There are 300 or so islands off the coast of Panama which are known as the San Blas islands by us gringos and “Kuna Yala” by the indigenous Kuna indians whose way of life has changed little in the last 2000 years. They still live in little thatched huts with earthen floors and bamboo walls, go fishing in traditional dug out canoes, collect their water from the rivers, pick coconuts and wild mangoes from the jungle, and trade with passing Colombian boats.
The Darien peninsula and the off-lying islands were once part of Colombia but now come under Panamanian control, however the Kuna are given special privileges (government subsidies) to enable them to preserve their traditional way of life, although many have satellite TV’s, solar panels and mobile phones in their thatched huts, and big new Yamaha outboards on their boats, a curious mix!
The mainland Darien Peninsula is mostly impenetrable jungle which is why the Kuna live on the coastal desert islands as fisher folk. Each inhabited island has its own set of Chiefs, or Sailas as they call them, who hold open meetings most days in the council hut to hear petitions and dispense wisdom and justice, the way it has been for the last thousand years. They are a happy go lucky people who are tolerant of the yachties who are the only outsiders they really see and who provide them with their major source of income, buying their crafts, fruit and vegetables and fish, lobster and crab.
Unfortunately this subsidy dependant people have become greedy over recent years and see us cruisers as fair game nowadays, trying to charge us for anchoring and visiting islands and anything else they can dream up, so there’s a cat and mouse game between the yachties trying to avoid paying and the Kuna trying to collect our dollars. I refused to pay on one occasion which didn’t go down well with the Kuna boatmen and we were ordered out of the anchorage, but we ignored them and stayed till morning when the sun had risen to show the surrounding reefs and our way out. We try to explain to them if they make it too expensive and unwelcoming, boats will stop coming and they’ll lose the revenue from selling goods and services. Some recognise this but most see us as a way of making easy money and don’t want to change. The cruise ships have already stopped visiting the islands because they overcharged, from our point of view that’s good news but for them its a financial disaster they killed the golden goose. It’s the fishermen and their wives who sew the beautiful Molas who will lose out if the yachts stop coming, Some work hard for a living and charge a fair price for their labour.
The Molas which are made from several layers of different coloured material are beautifully embroidered, pulling colours from the lower layers to build a traditional picture of fish, birds, or jungle flowers, or other things which form a part of their lives. The best of these sell for $50 but can take two to three months of painstaking work to make and are a real work of art. Some of the best of these Molas are made by transvestites who dress and live as women in the village communities quite accepted by their society. The most famous of these is Lisa and the photo below shows her sewing her name onto a Mola bought by Gill. These Mola makers and fishermen will paddle their dugouts from island to island looking for customers to buy their goods, often spending 6 hours a day travelling just on the off chance of finding a yacht crew who will buy from them.
The islands which are mostly uninhabited are everyone’s dream of desert islands with white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, gorgeous surrounding reefs and coconut palm trees swaying over the warm water. So we pick our way through the reefs, drop anchor in sandy bays, swim ashore in clear waters and go exploring. Sometimes it’s like that but there’s always a downside in paradise – some of the beaches are fringed by razor sharp coral making it difficult to land; some of the islands are owned by biting sand flies and mosquitoes and; the windward side of most islands is littered with rubbish washed up on the shore. When you find a good one it’s great and we have found a few! You do need bright sunshine however to show up the reefs as you move around so we tend to sail from island to island between 10.00 am and 2.00 pm when the sun is high. Twelve boats have been wrecked on the surrounding reefs between January and April of this year and many of them are still lying as a reminder to us all that these are difficult waters to navigate.
