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Panama: sailing in the San Blas Islands
with Kuna Indians and on through the Panama Canal!

by Chrissi

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Panama Adventures

panama and its inhabitants, or at least what I have seen and met so far, rates 5 stars, or in olympic ratings, a perfect 10. this place is fantastic! the people are kind, generous, friendly ,and what beautiful smiles! our first stop was in the San Blas islands, also known as the Kuna Yala nation. this is a group of coconut covered islands off the northwest coast of panama. these islands extend about 100 miles along the coast, and are inhabited and governed by the Kuna tribe, an independent Indian nation within the nation of panama. the Hollandes cayes was our first anchorage, where Kuna Indian named victor paddled out to our boat in his canoe and greeted us with gifts of bananas, avocados and limes. we were invited to his home on Tiadup, an island profuse in coconut palms, where his lovely wife prepared a native meal for us, fresh fish cooked in coconut milk with boiled bananas. the Kuna women create beautiful hand-sewn works of art called "molas," these are a sort of reverse applique quilting where multiple layers of brightly colored fabric are meticulously cut out and sewn in elaborate patterns and designs. Selling and trading these molas are their number one source of income, followed by the selling and trading of coconuts. they get anywhere from $5 to $50 for these incredible works of art, and they get 10 cents per coconut. although I only bought one small mola from them, the women bought my entire stock of beaded jewelry, and one of my hand sewn books. we exchanged macrame and beading techniques, and I gave the kids a karate and yoga lesson. only after I had promised not to teef any food, we were allowed to visit Kalugirtupu, the island where the family has all their fruit trees, a real garden often including snakes and crocodiles.

our next anchorage was in the lemon cayes where we were visited numerous times during our stay by canoes filled with women selling molas, and fishermen selling octopus, fish and lobster. we hung out in the lee of Nugaruachirdup for several days, then moved on to a more peaceful spot near Kuasirdup. we drank coconuts with the family on Waisaladup and left the lemon cayes with about 15 molas, the secret to tenderizing octopus, and very empty pockets.

next stop, Escribanos bay on the mainland. this is a shallow lagoon hidden behind a coral reef and surrounded by mangrove and jungle, with two small rivers feeding into it. isolated, secluded, serene, a world of our own, shared only by fish, fowl, reptiles, and howler monkeys in the distance. we kayaked a short way up one of the rivers, spooking ourselves with talk of poisonous snakes and man-eating caiman. the only reptile we actually saw was a turtle. due to the complete isolation of this bay, we didn’t think it would be wise to remain here long and tempt possible pirates, so we reluctantly move on after only one night.

my favorite stop on our passage so far was playa chiquita. tucked up behind the headland is a fair anchorage between two reefs. there's not much to the village, just a handful of houses, a tiny school, a guesthouse with no beds, a restaurant that’s never open. there's a bridge that only the truly fearless will cross, a narrow river snaking into the rain forest, fruit trees everywhere and the most beautiful laundry-mat/bathing hole you couldn’t even imagine. the place is just so beautiful, all the people we met were so friendly, and its such a contrast to its neighboring village.

to go to the store you have to go to cuango, the next village to the west. to get to cuango, you had better have some good walking shoes. we were wearing flip-flops -- big mistake! first, the trail goes along the beach, then over some rocks, past some tidal pools, over massive driftwood piles, then intothe bush, up the hill, down the hill, up the hill again, through thejungle and you keep following the trail until it dead-ends at a very fast flowing river. ok, now take off your shoes, and your pants, hold everything over your head and walk into the river. on me it was about belly-button deep. the water was very swift, about a 10 knot current, and this is during the dry season. you just have to keep walking, just 20 feet or so, don’t lose your footing or you will be swept out to sea. i lost my walking stick, but not my footing. ok, on the far side is a sandy beach, put your clothes back on, and your shoes, trudge across the burning sand about a half mile, and you finally get to quango. all this for some frozen chicken and corn flour?!!

quango was a bunch of cinder block houses sprouting like fungus out of the sand and dirt, it seemed that all the trees and green stuff had been chopped down to make room for the town. there was a bar and pool hall with several young boys hanging around, drinking and blasting soca music at a decibel i hadnt heard since trinidad carnival. there were soda-pop and beer advertisements painted on walls of buildings, smelly busses blowing diesel fumes into the stifling hot air, it was like the town was trying to obtain some sort of affluent civilization but falling very far of the mark... very depressing. the long hike back to playa chiquita wasnt a dreadful prospect at all.

