Cartagena to the San Blas
The Easy Route
by Suzanne Longacre
Many cruising yachties converge on lovely Cartagena for the holidays - from Venezuela, the ABCs, Panama and the northwest Caribbean. However, after two or three months - after the New Year rolls around - the urge is to set out for the beautiful San Blas Islands to hang out with the Kunas in Paradise for a while. The hitch is that, while the passage from Cartagena to the San Blas and other parts of Panama can be quick, smooth and uneventful come the end of April or May (see Caribbean Compass, April 2005), from January to April, it's another story completely. The winds off the northwest coast of Colombia are frequently in excess of 25 and 30 knots, gusting to 40, with an accompanying sea state of waves up to 20 feet - not anyone's cup of tea for comfortable passage-making.
After exiting Boca Chica, the well-buoyed main ship channel of Cartagena, you turn southward instead of the usual west-northwest rhumb line. The first stop is the Rosario Islands, where many cruisers are frequently holed up in the protected south anchorage for weeks at a time at this time of year. They are waiting for the winds and seas to drop in order to proceed directly to the eastern Hollandes Cays or Porvenir in the popular western San Blas triangle. But on your alternative route, no problema, for you will be daysailing your way down the Colombian coast - away from those nasty northwest gales and steep seas.
Coastal Route Procedure
When you clear out of Cartagena, (we left there at the beginning of February) ask your agent to obtain a 60-day Colombian Coastal Cruising Permit, which will allow you to stop over at any of the lovely islands or mainland ports en route to the beginning of the eastern San Blas, the more traditional and less-visited of the Kuna villages in the Comarca of Kuna Yala.
Club Naútico in Cartagena sells an excellent detailed chart of the Islas Rosarios, as well as a list of waypoints to guide you safely into the southern anchorage. The chart "DMA 26000: Cabo Gracias to Puerto Colombia" covers from the northern Colombian coast down, around and up the coast of Central America to the Honduran border. From the Rosarios, daysail south to the Islas de San Bernardo. There are several anchoring options here:
· South of Isla Tintipan - small resort ashore
· South of Isla Panda (marked as Palmas on some charts) - protected, good holding, uninhabited, though you may be visited by a cayuco
· Isla Las Palmas - there is a major resort here which allows use of their upscale facilities for a US$35 daypass; also markets to daytrippers from Cartagena.
Daysail South to Isla Fuerte
Anchor off the big yellow building on the west side of this truly delightful village. You may want to stay for a week! There are numerous bed-and-breakfast accommodations attracting not only Colombians on holiday, but also Europeans. A pleasant beach lines the waterfront, with protected swimming. We became friendly with some tourists from Turkey, who were thrilled to see John's cap with "KOC" on it (a Turkish bank souvenir from the 2000 Aegean Yacht Rally). Be sure to walk around the island. A short route follows a paved path past coconut plantations and diverse wildlife, while a longer hike, for the more ambitious and agile, circumnavigates the entire island. Locals are extremely friendly, and you will no doubt encounter the water donkey. Just off the beach is a small grocery store and a comida, comparable to a small café. One of the larger B-and-Bs features a huge patio where native dances are performed for guests.
From here, you need to make a choice:
1) Leave around 5PM for a short overnight passage of 84 nautical miles directly to Isla Piños, a safe entry into the San Blas archipelago, or to Puerto Obaldia, the eastern check-in port for Panama.
2) Daysail to the next island, Isla Tortuguilla, then overnight straight to Puerto Obaldia.
3) Continue to daysail south to Puerto Escondido on the mainland, thence to Azucar and up to Puerto Obaldia to check in. Other cruisers have done this route with no problems.
Against the advice of a previous cruiser, with our shallow-draft catamaran we chose Option 2. The anchorage at Tortuguilla, while lovely, was between two sets of rock jetties which could have become treacherous if the wind had changed. So, to be on the safe side, we upped anchor at 5 PM and overnighted to Puerto Obaldia.
In the morning, when we tried to go into the harbour to check in so we would be 'legal' in Panama, the seas inside the harbor were so rough that Captain John determined that it was unsafe to anchor, so we turned around and moved on slightly northwest to a calm anchorage at Puerto Perme, near our first eastern Kuna village. We were soon visited by children in cayucos, who were delighted to see us and grateful for the pens and markers we had brought.
From here on, we were able to navigate the entire eastern San Blas with the assistance of the new and truly excellent The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus. The charts of this area of Panama/Kuna Yala are notoriously inaccurate, but Eric's GPS waypoints and routes are spot on, so we had no worries even in shoal areas. The color aerial photos and chartlets with routes are exceptionally useful.
We were a bit concerned about not checking in at Puerto Obaldia, since we were planning to spend several weeks in the eastern Kuna Yala. As it turned out, our initial check-in at Porvenir in mid-March was uneventful due to our Colombian 60-day coastal cruising permit. Even though we had paid the traditional anchoring fees in many of the eastern Kuna villages, there was really no record of how long we had stayed in the Rosarios, along the Colombian Coast or when we had actually entered Kuna/Panamanian waters.
In hindsight, Option 1, direct passage to Islas Piños, is a truly viable alternative even if you plan to spend a few weeks in the more traditional eastern Kuna villages before moving on to the more social, convenient and thus greatly frequented western Kuna Yala.
Most importantly, we were able to control our own cruising plans, without our timetable being overly dependent on the weather, especially the often-uncomfortable winter conditions off the notorious northwest Colombian coast.
Suzanne Longacre is cruising the Caribbean aboard S/V Zeelander.
Copyright© 2007 Compass Publishing