Panama Part II San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala)
Note: Also posted on Lonely Planet
After checking into [Mamallena Hostel|http://www.mamallena.com] I decided to use it as a home base since they were putting together my San Blas trip and I was using the rest of my time to explore the Panama City area. They have dorms with bunkbeds($11) and private rooms($27.50), are fairly centrally located, have free internet and several stores and restaurants in the area and are off one of the major bus lines. They are also very knowledgeable about the area, have several tours arranged through the hostel and work with a taxi driver for tours, airport transfers etc.
San Blas Islands
Six of us including four girls from Norway, a young man from England and I booked the three day San Blas catamaran trip. It included RT SUV shuttle from the hostel to the port of Carti($25 each way), RT boat($4 each way) out to the catamaran and three days including food on Fritz-the-Cat($75 per day). It was an incredible trip in spite of a major storm that moved in from Honduras.
Eleven of us left the hostel at 5am in four wheel drive SUVs. It was raining and after we left the paved road, it turned into the mud road from hell. The hills are very steep and slippery, and at one point we ended up sliding backwards down one hill and saw several cars stuck in the mud off the road. One car had a family with three kids and they had to climb out the windows and make their way through the mud to the road. Another driver tried to pull that car out, but all he had was a rope and it snapped so we left them, promising to send someone back with a chain. The scenery along the way is very dramatic from deep valleys to rain forests so dense you could not see the sky. Although we could see the forms of some animals up in the trees, we could not stop on the roads long enough to photograph them. We made two water crossing, one over a very narrow but deep passage over a stream and the other requiring crossing a 20 or 30 foot river with water at least three feet deep. We finally arrived at the Caribbean "port" of Carti, which consisted of a couple of wood buildings and some fiberglass boats and cayucos which is what they call the dugout canoes here. There were several Kuna women wearing their native dress and they allowed me to take pictures.
The bay was very rough and although the rain had let up some, we knew we were in for a bumpy ride. We headed for the Carti Islands and the 54 foot Catamaran, Fritz-the-Cat. The waves were very high and at times, half ended up in the boat. We finally found the catamaran, although Fritz, the captain was ashore picking up groceries. He left a friend to meet us and she served us fresh whole grain bread and tea.
The twin Carti Islands are very congested with small houses practically covering the entire island. There are a couple of hostels on the islands but we did not go ashore to see them. After the captain returned, we motored for a couple of hours to the Lemon Cays. All along the way we passed beautiful white sand islands with coconut palms and maybe one or two small colorful cabinas. Fritz made us a tasty lunch of fish and rice and then we went swimming in the protected harbor. It continued to rain and was windy so we spent most of our time lazing on-board. During the afternoon, several cayucos stopped by to sell us items. Fritz bought fresh fish for dinner the next night($4 for 10 black mackerels). Across the roof of the cockpit, Fritz had hung nets which were filled with fruits and vegetables. In spite of the rain, it was a wonderful day and evening and sleeping with the gentle rocking of the boat was easy.
The next day it was still raining hard although the winds and seas were calmer. We had fresh baked bread (The staple bread was a whole grain sourdough type with seeds, nuts and herbs), with an assortment of jams and other toppings, smoked fish, pineapple and great coffee. After breakfast we went snorkeling although the waves were too high to get close to the reefs. We saw lots of fish but not much else. Unfortunately, the weather forecast for that day and the next was more rain. However, I would rather be on a sailboat than either restricted to one of the islands or riding in a cayuco from island to island in the rain. We sailed over to the island of El Provenir, and took the dinghy over to the island. There we stopped at the store, admired their handicraft and looked around the island; not much there other than a hotel, store, a small museum and a runway on which several aircraft have crashed and is now closed. The gift shop had some beautiful molas, but Fritz told us that Lisa, one of two of the most famous Kuna mola makers would be coming by the cat that evening.
We returned to the catamaran and set sail for the next anchorage. The storm had let up and we were able to sit on the front deck as we sailed, although a few times, the waves coming over the bows totally drenched us. The new anchorage was in the center of a group of islands that consisted of a main island with perhaps a lodge and a couple of houses, two or three houses on some of the other islands, and some had just palm trees. The whole archipelago was surrounded by reefs. Just before we got to the island we saw a couple of dolphins swimming beside the boat; they appeared to be escorting us through the break in the reefs. We were able to anchor quite close to the shore of a deserted island with a wonderful reef just on the other side, however, just as we set the anchor a huge storm hit so snorkeling had to wait for the next morning. We had a wonderful dinner of veggies and a fish stew. That night Lisa came by with about 50 of his/her molas, I had to buy one ($23) and she gave me a traditional mola purse. She was very interesting to talk to and is a wonderful artist.
We woke the next morning to another rain storm but we went swimming and snorkeling a few more times. The temperature of both the water and air was warm enough that swimming and snorkeling in the rain was quite comfortable. Unfortunately the waves were so high we were again unable to reach the reef. So we saw fish and some small corals but not the famed reefs-I guess I will have to come back. We walked around the island some( it was very windy); there were some gorgeous conch shells but too big to carry. Finally after lunch we sailed back to the Carti Islands about three miles away, just at dusk. The sky was clearing and we had a nice sunset. We all agreed that in spite of the weather, the trip was wonderful and that we would all have hated being stuck on one of the islands in the rain. I slept on one of the benches in the cockpit that night and several times woke to incredible displays of stars, unobstructed by ambient light. The next morning we woke to clearing skies and some sun (of course), however, the people on the Carti Islands use outdoor toilets over the ocean, so swimming was not an option. I would like to return to the Islands when the weather is better and make some shore excursions to explore how the Kuna people live.
We caught a launch back to the mainland, however due to the constant rainstorm, the road had deteriorated to the point that we had to take the boat up river to the place where we had made the long river crossing in the SUV’s. It was a gorgeous ride through the mangroves; we saw several small villages and lots of herons and other waterfowl. When we got to the crossing, the river was a good one to two feet higher and we watched various cars navigate the river while we waited for a taxi with room. The road back was still in rough shape but they had filled the worse places with rocks and the highway crews were busily at work. Final Chapter later.
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Central America Travelogue Part 3 San Blas Islands
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