Cruising in Kuna Yala

5/1/2011

By Tom Morkin

San Blas Islands

It was 0900 on a fine looking Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands) day. Conditions looked great for our 25 mile trip to Nargana, one of the biggest villages in the San Blas Islands. We were anxious to get there for a number of reasons. As I mentioned previously, the anchorages in the western San Blas are much more cruiser friendly than those of the eastern San Blas because the outer reefs render the waters inside the reef wave and swell free. Furthermore, since many of the islands and anchorages are further offshore, the waters tend to be gin clear and the coral formations, superb.

Nargana, perhaps the least traditional village of all the Kuna Yala villages, would mark the beginning of this sailing Shangri-La.

The Kuna of Nargana have taken on the ways of the new world for better or for worse. Cell phones are in common usage and for $1.50/hour you can get online at the local school, when access is available, which is sporadic. Alcohol can be bought and sold. A small airport connects it with Panama City. It has a couple of small restaurants, a hostel, a medical clinic, three or four shops where on a good day one can even buy fruits and vegetables. There is a diesel generator so electricity can be had for those who can afford it. In the San Blas Islands Nargana is as uptown as you can get.

High Spirits with Dave and Eli, our newly adopted buddy boaters and Feel Free were all set to up anchor from Snug Harbour but were waiting for the very gregarious one toothed Kuna who paddled out to our boats the previous day at dusk looking for beer, cigarettes and playboy magazines. Although he struck out in the vices, he did talk us into pre-paying him for a couple of days worth of fruits and vegetables. Dont worry, tomorrow I will come with potatoes, mangos, pineapples, oranges, onions and Kuna bread. To our defense, the Kunas have a good reputation for their honest dealings and their law abiding ways. From three boats he received about $20; from him, we received a lesson about pre-paying for food from strange men.

Just before we weighed anchor, another Kuna who was the security chief for the area paddled by to collect our fee for one month in the anchorage ($10), and informed us that the tooth deficient character of the previous day routinely scams fruit and vegetable deprived cruisers out of their cash. Although the day started as a financial flop, it just got better. The clear skies and fair winds ensured a glorious beam reach the entire way to Nargana.

What is referred to as Nargana is really the two villages of Nargana and its smaller companion village of Corazon de Jesus. The two villages occupy two small islands connected by a foot path bridge. Unlike some seaside villages, Nargana and Corazon de Jesus do not present their best sides when approached by boat. The shoreline has been filled with coral rubble in an attempt to reclaim land and enlarge seaside properties.

Unlike the more remote villages in the islands, garbage is on display along with plastic and metal fuel drums and old outboard motors. Corrugated sheet metal is indiscriminately used on the roofs and walls of the thatched buildings. Whereas remote villages use local materials, palm fronds, bamboo and soft wood sticks for house construction, concrete seems to be in wide use here.



 Even the outdoor privies built on stilts over the water which remarkably, look appropriate in the out islands, just added to a feeling of dilapidation here.



 Later, walking through the two villages, it was a different story. The streets were clean and litter free. The homes all looked well maintained. Both villages are populated by friendly, relaxed Kunas who seem genuinely happy by our presence.



 

 In two days we were able to do everything we came to Nargana to do. It had been almost three weeks since wed been in Cartagena so our to do list included: get online, phone family members (none of the 12 pay phones in either town worked but a shop keeper loaned us her cell phone), provision ie. fruits and vegetables and Kuna bread, get cough syrup for Lizs lingering cough, buy gasoline (no joy as it was sold out), eat in a restaurant.

The above is a seemingly mundane list of activities when done daily, but for the cruiser in the islands of Kuna Yala, none of these activities is taken for granted since you know it could be weeks before you have the opportunity to repeat any of the above actions. A by product of this situation is enhanced enjoyment of the tasks performed. Were like kids in a toy shop when we discover the small shops that still have fresh bread or a supply of fruit. Its a red letter day when we can receive and send email messages after a couple of weeks without. Absence certainly makes the heart grow fonder.

One thing Nargana/Corazon de Jesus does not have is a place for yachties to check in to the country. There is neither a Customs nor an Immigration office. To check in we must go to Porvenir, some 30 miles west. By the time we arrived in Nargana, wed been in Panama for one week without checking in. Cause for alarm? Apparently not. Many of the cruisers in Panama that sailed from Colombia as we did simply state that after checking out of Colombia, they cruised the many Colombian islands and bays between Colombia and Panama for one month before entering Panama. This is perfectly legit because the Colombians allow yachties to cruise their waters for 30 days after the date of their exit stamp on their passports.

In reality, most cruisers check out of Colombia and sail straight to the San Blas but take up to a month to check in at Porvenir. When asked by the Immigration official why it has taken so long to arrive, the stock reply is well, we cruised in Colombia for a month before arriving in Panama. The Panamanian officials know its baloney but they cant prove otherwise, plus they dont care. How do the Kunas feel about so many cruisers being in the San Blas without checking in for a month or more? They couldnt care less.

 

 

 The San Blas Islands and the narrow strip of land that fronts on the Caribbean where the Kunas live is actually a semi-autonomous nation within Panama called Kuna Yala. Many Kunas feel the Panamanian bureaucrats should stay out of Kuna Yala. This is all good news for us.

There was no rush to get to Porvenir but we decided to head that way and planned to be there within 10 days or so with many stops along the way. Where else in the world could we be so cavalier?

Okay, 10 days to do 30 miles, that sounds like we must average three miles a day- perfect, just our speed. Thats what is so great about cruising the San Blas. There are so many great places to anchor and they are so close together. One can go for months from one splendid anchorage to another, without travelling more than five miles a day, usually less than two miles a day.

Its like someone took the Tuamotus, the Bahamas, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia or New Caledonia and compressed them into a zip file for you to easily access them and then, when you are ready, you simply unzip the file for your cruising pleasure. We can see why so many would-be circumnavigators never get past these islands. Why would they need to?

It is about four miles to Green Island, our first anchorage after Nargana. Supposedly, this is the home of Rocky the Croc. Rocky is a salt water crocodile that migrated from the rivers of the mainland. Im happy to report no contact with Rocky in our two days of snorkelling the reefs of Green Island. I did however, come upon a six to seven foot nurse shark that was snoozing on the bottom. Following my policy of letting sleeping sharks lie, I quietly swam around it, careful not to wake it. I did, however, manage to wake the biggest stingray Ive ever seen. Not until I was within eight feet of this sand coloured, brilliantly camouflaged beast half buried in the sand, did it decide I was too close, as it gave a couple of power flaps of its wings, levitated from the sand and flew off. The sight of the 10 inch stinger on the top of its tail brought images of Australian Steve Irwin aka Crocodile Hunter who was killed after being impaled by a stingrays stinger. Lesson of the day: be careful wading or swimming in shallow water.

The anchorage of Green Island is like so many of the anchorages of the San Blas Islands in that boats are anchored behind the reef and thats all. There is often no island to separate your anchored boat from the strong trade winds. For many, it takes a bit of getting used to, anchoring in the full force of the trades with nothing but the reef ahead and miles of horizon beyond. But experiencing new wonders is just another of the joys of sailing in this remote, pristine cruising area.