Coming Into The San Blas Islands

We’ve picked up a decent cell signal, coming into the outskirts of the San Blas Islands, so I’m sending out a quick hello.

Trip has gone well, big swells, but spread far apart enough that we’re not getting tossed around badly. Scott fought queasiness until we tucked behind the first islands. Howard has traveled like a champ, choosing to just sleep through it and I’ve watched several movies.

The first islands we’re coming up on are popular for charters and such, and as you may expect, there are many boats here. Our plan is to keep going, and anchor farther out, in what’s called the Hollandaise area, where we’ll be at anchor until after the new year.

Just a few quick photos!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

The San Blas Islands, Our Winter Home

This morning, we’ll make our way toward the San Blas Islands, where we plan to stay until early April. As usual, we expected to be settled there already, but Mother Nature again intervened.

After Otto passed by, the Christmas winds that regularly build in the Eastern Caribbean began to blow. While we don’t get the wind speed down here, it does drive large swells our way. As a result, our 8-10 hour ride should be interesting.

We expect swells of eight feet or so, which won’t be so bad if they are timed well and winds stay light and variable, as forecasted; the big word here is IF. Either way, the seas won’t get any better this time of  year, so it’s off we go.

As I mentioned previously, the San Blas Islands are a remote area is located on the northwest coast of Panama, in the Caribbean Sea.

Image result for map of the san blas islands

There are conflicting numbers, but between 365 and 400 islands make up the archipelago, only 49 or so of which are inhabited (not the best detailed map, but the best I could find online).

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The 100 square mile area is home to an indigenous group known as the Gunas, and the islands are also referred to as the Guna Yala region. Internet will be sparse for us this winter, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far, about the Guna people..

The approximate 50,000 Gunas in the San Blas have their own language, but also speak Spanish, and more recently, English.

They have a matriarchal society, in which inheritance passes down to the women. A young man, after marriage, must move in with his in-laws, and work for several years under the apprenticeship of his father-in-law. Daughters of the Guna are prized, because they will eventually bring additional manpower to the family.

Divorce is rare, although all that is required is for the husband, should it happen, is to gather his clothes and move out of the house (too bad it doesn’t usually work out this nicely elsewhere).

There is a division of labor within families. The husband gathers coconuts, cultivates food, provides firewood, repairs the house, makes his and his son’s clothes, weaves baskets and carves wooden utensils. The wife prepares the food, collects fresh water from the mainland rivers, unloads the boats, sews female garments, washes clothes and cleans the house.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Guna wore few clothes, and decorated their bodies with colorful designs. When encouraged to wear clothes by the missionaries, they copied these designs in molas, which were then worn as clothing.

The Gunas are now famous for their molas, which are handmade using a reverse applique technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different color cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer.

The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible. The finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles. (I borrowed this description from Wikipedia, where there is much more interesting mola information).

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Mola means “clothing” in the Guna language, and the panels are used to make blouses, worn daily by most Guna women (men wear western dress). We’re told that looks like this are the norm on the islands of the Guna Yala region, and it seems the women also enjoy pipe smoking.

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Image result for kuna yala

The economy of the Guna Yala is based on agriculture and fishing. Plantains, coconuts and fish is their core diet, supplemented by simple imported foods, a few domestic animals and wild game. Coconuts and lobsters are widely exported products, and migrant labor and the sale of molas provide other sources of income.

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In 1925, there was a revolution between the Guna Indians and the ruling Panamanian authorities, who attempted to force the Guna to adopt Hispanic culture by military action. During this revolution, the Guna Yala territory seceded, and operated as the short-lived Republic of Tule.

Following mediation with the United States, the Guna re-united with Panama. With the support of the Panamanian government, the Gunas created a self-governing territory, named the Guna Yala district, where they would rule themselves.

Relations are still strained between mainland Panama and the Guna Yala region. Most recently, both customs and immigration have moved out of the area, and cruisers now have to clear in and out of the country on the mainland. Going to one town for customs, and another for immigration; frustrating!

We’re looking forward to visiting this area for the winter months, and will look for a window of weather in late March, to travel to Cartagena, Colombia, before continuing on to the Eastern Caribbean. I’ll post when I can, but photos will most likely be limited, as I expect weak internet.

