The Sailboat Blog – San Blas Islands, Panama 2

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My effort to circumnavigate the globe without leaving the ground almost ran aground before I left Central America. If and when you decide to go off on one of these personal odysseys, I suggest doing just a little bit of research before you set out. I, alas, hadn’t really done much of any research before I hit the road, as planning is not one of my fortes.

I had bought the Lonely Planet “Central America on a Shoestring” guide before I left (and also the South American one – I was the envy of the backpacker circuit in Panama and in much demand in the hostels for my South American guidebook). Ahhhh, but that I’d actually read any of the guidebooks before I left home.

I’d seen some TV special about some guy that took a motorcycle trip from Seattle to the tip of South America a few months before I left. Of course, the reason he was on TV was that he only made it overland to Colombia, got kidnapped there and spent two years in captivity before he was set free, but I ignored that part while I watched. I’d heard the Pan-American Highway went from Mexico to the bottom of Chile. I didn’t see this guy’s whole interview, but if he was on motorcycle, didn’t the road have to make it at least to Colombia? After all, he had got kidnapped there. Hell, I’d traveled on the Pan-American for a bit last year, when I went to Nicaragua. That highway, though a bit rough, had to go all the way where I needed to go.

I’d never heard (or read, obviously) of the Darien Gap.

The Pan-American does indeed run from Mexico to almost the bottom of Chile. . . except for a stretch south of Panama City to the Colombia border, called the Darien Gap. It is one of the wildest places on the planet – often compared to the Amazon or parts of New Guinea in that regard. There are no roads through it at all. You can partly explore it if you can find a good local guide that can take you via small canoe some of the rivers in the area.

Finding a guide and navigating the area is only a part of the problem. The bigger parts was whether you are willing to take the risk of dealing with hostile natives, narco-terrorists and members of FARC, the famous Colombian opposition terrorist group, who hides out in the Gap and also in southeastern Colombia. It’s a bad, bad place.

I was flipping through my guidebook somewhere in Honduras or so when I came upon this quandary. In most aspects, guidebooks will go out of their way to caution you about a certain route (“talk to locals, but it might be best to take day-time buses in this area, instead of going by night,” or “certain parts of town can be inhospitable – make sure to check with your hostel before you set out,” and so on).

The book was a bit more blunt for the Darien Gap, where I paraphrase, but the advice was pretty much “you are a gringo. If you go there, you will die. Find another route.”

Message received.

I did later hear a story about a gringo who spoke perfect Latin Spanish that made it through the gap by painting his entire body with the excretion from a local plant, which made his skin color appear to be similar to the natives living there. Although it surely would have been a good story for the book – and body paint does not scare me – I didn’t have time or the aptitude to learn Spanish.

Fortunately the guidebook said that there were plenty of sailboats that did a 5-day crossing from small ports just south of Colon, Panama (the entrance port to the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side) to Cartagena, Colombia. I had looked at the section on Colombia – at this point, I was beginning to realize some advance examination of places I was about to go to was a good idea – and Cartagena sounded like a fabulous place to visit. The guidebook said to check with fellow travelers and at the hostels for specific sailboats, because some boats (and captains) were maintained better than others and the local information would be more up to date than anything they suggested.

I was staying at Luna’s Castle in Panama City and talked to them about booking passage. They quickly shot down the idea of going to Cartagena. According to them, no sailboats were making the crossing, because the prevailing winds were blowing in the wrong direction and the open seas were too rough. They did know of one boat that might be leaving in two days to sail down the coast of Panama and to a port just over the Panama/Colombia border, but then you’d have to take some sort of ferry across a large bay to Turbo, which is on the mainland side of Colombia – and then a 14-hour bus to Cartagena.

map of san blas islands panama

I had no option. I had to get to Colombia and this boat was the only way there, except for the flight option, which was certainly out of the question this shortly into the trip.

They called the captain for me and reserved a spot for me on the boat. My travel friend, Linda, was on the other side of Panama, but she wanted a spot also, so we booked her up as well. Captain Marcus said to call in the afternoon the next day, so that he could tell me if they were playing on leaving the day after that or had to postpone for another day. When I called him as scheduled, he said we were going to leave the next day and that I should either meet him at noon at the departure dock or a couple hours earlier in Colon, where he was going to buy groceries before we took off.

