming in and, without regard to safety or courtesy, deciding that that one perfect spot is just as much his as it is yours.
And so, our perfect week was over. The unseen and mysterious force-fields that guide large socialite packs of “buddy boating” cruisers had conspired to fill the previously open and remote-feeling Coco Banderos into a cramped “parking lot” of boats.
Melissa's new saying these days: "The only complaint I have about cruising is cruisers."
Basically, the party at the Coco Banderos was over. We quietly abandoned the perfect anchorage to the “invasion,” all while thankful that we got so lucky and the cruising crowds stayed off us as long as they did.
Where to next? Well, the Master Mola Maker, Venancio, had paid us several visits more and sold us a few Molas. He travels around in a very small boat, with his brother, Idelfonso, driving the outboard.
You can see them coming. Venancio uses a bright-yellow flowered-print plastic table cloth as a dodger to keep the spray off him as he travels in the little boat, crossing miles of open water between islands to visit various anchorages. He drapes the bright tablecloth in front of him and pulls it up around his neck and over his shoulders, looking from the front as if he’s sitting in barber’s chair under a smock of flowers.
With his dark skin and sharp features set against the bright yellow tablecloth and the brilliant turquoise sea, Venancio looks like an LSD-inspired Peter Max image. You have to rub your eyes and take a second look to believe what you are seeing. It is all wildly eccentric.
On the last visit, Venancio’s brother, Idelfonso, asked if I had any epoxy putty. There was a hole in the bottom of their fiberglass skiff and it was taking on water really quickly.
As Melissa perused Molas with Venancio in the cockpit, I dug out my “Box of Goo” bin from under the salon seat and grabbed a couple of waterproof epoxy putty sticks. About the size of a cigar, these sticks of clay-like putty activate when you mash them and mix their contents together. The epoxy stick putty will actually adhere to wet surfaces and cure underwater.
So, I used two whole sticks and made a big wad of epoxy putty and while Idelfonso bailed, I puttied. The leak stopped, the Kunas’ most-famous Master Mola Maker was saved from facing a certain sinking on the way home, and I was a hero. We had standing invitations to go to their home island of Maquina.
Well, considering we just got shoved out of the Coco Banderos, this is as good a time as any. So, let’s head about nine miles away to the small island village of Maquina and check out a traditional Kuna village.
At Isla Maquina, the anchor is not even off the roller yet and Ulus full of Kuna women are paddling out; they swarmed Indigo Moon so quickly that, at the helm, Melissa had to be extra careful while backing down as I let the anchor out from the bow. Several canoes full of women, and even tiny toy canoes full of children came out too. And they all came aboard.
As soon as the hook was set at Isla Maquina, Indigo Moon became a busy Kuna Marketplace with the cockpit instantly transformed into what was tantamount to a carpet trader’s tent in old Morocco. And the decks of Indigo Moon became the "side streets" of the marketplace and upon which all the village children ran, jumped and played. It was quite a scene!
After the excitement was over and the Kunas cleared out, we were able to actually look at the island and take in the whole scene.
The Kuna villages are very compact and densely inhabited. Huts with thatch roof and stick walls cover the entire island. Small piers and outhouses are built out over the water.
Kunas build wood fires inside their huts for cooking. It rains so much here that it would be hard to ever get a fire going outside, so they have become acclimated to the smoke and indoor open fires. The Kunas themselves, and everything they own, smell like a wood fire. The Molas we bought still smell like a campfire to this day.
It was not thirty minutes after anchoring that we realized that the whole anchorage is in the plume of the island's many wood fires. So, we moved a mile or so away to an anchorage behind some mangrove islands where we had protection and were far enough away from Isla Maquina to avoid breathing in all the heavy smoke but still close enough to dinghy in.
We had plans to hike the next day. Idelfonso does river tours and takes gringos on hikes up to a small waterfall. So, we decided to check it out.
