The San Blas Islands of Panama
April 10th – 23rd 2017
Our passage from Jamaica to the San Blas Islands was yet another whopper of a sail. Clocking in at 552 miles took us four days and change. The trip was uneventful with light winds from the NE most of the way. Occasionally the breeze picked up enough to warrant shutting down the thumping of our engines, which was music to our ears. This part of the Caribbean is renowned for strong easterly trade winds, rough seas with the odd rogue wave thrown in for good measure. Thankfully we had none of that nonsense.
We saw very few ships, had a small hitchhiker drop in for a few hours and were blessed with a full moon to light the way. On our last day at sea a suicidal yellowfin tuna decided to end his life by jumping on one of our trolling lines. The bounty of the sea gave us fresh sashimi for days to come.
The San Blas Islands are strewn with surrounding reefs that have crunched many a boat over the years. Now it’s not generally in our nature to make a night landfall in a place that we haven’t already sailed into during daylight hours. And if we hadn’t had the paperback and electronic copy of Eric Bauhaus excellent book, “The Panama Cruising Guide”, we would have stayed out the front in a holding pattern until dawn. But armed with waypoints in we went, gingerly I might add.
Our landfall was to be the island of Porviner, but that decision was revised due to weariness, so we turned left once through the reef and headed for Chichime. The outline of the island came and went as clouds covered our guiding light. We dropped the anchor in 40-50ft, dug it in and hit the hay after the obligatory adult beverage to celebrate landfall in a new country.
When we awoke the next morning the WOW factor hit us big time. We’d heard from many others that these islands were beautiful and what we were looking out at certainly was. White sand, a beach full of swaying palm trees and a couple of huts. It was perfect.
Once we got our act together we motored over to Porvenir to check-in.The anchorage was quite small and rather deep at 60ft but we snuck in close and found a patch of sand with 25ft of water.
While we were anchoring a dug out canoe full of Kuna women, the indigenous people of the San Blas Islands, selling their colourful hand sewn fabric Molas arrived. They hung around during our whole anchoring dance but sadly we had to turn them away as our priority was to clear in with the authorities. The ladies were not impressed at the lack of a sale. below is an example of their work, but these are not the ones I bought.
A friendly local on shore guided us in through the reef, waving for us to go this way then that to avoid the jagged rocks. Once ashore and tied to the dinghy dock he escorted us across the small airstrip to the immigration building. We paid our Kuna Congresso levy of $20 US which is valid throughout the island chain, so no further fees or anchoring fees would be charged, and then was told that the immigration officer had cut his foot and had gone to hospital on another island. They guessed he’d be back in about an hour so we decided to wait it our and have lunch at the small restaurant next to the airstrip. Time went by and the news came ..Manana, come back tomorrow.
So off we went back over to Chichime for the night and back to Porvenir next morning. This time immigration was on site but when I asked about his foot he didn’t know what I meant, something definitely lost in translation there.
We paid our $20 US fee and got stamped into the country…just not sure for how long but we think it was 6 months. Now we just needed a cruising permit, but alas no, Panama wins again. The Port Captain, despite what we had heard and read on noonsite was not there but was over at Linton Bay. Oh well, we’ll just poodle around without one for a week or two and pick it up on our way to Colon.
Leaving Porvenir we decided to head as far east as we could given our timeframe of 14 days.This would mean that we’d be hitting the most popular cruising areas in the San Blas and from what we’d already seen we wouldn’t be alone. Our first stop was at Green Island, also known as Kanilildup. After negotiating the reef we anchored in about 30ft of water with five other boats, one of which was a backpacker boat. Being the uninitiated, little did we know how noisy these type of boats can be!
We’d never heard of backpacker boats before but we soon found out that they are everywhere down here. With no roads connecting the western part of Columbia to Panama the only way to go between the the two countries, apart from flying is by boat. It’s a whole unregulated growing industry that has sprung up in this area.
Most boats carry between 10 -16 people and it usually takes 4-5 days to do the trip. On offer is very basic food, the major component being rice and beans. Three meals a day are supplied as well as drinking water and a mattress or hammock. The boats are pretty basic to say the least, some are catamarans and some are old style monohulls.
