Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Starfish, Sharks, Stingrays in the San Blas ….. May 2012

12 – 28 May 2012

IMG_0126 a selection of small colourful molas

The days have slipped by, actually two weeks have slipped by.  I know you all wonder what we do all day, well honestly I wonder what we do all day too.  We have been moving around just a little as we have definitely got to “the good bits” of the San Blas,.  If what you are looking for is clean white sandy beaches on palm tree cays, clear water, good snorkelling, totally flat anchorages, gentle breeze, not too many bugs, fresh produce and sometimes alcohol delivered to your boat – well there really has been nowhere else like it in our 8 years of cruising so far.P5160169

As always there are the downsides. 

The heat – it’s over 30c every day and humidity has got to be way up in the high 90’s.  It doesn’t slip much below that at night, but we are in the tropics so it’s not like it’s a big surprise  and it’s easy to jump overboard to cool off. 

The thunder and lightening stormsthis one is quite a major really, as there just isn’t anywhere to hide.  When those forks of lightening start heading our way and make the water around us sizzle all we can do is cross our fingers and pray.  We are getting a major lightening display about every five days, and can see lightening in the distance most nights. Sometimes the storms can last for hours but normally end by about 10am.  As yet we haven’t had wind over 30knots, and rarely have any wind with them at all.  There is usually plenty of rain with them so we have full water tanks nearly all the time, the boat stays clean and the laundry is kept up to date .P5230024
And then there are the bugs – We were expecting mosquitoes to be our biggest problem on the insect front but thankfully they have been very few and far between and haven’t been an issue at all.  However escaping the no-see-ums hasn’t been easy, even on the outer most islands when the air is very still (which is often) they come out to feast.  We are learning to live with bites, they like nibbling on Skipper most, but it would be great to get away from them.  There have been a few stingy things in the water too and we have worn our stinger suits on occasion, but they haven’t been too much of a problem.

Besides the threat of a lightening strike it is a wonderful tropical playground, as we motor short hops from one paradise to the next.

Green Island   IMG_0116
This was our first stop after our provisioning run to Nargana.  There were a handful of deserted islands dotted around within a mile creating a lagoon in the centre giving protection from all directions - another great anchorage. There were even 8 other boats there so we were all geared up for some socializing, but alas they were all French speaking, and understandably stuck together.  The water temperature was incredible.  I don’t know if there are underwater hot springs in the anchorage but it would have to be the hottest sea water we have ever swam in,.  Almost too hot, even for me and that would be a first!  The water had that oily look on the top, a sure sign of fresh water sitting on top of the salt so maybe there was a spring.  It made for poor visibility for swimming and snorkelling and when we unintentionally came face to face with a rather large stingray while out swimming we decided to move on to clearer pastures.

Western Coco Bandero CaysIMG_0121
Another few miles and just an hour away was the next small island group, the Western Banderos.  We had already been to the Eastern Banderos and had been very impressed with them.  However this was our first anchorage in a while that we weren’t tucked up all snug, there were already 3 catamarans in behind the reef so it was a little tight for us and we anchored slightly out.  For the first time since leaving Grenada in February we had a very slight roll, gosh we had forgotten what that was like!  On the positive side we were rewarded with some excellent snorkelling, we circumnavigated a small island fringed with reef, took in a wreck along the way and stopped for a walk on the little island – all of about 20 paces.    

We shared happy hour drinks ashore with Denny and Becky off American boat Kokomo.  We took the opportunity to do a bonfire rubbish burn, we separate all our rubbish and keep for burning anything that is not biodegradable.  We don’t actually agree with burning plastic bags and bottles but it is a far better option than the only other alternative of throwing them overboard.  And yes we could keep them until we are able to dispose of them ashore but after a month they were starting to mount up, so it was bonfire time.  We collected up the rubbish off the tiny island too, but on each wave more came to rest, rather disheartening but for a couple of minutes it was a sparkling example of paradise found.

