In 2005, while sailing the world, we visited the San Blas Islands.
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“You gife me fiv dollar”, the abrupt stocky Indian points sharply at me, himself and our timber boat with his leathery finger. “Here we go again” I think, with vivid memories of cunning Egyptians, shrewd Malaysians and darn right calculating Caribbeans. His worn hands reach to his pocket and reveal a slim printed receipt book. For once I am grateful for my indecision of reaction and the official booklet declares the $US5 fee for sailing boats to stay in the San Blas, for up to a month. Our new smiley friend shows his relief as he witnesses the proverbial penny dropping in our salt sluggish minds. We gladly exchange cash for receipt.
“Bambino”, he nods his wrinkly head at the young girl curling up at the end of their sturdy, dug out canoe. Her dazzling smile lights up in her eyes, the sun has yet to perform its harshness on her smooth brown skin. “Mag-a-zine”, old smiley pronounces with some difficulty. We are pitifully short on glossy magazines, a rich request. The one, tattered but colourful publication exhumed from the bowels of Mariah’s burdened hull causes the youthful youngster to hold her breath. A small whimper confirms she is breathing again as she gratefully clasps the smooth pages and immediately absorbs herself deep within the colourful pictures and foreign printed words. “A gift”, the next words, painstakingly practiced, from her cheerful Dad. He hands over three large, un-ripe avocados. “Quatro dias” he says with a more comfortable tongue, they will be ready to eat in four days.
Land delays and nature’s gift
Behind schedule by three months (due to problems on terra firma not nautical) we hurriedly sailed 2,500 miles in six weeks to enable us to witness for ourselves why the San Blas is “a place to see”. We are also preparing for the Panama Canal experience, traversing the magnificent Pacific Ocean and heading home to Australia. We left Demopolis Alabama (which is approximately 200 miles north of New Orleans, up the TennTom River), then bumped and ground our way south towards the Grand Caymens where my Dad, Roy, patiently waited. “I felt a bit like Robinson Crusoe” he says, “waiting for my ship”. We prised him away from his luxurious hotel in exchange for a 33ft boat, disturbingly lacking in air con, maid service and fresh linen. Noel and I kept quiet about what the trip across Caribbean Sea offers, as my Dad has only sailed in protected waters. But Mother Nature took pity on us and presented a stalling low, enabling us to gain plenty of easting and rest for a night on Jamaica’s shores. The prevailing south easterlies are constant and strong across the Caribbean Sea. We took advantage of the gift of a suspended low, then rode on its back in a north easterly. A bouncy but speedy ride delivered us safely into the sanctuary of the San Blas islands.
What it has, is what it’s lacking
It’s not what the San Blas Islands have so much, it’s what they haven’t got that makes it special. The necklace archipelago that threads its way along the northern Panama coast is happily void of ugly, noisy jet skis and thumping music. Absent are the flamboyant tourist boats skimming our bow, housing burnt faces straining to peer into our home. The glorious silence with only the backing rhythm of the gentle rolling ocean is like a soothing balm to our travel weary souls.
Of course, we boaters do not consider ourselves tourists, so it is perfectly okay that we are here. I believe most serious boaters have a certain respect for places they visit, such as the San Blas Islands. As we take our first steps in paradise it is extraordinary to feel and witness the respect. The display of pretty shells left untouched, for all to enjoy. The coconuts in neat piles sit next to the odds and ends bench that is thrown together in a welcome shady spot and there is no litter to tarnish the picture. Our mementos are, more often than not, gathered at beaches, a shell, piece of washed up coral and even an old Cuban paddle, hang precariously around Mariah’s innards. Here, we do not want to touch or take anything, this place should be left as it is found, it’s like an unwritten, unspoken rule.
A tough lot to tally
There are 365 islands, however figures of up to 378 are also quoted. I imagine appointed island counters kicking back and enjoying the peaceful scenery then loosing their place, besides who really cares exactly how many there are! On each flat atoll the strapping, vivid green palm trees bestow cool, dark shade to the Kuna Indians that inhabit some of the islands. This indigenous group will offer you a warm welcome, but they are a tough bunch. After decades of conflict and a short war with the Panamanian government in 1925, the victorious Kuna won a self-governing region of 2,360 km² they call Kuna Earth, (Kuna Yala).
Around 35,000 Kuna’s live here scattered from 30 to a few thousand per village. The brawny Indians, as you expect, fish and cultivate their coconut plantations, they don’t do too badly from boaters too. The vibrant women paddle daily in their tough, dug out canoe to each boat swinging in the welcomed breeze. “Molas, molas,” they call, which is wasted on our Spanish ignorant ears. Gran, Mum and daughters make it clear that each pile of Molas they try to sell are individually theirs, to keep them all happy I should buy one from each, that’s not going to happen at around $50 a piece! Molas are intricately hand stitched, many layered cotton panels, depicting colourful turtles, parrots or indigenous patterns. Muddling the separately crafted pieces leaves you on the end of some severe tutting. “Change, change” one of the smooth skinned daughters intones, which causes some creasing of the foreheads onboard Mariah II. “Tut, you speak Engleesh?!” she asks, her chanting accent dripping impatience. My Dad, who has joined us for the Panama Canal figures it out. “Exchange” we all sing together laughing and the stern girl is happy to listen and practice the word over again. The smaller Molas priced for $20 are exchanged for two cokes, popcorn and a little chocolate. Coke is their gold, wave a can or two in front of their eyes and the world is your oyster. Fresh lobster are home delivered by a grinning Kuna for around $5US. The older women add a whole new meaning to the word stern and are clad in ornaments and costume of the Kuna Indians – a gold nose ring, brilliant coloured Molas embroidered on their equally bright blouses, a vivid head scarf and glistening jewellery. Don’t mess with these tough cookies, they will happily renege on a deal of chocolate, coke or any consumables in exchange for a photo. You will only achieve a photo for $US1 and that will be a frown or a back of the head at best!
