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cruising life in the san blas

Posted by on April 11, 2013

[Note: I apologize for this extremely long post, but I have made a pledge to get this blog up to date]

February 2 – 20, 2013

Cruising life in the San Blas Islands was a unique and wonderful experience, and now we understand how easy it is for cruisers to just hang out in these islands for months on end. The cruising community within this area is extremely connected and well-organized, as well as very in touch with the local Kuna commerce.

Nugaruachirdup in the western Lemmon Cays is home to a small internet café, a tiny hut under the palm trees of an island not more than 500 feet wide by 1000 feet long. For $3 per hour for use of an Ethernet wire, cruisers can come hang out and stay in touch with their world back home. (Being the cheap skates that we are, we held out for free wifi from the larger village of Nargana, about 18 miles to the southeast.) About once a week, fruits and vegetables are delivered to a small building just near the internet café. There we found plantains, bananas, potatoes, pineapple, watermelon, oranges, lemons and limes.

The western Lemmon Cays are also home to a top Kuna fishing spot. We’d watch the Kuna Indians go out day and night, and return with ulus or pangas full of fish, lobster, crab, and even a sea turtle. Unfortunately, due to overfishing, most of the fish and lobster were quite small. We found this to be the case throughout the San Blas, and many times we’d refuse to buy the seafood because of the small sizes.

Kuna huts on Chichime

these Kuna paddled out, snorkeled for 2 hours, and came back empty handed

Wil riding a wave by a reef at Chichime







During our stay in the eastern Lemmon Cays, near the islands of Nuinudup and Banedup, we got to meet many of the cruisers who have made the San Blas Islands their second home, so to speak. On our first afternoon in the east Lemmons, we attended a trash burn party and potluck on the beach on Nuinudup. We were surprised to find out that several people had already heard of our escape hatch story, and they were keeping a lookout for our arrival. Once the trash was burned, and at the end of the party, we walked up to the opposite end of the island to deliver our empty cans to the Kuna family who owns the island. We assume that the Kunas are able to get money for the cans that they collect.

a belated celebration due to our escape hatch episode



Pete & Rae joined in the birthday celebration









Once a week, Kuna-run veggie boats come from the mainland, delivering fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, and meats directly to cruising boats. We were beginning to find that there was no need to get off the boat. What we couldn’t catch for ourselves, we could buy from the passing ulus and weekly veggie boats. This was a new meaning to “home delivery”! After a few weeks of baking bread and other goodies, flour and chocolate were the main items we were lacking.

Snorkeling in the San Blas was another new experience. The waters surrounding the islands are at least 100 or more feet deep, and the coral reefs are generally sitting in less than 10 feet of water. Therefore, one must snorkel right along the edge of a steep drop off. Knowing that there are bigger fish out there in the darker waters, makes any snorkeling a tad unnerving. However, the San Blas coral is absolutely abundant and beautiful. The beauty of the coral makes up for the lack of fish. We would take the dinghy out through a cut in the reef, and with the dinghy in tow, we would drift snorkel down the length of the reef. Over time we did manage to spear a couple of lion fish and some cero mackerel, but not in the numbers to which we were accustomed.

We weren’t in the eastern Lemmons for very long before, master mola maker, Venancio, found our boat. He arrived in an ulu with several large Rubber-Maid containers full of his many molas. One after the other, the molas were piling up on our boat. They were all absolutely gorgeous, but there were too many to choose from. After limiting them to which animals we liked, we organized the piles by yes, maybe, and no. After a full morning, we finally had our molas of choice.

It was in the eastern Lemmon Cays where we met three other kid boats, s/v Tribe (US), s/v Shiver, and s/v Taking Flight. The remainder of our stay in the San Blas was coordinated with the other kid boats, so the kids could enjoy the company of their peers.

Before going with the rest of the kid boats to Canbombia in the eastern end of the Naguarandup chain, we stopped for one night in what’s referred to as the Hot Tub in the Holandes Cays. The water was crystal clear, allowing us to see the sandy bottom 15 feet below the surface. There were only 3 other boats and no one was anchored too closely. We enjoyed a peaceful night and a day of snorkeling before meeting up with the rest of the kid boats.

beautiful water in the Holandes Cays

Canbombia was great fun. The kids played daily after their studies were complete. They shared kayaks and paddleboards, played on the beach, or swam from the boats. While the kids played, the adults either worked on their boats, or socialized amongst each other. We visited the Kuna family who owned the island, admiring all of their handmade molas. We were also impressed with their bamboo pig pens which sat on stilts at the water’s edge.


