Sailing to San Blas

Monday, February 08, 2010

Let me just start this segment of my journey by reminding readers who may have forgotten amidst all my adventures abroad that I am a prairie boy. I come from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a beautiful city in the middle of a vast flat ocean... of land. The nearest coast in terms of driving hours is Vancouver, BC, about 20 hours west and over the Rocky Mountain range. This leg of my journey starts in Panama City and ends in a small town in Colombia, the two points on the map joined by five days in a 36’ sailboat called Da Capo with stopping points all along the San Blas Archipelago of islands. It would be unlike anything I had ever done before, bobbing along on the ocean with nothing but the wind moving us along, and arriving in a brand new continent. Sure, there are more risky ways to get to Colombia, which I elucidated on in my last post, but be assured dear reader, that this would be an experience and adventure that I would never forget.

The Caribbean in a 4x4

Panama City. Friday, Feb 5, 23:00. Phil and I have just returned from the grocer with what we think will be enough drink for the trip. 1L of Abuelo Panamanian rum, 1.75 L of Smirnoff Vodka, 4 L of Coke, 2 L of Fresca, and 12 Panama beers. While there, we ran into three of our fellow trip-goers, all English. There’s Amy, fluent Spanish speaker and PR consultant. Simon, funny if half-jetlagged Londoner who also happens to be an electrical engineer and project manager. If you’ve ridden the Tube, you’ve seen his work. And finally there’s Hanna, bubbly interior designer with some amazing ideas for her own coffee shop when she gets home. They too are procuring booze and we compare levels to find our estimates in agreement. They look like they’ll be fun and good company, which makes the voyage all the more exciting. Back to the hostel loaded with liquid we go for some attempted sleep though I found myself waking every hour. Finally, at 4:20 AM I woke up just before my watch alarm and got Phil up as well. The bus was supposed to arrive between 4:30 and 5:00 AM, and at 4:21, it was at the door and waiting for us.

We got on the bus and did not see our three English friends from the night prior, worrying now that we perhaps were on the wrong bus (though the driver did answer to Manuel which was the name we were looking for. Soon, I realized it was not 4:30 but 5:30 – my alarm hadn’t gone off because my watch has a ‘home’ time and ‘current’ time and you can set the alarm for either zone. I’d set it for home which was an hour behind. So now we were on this bus an hour later than expected, too. It wasn’t too worrying as we were still heading to the same place, but what about the English? What about the time? Had the boat left already? Only one way to find out. About halfway through the trip we discovered that the Canadian couple sitting behind us was also bound for our boat, so worries were allayed and we switched into a 4WD for the next leg of the journey, the only way at the moment to reach Carti. It was a sizeable trip for $25 and we arrived at Carti without any hassle or notes of interest. From there, another $5 for a motorboat to our sloop (plus $6 to pay to the Kuna Indians who basically own the islands) and soon we pulled alongside Da Capo.

Home on the High Seas

The Canadian couple, by the way, are from Vancouvr. Jared is an alectrician there though with his accent I am able to correctly deduce he’s originally from Toronto. The four of us are greeted on the deck by Captain Mats. The boat from above looks tiny but we are excited to be here nonetheless, our home on the high seas and gateway to Colombia. The captain brings us down below where we are amazed to see how much they have squeezed into so small a place. The only thing comparable I have seen are motorhomes and this definitely blew them away. There are the captain’s quarters where he, his Colombian wife Dina, and their son Mateo sleep and we store our large packs at the aft of the boat as well as another room at the front for Hanna and Simon. I sleep on the bench around the kitchen table and Amy sleeps across on the other bench – we just move a few cushions and there’s plenty of space, not to mention that our beds are backed by small storage cubbies and on top of yet more storage. The kitchen has two burners and an oven which detach completely from the counter at the pull of a lever to rest on a pivot through its centre of gravity. That way, when the boat is swaying or listing in the wind, the stove and its contents are always upright.

