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!”

Scott’s Trip To An Inland Guna Village

Guna villages have not always been located on the islands of the San Blas archipelago. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the small coral and mangrove estuaries of the San Blas were ideal for trade activities of the numerous pirates and traders operating in the region.

By the end of the 18th century when the days of piracy had passed, the Guna people slowly began to move from the protective cover of the jungle to the coastline, and by the middle of the 19th century, they started transferring their villages to the islands offshore.

The Guna Yala forest property extends for more than 1,250 square miles along the northeast corner of Panama’s Caribbean coast. There are still a few villages that exist in the jungles of the mainland forest, and near its rivers.

Gangandi, one of these villages, is relatively isolated, and one of Guna Yala’s poorest communities. It was not far from our anchorage in the Robison Islands, so Scott joined our friends Barbara and Ted (s/v Rosa dos Ventos), and two other cruisers for a tour. They were led by Bradeo, a local Guna who spent many years living in Panama City, before choosing to come back home to settle in the Robinsons.

Bradeo (with two “assistants” in tow) arrived to pick up everyone at their respective boats in an ulu, outfitted with loose boards across it to serve as bench seats. The group balanced on the unattached, wobbly boards as the ulu made a 45 minute ride through open water chop of the Bay of San Blas, then 25 minutes  up a canal once used  by the United Fruit Company to transport bananas, before finally going ashore.

The next leg of their journey involved a 3-4 mile hike to the village. Not long after going ashore, the group walked an old air strip, also used by the United Fruit Company. Previously paved in tar, the runway was large enough to accommodate jets and Scott has since spotted it on Google Earth.

They crossed a stream, noticing two small rails paralleling the wooden bridge across it; the remains of the United Fruit Company’s railroad tracks. The Gunas used these rails to transport  wheeled vehicles across the river, their tires rolling between the beams. Panama eventually built a bridge, to more easily transport construction materials for a new school.

The group continued on, following the wide dirt road through the jungle, eventually reaching the edge of the village.

They first came to the area where a new school was being built. Panama requires the schools to be built with cinder block and concrete.

Scott wasn’t sure it was worth the time, as the current school didn’t appear to be getting much use.

The group walked through the village, passing many homes, several small tiendas (stores) and the congreso building.

Men gather nightly in the congreso, to discuss local events and problems, make decisions on pressing matters and listen to the advice of the saila (Chief).

The saila sings the history, legends and laws of the Guna, and also sees over the day-to-day political and social affairs of the village. The songs are sung in a “higher” language, with specialized words, and are followed by an interpretation from one of the voceros (interpreters and counselors), in”everyday” Guna language..

The group was allowed inside the congreso building, to speak to the saila. Two other chiefs from nearby villages were visiting; a big event. The sailas were all laying in hammocks, and stayed put while talking to the group (occasionally leaning over to spit on the floor), while the voceros sat on surrounding wooden benches.

After their chat with the sailas, the group continue to walk the village. Photos were allowed, as long as the villagers were not in them. Of course, Scott found his way around the rule, and managed to stealthily take some photos, camera down at his side. His results were pretty good, capturing women hanging laundry, children at play and some “lazy” villagers napping in the sun.

On the far side of the village, the group made their way down a hill, to the Gangandi River. Ahead of them, scenic, mountain views; behind them, the village, all but hidden from view by the jungle trees.

Originally located along the banks of the river, the Gangandi village began to experience life-threatening floods during the rainy season, with waters rising to extreme record levels.

In 2010, the elders finally decided to make a move. They suspended hunting and gathering, and tending to their crops, to concentrate all efforts on the monumental task of moving their village from the low-lying river bank, to more steeply elevated land. Teams of men, women and children managed to complete the move within four months, but suspending their food-providing tasks took much longer to recover from.

Today, women and children gather at the river’s edge to collect gravel, which is used to make concrete for construction of the new school.

The gravel is bagged, then hauled (on their backs) to various area in the village, where it is spread out to dry.

The women are paid roughly a whopping $1.50 for every 50 pounds of gravel, with the money going to the village.

After returning from the river, and through the village, the group made their way back to the canal. Bradeo carried bananas and yucca with him for his family, back on the island village.

The group boarded their waiting ulu, and headed back to the Robinson anchorage. It had been a long, but very interesting day.

Here are more photos.

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

 

 

 

Visiting The Western San Blas

After Howard’s Panama City adventure, we headed back to the Eastern Holandes. We were told that Howard’s post-vet photo didn’t come through on my previous post. It can now been viewed, but here he is in all his shaved belly glory, just hours after returning from his adventure.

Our route took us past the Carti group of islands, most of which had densely populated villages. This overhead photo gives you a good idea of just how crowded they are.

I snapped pictures of the villages as we passed by, and of women paddling their ulus.

We moved father east, and chose to travel through the Lemmon Cays along the way, admiring the return of sandy, palm tree islands and beautiful blue water.

We were amused by these two little huts, smartly outfitted with both solar panels and a wind generator, and also a huge sailing yacht!

In four hours time, we were back in the “hot tub,” and delivered goodies from Panama City for our friends Tate and Dani (s/v Sundowner).