Kuna family residence on Cambombia

practicing his turns

fun to be on the SUP

typical island of the San Blas

applying a daily dose of sunscreen

it's too bright outside!









enjoying a paddle in Canbombia

paddling fast






















Eventually, all of the kid boats returned to the Holandes Cays. However, we made a brief afternoon wifi stop in Nargana on our way. Nargana, located at the base of the Rio Diablo, is a village that has given up the traditional Kuna way of life. While I sat on the boat, checking email and doing a quick blog update, Wil and the kids went ashore to find fresh Kuna bread, flour, and any other available provisions. We devoured the delicious bread in no time!

hauling water from Rio Diablo to Nargana

recovering their swamped ulu at the mouth of Rio Diablo

Kuna homes in Nargana








Our stay in the eastern Holandes Cays was our vacation and last hurrah before making our way to the Panama Canal. We anchored in the middle of the cut between Kalugirdup and Banedup (Bug Island) near the Swimming Pool anchorage. We chose to anchor away from the main anchorages, so we could have more wind and fewer bugs. The anchorage behind Bug Island was more protected, but it received its name for a reason!

our anchorage near the Swimming Pool (Holandes)

Kuna Indian sailing his ulu

A week in the Holandes Cays seemed to pass by in the blink of an eye. The kids played everyday, we would do family snorkels over to nearby reefs, and we’d socialize with many of the other cruisers. We had tons of fun. However, we did suffer two relatively minor injuries while we were there.

At one trash burn party on Bug Island, Colin was playing on the beach with the other kids when he stepped on a sea urchin. We counted about 30 spines in his heel. I removed what I could while we were still on the beach, but we needed to return to the boat for further medical attention. As I attempted to pull more spines, Colin kept crying that his foot was burning. In order to denature the venom and reduce the pain, we applied extremely hot compresses to the area. This actually did the trick, but we also applied a first aid spray to numb it further for the removal of spines. After removing all but 9 spines, we soaked his foot in vinegar in order to help dissolve any spines that were too deep to reach with a needle or tweezers. Unfortunately, this didn’t seem to help, so we were reduced to leaving the spines alone and hoping for infection to push them out. Surprisingly, his foot never became infected, and I think he still has the spines in his heel to this day!

The second injury was a broken toe for me. After a cruiser gathering on the beach, we returned to the boat. As I quickly stepped up onto the aft lazarette to pull the dinghy up into the davits, I accidentally slammed my toes into the lazarette. I heard the crack and my second to smallest toe immediately turned purple. It was too painful to even tape to the neighboring toe, so I had to rig a splint out of an emery board. (Skipping ahead a tad . . . now almost 2 months later, while my toe is almost healed, it’s still sore at times, and I still have to be careful. Of course, it didn’t help that Wil probably re-broke the toe when he accidentally stepped and turned on my toe with his heel. That about put me through the roof!)

Eventually, it was time to bid farewell to the kid boats and make our way back towards El Porvenir. We stopped in the eastern Lemmon Cays for one last time, and s/v Tribe (US) popped in for one last visit, as well. Soon, along with s/v Saliander, we returned to El Porvenir to clear out of the Kuna Yala nation, and began our journey towards the Panama Canal.

plastic table clothes to protect Kunas from spray

This backpacker boat wrecked on the reef ~10pm. By 11am, Kuna Indians had the boat stripped.

A general note about our impressions of the San Blas:

For years we had been looking forward to visiting the San Blas and the Kuna Indians. While there were many wonderful things, and we greatly appreciate the Kuna culture, at the same time it was not at all what we expected to find.

The cruising community and backpacker boats have greatly influenced the Kuna culture, both positively and negatively. While the cruisers bring money and goods to the Kuna, the Kuna have altered their lifestyle to serve the cruisers. They overfish the area, regardless of the legal size of fish, and try to sell what they catch. The Kuna no longer subsistence fish for themselves, so the marine environment of the San Blas is hurting to have a bigger fish and lobster population.

Supposedly, there used to be a day when the Kuna would trade, but for the most part, many now prefer money and expect things for free. For example, one Kuna and his son came to the boat to sell lobster. Their asking price was too high for the size of lobster. I asked if he would trade, but he only wanted money. Before he left, he asked if he could have a Coke. I said I would trade Coke for the lobster, but he said no.

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