It took us more time than we had hoped to get to the San Blas Islands but it was worth the wait. The San Blas are a group of islands located on the Caribbean coast of Panama adjacent to the Columbian border. The islands are scattered in an archipelago near the coast with several main island groups separated by only a few miles. It’s a picture postcard tropical paradise. The Islands are covered by palms with white sand beaches and often surrounded by reefs. The water is clear creating that azure water in the shallows that always looks so inviting.
The area is inhabited by an indigenous people called the Guna (pronounced Kuna). The government of Panama created a semi-autonomous state called Guna Yala that includes the islands as well as the mountainous interior. The Gunas have a distinctive culture that is the best preserved of all the indigenous societies in the Americas. The society is hierarchical with the Sailas or chiefs of every village controlling all the activities of everyone in the village. Many Gunas still live in the traditional way and many still wear traditional dress however, some villages have adopted more western ways as technology and tourism have encroached on the area.
Our first anchorage in San Blas was at Yansaladup. We’d only been there a few hours when a dugout canoe that the locals call an Ulu pulled alongside. It was Lisa, a master mola maker peddling her wares. Molas are a hand stitched rectangle of cloth that are made from different layers of colorful cloth. Each mola is unique and usually has a geometric pattern or abstract form of a bird, fish or other marine life. They are traditionally worn by Guna women on the front and back of their blouses but have become Panama’s most famous handicraft. Interestingly, Lisa is a well-known transvestite. Transvestites are not uncommon among the Guna and apparently carry no stigma. Robin, who’s been looking forward to mola shopping, invited her aboard where we sat in the cockpit going through many dozens of molas. After much discussion about quality and price Robin became the proud owner of a couple of Molas. Over the next few days we were visited by several other ulus with Guna selling molas. Robin added to her collection with purchases from Venancio, another master mola maker as well as something from everyone who was hawking their goods. Most of the islands are uninhabited which means the small stores are very few and far apart. We provisioned in Bocas and Colon but get our fresh goods from the locals who come out in their ulus selling veggies, fruits, Guna bread, sea food and occasionally eggs and chicken.
Jake and Jackie from the sailing vessel Ho’kolea out of Redondo Beach sailed into the San Blas. They left Redondo back in 2010 and having sailed across the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans were nearing the end of their circumnavigation. We spent a memorable day on a hike up to a waterfall on the mainland guided by Lisa, the transvestite mola maker. The water was clear and cool and there was a very nice swimming hole just below the falls. We jumped off a big rock around 20 feet above the water and over rocks sticking out several feet. After enjoying their company for a few days Ho’kolea headed for the Canal and the trip back to California.
Of course, everything didn’t go as planned. We started having issues with the generator proving the old adage that cruising means working on your boat in exotic places true yet again. Mike spent many hours fussing with it and talking to other cruisers about the issue to no avail. We eventually got in touch with Mike on Gillana, a South African who was formally an engineer on a diesel submarine. After only a few minutes he diagnosed the issue and it wasn’t good news. The pulley that held the timing belt on the cam shaft was slipping due to an improper installation. Ugh. We were thinking we’d have to head back to Shelter Bay and perhaps be in for a long repair. Nope, Gilana Mike turned out to be an engineering genius. He fabricated a part we needed from a spare that he had on hand, then installed it on our generator. Viola! The genny was back in business. It’s amazing the people that you run into “out there.”
With the Generator back in business we turned our attention to more mundane boat chores and having fun. We settled into a routine of a couple of hours of boat maintenance in the morning followed by a fun activity in the afternoon. We took dingy adventures to walk the beaches of nearby small islands or went for a snorkel on one of the many reefs. The snorkeling has been good bit some of the reefs have been quite effected by coral bleaching. However, we did spot a multitude of interesting marine wildlife: an octopus, a big moray eel, a monster sting ray, lobsters as well as many colorful reef fish. Mike spotted a large French Angelfish under an overhand that was 18 inches across.
We visited several anchorages and found Eric Bauhauses’ “The Panama Cruising Guide” exceptionally well done. It’s a must have for new cruisers to the San Blas. There are many reefs and sand banks and the water depth can go from 100 feet to 1 foot over a very short distance but “The Panama Cruising Guide has excellent charts and navigation information that allows you to plot a safe course and keep the boat off the bottom. After beginning our stay near Yansaladup in the Lemmon Keys we moved over to the “Hot Tub” anchorage in the Hollandes, then on to the Coco Banderos before heading to Cambombia in the Naguarandup Cays where we spent Christmas and before heading for Waisaladup. For Christmas we gave some small toys to the seven kids living on the Island who frolicked on the beach with the water toys and balls. Robin arranged with the locals to have a pot luck on the beach Christmas afternoon which drew a big, international crowd. We had Americans, even a young couple from Oklahoma, Italians, Norwegians, Portuguese, Brazilians as well as a big contingent of Gunas. New Years Eve found us aboard Blue Sky for a fabulous pot luck followed by a jam session where Mike shared his lack of Talent on the Harmonica with everyone.
Our first month in San Blas was a memorable one. We overcame a challenge with the generator and enjoyed the beauty of the archipelago both above and below the water. We also caught up with some old friends as well as made some new ones. Many people ask us what our plans are and we usually say that our plan is that we don’t have a plan. We find somewhere we like and we stay there until we want to go somewhere else. This is a place we like.