Tag Archives: san blas islands

Warning!!

I thought I should put in at this point a little “warning” for those thinking to travel via sailboat from Panama to Columbia (or visa versa) via the San Blas Islands.  As romantic as it sounds, as whimsical as it sounds or as much as it seems like it would be a fantasy to sail through 380+ Caribbean islands with water so pristine and beautiful that you can’t imagine a more beautiful place and sunsets and rises that make you realize a God does exist, it really isn’t a trip for the weak!!

Why do I say that?  Well, unless you are rich enough to be able to afford your own private sailboat or yacht charter, then you are basically “stuck” on whatever sailboat you have chosen AND all the people (there were a total of 9 others on mine- all strangers) whom have chosen that particular sailboat as well.  Which means… well, you tend to have to put up with a lot of interesting things… for example, other peoples ideas of how to stay hygienic… Yes, one particular person was constantly snotting on himself, wiping their hand on their shirt (which became dirty and quite gross quickly) and then actually wore that same nasty shirt for the entire duration of the trip… And you have to put up with the potential of storms, with the reality of having zero privacy for days on end, and for your crew to turn out to be modern day pirates (as my friend so eloquently coined!!).  In addition not all the islands are as pristine as one would think.  Mainly due to the currents, while most of the islands are quite lovely, there are some that have bits that have tons of trash piled up.  This again is mainly due to the waste that boats and people in general dump into the water and the currently simply carry them to the nearest spot of land… All the more reason to take out with you what you brought in, as we did on our boat!!

However, if you are able to withstand all the potential nastiness that I personally never thought of, well then sail away!!  I absolutely never regret my trip and wouldn’t trade it for any other experience in the world!!  Even though it had a lot of squirrely downs, the ups were absolutely fabulous!!  Phosphorescent water, sleeping on a hammock in the open air from the top deck of the sailboat watching the stars (I actually kicked one of the crew out of his bed to sleep on the hammock:)), the islands themselves, the water, the sunrises and sunsets, the yummy meals, the characters met on and off board, the friends I’ve made during the trip and still have to this day.  I wouldn’t trade any of it for a minute, but thought it necessary to at least put in a little warning for others planning a similar trip:)

 

On to Catamaran Disaster

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Capurgana, Colombia

So we made it!  “Smuggled” into Columbia through the San Blas Islands on a sailboat captained and crewed by what Nicki (my German companion on the sailboat) so eloquently named “modern day pirates”.  That they were indeed, modern day pirates!!  We actually arrived and docked in the water on the Panama side in a little inlet that had the teeniest towns nearby.  From there a local took all of our things and put them in a little motor boat, squished us all in (we finally got to get our shoes back, mind you!) and motored us around the inlet bend and into the Colombian side of land and dropped us off at the dock of Capurgana, Colombia.

The first thing I remember thinking about this place was how colorful it was!  It was so Caribbean and the vibrant colors of each building just added to that cool Caribbean vibe of “come as you are and chill, man”!!  Just adorable and quaint and just the place that was needed to go and relax after the onboard adventures of the previous week on the sailboat.

We all disembarked from the little motor boat on the dock and went our random ways to find hostels/hotels for the night.  I chose a place not too far from the dock and stayed the first night in a room fit for several people (though I was the only one) then moved to a smaller, better suited room on the second floor for the next week.  Now, one must remember that after being on the sailboat for 6 days certain things hold true… First and most important, I had to get my land legs back!  Even though we had been on land for little bouts throughout the week on the sailboat, my sea legs were still well intact.  Hence why I chose to stay for several days in Capurgana… Not only because it was so vibrant yet chill, but also so I could fully recover from the crazy sailboat tour we had just come from.

