FROM THE LOG
March 26 to April 10, 2005
Cartagena was a delightful place and we met many interesting people among the cruisers in the anchorage. Faithful to our habits we, however, called it quits after 10 days and cleared out for Panama. A half day out of Cartagena we stopped at the Islas del Rosario, where we anchored over night and most of the next day. Just before dusk we again hoisted the sails and set course for the San Blas archipelago in Panama, some 180 nautical miles to the west.
All who have experienced the San Blas archipelago must have been captivated by the abundance of coconut palms, white-sand beaches, coral reefs and colorful jungle, spreading thick to the shores. The islands (one for each day of the year) range in size from tiny, uninhabited sand cays to islands with so many people that there's only enough room for palm huts and the walkways between them.
Nowhere else in the Americas have the indigenous people held more continuous control of their land than the Kunas. They inhabited the north coast of Panama ever since history began here, and have never been conquered, not even by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, who crossed the isthmus from San Blas in 1513 to discover the Pacific, taking possession for his superiors of "all the lands and islands bordering upon the Great South Sea, until the Day of Judgment". The Kunas are today unique in having maintained tribal customs by openly opposing the inroads of civilization. They run their area, consisting of 365 islands and a strip of the mainland as a comarca, an autonomous region, with minimal interference from the national Panamanian government, using their own system of governance and decision making. The Kunas have zealously guarded their way of life and still maintain their own economic system, language, customs and culture, with distinctive dress, legends, music and dance. Given that they have been in contact with Europeans ever since Columbus sailed along here in 1502, this is quite an achievement.
Our first anchorage in San Blas, called Kuna Yala by the Kuna Indians, in the group of islands called the East Hollandes Cays. There is no permanent Kuna settlement in these cays, but the Indians come there to harvest the coconuts regularly. This anchorage is probably the best we have ever encountered. It is sheltered from all directions and we laid the anchor on soft, good holding, sand in 2,5 meters of gin clear water. No wonder there was at least a dozen other cruising sailing vessels present. Some of them are semi permanent, returning regularly to the area for several years now. Once a week the cruisers organized a pot luck part on one of the islands and we again made a lot of new friends, most of whom, like we, were heading for a Panama Canal transit.
The Kuna Indians are believed to be the last of the full-blooded Carib strain that inhabited the Caribbean before the Spanish conquest. The women are spectacularly attired in gold jewellery, red-yellow headdresses, sarong type skirts, colourful mola blouses and their legs wrapped from ankle to knee in long strands of colourful beads. The front panels of the mola blouses have become a popular souvenir for visitors, and they are sold by Kuna women all over the territory of Kuna Yala. Their faces are distinguished by a black line painted from the forehead to the tip of the nose and by a gold ring worn through the nose. Many necklaces, rings and bracelets complete the daily outfit. Kuna men usually wear shorts, T-shirt and a baseball cap!
The Kuna Yala people have become accustomed to sailing folks visiting their islands and are quite friendly toward strangers, but one should follow certain rules of their society. You will often be approached by women in dugout canoes, called cayucos, who clamber aboard uninvited, trying to sell their molas. However, if you are patient and friendly, but firm, they will take NO for an answer and leave with a wave of goodbye and a smile on their face.
We had the good fortune to be invited to the home of one of the Kunas and a walk around his island, called Wichuhuala. Real estate investors would get a real chock in this part of the world. The water front, which we usually consider the most valuable of a building lot, is in fact the back yard of these houses. There they keep their pig stias, their toilets (real water closets!) and there they throw their garbage (it will be washed away). The fronts of the houses face inwards where all the activity of the community is taking place.
Part of the joy of cruising the western half of the Spanish Main is the ubiquitous atmosphere of days gone by. Everywhere is the evidence of the Spanish Conquest and of the wars seeking to overthrow the Spaniards and of stories of bold pirates. One such place in particular is Portobelo. For nearly two centuries it was the principal Spanish Caribbean port in Central America. The gold and the other treasures from South America was shipped north along the Pacific coast and then carried overland by mule train from Panama City. Every other year a Spanish armada of galleons (The Plate Fleet) with their holds stacked with precious cargo set sail for Spain.
British and other pirates made repeated attacks along the Spanish treasure route, including Cartagena and Portobelo, which was destroyed in 1739. The Spanish then stopped using the overland Panama route, instead sailing the long way around Cape Horn.
In time Portobelo became a virtual ruin. Much of the fortresses were dismantled during the construction of the Panama Canal and used in building the Gatun Locks. There are still a lot of the fortifications left and today Portobelo is protected as a national park. Today's Portobello is a sleepy little, rundown town, which has the dubious reputation of being the rainiest place in North and Central America.
Increased ship traffic announced that we were approaching the Panama Canal. We anchored in an area called "The Flats" of the port of Cristobal in the city of Colon, which is were yachts wait for their turn to transit the canal. The canal transfers ships from one ocean to an other through a system of locks. A vessel entering at the Atlantic (Caribbean) side has to be lifted 30 meters in three steps to the level of the Gatun Lake. After the 30 mile crossing of the lake, the vessel is dropped down 10 meters to the Miraflores Lake and after another mile across that lake there is a further 20 meters drop to the level of the Pacific Ocean.
Colon is Panama's second largest city and the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. From the Lonely Planet Guide: "Colon is a dangerous slum, and if you don't have a pressing reason to come here, do yourself a favour and bypass it. Crime is a serious problem. It is not only possible but likely that you will get mugged, even in broad daylight, and even if you take precaution. If you have to go somewhere in Colón, take a taxi; don't walk."
Well, we of course had a pressing reason for being here: To properly clear in to Panama (the clearance in San Blas proved to be of no value!) and to arrange our transit of the canal, which include a lot of paperwork in numerous offices all around the city. However, The Panama Canal Yacht Club (PCYC) is a safe haven for yachties. It has a dinghy dock that can be used by yachts anchored in the Flats, a restaurant, bar, showers and it is an invaluable meeting place for yachties to exchange and obtain information. There are also several knowledgeable, helpful and reliable taxi drivers around the PCYC, to take you to the various places you need to visit in the city.
The story continues with a report of our transit of the Panama Canal.