Arriving in the San Blas Islands

Note: I wrote this on Jan 30, but didn’t have enough data connection to post until today, Feb 16.

While Colombia was the area that caused us the most anxiety in our planning stage, the San Blas Islands was our prize destination, what we looked forward to with unwavering anticipation. Now that we have been here for exactly one week, we can confirm that this archipelago is spectacular.

Getting here was surprisingly more challenging than we had expected. The first day was simple. Leaving Cartagena at noon, we sailed lazily eight miles down the river with many of the rally boats as if in a parade. You could hear each of us calling Cartagena Port Control on Channel 16 on the VHF. English was the spoken language for this communication, and you could sense the challenge from cruisers and Colombian radio operators as many tried to speak this foreign language. Of course the radio operators went back to Spanish when local boats called. It was necessary to report our exit, say how many people were aboard, and indicate where we were planning to make our next stop. Each of us said Isla Del Rosario was our destination. After exiting the river, we headed southwest for 15 miles and anchored well before sunset at Isla Grande, which is part of the Islas Rosarios. Here, we never even launched our dinghy, choosing to relax, make dinner, and go to bed early.

Bill caught another Barracuda but we tossed it back.  These sometimes have Ciguatera.
Bill caught another Barracuda but we tossed it back. These sometimes have Ciguatera.

Our second day was not so easy. We raised the anchor at 7:30 after our oatmeal and tea, and headed out into very light air, with barely enough wind off the starboard bow to fill our sails. But by ten, we had 15 knots on the beam with all four sails working. At first, we were enjoying this ride. Dolphins joined us and Bill caught another tuna. The winds piped up a bit, up to 20 knots, and the seas built to 6-8 feet. By noon, we resolved into a rough ride. By 4pm we were hoping for relief. And there were still 18 more hours to go.

I don’t know why this trip was so miserable. Other rally boats reported that this was an unusually miserable ride for them as well. Here’s a comparison with our trip from Haiti to Colombia: From Haiti: 25-35 knot winds and 12 foot seas for 72 hours. From Isla Grande: 15-23 knot winds and 7 foot seas for 27 hours. Which sounds more pleasant? If you guessed from Isla Grande, you would be incorrect. By a long shot. Both were winds right on the beam (not winds coming from ahead or from behind, but exactly 90 degrees to the boat). This is supposed to be the best angle of sail, right? Again, wrong! Not this trip! Maybe the waves were steeper, or more confused or something; whatever the combination, it was lousy.

To make matters worse, we had rivers of salt water below in our cabin. Again, to compare to our Haiti trip, which was perfectly dry below, even when the waves were soaking us up in the cockpit, this made no sense. We came to a conclusion: most of our trip from Maine to Colombia was on a port tack (wind coming over the port, or left, side of the boat), while this trip was on a starboard tack. New leaks opened up to allow a steady flow of water in three places. One stream developed down the inside of our wet locker, where we, ironically, hang foul weather jackets and pants. The second came down from a chain plate and soaked all of my clothes. The third, and most concerning, dripped in from a small screw hole, enabling salt water to drip steadily on the SSB radio, channel across the top of the device, and spill over the front, causing a river on the floor below.

Dropping anchor in the San Blas, at 10:30 am the following day, was such a relief. I could not even reflect on the beautiful place we had come to; being so overwhelmed with the looming work of cleaning up all the salt water and assessing the damage. I have to admit that I was at such a low point, I almost cried, exclaiming “I hate Alembic”. Bill made some breakfast and tried to get me to eat, but I was in stubborn automatic cleaning mode. My first concern was the SSB radio, and my second task was to drag all of my clothes out of the lockers, rinse them with our precious little fresh water, and hang them up in the rigging to dry. Once I completed this, I collapsed into the cockpit and fell dead asleep.

Waking only 30 minutes later, I was surprisingly refreshed, and heartily ate what Bill had prepared. Relieved to hear Bill’s assessment that the SSB was still functioning, I realized that Alembic didn’t really deserve all of my pessimism. I had been simply exhausted from being up all night. Bill had been sick and I was on permanent watch for almost the entire trip. It’s amazing how just a nap can change your whole perspective. I now could look around me and let my jaw drop in wonderment.

