Exploring Panama’s Guna Yala

sailboat at sunset

Plumes of spray shoot up where waves strike the rocky spires of a reef off the coast of Guna Yala. Totem is bashing west to our next pocket of protection for anchoring, and none of our charts on board match what our eyeballs tell us. “I guess we won’t sail between those islands” considered Jamie while eyeing breakers that stretched across the gap. One chart showed the area as grayed-out UNSURVEYED territory. Two others with some detail suggested it was passable. Welcome to navigating in the eastern Guna Yala! (This post builds on the prior introduction to Guna Yala).

Tucked into a deep bay a few hours later, the kids jumped in for a swim: sediment meant limited visibility, but the sun broke from behind the dry-season cloud cover and turned it a lovely shade of turquoise. Swimming was short lived… was that the smear of a crocodile’s haulout on shore? Impenetrably green hillsides tumbled down to the water’s edge, and in the distance cried a bird, or maybe a monkey; the call was unfamiliar to our ears.

Visitors arrive paddling a large dugout ulu (which also sports a 9.9 hp outboard) from the cane-and-thatch homes nearby. Three generations of a family come aboard: grandmother, parents, and three young children. Together they comprise the majority of the 11-count human population of this community, a handful of structures built a few yards over the water on piles of coral rubble.

Arsesio speaks reasonable English, a legacy of the time he spent in Panama City before choosing to return to traditional Guna life. A few of our Spanish words come in handy too; his wife and mother are more reserved but listen in and smile at appropriate enough times that I think they understand more than they let on. We share snacks stories of our lives while his adorable toddler stuffs crackers into the top of a winch, just like our own kids found them receptacles perfectly suited as string cheese holders some a few years ago. Gifts were lightly bartered: green coconuts and plantains in thanks for batteries and candles. (I’d love to come back to Guna Yala with cases of solar-powered Luci lights to brighten evenings in settlements like this!)

He later asked a favor: since we were headed west, could we take his family (his mother Selina, wife Obaldina, and their three children) on Totem to their larger island community? We pored over the thin data on our charts, and it looked risky. The shallow draft of their dugout makes it effortlessly through a channel between islands and mainland, but it looked questionable for Totem. In good conditions, with water depths we could visually pilot? Maybe. But whitewater blowing across the reef didn’t give us enough to work with for finding a safe path.

Meanwhile, learning about the reason for the request helped us understand how to help. It was time to fill their canoe with coconuts, plantains, and more to sell at the densely populated 10 miles north. Yet when it was loaded down (this included two additional village members, their gear, and an intact but very much not alive deer-like mammal), the sea state was too rough to safely cross the ocean pass between the islands. Now we knew what to do: it was a matter of getting them across this cut into the lee of the next island, not all the way up to their destination; and that we could do. And so, the following morning, all six family members boarded. It wasn’t until they began loading goods—a chain saw, a portable generator, a shotgun, a plastic tub of clothing, two puppies!—that the need became even more apparent. No way could they get across the rough seas in their dugout with all this! So our girls led their girls in coloring pictures below deck while we nibbled fresh bread in the cockpit with adults. It wasn’t a long journey, but an unforgettable one.

We had all the company we needed already with Utopia II.

The eastern range of Guna Yala (also called Kuna Yala, or San Blas) is virtually devoid of other cruising boats: we encountered only one throughout this stretch. Did the relative isolation foster opportunities like meeting the family in Escoses? On another island, we were shown ambergris worth tens of thousands of dollars sitting out on a coral wall to dry. Near Playon Chico, a frequent Guna visitor would ramble for hours some afternoons on everything from his island’s upcoming chicha festival to bandidos stealing from his garden on the mainland. There’s the time our guide for a hike told us with pride about the role of US military in supporting Guna independence; he offered geologic survey markers from the late 1940s as evidence and told us about the armadas from the US to support the Guna during their struggle for recognition – pointing to his ballcap commemorating the 90th anniversary, 1925-2015. And memorably, the afternoon a weathered man beckoned from his doorway calling “cultura! cultura!”- culture, my kryptonite – to show me rows of nuchu, statues with living spirits important to Guna religion, on a corner hutch inside his drafty bungalow.

