"Sailing" San Blas

Trip Start Aug 08, 2012
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Blue Sky
What I did
Dog Islands
East Lemmons

Flag of Panama  , Kuna Yala,
Monday, September 3, 2012

Being that this trip took place just over a month ago, this is officially a memoir...

The San Blas Islands consist of 365 islands stretching 200 miles along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Only about 49 of the islands are inhabited (by the Kuna only), but all are Kuna Indian territory, part of the Comarca Kuna Yala, a reservation stretching down the mainland coastline as well. The Kuna are autonomous, managing their own day to day political and social issues under the leadership of a sahila (their spiritual and political leader). The society is matri-lineal and matri-local, so the men must live with his bride's family, acquiring her last name and helping with the finances. The Kuna take pride in their land ownership, and every coconut from every palm tree is spoken for by a particular Kuna family, even on the uninhabited islands. The Kuna have been established on these islands since the Spanish invasion when many left what today is Colombia. They make their living trading/selling coconuts, fishing, lobstering and selling molas, the detailed embroidery work that can also be seen on traditional dress. It is spectacular to see the preservation of their indigenous traditions such as spear fishing and carving out cayuca canoes, but cell phones have made their way to the islands, as well as some electricity and a booming tourism industry.

To read more about the Kuna and fore more pictures of the elaborate Kuna woman dress, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kuna_people

Finding a sailboat to charter us around the San Blas islands was an adventure in itself. As noted in the Portobelo blog, we took a trip up to Portobelo solely to try and find a sailboat out of there that would take us to the islands. What we ended up finding out was that the trip to the San Blas from Portobelo was not that pleasant as it involved about 10 hours on open water before getting to the islands. The better way to do it was to leave from Panama City and go to Carti to catch a boat. We only believed this after talking to a number of sailors that had congregated in Portobelo to dry their sails and drink cheap rum (Abuelo...6 bucks a bottle...not bad).

Many of these cruisers earn an income 'shuttling’ backpackers from Panama to Colombia at a cost of around $500-$600 a pop. They’ll load 10-15 adventure thirsty travelers for a 4-10 day journey at sea to avoid passing the Darien jungle to make the transition from Central to South America. We did leave Portobelo with a couple of options that would require us to wait a few more days.

So, we went back to Panama City to Hostel Mamallena, because as we had discovered, Mamallena along with their sister company, Panama Travel Unlimited, essentially had a monopoly on setting up sailing trips to the San Blas and to Colombia. We had already spoken with the couple that ran Blue Sky Sailing (Debbie and Breeze) and didn't necessarily need to visit Mamallena, but decided to do one last check before committing to sail with Blue Sky. We really wanted to have a bit more freedom to visit more of the islands than we thought we’d be able to do had we booked a Mamallena tour. Ultimately, we agreed on a price with Breeze and Debbie and all was set in place. We had a couple of days to kill and definitely were over Panama City, so we decided to head to El Valle for a couple days (See that blog. I know, a bit like a maze).

After our trip to El Valle for the weekend, we arrived back a bit late to Panama City. Debbie had asked us if we minded picking up some "fruits and vegetables" for the trip because it was difficult to come across produce out on the islands. We agreed, but of course her “fruits and vegetables” ended up being essentially their shopping list that would last them through the next couple weeks. Oh well, whatever.

Getting to the spot where the Blue Sky was anchored required a two hour “4X4” trip from Panama City through the Comarca Kuna Yala to Carti followed by about a 30 minute speed boat ride to the anchorage off the coast of Banedup Island in the East Lemmons. I expected the 4X4 trip to be a bit rugged, but it actually a mellow ride in a really nice Toyota Landcruiser, watching reggaeton music videos on the in-car pop up screen. Panama had definitely capitalized on the tourists and drivers were charging $25 bucks a pop for this ride. The road to Carti is fairly new, and the tourists are beginning to arrive more easily.

The boat ride was fairly uneventful as well and went flawless, as Debbie and Breeze had already arranged with a local Kuna Indian to take us to their boat. Apparently, as we had heard from word of mouth, there were some issues in the past with people going out to Debbie and Breeze’s boat. Unbeknownst to Liz and I, chartering boats in the San Blas is officially illegal (as of just a few weeks prior). Breeze and Debbie left this fact out until we brought it up…Convenient. Nonetheless, we told the Kuna that were collecting the entrance fee to the Comarca de Kuna Yala that we were just going to East Lemmons.

