Our Last Weeks In The San Blas Islands

Our last few weeks in the San Blas were spent revisiting several anchorages and saying final goodbyes. I had spread the word for cruisers in the area to gather for a Mardi Gras celebration on Barbecue Island, located at the head of the swimming pool anchorage. We had a terrific turnout, with nearly 40 people arriving by dingy. It was a fun and festive evening!

 

Our friends Tate and Dani (s/v Sundowner) were entertaining their friend, Michele, who was visiting from New Orleans, so several of us gathered at our usual beach spot for afternoon drinks, bobbing and of course some trash burning.

Scott and I brought Micah along, who was aboard Dauntless, our fellow Krogen, and we were all thrilled to have Debbie and Reg join us, from s/v Runner. They have been living at anchor in the swimming pool for almost ten years!  Everyone enjoyed time in the water, and the fun lasted until after sunset.

The forecast called for winds to increase in the coming days, so the following morning we headed just around the corner to the hot tub anchorage, which usually offers a bit more protection from winds and the current that comes with it. For this go-round however, the hot tub was still considerably wind-chopped. In addition, the sun decided to take a break, and windy, cloudy conditions lasted for nearly ten days.

We had sizable neighbors just outside the anchorage, in the form of several large charter yachts. I named this one “Little Titanic.” It was a beautiful yacht from the 1920s, completely refitted in 2003, at what I’m sure had to be an astronomical cost. Speaking of astronomical, $500,000.00 (yes, half a million U.S. Dollars) will buy you a week-long charter….for eight guests. I was happy just to enjoy the view.

Several of our cruising friends waited out the windy weather with us in the hot tub as well. We passed time visiting each other by dinghy, and dealing with the ongoing internet challenge. Our friend Jon spent much time at what we called s/v Prism’s “internet cafe.”

There were several boccie matches on the large beach of a nearby island, an afternoon trash burn at the nearby lazy river beach (you can ride the current, just floating along, around the end of the island) and Sea Life hosted our friends in the anchorage one evening, with Scott making his now-famous quesadillas.

The winds began to die just in time for us to head back to the Robison Islands. A regatta was being held, made up of local Gunas in their sailing ulus. Our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) were also in the Robisons, with things for us from Panama City (yes, you always take advantage of having things brought from the city!).

On our way, we decided to make a stop at the Carti Islands, to shop the tienda there. Many friends frequently mentioned it as one of the best locations for produce in the San Blas. We anchored right off of the island, which was crammed with houses and other buildings. Thankfully, it didn’t take us long to locate the ice machine we were told to look for, which marked the pier leading to the tienda.

As we approached, I thought we must have been coming up on the wrong location. Surely this store wasn’t going to have much, other than junk.

Inside, we were impressed with the variety and amount of produce jammed into the small store with dirt floors. There were large bags and boxes full of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, potatoes, carrots and cabbage, as well as apples, bananas and papaya. A large cooler contained plenty of parsley, celery and culantro, and an abundance of pineapples and netted sleeves of garlic hung from the ceiling beams.

The small store also carried a decent supply of canned food, rice, sodas, cleaning supplies and similar shelved items. We arrived at Carti, shopped and were back on board raising anchor within two hours, and then continued on to the Robisons.

Unfortunately, we decided not to fight winds in the open water, to arrive in time for the regatta. Many cruisers who were already on the Robisons’ side of the archipelago, with a more protected course, had come for the event as well. Most arrived the day before the regatta, and the anchorage was much more crowded than in our previous visit.

By the time we anchored, the main dock on the largest village was crowded with dinghies and ulus, as everyone gathered for an awards celebration. When the party broke up, I was able to get many photos of the colorful ulus sailing away from the village.

Ted and Barbara came over to deliver our requested items from Panama City. We thanked them for their efforts with dinner aboard, and were treated to another full rainbow over the anchorage.

The next morning, we made the 90 minute trip back to Porvenier, with fingers crossed to get ourselves cleared out of Panama. Several dolphins joined us along the way, and they caught our eye as looking a bit different from others we’d seen. They had white speckled bodies, and after some checking, we discovered that they were spotted dolphins.  One of them was completely content to swim upside-down for an extended time alongside the boat. Dolphins….always amusing.

Inside the office, it took some doing to get our exit stamps. The officer was concerned about our paperwork. We had recent exit and re-entry stamps (from my adventure to Panama City with Howard), but our customs form had us checked out three months prior to those dates. Scott explained that the discrepancy wasn’t Panama’s concern, as we weren’t coming back to the country; it was an issue for the agent in Colombia to deal with. He finally got the message through, and the officer stamped us out of the country, but not before confirming one more time that we would not be coming back to Panama anytime soon.