In the western San Blas, the dynamic shifted significantly. Here were scores of cruising boats. Not all islands follow the Guna’s traditional ways. There were conveniences again: the ability to buy bread and other groceries from small stores (in the east, fewer options and smaller shops; we might buy coconuts or plantains or fish from an individual with extra). Internet access. And here, at last, were the breathtaking islands: white sand beaches, tall coconut palms leaning gently towards turquoise water.

Empty anchorages of the east were traded for bays holding a dozen or more boats at a time. Many were long-term liveaboards, many were “backpacker boats” ferrying travelers (at surprising cost) for their Kuna Yala Experience… or an alternate mode of transportation to Colombia. A few, like us, were cruisers passing through; the western islands are an accessible overnight sail away from the canal region.

These numbers shift local dynamics. Guna in the western islands have built livelihoods around marketing to visiting boats. Dugouts were more likely to come along side marketing handicrafts, offering tours, selling fish and lobster, and occasionally other provisions. And here in the west, thanks in part to that reach, are renowned mola makers: Venancio Restrepo, from Isla Maquina, and “Mola Lisa,” from Rio Sidra.

Venancio and his brother Idelfonso charmed us with their beautiful textiles, patient explanations, and gentle manner

We saw stunning molas in the east, too, but the combination of volume here, the English proficiency of the artists, and their ability to range to the more distant islands favored by cruising boats contribute to their fame.

Shortly before we departed San Blas, a Guna family from Nusatupu island (just below Rio Sidra; near 9 26.8 N / 78 50.20 W ) sailed their ulu over for an early morning visit. They’d seen our mast over the spit of mangrove-covered land that separated us from their home. Igua and his parents were pleasant company; his mother, Floricelda, more outgoing than any other Guna women I met. They visited in our cockpit for a while—drinking coffee, offering molas for sale. From them we learned about the divide is then between Guna who can afford outboards for their canoes range further from the settlement islands to peddle molas; should we return (I hope we return!), I’d make more of an effort to seek out these islands and the artists who don’t have those means. Igua is an albino; there’s a high incidence of this among Guna. The trait is revered, and has a special place in their culture, but given the hot tropical sun… we sent Igua with a bottle of sunscreen. I wish I could say if I’d though tof it first, but it took his request for an application from the one in our cockpit for me to clue in. Maybe some boat in our wake can stop in at Nusatupu, pass along a bottle of sunscreen for Igua, and tell Floricelda her beautiful mola has a good home.

Floricelda allowed photo of her stunning wini, the beadwork decorating women’s arms and legs

Guna Yala holds so many facets of what makes our life interesting packed into one place. Picture-postcard views when the sun emerges (white sand, turquoise water, islands the size of a baseball field sprinkled with palms). Deserted islands where the kids can swim and play. Low tech local community, where people have time to talk. Cultural experiences far from our norm, with lessons to give. And not least, good company: this is the last sailing we’ll do with Utopia II for a while, and so we made the most of it.

Celebrating a boat-kid-birthday in typical low key style, with a beach picnic and games.

Next: practicalities for cruisers planning to sail for Guna Yala / Kuna Yala / San Blas

Colombian practicalities for cruisers

sailboats boats with dress flags

What should you know before sailing to Colombia? Planning details often clarify with hindsight. What we loved about Colombia is a start for anticipation: for those considering this destination, here are a few additional tips to help with practical planning for cruisers.

Ports

Along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, there are two choices for ports: Santa Marta, and Cartagena. We chose to stay in Santa Marta, and visited Cartagena by bus. I’d do the same thing again if we return to Colombia and believe it’s the best option for a shorter stay.

For a shorter visit, and Santa Marta offered the best convenience and efficiency, with the opportunity to soak up exposure to range Colombian experiences. Within Santa Marta were museums, good food, and a well preserved historical district; logistics at the cruiser-friendly marina were a breeze with the front office support of Kelly Hernandez.

