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.

No comments: