Guna Yala (San Blas) practicalities for cruisers

tropical paradise sailboat

Guna Yala, Kuna Yala, San Blas: an evolution of names for the archipelago that stretches from Panama’s border at Colombia very nearly to the canal zone. Officially “Guna” (the better linguistic match than Kuna) since 2011, the region’s active effort to preserve indigenous culture and traditions creates a draw for many visitors. Here’s what I think is important to know for cruisers in our wake to plan their visit.

Orientation

There is a meaningful divide between “Western” and “Eastern” regions that is worth considering in planning. The personality split begins where boats coming from the canal zone would bend SE if continuing towards Colombia.

chart of San Blas

Western San Blas is most accessible to canal/Colon. It is peppered with cays and atolls that drift further from the mainland: picture-postcard tropical islands surrounded by swimmable clear water. Guna communities are clustered on islands nearer to the mangrove-lined mainland shore.

Western communities were a mix of those which followed traditional practices and those which had abandoned it. Basic provisioning (fruit, vegetables, meat, staples) is available, including some dugouts that venture to sell to cruising boats, nearly all cruising boats of which seem to remain in this area.

By contrast, the eastern San Blas is more sparsely populated by Guna and cruisers (we saw only one other cruising boat). Boats carrying cargo arrive from Colombia; as a dejected couple of travelers told us in the eastern port of Obaldia, there’s no road out. You can fly, or you can join a backpacker boat, either at some expense.

Here the water was murkier; this may have been seasonal, but we were there in the dry season when you’d least expect the effect of river runoff. Peak trade winds chopped the water, and together these factors made eyeball navigation difficult. Between water quality and presumed crocodile hazard, swimming was off the menu.

Rules to respect

Visitors are welcomed, but this is Guna land – Guna rules – and between our guest status and indigenous people’s willful choice to separate from modern norms, important to respect. Here’s a snapshot reference for to what the Guna feel are important for visitors to know and avoid: there’s more in the Bauhaus guide.

Guna Yala regulations, as sourced from the Kuna Yala Cruisers Facebook group

I had to restrain my usual snap-happy self, as many Guna are reluctant to be photographed. Always ask first: “¿puedo tomar foto?” to know if it’s OK. In some (so picturesque!) communities, there’s no photography allowed at all. I wish I could paint the pictures in my head. And Guna women, in mola blouses, red and yellow head scarf, gold septum rings and necklaces, and bands of beading on their legs and arms… they are stunning and tempting subjects. But – no, unless permission is clearly given.

Ask permission

Besides asking permission for photos: you’re effectively asking permission to anchor, and expected to pay for the privilege. Be a good guest. If you are anchored off an island with a community and aren’t approached by anyone, go ashore and ask for the saila (village leader) to pay up. It’s the right thing to do! The morning after we arrived, a poor Guna became quite irate with us because he thought we were trying to skip out on paying (we were getting ready to depart). When we finally found the receipt we’d been given the night before to show him, he was mollified and paddled off, but the reaction made me think – he’d been taken advantage of before.

Anchoring fees are pretty consistent in eastern Guna Yala. We paid $10 at almost every stop. In the west it was a little different; sometimes we were asked for an anchoring fee (even at uninhabited islands, if they were part of the purview of a nearby community), sometimes it was a cost-per-person ($2) for going on the beach. In either case it was good for a month. If you’re zipping through, they can add up!

Guna Yala anchoring receipts

Guna Yala anchoring receipts, on top of Bauhaus’ book

Arrive with cash

US dollars are the currency used in Guna Yala. There are no ATMs, there are no credit cards accepted (there are no roads, or power grid, so…). One family arrived recently and had to borrow money from other boats in order to complete clearance formalities! Kind of shocking planning… granted, it’s unusual.

Bring small bills. If you’ve negotiated a couple of lobster for $10 but only have a $20, there’s probably no change; you’ll be buying more lobster or having none. Small tiendas on Guna islands might make change, but not the dugout on your hip.

Is there trading? No. Well, not really. I wondered, before we got there. But this is not so much a “remote” place as one which has chosen to set itself apart… there is access to Stuff, if people want, and that requires cash. So the bartering that was central to some other corners of the world where we have cruised where Stuff is enough, here it was all about cold hard cash. That said, when I came up short on a mola I wanted to buy, the woman selling it was willing to take a handful of instant coffee packets in lieu of about $10 difference I was trying to make up!