Famous Potatoes and Maker’s Match had made it in for the event as well, and the three cats anchored far off on the mangroves with no one else around. The plan was for Idelfonso to swing by in a boat and pick us all up at our boats in the morning and from there we would go upriver, disembark and hike up the river to a small waterfall and pool area.
So, pack a lunch and bring a bathing suit. Here we go!
We had fun on the hike and got to see some of the Panamanian jungle on the mainland. Idelfonso is a nice guy, and I consider him a friend, but in all fairness he is not a tour guide. He’s a nice guy who showed is where a waterfall is. Those of you looking for a learned and skilled historian to entertain you and saturate you with information would be severely disappointed.
I know that this laugh is at my friend Idelfonso’s expense (sorry man – you know I love ya) but at one point on the hike Idlefonso pointed upward to a buzzard circling high in the sky and indicated it was an eagle. That’s been an inside joke ever since and whenever we see a buzzard we laugh and say “eagle” in Kuna accent.
We had fun anyway and it did not offend me, simply because the price of the trip was very reasonable and Idelfonso is fun and has a good personality and tries really hard to please.
I told Idelfonso I would burn him a CD of the photos we took and bring it to him the next day. He wanted pictures to promote the trip to other cruisers.
So, the next morning, we took dinghies in with Maker’s Match to bring Idelfonso the CD and see the island. We got a surprise. Idlefonso met us at the dock and called me aside “Hey Buddy, there is a boatload of very rich French people here and they have paid a lot of money to see a traditional Kuna dance. So, you guys don’t take any pictures and follow me. You guys can watch but wait for the French people to leave and then I can get my people to dance a little more just for you."
Well, I have gotten really good at surreptitious photography. I hang my little Olympus (the size of a deck of cards) on a long chain around my neck and tend to fiddle with it, never looking down at it or in the same direction it points. It works like a charm.
So, I took pictures while the Kunas danced for the dozen rich French people. After the dance was over, I told Idelfonso we didn’t need another dance, but thanks anyway. I figured that the French had paid my way.
Next, it was a visit inside the Congresso hut where the chief has all the meetings. The chief was not in, but we met the second man in charge and got an audience with him and exchanged greetings with Idelfonso translating. The chief lounged in a hammock and never stood. It kind felt like appearing before Jabba the Hut in the Star Wars movies, with the seat of power laying around and lounging so.
Anyway, after seeing the Congresso, we took to the streets and saw the whole island. . . a five minute walk if you didn’t stop. But stop we did and we saw many sights. Kunas want at least a dollar for posing for pictures, or else they run inside and hide as soon as a camera is raised.
And even when Kunas cooperate for the camera they don’t pose well. So, I remained in "stealth photo" mode. As we made our way through the streets, I was lucky to capture some natural shots of Kuna life in a traditional Kuna village.
After the dance presentation the French retreated to a waiting boat and departed, leaving the crews of Indigo Moon and Maker’s Match as the only Gringos on the island. Idelfonso took us on a walkabout through the village, where I snapped quite a few photos “from the hip” and a few that were planned too.
One thing that is evident in Kuna Yala is that the modern world is crashing in. Idelfonso is a walking billboard for pop culture both in his dress and his use of personal electronics like pagers, cell phones and a personal CD player that he wore and listened to even as he walked with us. It was a statement of modern affluence that was in bright contrast to the primitive living conditions.
And while, by their appearance and clothing, many of the young people do not appear to be living a primitive, traditional Kuna life, they are. At one point during our tour with Idelfonso, a distraught, traditionally dressed but topless Kuna grandmother held up a small child covered in what looked like measles or chicken pox. Idelfonso translated that she wanted our help and/or medicine. But alas we were of little help other than telling her it looked VERY contagious and that they should try to keep the child from scratching and seek professional medical help.
As we walked through the town, it was “open for business” for Mola sales, and many women has their works on display.