There is also a marine toilet with a series of valves to adjust for pumping waste out and sucking seawater in and the sink doubles as a faucet for the fresh water shower. Our boat has a fresh water maker which we’ve been told most others do not, but where it’s hidden I have no idea. Up the stairs there are two benches around the wheelhouse where Jared and Renee sleep at night which also has a foldout table not to mention gauges for depth, wind direction and speed, boat speed, heading, and so on. Along both sides run two narrow wooden walkways lined with mesh and cable to keep from falling off and at the bow of the boat is a flat area for sitting, visiting, and getting some sun by day. By night, this is Phil’s home, where he hangs his hammock and puts up the small shelter to keep him dry and a bit warmer. And that concludes my grand tour. The captain went through all this with us as well as the rules of the water and then went through our plotted course to get a feel for what to expect on the trip. Then, soon enough, we were underway – but the wind wasn’t strong enough to get us there quickly so we motored. The main sail was still up for stability but it wasn’t moving us at all.

Glowing Waters of Porvenir

Our first port of call was the island of Porvenir. However, there was no port and nought but a dozen Kuna upon whom to call. In other words, aside from this family, the island was empty, beautiful, and all ours. The waters around the island were that turquoise blue you only find in Photoshopped brochures for Caribbean resort, practically glowing with electric iridescence from an LCD panel that wasn’t there. I waited with Phil, Jared, Renee and a few others for the captain to ferry us to land in the dingy while others couldn’t wait. Beginning with little Mateo, age 3 and a half, who donned his lifejacket grabbed a snorkel and climbed down the latter to snorkel on his own and followed by Simon and Amy they seemingly floated about 4m above the sea floor, so clear was the water. We made landfall and strolled casually around the island, the trip taking about 20 minutes in powdery white sand lined with palms. If I am being too verbose in my descriptions, understand that in doing so I am doing a great injustice to a chain of islands that require a poet’s brush of pen and much more space than I have here. Truly, San Blas was the pearl of the Caribbean and we were increasingly speechless as each incredible island was impossibly matched or bested by the next.

What we found here that we didn’t find anywhere else was ice cold beer and hammocks to accompany them. The island had the highest population of Kuna Indians of all the ones we would visit except of course for San Ignacio, which was a full Kuna town, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The Kuna are indigenous to these islands and have lived here far longer than European colonization. Whatsmore, they were quite possibly the only indigenous group to successfully ward off European interests and maintain their culture and lifestyle with little outside influence. They are a matriarchal society and when our captain asked why in a matriarchy most of the chiefs are male, it was explained that women were too hard and lacked the compassion and empathy needed to settle disputes and render judgement on what little crime and mischief may crop up. In general, it’s role reversal although men still filled the warrior roles which I found interesting considering this description. We visited with some on the island and looked at their art which is largely made of reverse stitching layers of material so that no stitches are actually visible or as near to it as possible. The Kuna seemed friendly and welcoming here even though our one sailboat alone nearly doubled their island’s population but we would have more encounters a few days later more worthy of description.

Dina’s Diner

We had read that our boat had a great reputation for food served but as most things down here, I’d believe it when I saw it. So, as the sun was setting and we returned to our boat, I was instantly curious at the aroma that wafted from the galley below. There Dina was grilling up some delicious smelling pork chops that lived up to everything we’d heard. After dinner and dishes, we all sat around the wheelhouse looking up at the many stars and Orion straight above with beer, rum, and a good dose of conversation. The night didn’t get too late, though, as we’d been awake since 4 AM and all needed some sleep, even Simon who’d pretty much slept all day. Breakfasts on the boat were a different matter. The supplies were eggs, bread, cheese, and ham. Do with this what you will. To be fair, the first day was Kuna bread warm in the oven and delicious, kind of halfway between a fried tortilla and dough but otherwise you were on your own. In fact that first day all I had were two pieces of Kuna bread with ham and cheese rolled in them. The second day the English went to scrambled eggs and I actually made a pretty tasty omelette if I do say so myself.

