Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | February 16, 2013

The San Blas Cruising Community

N 9° 26.2′   W 78° 34.9′

Narganá, Kuna Yala.

For the last 5 ½ weeks we have traveled the mostly reef-protected circuit between Narganá & Porvenir and back, spending time at many scenic anchorages along the way: Green Island, the Naguarandups, Lemmon Cayes, Chichime, Holandes Cayes, Coco Banderos, and our very favorite spot, Waisaladup. These places are breathtaking, with clear blue-green waters and tiny islands rimmed with sandy beaches.

We figure this is as close as we will get to a South Pacific experience without actually crossing the big ocean. But we are excited to follow our former buddy boat, Mystic Moon, as John and Kathy just kicked off their voyage to the South Pacific with a 5-day passage to the Galapagos Islands. Captain Bob knows that he will need new crew if he gets the urge to make an ocean crossing. For me, I’ll be happy when the last three long passages are ticked off the list on our way back to Florida.

We found a welcoming cruisers group in the San Blas even though we are somewhat spread out geographically. When we arrived in the more frequented anchorages some of the folks who have been here awhile (some have been in the area for years) came by to say “hello” and give us their radio contact information if we had any questions. We were reminded of the daily Cruisers Net and the use of VHF Channel 72 as the cruisers hailing frequency. Right now there are approximately 164+ vessels spread out mostly in the more populated section of the San Blas, about 160 square miles between Nargana and Porvenir according to the informal weekly anchorage count. Some anchorages have multiple boats and other locations are deserted.

The Panama Connection Net provides a way for cruisers stay in touch throughout the relatively large territory, which is a too large to cover via VHF radio. Every morning at 8:30 am on single side-band channel 8107 (alternate 8167) a volunteer net controller hosts a forum to exchange information and facilitate communication between cruisers. The agenda includes emergency communications, a weather report, allows vessels to check in & arrange radio contact with other vessels, and offers a resource to answer questions and provide information. We have a receive-only SSB radio and can’t transmit, but we listen in most days.

Through the net we have gleaned bits of useful information. Such as how to make arrangements for transportation to Panama City from Carti, which can be useful for supply or medical emergencies. Where the latest veggie boat sighting was, where it might be heading, and etiquette upon its arrival in your anchorage (wait and they will visit everyone). I learned that my friend in Playón Chico had taken the money & run at least once. Expertise is traded on topics ranging from how to manage internet and cellular service woes to solutions for mechanical dilemmas. Needed spare boat parts of all sorts and varieties are sometimes miraculously located and loaned or traded. It is like any other community with diverse experience and personalities and seems to fill a great need, particularly for the people who hang out for long periods of time. For the many of us who are just passing through the network is a bonus.

Our experience has been very different from last winter in bustling St. Martin. The great part about wintering in San Blas central is that we can hop around to many spectacular anchorages without having to go outside the reef and endure the steep seas. The biggest challenge is the remoteness of this place and the limited shore side activities and services that are available. I can’t imagine how people live out here for seasons or years at a time. The supply issues are daunting and hearing about cruisers who need access to medical services, boat repairs, mail shipped, or simple things like more cash in this land of no credit cards – well, those situations present major logistical hassles.

Some days I find myself feeling stir crazy and missing the convenient access to varied activities that a marina or port town normally provides. Bob seems to be unaffected by the higher degree of isolation, still working his way through the never-ending supply of e-books. Occasionally there are organized events like swap meets (a boaters flea market of sorts), pot luck meals and informal happy hours. Unfortunately most have not been convenient to whatever area we happened to be in at the time.

The other day one of the boats in our anchorage organized a garbage burn on the tiny island ashore. We had been dropping ours off with Federico in Narganá – an official Kuna-designated garbage handler – for $1/bag. But this was a chance to get off the boat and chat with other people so we jumped in the dinghy and contributed a few burnables to the bonfire. With enough time here I suspect we might become regular garbage-burners too, for social reasons if nothing else.

Tuning in to the cruisers net led us to reconnect with Jim & Jean on S/V Windsong, friends and fellow Spanish students we met in Santa Marta. We had several wonderful evenings catching up on their travels to inland Colombia, news from Santa Marta, and their decision to travel to the San Blas. Comparing notes further, we learned that we had actually met for the first time while in Bonaire. In the cruising community it really is a small world . . .

We are back in Narganá for a couple more supplies, then headed to the Gulf of San Blas, about 20 miles away to observe a “coming of age” ceremony in the village of Gerti later this week. Drat the stinky internet. I will have to post the photos later.

photo update 3/6/13:

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Popular cruisers hang-out in the East Lemmons

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Porvenir was a beautiful island with a small airport  (but no Kuna town) where the officialdom for customs & immigration could be found. The anchorage was disappointing both times we were there with rolly conditions and poor holding. We did the formalities and exited fast.

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Twin cities of Nargana and Corazon de Jesus were “shopping central”, such as it was, and a place where cruisers frequently zipped in and out

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We were happy to have the chance to meet fellow cruisers while we were learning a little about Kuna life. Photo courtesy of Sue on Catalyst.

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Hands down favorite anchorage was Waisaladup. Breathtaking spot, calm anchorage, occasional veggie boats & visiting fishermen, and the perfect dog beach.

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