The conditions on the island are tough. It is a hard life and many young Kunas depart Kuna Yala and seek modern life and better wages in places like Panama City. Months later, in the huge, modern shopping malls in Panama City, we would occasionally see modern "city Kunas" with a grandmother in tow, visiting from Kuna Yala wearing her full traditional Kuna dress. It is as if a warp in the fabric of time has landed a jungle lady from centuries past into the middle of modern day Manhattan.
Here is a look around Isla Maquina:
We were lucky to be invited into the Restrepo Family home and Idelfonso allowed me free reign to take any pictures I wanted to.
After touring the Restrepo home, we went out to their "front porch" to meet Idelfonso’s wife and daughter, both of whom had been gone on a month-long trip and were just returning. The whole Restrepo Family was buzzing with excitement because the youngest grandchild was coming back home.
As we departed, in the main square, where the traditional Kuna dance was performed earlier in the morning, the setting changed to host a modern "dance" to a different beat: basketball practice. Believe it or not, there is a basketball league in Kuna Yala and the various islands compete. All the young men of Isla Maquina were lined up and taking turns practicing jump shops.
And so it was bookends. When we arrived the island was in traditional mode and when we departed it was in modern mode. Such is the culture of Kuna Yala today, a colorful mosaic of modern and ancient cultures living simultaneously in the same dimension.
As we departed Isla Maquina, we knew our time in the San Blas was winding down. We had been in the remote San Blas for over a month and we were getting low on fuel for the generator and low on other supplies too. The next big destination was calling us: Colon, Panama, where the northern entrance of the Panama Canal is situated.
So, after departing Isla Maquina, we decided to move more westward and enjoy a few more remote, uninhabited islands before heading out of the reef into the open sea to sail westward.
But, we found out that as the season kicked in more and more, “uninhabited” was getting harder and harder to find, not because of Kunas but because of all the cruisers and backpacker boats piling into the tight San Blas anchorages.
What are backpacker boats, you ask?
Well, how can I put this diplomatically? Hmm . . . well, in the San Blas Islands, there are quite a few sailboats that have entered the backpacker tourist market and they offer “low budget” cruises. There is no way to sugarcoat it. Many of these boats are wrecks that should not be untied from the dock, but they are overloaded and sailed. Some even cruise offshore from Cartagena to the San Blas and back.
The backpacker boats were not fun to be around because a few (not all) are dangerously/carelessly operated by kids. With nothing to lose except a junk boat, they are not worried and are legally "judgment proof." With no assets to lose, they can simply walk away from an accident and disappear.
We managed to stay away from most of them, but in the very tight and deep anchorage at Chichime one damn near got us.
We had gone to the very inside corner of the anchorage where there was a tiny patch of shallow sand and where no one could anchor on top of us because it was too tight, I thought.
Late in the afternoon, I was lying in the cockpit re-reading Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers when I smelled something awful in the stiff breeze: a strong stench of diesel, rot, mold and maybe even a little dead-dog mixed in . . . it hit me like a brick!
I sat up and there it was! OH GREAT! A nasty, crappy, ugly backpacker boat is right in front of us!
A skinny young woman at the helm left the wheel unattended and ran up to the bow where she proceeded to drop the hook right in front of us and damn near came back on us. I ran forward and began screaming “vete aqui” (get out of here) and waving my hands and basically spoiling for a fight.
There was room to the side of me, but not in front of me really. Thus there was no reason for them to be putting me directly downstream of a dirty, smelly garbage scow.
I jumped in the dinghy to go complain, but before I could say a word, the hysterical young woman who was in charge of the vessel came to the lifelines crying out “What do you want me to do? My transmission is not working, I have no choice!” all as she was carrying on a cell phone conversation too.
She and the crew (another girl) had wrestled with the anchor and all the backpackers guests (many of them young, strapping guys) just sat on deck and did nothing. They all looking tired, stoned, defeated, miserable or whatever (it was hard to tell other than it was clear that unhappy lethargy was the state they were in).
Basically, they blew me off. I was not comfortable at all with the location of the vessel and the obvious lack of skill of the girls running the boat, but I gave up and went back to Indigo Moon.
