Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   February 2010

There and Back Again… The San Blas Islands

by Linda Hutchinson

The San Blas Islands offer so much, and so little. What one experiences here depends on what is important to each individual. The captain, Roger, and crew, Linda, aboard S/V Sandcastle are loving all of it! Unlike the busy Eastern Caribbean islands with their towns, shopping, regattas, cruise ships, ample grocery and boat-parts supplies, the San Blas consists of weather, sand, coconut trees, reefs and Kuna Indians!
Oh, and last but far from least, the San Blas islands host a great sailing community. I can’t say enough about the group of people we have met. Roger and I move from island to island in pursuit of whatever we find. Other cruisers do the same, so our mix of neighbors is ever-changing and from all over the world. Of course, there are those who stay put. They care for the island, know the rules (and there are rules), relay info about friends who have passed through before us and just make us comfortable when we settle for a day, week or month — sort of like the stateside hotel commercial that says, “We’ll keep a light on for you.”

We wake each morning to beautiful skies and white sand beaches. Little terns hit the water endlessly, aiming for the multitude of tiny fish that hide in the shade of the boat. A remora, looking quite dapper with the zigzag crown it wears, shoots out from its hiding place under the boat to catch any morsel thrown there. Off to the side a spotted ray with a four-foot wingspan hurls itself out of the water as it chases a tasty meal. Also below us are gray and black rays, the occasional turtle, mackerel, ocean triggerfish, nurse shark, barracuda, tuna and blue runner, to name a few, that pass by on their way through the anchorage.  
A friend of ours who owns a catamaran actually had one of the big rays land on the boat’s trampoline in the middle of the night. Imagine how that would be waking to the noise of a huge ray flailing around on the bow of your boat! What a chore the crew had getting it back into the water without hurting the ray or themselves!

Between our boat and the ocean is a reef that extends for miles and miles just waiting to share its hidden splendor with the adventurous snorkeler. The waves crash endlessly with a roar that calms us all day and lulls us to sleep nightly. There are little islands everywhere, only hours apart. They aren’t more than a couple of football fields long and wide for the most part; some even have freshwater springs. The coconut trees bear coconuts, although they are forbidden to all but the Kuna whose livelihood is collecting and selling them. Pretty flowers bloom out of the low green foliage like stars on green stems. The white sand beach waits for the weary to rest upon it, or in a comfortable hammock strung between two coconut trees. The hearty gather wood and make a fire, cook a fresh-caught lobster and then settle back with friends, a guitar, and a song or two. Laughter abounds as stories of snorkeling, repairs to the boat, news from home or the almost daily squall are passed around.

Here during the middle of the rainy season, we have experienced more and more heavy squalls. Sometimes the squalls bring heavy wind and/or heavy rain. We love the rain — it lets us fill our tanks with water. Being without a watermaker here is a big disadvantage as places to refill the tanks are few and far between and it’s not always an easy task!
Sometimes, like today, we watch islands miles away receive the gift of the gods as rain, wind, lightning and thunder attack. One member of our cruising community had the boat struck, not an uncommon occurrence. This resulted in all instrumentation being “fried”. Now they will travel to a marina, a six- to ten- hour trip, and from there they will go by bus or cab to Panama City to try and get new parts! It might be necessary to have parts flown in, or they might actually have to fly out to the States to purchase them. It isn’t always easy to obtain what you need here. It is convenient when someone visiting the States can return with the necessary part. That is a rare occurrence however. So far, we have heard of four boats being hit by lightning this season. Thankfully, there haven’t been any physical injuries!
The Kuna, native to these islands, are becoming more and more “Westernized”. There are a few island communities refusing to accept new ways and technology. I say good for them! The mola, a hand-stitched, rectangular, multi-layered, multi-colored picture of familiar animals, stories, or geometric shapes are created and sold by the Kuna. Visitors love to buy them for framing, or for making pillow covers, placemats, etcetera, for themselves or to give as gifts. The Kuna — Mom, Dad and every pitiful child they can find — come in their dugout boats called ulus (long u), to show their molas, carvings, and strings of beads, often even before an arriving yacht’s anchor has touched the water.  Once you say “sorry, not today”, they move on to the next boat.

They are wonderful people and my wish is to help them all, which we try to do as best we can. We carry extra reading glasses for the seamstresses, fish hooks for the fishermen, crayons and paper for the children, suntan lotion for the albinos (the Kuna have one of the highest rates of albinism in the world), and sometimes a little candy finds its way into the hands of the smallest child. A few Kuna have found the glory of the cell phone. The only problem is that there is no electricity on the islands, except for the very rare generator, so the cell phones cannot be charged. It isn’t unusual to be handed six cell phones by some darling child to be charged on the boat.

Out here we make our own entertainment. Having friends who have vivid imaginations and a variety of talents helps. One such couple got my captain and others to pull the guitars out of storage, build up the calluses on their fingers and play whenever possible. Many a Kuna has been entertained along the way now by “Los Gringos” as they were named by a Kuna friend on Nargana Island. On Mametupu, Los Gringos played and the women cooked a conch chowder to die for, which was shared with our new Kuna friends. The Kuna provided their version of bread and more guitar playing! They even mentioned us in a song. Can’t get much better than that.

Another cruising friend had his sister visit with her soon-to-be husband. This resulted in a mock Kuna wedding, complete with Kuna dancers, outfits and ceremony. The whole sailing community showed up to watch the affair, enjoyed yet another meal, drink, and music provided by Los Gringos. What a wonderful experience for sailors and Kuna alike!
Although our time in the San Blas Islands will be hard to beat, the seasons change and so do we. Like many of our sailing friends, we have aging, ailing parents at home in the USA who need our TLC as their lives come to an end. Therefore, we will slowly travel back to the States to arrive sometime in the coming spring. There are many adventures ahead as we travel up the western Caribbean island chain. We have heard there are many beautiful islands and towns up the coast. We are looking forward to each and every one.


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