Around the world the san blas islands. between the sky and the sea

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The San Blas. How often have we heard these islands mentioned… Round the Worlders who tell stories of their visits usually only have good things to say. Many boats go out of their way to visit before heading through the Panama Canal and entering the Pacific. Before taking a quick look around the Columbian coast and a few islands, including Carthagena, Cabo de la Vela, Santa Rosario Bernardo, we too headed for the San Blas.

Around the World Les San Blas

Just off the island of Pujadas, with only 30cm of water under the keels…

It takes around 24 hours to reach Mono Island from San Bernardo, our first stop in the San Blas. The crossing was generally pleasant. However, all the swell of the Atlantic ends up in this sea at the end of the Caribbean, so the waters are always very lively.
But what a surprise when we arrived to find that we were the only boat. This was not what we had expected, or what we had heard… Let’s forget everything we have heard said regarding the San Blas. Arriving from the north is not plain sailing. The charts are wrong and we need to refer to the routes traced by Eric Bauhaus in his pilot book from a few years back. Waves break on both port and starboard, and the sounder shows a depth of 5 meters. We can’t see the bottom of the waves, so we are extremely cautious. Thankfully, Bauhaus had done a good job! We arrived at Mono Island, alone and were surprised not to see any small craft of the Kuna people on the horizon. On one side there was the Panamanian jungle. On the other side, islands of sand and coconut palms. Welcome to paradise!

Around the World Les San Blas

One of a cat’s advantages : being able to head into the sandy shallows…

Back to business, and I need to get all my essential gear together. My camera and my drone. Yes, a drone. Not just a toy, but a serious photographic and videographic tool. I had only recently bought it, and had no doubt that it would give a whole new perspective from on board the boat. We had been testing it since we were in Columbia, and this only served to fuel my euphoria. Just like playing on a game simulator, I’m able to pilot the quadrocopter above the boat and the small islands that we encounter at amazing speed.

The mooring is dead calm. We can just make out at the back of a bay, an area of dense mangrove, and behind it there is a plume of smoke. No doubt a Kuna village. We don’t dare to venture into the forest to check it out.

Around the World Les San Blas like an albatross with goose-wing genoa!

We prefer to avoid the “recommended anchorage” and just choose the site which we find to be the best. Two days later, after having pottered around Mono Island, and having discovered that there were many Kuna villages hidden in the forest, we moved a mile further along to the tiny island of Ilestu. However, the current and the shallowness mean that we cannot anchor, and we end up finding a protected anchorage 500 meters away behind the island of Suledup. We eventually came across another boat, and they were just as surprised to see us. They had been alone in this corner of paradise for a week… We asked ourselves where all the boats could be that were swarming all around these little atolls? Whilst waiting to find the answer, we were quite pleased to have all of these islands to ourselves!
The water around the boat is murky, which surprised us. There would be no point going for a dive, especially as there are apparently salt-water crocodiles in the area. So we just stared at the water and avoided any swimming!

Around the World Les San Blas

The nurse sharks are not aggressive, and it’s easy to swim with them in the San Blas.

Another Day, Another Anchorage…

We finally decided to find a different anchorage for each night. Otherwise we’d just never decide!
At around 10am, the anchor is hauled out of its sandy home and we head for whichever new island that we come across. We are slightly hesitant as we move around, as we had not yet completed the formalities, and we had never visited a country before where we hadn’t had to accomplish the necessary paperwork rapidly. We had “been told” that this wasn’t a problem, and we could wait two to three weeks before doing it. We shall see!

Three, four, five moorings later, and we still haven’t seen any other yachts. However, the Kuna are starting to appear, and we are encouraged by their indifference to strangers. There is no issue with them. They don’t try to rip us off or get dollars out of us. They are quite shy, and sometimes they arrive at the boat with “langoustine”! The villages are growing, and the islands don’t have any spare land. One island for the houses, and another for the gardens. That’s how things work in the San Blas these days!

Around the World Les San Blas

Colors and wonders under the seas !

We soon arrive in the areas which are reputed to be busier, but still meet no other yachts in our moorings. We spend two days in Aredup, which is an exception from our rule as we like the anchorage so much. And one advantage of a cat, is that with a draught of only 90cm, we can get into a herbarium just a few meters from the beach in just 1.20m of water.

Around the World Les San Blas

Fantatic views under the sea…

The Solitude Is Over!

A few days later the horizon starts to fill up with masts. Our pleasant, quiet interlude is over! We are still worried about getting the formalities accomplished and decide to reach Porvenir, the capital of the San Blas sooner rather than later to get our visas. Porvenir is without doubt the prettiest capital that we have ever visited. The airport runway runs the length of the island, and there is a small hotel, a restaurant, as well as the customs and immigration offices. In other words it’s a fairly small place!
The formalities don’t take long, but end up being very expensive. We leave the office $585 lighter, which is the highest clearance charge that we have paid on our round the world trip. It works out at $100 per person and as much for the boat. Some of you may decide to try and get away without carrying out the formalities. However, the rumor that there are no inspections isn’t true! An armed military boat sails around the San Blas, and we were checked by these officers two days after our “official” entry into the islands.

Around the World Les San Blas

...and on the islands!

So we can now sail around without apprehension, and make the most of the coconut palm-lined islands. The most popular places in the San Blas and the ones not to miss, are the Holandes Cays, Coco Verde and Coco Banderos. It’s impossible to miss them given the mass of boats blazing a trail towards them, and especially when a rally goes past! However, it is possible to find a small anchorage without any other boats. The anchorages and the dives continue! We certainly spend lots of time under the water taking photos and hunting. The San Blas are fantastic islands, yet, they all resemble each other! Coconut palms and white sandy beaches, but for all that, we didn’t take them for granted!
I make the most of the environment to work with the other yacht owners, and take aerial photos of their boats. This turns out to be a really popular idea, especially in a place like the San Blas.

Around the World Les San Blas

The Kuna come around on a sailboat offering crabs and langoustines… lovely !

On the island of Narguana, close to the coast, we are able to stock up on some food. The village is small and we quickly check it out. There’s also a nice, practical way to fill up our water reserves: the Kuna go to the Rio Diablo to fill up 300 liter barrels with water which they then bring back to the boat. For $5 our tanks are full.

Rowing up the river, which we did, is fun, and gave us an insight into the authenticity of the Kuna’s culture. The Kuna do their washing upstream. A wonderful contrast with our society!

Overall, we spent a month in the San Blas. Our memories are of a wonderful place, despite the expensive formalities. And then it was time to move on. We headed for Puerto Linton, before heading through the Panama Canal via Colon and into the great Pacific Ocean.

Around the World Les San Blas

A cat and a pirogue meet…

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