I then noticed the boat had no flag and the name on the transom was three faded Chinese characters that were illegible. Basically there was no way to identify the boat in a mishap, so I decided to go back out in the dinghy and take a few pictures for insurance purposes and to document evidence of the boat and where they anchored. I was that concerned.
Boy, they didn’t like that! The two young women cursed me and flipped me off. One of the young backpacker guys mouthed off too and they all acted like I was a compete jerk for being concerned about my boat. An ugly scene, it was.
They stayed anchored where they were and I enjoyed their oil slick and pungent smells that brought to mind the image of an Exxon Valdez wrapped in a dirty jock strap. It was too late in the day to move and I prayed they didn’t drag. All went well and I minded my own business. Now and then I looked over to see what looked like a boatload of pretty miserable youngsters.
Then, a day later, the moment came. They tried to raise anchor to leave. I saw them getting ready, so we fired up our engines and I raised our anchor enough to get the bridle unhooked and be ready to pull the anchor quickly and run if need be. I stood motionless at the bow, ready to operate the windlass. Melissa sat at the helm with the engines running, throttles ready.
We watched as the skinny little girl Captain and crew almost got the anchor up by hand and then it fell overboard and ALL the rope and chain went out again! Here they come!!!!!
Luckily, their anchor set, but this time they stopped only a couple of boat lengths away. In the brisk tradewinds, two boat lengths is nothing and a boat that close and upwind can be on you in seconds.
I said nothing, just stayed motionless and stared, as did Melissa.
The girls and the backpackers never looked back. There was no Big Talk by them this time. They knew they were out of control and screwing up. They tried again and, thank God, they got the anchor up and motored away.
These particular types of dangerously operated and poorly maintained backpacker boats definitely detract from the enjoyment in the San Blas.
As soon as the backpacker boat moved away, we enjoyed relaxing again and another Master Mola Maker of the San Blas paid us a visit. A famous gentleman named “Lisa” now turned transvestite (perfectly acceptable in Kuna culture) came by to sell Molas.
As soon as Lisa came aboard, Melissa offered her some cold water to which Lisa curtly and indignantly replied “You don’t have anything better than that? I want a Coke or something better.” No kidding. Her tone was that of a spoiled Rock Star.
Melissa could see me looking at Lisa and thinking of kicking her in the balls and running her off the boat, so Melissa acted quickly and said “Hey, no trouble, Lisa. How about a Diet Coke?”
To me it was a pretty glaring example of how the Kunas are transforming into a people whose first priority is getting whatever they can out of tourists and cruisers. Friendship and relationships have clearly taken a back seat.
We did buy a nice Mola from Lisa, but the combination of her ultra-rude behavior and the backpacker boat threatening us was starting to wear on my good impressions of the San Blas.
The weather had become gray and rainy 70% of the time. Strong trades blew salt spray over reef and marinated the whole boat constantly. At that moment the San Blas had lost much of its initial luster.
The good news is that we got to spend plenty of time in the San Blas and see both the good and the bad for ourselves. Certainly, we enjoyed priceless days and many wonderful experiences that overshadowed the negatives. We can now appreciate why the San Blas are very popular as a cruising destination.
Our only disappointment is that we did not experience the San Blas 20 years ago, prior to the recent changes in attitudes and commercialization efforts.
Anyway, it was time to set sail and head toward Colon, Panama, where we have reservations at Shelter Bay Marina and plan to explore the Panama Canal, Panama City, the Pacific coast, and the inland mountain ranges.
We’ll sail to Linton first and spend the night. Then it is on to the famous bay at Portobelo for a couple of nights. Then, finally, a half day sail will take us to the bay at Colon and into Shelter Bay Marina.
So we said goodbye to the San Blas and again headed outside the reef and into the open Caribbean Sea.
THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS, PANAMA, TO COLON, PANAMA
Here's a look at the trip:
One reason to stop in Linton is that it is the first stop on the Western Caribbean cruiser circuit where you can see wild monkeys up close. Spider monkeys have taken over an abandoned house and they come out and eat whatever you give them.