Otherwise this is very relaxed cruising, in the mornings after breakfast of fresh fruit, cornflakes and home baked bread we either clean the boat (at least Gill does) or do maintenance jobs from the never ending list or make bread or cakes and in the afternoons we swim, explore the island where we’ve anchored, talk to the Kuna who come by to sell fish, vegetables and fruit from their dugout canoes in our pigeon Spanish, we read ( I’ve been reading War and Peace for the last 6 weeks and nearly half way through!), snorkel on the reefs or go ashore to burn our rubbish (there isn’t any other way to dispose of it, if you give it to the Kuna they tip it in the water on the way home) which is an excuse for a bonfire and we flatten all our cans in our can squasher and give them to the Kuna who can claim back money for recycling them. I gave up fishing as a pastime and source of food as I don’t think there are any fish left and its a complete waste of time. The Kuna hunt them with spearguns and now you hardly see any eating fish on the reefs anymore. It’s easier to buy the fish off the Kuna for a couple of dollars. We also have to shop on the inhabited islands for fresh fruit and veg and when our fridge packed in we could only keep it edible for a couple of days. There is also the social life and mixing with other cruisers and by listening to the radio net each morning you can find out what’s going on and it’s a useful source of information and advice. So all this keeps us pretty busy and out of mischief.
Of course life is never that straightforward, there are our resources to manage on the boat to enable us to survive away from civilisation, fuel, electrical power, water all of which are difficult to come by normally but especially here. Fuel has to be transported by Jerry cans in the dinghy and siphoned into our tanks, a lengthy and laborious job. Our main source of electricity is our solar panels which I had fitted in Guatemala; they’re brilliant but they do need the sun to shine. If it doesn’t then we have a wind generator but this is the calm season so most days there is little wind and if that’s the case we have to run the engine but at 5 litres an hour this is an expensive way to generate power and puts hours on the engine, reducing the service life. We have to check the battery state several times a day as it is a crucial resource for us with so many electronics on the boat and fridge and freezer to keep going and iPads and Kindles and phones to charge.
Water comes to us from the sky and when we do get a tropical downpour it doesn’t take long to fill the tanks and we can have a “free” shower at the same time. The problem however is that this is now 6 weeks into the rainy season and it hasn’t rained much so we had to make for a village at the mouth of one of the rivers and fill up with river water. Fortunately we have dosing chemicals and a good filtration system on board. The tanks hold 700 litres of water and we have a water maker which is electrically driven but we use a lot of fresh water despite having a sea water tap for washing dishes and cooking. We need to shower everyday partly because of the heat but also to wash off the salt when we have been swimming, so a shower each evening is a regular event to prevent sores and keep clean.
Washing clothes probably uses the next most water, we only wear shorts and a bikini on the boat and tee shirts ashore which isn’t much but bedding once a week uses a lot. On one occasion we took our washing up the Rio Diablo in the dinghy and washed it in the river much to the amusement of the Kuna Indians who were doing the same (this wasn’t the same river where we got our drinking water). So all you folk back home with your automatic front loaders, think yourselves lucky, it took us four hours to paddle up and down the river, do our washing in the heart of the jungle waist deep in water keeping a weather eye out for crocodiles but you’ll be glad to know we never saw any.
The other issue we always have to be careful with is weather so we pick up daily area forecasts each day on our long range SSB radio from the US or the local net which also gives us the opportunity to stay in touch with friends who are also cruising the San Blas and exchange weather reports. This season is characterised by light variable winds with squalls and thunder storms. In the squalls wind speeds can reach 50 miles an hour or more and come from any direction. If you’re in an anchorage surrounded by reef as most of them are and the wind reverses it can easily pull out the anchor and off you go! This means we sleep lightly and get up to check regularly. If the wind is light then the bugs can fly in sorties out to your boat in search of fresh meat and although we are well protected with mosquito nets they still manage to squeeze in sometimes through the smallest of holes if we are not careful. The other problem with light wind is the heat, especially at night. We have wind scoops to pick up the slightest breeze but if there really is no wind we stew or put on the fans and consume more of our precious electricity.
If stuff breaks down out here and you can’t fix it yourself it stays broken, there are no mechanics or electricians and no spares for 500 miles. Two weeks ago our new fridge unit packed in with a gas leak so we only have a freezer (fingers crossed) but nowhere to keep fruit and veg or milk etc. Gill freezes the milk in small containers otherwise it goes off in a day and we have discovered the novelty of snow milk on our cornflakes. We can only keep fruit and veg for a few days but fortunately the Kuna boats come around with mangoes, banana and avocado which seems to be the only available produce. They are fishermen rather than farmers and a number of attempts to get them to grow produce on a commercial scale have all failed? The Colombian boats bring in fresh produce but you have to know which day or you make a long journey to a village only to find the boats arrive tomorrow and they have nothing. The only meat you can buy is chicken but fortunately we stocked our freezer with meat in Guatemala and still have plenty left. it’s not all bad news though, the one thing in plentiful supply is beer! You can’t buy milk but you can buy beer but without a fridge it’s warm, warm lager beer!