After getting settled in the first afternoon of our arrival (oh and of course getting our entrance stamp from immigration, which was closed for the first several hours we were on land so had to wait a while to actually be legal in the country) Nicki and I headed around town to find a cup of coffee.  Now, honestly I’ve never really been a big coffee drinker in the States.  Maybe because all the famous blends and roasts come from places like Costa Rica and Colombia.  Or rather especially Colombia… So we thought it would be quite easy to find a place that sold coffee since we were afterall in one of the countries that was best known for their production of coffee… No.  Not at all. It literally took us the better part of an hour, plus going into dozens of stores before we actually found a place that begrudgingly made us a cup of coffee!!  And to boot, it wasn’t even anything that special.  Apparently, as we came to learn quickly, coffee in Colombia is served only at breakfast and is really not available at any other time!  Ok, now perhaps I really shouldn’t generalize for ALL of Colombia, so I will just say for sure in Capurgana:)

Anyway, all in all the time spent in Capurgana was quite nice.  One day was full of hiking through the surrounding jungle, others just wandering the small town watching and experiencing life.  The evenings were spent passing time with card games with friends from the sailboat.  Oh and one afternoon was spent watching the opening ceremonies of the Olympics in England (just to give a time stamp of when I was there:)).

To be honest, though I knew I had to move on, I really wasn’t looking forward to it.  The only way out of the town was either on a teeny tiny plane literally fit for two people and luggage (that could not weigh more than a certain amount) or to take a motor boat from Capurgana, across the bay to Turbo, then catch a bus to the next destination.  After having spent so much time in the simplicity of life, between Puerto Viejo, the San Blas Islands and now the tiny town of Capurgana I wasn’t looking forward to getting back into the “hustle” of the faster life.  Honestly, I don’t even recall vehicles in town, only horse drawn carts.  That’s how isolated and simple Capurgana was.  No roads actually lead into it, only a small airstrip and dock for boats connected this small Caribbean town to the rest of the world.

Alas, I did have to get back on the road again however and booked my trip out of Capurgana via the boat.  Nicki, the Aussies and the British fellow had already or were soon also getting on with their travels too.  We each went separate ways.  Though I had wanted to go to Cartagena, Colombia, oddly enough I had gotten an email from my brother saying he was in Bogota for work.  So I altered my plans to try and catch some time with him in Bogota and opted to head first to Medellin.

 

On to Travel from Capurgana to Medellin

Back to Columbia Quicklinks

Time with the Kuna Tribes

The fist time we spent some time with the Kuna indigenous tribes was on our second or third day.  We were invited to have a lobster dinner on the island with the tribe.  Before dinner we basically spent our day wandering the island and snorkeling the waters.  I found a shell that I wanted to keep, so I kept it with me to later ask the chief if it was ok that I kept it (he said yes:))

Now, while most of the islands are absolute paradise, one must also keep in mind the currents.  The currents tend to bring trash from the ocean and basically dump that trash onto portions of the island.  The tribes basically just burn all their trash (since they don’t make much of it to begin with) and to my knowledge don’t clean up the trashed areas from the currents.  So not to get back up on my soap box here, but really if any of you reading this make it to the San Blas Islands, please be cognizant of the waste you produce and leave behind.  Otherwise some of that waste that is neglectfully dumped in the ocean could ruin an otherwise perfect island vacation…  I’m just saying lets all do our part!! 🙂

Ok, I’m done with that rant… Anyway, so as night came we went onto the island and had a lobster dinner caught fresh and prepared for us that evening!!  Of course we did have to pay a small fee for the dinner (another way the tribe makes money) but it was worth it:)  Just to have the experience of that nature, it was worth it!!  The people of the tribe weren’t necessarily very social by any means, rather they were quite shy in a lot of ways, but they were very courteous and pleasant!  The island chief ate a little distance away from us sitting near a campfire and an old TV set.  I don’t recall it actually being on, but there was an old radio nearby that was…  There was a game on that night… LOL!!

Anyway, the evening was basically spent enjoying the food and the company.  At one point I wandered off to the water and once again became mesmerized as I watched little waves crash on the shore, each one lit up by that ever beautiful phosphorescent algae!!  I wandered in a bit as well just to play my hands in the water, disturbing the surface to make my own glowing shapes in the sea.  So peaceful and beautiful!!  And talk about a night sky!!  My goodness!!!!  So brilliantly full of shimmering lights… I thought I was impressed with the night sky of Puerto Viejo, but my goodness, literally being in the middle of “nowhere” with no lights coming from anywhere except a bonfire, that night sky really glows!!  It was just a very awe-inspiring moment for sure.