Sailing dugout in Guna Yala

Sailing dugouts are the primary mode of transport, east and western Guna Yala

Provision up

General guidance for Guna Yala is to bring whatever you need, and don’t count on buying anything. That’s a little extreme, as there were small shops on occasional communities. It is limited, so good to plan ahead as have a modicum of flexibility. We actually ran out of toilet paper: PROVISIONING FAIL! Times when it’s good to have friends nearby that will sling you a package of TP!

Veggie stand at a shop on Nargana with a posse of cruisers: pretty typical! SV Aseka and Utopia

In the eastern San Blas. where we were offered coconuts, plantains, locally grown fruit or small fish from passing dugouts. On more populated islands there are probably stores; we were only in little islands, and the one store I saw had little more than rice, dried beans, boxed cereal (?), and canned meat.

In the west, boats visit outer reef anchorages specifically to sell produce and meat to cruisers

Honestly, even with the TP fiasco, we’d have been fine. It was available at small shops in Guna communities, along with a surprising variety of other goods. We’re used to adapting our diet to fit what’s available locally, and it wouldn’t have been much adapting to make it work with what we were able to source in San Blas.

Watch for crocs!

Crocodiles are a very real problem in San Blas – this coastline is theirs, not ours, and they do foray out. Risk exists not just in the murky waters near shore but the gin-clear reefs offshore. Yes, both. Even on the islands away from mangroves and murk, dogs have been taken off beaches and a snorkeling cruiser was attacked (and survived, but not without a helicopter ride to the hospital in Panama City) in 2017. What can you do? Find out through the cruiser’s coconut telegraph (radio nets, Facebook groups, deck-to-dinghy chats) if and where they’ve been spotted, and consider whether you want to get in the water or not. I wouldn’t forgo swimming, I’d just swim with some information.

I didn’t realize

We’d be so disconnected! Cruisers reported “there’s internet here,” and I just believed it. Well, there is, in some parts of western Guna Yala. We found none in the much larger eastern region. The Iridium GO kept us connected, but at a text-only basis. (You can post pictures to a Facebook profile from the GO, but not to a Facebook page…to my chagrin).

Plastic garbage. There is an appalling amount of garbage, some floating in the water, much of it just drifted up on the beach. It’s far, far too much to do anything about. At least those were the only crocs we saw while in Guna Yala.

Crocs of San Blas

Liveaboard community. Gringos have been living aboard (is it really cruising when the western bay where all these boats hang out is only 35 miles wide?) in San Blas for years. There’s a nice collection of some really helpful folks. There’s the inevitable dose of jaded old-timers who seem to have forgotten they are guests and have a skewed view of their “rights.” Whatever. On balance they the driving reason behind this curious distinction between the western and eastern portions of San Blas.

 

Instant coffee is a hit. Who knew! I’ve been working through a hoard of individual serving packets which are very convenient on night watch. When someone stops by, unless they’re a flyby offer to sell fish, visitors are invited into the cockpit to sit in the shade and have a drink. We don’t have sodas on board so it was water or coffee and… well I served a lot of coffee! It would be a great gift item to make nice with the local sahila or a Guna family that you meet.

Next time

If (when? I hope when!) we revisit, I’d plan differently. Mainly, we’d extend our stay, and skew heavily towards eastern Guna Yala. We found the frontier nature of it far more interesting. There was minimal tourism; people had more time; they weren’t only interested in us as potential transactions. Exactly the kind of place we love to sink into and understand better.

Second, I’d extend the stays in individual anchorages, instead of moving on after a night our two (an unfortunate pace driven by necessity at the time). This is a fascinating region, and when you skip through as quickly as we did – you don’t have the opportunity to really connect and understand much of what makes it special. It takes time we couldn’t give to gain that permission and trust.

fishermen on beach with net

Fishermen cooperate for the morning catch

Helpful resources

The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus is an invaluable reference; there’s really not a substitute. The chapter on San Blas opens with an illuminating discussion of Guna history and culture, along with guidance for how to be sensitive to it as a visitor. For details about the islands, it’s the best, and the author has surveyed the region extensively: his charts are the best reference for a coastline which was mostly “unsurveyed” or insufficient for use in our (new!) Navionics charts. They aren’t infallible, but what chart is? We don’t always pick up cruising guides, but I cannot imagine cruising Guna Yala without this one (thank you MM!).

Bauhaus’ chartlets, digitized. Some helpful person turned chartlets in the Bauhaus guide into KAP files you can overlay on your charts (we used OpenCPN for this). Particularly in the eastern territory, murky water hampers visual piloting. Know that Google Earth / satellite imagery isn’t high enough resolution to be useful in many areas, particularly the east. Readily passed between boats on memory sticks, they are invaluable. They are also the intellectual property of Eric Bauhaus! If you acquire and use them, figure out how to pay him. I emailed him, but he never replied… just buy the book, which you can pick up in Linton or Shelter Bay Marina if you didn’t plan ahead.