The fare is usually $500US and you don’t necessarily get to be on the 50ft boat that you were told you’d be on when you booked, but instead you front up to the dock and see seven others clambering aboard a 32ft boat with your name on it. Talk about overcrowding. I guess the world has changed and the GenY kids just want adventure without the creature comforts we Boomers have grown to know and love. Imagine the fare we could charge on GWTW, not that we’d ever do that.
So back to Green Island. It was a very pretty, heavily palm tree laden island encompassed by a large surrounding reef . We snorkeled a couple of spots but sadly the reefs were brown with a distinct lack of fish life, We figured that there may have been a thermal spring close by as the water temps were far warmer in some places than others.
Next morning we headed off to Cayo Banderas, a picture post card anchorage nestled between three islands. This was a very popular little place and we stayed three days before moving on. Everyday dugouts would come past selling either Molas, of which I bought a few, or fresh fish.
Then there was one very enterprising guy who we nicknamed the Kuna Warrior as he looked like Cochise. Apart from selling lobsters his inventory also included diesel, fruit and veg, bread, bottled water, beer and he ‘d even take your washing and bring it back clean tomorrow. If we’d asked for drugs I bet he could have got them too.
Our order was for lobster, bread and tomatoes. The lobsters were alive when he arrived but not for long. He dispatched them by separating their body from the head in a violent twisting motion. Very barbaric to say the least. We got six big ones for $10 each and three medium for $15. So the body count in my freezer now stands at nine but I’m sure that will increase before we leave the San Blas.
Next up on the spreadsheet was the Eastern Holandes Islands just a little further to the north. The anchorage, aptly named the Swimming Pool, had our names on it and as these islands are the furthest out they are reported to have the clearest waters for snorkeling. The weather was a bit overcast during our stay so most of the underwater shots didn’t do justice for posting on the blog. But Liam did send Shadow the drone up for some arial footage
Once again Liam launched Shadow and got some great shots. One day I’ll work out how to embed the footage into the blog.
That night we enjoyed dinner and a lovely evening onboard a German flagged cat named WIKI. We’d run into them at the Swimming Pool, having not seen them since our time in Marmaris, Turkey back in 2008-09. It’s a real small world out here.
Moving westwards we spent two nights anchored off Banedup where we found a lovely little restaurant and bar ashore. It was that good that we ate there twice. Amongst the patrons there we got chatting to two Aussie backpackers from Melbourne. One was a customs officer at Tullamarine Airport and his girlfriend an ICU nurse. They enlightened us a little more to the backpacker boat thing and we got the vibe that it wasn’t quite as romantic as it had been made out to be.
Leaving Banedup we toddled over to Dog Island for a quick snorkel on a sunken Barge before continuing west to the Lemon Cays. The barge lay in about 30 feet of water at the stern and just peeping out at the bow. The currents were pretty strong which made for a fast downhill glide once we made it to the bow. Rumor has it that the barge starting taking on water and to save his cargo the captain headed for the closest island with shallow water bumping his way over the reef on the way in.
The reef that runs alongside the Island of Tiadup was yet another good snorkel with lots of colour and fish and the waters again lived up to their gin clear reputation. With our time in the San Blas coming to an end we could only afford one night here so we spent the afternoon under the shade of our new kickass front awning. We had it made while in Georgia just for times like this. And we are loving the new addition.
Our last night was on the anchor back at Chichime where we first stopped when we arrived. After two wonderful weeks we’d pretty much seen the best the San Blas had to offer. Oh, and by the time we left the lobster count in my freezer was up to sixteen! and we’d already munched through a few along the way.
Cruiser Info: Don’t leave home without the “Panama Cruising Guide” by Eric Bauhaus. It is the bible for these waters and the rest of Panama. It’s expensive but way cheaper than repairing your boat if you hit a reef!
Formalities: Porviner: Check in for Kuna Congresso $ 20 pp and Immigration $20 total for. Cruising permit from Port Captain in Puerto Lindo at the marina in Linton Bay $205 US valid for 1 year for all Panama waters. Things change down here on a whim so check cruiser websites and noonsite for up to date info.
Provisions : Very limited in San Blas, bring it all from somewhere else
Connectivity. Limited wi-fi signal via Digicel and Movil carriers.