I found out two days later, that the name of the anchorage we were floating in was the Hot Tub. How appropriate! Thank you, John and Georgina, for calling us on the VHF and suggesting we anchor here with you! We really needed the luxurious relaxation provided by this Hot Tub!

Spectacular snorkeling around this tiny islet beside the Hot Tub
Spectacular snorkeling around this tiny islet beside the Hot Tub

We reveled in the Hot Tub for two days, snorkeling around astonishingly beautiful reefs, and zooming about the “neighborhood” in our dinghy. Another anchorage nearby, called the Swimming Pool, had about 30 sailboats, with plenty of room for more, while our Hot Tub, was crowded with about 15 boats. This group of islands was called the Holandes, and one of the most popular areas of the San Blas.

Venancio spread his molas all over our cockpit.  Beautiful
Venancio spread his molas all over our cockpit. Beautiful
choosing was difficult
choosing was difficult

Reluctant to leave, we moved on to another very popular set of islands, called the Lemmon Cays, only about 6 miles away, to attend a Jumble. This is a gathering of cruising boats where spare gear is shared, swapped, or sold, to other cruisers. It is a great opportunity to swap charts and guide books that you don’t need anymore because you are moving on to new areas. Another grand purpose for a Jumble is for cruisers to meet, have a Happy Hour, and trade stories and plans. Bill was intrigued by the kite sailing gear for sale, and I was enamored by the mola products an Italian woman was selling. She buys molas (fabric art which is the main product in the San Blas) and sews them onto handbags, iPad cases, wallets, or anything you can imagine. Her prices were ridiculously low. She had beautiful handbags, originally purchased in Italy, with full size molas for only $25! I had just purchased three molas from Guna Indians paddling dugout canoes up to Alembic and the prices I paid were $35, $40, and $60. And these were not on Italian handbags! This Italian woman explained that you can get a much better deal on molas closer to the mainland, in villages where they make them. This became my plan: sail to traditional villages, meet the mola makers, and purchase more to bring home to share.

Our private anchorage was peaceful; a small deep pool surrounded on all sides by mangroves. While most of the Lemmon Cays were crowded with cruising boats, this spot was challenging enough to enter, allowing us to enjoy complete solitude. We radioed our rally friends to welcome others here too, and the following day Echo and Shamal navigated the reefs to join us for a second night. Pelicans dive bombed the tranquil pool, like chubby people doing cannonballs, disturbing the peace and making us laugh as they gulped down their catch. They are so clumsy compared to the graceful terns and herons who delicately swoop and grab fish with their talons without even a splash. Eagles perched in the highest branches of the palm trees, watching the scene.

We continued to enjoy our rally friends, having Happy Hours and dinners aboard boats, sailing to nearby anchorages, and snorkeling on dramatic reefs. Luckily, we heard about the ten foot crocodile after we enjoyed one spot. I’m not sure I would have been brave enough to swim in the Swimming Pool if Michel and Brigette had told us of their siting beforehand! Many of the reefs have walls where the water depth drops from a few feet deep to over ninety feet straight down. We even saw a reverse wall, where the top was actually an overhang. One reef came so close to the surface that Bill and I suffered many scrapes crossing over it to get to the deep wall on the other side. It was hard to enjoy the deep side, knowing we had to cross the bar again to get back to our dinghy.

Porvenir Custom House
Porvenir Custom House
Bill is checking in at one of the four offices.  Pretty spartan digs
Bill is checking in at one of the four offices. Pretty spartan digs

After enjoying these relaxing islands for four days, we decided to be fully legal, and sailed to Isla Porvenir to check in, a necessary evil. It was only evil to our budget. $465.00! Yikes! There were four desks to attend: first the cruising permit ($195), then the police who checked our passports, next the Gunas ($20 per boat and $20 per person), and Immigration ($105 per person). We felt so sorry for the twenty-something European guy who arrived to check in his boat and crew. He had 3 friends aboard who were leaving in a few days, and didn’t realize the huge fees he was facing. With his head drooping in despair, he headed back to the boat to get more cash. US dollars only, no credit cards. Who has this type of cash aboard??? And who is willing to part with it? At least we were only two and would be spending over a month in Panama and the San Blas Islands, so the expense was worth it for us.