We had already been warned that they are friendly as long as the food holds out, but when they sense you are leaving and have no more food they will attack and bite you, so I was careful and kept my distance.
The next day we headed for Portobelo, the most famous harbor in all the Western Caribbean.
Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Bay of Portobelo on 2 November 1502 during his fourth trip to America. It is more accurate to say that his fleet washed up there, rather than that they “discovered” it in any sense of the word that would imply Columbus acted purposefully and deliberately in order to actually navigate to that location.
In reality, the ship’s log states that on October 27, 1502, there arose “so violent a storm that we were forced to go wherever it drove us.” With a fleet of four caravels, they ran before the wind without any ability to resist.
At this time, Admiral Christopher Columbus was 51 and decrepit in ill health and suffering from a hideously swollen leg. Although he still gave orders from a “dog house" the carpenter had clapped together on the fantail of the flagship, many feared that he was on death’s doorstep.
For three more days, the fleet was engulfed by a terrible tropical storm that had them sailing blind in heavy rains and high winds.
On the fourth day the weather broke just in time to reveal the mountains of Panama and the fact that the fleet had been blown into a magnificent anchorage 1,500 yards wide and 3,000 yards deep into placid waters fully protected from the wild Western Caribbean Sea and the tradewinds. Described by Columbus as the “finest and fairest” anchorage he had seen on his entire voyage, they had been delivered to safety.
In 1586 the Spanish Crown sent Field Master Juan de Tejada and the military engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli to select a place in order to prepare a defense plan for the Continent. They chose Portobelo as the Caribbean Center because of its topography and harbor conditions unlike any others along the shores of Central America.
On March 20, 1597 the city of San Felipe de Portobelo was officially founded and Portobelo became one of the most important points in the transfer of gold and silver because of its system of fairs and galleons. Portobelo was established as a convergence center of two trade routes, one from Lima ( Peru) on which huge quantities of gold and silver were carried and the other from Seville ( Spain) which was the trading capital of the empire.
In their best years, the fairs would last up to 40 days but in more difficult times they would last just about ten or twelve days. It is estimated that about 45 fleets of galleons sailed to Portobelo between 1574 and 1702 and each of them carried at least 30 million pesos.
Aside from the expected history that emanates from the center of Central American Trade, there is one historical feature of Portobelo that is wholly unanticipated: the magic and mystery of the Black Christ.
Nobody knows exactly how or when the Black Christ (El Cristo Negro) made its way to Portobelo. Some historians estimate the date to be 1658.
The eight-foot wooden statue of the Black Christ is celebrated every October 21 and there are pilgrimages from throughout Panama. People walk 53 miles from Panama City, or 22 miles from Sabanitas. Many crawl the last mile on hands and knees to honor the Black Christ, also referred to as El Nazareno by locals.
Many stories surround the Black Christ statue’s arrival in Portobelo.
It is undisputed that the statue was carved in Spain, was loaded upon some ship bound for the New World and then somehow washed ashore at Portobelo. The rest is myth and conjecture.
One myth claims a ship carrying the heavy statue in a wooden crate met a terrible storm that drove it back into the harbor. The ship attempted to leave five times, but every time a sudden and unexpected storm endangered the ship and everyone aboard. On the final attempt, the crew jettisoned the crated Black Christ to lessen the weight and save their lives. Fishermen found the statue at sea and carried the Black Christ to their church and gave it a place of honor.
Another myth is that the statue was to be delivered to the island of Taboga, off the Panamanian Pacific coast, but the Spanish shipper incorrectly labeled the shipment and it arrived in Portobelo. Allegedly, many attempts were made to send the statue on to Taboga, but all attempts to remove it from Portobelo failed because of the magical powers of the statue and its desire to remain with the people of Portobelo.
Stories abound as to the power of prayer before the statue in much the same way Lourdes has become famous in France.