Holandes Cays
Of all that we had heard about the San Blas before our arrival, the Holandes Cays had been spoken about most highly – “if you don’t go anywhere else in the San Blas, you must go to the Holandes”.  Having spent some time now in some very stunning spots we didn’t think it could get much better so  it was time for us to see for ourselves just how good they could be  …….. well take a look for yourself.
We approached the anchorage through the reef passage and avoided the temptation of anchoring further out in a sensible depth of 8 metres.  The gin clear water and sandy bottom in shallow part just looked too appealing so we nurdled our way into the shallows and dropped anchor in 3 metres.  As we draw 2.3 metres we have very rarely anchored in such shallow water, but the tidal range here is minimal, there was no swell, the bottom was flat and it just looked sooooo perfect!!

We “lost” 10 days here, it wasn’t hard!  We did take the opportunity to catch up on some boat jobs and both took to the water and while I cleaned and polished Balvenies top sides, Skipper spent many an hour cleaning her bottom, changing the anodes and greasing the propeller under water – no mean feat.  Also the sewing machine came out for an extended period, most unusual while at anchor.  Alterations were made to our rain catcher to increase efficiency, a sun/rain shade was made for the back hatch (over our bed) enabling us to leave our hatch open while it rains so we, or more importantly the bed, doesn’t get wet.   This project took quite some time in the design stage as we get to the dinghy from the stern of the boat and didn’t want our access way cluttered.  The end result works well but is already in the redesign stages to incorporate it also as a rain catcher! P5190002  Ongoing repairs were made to our troublesome watermaker but this time it has Skipper stumped and has been put into retirement for now, well at least we have raincatchers!!

We did lots of snorkelling on the outer reef.  One day we even snorkelled through a pass to the outside but there was still too much surge so we did a quick u-turn and returned to flatter water.  We saw some nurse sharks at the reef,  Mark even saw one under the boat one day, apparently they are harmless but they still look very mean.  We have seen many rays, both Stingrays and Eagle Rays.  They are huge, the Eagle Rays grow up to 8 feet and are very graceful as they float through the water, the Stingrays are slightly smaller but look much more menacing with their long sharp tails.  At night the water around the boat comes alive, never before have we had so much inwater activity every night, it is amazing and very entertaining – you wonder just what is going on down there! 

P5080126 I did some diving down in the shallows under the boat and collected some “sand dollars” and other shells and unfortunately this caused my ears to block and despite many attempts at various methods to unblock them (the medical amongst you would cringe!!!) one remains blocked and will need professionally unblocking when we get somewhere that can do it – meanwhile my life is more peaceful than usual.

We shared a few happy hours with Brits Barry and Lindy off Samarang who are also here for the Hurricane Season.  Each day Lindy and I would keep a watchful eye out for the vege boat as our fresh supplies were dwindling by the meal.  Eventually they arrived, rather low on stock but enough to keep us going for a little while longer.  However we are nearly out of milk, flour and cereal – it’s time to move on.

For in depth info on our anchorages and what facilities there were click here to go to our Cruising Info Blog

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Paradise Found in the San Blas ….. May 2012

05 – 12 May 2012
We moved on from Snug Harbour. Despite the inclement weather we had experienced we really did enjoy out time there. It was another overcast day to head west but there was a gentle breeze so we hoisted up the full main releasing many litres of rain from its folds, rolled out the headsail and sailed for nearly 3 hours before the breeze dropped out again and we motored in glassy seas.  Our anchorage for the night was to be about 20 miles away at Isla Tigre, but with poor light and reefs jutting out where we thought the anchorage should be we took the sensible option, did a u-turn and carried on.  Next option was Farewell Island, another island densely covered with coconut palms about a foot above sea level, white sands – looked great but we couldn’t find the indicated shallow patch for anchoring unless we went in far closer than we like, so that one was crossed off the list too.  Ever flexible we continued on to the the village anchorage of Nargana at the mouth of the Rio Diablo, yes you guessed – combination of river and village, very very murky muddy waters.