After some time with friends anchored in the area, we returned to Porvenier in early February to see Joe, for Scott’s passport renewal stamp.

My passport stamp date is now different from Scott’s, as I’d flown in and out of Panama when I visited Baltimore, so I am now permitted to be in the country on a “tourist” visa (good for 180 days) until the beginning of April . Since Scott was still working with a “mariner’s visa,” (stamped when we arrived by boat in August), his stamp expires every 90 days, so we needed to get his renewed again.

When we arrived at the immigration office in Provenier, Joe wasn’t there, but the young man on duty stamped Scott’s passport with no problem, (and no charge!) and we headed happily back to the boat.

Our supply of dinghy gas was getting low, so Scott planned to make a stop at the nearby island of Wichubwala while we were here dealing with immigration. However, it was now too late for a gas run, so that would have to wait for morning.

The anchorage off of Porvenier is open to the ocean swells, and even with our flopper stoppers in, it was a rolly go; so much so that Scott got seasick. The next morning, he mustered up the energy to go for gas, only to realize upon arriving at the dock that everything was closed. It was Sunday, so that meant we’d be spending another rolly night at anchor.

Our extra day was not completely in vain, as we were visited by the mother of all veggie boats! The National Waiters panga stopped by on their way to the outer anchorages, loaded with produce.  As they cut open the large bags of potatoes, onions, cucumbers, peppers and other items to sell us, it was like Christmas! The produce was some of the best we’d purchased so far, including a the longest bunch of celery I’ve ever seen!

After filling our dinghy gas tanks on Monday morning, we left the area near Provenier, passing more densely populated islands. After traveling close to the shore of Panama’s mainland, now in the western area of the San Blas islands, we decided to investigate Nalia Bay.

The bay was lined with beautifully lush rain forest. Since we hadn’t seen that much green in months, it seemed like a great place to spend a few days. We had the bay all to ourselves, except for the few locals who were clearing land up on one of the hills, preparing to build a house; they waved their arms in a hello as we dropped anchor.

The surroundings were gorgeous, and it was a treat to have the area all to ourselves. However, in all our excitement, we failed to realize that our anchorage was also surrounded by mangroves….many, many mangroves…which means biting noseeums!

By the time we had pulled all of our screens closed, it was too late. Those evil bugs, the size of a grain of pepper with a bite like a bee sting, had taken over inside the boat. I spent hours just slapping my legs, trying to kill them as they bit me. Scott chastised me, for not “just dealing with it,” but later we both spent the night in long pants and long-sleeved shirts!

Scott finally snapped, as they bit at his uncovered face, and began to smash all he could see on the stateroom wall. Counting each one, he killed 320…just in our stateroom.

Even though the bugs were miserable, the internet signal was surprisingly terrific considering we were surrounded by dense jungle (I have given up trying to make sense of when, where and how internet signals work in the San Blas). We decided to gut it out one more day, so I could upload photos, and get a blog post or two out.

Scott took advantage of his surroundings, and went off immediately the next morning to explore the bay.

He landed the dinghy in a “mud hole,” and ended up hiking through the surrounding hills.

He came back with some great photos of Sea Life alone at anchor, but his shoes were caked in mud.

An additional day was all we could stand, and the following morning we ran, covered in bites, for open water, where welcome winds blew away the unwanted pests.

We continued to follow the mainland coast, and our next stop was the the Robison Island group, where there were many Guna island villages. Here we chose to anchor just off of the mountainous mainland, near three villages, offering us a beautiful view.

The two smaller islands were each made up of one extended family.

There were many more ulus with sails here (notice the man in green shirt falling overboard…which we saw happen several times, as the narrow boats suddenly shifted).

We noticed many more children than we’d seen before, and it was also surprising to see very, very young children out paddling and sailing in ulus without adults. It’s obviously a much simpler, safer life here.

Our friends Ted and Barbara (s/v Rosa dos Ventos) were here when we arrived. We’d seen them at anchor in Isla Mujeres last winter, but didn’t actually meet until we were both in Providencia in June. It was good to catch up with them, and have friends in the anchorage here to spend time with.

There were several inland rivers nearby, so Scott lowered the Aluminum Princess for some extreme exploring. He traveled miles up the up the Mandinga River, lined thick with jungle vines. It became quite narrow in places, and almost blocked his way in others.

He fought his way past the dead wood coming out of the river, which offered more sandy banks along it’s route.

Howard enjoyed the anchorage here as well, and the many smells coming from land close by. When Scott lowered his green LED light into the water each evening, Howard would go right out to the swim platform, for a look at the fish below. However, he also enjoyed waiting for the fish to jump, from the inflatable dinghy, that spent evenings hanging from our port side.

Scott tolerated this surprisingly well, but became pretty peeved when Howard decided that the tiller for the dinghy’s motor made a good chew toy.

Aside from the sound of people talking in passing ulus, or children playing on the islands, it was quiet, and very peaceful. Being close to the mountains, it was cooler here at night, and the smell of smoke from the villages came gently through our stateroom hatch. It was like we were camping, with the smoldering campfire just outside our tent. These things filled in for the feel and smell of fall, that we miss. Here are more photos.

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

 

 

 

Here are more photos.

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