Santa Marta is a good base to explore Colombia, for daytripping or beyond. One-day forays into the Sierra Nevada (it would make a great overnight to sleep in a hammock in some hillside hostel or farm and hike further!) and national parks are easy. Going further? Santa Marta and Baranquilla airports make short hop flights to further exploring in central or south America a snap for those with the time and budget. If you won’t sail much further in South America, jump from here to experience the Amazon or Machu Picchu.

Saddling up to go riding near Rio Buritaca, a couple of hours east of Santa Marta.

In Colombia you must clear in and out of every port, and an agent is required for clearance. This additional bureaucratic layer comes with additional cost. In Santa Marta, the marina arranges the agent covers their fee- handy! In Cartagena, you must hire the agent (fee approx. US$100) to handle your clearance with the Port Captain.

The hassle factor in time and cost of clearing in and out of Cartagena helped confirm our decision to visit overland instead of sailing (because no way were we going to skip Cartagena!). It’s about a four-hour bus ride from Santa Marta, and the inter-city rides are affordable. There are varying grades and speeds; our direct bus had Netflix movies (driver’s choice, thankfully nothing gruesome or crazy loud, all in Spanish), air conditioning, and wifi. For the kids, there’s an added air of adventure to staying in a hotel: a rare occurrence, but affordable here. The cost was probably net zero, but the experience of seeing the countryside, trying food from vendors who came on board to sell wares, and just relaxing for a while were a good trade for wrangling with officialdom.

Spotting sea eagles from our berth in Marina Santa Marta

Had we planned or anticipated a much longer say, we’d have been more likely to skew towards Cartagena. Unlike Santa Marta, it’s safe to stay anchored out and access dinghy facilities for a nominal fee; overall, our cost to stay would have been much lower for a monthlong visit, while marina costs mounted (we stayed more than twice as long as we anticipated). One big downside to the harbor in Cartagena is the reputed rate of fouling: every boater who stopped there bemoaned the speed at which bottoms were covered with barnacles and growth. Santa Marta isn’t exempt, but it’s not quite as bad.

Security

Colombia’s Caribbean coast no longer deserves the frank warnings touted in our 2015 Panama guide, but security still requires attention. Two years previously a cruising boat anchored in Taganga Bay, near Santa Marta, was victim to armed robbery and assault. It wasn’t the first time in that location: in our mind, that made the security of a marina our only option in Santa Marta. It’s hard to swallow the cost, but a no-brainer compared to risking physical harm. Reports on CSSN and Noonsite helped inform our decision.

While we felt secure aboard Totem and in general, petty theft is a problem. Three other cruisers in the we met there were robbed during their stay in Colombia: not from their boats, but ashore. Two were crimes of opportunity (handbag disappeared from the patron in a restaurant; wallet taken from an open tote in a shopping cart at the supermarket), one a deliberate attack (a pedestrian distracted by the smartphone in hand was targeted by motorbike thugs who forcibly took a bag). We’ve heard anecdotal stories about petty theft; having so many hits in our small circle drove home the need to be cautious.

Massive door knockers in Cartagena represent the homeowner’s livelihood, turning an Old Town stroll into a scavenger hunt for 1700s occupations

Timing

We arrived as the trade winds were up. Sometimes called “Christmas winds,” the Caribbean easterlies increase force in December. There’s probably some regional variation: in Colombia, they’re reputed to linger through March. This is really not a great time to be sailing off the coast! Windspeed isn’t a big deal, but seas are, and the wind contributed to an unpleasant state. Timing is taken out of your hands too: at this writing, winds have been in the 40s and clocked over 50 knots at the dock in Santa Marta recently. Boats have been waiting for a couple of weeks for a break in the weather sufficient to depart.