San Blas Cruisers on Facebook This helpful group is administered by long-term San Blas cruiser/liveaboards who strive to keep information flowing and on point.

Radio. San Blas cruisers have a morning mobile maritime net. It’s a long time since we’ve been regulars on the SSB, but this was very useful for sharing information in an area too spread out for VHF. The 8 meg frequency is posted in the Facebook group. On VHF, 72 is standard hailing for cruisers here.

Totem and crew are in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico… playing catch up on notes & info to share with the community and cruisers in our wake. In case you missed the memo, just because we completed a circumnavigation doesn’t mean we’re done cruising! More adventures ahead.

Anatomy of a Panama Canal transit

Roy- Totem's ACP advisor- and Jamie

What’s it like to transit the Panama Canal? How much it costs to go through is the first thing most people want to know, if only out of curiosity; those details are here. What’s the process of a transit through the isthmus like? For those in our wake: a summary of Totem’s our experience, the resources that were helpful to us, and what we learned about how to transit safely.

“Cristobal Signal Station, this is sailing vessel Totem.” After weeks of anticipation and planning, the VHF call to inform the port entry coordinator of Totem’s location marks the start of our canal transit.

Pre-transit planning

This process began with research a few months before. Approach varies depending on whether you do it yourself or hire an agent. Despite a bias to DIY, we chose the latter to have an advocate for getting through in a timely fashion and avoid tramping around Colon (unsafe in the best of times, worse with the rioting this month).

The agent will handle:

  • the canal officialdom runaround
  • organize lines (4 x 125’) and fenders and line handlers if needed (for a fee)
  • cover your $900 “buffer” fee with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP)
  • advocate for your desired transit date
  • assist with outbound clearance

Colon has a dismal reputation for personal safety and erupted in riots in March, so it was peace of mind that our agent did the leg work there. He also found us early transit dates when arriving boats were being assigned two to three weeks wait period.

line handler prep for panama canal

Jamie coaches our line handlers before transit. Yes, the Flats is quite a charming anchorage…

Want to DIY? No problem, by all accounts. Good cruiser descriptions for their DIY transit to be found at Gone with the Wynns, White Spot Pirates, and ImpetuousToo.

Waiting to transit

A transit date is only assigned after your official measurement is complete and all canal fees are paid. This interval can take a few days in low season or a few weeks at peak. Waiting in Colon means either paying steep rates at Shelter Bay Marina (owning the monopoly!) or anchoring out where you 1) must not leave the boat unattended for security reasons, and 2) have no place to leave the dinghy, so it’s drop-offs / pickups only.

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

Motoring up to the first locks on departure day

If your assigned transit date is too long to wait around Colon, there are two options. First, pay to fast track. We were quoted about $3,000 in addition to other canal fees to request an expedited transit from the ACP. Well that was nice to know! Alternatively, do a day sail east to historic Portobelo or go overnight to Guna Yala (San Blas). Getting to either can involve bashing during peak tradewinds; watch conditions.

Go time!

Six humans is the minimum crew during transit: the captain, four line handlers, and an ACP advisor. Mairen and Siobhan were rejected as line handlers (on the unfair basis of their gender, as far as I could tell, but it’s not our call). They’d have done fine, but it was a bonus to have two friends aboard helping fill the role.

Cruising boats do what’s called a handline transit: this means the lines between ship and shore are moved by human handlers. Commercial ships (or fancypants boats measuring 125’ and more) get pulled through the locks by cables attached to locomotives.

Locomotives pull ships in the panama canal

Shoreside locomotive with cables to our Ro-Ro lock buddy, Sunshine Ace

Handline transit vessels have four possible configurations to pass through the locks. When your boat is measured, you can specify top two preferences with the admeasurer. Descriptions to prepare for locking through in different configurations is thoroughly detailed in the Mad About Panama ebook.

Transit begins by meeting your advisor at The Flats, an anchorage 2.5 miles from the first Caribbean-side lock. Totem was assigned a one-day transit, so we anchored overnight as the advisor was due to arrive before sunrise. Andrew and Tristan From Utopia II joined us as linehandlers (and entertainment!). When two other boats anchored nearby, we suspected that our raft partners had arrived. Just before dawn, an ACP vessel maneuvered in to deliver an advisor to each anchored boat.

