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by Dan and Jan Ahart
The 340 islands of the San Blas archipelago in Panama are as idyllic as any we have ever seen. The Kuna Indians have occupied the area for centuries and have survived with most of their heritage intact notwithstanding the influences of modern civilization such as telephones and outboard motors. Most still use dug out canoes and either paddle or sail them. If they are sailed, three occupants are required. One to steer, one to bail out water and one to lean into the wind hanging on to a rope from the mast, to keep the boat upright. This works very well and they can sail very fast. They are very small people, with an average height under five feet. The only smaller race is the African Pygmies. They are very handsome people, very polite, very clean and quite persistent when it comes to selling molas to the cruisers. Molas are square or rectangular pieces of cloth comprised of various colors fashioned in designs of birds or fish or abstract scenes. They are all hand sewn and are suitable for framing or using as table covers. Most of the molas are sold by women who live on an island adjacent to Isla Porvenir, where cruisers check in and out. Before the anchor is set, two or three dugouts will be paddled over with two to three women in each one. They hang on to the boat and will not leave until a mola is purchased or a gift is given, such as soft drinks, candy, cigarettes or something of like value. Men might also arrive trying to sell fish, but if they are told no, they leave. It's an interesting culture.
The San Blas islands and the Kuna Indians are represented by Panama for administrative purposes, but the Kuna are very independent and insist on living much as they have for centuries. Consequently, the islands are pristine and totally undeveloped. Other than income from tourists, the Kuna sell coconuts. No single family owns any island and all the men take turns harvesting coconuts. Tourists are warned not to touch a coconut without permission. In addition to the formal check in and cruising permit obtained on Porvenir, local island leaders will paddle out to cruisers and collect a "local" fee of $5.00 for using their island and its surrounding waters. A receipt is given for the fee, but in all likelihood other gifts are asked for, such as soft drinks, beer, cigarettes, etc. It's an interesting culture.
Aside from the strange behavior of the Kuna, the San Blas is a wonderful cruising area. There are many more islands than the average cruiser can see in a season and for the most part the water is clean except that like Trinidad, it has a green tint, which limits visibility somewhat. However, fishing is allowed both by line and spear gun. We spent a week in the San Blas and enjoyed every day. We had our choice of finding our own island to anchor off and have ultimate privacy - except for the Kuna, or we could anchor with other cruisers. We did both.
The time finally came to leave and we sailed southwest half a day to Isla Grande, which is a very nice island just off the coast. It is a local tourist area and sports many restaurants and a very nice, by local standards, hotel. We stayed two days and sampled the fare at the hotel. A wonderful lobster dinner was less than $10.00. Our next stop was Portabelo, which was found by Columbus on his fourth voyage to the new world in 1502. He recognized the potential of the harbor, but it wasn't until 1586 that it was chosen as the transshipment point for all gold and silver that was sent back to Spain. Some 45 fleets eventually visited the port, transporting tons of gold and silver to Seville. The oldest building still in use was built in 1630. It is the customs house and it is very impressive indeed, covering an entire block and rising three stories. Two forts were constructed in the mid 1700s. The cannon are still there and enough of the original stone is still in place to get a very good idea of how the forts must have looked when they were in use. Today, Portabelo is a sleepily little town visited by tourists, who want to see the old forts or buildings or visit the "Black Christ," which is a wooden statue of Christ that has become a holy shrine as is worshipped because of the many miracles attributed to it. Every October 21st, the festival of the Black Christ is held and pilgrims have been known to walk on their knees from as far as Costa Rica to visit it.
We left Portabelo on 22 Dec 03 and sailed to Colon. Although the rainy season should have ended in early December, we faced rains just as we were entering the harbor at Colon. We really didn't want to enter during the rain, as visibility was dramatically reduced, but using our radar and GPS, we were able to steer around many ships that were anchored both outside and inside the harbor. Colon is the entrance to the canal and has a huge harbor with a very impressive break water and very easily identifiable entrance that is flanked by tall towers painted red on the right (returning side) and green on the left. Once inside the breakwater, the water became very calm and we slowly motored among the ships feeling like a small mouse among very large cats. Colon is not a tourist area like Panama City on the Pacific side. It is a busy port city with hundreds of thousands of containers being loaded and off loaded annually for transshipment all over the world. It also has the world's second largest free trade zone, second only to Singapore. Some ten billion dollars of merchandise changes hands annually.
We tied up at the Panama Yacht Club at noon and began yet another round of
bureaucratic shuffling to get our passports stamped, and our visas and
cruising permits issued. This time our pictures were taken and copies of
our passports, ships registration, and crew list were required. We talked
to four different people, spent two hours and paid an additional $27 on
top of the $85 we had spent in Porvenir. I am sure no one ever looks at all
those copies, but busy work is the life blood of bureaucrats, so all we
could do was smile, copy, smile and pay. The yacht club is in a nice
location, but it is surrounded by container handling yards. It must have
been beautiful when it was new, probably in the 40s, but it is slowly
falling apart. The restaurant is still very good and the services are
fine, but we got the feeling that as soon as the price was right, the owners
would sell out to the container handling companies and go out of business or
relocate. We felt we had an opportunity to share in a unique part of history. We had read so much about this yacht club that we felt privileged just to be here. So many thousands of cruisers have passed through here on the way through the canal; one can only image the famous, the infamous, the parties and whatever other activities have gone on here. About 60 boats are tied up at the club with another dozen or so anchored not far away. A pot
luck Christmas dinner is in the planning. It should be fun. Stay tuned.