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Captain Log ID: 647
Title: Cruising The San Blas
Boat Name(Id): Eclipse ( 1716)
Sailor Name(Id): Richard Woods ( 4447)
Geo Region: San Blas Panama
Date of Occurance: 2005-03-21
Latitude: S 9º   0'
Longitude: W 79º   0'
Sender (if email-in):
Earlier log from "Eclipse":  610
Newer log from "Eclipse":  
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Cruising the San Blas We spent nearly 2 months in the San Blas archipelago, more correctly known as Kuna Yala (Land of the Kuna), which is an autonomous region of NE Panama. It's an area not much bigger than the Solent or San Francisco Bay yet comprises nearly 400 islands. The vast majority are covered with coconut trees and surrounded by white sand beaches, however only 40 or so are inhabited. Although the islands are small, the surrounding reefs are extensive. Thus, even when the prevailing NE trade winds blow hard, the water stays flat and smooth. Furthermore, we found that there is usually no need to sail more than 10 miles from one island anchorage to the next. It could all make the San Blas the charter capital of the world. I thought it a better place to go for a week's sailing holiday than either the Grenadines or Greece for example. Not only was the sailing easy, but we also found that the snorkelling was consistently better than in Belize or the Bahamas. Understandably, the local people - the Kuna - don't like the idea of tourists invading their lands. So there are no hotels except for a few basic ones run by the Kuna themselves. Although large cruise ships no longer visit the San Blas a couple of smaller ones, taking 50 passengers each, still do. If you don't have your own boat, going on one of these is probably the only sensible way to see the islands as even chartering is discouraged. There are about 50,000 Kuna, half of whom live outside the San Blas, mainly doing menial jobs in Panama City. Apparently they are the second smallest race of people in the world (after the African pygmies). I am only 5ft 8in tall, and it felt strange to be able to look down on all the men and to be head and shoulders above all the women. Indeed I decided that one reason why the area is such a fascinating cruising ground is because of the Kuna themselves, who are resisting the influence of "stupid white men" to a remarkable degree. Even to the extent that on several islands the islanders have voted not to have electricity as they felt it would change their life style too much. There are drawbacks to their policy of non-integration, though. For example, there is a lot of in-breeding, as evidenced by the number of albinos we saw. Despite that, everyone looked very fit and healthy. Although most of the men speak Spanish and wear western clothes, the women can often only speak Kuna and usually dress traditionally in their world famous "Molas". These are multi-layer stitched fabric panels made using a "reverse appliqué" technique. They are usually about 18in square and we soon realised that there are two types. The traditional ones have intricate, abstract designs, whereas the modern ones, made for tourists, tend to be more pictorial. But all involve hours of work. At every corner we would see a Kuna lady sitting, head bowed, busily stitching away. Even I could appreciate the skill involved and we thought them well worth the 10-15 USD they cost. So we bought a few! Our favourite is a traditional mola illustrating an eclipse. It now takes pride of place in Eclipse's saloon. For hundreds of years the Kuna have run a successful, stable democracy. Everyone over 18 can vote for the village chiefs who are elected for life; however, the chiefs themselves can only be men and only married couples can take part in village discussions. There is very little crime and residents of one island have to get permission to leave it before going to another, presumably to keep the island populations reasonably constant. Although no one owns any land, every coconut tree is owned and many islands have temporary caretakers looking after them. We quickly learnt that although a Kuna lady may wear "funny" clothes, live in a bamboo hut and have a gold ring in her nose, she is still a shrewd businesswoman who knows exactly what we could afford and what her molas are worth. Getting to the San Blas is difficult, and even for a yacht the San Blas are remote. A few tourists fly in on small planes, while for the Kuna getting to "civilization" usually involves a 30 mile trip in a small boat along a rough lee shore, followed by a 3 hour coach to the city of Colon. This is the route all the supply boats have to take, so of course it also makes it difficult to get provisions in the islands. We had thought that Tobobe and Isla Grande were the end of the line until, that is, we got to the San Blas. Other cruisers had warned us that it was hard to buy fuel and food, but as veterans of Cuba we felt