I hopped on the train (my first on the trip – and a disappointment) from Panama City to Colon, met Linda there, and then we called Captain Marcus to come pick us up. When he showed up, he told us that he wasn’t going to captain this trip, but his trusted assistant was going to take charge. His trusted assistant’s wife was also going to join us and do all of the cooking. He said the boat slept eight and that there were only six people booked. The first night of sailing was going to be the only long sail – 12 hours – because the boat had just been in for repairs and was docked a little further north than usual.

No worries though, said Captain Marcus, the first night was the only night we had to sleep on the boat and after that, we’d be anchored at deserted islands every night and the boat had plenty of tents to camp out on the beaches under the stars.

I’ll break in at this point to ruin some of the suspense that I might apparently be trying to build up – I did have a good time on the trip. Don’t get me wrong, there are some downsides I’m going to be discussing in a bit, but all in all, the trip was pretty good. That being said, as I read the above paragraphs and remember the conversation with Captain Marcus, I can make this travel generalization: we are all willing to suspend disbelief in the effort to convince ourselves that everything is going to be great – even when confronted with obvious warning flags that should indicate otherwise.

After we stopped at the store to do the shopping for all the food and provisions for the eight of us (six passengers and the alternate captain and his wife) would need on the five day trip, Captain Marcus got a call on his cell that went something like this for my ears:

“Yes, this is Marcus.”
“Sure we have room on the boat. How many?”
“When can you get here?”
“OK. No problems.”
“Yes, that is plenty of time. We will wait for you.”

He turned to us and said, “Well, this is great. There are three other guys that are joining in on the trip. That means that everyone’s share for the groceries is going to be less. Great news!”

I’ll never be able to be a salesperson, for a few reasons. (1) I don’t like people nearly enough (2) I don’t suffer fools gladly — though in this story, I am he — and (3) I can make pretty darn good literal lemonade, but don’t do as well with the proverbial version when presented with the lemons of life. Captain Marcus? Lemonade, with an intoxicating kick.

Less cost for us? Yes. Then again, we had bought food for eight people. Now there were eleven (twelve actually, Captain Marcus forgot to mention that the alternate captain and wife were also bringing their kid). More importantly, the boat was supposed to sleep eight. We now had nine (the captain, his wife and the kid were going to sleep on deck or ashore, according to Captain Marcus).

Though Captain Marcus made it clear to us, “those guys booked last. All of you six get a bunk. One of them is going to have to get a spot on the floor the first night. But no worries, after that, everyone can sleep on shore in the tents. It will be great.”

I do admire salesmen.

Right after we finished shopping, we randomly ran into a passenger on his way to meet us at the sailboat. It was a guy named Garret from Montana and we was waiting at a bus stop right outside the store. He’d called in just that morning from Panama City to see if there was an opening (he was the 6th) and rushed over from Panama City.

Captain Marcus and three French passengers got into his pickup truck with all the groceries and headed to the boat. Garret, Linda, and I waited on the bus, caught it and 30 minutes later, we were at the tiny port town also.

The sailboat was named the Ailsa Craig. I actually had seen the Ailsa Craig. I was the only one on the boat, including its owner, who had seen it (Captain Marcus had bought the boat from a Scotsman a while back). It’s a small island made of granite off the western coast of Scotland, near the famous British Open golf course called Turnburry. On a horribly windy and rainy day at Turnburry some years ago, I shot a smooth 100. For those non-golfers out there, 100 is not good. In fact, it’s really bad. Ailsa Craig is right off shore and the local saying goes something like, “if you can’t see Ailsa Craig, the weather is bad, but wait for a few minutes, its changes all the time.” It didn’t change for me that whole round.

On the other hand, one of my favorite minor sports, and one of the few ones I like in the Winter Olympics, is curling – and every curling stone is made from stone quarried from Ailsa Craig. So the omens weren’t all bad.