Chi Chi and Me

We had sailed after our visit of Porvenir the first day to the island of Chichime but arrived too late to do anything but enjoy the sunset. After breakfast we went up to the oat deck and were in awe of the place. The water here was literally swimming pool blue. On this blue water a Kuna paddled up with ten or so lobster on one side of the boat and a huge red fish on the other. To our delight, Dina started negotiating a price with him and bought eight pounds of lobster for about $5/pound for dinner that night. We transferred them happily to our boat, swam around and then came back to the boat for lunch before taking the dingy out to the shores of Chichime. We took some group photos in the water and again walked around the island. Here, there was only one family of Kuna and then us and it did somehow upstage Porvenir. The weather so far and in fact for most of the trip was cloudy but this did not diminish our enjoyment or the beauty of the San Blas Islands. Occasionally, we’d get a patch of sun and it was the visual equivalent of “turning it up to 11”. As well, it made the photos a bit more dramatic from time to time though it also made others difficult or impossible. As you’ll see, that didn’t stop me.

Islands of the Coconut Flag

We left around 2 in the afternoon for our next destination, a group of islands within the San Blas called Coco Banderas (or literally coconut flag). Sailing between the islands had so far been no problem but today the seas were a bit rougher. The didn’t stop people from trying to read but I found I couldn’t do it. I did stock up on Dramamine before leaving and I think it was a good investment though I’ll always wonder whether I would have been able to go without or not. Still, I’m happy to report I was never sick the whole time – maybe a bit green around the gills when I had to go below to use the washroom once but fresh air and a horizon cured that soon enough. And I could now officially say I had been sailing – the motor was off and the only sound was the waves, wind, and occasional dolphins splashing. That trip was our first encounter with dolphins and combined with beautiful islands, lobster cooking below, the thrill of sailing 15 knots on a ‘beam-reach wind’ which had the boat angled seriously to one side, Phil and I came to an agreement. San Blas was now the best thing we had done in Central America which was fitting as it was also the last.

The sunset at Coco Banderas was spectacular, again thanks to the scattered cloud cover that might have dampened others’ spirits (not on this trip). After sunset, lobster dinner was served in a beautiful sauce with rice and believe me, the plates hardly had to be rinsed. If there were any thoughts that Dina might have been lucky with the pork chops, she had now proved her mastery of the tiny kitchen. Everybody stayed up and had some drinks that night but somehow I was out for the count. I could hardly keep my eyes opened after dinner and said goodnight at about 8 PM at which point I just barely made it down the stairs and fell on to my bed asleep before my head hit the pillow. I hadn’t made the bed, moved the cushions or even undressed, just collapsed, and the general theory was that the Dramamine had taken its toll. This would prove fortunate as the next day’s sail had basically everybody feeling poorly except for myself and of course Dina, Mats, and Mateo. Alcohol is not a combatant of seasickness.

Before we set sail on that particularly rough trip however, we grabbed our snorkels and went in for another wonder of the Coco Banderas islands. The snorkelling here is incredible. Just a short swim from the boat was a reef full of fish and beautiful coral which comprised the best snorkelling I have done on this trip. The reef circled on all sides a small pocket of sand at about knee-height and Amy, Hanna, Simon, and myself swam out to there and literally stood in the middle of the ocean surveying our surroundings. Islands to the left, islands to the right, we knew we didn’t have too much time and picked the island on our right to swim to and explore. Snorkeling there was a pretty cool experience as you encounter shallowed and shallower water with reef and seagrass and then you look ahead and there is a brilliant and blinding wall of pure blue ahead where the reef and grass give way to white sand. The island itself, well, how many ways can I explain paradise? We sailed out a little earlier than any of us would have liked, 11 AM, but we did have a good four or five hours of sailing ahead of us with a tail wind to reach the Kuna village of San Ignacio de Tupile which is where our story will continue next time.

San Blas Photos

No comments: