The archipelago of San Blas, or ‘Kuna Yala’ as it is called locally, is possibly the most idyllic place I have ever had the pleasure to visiting in my travels. It is an archipelago of very small, very low-lying islands with limited flora and fauna, sandy beaches and coconut palms. The reef system in and around Kuna Yala is extensive, unrelenting and there is no buoyage of any kind, or electricity for that matter, so at night the islands cannot be seen at all except as absences of stars. The charts for this area are also exceptionally unreliable, making the approach and navigation within the archipelago very treacherous. At any one time there are about 150 yachts in Kula Yala (almost exclusively private cruising yachts, many of whom have completed circumnavigations and, having seen the world, decided to make Kuna Yala their home) and every year two or three of them come to grief, much to the dismay of their owners but to the considerable glee of the local Kuna tribe to whom such events are akin to a gift from the heavens.
The people are really quite incredible. They are an indigenous tribe who moved over from the mainland hundreds of years ago and to this day they maintain Kuna Yala as an autonomous tribal state within Panama. The fact that they have managed to achieve this state of affairs and maintain it in a sustainable way despite centuries of oppression, occupation by foreign armed forces and now the rapid ‘development’ of the world around them is nothing short of astounding. The people themselves are also astounding – resilient, physically phenomenal but also friendly, accommodating and in all other ways a delight to interact with. They take no offense and consider it no imposition upon their privacy to have foreigners such as ourselves visit their homesteads, and approach yachts daily in their canoes full of lobster, conch or whatever else they are selling (at very reasonable prices, and they take no offense nor try to push their goods on you if you simply say ‘no gracias’). These canoes in themselves are evidence of considerable physical prowess. They are dug-out canoes made over the course of several months from large trees which are harvested on the slopes of the mountains of mainland Panama. They lug them all the way back to whichever island they live on and then spend months digging them out. I say ‘physical prowess’ rather than workmanship necessarily because, to be honest, in all other ways these craft are quite silly as far as I can tell. Since they are made from a single piece of wood they are very heavy (but not slow. The surprising strength and endurance of the Kuna despite their slight build sees to that!). The wood also frequently cracks, allowing water to leak in such that the occupants are obliged to spend as much time bailing as paddling. I can’t help but think that their lives would be altogether easier if they devoted a smidgen time to improving upon the traditional design………..
The Kuna are rather fond of gold and many of the women can be seen adorned with it. The islands themselves contain rich deposits, however it is illegal for anyone, including the Kuna, to extract it. The logic behind this speaks volumes about the history of the region. The Kuna simply say ‘whenever we have tried to harvest gold from the land, someone else has come and taken it from us’. Therefore, they simply don’t bother and instead buy it in Panama City using funds generated mainly from the sale of coconuts and coconut products.
Suffice to say we were very, very sorry to have to leave San Blas after so fleeting a visit. Above all it was wonderful to spend some time with two old shipmates from the Barque Picton Castle, Cathy and Maria. Maria and I met in 2000 during my first sail aboard a tallship and my first proper voyage to sea. Cathy, two years later when I signed up for 5 months on board the Picton Castle as a trainee. That voyage took me from the East Coast of Canada down through the British Virgin Islands, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific as far as the Cook Islands. It is our intention now to visit many of the same places that I visited previously on that voyage back in 2002, and many others that I have not visited myself but feel a certain affinity to since my mother visited them during her circumnavigation on the same ship between 2003 and 2009 (is that right mother?!). Cathy and Maria have a beautiful steel Yawl (they say it’s a yawl so I’ll defer to their definition. I think it’s a ketch despite the positioning of the mizzen mast, but it is their boat after all!) which I last saw when it had first been purchased, on the hard in Prince Edward Island (Canada) in 2006ish. It has come a long, long way since then, Cathy and Maria having poured most of their time and much of their gargantuan expertise into her to refurbish and rebuild pretty much everything from the keel to the trucks (she is traditionally rigged with served and tarred galvanised steel shrouds, ratlines and gaff sails). Sarah has posted a link in her blog post. I will only add that if anyone reading this is feeling the oppression of the modern world closing in on them and wants to get away from it for a week or so you would be hard pressed to find a better opportunity than signing up for a charter in the San Blas Islands aboard Joana. I promise I haven’t been paid or in any other way coerced into touting their business so shamelessly!
Sadly San Blas, similar to many islands in the Pacific, may not be around for much longer. Rising sea levels caused by global warming are claiming islands rapidly. It looks like some which used to be inhabited have now been abandoned, and according to Eric Bauhaus, who has painstakingly produced and continues to update the only existing reliable charts of the area, many islands that he once charted as such are now sandbars awash or even completely submerged.
We set sail to Colon, the city that marks the entrance to the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal and sailed overnight arriving here in the early morning of March 3rd. I didn’t get much sleep on that passage -at one point I registered 16 different targets on the AIS system. I ended up turning off all the alarm systems and just looking around to try to figure out what all the various shipping was doing. Since you’re reading this, it all worked out very well 🙂
So far Colon has lived up to it’s name. We didn’t go ashore until yesterday afternoon (after we had been measured and inspected for the canal transit) and one of the first inhabitants we met was a gentleman defecating openly on the path in front of us. A very appropriate welcome I thought. Fortunately we have managed to find a supermarket, buy stuff in it and get it back to Bob without getting mugged (yet). There is also a lively bar at the yacht club which we are anchored off and something resembling a chandlery on the premises which was closed yesterday but which may hopefully be open today. It’s a long-shot but I’m hoping they might have an ‘Alan Jr.’ sitting there waiting for me……………… OK, maybe ‘long shot’ doesn’t quite cover it, but I shall remain ever optimistic until the very moment of my hopes being dashed!
We have a spot for transit booked – March 10th. The time between now and then will be spent preparing Bob for the transit and then we might try to get of Colon for a day or two -we’ll see.