In addition to his sailboat, Captain Marcus owned a small restaurant and hostel in the little port town we were leaving from (too small to find on the map, so I’m not sure of the name). An important member of the community. He was a French Canadian guy who seemed pretty excited about a lot of things.

Including cocaine. When we were waiting for his cook to bring us some burgers, he pulled Garret and me aside and said, “You guys do blow?” We looked at each other (we’d just met an hour ago), both shrugged our shoulders and said, “No. Why?”

“Because you can get some of the best cocaine in the world on these San Blas islands you guys are going to be sailing through. Straight up from Colombia. Pure. Very pure stuff. I’ve had clients before that have bought it in many places around the world, but they say the coke here is the best they’ve ever had. Little old local ladies will sell it to you, cheap, when you pull into some of the small local towns. Now look, if you want to use it – or smoke some good weed – you can get that there also – that’s perfectly fine by me, but do it on shore. Don’t do it on the boat, OK?”

Garret and I looked at each other and had one of those moments were you know exactly what the other person is thinking, the exact words forming in their head – what the hell was up with this guy? We turned back to him, nodded and told him, “Sure. Nothing on the boat. Cool.”

The last three guys showed up a couple hours later and we were ready to cast off. Captain Marcus had taken all of our backpacks down to the dock and he and the alternate captain had loaded them on board, along with all the groceries and the beer and booze that we bought here in port, once we realized we hadn’t gotten enough at the grocery store.

The three new guys were all Brits that were traveling separately, but met up on the road and were going the same way for a while. Rob had done South America before for a few months and had some great stories about things we needed to see in some of those countries – including the Columbian women. He’d apparently had a Columbian girlfriend for some months when he was down there. I didn’t think too much of it then, but a couple weeks later, I was really envious. His original travel plan was to take a Land Rover from London to Capetown with a friend of his, but his friend’s mother got ill and had to cancel. Rob sold the Land Rover and flew off to Central America for a while.

Adam was a great, great guy with horrible taste in music. I say that not because I thought he had horrible musical taste – we let him plug his iPod into a boom box on board and play his music a few times – and the resulting opinion of his music was unanimous. Mark was a few years older than those two and was on a trip from the U.S. to the tip of South America over about a year.

There was also a nice French couple whose names I never really did get – nor apparently did any of the English speakers get them either. I didn’t notice until someone else mentioned it on about day three of the cruise, but the two of them pretty much just stayed drunk the entire time. It was hard to tell, because they kept to themselves and were very quiet, but once someone mentioned it to me, I did notice that they always had a bottle of rum handy. Fredrick was another French guy on the trip. He was. . .well, he proved over six days to be excitable, unstable and perhaps a bit off his rocker. He was a truck driver back in France that spoke some English, just enough to confuse the heck out of you. From piecing together conversations he had with some of the others, I think at one point he was in the military and had done a lot of traveling in South America and Asia over the years. Or not. It was hard to tell.

Garret was a very cool guy from Montana. By far he was the one that pitched in and helped the most on the boat. Every time the anchor needed to be hauled up (the winch didn’t work), he volunteered. I helped him a few times with that chore and I can say with utmost conviction that I am a weak-ass mo’fo. He also ended up being the one that helped the most with trimming the sails, when the captain needed some help. In a short life, he’d done a lot of stuff – college degree in photojournalism, been on a fishing boat in Alaska, and he was currently a firefighter in the summer – one of the guys they send into the big forest fires for days at a time. He was thinking about doing the training to become a fire jumper, one of those guys they parachute into forest fires. He was meeting his brother, who was teaching in Ecuador, and trying out the surf in a variety of spots along the way.

Linda was one of the many Dutch that I’ve met so far on this trip. For a small little country of 18 million or so, they sure do travel a lot. I’ve certainly met more Dutch than Americans on the hostel circuit, which doesn’t speak very well of our traveling habits, in my book. She was taking six or so months to go through Central America and the northern part of South America. She’d actually run into Garret a week or so before in Panama and they had some mutual travel friends as a result.

So we piled all of our stuff in the Zodiac dingy and made multiple runs out to the sailboat to drop everything off. In the midst of this, I actually recall turning to Garret and Linda (who had already told me, a number of times, that she had a very weak stomach) and said, “Damn, I’m excited about this trip. I think it’s going to be great.”