There is a catch, however. If a promise is made to the Black Christ in return for salvation, it better be kept!
One legend holds that a very poor man prayed to the Black Christ, asking to win the country’s weekly lottery prize ($2,000) and the man promised that if he did he would paint the outside of the church.
The Black Christ intervened and he won the lottery, but the man broke his promise and did not paint the church.
Unable to resist trying to make a deal with the Black Christ again, the man returned to the Black Christ the next year, apologizing and asking forgiveness for his shortcomings on the last deal. The man made the same request and promised he would paint the church if only given a second chance.
Upon leaving the church, the man purchased a lottery ticket from a street vendor in the church square and started for home and on the way was killed in a traffic accident . . . with a winning lottery ticket in his pocket.
We were eager to see Portobelo, a place with such significant history and with interesting legends like the Black Christ.
As we raised anchor in Linton, it appeared the weather would be very rainy during our passage. Portobelo is known for being a very rainy place.
As we made our way west in big swells and in moderate winds, we fought a severe current of about two knots dead on our nose. The rains moved in and it poured as we approached the bay at Portobelo. I wore foul weather gear in a downpour to go forward and drop the anchor.
It rained for two days solid. We could not remember a time in the three and a half years of cruising when the boat was that damp, the weather was that gray and the heavy rains lasted that long.
Despite being waterlogged, we were able to go ashore for a few hours in between squalls and tour the small town at Portobelo. The most astonishing thing was how small, poor and run-down the town was. Quite frankly, by looking at the town today, it is impossible to honesty believe anything of consequence ever happened there, much less that it was the place where billions of dollars in gold and silver were traded and shipped.
Anyway, we made it.
On another note, I have always remarked at how it is impossible to show the sea state with photographs. On the way to Portobelo, we passed a pretty red monohull headed east and it was the perfect opportunity in these big swells to provide you with a great example of how the sea state magically hides itself from cameras.
Now look at these photos as the red boat passes by!
Even though the red boat is totally hidden by a big swell, the seas still look very calm and flat and you would almost swear you are looking at a sunken sailboat with its mast sticking out of the water instead of a boat hidden by really big waves.
The good news is that the big swells were spread out and posed no threat at all. In fact, it’s fun to ride the big swells when things are calm and going well.
The only downer was the heavy current we were fighting.
The rains stopped for a little while the next day and we were able to go take a look around Portobelo. We found a small dock where a few other dinghies were tied up. It turned out to be the home of Dick and Patricia McGehee, American Cruisers who have settled in Portobelo. They were very gracious and invited us into their home. We watched as Patricia worked at hand-binding hardback copies of her book “Portobelo Chronicles.” We bought a copy and I paraphrased her book while preparing sections of this trip log about Columbus’ “discovery” of Portobelo.
Dick and Patricia arrived in Panama on the Pacific side in 1978 aboard a 36 foot sailboat. They transited the Panama Canal and then headed west to Portobelo: “It was a bumpy ride from [Colon to Portobelo], but once inside, motoring in placid waters, we experienced love at first sight, and also felt an uncanny transformation take place.”
They returned to Portobelo in 1981 and began a life there.
So, let’s look around Portobelo
It is hard to resist the urge to always be nice and find something good to say about all the places we go, but I can’t find so much as a “toe hold” to say anything truly nice about the town of Portobelo.
Without a doubt, the only compelling and thought-provoking thing about seeing the town of Portobelo in person is being utterly dumbfounded as to how on earth a place that had rivers of gold flowing through it could turn out to be a tiny slum in the end. Portobelo is one of those places that only in one’s mind, or in books, can it secure its proper place in history.
The bay itself is absolutely beautiful, though, and as far as natural settings go Portobelo is spectacular as viewed from a vessel at anchor.
On shore, however, an hour in Portobelo is about 45 minutes too long for me, and I was ready to head out to sea for one last leg to the next big stop: Colon and the Panama Canal area where we have reservations at Shelter Bay Marina.
