November 15, 2005
Tiadup, Cocos Banderos Cays
Kuna Yala, San Blas, Panama
09° 30. 774 North
078° 37.008 West

Life in the RV Park

By Douglas Bernon

The anchorage among the four tiny islands that make up the Eastern Cocos Banderos Cays is a social little hive. Today there are seven boats here, but at the height of the cruising season we’re told there’ve been as many as 20. There’s plenty of room, good protection, a sand bottom that can an anchor to the center of the earth, terrific reefs to snorkel, deep passes for spear-fishing, and a beach that cruisers have cleaned up to make a comfortable sitting area for cocktails, grilling, and garbage burning. Several cruisers built a rudimentary but effective fish smoker here, and last year Rinehart and Katrine on Grete flew an official from Panama City to nearby Rio Diablo, hired an ulu to transport him from there to here, and got married on the beach. We know of some boats that have spent four happy months here without ever upping their anchor.

Katrina and Rinehard on Grete

Bernadette and I generally gravitate toward more isolated anchorages with fewer boats, and for just that reason we’ve actually avoided the Cocos Banderos for most of the season. On the morning 8107 KHz Panama Connection Net on the SSB (single-sideband radio) we heard so many boats checking in from here that, until now, we were put off by the massive social process going on. But recently, when we heard there were only three boats here, we decided the time was right. What we found is a mix of summer camp, junior high school, frat life, and an RV Park.

Ithaka anchored at the Coco Banderos

Awaiting us were a great group of cruisers. In addition to our American friends Doug and Linda on Que Linda, there were Julie and Tom on Kiwi, and Katrine and Rhinehart on Grete. Cade on Sand Dollarsailed in with us, right after picking Lisa up at the airstrip in Nargana after she’d spent the past few weeks with her mother in Kentucky. While we were anchored in Cocos, Bonnie and Bob on Spray sailed in, as did Dave and Julia on Macy, and Tom and Lyette on Mesque Ukee -- an international mix of interesting people who came and went.

Tom and Lyette on Mesque Ukee
Bonnie, Bob and their pup Abigail on Spray
Tom and Julie on Kiwi
Doug, Linda, and Pip The Wonder Hound on Que Linda

Tom, an engineer who can fix anything aboard a boat, has been in much demand by everyone in the anchorage for his consultations and help. Cade, a fisherman extraordinaire, has been providing some whoppers for the grill every few nights. Lyette, Katrine, and Bernadette have been watercoloring together -- a new talent I didn’t know existed on Ithaka, and it’s been fun to see Bernadette’s progress. Some days the women will organize themselves on the driftwood tree trunks on the beach and paint together. Although no one’s posted a “No Boys Allowed” sign, we get the picture.

Rinehart and Katrine, on their 1937 wood, copper-plated, gaff-rigged cutter sloop have been out a couple of years and are headed soon toward Colon, where they’ll park Grete for six months so that Katrine, a pediatrician, can do volunteer work in Nicaragua. Grete is 52 feet overall, and half the boat is taken up with a massive diesel engine that proved pretty useful last week when two single handers arrived late the day before a 45-knot morning squall, and ended up dragging up on the beach here.

Ambos pulls into the anchorage. It’s a Spanish sloop, Julian and Elizabet aboard; they’ve been out for just under a year, having sailed from the Med to Brazil, Trinidad, Cartagena, and now the San Blas. They’re on the fast track, they’re great fun, and tolerate my Spanish-French-English word combinations, correcting me happily. They leave soon for Bocas Del Toro, where they’ll put Ambos on the hard for six months while they work in Costa Rica.

Driftwood sculptures near the picnic area at Cocos Banderos.

Bernadette on the deck of Ithaka at the Cocos
Dominique and Patrick arrive, French cruisers on Mondragore. They’re in their third year in the San Blas; their mammoth and beautiful trimaran is both their home and business. They charter year round in the San Blas ( With them, as with Ambos, Bernadette and I speak in the same pathetic hodge-podge of languages, while they, naturally, are multi-lingual and fluent. We feel ever so stupid, but affection trumps vocabulary, and it all seems to work, even if some subtle nuances are lost. Mostly we see each other for the daily cocktail hours on the beach and for fish barbecues.