So, as of now, we’ll be “offline.” As usual, you can track us on the Where Are We Now page, where you can also send us an email through our Delorme satellite tracker. Please be patient for the return of regular emails in the spring, and until then, we look forward to a winter of views like this!

Image result for photos of the san blas islands panama

 

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 


 

 

 

 

 

Panama’s Insane Rain!

They say that Panama has two seasons, the dry season from December to mid March, and the wet, or “green”, season from mid March to mid December. As you might deduce from their names, the dry season means little or no rainfall, while the green season can mean rain almost every day.

However, in Bocas del Toro, it rains consistently nearly every month, except for September and October. Fortunately, the wet stuff usually comes overnight or in the early am, giving way to the brutal, hot sun. November is a different animal altogether; a rainy season unto itself.

At last check, when we left Red Frog after Thanksgiving, the monthly rain total was over seventeen inches for the month! The rain during November was often biblical. Heavy, driving rain would pour straight down for hours, and the sound was unnerving. Roads flooded almost instantly, and any grass-like surface turned to muck.

Visibility disappears in an instant, and the water turns to mud. For example, now you see it:

Now you don’t:

This nasty brown line floated our way during a recent deluge:

Scott installed a new weather station in November, after our old one gave up the goat. The new one has many more bells and whistles, and greatly appeals to Scott’s inner weather geek. For example, note how it describes a November deluge, using the most weather specific terms (bottom right corner):

To be fair, it definitely was raining cats and dogs, so kudos weather station!

This crazy rain has extended into December, and in the first ten days of the month, we’d already received close to twelve inches! Recently, just in the morning hours alone we had 3.18 inches, and at one point, the rain rate listed on the weather station was 6.86 inches an hour….biblical I tell ya!

It’s definitely the wettest area we’ve ever been to, including any travel by land, car, air or boat before this cruising adventure. As you can imagine, the humidity matches the wetness, turning our decks and lines green, and making daily tasks a challenge. Thank goodness we spent the time plugged in, and able to keep the interior humidity in check with air conditioning.

On the bright side, everything here is beautifully lush and green. Trees and foliage grow thick and tall, and brightly colored plants and flowers spring up from the ground.

We were surprised not to see more fresh, local produce grown in the area, but suspect that too much of a good thing may hinder good veggie growth.

All in all, we’ve become accustomed to traveling with an umbrella at the ready (it’s far too warm and humid for rain jackets, as they become your own personal sauna, despite the best ventilation), and push on, despite the wetness. It beats a 45 degree rain that the northeast can get this time of year, so we try to embrace Panama’s “liquid sunshine”!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

The rain here in Panama is insane. When we arrived, uring the “rainy” season, but November in particular really gave us a dousing. Heavy rain lasts for hours at a time, flooding streets, and turning grassy areas into muck.

Provisioning For The San Blas Islands

We plan to spend the winter months in the San Blas Islands, located on the northwest coast of Panama, in the Caribbean Sea (more to come).

Image result for map of the san blas islands

The islands are remote and primitive, so Scott and I have gone into “food panic,” buying as much as we can stuff onto this poor boat. The consensus is that there are veg boats (with iffy produce and uncertain selection), and locals selling bread, fish and lobster; aside from that, you’re on your own.

While we were in Bocas, and familiar with stores and stock, Scott and I took the Aluminum Princess on a provisioning run from Red Frog Marina to Bocas Town. We tied to the small pier outside The Pub restaurant, having been told that the expat owner was friendly to cruisers.

Once in town, we hit the ground running. Our first stop was to one of the larger hardware stores, where we emerged with miscellaneous items for Scott, and a huge trash bag full of paper towels and toilet paper. From there, we went to Super Gourmet, who stock hard-to-find and specialty items from the U.S. After that, our two regular grocery stores, ending at Isla Colon, owned by our new friend, Felix.

As we checked out, with two carts full of items, in addition to the pile of stuff we’d lugged in with us and the stack of beer and sodas that Felix had brought out from the back, the girl behind the counter offered to have our pile of stuff driven to wherever we needed to go. Our plan was to take a taxi back to The Pub, but a free ride was even better!

In no time flat, a pick up truck pulled up in front of the store, and three men loaded our endless packages into the back, bucket brigade-style, tossing our heavy items in the air to each other; Scott tried to help, but was politely squeezed out. We’d asked the counter girl about tipping, and were told, “Nothing. This is a service that we provide, free of charge. No tip is necessary.”