From Porvenier, we began a San Blas farewell tour. Our friends Dani and Tate were anchored in the eastern Lemmon Cays. They had recently decided to sell their sailboat, Sundowner (setting their sights on a larger cruising boat), and the Lemmons anchorage provided a short sail to the mainland for meeting potential buyers. It would be our last chance to see them, and since the anchorage was just 90 minutes from Porvenier,  we headed their way.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get to the Lemmon Cays without some time in open water between reefs. Scott decided that since  it was only a short stretch, we could forego putting the paravane birds in the water. He quickly regretted the decision, becoming seasick in the rolling swells. Not wanting to lose speed or time by stopping to put the birds in, Scott instead chose to battle his stomach for the 30 minute open water ride.

I still had some ground beef stashed in the freezer, from Bocas del Toro, so we invited Dani and Tate over for a burgers. The two of them were some of the first cruising friends we met in the San Blas, and we were going to really miss seeing them regularly.

The next morning, our friends Chris and Anne (s/v Mr. Mac) hailed us on the vhf. They had just arrived in the Lemmons, and were anchored right near us, stopping on their way back to Bocas. Mr. Mac would be stored for the summer at Red Frog Marina, while Chris and Anne headed back to North Carolina.

A plan was made to meet at the small restaurant nearby for happy hour drinks, and then back to Mr. Mac for dinner. The four of us met during our stay at Red Frog, and immediately hit it off. It was a treat to have them in the San Blas for much of our stay, and we’ll definitely miss our time together.

From the Lemmons, we made our way to anchor in the swimming pool one last time. Several of our friends were there, giving us the chance for more goodbyes. Another large gathering was planned for Barbeque Island, to celebrate all cruisers with March birthdays. This included several of our friends, so we made our way ashore for one last potluck happy hour.

 

We spent a few more days at anchor in the pool, managing to squeeze in a final trash-burn gathering on one of the local beaches (cocktails included of course), before saying final goodbyes to the people we’d become close with.

Our friends Julie and Tom (s/v Gris Gris) have spent many years cruising the area, and were immediately welcoming when we arrived. They shared their extensive knowledge of the Guna people, and helped with many San Blas cruising details during our stay.

Our beautiful, Trinidad-born friend, Sharda, had worked many years in bakeries, much like myself. We hit it off, trading recipes and tips, with our husbands reaping (or should I say eating) the benefits of our friendship.

With the farewell tour complete, it was time to make our way further east. We would head for some of the more remote anchorages and villages in the eastern San Blas, while waiting on favorable weather to head for Cartagna. It was definitely hard to leave this beautiful place, and all of the great friends we’d met during our stay.

Here are more photos.

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

Christmas And New Year’s Eve. In The San Blas Islands

We’re alive and kickin’, here in the San Blas islands! Internet service is more available than expected, but usually requires precise placement of a cell phone (used as an internet hot spot) at the highest outside point possible. It’s a familiar sight here, to see phones encased in plastic bags, hanging from, or being hoisted up a mast. At best, the service comes and goes, making uploading challenging, with the strongest hours coming in the middle of the night…oy! Some people have boosters installed on board, to up the strength of the signal. Others travel to anchorages that may have better service.

We do not have a booster, and are trying not to spend our time chasing the internet, so getting a signal worth doing anything, for any amount of time, is basically a crap shoot.

I’ve finally caved, and have spent several all-nighters (with nap breaks during weak service periods) while we’re in a location with decent service, to catch up a bit, and share what we’ve been up to for the past two months. Yes, I guess I could have written a post without photos attached, but that would just be mean.

We made our way from Linton Bay, on Panama’s mainland, to the eastern Holandes Cays in the San Blas islands, where we anchored in the Swimming Pool. Named for it’s shallow, clear blue water, the pool lives up to it’s name. The anchorage provides an nearly 180 degree view of the surrounding reef, and the breaking waves are easily heard day and night.

The views behind us were just as beautiful, with the colors of patch coral in the distance.

On our first morning at anchor in “the pool,”  we had a visit from Venancio, one of just a few master mola makers in the San Blas. We’d been told to keep an eye out for him, and were surprised to see him so far east.  Venancio told us that he makes the eight hour round trip to the eastern Holandes from the island where he lives, just once a week, so we were lucky to catch him.

Venancio came aboard with a trash can full of molas, and some beaded bracelets. He took each mola out, and explained it’s design as he laid them out for us to see. They were beautiful; full of color, and all hand stitched.

We chose several of our favorites, and then Venancio packed up his trash can, loaded it aboard the ulu (wooden canoe) and covered it well, protecting the molas from the salt air and spray.  Mola purchase in San Blas..check.

The week before Christmas, we heard a general announcement on the vhf that there was going to be a cruiser gathering on Barbecue Island, located at the front of the anchorage, just behind the reef. We were excited to meet the other cruisers in the anchorage, and arrived with an appetizer to share with the group. The weather was perfect, and we met many new friends. (photo courtesy of s/v Sundowner)

Once the sun set, locals on the island, who run a small “resort” (I use that term very loosely) lit a bonfire for us. Their fire starting was far from skilled, as we watched them spray the huge pile of wood and palm fronds with gasoline! (photo courtesy of s/v Sundowner)

As expected, Scott spent many hours in the Aluminum Princess, exploring the anchorage and the area around the expansive reef.

