San Blas Islands

Colon to San Blas Islands

12th to 25th April

Fine colour and stitchng on a “mola”
My Viking neighbour, Marinus

Shelter Bay Marina, as I said in the last post, was fine, well-run, pleasingly sociable and convenient for transit of the Canal, but for me with over two weeks more to wait, it was unstimulating and expensive, and with little breeze, stiflingly stuffily hot. So I sailed away and have thoroughly enjoyed an excursion back to the east of Panama. 

It wasn’t easy sailing east against prevailing wind and current. After many months of going downwind with Trade Winds I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it can be thrashing to windward in choppy seas and wind to F 6 ; the San Blas islands the goal after two days’ pounding – with just brief overnight stops at Portobelo and Isla Linton on the way.

Overnight anchorage at Portobelo

(Since then, there’s been very little wind other than onshore breeze from late morning most days.)

What of San Blas? ……Quoting from Eric Bauhaus’s excellent “ Panama Cruising Guide”, “The San Blas Islands are a vast archipelago on Panama’s Caribbean coast composed of over 340 islands…..They are unique in many ways, home to the indigenous Guna Indians, who have best preserved their culture and traditions out of all the tribes in the Americas.” The islands stretch, a few miles offshore, for about 100 miles along the Panama virgin rainforest northeast coast towards Colombia (though most of us just sail a small western part). The Gunas call the islands and the adjacent mainland territory Guna Yala. (San Blas was the name given by Spanish invaders so they don’t like it.)…here are some islands…….

Not quite 100, I think

They are autonomous and though they welcome visitors they don’t allow foreigners to buy land or invest in Guna Yala, and non-Guna may not settle or intermarry. There are about 55,000 Guna and they are good-looking and small, ”..rivaled in tribal shortness only by the pygmies.” (Having said which, the ones I’ve met are usually well over 5 feet.) Many of them live to a great age and somewhere I took a photo of a woman who told me she was 100, though personally I think she was probably in her 90’s. She asked for a dollar for her picture to be taken. The story is that they’d seen postcards of themselves in traditional tribal dress for sale in Panama City and the cards cost a dollar! The dollar fee is usual and fine by me. Apart from buying the “molas” or bracelets there are few opportunities here to spend money.

Choosing which molas to buy

But, enough of this, if interested you can no doubt read lots more in Wikipedia and I’m guessing there’ll have been anthropologists at work here. (It would be a pretty soft number for them with such an easy way of life, friendly welcoming inhabitants, lack of jungle creepy crawlies, etc.)

I buy lots

I’ve sailed to several different anchorages in a few of the San Blas Cays, landed on perhaps 15 different islands (“dups”) and bought many “molas”, made by the Guna women, each intricately sewn by stitching and cutting layers of colourful cloth (there’s a photo or two somewhere), and I’ve had a bracelet wound and tied on by the kindly 70-year old Laora (Laura?). (They’re normally just for women but Laora didn’t seem bothered)

My bracelet is fitted and tied by Laora

Lots of  islands are uninhabited but many seem to have a family or two, and some tiny islands have whole villages squeezed onto them.  Until you land, little islands may look deserted, but then lurking beneath the coconut palms, you find a family or two quietly sitting  and chatting, often busy, outside their simple cane and palm-built huts, often supplemented with tarpaulins, furnished with some plastic garden chairs and hammocks. And the crude dug-out canoes are paddled and sailed hither and thither from island to island, trading, fishing and visiting neighbours. (I’ve just traded five avocadoes from Victor who visited in his dug-out, for some milk and tomato paste, which he wanted rather than the dollars I offered.)

It’s hard too to find a completely empty anchorage, though again, I am now nestled in one where “Henrietta” is the sole visitor. (It was a rather sinuous route in avoiding the coral heads and reefs on the way, and I guess that keeps crowds away.) The islands would of course have been emptier 20 years ago before so many yachts started to call in. There must be hundreds of boats here now, many from Panama but many from all over the world, passing briefly or spending months and years here. (It’s becoming a popular place for ‘snowflakes’, i..e. sailors who come here for the winter but then disappear home to America or Europe for the spring and summer, leaving boats in Panama, which is cheaper than East Caribbean and well south of the hurricane belt.)

A few days ago, calmly settled in a once popular anchorage that had no sign of life, I was about to enjoy a swim in solitary isolation when a fellow yachtsman (who must have seen “Henrietta” on AIS) called on VHF and asked if I’d heard about the recent crocodile attack. I said “Yes, but don’t know which island”. Apparently I’d found it. “Swimming is not an option” my fellow yachtsmen advised; and I was grateful for his advice. And left later that day.

Some of what is washed ashore

It seems very unjust that gentle friendly people like these islanders will be early casualties of global warming sea level rises. Few islands are more than a couple of feet above the sea. And they already feel the onslaught of the plastic rubbish that blows across the oceans to end up littering their shores. (And drifting off the subject again, surely it’s long past time to levy heavy taxes on all plastic? And harsh penalties, perhaps disembowelment, for those who carelessly discard it. Maybe too tricky – but please do think hard before you use it. And challenge folk who use it needlessly.)

….noone ever tires of fine sunsets………..

There are too many encounters and sights and incidents to recount in this blog snapshot. Suffice to say these islands have provided some truly rewarding experiences and I am glad that delayed canal transit gave time to visit. I feel quite reluctant to head back to Colon and the Canal Zone. But, as an Australian skipper recently told me, “You need to get a move on mate. It’s a long way across [the Pacific]”. Almost everyone I know is well on their way over by now. As ever, I need a kick up the backside…….

2 responses to “San Blas Islands”

  1. You make me so jealous, in a nice way. Love to read your adventures and can’t wait for our turn. Misty is champing at the bit to get away from this cold northerly wind. Keep safe and enjoy.


  2. HI Michael I love this post, unfortunately I could only skim it as I have a small 6 month old climbing all over me while Simon tears the boat apart trying (unsuccessfully) to fix a leak on the water heater & losing most of his tool to the bilge. Very jealous that you getting to explore all these fabulous places away from the Commercial Caribbean. We are currently in St Maarten and have been for a while, we tried in vane to get to the BVI’s with the plan of heading up as far as New York unfortunately Daisy is not the keen sailor we’d hoped and is still sea sick so turned around and came back. Now we plan to go south again as we need to get out of the hurricane belt for our insurance. A bit disappointing as i was looking forward to exploring new territory but such is life and Daisy’s health and happiness are more important to us. Stay in touch lots of love the Boat Hobo x


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