There was however a very good reason to come here, it is rumoured to offer the best provisioning in the San Blas chain and also to have internet available at the local school.  But because we hadn’t stopped enroute we had arrived on a Saturday.  School - therefore the internet, was closed until Monday.  We could wait, the anchorage was safe, there were 4 other boats there and we could stay till Monday, but that was until the wind died completely, the sun set and the no-see-ums came out to play and feast.  P5110144 So on Sunday morning we made a hasty dash ashore and purchased all the mosquito coils, bug spray, baby oil we could find (supposed to keep no-see-ums away) and loaded up on produce.  The choice was a pleasant surprise, we found cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, carrot, pumpkin, potatoes, onions, bananas, mangoes and papaya (which actually turned out to be a cucumber!!), all of it looked somewhat wilted but when you have nothing you are not so choosey.

Coco Bandero Cays
With enough fresh supplies onboard to stave off scurvy for a while longer we unglued the anchor from the super muddy seabed and headed for clearer waters.  Who would have thought that just 5 miles from Nargana we could find paradise.  We anchored in the eastern  Coco Bandero Cays, nestled within the island group.  These islands are picture postcard perfect and come with the great names of Tiadup, Olosicuidup, Guaridup and Dupwaia, with Whichubdupbipi in the distance.  First, and lasting impressions are that paradise may actually have been found! P5080124

There were 9 boats lying peacefully at anchor within the group and we had four beautiful small islands within swimming distance to explore.  The water was crystal clear, the bottom sandy, the anchorage flat, reefs with good live coral and reasonable fish life also within swimming distance, no bugs and as the photo shows one of the most stunning sunsets we have ever experienced.  What a difference 5 miles makes!  We do wonder why the Kuna people choose to live in such overcrowded environments when there are so many islands in idyllic settings on their doorstep, we guess they have their reasons and we realise being close to the mainland for their food and water source is a main one.P5070114

We had finally found the San Blas that many cruisers we have met over the years have raved about and we spent our days snorkelling all the surrounding reefs, swimming and relaxing.  We spent five nights out here, the winds were calm and despite the regular thunder storms most nights daily life was uneventful.  A local in a dugout came by one day selling wine and bananas so we stocked up on both while we had the chance.  Another day some local women paddled by selling “molas”, the embroidered fabrics the San Blas are famous for.   We had heard all about them, seen women in the villages wearing them, but until now had not had an opportunity to look and buy.P5070104  After looking through 3 buckets full of various mola designs I choose a couple and the ladies went away happy.  I’ll look for a couple more along the way – spread my business around!

Friday quickly rolled around, our produce was getting low again so we decided to do a day trip into Bug Village (Nargana) and try the internet again and top up on fruit and vegetables.  Just over an hour later we had exchanged our crystal clear waters with even murkier ones than last time, if that was possible.  We had had torrential rain overnight and the town anchorage looked like a huge mud bath, oh well.  Covered in bug spray, armed with two fully charged laptops and a list of things to do online we ventured ashore.  Much to our dismay the school was closed for teacher training (we think), and we were told to come back after 5.30pm. so much for our quick in and out in one day trip.    P5070110Next up was hunting out the available produce, great if all we wanted to eat were limp carrots.  Things were not going so well.  Still we had no plans so we decided that another night in Nargana, armed with the knowledge that we needed to be proactive against the bugs, would not be such a bad thing. 

We threw caution and bugs to the wind, and did a river jungle excursion on the Rio Diablo by dinghy.  We followed a couple of dugouts over the very shallow bar entrance, punting our way along after sliding to a halt 3 times and up into the muddy river waters.  The dense jungle vegetation comes right to the rivers edge but in some places we could see through where it had been partly cleared for gardens, we also passed many small cemetery plots.  Huge old mango trees dripping with fruit hung over the river in places but we were mindful that all coconut trees are owned so thought that may also be the case with the mangoes, so refrained with difficulty from helping ourselves.   Instead we partook in some “on river trading” almost like going to a drive-thru market, we purchased many mangoes,  pineapples and bananas – at least we wouldn’t go away empty handed if we could not get anything else ashore.P5110162

The jungle was wonderful, it was cooler because of all the trees, noisy with bird and insect life, busy with villagers in their dugouts – washing and doing laundry (but the colour of the water!!!), tending their gardens, picking fruits and just collecting fresh water.  It was a hive of activity, Friday afternoon in the jungle!  We would have liked a walk ashore but it was late afternoon and we didn’t want to tempt the bugs too much so headed home while the going was good.   