ACP boat delivers advisor at dawn

And advisor is delivered to Totem at dawn

The canal is roughly 37 miles long, most of which is the waterway of Lake Gatun and canal cuts between the trios of locks at each end. Entering from the Caribbean side, three sequential chambers of the Gatun locks lift vessels up around 90 feet. On the Pacific side, there’s a brief motor across Lake Miraflores between the inland lock (Pedro Miguel) and the last two chambers (in front of the Miraflores visitor center) where boats are lowered back down.

Canal path screenshot on OpenCPN

With our advisor, Roy, on board things began to happen quickly. We were directed to create a raft with Totem in the middle. Roy dryly commented, “perfect, now we have big fenders to protect us.” We like Roy! The boats remained rafted through the first three locks, then separated to cross Lake Gatun, rafting up again to descend the last three locks.

Entering the locks

As the center boat, Totem was responsible for primary propulsion of the raft and Roy was the lead advisor to direct all three boats. It also meant an easier trip for Totem’s line handlers. Once the raft was formed by securing bow, stern, and spring lines, our line-handlers became passengers.

Most cruising boats share the chamber with a commercial vessel. When locking up (towards the higher water in Lake Gatun), commercial boats enter first.  Our “buddy boat” for the first series of locks was the 650’ ro-ro (roll-on, roll-off car carrier), Sunlight Ace.

As the raft drives slowly into the open lock, four ACP handlers – two on each side of the lock walls – throw a small, weighted monkey’s fist with messenger line attached down to the two boats on the outside of the raft. Line handlers on these boats tie the messenger lines to loops on to corresponding bow and stern lines. This does require that the line-handler know how to tie a knot! Our expectation was this was fast and furious, but it happens slowly. This is not the tricky part.

Panama canal line handlers on boat and on shore

It’s an intimidating toss for the weighted line from a shoreside handler

When messenger line and your line are joined, the shoreside line-handlers pull your lines up the lock walls and secure the loop on large bollards (big ship cleats). When boats are secure, the riveted steel plates on the massive lock doors begin to close.

Sending lines back up to shore

Sending lines back up to shore

What happens in the locks?

When the lock doors close and water level begins to change, the line handlers must tension (or loosen) the lines per advisor instructions. It sounds easy, right? But a line handler thinking about capturing the scene on the GoPro they have stuffed in a pocket may not respond when necessary. A cleat that is cluttered by junk on deck will make the line handler’s job unnecessarily difficult. A language barrier between handler and/or skipper and/or and advisor can cause problems from missed or delayed communications. A side-boat advisor distracted by cell phone because primary advisor is in charge is dangerous too.

Panama Canal advisor directing boats

Roy advises all three boats from the center of the raft

Once the change starts, it is critical to keep pace tightening or easing the lines to shore as directed. Something like 55 million gallons flow through in 10 minutes and the water movement is intense. Salt and fresh water don’t like to mix, so when they flood together, lighter fresh water rushes over the salt water create currents on horizontal and vertical planes. If spider-leg lines holding your three-boat raft in place are not properly handled the raft can begin to spin, which is when bad things happen to boat.

intense turbulence within a Panama Canal lock chamber

Handlers manage lines during intense turbulence in the chamber

Dry descriptions don’t convey how heated action can be inside the chamber. Turbulent water can damage boats and humans. When locking “up” to Lake Gatun, lines had to be tightened as the raft floated up to meet the top of each lock, shrinking the distance from boat to bollard. Locking “down” meant loosening lines. If not closely watched, the lines really load up. One of the boats next to us was sloppy with easing the lines when the raft started to shift. The crew realized and scrambled to secure the line that was pulling from them, and twice, nearly caught hand/fingers in the process. So much better to just pay attention!

Exiting the locks

When a massive ship just in front of you spins up the props to move out of the lock, there is a lot of wash. Totem’s engine in forward with moderate RPMs to hold station against four knots of current. All hands must pay close attention to advisor direction to keep the boats centered and pointing straight.

Massive steel lock gates in the canal

Massive steel lock gates in the canal. Does this make it look gentle? It’s not!

Once turbulence subsides, the raft slowly motors forward. If another lock is immediately adjacent (this happens three times), the shoreside handlers walked the raft like they were a trio of dogs on a leash. If there’s not another lock immediately ahead, shoreside handlers will remove lines from bollards and toss them into the water for the boats to pull in.

When dismantling the raft for Lake Gatun and at the exit, the connected boats first motor ahead a safe distance to be clear before separating under the advisor’s direction.

Lake Gatun

By the time we reached Lake Gatun, it felt like the day should be half over – but it was barely 10 o’clock in the morning! Time to hydrate and pass the snacks.

