They say the grass is always greener on the other side but so far the grass is just as green and the water is bluer on this side. We’re referring, of course, to life on the Caribbean side of the Panama Canal versus life on the Pacific side.
Don’t get me wrong, we loved Mexico and had a wonderful time in Costa Rica and on the Pacific side of Panama but, with the exception of the Sea of Cortez and a few anchorages along the way, we haven’t really had that crystal blue water experience that we anticipated. You know the one in the postcards where you see the starfish under your boat and you’re surrounded by palm covered islands.
It’s only been six weeks since we transited the canal (on March 24) so we can’t rush to judgment, but we’ve already found crystal clear water and uninhabited cays in the San Blas Islands and, with that, our early impressions of the Caribbean side have surpassed our experiences in Costa Rica and Pacific Panama.
The San Blas Archipelago is a chain of islands just 70 miles or so from the canal. Sounds simple and we’d normally cover that distance in a day (a long one). But, now that we’re on the Caribbean side where the prevailing north east winds (which are very strong) along with the waves (which can be very big) and the current (which coincides with the wind and waves) are all against us, making passages is much more challenging as we have to wait for “weather windows” then hop to the next spot before the window closes. With this in mind, along with the fact that we have no schedule and want to see anchorages along the way, we took almost two weeks to travel those 70 miles.
First, we hung out in Shelter Bay marina with our intrepid crew of line handlers (John and Lynda Kooymans and Paul and Jean Swenson) before their departures back to Toronto and Los Angeles. John and Lynda had to leave relatively soon but Paul and Jean had a few extra days so we did a quick trip to Isla Naranja, where we swam, bought fresh lobster from a couple of fishermen and Jean gave Audrey a haircut. We also tore the top loop on our headsail but we knew that Shelter Bay had a good sail-maker so we were happy that it happened there and not in the middle of a crossing or somewhere that we couldn’t get it repaired.
After our wonderful but short stop at Naranja we headed back to Shelter Bay where we said goodbye to Paul and Jean, got our sail repaired, stocked up on supplies (there are no grocery stores in the San Blas Islands), then bashed east toward the San Blas Islands. Our first stop was back at Naranja, since we knew the way and that it was a well protected anchorage but we just stayed one night since we were anxious to keep moving.
The next stop was Portobello, a small town in a well protected harbor that was once a Spanish outpost for galleons taking ill-gotten booty back to Spain. The village was surrounded by what was left of battalion walls and had a small fort on the east side, where we anchored. We’d heard a lot about Portobello from fellow cruisers and figured we’d stay a few days but Mother Nature was not on our side as the wind was “blowing like stink” so we ended up staying for a week while waiting for a window. This turned out fine though because, once we got to know our way around, we found a few charming restaurants, four little tiendas (known as 1,2,3 and 4) where you could pick-up most staples, and we got back to our routine of me kayaking in the mornings while Audrey turned the salon into her mini gym. Funny enough, we actually got to “unwind” from what was a very busy time for us since, along with the transit and our crack crew of linehandlers visiting, our friends Sharon and Graeme from Toronto had also spent two weeks with us in Panama City.
After a week of howling winds in Portobello, Mother Nature gave us a weather window so we headed to Isla Linton, a short hop just 20 miles away but even with the window it was an upwind bash that took 5 hours. Needless to say, it was a welcome respite. It’s a resort area where Panamanians spend vacations and not only was it a well protected anchorage with normal beach stuff but the island had a gaggle of monkeys and one of the small resorts on the mainland had a compound with emus and horses just off the beach. They were also building a new marina which should be completed this year (they already had some boats on docks but no power or water).
We could have stayed longer at Isla Linton but we were getting really anxious to get to San Blas and the next stop was supposed to be an anchorage just 10-12 miles away. Yes, I said “supposed to be” because after bashing upwind we got to the so-called anchorage at Turtle Cay (where there is also supposed to be a marina) and the only thing we saw were huge rolling waves heading into the bay that our guide book says is a “good all-weather anchorage”. I won’t tell you the words that were coming out of Audrey’s mouth (we’re PG) but we were not happy as our choices were to turn around and go back or sail through the night to San Blas.
Fortunately for us, there was another sailor looking at the same anchorage and he appeared to know the area. He just charged into the waves then, after a while, miraculously disappeared into what we finally saw (with binoculars) was the very small channel into the marina that was hidden amongst the trees. So, we figured, if he could do it we could do it. We did but there were a few nervous moments because there were huge breaking waves on both sides of the bay and the waves didn’t abate until you got really close to the marina entrance. Eventually, we did get into the marina and by that time it was like an oasis in the desert. We just tied the boat to a dock then broke out the happy hour drinks. The other plus is it was inexpensive – just $20/night – so we stayed an extra night, enjoyed lunch at the little restaurant on the beach, watched movies on our big TV (we normally watch on the computer to save energy) and even did a little laundry.
The next morning the winds subsided and we motored out of the marina to relatively calm waters that were not even comparable to what we experienced while entering. We motor-sailed for a while then actually sailed most of the 33 miles from Turtle Cay to Porvenir, the first (westerly) island in the San Blas Islands, where we dropped the hook in beautiful blue water and spent a couple of days getting oriented.
By the way, the San Blas Islands are technically part of Panama but they are governed by the Kuna Indians who have lived on the islands since before the Spanish conquered Panama. They are a maternal society that still lives simply, making their livelihood fishing from dugout canoes, making and selling molas (ornate handmade fabrics with hand stitched designs) and selling fruits and vegetables to boaters.
Porvenir is the “busiest” island in the archipelago as it has a small airport with customs and immigration along with a small hotel/restaurant. It’s also dinghy distance from the Kuna island of Wichubhuala that has a small tienda for basic supplies.
But, we didn’t come to San Blas for the airport or store. We came to spend time swimming, snorkeling and kayaking in the crystal clear waters so we pulled up anchor and spent time in the Holandes Cays, Coco Banderas Cays, and the Lemmon Cays. I won’t even try to describe the water or the spectacular scenery. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves and even they probably don’t do justice. All we can say is that the San Blas Islands surpassed our expectations and we understand why some boaters spend months or years cruising these waters. It’s certainly in our top 5 places to sail and we hope to return one day.
As you can tell from these pics, we wanted to spend a long time in San Blas before heading east to Colombia but, as I mentioned, our route goes against the prevailing conditions and we needed to take weather windows when we get them. Of course, we happened to get one less than two weeks after arriving. And, since our next stop was Cartagena, 180-miles away and an overnight sail into the prevailing winds, we had to take it. So, with deep regret we left the beautiful San Blas Islands in very calm conditions and motor-sailed the entire distance to Cartagena, where we are now anchored walking distance from the spectacular walled city of this UNESCO World Heritage site.
We’ll say more about Cartagena in our next post but I should let you know that Mother Nature didn’t completely smile on us during the trip. As I said, we motor-sailed the entire overnight trip under calm seas but when we were approximately 30 miles from the harbor entrance we got hit by a blinding squall that packed 45-knot winds. It only lasted about an hour but it seemed much longer and by the time it was over, it tore our mainsail (which we had just gotten repaired in Panama City) and damaged our windlass , which we didn’t discover until we were anchoring in Cartagena. Still, we made it to Cartagena safely and the sail and, hopefully, windlass are being repaired as we go to press. Stay tuned…