Before leaving for the night, myself and the German woman bought an anklet from the tribe women.  I still have mine on my ankle to this day, and it’s now been over 2 years since I’ve been to the islands!  I figured that when it fell off naturally that would be it but its still holding on strong!  On our way back to the boat the boys started a little bonfire for us to hang around as we waited for our “taxi” back to the boat:)

On to Kuna Tribe Story #2

Back to Islas San Blas

 

 

 

Nail Fashion

Not a huge story here… Just a little fun story about how the regular crew of the sailboat sometimes killed time on the boat… They had actually quite the impressive array of nail polishes!!  And to busy themselves when nothing else was really going on they would paint their nails!  So on one day when myself and the German woman were also looking to kill time, we asked if we could join the fellas in painting our nails too:)  They shared their loot of polishes with us and we began the fun times of painting our nails colors and designing random images or symbols on each nail.  At one point I painted one of my nails black with a white skull and crossbones… The crew noticed this and each ended up wanting one of their own!  So for the next, at least half hour or so, I was busy painting skulls and crossbones on fingers and toes of the crew boys, lol!!  Just a fun time!  You can see pictures of the nail “art” in the pictures section:)

 

On to Time with the Kuna tribes

Back to Islas San Blas

Storms, glorious storms! And a sparrow?

Another reason I’m quite glad we really didn’t have any days really going way out into the ocean was because of the storms… aside from the night that we left Portobello, we pretty much had a storm every night thereafter.  Now personally, I absolutely LOVE thunder and lightning storms!!  It’s actually a criteria of where I live!  If the place doesn’t have sufficient thunderstorms year round, I won’t survive there long.  But I digress…

The first storm that we traveled through is where the sparrow comes in… The Captain of the sailboat (the American) absolutely cracked me up!!  As the winds whistled violently through the air sloshing the boat one direction then the next he stood at the helm, legs wide so to have a solid stance.  His bandana over his head flapping in the wind.  As the rain came down on our heads he held a cigarette in one hand and a glass of rum in the other all while he held the wheel and jerked it this way and that against the force of the wind!  Periodically he would release one hand from the wheel to take a drag or sip of his booze, then on again he went.  He literally looked like a scene out of Pirates of the Caribbean with Captain Jack Sparrow at the helm through the storm!  I couldn’t help but just watch him in awe and absolute humor!  Seriously wish I had a video of that!!

So that was one of the storms… Other storms we had while simply trying to stay off shore of an island for a night.  But with the currents and wind we had to keep moving around so we wouldn’t get pushed too close into the shore.  The lightning and thunder was absolutely glorious and I never felt any fear whatsoever until one particular storm…

It was on the night before we were supposed to be in our docking area to get “smuggled” into Columbia.  Because of this storm we had to pull in to another island area that was more protected from the ocean.  It worked in our favor after all because we got to spend yet another day/night in the islands.  Anyway, I had gone to bed before the storm struck but was woken at some point during the night by the sounds going on around me.  As I opened my eyes, the first thing I really noticed and registered was the severe rocking of the sailboat.  The German woman and I were given the room at the very front of the sailboat and in the room, aside from small windows along the side was a window on the roof that essentially went on the top deck.  Essentially what I saw was nothing but rushing water through the side windows and at times the windows were completely submerged.  The top window, as the nose of the boat dove deep into the water from the waves, had a steady stream of water rushing back and forth over top.  The whooshing sound and the up and down rocking as the nose dove over and over again into the ocean was already quite a concerning feeling.  Then the sounds from the living area started to register.  I looked behind to the living area to see one of the crew members holding on to any surface he could to stay standing.  Plates and pots and pans and food and literally all other contents of the cabinets in the living and kitchen area started clashing and clattering to the ground as the violence of the boat movement was simply too much for the cabinet latches to keep everything shut.  The crew member tried over and over in vain to rig the cabinets to latch closed…

At this point, a very real realization came to mind.  I thought honestly, that this was it.  We weren’t going to make it.  There was no way this little sailboat could make it through what sounded such a violent lashing from the ocean.  As I thought about how this could literally be the end, a thought occurred to me.  I had no control over the situation.  There was absolutely nothing I could do.  So if in fact it was to be the end, I wouldn’t be afraid but simply would think about those I loved.  The fear of the situation then subsided and I fell back into a deep sleep.