If assigned a two-day transit, you spend the night tied to a large buoy just outside the channel. Lake Gatun is an artificial lake full of tree-stumps and other anchor-eating debris, so it’s mooring only! We initially hoped for this overnight stay, to watch for crocs and listen for howler monkeys. In hindsight the one-day transit was nice to get it done, though long at 11 hours. Thanks to our friend Tammy for this photo of their Gatun mooring!

From here it’s a motorboat ride through history on the big-ship highway to Pedro Miguel locks on the far side. Mad About Panama’s ebook details it all, from how to spot Noriega’s jail to the crane called Titan that was built by Hitler’s Germany and claimed by the US as a war prize…it’s still used to service lock doors.

Sailboat passing OOCL cargo ship in the Panama Canal

Andrew keeping an eye on traffic

Differences in the last locks

Locking down the three chambers reverses a few aspects of locking up – besides the obvious descent. Cruising boats enter first, with the commercial vessel behind. Boats float at the same level as shoreside handlers, so Monkey’s fists are tossed across instead of dropped down, a less intimidating prospect for the weighted line.

throwing monkey fist at canal

Lousy picture – you get the idea!

Current effects were different: again, it was essential to pay close attention to the advisors direction and expect that his instructions may not feel intuitive. Our return to the Pacific (a journey which the canal makes mostly by going south, and a little east!) was a relief, celebrated with the

Takeaways for a safe transit

Notes on our transit, reflections over the last two weeks, have gelled some perspective on our transit: what worked, what could have been done better.

Foremost, all advisors are not created alike. Roy was excellent, and helped us have a problem-free trip. Advisors adjacent to Totem were more attentive to their smartphones than the line handlers. This caused a few exciting moments – all ended well, anyway.

The advisor isn’t the captain—you’re responsible for boat and crew!—but our number one takeaway to transit safely is that it’s essential to work tightly with the advisor. They understand the lock conditions: some instructions may seem odd, like directions to turn the boat to point towards a lock wall, but it’s for a reason. There could be a four knot current deflected by the wall, and their direction is to prevent bad things from happening.

Panama Canal Advisor Roy on board Totem

Our advisor, Roy, was all that and a bag of chips. We scored with this great guy on board!

The advisor is assigned; you don’t have control over that. Here’s what you can control and do to prepare.

  1. Clear decks. The area around bow and stern cleats must be as clear as possible. We moved stern rail mounted outboard to rest on deck near Totem’s mast to free up space near the stern cleats.
  2. You’re either a line handler or you’re not. If you want to take photos or text or adjust your GoPro or message Facebook friends or, or, or, when in the locks, then you are not a line handler.
  3. Fair leads! You know your boat: if the bow line has to pass through the bow pulpit for a clear path to the cleat, then have it run that way at the start. Re-leading in the moment takes time you may not have if currents start spinning the raft.
  4. Stern lines: Jamie felt these took the most load: a strategy to consider is running them to a cockpit winch with the stern cleat as a guide. This gives far better control when easing a loaded line and more muscle to tension when required.
  5. Repeat the instruction given by the advisor. This makes the advisor’s job easier by confirming you heard and are responding to the action called for. It may serve to clarify the advisor’s intentions when issuing rapid instructions.
  6. Mitigating an un-engaged advisor. If the lead advisor is distracted or communication is poor (and even if they’re not), proactively talk through maneuvers before they need to happen. We felt the boats rafted to us struggled a couple of times due to less attentive advisors.
  7. PAY ATTENTION! The lead advisor (who is not necessarily on your boat) may call for rapid engine and or steering changes. One of the boats rafted to us was… less attentive. It created a couple of fire drills and added to our burden to prevent the raft from spinning.
Three boat raft for the Panama Canal

Totem and her fenders I mean lock mates: a nearly matched set of Ovnis.

Resources for planning

  • Start at Noonsite: succinct, solid orientation for the process.
  • Ready for details? They’re all in Mad About Panama’s website and very useful $1.99 ebook. If you read just one guide to prepare, this should be it.
  • Also helpful is The Panama Cruising Guide (Bauhaus) but it’s very expensive if you only want canal info. Invaluable for Guna Yala, however, a good all-around cruising guide for Panama.
  • To appreciate the magnitude of this awesome feat of human labor, read David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas
  • In addition to reading, first-timers can prepare by volunteering to line handle for another cruiser in advance of their own transit: a great way to pay it forward and internalize the process before going in your own boat. Listen on the morning VHF nets (details on Noonsite)

Totem is now northbound from Panama, lingering off Costa Rica for a better window to get across the Papagayos. We’ll cross our circumnavigation track in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, in the next few weeks. If you’ll be in the neighborhood, let us know!