Preserving an adolescent industry
The real tourists are kept in check, the fledgling industry consists of a number of island lodges and attendant airstrips that cater for tourists that arrive by plane, soak up the truly tropical ambience for two weeks and depart back to their obscure world. “Don’t tell anyone about this place.” Our new neighbour on the New York boat says after we say good morning and exclaim our astonishment at the beauty of our surrounds. As we cast our eyes around the picture book islands and reefs that form a perfectly protected anchorage, we should be in that glossy magazine we gave away. Crystal clear beckoning water, model palm trees that are the healthiest thing we’ve seen since vegemite sandwiches and glistening sandy islands appear to have just had a make-over and are ready for their photo shoot with Vogue.
Squeals of rare gifts
The sandy islands summon us to explore their shady secrets. The crew exhaust themselves with snorkelling within the dazzling live reefs, matched only by the Great Barrier. My weary limbs are cajoled by the excitement of exploration and I take a solitary ride to a partially inhabited island. Tacking through the abundant waving shallows, I’m alerted by whistles showing me where to land. The natives haul up the dinghy and try to peer into my bag for goodies. Endlessly embarrassed by my lack of Spanish I trip over words spoken in English laced with a Spanish accent, hoping something will catch. “Salade, Banan, tomat” I chant in a poor mimic of their tone. We amble into their tiny village centre, where two strong huts weaved to the dirty sand with dried palm leaves surround a ramshackle table amidst the dust. Fresh lemons (limon), avocados and bananas are assemble by the excitable children who stare unabashed at this alien, a comparably large, white female, daring to enter their home, alone. The small bounty is just $4 (American), I do not negotiate, but pull two extra dollars, popcorn and a small magazine to show my appreciation of making me welcome and perhaps enabling me to take a couple of photos. Sighting the camera, the “chief” puts on his shirt, lines up two incongruous pink and blue plastic chairs and sits down stiffly with his wife. “Not what I had in mind” I mutter, but obligingly take the picture. With a bit more chocolate and even a coke (I felt a tad stingy with yesterday’s coke purchases), a lot of hand movements and miming, I convince our smiley, avocado gift-friend to take a picture with me, fruit, and all his family. Trustingly I hand over the camera with foreign instructions and frantic waves at all the kids to gather around. Smiles, giggles and shaky pictures later, we bid farewell with the promise of my return with a black and white print out of their pictures.
Squeals of joy permeate through the solid palms out onto the flat, green-blue water as the chief unrolls the photos I have printed onboard. “Come, come” , beckons a new arrival. She trots off east with my Dad and I trying to keep pace in the dusty path, dodging falling coconuts. Summoning her husband, she expounds the details of the new pictures that I presented and we are met with a toothless, mischievous grin of her cheeky husband. Raucous laughter bellows from the gathering crowd as our new friends pose for pictures, calling us to sit with them and cuddling each other, a tactile show, that I think, is normally for private.
An hour later on board Mariah we hand the remaining pictures to the younger girls of the family to take back to their village. They can hardly wave good bye as they tip the canoe, gathering one end to grasp an early peek of the pictures. The thrill etched on their faces and eager fingers gave us our own joy and memory that is equally imprinted in our minds.
As some sailboats drift silently away and others putter in, is it all too late to keep the San Blas as it is? On the well-worn routes sailors leave around our planet the San Blas is an ideal stop before dealing with and ironing out the mountainous rumours that cloak the Panama Canal. The boatie grapevine will keep growing, weaving its information to all who explore, revealing this unhidden archipelago. I wrestle with myself advertising such a place in a popular magazine, which creates an odd picture in my head and a cheeky smirk from my husband.
Let’s hope the tenacious Kuna stay unaffected by the western world and not let greed tarnish one of the last jewels in the ornamental circumnavigation ring.
Recollections of beaming young smiles with a thirst for learning, strong stocky minds and bodies against a stage of delight, flit through my mind with a vivid intenseness now I am back in the affected world.
Tips and Info (from 2005!)
Have plenty of coke/cookies and popcorn for negotiating (as well as American Dollars – lots of 1s).
Arrive with the sun behind you, there are many of reefs.
Choose weather careful, the Caribbean sea has a notorious reputation
Take your time with the locals if your Spanish is as bad as ours!
Don’t tell anyone else about this place . . . . .
Great all weather protection
They deal with American Dollars
$US5 for a month for sail boats
No rubbish bins on the islands, take it with you
San Blas islands are visited throughout the year
Most boaties visit the San Blas before checking into Panama. There are reports of keen officials threatening spot checks. Officially, you should check in to Panama first before visiting the San Blas Islands.
With good charts you will find a plethora of anchorages. A good start is Cayos Holandes Archipelego near Calubir Island, this is an excellent, protected anchorage, enabling easy exploration of half a dozen islands, by dinghy. Keep good visual on reefs as they are close. Move carefully NE to find shallower water. We anchored at 09°35.27N 78°40.67W.