Once all of our things were loaded into the bed of the truck, Scott and I hopped inside, into the frosty-cold, air conditioned truck (it was only a three minute ride, but any a/c is good a/c); all of the “loaders” got in as well! As an added treat, the driver serenaded us in Spanish for the short ride, much to the chagrin and groans of his co-workers.

Once at The Pub, all three men got out with us to unload. Scott and I were barely able to grab a bag, as the caravan of Isla Colon employees made it’s way through the restaurant and out onto the pier where we prepared to load the Aluminum Princess ( for a moment, the restaurant owner thought he was getting a forgotten order delivered). The three made two quick trips with our things, and then smiled and waved us goodbye. Wow.

Now that the heavy lifting was done…literally, Scott and I quickly loaded up the Princess, and then took time to have lunch. We were hungry, and wanted to give a show of appreciation to the owner of The Pub, for allowing us to use his pier and haul our things through his restaurant.

After recharging with food and drink, we made our way back to the marina and unloaded everything onto Sea Life.

We then got to work finding space for everything, beginning with loading up the area under the couch. The sleeper sofa in our saloon has been “gutted,” allowing for a huge amount of storage space. I resisted at first, but am now so grateful for all of that room!

I also resisted keeping a log of our food and toiletry stores, but have since come around to the idea. It’s much easier to zero in on where something is, and keep track of what we have, if it’s all written down.

By the way, when you panic about stocking up on food, this is what happens. I’d forgotten to buy spreadable butter, and Scott offered to go back and get it, saying that he’d seen some in Isla Colon. When I unpacked everything, here is what he’d bought.

Notice the amount…..five pounds! Seriously, it’s huge; I measured the stupid thing, to make sure it would fit in the fridge! (it just fits)

Once the couch was stuffed full, we crammed the tower of sodas and beer into the guest stateroom, along with bottles of wine and bags of flour, sugar and rice.

Various things were placed in plastic bags or tupperware containers, and stored in the lazarette, up on the flybridge and in bilge areas. After that, any remaining items were jammed into any cabinet or closet that had an available nook or cranny. Sea Life just kept “swallowing it up,” as Scott likes to say. She’s full to the brim, and we’re heavy in the water.

In addition to and inordinate amount of canned goods, paper towels, toilet paper and various liquids, we’re stocked up on dry goods (pasta, instant potatoes, Bisquick, crackers, spices, etc.), jarred sauces, candy, snacks, cheese, BUTTER, all types of frozen meat and various other refrigerated and frozen items.

We’ve also filled up on as much ice as room will allow. Scott’s anxiety for running out of this precious item is off the charts. He loooves his ice, and we won’t be able to buy it in the San Blas. We have an ice maker onboard, but running it on our batteries for a day yields enough to make two drinks; he’s panicked.

So we’re as ready as we’re going to be, for three or so months of off grid/grocery store living. If we starve, it’s our own fault. Who knows, maybe we’ll open our own San Blas grocery store!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

Happy Holidays!!!

Wishing all of you a happy holiday season. May you be warm and safe, wherever you are.

We’d also like to say a big thank you, for following our big, crazy adventure!

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

Portobelo’s Spanish Forts

Because it was one of the most important ports on the route of their treasure fleet, the Spanish built several defensive forts in Portobelo. At one time, ten different fortifications were built on the hills behind the city’s port, making it the most heavily fortified Spanish coastal control point in the Americas.

Pirates destroyed them several times, but several of the fortresses still survive, and in 1980, their ruins were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (criteria for World Heritage Sites).

We first visited Fort Santiago, which sits on the south side of the harbor.

Houses now sit among part of the fort’s waterfront walls, and it’s upper battery, across the main road, is completely over grown.

 

 

Men who built these forts were definitely shorter (and most Panamanians still are). Scott seemed giant, in front of a doorway.

Our next stop was the custom house, located just off of the square in town.

Built in 1630, it was the headquarters for all of the Spanish custom offices. Gold and silver from the Inca Empire was exported through this custom house, and countless African slaves were imported to the New World from here as well. This huge building was the scene of many large trade fairs, until it was bombed by English pirates.

