San Blas Cruising Reality: Heaven With Challenges

When we originally bought the boat, my cruising dream was to explore the Western Caribbean, buy my own molas from the Kuna in the San Blas Islands (Panama) and then go through the canal and end up in New Zealand.  But by the time we got to the San Blas Islands and beyond, we discovered that a week long passage is enough for us, we’re not really interested in the month it will take to get to the Marquesas in the South Pacific.  In the meantime, the San Blas was everything we had hoped … and more.  Here’s an update I wrote from our time there illustrating some of the challenges as well as some of the highlights …

With over 300 palm studded islands to explore, Winterlude is not remaining in one anchorage for more than a few days. We’re in search of the perfect anchorage!

Winterlude anchored in the Holendes Cayes, San Blas Islands, Panama

Winterlude anchored in the Holendes Cayes, San Blas Islands, Panama

Cocos Banderos is one of the most picturesque – brilliant aqua water surrounded by three uninhabited tiny palm islands fringed with pure white sand beaches just begging me to sink my toes in and have the warm clear waves lap at my feet & ankles! Surprisingly, there are no chitres, or noseeems.  Coral reefs surround all, providing some the best snorkeling we’ve seen so far.  The palm lined beaches invite us to jump off the back of the boat & swim ashore.

Cocos Banderos, San Blas Islands, Kuna Yala, Panama

Cocos Banderos, San Blas Islands, Kuna Yala, Panama

We can see our trusty Spade anchor well dug in, no worries about dragging anchor. Unfortunately, Cocos Banderos is also one of the most crowded anchorages, because it’s so pretty. Boats from Germany, Italy, London, Holland and Canada surround our two U.S. boats.

There's no doubt the islands are picture perfect, but it's the people that made it even better for us...

There’s no doubt the islands are picture perfect, but it’s the people that made it even better for us…

But the biggest drawback to this anchorage is the ocean swell that sneaks in the reef cut by the rusting shipwreck – when there’s wind, the motion is tolerable, rocking from bow to stern. But when the wind quits, the boat turns to the current & tide and the swell rocks us from side to side. Mosty it’s a gentle rock, barely noticeable, but every now and then those three BIG WAVES that every surfer waits for come in to threaten my coffee cup and create havoc throwing things across my refrigerator – never a good thing!

After three bumpy rolly days spent swimming, sunning and island exploring, we get the boat ready to depart. Before dark, we hoisted the outboard to the stern rail and cranked the dinghy aboard – we hook our halyard (the rope used to hoist the sails) to the front of the dinghy and I crank like crazy – 40 rotations lifts the dinghy to the deck where David secures it over the bow. The Kuna are very curious about the dinghy lifting routine and hang on Winterlude’s teak rail balancing precariously in their wooden cayucos and jabbering amongst themselves in Kuna.

This young fisherman ran out of gas for his wooden cayuco and traded us this crab for a gallon of gas to get back to his village.

This young fisherman ran out of gas for his wooden cayuco and traded us this crab for a gallon of gas to get back to his village.

Anchor up, we motor slowly between two reefs and hoist the sails as soon as we’re clear of the reefs to turn into the wind. A breezy day, blowing 17-20 knots makes for a quick sail to Nargana where we are able to buy diesel and fresh baked Kuna bread, but no veggies – we’re told they’ll come on the next Columbian Trader Boat. Maybe manana … (as everywhere in Central America, we’ve already learned that “manana” does not necessarily mean tomorrow!)

The Nargana anchorage is perfect, the anchor bites into the muddy bottom, not crowded and flat calm water. Finally maybe tonight I’ll get some much needed sleep. But just past 9 pm, the wind dies and left us literally hiding under the sheets from the chitres (noseeums) – the worst since 3 years ago in Belize. Torrential rains turn the anchorage into a muddy raging Mississippi river – when it rains hard high in the mountains, the rivers carry the mud directly out to sea … through the Nargana anchorage in this instance!

It seems everyone in Kuna Yala are expert, and I do mean EXPERT sailors.  Kids as young as 3-5, men and women, old and young all sail their cayucos in all weather to distant islands.

It seems everyone in Kuna Yala are expert, and I do mean EXPERT sailors. Kids as young as 3-5, men and women, old and young all sail their cayucos in all weather to distant islands.

Thanks to Ernie on sv Lauren Grace, we know to keep our ears peeled for the throb of the trader boat diesels and were second in line when the “Eldon” arrived. We got a case of Coke, in cans which is unusual in this part of the world, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, California grapes and apples – strange to come all the way to Panama to eat California fruit! We also bought some packages of lemon & sugar cookies and “almost” ruffles. It’s wise to buy only one of any strange brands & try it first before investing in several dozen tiny packages of less than tasty cookies or chips!

After buying 10 more gallons of diesel, David and I are busy straining the diesel through the baha filter (gets the water & any dirt & particles out of the fuel so it doesn’t get into our tanks & shut down our engine when we need it!) into our center tank when the radio crackles … “Trader Boat, Trader Boat” – we quickly finish the 1st jug, leave the 2nd for later, jump in the dinghy and rush to town – only to find it’s a false alarm. It IS a trading boat, but this one is carrying Kuna, people, not supplies – the island version of the bus, I suppose.

We had frequent mola sales visitors and rarely invited them aboard, but these three young ladies were special and we enjoyed their company very much ... plus they make beautiful molas!

We had frequent mola sales visitors and rarely invited them aboard, but these three young ladies were special and we enjoyed their company very much … plus they make beautiful molas!