The group’s supply of metal grill tops has dwindled over time. Often, at various beaches in the islands, we leave them still hot at the end of the evening only to find that Kuna fisherman, who rise earlier than we and visit islands long before the sun has surfaced, happily take them with them. In Wuargandup, we recently purchased the shelving out of a dead refrigerator. With the aid of a hacksaw we made new grills for everyone, and we were back in business.

The Kuna believe noni is powerful enough to cure cancer.

There’s a natural tendency of people to attempt to organize themselves, and it’s no different here. But I tend to shy away from events such as “group spear fishing,” an activity in which testosterone-driven men are swimming in murky water with lethal weapons. That’s an accident waiting for opportunity.

Among the current group are two nurses and one physician, so when Julia’s foot got pretty funky between two toes and started weeping – she’d given it a nasty slicing when she’d slipped against the companionway ladder -- her swimming was put on hold until the infection, the nature of which was much discussed by everyone, improved. In this large group process, medical ignorance was not an impediment to offering opinions, and everyone had several. Julia was accorded much ministrations, and no privacy. Her final decision for treatment was a double blast of traditional western antibiotics and, based on the advice of a Kuna woman with a knowledge of local potions, applications of “noni.” This local plant is well known in the alternative-medicine world as a cure-all; it grows on two of the Cocos Islands, so harvesting it was easy. There was some debate as to whether the noni should just be made into a poultice and packed on with bandages, or if it should be grated, boiled and drunk as well. In the spirit of more is better, both methods were effected, and in fact Julia’s foot is looking just fine these days. She credits it to the noni.

The potluck dinners, of which there are about two a week, generally start around 5:30. Whoever’s done best that day spear fishing brings in his catch, and always there’s pasta, whatever veggies have not wilted, plenty of chips and dips and beans and rice and nibblies. People bring their own drinks. Generally there are two fires -- one for grilling and a second, fueled with dirty oil or diesel, is piled high with plastic and paper. At all these events the women have what I’m told are deep and meaningful conversations while the Cro-Magnons flatulently poke at the fire. It’s absolutely hormonal.

This mola is of a traditional Kuna medicine woman holding curative plants.

No one will ever starve at Coco Banderos. The fishing on the surrounding reefs is first rate: plenty of snapper, sometimes a good-sized grouper, and always lots of triggerfish. Local Kuna fisherman come through fairly often, sailing their wooden ulus up to the yachts and offering to sell their daily catch. For canned goods, fresh bread and veggies, Nargana is only six miles away, and the well-stocked Tienda Eidi there receives new supplies every week. Tienda Eidi’s owner, a local Narganian named Julian, is a smart entrepreneur who hops in his own motor launch every couple weeks and makes a run to various islands in his corner of the San Blas constellation, taking orders and delivering what’s been requested on the previous run. His arrival, and the on-going group process here, is a constant reminder that while the San Blas islands of Kuna Yala are light years away from what we know, they’re not a hardship zone. When you can place an order for toilet paper, frozen chicken, sweet gherkins, yeast, red peppers, and Spanish capers, and have them all delivered to your swim platform, you’re very much connected in the universe.

This mola of fish, turtles and squid points out why no one goes hungry at the Cocos Banderos.

Bernadette on the deck of Ithaka at the Cocos

The VHF radio constantly crackles here as one boat calls another for drinks, or advice, or dinner, or painting, or cards, or to borrow a tool or this or that. It’s a small-town party line and everyone listens in on every conversation. There’s a spoken and unspoken pressure to be part of the games, to attend dinners, to spend your day playing in the group sand box. And of course there are jealousies and hurt feelings. Some days it’s a painful return to 8th grade. I keep wondering if some of the kids are passing notes that ask: “Does Mary Lou like me? Or Does Larry think I’m cute?”

I’ve enjoyed our time here, even when the big squalls come through – we clocked 54 knots yesterday in a surprise blow – but, despite the great holding, and the good companionship, I’m ready to move on now. I give a major pass to all radio-announced games of Baja Rummy, and the scheduled yoga on the east beach. I draw my line in the sand at team volleyball, and if anyone so much as hints about a men’s drumming group, I’ll swim full speed toward deeper water. Coco Banderos demands I face personal realities. I suppose, in the end, despite the beauty of this place, this is a boy who just needs smaller groups and greater isolation to allow his natural curmudgeonly ways to fully flower.

Dominique from Mondragore, Lisa from Sand Dollar and Bernadette at cocktail hour on the beach.