Right about then, in the secluded harbor where the boat was anchored, I noticed that the winds were quite strong for such a sheltered place. I wondered for just a brief moment if that would make the open water a bit rough. Instead — no shit — I turned and said to them, “Feel that? Good sailing weather.”

I’m an idiot.

So we cast off around sundown on the first day for a scheduled twelve-hour, all-night sail. The boat was being powered along by motor to start with and all of us nine passengers spread out on deck to enjoy the ride. Between the Brits and Garret and I, we had probably bought about six cases of Panamian beer, Balboa. Good stuff. In the excitement at the beginning of a new adventure and in spirit of us conquering the sea, we decided that it was appropriate to start drinking right away.

The Brits and Garret and I spread out on the deck in the front of the boat. The sail was not unfurled; we were traveling on the motor. As soon as we left the harbor, the alternate captain headed directly into the incoming waves and we headed out to the Caribbean.

The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli.

The boat was pitching back and forth as it hit the waves. I am horrible about judging wave height, but I would say there were four to six foot waves. In any case, big enough that you had to hold on to not get thrown around, or perhaps thrown off. We would hit a wave dead-on and spray would come up over the bow and drench the five of us up on the deck. We all thought it was a great adventure – conquering the sea, whilst stumbling up to the cooler tied down on the right side of the deck to get more beers. Linda and the French were down in the cabin or back at the rear of the boat near the captain, since that area was a bit protected from the elements.

Our group, manly bravado lasted about two hours. By then we were completely drenched. The sun had gone down and it wasn’t cold by any means, but it was a bit chilly, seeing as we were soaked. And it started raining on top of that. Most of the group went into the cabin. I took a seat under a tarp the captain had put up that covered a couple feet on the back side of the cabin.

We obviously weren’t making much progress at all. And the weather wasn’t letting up, in fact, it was getting a little rougher over time. Captain Ulysses told us that we were going to turn back, cast anchor back in the harbor, and get started around dawn the next day and make the long run all day.

our sailboat captain for san blas islands tour That’s right. The alternate captain was a native Panamanian named Ulysses. No joke. After day one of sailing, I was just hoping that wasn’t going to be prophetic. I didn’t have time to wander the world for a decade – though I’m sure it would make for a classic book. I am thinking of a title. . .

The problem with going back was the bunk situation. Captain Ulysses, his wife and their kid go into the Kodiac dingy after we anchored up and motored off to shore to their house. The nine of us were left on board in a boat that frankly should not have slept more than four.

The bunking arraignments were as follows: the French couple got the cabin in front, since they were the only couple. That room had the only bed that could be considered a real one. There were two couches in the cabin and a table between them. One of the couches was a reasonable bunk; it was about 7 feet long and 2 feet wide. The other couch was curved, so you had to sleep in a “C” formation. In any case, both of those spots were OK. The Brits claimed those two spots between the three of them – the 3rd person (the loser in a game of rock, paper, scissors, which was pretty amusing), took some cushions and slept on the floor under the table. Then in the rear of the cabin there were two bunks that you crawled into on each side of the ladder that went back up to the deck.

Both of these could be thought of most accurately as coffin beds. They were of a reasonable size, about 7 feet by 3 feet or so, but the ceiling and walls were right there. Once you were lying down, the ceiling was about 2 feet over your head. And both bunks were in the same area as the motor, so the smell back there was awful. Garret took one of those and Linda took the other.

Fredrick and I took the two bunks at the top of the stairs. There was a small enclosed area at the top of the stairs, before you exited to the open air of the back deck area. On each side of the stairs, there was a small area with a cushion on top of the fiberglass. Each was about 5 feet by 2 feet, so you couldn’t fully stretch out when you slept. And though this part of the equation didn’t matter on the first night, its important to mention that Fredrick shared that uniquely French trait (not all French, don’t get me wrong – on this trip itself, the French couple didn’t share this trait — but I have run into more French of this trait than any other country) of never using deodorant.