The other two things that broke were the toilet pump in the aft heads and one of the rings on the gas hob, fortunately we have two more rings and another toilet up forward but it’s getting tight now because the second one has started to leak and we don’t relish the old bucket and chuck it toilet routine. We are also getting low on gas and our nearest supply is 70 miles away or a day’s sailing.
Despite all of these problems in paradise we are enjoying ourselves and meeting up with old friends and relaxing in the sun. It’s still an interesting cruising ground and with 300 islands in the archipelago we are never short of somewhere to go and it’s not very far to the next island, yet another with white sandy beaches, coconut palms, warm seas and reefs. You would think with so many islands you would never see anyone but we were anchored in Snug Harbour, a lovely well protected anchorage between three islands when a shout rang out one afternoon while we were reading in the cockpit. It was some Australian friends Nick and Andrea and daughter Millie on Muneera who had just sailed up from Carthagena in Columbia and randomly stopped for a rest at our anchorage, after their 200 mile journey. We sank a few beers while we exchanged news and experiences. They were en route to pick up their other daughter Ella who had been staying in France with other cruising friends and was due to arrive back in Panama before they transited the canal en-route to Australia to complete the girls’ education. It was great to see them again and a fluky coincidence they happened to stop where they did.
It happened again while we were anchored in the Coco Bandero islands and some friends we last met in a cafe on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands sailed into the anchorage and dropped the hook next to us. Another occasion for catching up and we spent the next couple of weeks cruising off and on, in company with Hella and David.
As we were coming to the end of our stay here in San Blas we decided to position the boat ready to head off west to Colon and the canal. We had decided to leave the boat in Shelter Bay Marina at the entrance to the canal while we went off to the US and Canada in June. The marina did a 6 month low season deal which suited us especially since they had credible repair facilities or so we have been told. A convenient place for us to head off from was the West Lemmon Cays, a group of islands with a nice central anchorage which unfortunately was difficult to get into, through narrow passages in the reefs and a winding channel. We had tried to get in on an earlier occasion but the seas had been quite rough, the light was poor for spotting reefs and the entrance very tight and convoluted, so we went elsewhere. This time the sun was high, the seas had calmed and we made for the waypoint (latitude and longitude) marking the entrance. I turned and went to go in but wasn’t happy with one of the waypoints so I pulled back and re-programmed the plotter and we went back to the entrance point and headed in through the tight channel. This took the entire concentration of us both until we reached the anchorage pool where we breathed a sigh of relief and dropped anchor and had lunch. I should have mentioned that this was on my birthday and one of the surrounding islands had a restaurant which we thought we would dinghy ashore to and check out. I went to the stern to get ready but the dinghy was no longer tied to the aft rail, we had both seen the dinghy when we stopped to reprogram the plotter just outside the entrance so we thought it couldn’t have gone far in the intervening three hours and weighed anchor to go off in search. We scanned the surrounding islands with binoculars and followed the wind direction for two hours without luck. Light was failing so we headed back to the anchorage in the Lemmon Cays to wait for morning and report our loss. We had no way of getting ashore now other than swimming so dinner ashore was out of the question. It put a real damper on my birthday, replacing it and the outboard would cost around $4,000 not to mention the inconvenience in the meantime. The following morning I put out a call on our radio reporting on the Panama Net to alert other cruisers. I also swam to the nearby island with the restaurant and talked to the ferry boat guys asking them to spread the word and offering a reward and telephoned some of the Kuna people we knew on downwind islands and we reported it to the Port Captain in Porvenir.
Our friends Hella and David immediately came to our rescue sailing up from a nearby anchorage. David took me around the surrounding islands in their dinghy but we saw nothing. I plotted the wind direction and mapped an area out where it might have gone, drifting towards the mainland and Gill and I decided to search this area, David and Hella kindly loaned us their kayak so we could go ashore when required and the following morning we headed south towards the mainland. On the first island we drew a blank but asked them to keep a look out and I distributed cards with our local telephone number on.
