When we decided to forego a second year in Grenada and spend the hurricane season in Panama, our principle motivation was to visit the remote and largely untouched San Blas Islands on the east side of the country. After more than two years afloat, a beach is a beach, and we have seen some pretty spectacular ones at that. What makes the San Blas interesting is that they are inhabited by the Guna Yala, 55,000 indigenous people who have largely eschewed the modern conveniences of the 21st century. The islands are quasi-autonomous although there are visible signs of ‘official Panama’ everywhere, including detachments of military on the larger islands to combat the ever present drug trade. The Guna unfortunately have illusions of independence and autonomous powers of taxation (more on that later) and without sounding like a Conquistador, they don’t always acknowledge either Panamanian nor international maritime conventions.
As we approached the San Blas there was some discussion about whether we needed to check in with the local authorities to obtain a second cruising permit and pay another, undefined charge. We were advised by another boat on the VHF that this was no longer in force, so we sailed into the Hollandes Cays and dropped anchor within the reef in about 30 feet of water. No sooner had the anchor set than a kayuka arrived with three ladies in full traditional regalia and a half dozen children in tow. Your mother, ever gracious, invited them all on board and they proceeded to lift garbage bags full of their molas (hand sewn intricately appliquéd fabric) bracelets which they displayed about the boat. After an hour of Guna marketing, and we making the appropriate oohs and aahs, Alex bought a mola and a few trinkets. As they were packing up, one of the little boys asked to use the washroom and your mother, again ever gracious, invited the entire train of children down to use the head. We became smarter as the weeks wore on.
The Guna are industrious, polite and respectful. They travel throughout the islands in their hand made dugout canoes (kayukas) and use crude sails when possible (ulus). We were amazed at the distances they would cover in these rudimentary craft and often gave them a tow with Pumba which they gratefully accepted.
Throughout any given day we would be visited by vegetable boats, fishermen selling lobsters, crabs, octopus, fish and the ever present women selling molas. Their prices were reasonable and they were not unduly offended if we did not purchase their wares. We initially started giving them a cold coke or beer but soon realised that our stocks could not withstand this level of hospitality and quickly reverted to cold water.
The main archipelago itself is very picturesque and is concentrated within a twenty mile area. Our charts were not reliable and we only navigated with the sun at our backs and lots of spotters on deck; the risk of running aground on the unforgiving coral a constant danger. Because we are in the rainy season and the water maker is ever temperamental, each rainstorm was met with a scurry of activity as we tried to collect water, take showers, or wash the boat. We continue to be plagued by lightning storms and often lie awake at night hoping and praying that we can escape this country without suffering the common and totally devastating lightening strike. Our days start with school (recess invariably involves a swim to break the blazing heat), and the afternoon is consumed with swimming, snorkeling, wake-boarding, or the never ending repairs required on a cruising boat. We have regular happy hour(s) on the beach in a foot of water which is pretty decadent, and our circle of invitees changes depending on who is in the anchorage, but like the rest of Panama, the further away from “civilisation” we get, the more eclectic the company.
Mommy has figured out her new GoPro and has taken a renewed interest in snorkeling, never missing an opportunity to take underwater photos of marine life.
We hired a guide to take us on a tour of the local river and hike up to the waterfall. While neither the hike nor the guide were very interesting, you did enjoy swimming and sliding in the waterfalls. We passed several Guna cemetaries and learned that they bury their dead suspended in their hammock, in the grave with lots of trinkets and symbols to help them in the next life. The dead remain spiritually a part of the community and are included in most ceremonies. They practice a strange mixture of local religion and Christianity, no doubt a result of Spanish colonization. Our guide Lisa, a Guna transvestite mola master, (yep not kidding…) carried a makeshift cross in front of her to protect us from snakes and crocodiles. I would have preferred something more tangible like a 12 gauge but in any event we arrived back at the boat without serious incident.
Panama has its own variety of sea crocodiles and while not usually aggressive (reminds me of when the techs used to say the plane should be ok…) when one visited the boat on Halloween and lurked about for several hours, it did make the evening bathing ritual a little quicker than usual. If the crocs didn’t remain forefront in our imagination while swimming we also saw sharks which I gather rarely come inside the reef. Not to worry….they’re not normally aggressive to humans either!
A serious problem in the San Blas is the never ending garbage floating everywhere. This plague of plastic bags and bottles is endemic and while the locals blame the cruising boats or tourists who come from Panama City, we found this not to be the case. Their villages are strewn with garbage and we even witnessed an attempt to extend one person’s yard by stacking garbage bags within a fenced-in area of shoreline. We spent one afternoon picking up the garbage on a small island and then burn it to the amusement of the locals. As we have discussed in geography class, this small and relatively sensitive ecosystem will not survive this continued mismanagement.
The second irritant was the constant demand for fees. The San Blas Islands are legally part of Panama and when we purchased our cruising permit and visas for $600 USD, that entitled us to cruise in Panamanian waters. The Guna have little understanding of supply and demand, nor the adage of the goose that laid the golden egg. They see boats around their islands and feel that any fees or charges, however absurd, will be cheerfully paid by foreigners, obviously sinking under the weight of the gold in our bilges. This meant that wherever we anchored we were met by the local representative demanding $10 USD to visit his domain. When we went ashore to throw a frisbee on the beach, someone would appear demanding $3 USD each to use the beach, and when we went into the village to get supplies we were met by someone demanding $3 USD each to visit their village. Any photos of either the locals or their village can only be taken for a $2-$4 fee. The local chiefs have just decreed that boats coming to Guna Yala will be assed a supplementary cruising fee of $5 per sq/ft, or for Rafiki, $5000. This indicates a total lack of understanding of both international law and the economies of cruising. The foreign community has happily paid modest fees in the past but with the ever increasing charges, they are starting to push back and refusing to pay. While we were there, a US boat refused to purchase a Guna cruising permit (the government of Panama does not recognize their right to assess these fees) which led to an altercation and threats of violence. This issue will need to be resolved before it escalates and someone is hurt.
So this morning we departed for Cartagena with 4 Coconuts and our new friends, Patrice et Helene on Koryolis, anticipating a 32 hour crossing. As we left the Panamanian mountains in the distance with the first ulus traversing the strait, we are very glad that we made the effort to visit this special, remote area. The Guna are friendly and industrious, a rarity in the Caribbean, and the archipelago is postcard perfect. If they can resolve their administrative and environmental challenges this area will continue to grow as a cruising destination in the coming years.