The whole set up of the Comarca de Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands) is a bit strange. The islands are inhabited by the Kuna people who govern the area. It’s not governed by Panama. The rules of the area are must like the Kuna, a bit finicky. The whole reason that chartering the islands is illegal is that the Kunas want to capitalize on all the income generated from their land, which I suppose is reasonable. The means to do so is far from perfect, but is progressing slowly. There is no set fee that I know of for anchoring in the San Blas. We were told that some of the sailors complain about the miniscule fees the Kuna are trying to impose on them for anchoring in their waters. The story changes depending on who you hear it from. Bottom line, it seems like there needs to be some standardization regarding tourism fees and anchoring fees set forth by the Kunas. The younger generation of the Kuna are becoming more savvy regarding management of this situation, and I suspect that the whole tourist industry will dramatically change in the Kuna Yala in the years to come.

Anyhow, we made it to the Blue Sky safe and sound and were greeted by Breeze and Debbie. Being that we left Panama City at 6am, we arrived quite early to the boat. We quickly were given the tour after passing the three boxes of groceries onto Debbie. I found it a bit strange that about the second thing Debbie asked for was payment, but I guess it was good to get it figured out first. It didn’t feel like the warmest welcome. As we found out later, Breeze and Debbie had been sailing (or really posted up in San Blas) for about the last 14 years. They had lived on one sail boat or another for the majority of their lives and even raised their only son on the boat. It would definitely be a different way to grow up. Their son apparently managed it quite well and is now a marine biologist.

The first day we got to the boat it was a bit overcast and started to rain almost right upon our arrival. Great, we thought, a three day trip in the San Blas stuck inside the lower deck. Haha. We passed the remainder of the day/night just hanging out and chatting with Breeze and Debbie (and maybe snuck in a quick nap).

The following morning is when we truly realized the grandeur of the San Blas Islands. We awoke to clear skies and were surrounded by white-sand palm tree covered islands; pretty incredible to see in person. Typically this landscape is only captured in Microsoft Windows screen savers.

That day we would take a short journey over to the Dog Island (not quite sure where this name comes from) to do some snorkeling around a ~60 foot sunken ship and to relax on the island while taking in some sun. We were lucky to have a clear day and truly enjoyed just taking it in. Our newly purchased snorkel and mask sets we obtained in Panama City were proving to be a good investment.

Nights on the Blue Sky involved hanging out on the deck sipping on rum and coke (or wine for Liz of course) while waiting for Debbie to cook up some food. I must say that she did manage to whip up some good food on the boat. We enjoyed listening to Breeze tell us his stories of his hippie days cruising cross country in his VW van from Florida to California. Albeit he told us the same story a number of times, but I suppose that’s what happens when you have several visitors on the boat you haven’t left for 14 years. Coincidentally, he and Liz shared the same interests in musical tasteJ.

I must say that the best snorkeling we did was right off the boat in the Banedup Island area. Debbie and Breeze took us snorkeling along their favorite coral reef which stretched out about a half kilometer or so underwater just due east of their boat. It was quite spectacular to swim amongst schools of fish while taking in the coral reef. It was the best spot we’ve snorkeled in to this day. My nautical vocabulary is a bit lacking so I fall short in describing all the fish we saw, but suffice it to say that the colors had the mind working overtime. We later found out that some other sailors had seen a hammerhead shark in the same stretch of water. We could have been fish bait.

Other highlights were island hopping via kayak, setting sail on the open water at sunset, and sitting on the deck under countless stars each night.  After days of the constant honking of horns and drumming in the streets of Panama City, the peace and quiet of the deck at night was a true gift.

Breeze and Debbie did show us a great time and the San Blas Islands lived up to all our expectations. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity for us. The pictures we’ve posted don’t quite capture the awe of these nearly untouched white sand/coconut palm filled islands surrounded by crystal clear sea.

Here are the websites for the Blue Sky. The first doesn't appear to be working correctly, so we just may have had one of the last charters in the island.



P.S. Two of the Kuna women pictures are obviously not ours. The Kunas typically charge $1 per picture. Apparently this started after a Kuna saw a picture of another Kuna in Panama City selling for $1. 
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