As we were approaching the second island, Carti we sailed in alongside some other cruisers on “Blue Sky” who suggested by radio that we follow them and advised we spoke to a man called Elojio who had his finger in lots of pies. As we dropped anchor they told us they already had his father John on board and he had told them they had our dinghy. We had already met John on a previous visit to Carti and I had already telephoned his other son Germain to explain our predicament and he had offered to keep a lookout. Fantastic, the father then came over to our boat in his dugout and we welcomed him on board, sat him down and gave him a beer. His conversation went all round the houses but no mention of a dinghy, so we asked him directly if he had it, in our limited Spanish, he looked puzzled and said no, it was clear by now that he was very drunk, he suggested we phone his other son Elejio which I then did.
Elejio was on a nearby island ferrying tourists and explained he would be back at 5.00pm, so we waited. I went ashore on time and he was waiting by the jetty off their house. He told me he didn’t have the dinghy but that he knew where it was. He had visited this island the day before and had seen our dinghy in a fisherman’s hut. He had offered to take it off them to return it to us but the fishermen wouldn’t let him. The dinghy was on an Island 400 yards from where we had been anchored in the Lemmon Cays, at the side of the entrance channel. He showed me a photo he had taken of it on his mobile phone which confirmed it was mine. The fishermen had seen the dinghy come adrift from Romano and paddled out to get it, stowing it out of sight and hoping to sell it.
They told him they believed they could get a reward of $2000 for returning it to its rightful owner, he laughed and told them they were dreaming so they asked how about $500 as this was the usual fee for returning a lost dinghy (a fortune to a Kuna fisherman). Elejio asked me what I was prepared to pay, I explained the dinghy was 20 years old and the outboard 10 years old and asked him what he thought a fair finder’s fee would be. He suggested I start at $50 and negotiate. I gave him $20 for his help and set off back to the boat to tell Gill the good news.
We set off the following morning dropped anchor and Gill and I kayaked across to the island, to be met by one of the fishermen on the shore. I asked if he had my dinghy, which I described and he took us to see the head man there. Chairs were brought out from the thatched huts and we started a circuitous conversation. Eventually getting fed up with this I asked if he had my dinghy he asked for a description to ensure I was the rightful owner, the cheek of him, but I wanted my dinghy back and had to bite my tongue. When I had satisfied him and told him the age of the kit, he asked for $100 reward for “saving it”, a far cry from his original ideas and a better place to start negotiations. I asked to see it before agreeing to anything and he took us into his hut and there at the back were the outboard, oars and anchor but no dinghy. His dragon of a wife asked repeatedly for the money but I asked to see the dinghy as well. It was locked in another thatched hut but sitting on a trestle in apparently unharmed condition. Much to his wife’s disgust we eventually settled on $70 which was a lot really to get my own dinghy back from these thieves.
When I related the story to other cruisers on the radio net the following day they said I was “really lucky” as most paid $500 to get their dinghies back. Now I tie it on properly with a second line, it may be 20 years old but it’s a Tinker and a first class dinghy in pretty good condition for its age. The outboard Gill would happily have given to the Kuna, it’s very temperamental and needs a lot of coaxing, but I can operate it!
After returning the kayak with our heartfelt thanks to Hella and David we set off back to the Lemmon Cays ready to sail to Colon at the entrance to the canal where we were going to leave the boat for the rest of the rainy season. We had been invited by other British cruisers we had met on and Island called Aridup to visit their house in a village on the way to Colon called Jose Pobre. They were taking their pet iguana to shore on Aridup which means Iguana Island, for some hibiscus flowers, which they like. In fact they decided it would be happier there than on the boat and left it happily munching on its own island. We said we would drop in to see Philip on our way through, Linda his partner would be back in the UK by then. We had a great 45 mile sail to Isla Linton, 6 miles from Jose Pobre, in fair winds and sunshine and dropped anchor in a lovely sheltered bay. Sadly however, our freezer gave up the ghost at this point so we had neither fridge or freezer and in the tropics that’s not good! I managed to fit a spare water pump to the freezer and we managed by switching it on and off manually to use it as a fridge until we reached Shelter Bay Marina in Colon where we could buy produce on a daily basis.