None of us were able to shower on this trip, but at the risk of offending any French readers of this blog, there was no one that smelled anything like Fredrick by the end of the trip. It was an indescribable odor.

michael hodson making pasta in sailboat Everyone was supposed to pitch in and help on the trip and I volunteered to cook dinner the first night. A basic spicy penne pasta with sausage. The kitchen was – well it was a bit sparse, even by a small boat’s standards. The pot and pan (yes, one of each) hadn’t been cleaned in quite a while. The single knife was covered with rust. Garret volunteered, as usual, to try to watch them off and scrape the rust off all of all of them, in an attempt to make them somewhat safe to use. An hour or so later, we had heaps of Italian food to chow down on. After the travails of the late afternoon and evening, it was a good way to finish the night.

kuna woman san blas islands panama The next morning, we got started around 7 a.m. for the 10-12 hour trip south to the Kuna capital of Porvenier. The Kuna are the indigenous group that live on the San Blas islands on the Panamanian mainland adjacent to the islands. The government of Panama pretty much lets the Kuna govern themselves, which probably helps explain why Captain Marcus was able to easily buy cocaine there.

A few years ago, the Kuna kicked out all foreigners from the San Blas islands and prohibited any non-Kuna from owning property there. The woman are also famous for wearing quite colorful garb, including some wild leg wrappings. One of the other interesting things about how the Kuna live is that they pile their houses one on top of another on the few islands that they inhabit. inside a kuna tribe hunt san blas islands panamaThe small inhabited islands have homes right up next to each other, with very little space in between. Of the 357 or so islands in the San Blas, the Kuna occupy about 50 of them. The rest of the tiny islands are uninhabited and look exactly like your image of a deserted island – or the island from the Bud Light commercials.

The seas were still rough when we set out that day. We ended up motoring the entire way down to Porvenir, never raising the sail at all (Captain Ulysses was a really nice guy, but I am not sure he was the best sailor in the world). The boat was rocking back and forth less than yesterday, but the effect on everyone was less than favorable.

For most of the day, Garret and I sat out on the front deck. Linda was in the cabin the entire day, throwing up with some regularity in the bathroom down there. The French couple spent most of the day in their room downstairs, though I think both of them threw up overboard a couple of times. The Brits likewise were downstairs almost all of the day.

By the afternoon, the stench of the cabin was beyond horrible. The air was completely stale down there, because we had to keep the windows closed, due to the spray of the water. I went inside exactly one time that day, to check on how everyone was doing down there. Bad, bad decision.

I didn’t know this about myself before then, but I apparently have a really developed sense of smell. I do not get seasick. I verified this not too long ago on a six-hour ferry ride from Venice to Croatia in very rough seas, where fully half the 100 passengers on board throw up the entire trip over. I didn’t even get queasy. In fact, the last time I threw up for any reason whatsoever was 23 years ago, my freshman year in college. Fall semester in my condo. The last time I was able to drink tequila. Ever since then, I have not been able to get it close enough to my mouth to drink it, because the smell of it makes me want to wretch.

Perhaps that should have been a clue on my sense of smell.

I went down to check on everyone mid-afternoon. I made it downstairs. Took about 5-6 breaths of “air” down there. Came back up on deck. And promptly threw up over the side of the boat. Twenty-three years of a solid stomach down the tubes.

eating dinner on san blas islands with kuna tribeThat night we got to Porvenier, cast anchor, and went ashore to one of the islands to have dinner at one of Ulysses’ friend’s house. Ernesto was a wonderful Kuna guy who spoke excellent English, because he had worked for a number of years in Panama City (and hated it). This dinner was the first time he allowed any of Ulysses’ passengers to come to dinner at his house. Per his request, we each pitched in $1 to buy our food. He and his wife then proceeded to cook and immense amount of fish. We all feasted – filling up our recently emptied stomachs. It was such a fabulous night. Ernesto gave us a tour of his hut, which slept 14 people. It was built for $550, which is a considerable amount of money here.

He was obviously, and justifiably, proud of it; he was the patriarch and ruler of this domain. Thatched roof. One big room. Hammocks for everyone, except him and his wife, who had a bed in side closest to the water.