So, the next morning we pulled anchor and headed out of Portobelo for a half-day hop to Colon. We had company. A big, beautiful St. Francis 50 catamaran was heading out toward Colon too.
After about an hour of sailing pretty close to each other, the St. Francis skipper called on the VHF: “Catamaran on my port side with yellow kayak, this is O’Vive, over.”
It was David, along with his wife Nathalie and their daughter Emelie and son Alec planning to transit the Canal and head to Australia. They are from Marathon, Florida.
David wanted to know how in the world a little 38 foot cat was keeping up with him! Well, I explained that I was “cheating” by running one engine at about 1,800 rpm to give me a little push when big swells stalled us. It helps the autopilot steer better and makes for a better overall ride.
We chatted awhile and found out they were also headed to Shelter Bay Marina. I explained that Melissa and I had been aboard the St. Francis 50 Aphrodite at the 2005 Annapolis Boat Show and were aware it was Cruising Cat of the Year in 2005, and how much we liked the St. Francis 50.
Also, I volunteered Melissa and myself to be line handlers for them during their transit of the Canal.
As we chatted and approached the entrance to the harbor at Colon (that also connects to the northern entrance to the Panama Canal) David informed me that he was picking up 43 AIS signals from ships anchored off from the harbor’s entrance. Our radars looked like a bad case of chicken pox. It was impressive to see so many ships anchored on one place. It looked like an invasion.
As we approached the entrance to the harbor, a freighter came barreling out, building speed quickly, like a giant race horse coming out of the Canal locks and finally free to run. We watched as the ship moved quickly through the anchored fleet and disappear.
We made it to the outside of the entrance to the bay shortly thereafter. It was rougher still while heading between the breakwaters. There are two, very long, giant riprap breakwaters protecting the bay, and the seas really stack up, creating with big swells in the opening.
But, we were heading with it and it was no trouble. Soon we were in the very calm waters of the bay and in no time we had entered a relatively small cove where Shelter Bay Marina is located. The marina is located on the property of the old U.S. Fort Sherman that guarded the entrance to the Panama Canal for decades and was finally abandoned to the Panamanian government when the U.S. recently gave the Canal to Panama.
Here are the pics:
In no time we were installed at Shelter Bay Marina and had our sun shades up, bicycles out, and were set to enjoy six weeks of exploring many wonderful areas of Panama. We explored jungles and cities and everything in between, taking in the beautiful country of Panama, a fabulous destination!
So, the next report will be all about mainland Panama, and that’s a lot of ground to cover!
We will transit the Panama Canal aboard the spectacular St. Francis 50 catamaran O’Vive. We'll ride the famous Panamerican Railway from Colon to Panama City. We’ll meet new Panamanian friends and enjoy a wonderful Sunday BBQ aboard yachts rafted up at the Pacific Island of Taboga.
We will rent a car and travel to the south coast on the Pacific and spend the night there. We’ll also travel the Panamerican Highway westward and head up into the mountains to Boquete, a picturesque destination that could be described as a Latin American version of a Colorado Rockies resort town.
Then we’ll head back to Shelter Bay and take Indigo Moon up into the Chagres River for a week up an honest-to-goodness pristine jungle river where parrots, toucans, sloths, monkeys and crocodiles kept us company day and night.
If all that is not enough, we’ll get a first-hand look at part of the making of the new James Bond film Quantum of Solace. The whole production crew and the Stars descended upon Shelter Bay Marina during our stay there and transformed the marina into a Hollywood set for a month during which they designed, executed, and filmed terrific boat crashes and chase scenes in and around the marina and the bay just outside the marina.
As such, this next report is a striking contrast to the slow pace and seclusion of the San Blas. It will be a fast-moving panorama of central Panama, a place that is amazingly diverse: Panama City is the most modern place we have found in the Caribbean. The Chagres River is the most pristine and untouched place we have seen in the Caribbean. Panama is hands-down the best of both worlds and a jewel of the Caribbean.
We can’t wait to tell you all about it!
Until next time,
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