Thursday, March 29, 2012

What Do We Do All Day in the San Blas Islands?

There are cruisers who pass through the San Blas in a week or two and there are the ones who spend years in this region. Some of us move to a different island every so many days, others stay in the same anchorage for a month or longer at a time. Everybody loves being in the clear water with the ultimate picturesque view of sandy islands full of palm trees all around and while most visitors find exciting stuff to do all day, there are the ones who get bored of “doing nothing” and spending lots of time in the same environment. It is Mark's and my goal to do exactly that: stay in Kuna Yala until we are bored. So far, it’s not working…

After a week of being away from the hustle and bustle of the mainland and finding a slower pace in the islands again, Mark and I moved from the quite crowded Chichime Cays to the quieter and prettier East Lemmons, where we just “sat” for a few days, enjoying the peace and magnificent views; exploring some of the surrounding palmy islands. And then, it was time to finally meet up with our friends Michele and Mark from SV Reach, whom we hadn’t seen for one and a half years. It was great to catch up with them and to meet some of their other friends – all relatively young – who were also anchored near Miriadup in the Central Hollandes Cays.

This new to us area and its temporary boat residents offer a lot of activities and social gatherings, so Mark and I have been busy lately. We either go snorkeling, fishing from the dinghy, or exploring new shores and different beaches. There are a lot of little islands around and in the evenings, there are other cruisers to hang out with. We had a trash burn and sushi evening one day, did yoga another day. We watch our new friends kite board or take off for a spear fishing trip near the reefs almost every day and organize some kind of brunch or potluck on Irie to do something different. 

While we didn’t mind cooking for a group of people and sharing drinks in the Eastern Caribbean, here in the remote San Blas islands, where no good stores, alcohol, ice or food is available (and an event can’t be planned ahead of time), guests bring their own drinks and munchies/appetizer/dish to share to other boats upon invitation. The hosting cruisers offer some extra food and take care of the dirty dishes! In between all of these activities, there are the preparations of meals, bread, desserts and snacks, the usual boat chores, some random boat projects and the business and writing, of course. So, as you can see… Mark and I are keeping ourselves busy enough and there is no time for boredom, just yet!

Dinner party on SV Reach with some of the gang: Stefan, Frank, Liz, Charlie and dog Loki (Photo by Michele)

Brunch on Irie with Michele and Mark from SV Reach

During our explorations and on the way to snorkel spots, Mark and I fish in the deeper water

Underwater creatures during one of the many snorkel adventures

And, one of the many pretty fish. I guess I should start identifying them?

One of our kite boarding friends taking off from the beach on Miriadiadup

Local Kuna fishermen

Yoga on the Miriadiadup beach, under the palm trees...

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Belgians and the San Blas

About a week ago, Mark and I met two Belgian backpackers at Captain Jack’s in Portobelo, during a quiet Happy Hour. We talked a bit and got along pretty well. The following day, after being in the same anchorage for three weeks and getting fed up with the local mentality, we sailed Irie from Portobelo back to Isla Linton. We had three tasks left before we could return to the San Blas islands: do laundry at Panamarina, take on fresh water at Casa X and spend time on the internet to wrap a few things up. Things had changed drastically since three weeks earlier and neither water nor WiFi was available anymore; a bummer, which caused us another tiring and frustrating two-day delay.

So, one day, Mark and I took a bus back to Portobelo, to spend a good day at convenient Captain Jack’s again, deal with our internet stuff and take advantage of the organized potluck.  The Belgians were still staying there and we hung out a bit more together. By the end of the afternoon, we had invited our new friends to Irie for dinner at Isla Linton the next day and they excitedly accepted a free ride to the San Blas. Veronique is a big dog lover and is on a mission to help all the unfortunate ones she meets. She has been quite successful feeding them dog food, taking some to the vet, giving medicines to others and building protective nests for new born puppies. Olivier is an “old fashioned” photographer taking black and white pictures with film. They became our guests for three days and nights.

Together we explored Linton Island, had dinner and set off early for the San Blas islands the following morning. It was their first sailing experience and one dealt better with the challenging sea conditions than the other. The waves were relatively big and the winds strong. It was a bumpy 45 mile sail, but no weather improvements were eminent over the next few days, so we took the plunge. We had been on the mainland for a month, while we hoped to spend only two weeks running errands and stocking up. The sky was grey and once in a while raindrops kept us chilled, together with the salty waves we banged into. All in all the trip was all right (nothing broke!) and everybody was happy when we finally made the Chichime Cays. 

At this point, Veronique and Olivier are dropped off at a rustic hut in a small Kuna compound to spend a few days under the palm trees, while we are enjoying some quieter times in our floating home, in the exotic islands. It’s good to be back in paradise for a little while and we are also glad to report that, after weeks of crappy weather, the sun is finally showing her face again! Now, we just have to wait for the vegetable boat to swing by, to replenish our depleting stores.

Amazing trail of leaf cutter ants on Isla Linton.

Fish! It was VERY heavy in the beginning and then... all of a sudden very light!

