Friday, July 27, 2012

Last Days in Paradise

Our time in the San Blas is drawing to a close for now as Don and I  prepare for our visit back to see family and friends up north. One thing that has really struck us on this visit as compared to ten years ago is the increased number of tourists, tourist boats, and eco-lodges here in the San Blas. With the improvement of the Carti road it is now possible to almost day trip to the islands where as it use to be only accessible by boat or small plane. Previously molas were the mainstay in years past, now tourism has taken a hold and we can only wonder what that will do to this already fragile environment. 

San Blas Islands of Panama......a beautiful place, a simple way of life.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The City of Carti

Unfortunately it is time for our guests to return to the land of plenty and the Starship headed for the Carti Island group. For their return trip John and Karen elected to take the steep and winding Carti road back to Panama City rather than a plane and we have heard it is much easier than in years past although still by 4-wheel drive and at least a three hour trip.

The main island village of Carti is Sugdup and we anchored for the night in a somewhat questionable open roadstead off the main dock. Typical of the larger San Blas villages, every build-able space on Sugdup is used and the buildings and huts are very close together, alleyways and walkways narrow and somewhat askew. But there is always room for one more satellite dish.

Shopping for molas was a priority as Karen had not yet had the opportunity and we walked the whole village to see what was available before buying. Molas are the traditional Kuna handicraft, hand-stitched of multi-layered cotton by the women of this once primarily matriarchal society. Traditionally women of the Kuna Yala sported elaborate tattoos similar to some Polynesian societies. But with the introduction of textiles from Europe in years past the traditional patterns of tattoos gave way to the colorful and intricately made blouses with their front and back panels representing the traditional tattoo symbolism. 

Passing ulus will come to your boat with mola panels and blouses for sale, as well as colorful anklets and bracelets known as winnis. Molas make beautiful quilts, bags, and pillows, or even just framed on the wall. I love them and have bought enough on this trip and the last to sink the boat!

While pulling up anchor to make way back out to the offshore islands a passing ulu came by with more edible treasure......Bananas!!!

Saturday, June 30, 2012


One of the joys of the cruising lifestyle is meeting up with old friends in new anchorages. Mel and Geno on the sailing catamaran Meow are old friends from Puerto Rico that we have not seen for a few years and Don and I were very happy to share an anchorage once again.

Mel and Geno initiated us into the delights of the Central Holandes island group which on our previous visit had not been charted and so it was all new territory to explore. With pristine, plastic-free, deserted beaches and crystal clear water, it is now forever dubbed  the “Secret Swimming Pool”! 

But paradise does have it's price and we are seriously running low on beer, wine and beta carotene. Being such a remote location is one of the drawbacks of the San Blas Islands and provisioning can be somewhat of a challenge. While occasionally the Kunas will sell a fresh picked pineapple or some bananas from their farms on the mainland, in general the motto is: If you didn’t bring it with you, forget it. 
...........And then on the horizon appears the venerated veggie boat. 

Coming from mainland river villages or sometimes even from as far as Miramar, a Panamanian coastal town over twenty miles away, these boats are eagerly anticipated by the cruising community. The proverbial manna from the gods as far as we are concerned, the colors green, orange, red, and purple had us salivating in anticipation. 

Is that eggplant???? 

These young entrepreneurs are a blessing to the cruisers here in the San Blas and like the coconut telegraph their locations and destinations go out over the local radio nets with audible excitement. Fully equipped with a scale, an ice chest full of pollo, flats of eggs, and a calculator.... the tienda is open.

What a beautiful sight!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Company and Crustaceans

After our week of rest Don and I headed to the mainland of the Kuna Yala to pick up our guests arriving from San Francisco, John and Karen. 
John has been aboard previously in the Virgin Islands and this time is returning with girlfriend Karen, a fellow surfer from the bay but a novice to boating. 
Anchoring off the small island of Nargana where the daily flights from Panama City arrive was a nostalgic stop for us. When we were here ten years ago the water pipe from the mainland was damaged and getting water required daily trips up the river by ulu. Whether the pipe is still broken or broken again we have been unable to determine and the daily parade of paddle driven dugouts is never ending. Luckily gas and diesel are also still available as now that we are in the west the Starship has become primarily a motorboat. The islands are so close together that hoisting a sail often is not worth the effort. As we watched the local gas man happily filled our diesel jugs through a funnel made from a dirty t-shirt in an attempt to filter out the water. Don is hoping this is a successful method.

As soon as all were aboard we headed out to Green Island and some coconut hunting was our plan. Unfortunately we didn’t beat an oncoming 40 knot squall and John and Karen got their first taste of anchoring during a storm and the torrential downpours that keep our water tanks full, our dog clean, and the laundry at least rinsed.

After things settled down and dried out Don and John were successful at locating some coconuts ashore and Don pulled out the coconut power tools for a welcome aboard pipa, a young coconut filled with rum.....yum!

The next morning we headed out to the Central Holandes island chain to find clearer water for swimming and hopefully a few lobster for sale. The Kuna Indians are tireless fishermen and hunter gatherers, everyday raking the reefs and sea grass beds for anything and everything edible. What can't be sold makes its way into the family cook-pot. Large lobster, tiny lobster,coral crabs, fish of every size and species, conch too small to even see the muscle inside, and, unfortunately, the occasional turtle. 

Picking out some larger specimens, Karen, a New Englander by birth, proceeded to demonstrate the proper way to suck lobster meat from lobster legs and we showed her the Starship method for cracking a lobster without a shellfish cracker.....a hammer! Gently!