they were probably exaggerating - but they weren't! Even essentials like bread and milk were difficult to get. Most vegetables were impossible to find and chicken, the staple meat of Central America, was very expensive. Thus the Kuna live primarily on a diet of coconuts, rice and fish. Canoeists did occasionally come by offering fish, but usually they wanted to sell molas or undersized lobsters. A lost opportunity I feel. Enough social studies; back to the sailing. Provenir, the entry island for the San Blas is a very small island, with only a short airstrip, hotel and immigration office. So it was difficult to find anywhere to anchor safely, especially as before we had got the anchor properly set we had two canoes tied up alongside, both full of Kuna ladies trying to sell us Molas. We smiled, indicated we were tired from our journey and then politely ignored them by going below. After about 10 minutes they left, as another boat was coming to anchor. We had been warned about the pushy Mola sellers, but this was the only time in 2 months that they were this tenacious. Even on the short sail from Provenir to the West Lemon Cays we realised that the San Blas were something special. Everywhere we looked we could see coconut trees and white sand covered islands - the archetypical desert islands were all around us. It didn't take us long to decide that we had to spend as much time as possible in the islands. There are effectively three rows of islands in the San Blas, each row running roughly east-west and each about 4 miles from the next row. Accordingly, we decided to first sail to the West Hollandes as they were the furthest to windward. After that everywhere else should be off wind in flat water - ideal sailing! Possibly the 8 mile beat puts other cruisers off, which is why we only saw one other boat there, but we found the West Hollandes to be a good anchorage with an easy no-reef approach. We also discovered that the snorkelling was excellent along the edge of the reef between the two main islands. Regretfully we couldn't stay long as my sister Diana would be arriving a couple of weeks later for her annual sail, so we decided to do quick tour of all the islands to find best spots to take her. Thus we only stayed a day before sailing on in the flat water in the lee of the Hollandes reef to the East Hollandes. This is the most popular anchorage in the San Blas and with good reason. It is a very protected group of several small islands, so one can always find somewhere sheltered to anchor, even when the current over the reef runs hard and the trade wind blows. The whole group is surrounded by a reef, which offered yet more excellent snorkelling. The pure white sand and clear shallow water resulted in some fantastic blues and it was easy to see why one anchorage was called the "Swimming Pool". As a result it's extremely popular with cruisers and there is a regular Monday night "Potluck Party" where stories are swapped, beer drunk and garbage burnt. All in all, it had my vote as the world's best anchorage. On Tuesdays most boats leave, but we stayed on, as we wanted to spend more time snorkelling over the reefs. As a result, we got caught by the harbour master. We paid 5USD to cover anchoring for one month - not bad value! We even got an official receipt. Later he invited us for a meal in his house, and we discovered that eating out in the San Blas is a unique experience: our meal was a large bowl of cold rice and 5 fried fish heads. We were now running short of fresh food so sailed on, first to Green Cay, where a number of long term cruisers hang out indefinitely. We anchored and then swam out to check that the anchor was set properly before swimming to the beach. Hardly had we got out of the water when another cruiser dinghied over and told us he'd give us a lift back to the boat. "Why?" we asked. "Crocodile," he said. We took the lift! That evening we saw it swimming past our boat. We learned later that there is another crocodile living in the Middle Hollandes. A few days later we sailed the three miles to Nargana. This is an island with a fairly good shop and where we were also able to get fuel. Nearby is the Rio Diablo, and we had a good dinghy trip up this narrow river, although we found that the mouth had a very shallow bar. After about one hour motoring, we came to a sign saying "no motors after this point". That's because the water was now fresh and after rowing a few hundred yards further the river passed over some gravel beds and we could collect water clean enough to drink. Allegedly there are monkeys here, but we didn't see any, instead we saw lots of birds and big butterflies. Diana arrived, sans luggage, and we made another circuit of all the islands - the Hollandes, Salar, Lemon Cay - that we had enjoyed during our first couple of weeks. One day as we sailed along we noticed a canoe behind us. A couple of hours later we anchored and