Posted by: catamarantwooceans | October 27, 2014

Panama – part 1 – Kuna Yala

21.10.14 – Tuesday – We tend to use the Spanish name, San Blas, for this part of Panama but the Kuna tribe, living in this area from time immemorial call it "Kuna Yala"; I think I better use it too.

It rained most of the night but the new morning was clear and calm. Just before we left the anchorage a military craft sporting four huge outboard engines and manned by four armed and bullet proof vests clad soldiers passed by and tied to a tree ashore. We motored-sailed west towards the Eastern Holandes cays, passing island groups we visited six years ago; we had good memories of Coco Bandero cays, which some people  think are the most beautiful islands in Kuna Yala. Having given one fish away and eaten another, fishing was again on the agenda and it didn’t take long for a nice, 10 man-meals Spanish mackerel to grab our hook.

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We entered the Eastern Holandes and made our way to the area called "the swimming pool" north of Banedup, near a small island which was given the name "BBQ island". Four yachts were already at anchor, one of them a big Outremer 51 that I think I saw in Grenada.

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                                     BBQ island

In the afternoon we took the dinghy to go to a reef on our east and had a big disappointment. In Cartagena we had a mechanic replace a ruined impeller in our outboard engine; Jose, recommended by Pablo, the Club Nautico manager, said at first he couldn’t get the part. I told him to assemble the motor and bring it back. Then the story changed – he could do it after all; he brought it back the evening before we left Cartagena, got a 100$ and promised that he serviced it, ran it and it was now "like new". It was too late to lower the dinghy and test it myself plus I tend to believe in people. We used the motor for a short time in the Rosario islands and it seemed fine. Now, after a few minutes of motoring, the trickle of cooling water disappeared, the outboard becoming hot to the touch. I don’t know what impeller Jose put in there but surely it was not the right one. I’ve been swindled!

22.10.14 – Wednesday – Time to make the formal entry into the country. That had to be done in Isla Porvenir; we arrived there at 1115 and at 1210 all the formalities were done and we were poorer by 440$. Immigrations took 100$ for each passport, harbor master took 209$ for a six months cruising permit plus the Zarpe to Colon and other paperwork; the Kuna Yala congress got 30$ for a month’s stay. Being out of vegetables, we anchored by the island of Wichubhuala, rowed the dinghy ashore in search of a greengrocer. The village did not change in the last six years, same reed and palm covered houses and again – no veg to be found.

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On one of the community buildings we saw the following painting on the wall in which the flag of the revolution of 1925 appeared and in it a swastika; no connection to the use of the same in Europe later on.

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We saw the same flag on a boat in Porvenir. I wonder how that symbol, originating in India, found its way to Kuna Yala.

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We relocated to the Eastern Lemmon cays for the night. We were not the only ones thinking the place was a dream; I counted other 12 yachts and motor boats at anchor.

23.10.14 – Thursday – Before breakfast we went snorkeling on the nearby reef; the highlights were a school of juvenile batfish, an area of elk-horn coral and a big spotted eagle ray. A few minutes after we came back on board a local Ulu approached; a young one driving (they had an operating outboard) and an older man in front. They had some fabric covered packages on board. I thought I knew who the man was. We started with small talk and then I told him:"I know you, you are Venancio, we met six years ago". Vinancio is a master Mola maker and was quick to take out his art for display. Mola is a quilt work the local ladies and some men do here; it is very colorful, containing many traditional symbols as well as images of the area’s flora and fauna.

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Molas by known master makers are not cheap; it seems Vinancio priced them by the number of squares. He asked for the piece above 280$ and was ready to make a reduction for the "long time friends" arriving at 200. Frankly, even if we wanted it, we didn’t have enough money on us! The authorities took most of our cash and Vinancio, with all his commercial savvy does not take credit cards (yet). He showed us a piece made out of 12 squares; 600-960 dollars?

A dinghy from an anchored 46′ Bahia catamaran near us came by. "Did you see the crocodile?" Crocodile? We fear those more than we do reef sharks! They were sure they saw one and actually followed it for a while. I looked up the matter in the Panama Bauhaus guide and found out that they are abundant in Panama and that in San Blas they frequent saltwater marshes but sometimes the open water between islands. "It is extremely rare for them to attack people in Panama although precaution should always be exercised when swimming or wading in streams and marshes". BRRR…

We wanted to go to the anchorage near Yansaladup where a two miles reef was promised. A straight line distance would have been just a mile. The chart in the guide showed shallows and reefs all but blocking the way. The C-Map showed a clear passage. I tried, I failed and had to go all the way around, taking care not to run aground on shoal like the one below.


(please remember that all the pictures are taken with our smartphones so quality is not up to the regular standard!)

The "reef" turned out to be a shallow area of seaweed, not very interesting, but the anchorage was calm and nice.

24.10.14 – Friday – We decided to swim out to the real reef, traversing the weed area. As we got to the end of it, we reached a deeper sandy patch; two wing tips came into view and as we came closer a majestic spotted eagle ray revealed itself, busy eating something on the bottom. The moment it noticed us it flapped those long wings, accelerating away in fright. The reef was nice with lots of fish and on the way back – another performance by an eagle ray. It was a long swim; we were in the water for more than an hour.

Come ten o’clock, with the sun sufficiently high, I felt confident enough to motor towards Chichime, 2 miles away. Chichime, comprised by two islands connected on the east by a shoal and reef, is a very popular anchorage and as we entered we were the 21st boat there. A  yacht close to the shore of the northern island drew my attention; there are not a lot of small  junk rigged ketches around! Could it be Amuri Mina with Kevin, whom I met in Shelter Bay, Colon on my previous stay in Panama? 

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Once anchored, we went into the water, checked the anchor and swam over to that yacht. A stark naked, long haired man came up on deck. "Dress up, Kevin, visitors!" I hollered and he put on a pareu. Two more figures appeared, a young woman holding a blond baby boy, six months old. "A lot of changes in your life" I said, Kevin was all by himself six years ago and crewed for me on the Canal crossing. Now he had Julia and two kids; their two years old daughter was on shore at the time. "I got stuck" he said "I have everything I need here". 

We learnt from Kevin that the sold beers at the back of the island; that was good news, because we were down to our last can. A woman dressed in the traditional garb sold us cold Balboa beers for 1.5$ and allowed me to take her picture.

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  1. Nice reading!
    Best regards, and take care!

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