o, but let me tell you more about playa chiquita. i discovered the laundry-mat on our first foray into the village, it was near to sunset and i saw a woman washing her clothes in a pool of water, noisy children splashing and playing nearby. i remembered the big sack of dirty clothes back on our boat and the lack of sufficient fresh water for washing onboard, and decided that first thing in the morning i was going to do something about it. so bright and early i kayak into the beach, hoist my sack of laundry onto my head and stroll along the waterfront ,saucily swinging my buckets and washboard. you would think i was from mars, the looks of astonishment i was getting, did they think we had a maytag washer/dryer combo stashed somewhere on our 38 feet of floating home? so anyway, once the women realized that yes, i was going to wash my clothes just like they did, they greeted me with smiles and buenas dias, and welcomed me into their midst. the sun had not yet come over the hill, but the morning light was turning the ferns and water plants golden, the varied shades of green reflecting in the water, the smell of earth, river, sea and growing stuff mixing pleasantly with the fragrance of laundry soap, the giggles of children and quiet hum of conversation, the crashing surf on the beach nearby, the nearly silent tinkle of river water escaping the pool and joining the sea.

a visit to playa chiquita wouldnt be complete without paddling up the river that runs behind the town. we had hardly got our paddles wet when a friendly machete-wielding villager offered us a couple drinking coconuts to energize us for our kayak trip. the river snakes through magnificent rain forest where bananas, breadfruit and mango trees line the banks, vines and creepers dangle down from dense vegetation overhead, and creepy crawly things splash and crash on the muddy rocks and roots. the river is no more than 20 feet wide and in some places just barely deep enough for the 6" draft of our kayak. after about an hour of leisurely paddling, we came to a place in theriver too shallow to easily get the kayak past, so we turned around and headed back to town. we ooh'd and aah'd at all the flowers and birds, and we were really lost in the splendor of it all when we were startled by a young boy in a dugout canoe who had silently appeared around a bend. he had come from the town and was worried that something had happened to us when we hadnt returned, so he paddledout to make sure that we hadnt been eaten by any wildlife.

our next stop was in portobelo, its a large well protected bay with several rivers feeding into it, about a dozen sailboats spread out with plenty of room for privacy. portobelo is an historical town with old spanish forts crumbling around rusty cannons, a couple tiny grocery stores, some bars and restaurants, and a nice internet cafe and library run by the peace corp. there are busses that leave every half hour for colon and panama city, and just an hour up the road is a full-blown american style supermarket that has just about everything imaginable. portobelo was our last stop before rejoining the confusion and hassles of the big city.

the next stop was colon, the caribbean side of the panama canal. it was a big dirty city, big ships, plenty noise, and the officials there have a love affair with paperwork. we spent a week preparing ourselves and naga for the canal transit. we had a taxi driver named jose that did all the running around with us, found our lines and fenders for us, took us through the numerous officials and offices, helped with the shopping, etc, having his help really made our preparations as simple as possible.

we experienced a good bit of fear and trepidation, concerns about possible damage caused by lock walls or careless line handlers, etc, the horror stories of accidents and mishaps really got us on edge, but to our immense relief, our transit was a walk in the park.

three guys aboard a neighboring sailboat volunteered to be line handlers, our pilot (advisor) was pleasant to work with and he did his job well, and the tugs we tied to knew their jobs and didnt screw up. the big ship in front of us on the way up, and the even bigger ship behind us on the way down caused no problems, and the passage between locks was awesome.

i was pretty busy playing hostess, cook and line handler, jack stayed at the helm the entire time, and we were able to get through in one day. aside from the awesome engineering of the canal, the massive ships looming over us like sailboat-eating sea monsters, and the general excitement of passing through the locks, we had the opportunity to see a crocodile on the beach, hanging out like a big scaly rock with its mouth open. we stopped and anchored in gatun lake for lunch, and our line handlers all went swimming. jack and i stayed aboard, we wanted to HAVE lunch, not BE lunch. this is it, this is my big dream, i was so scared that something was going to go wrong...but here we are, on the pacific side of the canal, tied to a mooring at the balboa yacht club.

strangest thing that happened here so far was a man stopping by the boat, and handing us some johova's witnesses literature. FROM A JET-SKI !!! the pacific ocean and many new adventures await us, and i am just so happy, so excited. we are really looking forward to the next leg of our journey. polynesia, here we come!



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Panama sailing adventures: San Blas Islands, Caribbean coast and the Panama Canal transit.