He always has his pole spear handy, as his snorkeling outing often turn into hunting expeditions…many times successful ones!

Scott dropped a lobster head into the water behind the boat, to see what might bite. It seems that Triggerfish find them pretty tasty. Regulars here in the San Blas refer to Triggerfish as “Bob.” Maybe because there are many in the waters here…not sure. Bob likes lobster.

On windy days, current would run through the anchorage at close to four knots, making swimming very challenging. Scott’s solution was to take the Princess to one end of the anchorage, tie himself to it with a 30 foot line, and drift along behind it, as the boat made it’s way back through the anchorage in the current.

He  caught quite a few very large conch like this, having just enough time to get to the bottom and grab them before being pulled along. Neither of us were up for the job of cleaning conch (eewww), so we shared them with some of our new friends in the anchorage…and joined them for some fresh ceviche as a thank you!

We would get regular visits from the Gunas, in their ulas (dugout canoes). They usually had molas and jewelry for sale. We already had more molas than needed, but were happy to fill their water jugs with fresh water, and occasionally a juice for small children. They also took our aluminum cans, to sell to the Colombian trader boats who recycle them.They both row and sail the ulas, and the women’s traditional dress is beautiful.

There is no trash removal service here in the San Blas. Bottles are broken into pieces (the theory is that the pieces will eventually turn into sea glass) and dropped overboard when in deep water (at least 150 feet), along with steel cans (anything that will rust away). This isn’t just practice reserved for the San Blas islands, the U.S Coast Guard has similar requirements for trash removal offshore.

All other trash here is burned. Being new to the San Blas, we weren’t sure which beaches were acceptable for this, as all of the islands here are owned by Guna families, whether they are inhabited or not. Until we learned the rules of trash burning etiquette, Scott improvised.

Channeling his inner “MacGyver,” Scott fashioned a rack from a wire coat hanger (I’m shocked that we had one on board, although he probably had it squirreled away for just such an occasion),and placed it in the bottom of an old varnish can. He punched holes in the bottom for air, and voila!, a burn can for the grill was born.

This would have been the perfect solution if we burned every day, or made less trash, but we do neither of these things. Instead, Scott would spent two hours or more burning everything from paper to an old pair of shorts.

Positive…our trash burned down to a tiny pile of  ash. Negatives..it took hours, and we had to close up the saloon, to avoid being choked out from the smoke.

Luckily, or new-found cruiser friends invited us to join them for a trash burn run. We followed them about 20 minutes from the pool, to a beautiful spot, where they meet to burn trash. Fires are made near the waterline, so that high tide will wash away the leftover ash.

We soon realized that trash burning here is a social event. Once the trash has burned, and while we wait for the ashes to smolder and cool, it’s time for bobbing with drinks in the clear blue water; now that’s my idea of a day’s work!

By the way, wearing some kind of shirt is a must in the water here  (unless you’re our friend, Sharda, who is blessed with skin from Trinidad!). I learned this the hard way, frying my shoulders and back from the reflection of the hot sun off of the water.

When we first arrived, there were few boats in the anchorage  here, but during  the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s Eve. the numbers grew.

 

Of course, Christmas would not be complete without lights! We lugged along our holiday lights, and Sea Life was quite a festive sight in the anchorage. (photo courtesy of s/v Sundowner)

After enduring a stretch of windy weather in the pool, with the accompanying currents and insane salt spray, we decided to change locations for the next go-round. After the new year, we headed around the corner to the Hot Tub (yes, from the pool, to the hot tub..tough times).

With more protection from the winds, the water in “the tub” is much calmer, and the current much less strong. In addition to more beautiful views, the water is supposed to be warmer than in the pool, hence the name. However, we found it to be much cooler…ahhhh, refreshing.

 

 

Scott found a great honey hole around the corner, catching lobster and Lionfish. They are invasive, so he tries to kill them whenever he can. Lionfish are also good eating, but challenging to clean, due to their poisonous dorsal fins.

Once again, Scott used lobster tails for bait, and attracted a huge Bob! He grabbed his pole spear, and shot it right from the cockpit, without even getting wet. Unfortunately, Big Bob did not go down without a fight, flopping and bleeding all over the cockpit when Scott removed the spear tip.

Scott delivered this massive fish to our friends, Jon and Shannon, on s/v Prism. They were waiting for a new dinghy motor, requiring them to row everywhere.

In case you’re wondering, Howard is enjoying life in the San Blas. He keeps an eye on us from one of his favorite perches, up under the solar panels, and loves when the fish light goes in the water each night.

So our first few weeks in the San Blas were off to a great start. We made many new friends, and enjoyed the beautiful views. More to come, as we explore new anchorages. Here are more photos.

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