There was a small museum inside, with photos of the custom house in it’s heyday, in disrepair and before and after it’s reconstruction in the 1990’s. A display of period weaponry caught Scott’s eye. He especially liked this gun/hatchet thing.

The next fort, San Jeronimo, is located just outside the custom house.

This fort is affected by high tide, and we had to slop through water and mud to get to the walls, and look out to the harbor.

Several wrecked boats were visible from San Jeronimo’s walls. The most recent, from Hurriane Otto’s swells, still had people aboard, living life at a 45 degree angle.

While wandering the grounds, we were entertained by a happy group of school children, who gathered just inside the fort to sing and dance for donations.

Lastly, Fort San Fernandino sits on the north side of the harbor,  just near where we were anchored.

We beached our dinghy, and trekked through tall grass to the first battery level. There was a wobbly, narrow wooden board across the dry moat. I ran to the other side, Scott took his time.

We traipsed around the lower battery level, wandering through stone doorways, around crumbling corners, and peeking through walls, back down at Sea Life below in the harbor.

Next, we climbed a steep hill to the upper battery. The tall grass was full of burrs, that covered my shoes and pants. There were some set-in steps for part of the climb, but the remainder was just a foot path.

The views looking back at town and down to the harbor were even better at this level.

Scott noticed this small house-like structure, and had a peek inside. House-like was right, as in outhouse…the seat looked less than comfy!

Further up the hill, there is another, smaller fort that was built to store gunpowder and oversee the battery. Scott climbed the path for a bit, but decided not to leave me waiting, and snapped some photos before coming back down.

By the end of the eighteenth century, Portobelo’s boom ended. The Spanish switched from large fleets using few ports, to small fleets trading at a wide variety of locations, making them less vulnerable to attack. Ships also began traveling around Cape horn, to trade directly at ports on the western coast.

The city’s population revived briefly, during the construction of the Panama Canal. Today, Portobelo’s population is less than 5,000 residents, who now make a living fishing, farming or raising livestock.

After conquering all three forts and touring the custom house, we declared victory and headed back down the hill. It was happy hour, and Sea Life was waiting below at anchor.

Here are many more fort photos.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

 


 

 

The Sleepy Town Of Portobelo, Panama

We left Escudo de Veraguas and made an overnight, eighteen hour run to the small town of Portobelo. Scott took watch for the first few hours, and recorded the trip log reflecting 5000 nautical miles since we have owned the boat… a nice milestone!

I came on watch for the overnight hours, and then turned things over to Scott at dawn. As early morning rain fell, he noticed a rainbow that started on our port side, and came back down on the starboard. We were inside of it…pretty neat!

As usual, my attempt at sleep added up to about an hour. I gave up, and came back to the pilothouse in time to see the many boats on the horizon, anchored and waiting to transit the Panama Canal.

Soon after, we turned and made our way into Portobelo’s harbor. Legend has it that in 1502, Christopher Columbus originally named the port, “Puerto Bello,” which means “Beautiful Port,” and it definitely is that. The green, scenic hills contained many more open pastures than we saw in the Bocas area.

Portobelo was one of the world’s first important, strategic ports of the Caribbbean, and in the 1700’s, it was Spain’s major port in the Americas. Having a natural port made the town useful in transporting riches over to Europe, that were seized in the conquest of South America. Portobelo’s deep harbor was also a center for exporting silver, before the mid-eighteenth century.

We anchored in a quiet spot, near one of several forts that surround the harbor (more on them later). It was again nice to be anchored without noisy pangas running by us at all hours.

After setting anchor, we spent the rest of the day relaxing on board. We made our way into town the next morning, past a “victim” of Hurricane Otto. The storm sent eleven foot swells into the harbor as it passed by. In another area, we noticed a catamaran being raised up off of the bottom.

Portobelo is a quiet town, with three or four small grocery stores, two bakeries and some small eateries. We also noticed several street food vendors and a “veg” truck.

Scott was amused by the many “chicken” buses that travel the area. They offer affordable service to many small towns on the way to Colon, and also travel to Panama City. The buses are quite a sight, full of color and “bling,” and also seem to be personalized, with air-brush drawings of loved ones and such.

As we’ve seen in many of the towns in Central America, the buildings are full of color, and brightly painted murals adorn the buildings.

We made our way to Iglesia de San Felipe, the Roman Catholic church in town. It is more commonly known as Black Christ Church, housing a statue that has come to be worshiped by many Panamanians and others around the world.