Next day we sailed to Jose Poble bay and anchored off the village in 4 metres of water. The bay was exposed to the North and we spent a rather rolly first night. Philip came out to the boat for dinner in his kayak armed with a bottle of red wine and four mangos from his garden. After dinner Philip set off back ashore in the dark, a brave venture for a man who professes not to swim. The following morning we rowed ashore through the reef to find Philip and go for a walk around the next point for a swim in a nearby sandy bay. We spotted his catamaran berthed at the bottom of his garden and went up to the his extraordinary house built into the jungle covered hillside.
Philip built this house by carrying thousands of tons of sand and cement and all the wood he needed for its construction, by boat from Portobello 8 miles away by sea and lugging it up the hill to the site, a monumental task by a very resourceful man.
When Philip bought the plot 12 years ago for a very modest sum there was only a wooden shack there where he lived while he was building the current house. There is a well in the garden and electricity but that’s it.
The view from the property is spectacular over the bay and we sat on the veranda watching a torrential downpour which scotched our plans for a walk. We met some of Philips neighbours, sank a few beers and had a magnificent dinner which included his famed dauphinoise potatoes.
The next day we tried again to have our walk but Philip had a badly infected leg from insect bites and was unable to make it and the heavens opened again so we couldn’t make it on our own. Philip furnished us with bananas, lemon grass and mangoes from garden and told us where we could find more mangoes in the village. We found the spot and collected pounds of mangoes which Gill planned to serve up for breakfast and turn into mango chutney. Back to the boat, ready for our 6 mile trip to Portobelo the following morning.
We entered Portobelo’s large protected harbour passing Drake’s Island where sir Francis is buried in a lead lined coffin and dropped anchor at the head of the bay, off the village. This was the main port for shipping Spanish gold back to Europe and as a result was heavily defended by forts. We went ashore by dinghy to shop and explore, we visited the Fort and went off to walk up the steep hill behind the village where there was a spectacular view of the bay.
As we started our ascent through some fallen leaves there was a commotion, Gill leapt backwards shouting “run, run” and fell into a ditch. I was in front and at first at first didn’t see what was happening and then I saw a brown snake about 3 ft long about 2 ft from me wriggling away through the leaves with a mouse in its jaws. It had struck at the mouse just as we had started to walk through the leaves which was fortunate for us, otherwise we might have been the target. I have never seen a snake in the open that close before and to see it make its kill was quite special but sobering.
Back on the boat we prepared dinner from our dwindling stocks of food and settled down for the night when a cockroach ambled through the cockpit. Always a signal to grab sprays and flatteners. After this I went off in search of some large ants I had spotted on deck and in the process of spraying them noticed that a catamaran which had been anchored some distance away was now 15 feet from our boat. 10 o’clock at night is not the best time to have to re-anchor but we had no choice and moved further out into the bay under a full moon which helped illuminate the scene.
The following morning we set off on our final leg of this phase to Colon and Shelter Bay Marina at the head of the Panama Canal. As we approached we passed through a number of ships at anchor waiting to transit and called up Canal Control at San Cristobal to get permission to pass through the breakwater. They gave us clearance, although we still had to dodge the ships exiting the canal. They should really have held all traffic for us, yeah right!
We followed the buoys into Shelter Bay and moored up with a perfect docking, even although we had had no Marina practice for several months, what a crew! This was the end of another phase of our travels. In a weeks time after we have put the boat to bed we are heading up to New York for 4 days and then on to Canada, but that’s the next episode.
Many of you must be wondering what has happened to us as we haven’t posted a blog for a while, but Internet is very limited here and works off the very variable mobile phone system. Weeks go by without word from home or from us, twenty years ago no one would have thought anything of it but in this day of instant communications friends and family start to worry if they don’t hear from us on a regular basis. We have spent 2 months without Internet except for two days in Nargana, an island near the mainland and even there the signal was so weak it took hours to download and send emails. So for those of you we haven’t responded to, apologies but we weren’t ignoring you.
The next blog will be New York and Canada in a few weeks time, now we have Internet again.