We return to Winterlude and finish emptying the diesel into the tanks when David spots another trader boat, a tiny spec on the western horizon. “Fred” our local contact has assured us that it is his brother and will have gasoline (no mixto –you can buy gas already mixed with oil for an outboard, but we need plain gas) as well as more fruit and peanut butter, Joy dishwashing detergent and real tuna – most canned tuna here is not tuna at all, but “jurel” – horse mackeral, whatever that is – I can assure you that it has a consistency of cat food, or worse! A perfect example of something we should have bought ONE of to try before investing in FOUR cans! ? Luckily the Kuna love this stuff & are very happy when David gives it away, a can at a time to visitors as they stop past Winterlude. Some want to sell molas, some want to practice their very limited English and some are just plain curious about how we live. All have bright smiles.

Unfortunately the next morning, Fred’s brother does not have gas – or any other supplies when he returns – the bus carrying the produce had a wreck and there were no veggies – our limited Spanish wasn’t up to the task of finding out why he didn’t have gasoline. So we departed, with 17-20 knots of wind in our sails on a great beam reach behind the reef with only small waves – this was the kind of sailing we set out cruising to enjoy!

Anchored in the Holendes Cayes, San Blas Islands

Anchored in the Holendes Cayes, San Blas Islands

Anchored now at the Islas Holandes, we’re at the final destination in Kuna-land – these islands are the farthest out on the reef & consequently have the clearest water and supposedly best snorkeling. Unfortunately they also suffer from the Cocas Banderos overcrowding situation, so Winterlude follows s/v Kristiana trailblazing a spot into a new and unmarked anchorage. We’re constantly amazed that most boats (luckily for us) prefer to anchor where there are anchors indicated on charts or cruising guides … even if it means 20 or more boats in an anchorage meant for 5!

So we’re securely tucked away from the swell, anchored in 15 feet of clear swimming pool water over a white sand bottom that swallows our anchor. We’re found the perfect anchorage and we spend over a week in this spot, doing laundry when it rains and snorkeling, kayaking & exploring the tiny palm encrusted islands when it’s nice.

We loved the

We loved the “waterslide”, not far from the “Hot Tub” anchorage in the Holendes Cayes, the current in this little cut between the islands is perfect to swim up the mangrove side, then shove off into the middle for a great snorkel ride around to the other side of the beach! Too much fun!

There’s even a vegetable boat that brings fresh veggies from the mainland about once a week – nice to have County Market fresh produce come to you! Unfortunately it’s not cheap, but we’ve been able to buy watermelon, limes, grapefruit, passion fruit, pineapples, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, papaya, onions, christophene (a squash), tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes. Just as unfortunately, we’re about to run out of Joy dishwashing detergent, butter, eggs, frozen meat and gasoline so we were trying to figure out what to do without having to go to Colon (Colon is a rough sail this time of year … 71 miles, but 10 – 15 foot swells from Columbia combined with the northeasterly tradewinds combine to make a downright unpleasant passage – especially trying to come back – keep in mind, Panama runs east & west. From the San Blas to Colon is a due West course, not so bad with a NE wind although the swells are uncomfortable.

At one island, the ladies thought it would be humorous to dress me in their Kuna attire... I still own this blouse & skirt.  Not the rooster scarf though, should have bought that too!   Silly fun.

At one island, the ladies thought it would be humorous to dress me in their Kuna attire… I still own this blouse & skirt. Not the rooster scarf though, should have bought that too! Silly fun.

But returning we would have to sail due EAST, not a good thing with a NE wind – could even be dangerous as one boat recently found out. Aquilla was sailing back from Colon when they hit some charted rocks and the boat sank literally in minutes. Everyone aboard is fine, they stepped up into their Boston Whaler type dinghy & paddled to shore. They also discovered that a Mayday call to the Coast Guard, produced the US Coast Guard on site in a very short time, while the Panamaian Coast Guard took 3 hours.

Because their lives were not endangered, the US Coast Guard had to stand off watching while the Panamanian Coast Guard handled the situation. The boat was a total loss & a too real reminder to the rest of us that cruising is not without risk.

So Winterlude’s solution to manage that risk is to work out a strategy so we don’t have to make the Colon trip!  We’re checking in at Porvenir in the San Blas, then 30 days later, technically we have to go to Colon to check in, but we found that we can fly to Panama City, check in and get supplies there instead. The cost will be a bit more, but we will not have to sail to Colon until after the bad tradewinds season subsides – late March or early April!

That leaves the problem of no gasoline, Joy, butter or fresh meat… but there’ was a cruising boat in the Holandes that capitalized on the dilemma and made a run to Panama City once a month and will do all our grocery shopping! Of course, it’s expensive, he charges 30% of our order, but again, we don’t have to go to Colon!!! HURRAY! Life is good!

Just another sunset in paradise....

Just another sunset in paradise….

And lest you wonder why we’re not feasting on fresh fish here in paradise … the spearfishing here is not as good as Belize or Roatan. The reefs within easy reach of our free diving limits – about 10-15 feet, have lots of fish, but they’re all baby fish. There are HUGE snapper, grouper, crab & lobster, but they’re hidden away down deep. Cruisers regularly share, but Winterlude has only had fresh fish from David’s speargun a couple of times and tuna & yellowtail from our trolling pole twice.

It’s frustrating watching a big grouper swim beneath you, just out of range. It’s almost like they’re singing “na na na na, I know you can’t get me!!!” Since you’re all feeling badly for us, I’ll end this edition of the Winterlude Update! Until next time, we’ll enjoy the nice warm weather, sunshine & swaying palm islands for you!!!

David & Jan
sv Winterlude