Linda and Mark stayed ashore that night, along with Ulysses, his wife and their kid, so there was more room on the boat that night to sleep. I ended up sleeping on the deck for most of the night, so I could stretch out a bit. And a romance was born ashore that evening. Ulysses was hilarious on the boat the next morning: “Ummmmm. Those two were very loud last night,” smiling broadly and pointing to Mark and Linda.

The next couple of days were basically the same: we would sail for 6-8 hours, drop anchor at some deserted island, swim, snorkel, cook out, laze around in the sun. And get up the next day, move along and do the same thing again. It was a nice and peaceful rhythm and the weather was great after the first couple days.

As Captain Ulysses manned the wheel, he would also simultaneously fish off the back of the boat. He had a spool of fishing line and a lure tied up to the end. He’d just sunset san blas islands panamahold the spool in his hand, let the line out, then troll. He caught about six fish on the 2nd to last day, to add to our dinner. Good stuff.

One day we stopped at a larger Kuna island to buy some more supplies (most importantly, we’d run out of beer and liquor). We walked around town for a bit, being trailed the entire time with dozens of children that wanted us to take their pictures and show them what they looked like in the LCD display. It was quite endearing. We ate lunch there and bought some really good bread and also some beer. There was only one kind of beer available in this incredibly-off-the-map place. Not Balboa, the Panamanian beer made a few hundred miles away, but Old Milwaukee.

Come this far, and I have to drink one of the worst beers in the world. I don’t even know if I can buy Old Milwaukee in Fayetteville, Arkansas anymore. But that is your only choice in San Blas islands.

We had a good chuckle about our beer plight, but it did lead to a really amusing scene two days later, right before we disembarked, when the Brits played rock, paper, scissors for the last, warm Ole’ Mil’.

On the last day of sailing, we had dolphins follow the boat on and off for a couple hours. Those animals are so amazing to watch in the wild. They would come up on the left side of the boat in a group of 8-12, swim with us for a bit, then jet ahead, make a wide sweeping left hand turn, then come up again and repeat it over and over again.

By the end of the trip – which ended up being seven days and six nights – I was exhausted, and frankly, quite ready to get off the boat. The passengers, with the exception of Fredrick, were great folks. I loved getting to know them and actually ended up traveling with Garret for another week or so in Columbia, but there were just too many people on the sailboat, at least for me. At the end, I was feeling a little stir crazy.

And speaking of crazy, when we finally got to the last little town in Panama, before you went around the corner a couple more coves to get to Columbia, Fredrick the Frenchman went totally and completely around the bend. For the entire trip, the Brits had been egging him on a little bit. A little version of the centuries-old British/French rivalry. There had been a verbal dust-up from Fredrick (initially called “Frenchie” by the Brits behind his back, which evolved to “Napoleon” and finally settled on “Napster” – short for Napoleon) about us eating too much of the food. Then Fredrick yelled at Rob for pissing over the side of the boat, though everyone was doing the same thing for the entire trip.

And lastly, and most crazily, as everyone was packing up their backpacks and hauling them on deck, he walked by Adam and bumped shoulders with him. Adam told him to calm down and that everyone would get off soon enough. Napster apparently misheard him and thought he was telling him to screw off or something like that.

So Napster reached over to the galley and pulled a knife on Adam, waving it in front of him, while yelling at him something along the lines of “I have friends in Bogotá. We will meet in Bogotá and settle this. No respect. No respect.”

It was an appropriately odd and crazy ending to a memorable trip.

My friend Ayngelina took a longer trip, but managed to summarize her San Blas Island sailboat trip in a lot more concise fashion.  It’s another good read on this great trip.

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

2 thoughts on “The Sailboat Blog – San Blas Islands, Panama

  • san blas panama

    Its wonderful to know about the Kuna Indians. These Indians have managed to acquire a certain autonomy vis-à-vis the Republic of Panama, and their territory (Kuna Yala Province) remains primarily subjected to the Kuna law. Thus, even though the Kuna gladly welcome tourists or passing boats, foreigners are not necessarily allowed to settle permanently in their province..great people..enjoyed sailing too!

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