The bugs didn’t seem too bad so we decided to “go out” for dinner after our interneting, we took our own mozzie coil just in case, packed the laptops yet again and headed ashore. 5.30pm, 6pm, 6.30pm and 7pm all came and went without any signs of life at the school, no internet tonight either.  We took a waterfront table at one of the two “cafes”, ordered Chicken and Chips - the only option on the menu - and sat back and enjoyed our first meal out since Cartagena in Colombia.  P5110164The drinks menu was as basic as the food menu, beer or beer, but at least it was cold beer, Skipper was happy enough.  Several locals gathered around by us and we weren’t sure why.  Eventually a large dugout came into the anchorage, stopped at a platform about 30 metres from the cafe, slowly and methodically unloaded their fishing net onto the platform, left it there then pulled up adjacent to the cafe and sold their catch to the waiting villagers.  When everyone was gone I asked to buy a couple of fish but they wouldn’t sell us any, we don’t know why.  The fishermen then proceeded to gut the remaining fish, about 10 feet from where we ate our dinner!  Interestingly they didn’t use knives for this, just their thumbs – guess they have seriously sharp thumb nails and have honed their technique over the years. Our dinner ashore was very good, relatively bug free and provided ongoing entertainment.   P5110160

We had one last attempt at the internet on Saturday morning but it was all still closed, life will go on without internet (will it???).  We took another tour round the small stores and found more produce had appeared overnight, we left with a reasonable supply of vegetables and a huge plumb fresh chicken still with head and feet but at least it had been plucked!!  Our experience this time in Nargana was much more positive.

It was time to head for clear water again and we ventured 6 miles this time to another superb anchorage, San Blas seems laden with them.  We passed cute little Waisaladup, another postage stamp sized sandy cay and entered the lagoon anchorage at Kanlildup, better known by us cruisers as Green Island.  Clear water, surrounded by reef and islands, sandy beach ashore, no bugs - another cracker of a spot and home for the next few days.

For in depth info on our anchoring details and surrounding facilites click here to visit our Cruising Info Blog on a new page


Sunday, 6 May 2012

Solitude and Storms in the San Blas ….. April/May 2012

P4300018 P4300079
Customers at Balvenie’s “paddle through cafe” - (did you spot the dog in  the left photo)

26 April – 05 May 2012

Our 10 days so far in the San Blas Islands of Panama have been a very quiet affair.  We knew that by entering east in the chain we would be off the beaten track, but the track seems not to be beaten at all and we have discovered this eastern route is dubbed by San Blas Veteran Cruisers “The National Geographic Tour”!!!  P4260049We are more than happy to “get away from it”, the boat is well provisioned so we certainly won’t go hungry  but we are feeling somewhat cut off.   This is mainly due to the fact that our marine SSB Radio has malfunctioned and will not transmit or receive.  These radios are an expensive piece of equipment and treasured by those of us that have them.  This is how we communicate with all our cruiser friends, via our daily morning “net”, you can either just listen or those that wish to can check in, let everyone know where you are, what its like, how the weather is etc.  We talk to each other, sometimes over thousands of miles. We can also receive weather information on it, listen to the BBC World Service and we have previously used it for our emailing.  It is our umbilical cord with our cruising community and the outside world – and it has been severed!!!
Isla Pinos
We made landfall at Isla Pinos, Panama after our overnight passage from Isla Tintipan in Colombia.  There is no outlying reef so it was a straightforward entry around the island, into the shallows of the bay, anchor down, breakfast, a very quick dip – mindful of the possibility of crocodiles!!! and then a well earned sleep after our unplanned beat to windward.  We had a couple of visitors paddle by in their ulus (dugout canoes).  The first caller came to collect USD10.00 (US dollars are the official currency of Panama), we had been told that some villages charge a fee for yachts to anchor, it’s per stay not per night so reasonable enough especially if you spend longer than one night.  They provide a receipt, duly stamped by the local “authority”.  Our second visitor was David who spoke some English and was the local “tour guide”.  We arranged to meet him ashore the following day for a look around the village and to help repair his machete!2012 San Blas
Village scenes on Isla Pinos

