It was one of our strangest passages so far. One of our “longest” passages too. After over a year island-hopping in the Eastern Caribbean, where the average distance between islands is 20-30 NM, and you can almost see your next destination before you lift anchor, 200 NM is “a long passage”…. It should take us 2 days to get to the San Blas Islands in Panama.
We start on sail at 7 in the morning from the sleepy anchorage in Cartagena and very slowly head for Boca Chica, the southern exit channel from Cartagena. The current inside the bay is strong against us, and the wind (2-3 knots from northeast) is not helping us much. After 4 hours we are only 3 NM closer to destination, barely out of the channel, it’s almost noon, but Ivo is proud that we didn’t have to use the engines at all.
We first head for Isla del Rosario, a small uninhabited island archipelago in Colombia only 17 NM southwest of Cartagena, where we plan to spend a day or two, but when we get there at around 4 p.m. after a very pleasant slow sail with the wind 12-16 kts on a beam reach, we cannot find a good place to drop anchor. The island is low, covered in tangled bushes and trees, with a small sandy beach on the south side. It looks like rocks and coral heads everywhere all around it though, and as there is no cruising guide information about this place, no detail depths and coral head areas, we decide not to risk getting closer to shore and wreck the boat, so we just keep going- 180 NM more to San Blas.
The wind picks up at night- 18 to 24 kts from northeast and the swell is 2 to 3 meters. The sky is covered with clouds and in the distance orange heat lightings illuminate the southern horizon. Then the wind drops to 10 kts and shifts from southeast, the swell still 2-3m from northeast and the ride gets bumpy. I feel seasick, which doesn’t happen normally. But the next day it gets worse. We are 100 NM from destination and 100 NM from the closest land, north of Golfo de Uraba in Colombia. The swell is still big and utterly uncomfortable, the wind dies and not only our speed drops to 0, but a 1 -1.5 kt current starts pushing us back to where we came from. Normal people turn on the engines in this sort of a situation and keep going to destination. That’s NORMAL people… Ivo, who is not part of that group, drops all sails and starts hand-steering trying to keep the boat into the current so our drift back would be as slow as possible. Thus we drift for almost 6 hours, from noon to 6 p.m., very slowly going backwards. Before the wind picks up, and not much but just enough for the boat to start moving forward again, we have lost 2 NM going backwards, and half the day.
The second night we are rewarded with a very pleasant 12-18 kt wind from northeast and just about 1 m swell and Fata Morgana is back in business doing 6 kts. By sunrise we have only 30 NM left to San Blas, two tunas in the freezer and everyone is feeling great.
It’s noon, the sky grey-and-blue with scattered clouds, the wind still about 20 kts and the sea 1-2 m when we spot the first of about 340 islands covered with coconut palms, home of the Indigenous Kuna people. We clear the reefs where the waves crash with violent roar and beyond them begins paradise- serene, blue, enchanted world of sea-stars and little dark people in small dugout Cayucos.
We arrive in San Blas without ever turning on the engines, we tack between the reefs in a shallow channel and around 2 p.m. we finally drop anchor (on sail) next to Banedup, an island part of the Cayos Holandes island chain, in a place popular among cruisers as The Swimming Pool, for its waters are as shallow and clear and as deliciously blue as the waters of the most luxurious swimming pool on earth.
San Blas is the official name given by the Spanish of this vast archipelago stretching near the eastern largely uninhabited and partly unexplored shores of Panama. But for centuries, the local Kuna people have used a different name for their islands which are today an autonomous territory within Panama- Kuna Yala. And so, we decided to respect and use the indigenous name.
Kuna Yala is mind-blowing, really. Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty of the place. Fenced behind a long barrier reef which breaks and calms the waves of the Caribbean Sea creating a vast lake of flat crystal blue water- an absolute pleasure for cruising, lie hundreds of small flat islands of fine white sand and tall coconut palms. Some of the islands are uninhabited, others are home to not more than one or two Kuna families living in huts with roofs of palm leaves near the beach, without electricity and running water, very much the way their ancestors used to live for centuries before the first European ever set foot in this part of the world. Others yet are heavily populated by dense communities of hundreds of Kuna people, who have lost to some extend their traditional ways, enjoying much of the advancements of modern civilization. And beyond the many islands rise the jungle-covered mountains of Panama’s mainland cut through by rivers providing much of the potable freshwater to the islanders.
We spent a month in Kuna Yala completely removed form modern civilization (no internet…), sailing between islands, enjoying the absolute tranquility of the most remote anchorages near uninhabited islands, the exceptional snorkeling in pristine waters and stunning coral gardens, a number of wild kayak expeditions to neighboring islands and rivers of clear waters full of crocodiles and stingrays; we met and befriended a few of the Kuna families in some of the smaller islands and we visited some of the bigger Kuna communities, learning about their history and culture.
It was not all 100% pink and positive, though. We became also very much disenchanted, especially Ivo, with the way the locals, especially on the bigger islands, have become greedy for money and are treating us visitors- tourists and cruisers- as “gringos”, trying to squeeze another dollar out of our pockets, like everywhere.
Yet, of all the Caribbean destinations we sailed to, Kuna Yala is by far the most beautiful, authentic, and interesting one. No wonder some cruisers spend here many years, others return again and again. No wonder, I have so many, many stories to tell from the land of the Kuna Yala, and I can’t wait to share them with you!