eventually the Kuna ladies sailing it caught us up. They said they had followed us all day, so after all that effort Diana and Jetti felt they just had to buy some more molas. At the end of Diana's stay we became one of the first cruisers of the year to visit Carti. The Carti group is somewhat off the beaten track (ie they are 5 miles downwind!) These are tiny islands, but with some very friendly people living in seemingly very cramped conditions. Walking round Yanatupu, we found it a real rabbit's warren, with narrow sandy paths between the houses and with every available square inch used. The houses are very simply built from tree trunks lashed together. Split bamboos form the walls and the roofs are thatched. But why no diagonal bracing? After a few years most houses take on a pronounced lean. As I said earlier, the Kuna are very short, so we were constantly ducking the low-hanging eaves. We saw no litter, and everything was amazingly clean, as is typical on all the traditionally run islands. On Tupile, we found a tour guide who promised us an inland adventure, and hired a canoe, which took us some miles up a jungle river. There then followed a one and a half hour walk through the jungle to a remote village of a small cluster of houses and a school, apparently miles from the next village and surrounded by banana and coffee plantations. We were to have lunch here, so we were invited into a house. Inside we found a bare floor, no furniture of course, and our lunch chef cooking on an open fire. The Kuna sleep in hammocks, which are stowed in the roof during the day. It is always cool in the houses, as the bamboo slats let air through but not the rain. We thought the guide was joking when he said the main course for lunch was iguana. But he wasn't. Diana seemed to enjoy the meal more than I did. Next day Diana flew home to the UK, while we went back to the incredible blues of the East Hollandes for another week or two. We decided to stay in the Kuna Yala until after their independence day on Feb 25th. We sailed back to the Carti island group where they would be re-enacting the events of 1925 when the Kuna fought against the Panamanian police to win the right to govern their own lands. As we were the only tourists present we were given chairs and thus felt like the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh must do when presiding over native displays. The festivities began with a parade through the street (no plural on this island!), followed by a display of dances from each island. These seemed to be quite formal affairs, although we gathered that more casual dances take place regularly. As they danced the men played Pan Pipes and the women maracas. Each dance was quite long and it must have required a lot of stamina, concentration and breath control. Then came the highlight of the day, as groups of young men, some playing the part of the Panamanian police, others the heroic bow and arrow wielding Kuna, re-enacted the events of 80 years ago. Sometimes the Panamanian soldiers would maltreat the Kuna, sometimes it was the other way round, but at least that way all the participants got their turn to be violent. To an outsider it seemed very confusing, especially as our translator got more and more excited as the day wore on. At the end of each battle the losers would be carried off and thrown in the sea. I'm not sure why, but I got involved as well. I was the nominal American who was given a new wife (at least that's what I hoped I got!). To recover from all the excitement we spent a few final days relaxing at the East Lemon Cays. Again the snorkelling on the reef was superb, but for me the highlight was to be invited to sail on one of the local canoes. The simple dugouts are normally paddled around an island, but then sailed between the islands. Despite old bed sheets for sails, they are surprisingly fast. I also found the canoe to be surprisingly stable. It is steered by simply holding the paddle over the side. There is no lee board so all the canoes make amazing leeway. I can understand that it takes some lateral thinking (pun intended!) to come up with an outrigger canoe or even a catamaran, but the Kuna have the materials to make a Viking style rudder and Thames barge leeboards, so I can't help but wonder why they never have. Finally it was time to leave. The wind had blown from the NE all the time we were in the San Blas so we were looking forward to a good 40 mile reach back to Panamarina where we were to leave the boat. Sadly the day we left was a flat calm and we had to motor the whole way. It then took a couple of days to de-commission the boat before we were able to leave for Colon, where we hoped to get a lift through the Panama Canal. The Canal Authorities insist that every yacht transiting the canal has a pilot, helmsman and 4 line handlers. So as most boats are sailed by couples we hoped to be able to get a ride quite easily.