The next morning I woke to another day.  We docked near another island not too far from the Columbian border and spent the day visiting the Kuna indigenous people of that island.  I will certainly never forget that particular storm…

 

On to Nail Fashion

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San Blas Islands

I’ve never seen phosphorescent water before.  Not until night time did we board our 38′ sailboat barefoot (no shoes allowed anywhere on board) and headed out of the harbor waters into Caribbean waters to the San Blas Islands.  We headed out at night so that in the morning we would be near to one of the islands and would be able to spend a lovely day there.  What seemed like light glistened from the ocean in the otherwise absolute darkness.  Only when disturbed did the water glisten and glow, so as the sailboat motored its way through the harbor it left sparkling and shimmering water in its wake.  Absolutely mesmerizing!!  Nature always seems to find a way to shock and awe me around every corner, and on this night once again it raised the bar!!  I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the beauty that stirred in the water as we coursed through it.  Now to be fair, it really is the algae in the water that actually make the water glow with light, not the water itself.  The algae soak up sun rays during the day and in a sense emit the light caught by the sun when they are disturbed.  So amazingly beautiful!!!

The San Blas Islands are 380 plus islands that run from the southern Caribbean coast of Panama to Columbia.  The people that inhabit these islands are called Kuna.  The Kuna indigenous tribes are and historically have been known as peaceful people.  Being peaceful people, only once did they ever in their history rise up and fight.  And that was a while back now when the Panamanian government tried to claim the islands as part of their government.  Up until that point, all the islands and the law of the islands were governed by the Kuna people.  A bloody battle ensued over rights to the islands, however when Panama tried to take control.  Ultimately Panama lost and left the islands to be governed by the indigenous tribe.  To this day, no other government has any rights or control over the islands.  They are simply governed by the Kuna indigenous tribe members.  There was even talk that the Kuna people were known for “harboring” drug smugglers on the islands; for as long as the smugglers were invited onto the island they were safe from any other marine government agencies waiting on the water in hopes of catching them once they left.  Permission granted was a huge deal there too.  No one was allowed to ever stay or sleep on any island overnight unless invited by the Chief of that island.  Just about every island had its own Chief.  Sometimes a single Chief would be needed for a cluster of smaller islands close by to each other.  And every so often the Chiefs of the islands would get together to discuss affairs.

Kuna fishermen could be seen going around in their wood canoes around the islands in search of conchs or lobsters or other fish to catch and consume.  Their way of fishing however only involved a homemade spear “gun” and being able to swim to very deep depths!  They were very adept at their trade however and the funniest thing to me about it all though was the bucket they each had in their canoes.  It wasn’t for holding caught fish but rather to scoop out water from their canoes!  You see, the canoes were wood and untreated wood at that, so they were constantly taking in water… hence the bucket!  Women of the area went around in their wood canoes (bucket in tow) to each of the tourist sailboats selling bracelets or homemade woven cloths with various images on them.  I eventually did buy an anklet from one of the women when we were invited for a lobster dinner that I wear to this day because it still hasn’t fallen off!!  But I’m getting ahead of myself…

We were warned well in advance about sea sickness.  We were all instructed to take sea sickness pills the night before departing and the morning and night of taking off.  While I believe we all did adhere to that advice, sadly the sea sickness pills did not quite work for all…  I was not a victim of sea sickness thank goodness though after a few beers and passing out in the front bunk for myself and the German woman, I did wake up feeling a little queezy… I made my way to the open air and just had to focus on my breath REALLY hard… and thankfully the nausea went away!  I could not say that is how it went for the rest of the crew…

Well, of course the crew themselves (3 brothers) were just fine.  But the new crew were struggling!  I honestly blame most of it on the booze consumed because as mentioned before there was quite a bit on board and the drinking started the second we got on board!!  After having my near sea sickness episode I opted to stay on the top deck in the fresh air just in case another episode arrived.  People seemed to be just fine that night.  Lots of jovial drinking around me and star gazing.  It was the next morning that the real “damage” began…

 

On to Warning!!