Better timing would be to avoid this period of peak trades. We’d have done well to arrive in early November, and depart in December before the breeze picked up (in fact, the weather window we arrived with in late December saw a rush of departures from Santa Marta as boats took advantage of moderated conditions to make a break… west to Panama, or north towards the Greater Antilles).

dancing at the waterfront

Cruisers dance to a Venezueland bnd on the patio at marina santa marta

Another consideration around seasonal timing: rainy season downpours wash off the sooty dirt that otherwise accumulates on boats in Santa Marta. Our friend Bev left her catamaran for a couple of the wet months and came back to a clean boat. A few weeks later the rain had stopped and the black dust coated everything. Part of this dirt is probably partly from the darker sand beaches nearby, but I suspect much stems from coal transfer stations at the port. That’s caustic stuff you don’t want sitting around on your boat, but water use to rinse it off is metered at the marina – it would have added up to rinse the everyday accumulation.

Other formalities

An agent is needed for port clearance, as mentioned. In addition, Colombia requires a cruising permit for any stay over 5 days (it seemed like the ARC rally passing through made this part of their calculation for duration of stay). Lucky Canadian visitors are charged a reciprocal visa fee; no other nationalities we know of had to pay this. The process takes some time as the TIP doesn’t begin until you’re in-country for the minimum number of days, and includes a personal visit from a friendly customs officer who wants to take a picture of your engine and its serial number. That was a first! It’s a lot of paperwork, another point to the Marina Santa Marta for taking care of details…they also helpfully provided multiple copies of our zarpe (outbound port clearance) and crew list (in Spanish), knowing these would be required when we checked into Panama.

Marine work

Haulout facilities are available in Santa Marta and in Colombia: what’s missing are well stocked marine chandleries. This didn’t stop a few boats we met from tackling projects in Colombia, and based on how much we enjoyed the country in general and how affordable labor rates are in particular, I think it makes a strong alternative to southern Caribbean haulout options (e.g. Grenada, Curacao, T&T). The raw materials and skillsets are here, they’re just not tuned to the marine market. If shipping parts in, it’s important to use a reputable courier (in Colombia, FedEx and DHL have good reputations: once in-country our DHL parts were quickly delivered. The books sent by the US Postal Service are STILL lost on Bogota somewhere).

I don’t know when we’ll get back, but Colombia left a mark…and still I’ve failed to capture the best memories, soon to follow.

 

Pictures from the Passage: Colombia to Panama

Photos of sea state never do it justice. It is a truth and occasional lament, as it’s difficult to convey the feeling of being at sea. This passage (Trials at Sea and Ashore) held some of the most unpleasant seas we’ve experienced: flat-fronted walls of water, tossing Totem around. These pictures won’t capture those seas, but to the challenging passage from Colombia to Panama.

A more pleasant start on departure from Santa Marta; ahead of us, the 51’ Utopia II is dwarfed when passing the massive yacht M5.

Bit of a size difference

A few hours later, a chain link of Totem’s steering cable broke: steering was still possible with the autopilot, but not with the helm. In many situations, that wouldn’t be such a big deal. In these seas, which necessitated more human-controlled steering to avoid rounding up, it was a bigger problem. What followed was about eight hours of “hand steering” the waves by pressing autopilot buttons to adjust course. Here, Jamie works on repairs that night as we lay at anchor near Baranquilla. More about the break, and the fix, in a later post.

Headlamp-powered repairs to the steering cable

The next day was relatively uneventful, but exhaustion prompted a stop in Cartagena to rest. Aussie catamaran Aseka entering behind us, in a narrow channel shared with commercial vessels like that in the background.

Kinda snug in the channel…

Fishermen heading out to sea in the early morning, passing the 18th century San Fernando fort which guards one side of Cartagena’s Boca Chica entrance.

Fishermen commute

For the first time in months, a pod of dolphins joined us to play in the wake.

What species?

Feathered hitchhikers are always fun, although boobies like the one that joined us overnight can leave appallingly smelly poo on deck. This one struggled to sit on the furler and eventually settled on the anchor roll bar (an excellent poop scoop). We decided it was practicing for a band album cover with extended stares off into the middle distance.

Clearing in at Puerto Obaldia, Panama, was… “interesting” as swells rolling in made us pitch at anchor. Thankfully we were able to depart the tenuous spot to find serene waters in Puerto Perme before nightfall, and host our first Guna visitors (and their dugout) the following morning.

Trials of this passage are detailed in the prior post, but internet prevented pictures at the time – enjoy a late update!