 

The statue, normally located near the alter, is brought out to the center of the church once a year, for the annual Festival of the Black Christ.

 

Tens of thousands gather in Portobelo for the event, walking from Panama City (53 miles), and crawling the last mile on their hands and knees! The Black Christ has been designated as the Patron Saint of Criminals, and many come to the church each year during the festival to ask forgiveness for their crimes.

There is much more interesting information about how it is believed the statue came to Portobelo, how it is displayed and cared for and details about the Festival  of the Black Christ here.

We’d read about Captain Jack’s Canopy Bar, and have been told by many that he and his staff go out of their way to help cruisers, so it seemed like a good place to have lunch. After circumnavigating the globe, Captain Jack (originally from New Jersey) settled here and opened the bar. He lives aboard his boat in the harbor, and make regular visits to the San Blas Islands from Portobelo.

After a short walk up a residential street, we found Captain Jack’s at the top of the hill.

We climbed the stairs, and Jeff, the manager greeted us with cold towels; perfect timing, as I was soaked in sweat from the mid-day heat in town.

The upper level bar/restaurant provided a nice view back toward town and the harbor, and the kitchen turned out some terrific red curry! We lingered, enjoying the shaded tables and the breeze, talking to Jeff and gathering local information.

We’d left our dinghy tied in front of a small waterfront restaurant, and decided to have a beer there before heading back to the boat. Some German cruisers opened the business, and allow boaters to tie up dinghies at no charge. This can be hard to find, as many piers in these towns are either private, reserved for water taxi pangas or come with a local resident asking for a dollar or two.

We shared a table with some “locals,” one of which took an interest in Scott’s straw hat.

After walking the town, having lunch, and an afternoon beer it was time to head back to Sea Life, where we enjoyed happy hour with Howard, in the shade of the cockpit.

Here are more photos of Portobelo.

 

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Escudo de Veraguas

We raised anchor at dawn, saying our final farwell to Bocas Town, as it faded out of sight.

Our next stop would be Escudo de Veraguas, a remote island located ten miles off of mainland Panama. Until 1995 the island remained largely uninhabited; but in recent years, fishermen from nearby coastal towns began using the island as a base for fishing parties, and later settled permanently.

It was a short, eight hour, uneventful run. We passed local fisherman along the way, and the first large, commercial tanker since traveling off the U.S. coast.

The skies threatened to rain most of the way, but as Escudo de Veraguas came into view, bright sun broke through to welcome us.

We approached the island’s west side, but with winds predicted to blow from the northwest, Scott chose to move around to the south side, providing us more protection at anchor.

As we rounded the corner, sandy beaches gave way to beautifully interesting rocky coastline. We had the place all to ourselves and enjoyed mountain views of the mainland in the distance, and gorgeous Escudo de Veraguas off of our starboard side.

Scott took the dinghy out to investigate. He soon returned, and insisted that I drop everything and come out with him. Stop cleaning, and preparing dinner….no problem!

The coastline here is like something Walt Disney dreamed up. Rocky shores and islands, both smooth and jagged, topped with trees of all textures, types and sizes, that melt into clear green-blue water.

Lush, green foliage covers the tops of some formations, like a thick head of hair.

In other areas, trees dangle on, or off of, the edge, their roots trailing down below. We’re not sure how these things manage to survive and grow!

Along sandy beach areas, trees seemed rooted in air.

There is a clear line between soil and rock.

We wove in and out of nooks with small beaches, under rock arches, and past narrow caves.

The area reminded us of calendar photos we’ve seen of Indonesia’s rock islands, in the western Pacific Ocean; it was truly other-worldly.

We enjoyed time on the long, sandy beach off of our bow. It was covered in lots of interesting, “natural” trash; logs, rocks, shells and many loosely rooted coconut palms.

Howard loved the quiet anchorage, free from noisy pangas. He enjoyed happy hour up on the flybridge with us, and considers it his domain.

Sea Life is sporting a new look these days:

The idea came from a van we saw parked in Bocas Town, with stickers from countries it had visited. Scott got to work ordering stickers, and we also took the opportunity to plug the blog as we travel.

We hated to leave Escudo, but while winds and swells were down, it was time to keep moving. Here are many, many more photos of this beautiful island.

“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”