Swimming to a nearby reef to clean up awarded us with some spectacular helmet rays and spotted eagle rays, as well as unique coral formations.

Welcome John and Karen! 

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tropical Paradise of San Blas

While we await the arrival of our next round of guests Don and I are enjoying our time alone, the first in four months of constant company and traveling. We are now anchored in the beautiful island group known as the Eastern Lemon Cays where our daily view includes palm trees, sandy beaches, clear water, and the occasional visiting ulu with a lobster or coconut for sale. Definitely paradise. The only thing on the agenda today is which book to read, making sure there is plenty of beer on ice, and putting out the buckets to catch the almost daily occurence of rain as it is now officially the “wet” season. Better known as hurricane season in the Eastern Caribbean, here in the west we are safely out of the hurricane belt but still subject to the torrential tropical wetness. Great for laundry and excellent for mold, my vinager bottle is loaded and ready.

Ulus are the usual form of inter-island transportaion in the San Blas, although there are larger motorized pangas for net fishing, long distance travel and tourists. Made from a single log and sporting sails made of cloth, plastic tarps, old flags, bed sheets or any other useful material, paddled and poled by hand, an ulu underway is a visual reminder of the traditional way of life still very much in evidence here. But then out comes the cellphone and charger along with a polite request for a few minutes charge time on our house batteries.  Paradise with a modern twist.

Getting wet was a priority after the brown muck of Colombia, even for Daisy, and snorkeling is of course my favorite water activity.

Pillow starfish, sea anemones, and an aero crab where among the many creatures spied and caught by my camera. But this elusive brittle starfish refused to poke its head out from its tube sponge home no matter how long I hovered!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Isla Pinos, San Blas Islands, Panama

Now that boat projects are complete it is time to leave the beautiful and historic city of Cartagena and head west to the Tahiti of the Caribbean....the San Blas Islands of Panama. It has been ten years since we last were in Panama and Don and I are eagerly anticipating the beauty and isolation of these island jewels. Our overnight trip started off with a slow motor sail and thunder-heads in the distance, including this water spout that seemed to run parallel to our course for longer than we liked. 

A playful school of dolphins, mothers and calves, frolicked between the almas along the way, weaving in and out and granting us the gift of safe passage. An uneventful overnight crossing found us at Isla Pinos at daybreak, one of the eastern most islands of the San Blas and one of the more traditional. 

Located along the east coast of Panama the archipelago of San Blas encompasses hundreds of palm tree studded islands only a few miles from the mainland. An independent nation within the country of Panama, the San Blas Islands are home to the indigenous Kuna Indians. The nation of the Kuna Yala has worked hard to preserve their culture and traditions and continue to adhere to their simple way of life despite the influences of modern society. 

Living in huts made of wood and thatched palm fronds with dirt floors and no indoor pluming, everyone seems to have a cell phone, satellite television dishes are plentiful, and the village generator is dependent on the daily fluctuating fuel supply.

The main population lives on the offshore islands and then traverses a few miles to the mainland daily where they have small farms surrounded by miles of untouched virgin rainforest. Pineapples, coconuts, papaya, avocados, sugar cane, lobster and bananas can sometimes be found for sale from individuals who silently paddle along side in dugout canoes called ulus. Ashore shopping in the villages is rather sparse, occasionally a carrot or potato, and the abundance of plastic bottles filled with sugary drinks is a blunt reminder of the influence of modern society.

Happy we are to be back in the Kuna Yala.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

While we have been in Cartagena Don and I are making the most of our short time here and are getting some much needed boat projects completed. After the years spent in the windy Eastern Caribbean our sail cover and large shade tarp have taken a beating and we were lucky enough to contract the local canvas man right away for a repair and refit. Our captain's chair has also seen better days and we elected to have that recovered as well. It was a delight to us to discover that even if the wine prices have gone up here in Cartagena, at least some things are still affordable.

San Felipe de Barajas

Sightseeing is a must while in Cartagena and in addition to the beautiful old walled city the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas built on the hill of San Lazaro overlooking the city is an incredible sight. Built in 1536 over a period of thirty years by Spanish soldiers and African slaves the fort was erected to protect the vast gold shipments coming overland from Peru from the continuously invading English and French armies.

Being located forty meters above sea level allowed for easy monitoring of any armed invasion and therefore the fort was never breached while it was in use as a gold repository. Castillo San Felipe de Barajas was built not only for protection but as an example of Spanish supremacy and strength and is recognized by UNESCO as one of the largest man-made constructions in South America. The fort still retains numerous batteries, residences, cisterns and tunnels and while there are some open for tourist exploration many are sealed off for safety. The Spanish soldiers were said to have secretly mined the fort so as to prevent any invading marauders from reaching the gold in case an army ever did prove successful.

Cartagena, in addition to all the tourist attractions,  is one of those cruiser's paradise places that you can have anything repaired, remade, refitted, and replaced. Colombia is known for its emeralds and during our visit here ten years ago I had a beautiful ring made at a local jeweler named Lucy who had a large clientele of sailors and cruisers. Unfortunately the ring broke and I have been unsuccessful having it repaired anywhere for a cost that did not exceed the value of the ring itself. So I have held onto it all these years in the hopes that someday, maybe, Don and I would return to Cartagena. And sure enough Lucy is still in business with a new and larger location and is busy repairing my ring that I have waited eight years to have fixed! Anybody needing emeralds please visit There are no hawkers on the street trying to hustle you inside, no pressure to buy, and the prices are excellent. 

Cartagena.....on our favorites list!