After checking in, we considered visiting the little village to our stern, and should have, as we later found out that they had Digicel Sim cards for sale which we needed for any hope of wifi. Instead, Bill visited John on Oystergo to assist with starting his engine. Poor John, he is single handing and first he lost his steering, going in circles trying to enter Porvenir, then his batteries died and even a 3 hour charge by his generator didn’t help to start the engine. Jeff from Echo came over too and the 3 of them managed to get it going finally. Traveling in a group definitely has benefits. The next day, we heard John was repairing his mainsail. Always something on a boat, and I feel bad that he has had to face so many challenges.

Snorkeling on the wrecked freighter was beautiful.  Luckily, everyone swam to safety when they drove this ashore to avoid sinking
Snorkeling on the wrecked freighter was beautiful. Luckily, everyone swam to safety when they drove this ashore to avoid sinking

Leaving Porvenir, we sailed back to the Eastern Lemmon Cays, another group of delightful islands and reefs. Snorkeling on the wrecked freighter was well worth the dinghy ride. Fish and coral have commandeered it over the past 60 years and have created a paradise for us to view. Happy Hour on Blue later that day was fun, as we reunited with Rhumb Runner who had sailed off to Panama to collect a new dinghy and pick up a visitor. We also met a wonderful family from Austria who are interested in sailing to New York and possibly Maine. The following day we visited with them to share our favorite areas and give them waypoints for excellent anchorages and our mooring in Maine.

Veggie boats are the highlights of cruisers' days.  With no shops ashore, we count on these boats for anything
Veggie boats are the highlights of cruisers’ days. With no shops ashore, we count on these boats for anything

Ready to leave these idyllic island groups, Bill and I were eager to seek more authentic Guna culture in islands further south and east. First we sailed to Green Island and enjoyed a nice swim and Happy Hour aboard Malika. Michel and Brigette are French and can barely speak English, so the three hour visit was entirely in French. I am surprised how well my French is developing chatting with the 5 French boats in our rally. I also feel bad for them because they mentioned that they won’t go further south, or through the canal because the language barrier is such a challenge.

We are spoiled that most cultures try to speak English and you can travel the world knowing only English. Bill and I are trying to learn Spanish, Bill with Rosetta Stone, and me with stumbling about with hand gestures, pictures, and efforts of speaking. Knowing French has definitely helped with my Spanish, as many of the words are similar, especially if you are reading. We are now at the point where we would feel comfortable landing in a Spanish-only community. A lot of confusion would ensue, but we could get by.

Rio Diablo was our next destination. There are two island communities, Nargana and Corazon de Jesus, linked by a walking bridge. Here the people have given up their traditions of the Guna lifestyle and even have a prison and police force, unnecessary with traditional Gunas. Nevertheless, the people had the same gentle personality and greeted us warmly. Federico was the first to greet us as soon as our anchor was settled. An older, roundish man with a huge smile explained that he would take our garbage for a dollar and could bring us gas and do our laundry. We took him up on the garbage disposal, always a challenge in remote islands. Some cruisers have bonfires on deserted beaches to take care of this; we will probably do this at some point too. You shouldn’t bring garbage ashore, or give it to a kid for a buck, because you will soon find it floating about the bay. We had heard that Federico would deal with garbage appropriately.

Exploring this community, we found our Digicel Sim card and also purchased two cards which allow us to import data for wifi. How much data this purchase ($19) amounted to has been a mystery. We barely have any connection and can’t figure out how to see how many GB we have. We have been able to connect to wifi but just barely, and incredibly slowly; I’ve decided it’s just not worth the effort. We also found a bank, but it had no money!  And the boat yard was busy with many repairs that looked much simpler than repairing Alembic.

Heading up the Rio Diablo was a great adventure.  Many ulus were headed up there too, collecting water, visiting their deceased, and harvesting veggies.  To sum up our San Blas Island experience so far: this is well worth the effort in getting here! Snorkeling and anchorages are second to none, and the Guna culture is fascinating. Tomorrow, we are leaving the most popular cruising grounds in favor of exploring more of this culture. More to come…

One thought on “Arriving in the San Blas Islands

  1. Anne Hays February 16, 2016 / 7:38 pm

    Sounds wonderful. I enjoy your realistic comments, i.e. letting us all know that while it isn’t all roses (we knew that anyway) it is worth it. (We knew that too!) Thanks for blogging. Anne


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