Back to Isla San Blas

 

Portobello, Panama

It was here that I would find passage to Colombia via a sailboat.  You see, though Colombia and Panama are connected by land, the land is impassable.  There are no roads that connect the two and I’ve heard story upon story of people either legally or illegally traveling from one country to another on foot through the dense jungle and while they lived to tell the tale so to speak, it didn’t sound like anything I’d ever want to try.  So instead I opted to go to Portobello to seek alternate passage.  Again, I could have flown to some part of Colombia, but then I would have missed the beautiful and exotic San Blas Islands!!  More on that later…

Portobello, named by an Italian when he landed on the land and exclaimed “Beautiful port!” in Italian of course, and well as you see by the name Porto (port) bello (beautiful) got it’s name quite literally…  It too is a sleepy little town.  It was once a defense port for Panama and it does still retain parts of forts and walls to protect the area, but of course it’s been damaged considerably.  Not a whole lot goes on per se in Portobello now except one of the largest businesses there is the transport of tourists via sailboat to and from Colombia/Panama.  To be even more specific, if you plan to do that type of travel, the only way to do so is to go to Captain Jacks hostel and wait for information on boats traveling through…

Captain Jacks, man what a fun place!  And if I recall, the ONLY place for tourists to sleep!  Not kidding either!  I seriously don’t think there was any other hostel or hotel in the entire place!!  Captain Jack’s is run by, well, Captain Jack!  A retired sailor, Captain Jack moved to Portobello and opened his restaurant/hostel and really the main traffic to and from his place is from tourists again simply seeking passage to Colombia.  Of course he did have some regulars (i.e. sailboat captains and staff would frequent the bar in search of finding perspective tourists to take to Colombia).

I found out quickly that just about every person who entered Captain Jacks was after the same thing… Or they had already booked their passage (smart people!) and simply needed either a place for the night or to get in touch with their boat.  So it wasn’t very soon after arriving and settling that I started meeting people with like needs.  I met a woman from Germany, a man from Britain and 4 Aussies who all ended up being on the same boat as I picked out.  Truth be told, the woman and I, since we both were travelling alone chose to pick the same boat so that we at least had a “safe” companion to travel with:)  Not that the trip was unsafe in any way, but we were the only females on our boat, and we were the only solo females traveling at that point, so it was nice to have some company in that way.

Anyway, picking the boat and captain/crew was also an interesting time… We did have some reservations about the captain at first of our chosen boat because he showed up at Captain Jacks drunk and only proceeded to get even drunker as we attempted to get our various questions answered… But Captain Jack seemed to vouch for them and after we took a tour of the 38′ sailboat, we thought “safe enough!”.  Plus, boats were not coming and going all the time, so if a decision wasn’t made fast then we could have been stuck in Portobello for quite a while more!  I believe in total I was already there for about a week just waiting for boats to arrive and then getting info on them and when to leave, yada, yada…

The trip was not cheap, but once again an experience of a lifetime in more than one way!!  All food was provided for us and cooked as well so all we had to provide (aside from payment to board) was booze for the trip if we wanted any.  I didn’t end up buying any booze, and well as you can see from the picture below, you will see why… The four Aussies opted to buy several cases of beer each, plus several gallons of rum and other assorted liquors for the 5 day trip… It was by far enough for a whole Army of people!!

With bags packed, booze packed and passages paid, we were ready for the San Blas Islands!

On to Islas San Blas

Back to Panama Quicklinks

 

Time to Leave

Though I had an absolute fantastic time in Puerto Viejo and met a bunch of people whom I consider life-long friends, after about 10 months of living there, it was time to pack up and see more of the world once again.  I still to this day miss a lot of Puerto Viejo and Costa Rica in general, namely the wildlife and captivating nature that surrounds you daily there…. But, if I had stayed there I wouldn’t have had the chance to continue traveling and exploring as I originally planned to do.

Truth be told as well, just as in many places you first go to then get to know better, the rose colored glasses came off.  While there was and is a lot of beauty and great things about Costa Rica and Puerto Viejo, there are also a lot of drugs there.  They are after all in the direct line of drug trafficking, so it’s really no big surprise, but still there gets a point where enough is enough.  Looking around knowing that the majority of people were on one drug or another, just started to wear on me.  And looking at people who had lived there forever and seeing how squirrely they had turned out, just made you wonder if that was the only future to look forward to.  So for that reason and wanting to explore and travel more in general, I packed it up and headed out.

Since I’d already done Bocas del Toro, I decided to simply head back to David, then on to Panama City, then head to Portobello on the Caribbean coast of Panama to catch a sailboat through the San Blas Islands into Colombia…

So the travels continue…

On to Panama City, Panama

Back to Puerto Viejo