Part of the reason for us entering the San Blas chain so far east was so we would experience the traditional lifestyle of the native Kuna Indians.  This village was certainly a good example, homes made of wood and bamboo with thickly thatched roofs, no running water, outhouse longdrop toilets on stilts over the water, no power (we didn’t even see or hear a generator) a couple of solar panels to run the villages one television, a cellphone tower that had been located on a hill that didn’t give coverage to the village and most women were still wearing the traditional mola dress of an embroidered bodice top, a plain gathered cotton skirt to just above the knee and beads covering their legs from below the knee to ankles, all very colourful - sadly photos not permitted. P4260046

The one very disappointing aspect was the amount of rubbish, both in the village, in the water around the village and washed up on the beaches.  In the village it was mainly plastic bags and foil wrappers, just lying about, caught up in vegetation or fences with apparently no effort made to dispose of it.  In the water by the villages it was all manner of plastics, polystyrene and foil collecting in pools out of the current. Further from the village on the shoreline it was mainly plastic bottles of all shapes and sizes, bottle tops, plastic shoes, polystyrene containers and blocks.  In fairness most of this rubbish possibly collects here from thousands of miles away but there doesn’t seem to be any effort to collect and burn it, and they add to it with there own village rubbish. 

P4290071 With David’s machete repaired, and some fresh fruit onboard we left Isla Pinos and headed 14 miles east to the largest village in the San Blas, Ustupu.  This is quite a small island with probably around 2000 people living on it.  We went ashore for a walk around (after paying our USD15.00 anchoring fee), there were children and teenagers everywhere, hundreds of them.  Most of the houses were built in the traditional way, with the odd ghastly concrete block carbuncle in a state of disrepair.  Houses were packed in tightly, most had bamboo fences around and you could barely walk between some of them – looked like a serious case of overcrowding.  It was an interesting island as it had waterways running through most of it, nearly every house had water frontage – very handy for those longdrops!!!  (We did NOT swim here!!). P4290065 

We were visited by a passing canoe with several women onboard and two Mormon missionaries, one had been “in service” here for nearly two years and the other had just arrived.  He was covered head to toe in bites but seemed in good spirits.  They had been ashore picking mangoes, the dugout was overflowing with them and they kindly gave us about 20, yummy. 

We moved again the following day, we had been attacked by no-see-ums, miniscule little bitey bugs that are small enough to get through our mosquito nets, they devoured us while we were sleeping and left us covered in bites.  This was not a good thing, I had remade all our mosquito nets last year to make sure we could keep the bugs at bay in the tropics but we have never had no-see-ums before – if we can’t keep them out of the boat we have a big problem.

Our next stop was a few more miles up the road to the next inhabited island of Achutupu2012 San Blas-001
The men sailing home from their gardens on the mainland to Achutupu 