We did catch another small Spanish Mackerel, with body, later.

Mark and I are back in the lovely San Blas islands!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The (In)conveniences of Portobelo

Back in the Eastern Caribbean, seasoned sailors used to tell us that they liked that area, because everything was easy. Locals speak English, (western) supermarkets abound, gasoline and diesel can be purchased on the water, land transportation is straightforward, cruisers get together regularly, restaurants and bars are everywhere and the sailing is fun, comfortable and … easy. Being in the San Blas for six weeks was a different world: exotic, beautiful, sustainable, but a bit inconvenient. We didn’t expect anything else and planned a trip to mainland Panama to take care of boat errands around the time we planned to help Liz and Axel through the Canal.

Isla Linton in Panama is gaining popularity amongst cruisers and we made it our first stop after the 40 mile voyage from Kuna Yala. The anchorage is quite rolly and the shore side provides nothing but a friendly Dutch restaurant owner (Casa X) serving food and cheap drinks and offering free garbage disposal, fresh potable water and WiFi for customers. To get to civilization (aka shopping), you need to take one of the few scheduled buses into Portobelo or Colon and you’d better not miss the desired one coming back or a long wait or cab ride is in order… So, after a few days in the quite Linton area, Mark and I sailed the ten miles to “busier” and more convenient Portobelo.

The anchorage is deep at places, but pretty well protected and sailboats are scattered throughout the big bay. There is a short cruiser’s net every day at 9am and cruisers like the place and congregate at Captain Jack’s for happy hour, tasty Vietnamese meals or to hang out in the TV room or do some internet. On shore, there are four Chinese convenient stores that will get you by and frequent buses run to Colon or Sabanitas, where the closest Rey supermarket is located and where you change buses to Panama City.

There is a big garbage mount near the Municipal building, where you toss garbage bags, for which you are supposed to pay $1. As a cruiser, I presume, because I cannot imagine locals paying this fee to dispose of garbage. They are used to litter everywhere, avoiding trash cans – if present – throwing all kinds of wrappers, bottles and containers through car and bus windows, or just dropping them on the floor of the bus. The road sides sport a very colorful and disgusting display, wherever you go, and sometimes – especially near Panama City - workers collect the trash in big bags, placed at short intervals along the main road. Kids don’t even think once when they toss their empty juice boxes on the ground.

In Portobelo, water can be obtained at a few spigots near the waterfront, but access is quite inconvenient and water jugs are heavy. Someone recently placed a nice tap at the end of the main dock, but a few days later, it was ripped out. At the moment, you can either pull your dinghy on shore near the big municipal dock or run aground with your dinghy to access the small dock at the future yacht club. 

There are two “good” places to leave your dinghy: the municipal dock or the “publico” side of the Escuela de Ritmo dock. The first one is a public dock (we confirmed this with an important official), but a guy there has asked us for money several times, stating the dock was private and to “keep an eye” on the dinghy, so no holes will be punctured in the tubes (something we never experienced in five years of cruising)… We always lock our dinghy and engine and the only time we ever paid to leave our dinghy was in Cartagena, Colombia, where they charge a weekly fee, entitling other benefits. After a confrontation with this Portobelo guy and involving the government official, we don’t dare to leave our dinghy there anymore. It’s all about principles…

The other dock also has a bunch of kids “watching” the dinghies and you are expected to pay. Some say $1 each time/day, others just hand over some change or just leave again. We are willing to pay some money there, because it seems to be the only safe place to leave a dinghy, even though it is often way too crowded. But, two times we came back while our dinghy was being beaten up, either against the barnacle rich wall (someone moved and climbed all over our transportation device with muddy feet and the engine was lifted in a funny way – but luckily started), or riding against the lifted propeller of another dinghy. We refuse to pay when this happens. Principles…

For most of the errands, one has to catch a “chicken bus”. These are big, colorfully painted and decorated old US school buses; very picturesque. They fill up quickly and the one and a quarter hour ride to Sabanitas, to buy groceries, diesel or gasoline, is loud and uncomfortable. Imagine sitting down (but mostly standing up) like sardines pressed together in a can, music blearing from the speakers, bodies vibrating from the base (it’s like being in a disco, no, more like standing next to the speakers of a pop concert) and sweating from the heat and humidity, hitting the ceilings or jumping up from the benches with each bump on the road. Now do this for over an hour – or two hours to Colon – until all your bones ache and you understand while we feel exhausted after every errand.

Waiting for the right bus consumes a lot of time and the longer it takes; the more you are worried about refrigerated items going bad. When the bus finally arrives, your stuff is packed in the back and if you’re lucky you get piled in as well. Sometimes, one of us ends up hunched over in the springy back, the other up front with one leg outside. While the dance music blares, passengers’ lips move with the lyrics. People are generally friendly and sometimes, women get offered a seat. Other times, three adults try to squeeze onto on school children’s bench. The windows hardly slide open anymore and when the speakers are old, the walls and benches shiver. But, the rides are cheap and… we always make it back home, somehow!