It was another village anchorage close to the mainland and mangroves, the water was again murky (I must add there are many rivers that run into this area and there has been a lot of rain so this had stirred things up considerably).  We covered ourselves in bug spray and ventured ashore to a tiny neighbouring island that had a backpackers resort and in our guide book it mentioned that they did good seafood and served cold beer.  We were welcomed ashore, but alas no cerveza frio, only caliante and no seafood – or for that matter anything else to eat.  We had a walk around the cute little resort with no customers and adjourned back to Balvenie for a cold beer instead of a hot one ashore.  We wrapped ourselves up, applied more bug spray, lit mosquito coils and sat and watched all the villagers in their canoes return from their day ashore on the mainland tending their gardens.  Many just rowed across but there was a slight breeze (helpful for keeping the bugs away) and those with some sort of sail seemed to be enjoying a late Sunday afternoon sail across the bay.P4300051 
Five Palm Island and Mono Island
Next morning was very overcast, not ideal weather for reef spotting but we were eager to get to some clearer water and be able to swim and walk around without our “protective clothing” on!  We headed off, taking things slowly until visibility improved.  Eventually the clouds cleared away and we spotted a gorgeous little sandy cay, the quintessential desert island, white sandy beach, five palm trees, fringing reef and all the size of a postage stamp.  We checked the charts and decided to head towards it for a coffee break and shore excursion.  From Balvenie it looked like an absolute paradise, we dropped the dinghy and went ashore.  P4300078

It seems that paradise is hard to find these days.  Plastic rubbish has taken over the world and on this teeny tropical paradise there was a selection of all shapes and sizes of pollution.  I am sure most of it has come many miles, across the Caribbean over the outer reef and then found a lovely little sandy spot to rest – until time ends.  We are passionate about the pollution problem we constantly see and try and eliminate it whenever we can.  Had this been a comfortable overnight anchorage – it was very rolly – we would have tried to burn all this and cleaned up the beach, but I’m sure another batch would arrive in the next strong winds.  What we need are products that are biodegradable and an education programme worldwide to increase peoples awareness.  Anyway enough said, for now,  needless to add – paradise was not found. 
The water was clear and cool and we enjoyed a quick dip and snorkel before moving on to the flat anchorage at Mono Island.

P4300093 It was a beautiful spot, a tiny offshore island next to the mangrove lined mainland.  Normally we love to go exploring up the mangroves but paranoia has set in with regard to the no-see-ums, we just couldn’t risk getting any more bites or we might just both go crazy!  Again we were the only yacht, where have all the cruisers gone?   A couple of canoes stopped by returning from their gardens and asked for cold drinks, we treated them with fresh baking too but were horrified when they just threw their drinks cans overboard when they had finished.  Oh well at least they rust and decompose.

P5010100 Again we just stayed one night, the bugs weren’t bad as there was a breeze but the waters were again murky as we were so close to the mainland so no snorkelling and just a quick dip ashore off the sandy beach. 

Snug Harbour
We had a big day and moved 10 miles east (my sort of day hop) to a group of several islands just a little further offshore to the anchorage of Snug Harbour.  This was not your desert island type of paradise but it was truly a magical spot, flat water, islands all around, some cute sandy beaches, turtles in the bay,  visits from playful dolphins and starfish resting on the seabed.  Just beautiful.  

At last we had found another cruising boat, a young couple from Norway who we spent a couple of enjoyable happy hours with.  We stayed 4 nights, we had bread, coconuts, avocado, potatoes, bananas and limes delivered by dugout canoe (but our change never quite made it back!!!). Snug Harbour with spiderWe filled our water tanks to overflowing with 2 days of torrential rain, surprisingly they weren’t consecutive days, we had a night then day of thunder and lightening storms, often right over the boat and certainly not good for our nerves watching fork lightening sizzle the waters around us, then we had a beautiful sunset followed by a spectacular day with hardly a cloud to be seen.  All the laundry was done, ropes were rinsed, sails dried out, Balvenie sparkled in the sunlight.  Then just before dawn the thunder storms returned and hung around all day, we have never had such hard rain for so many hours, I’m sure it was starting to soak through the teak decks and cabin top, an imaginary mist filled the air below.  Late afternoon it stopped, the water tanks were overflowing again and slowly we dried out, retrieved all our electrical appliances and gadgets from their “safe havens” in the oven and microwave and life returned to normal. 

For all the in depth info on anchorages and facilities click here to link to our Cruising Info Blog.