An unmissable sailing trip in the San Blas Islands
Marie Winston Nicklin
THE WASHINGTON POST – Night falls quickly, like in the tropics. The only sound was the waves lapping against the hull of the Zenith and the halyards making music against the mast in the breeze.
The shadows of manta rays glided beneath the catamaran, flapping their wings in the Caribbean currents. A coconut squirt from the boat, an island fringed with palm trees stood out perfectly on the horizon.
We made our way to the bow, where we threw ourselves onto the deck and looked up. The sky was not only streaked with stars; it was so luminous, it seemed opaque, the constellations clearly etched in glowing pearls of light.
We were in the world again, and it was glorious. For four nights last winter, my college roommate and I cruised through the remote Panamanian archipelago we had dreamed of for nearly 20 years.
The islands are part of an autonomous region ruled by the Guna, an indigenous people who have inhabited the Isthmus of Panama since before the age of Spanish explorers. A matrilineal society, the Guna are the guardians of the pristine natural beauty of the region.
I first heard of the San Blas Islands as a backpacker in my twenties. In the pre-Instagram era, traveler stories spilled into guesthouse hammocks, shared Lonely Planet guidebooks, over drinks in neighborhood cafes, and down the aisles of so-called city buses. chicken crossing Central America.
Off the Caribbean coast of Panama lay an Eden-like archipelago with so many tropical cays that there was one for every day of the year. Like the idyllic island mythologized in Alex Garland’s 1996 cult novel The Beach, which was later made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the San Blas have irresistibly drawn attention, terrifically difficult to access. Their isolation only added to the attraction. Even when I later lived and worked in Central America, I never made it to the San Blas.
During the dark throes of the pandemic, when the four walls of my apartment seemed to be closing in, I looked at maps and dreamed of the globe. It was my college roommate who identified the faraway destination that neither of us had ever been able to reach.
And so we started planning an adventure. Anticipation can feel like that first cup of coffee on a groggy morning. For several months, the anticipation of the trip gave me a breath of hope and optimism every day.
According to oral histories, the Guna originated in the Darien Mountains straddling the border of present-day Colombia and Panama. Inter-tribal conflicts led to gradual migration to the islands, a geographic location that induced fateful encounters with successive waves of invaders: conquistadors, pirates, corsairs, gold diggers and, later, drug traffickers.
Historians debate the exact chronology of the first Guna settlement on the San Blas; a more precise date is the Guna revolution of 1925 against Panama. In the resulting peace treaty, the Guna rulers agreed to be part of Panama as long as tribal laws were upheld and customs protected.
Today, the official name of the autonomous region is Comarca de Guna Yala, although the region is still known worldwide as the San Blas Islands. It stretches over 230 miles along the Caribbean coast.
The Guna inhabit only about 50 islands, living in a traditional, communal way in thatched-roof huts topped with palm-leaf roofs. (The more populated community islands are full of concrete houses and corrugated iron roofs.)
The main means of subsistence is fishing and the coconut trade with Colombia; part of the population also lives on the mainland to cultivate crops such as yams, yucca, bananas and pineapples. The Congreso, the governing body of the Gunas, dictates strict laws to conserve Guna culture and protect the land.
Foreigners are prohibited from owning property or harvesting conch and lobsters. Tourism revenue is generated by permits and fees to visit the island. Scuba diving is not allowed. A single road leads to the port of Carti, the gateway to the islands. Navigable by 4×4 in daylight, the track is known for its potholes, steep slopes and washouts. Intrepid travelers are then ferried to water taxis operated by Guna, which ferry them to the tourist islands, where they can spend the night in a hammock or cabana.
But there is another way to explore this peaceful marine world. Sailboat charters provide access to hard-to-reach outer islands, where the only human interaction may be with Guna fishermen. A few primitive airstrips can accommodate small planes, which connect visitors to their boats.
We arranged our charter through San Blas Sailing, which offers a range of all-inclusive boat categories and focuses on sustainability by training Guna crew members. (The busiest sailing time is December through April, the “dry season”). French co-founder Bernard Chemier first came to the San Blas Islands 22 years ago on a family trip around the world and has never left.
“The San Blas are unique because of the authenticity of the people, the beauty of the sandy beach islands and their coral reefs, and the fact that Panama is hurricane-free,” he told me. said later.
From the air, the jungles of Panama unfold in a lush green tapestry. We didn’t see any towns, power lines or roads criss-crossing the wilderness – just a rolling stretch of old-growth rainforest adjoining the sea.
In fact, the country has set aside around 30% of the land in protected natural areas. And the Comarca of Guna Yala is so pristine that its continental coast evokes a primitive world. This was particularly evident at night, devoid of the light pollution of urban agglomerations. From the Zenith, the wooded bank rose like the last frontier.
Captain Fred Ebers exuded the calm, pleasant demeanor of the most experienced ship’s captains. After a career consulting for the maritime industry around the world, Ebers bought his French-made catamaran in Tortola and sailed through the Caribbean to Panama.
Government sea charts for the San Blas Islands have not been updated for decades and are unreliable, making navigation difficult. Thus, before launching his charter activity aboard Zenith in 2016, he sailed alongside veteran captains to learn the tricks of the trade.
His own cards are annotated with the wisdom he has accumulated over the years. He also learned to adapt to the changing rules of Congress. Marina, the amusing marinera, or hostess, helped out as a crew, who prepared delicious and hearty meals.
Our days on the water were punctuated by visits from the Guna, who recognized the sailboat and moored it in their skiffs – fashioned from canoes, sometimes under sail – to sell fish, bananas and fresh water in barrels from the Río Azúcar on the coast. .
Whether or not he bought their wares, Fred always offered our guests a cold drink and a chat. For a special meal, he WhatsApp messaged a Guna fisherman, who arrived with the biggest Caribbean lobster I’ve ever seen – expertly prepared to be grilled before our eyes.
But perhaps the most wonderful morning was the one we spent with a Guna family who arrived with a shipment of molas, the beautiful hand-crafted embroidery that Guna women are known for.
Originally, the designs were inspired by traditional body painting, translated into colorful textiles in reverse appliqués worn in panels on women’s blouses. Requiring at least a week to craft, molas pay homage to the natural world so revered in the culture: a menagerie of crabs, sea turtles and fish in bold geometric patterns.
The mother spread the rectangles of fabric on the catamaran’s deck table, explaining the prices to her Spanish-speaking husband, who translated from the native language, while her six children quietly drank juice. We took our time admiring the handcrafted beauty – the brilliant hues juxtaposed against the shades of blue that surround us – before making the difficult decision of which to buy.
While cruising the San Blas, I didn’t want to miss the sunrise. The first rays of light turned the clouds pink, then clung to the swaying palm trees before illuminating the sea in shades of blue. As the sun moved higher in the sky, the color of the sea changed from a deep azure to a sort of pinch-me-I-dream turquoise that makes you want to jump in immediately.
And the waters were calm because of the protective coral reef surrounding the islands. From our anchorage in the Cayos Holandéses (Dutch Cays) at the northern end of the archipelago, we could see the powerful waves of the Caribbean crashing into plumes of surf against the reef.
Because the lack of a keel on the catamaran results in a shallower draft, our boat could anchor closer to the islands than the handful of monohull sailboats we encountered at an anchorage. It was an easy swim or paddle to individual cays.
From time to time, while we were walking along a beach, we came across plastic which deteriorated the landscape. Whether discarded by ships, transported by tourists or consumed by the Guna, plastic is increasingly a problem. (There is no infrastructure in place to collect waste, and what cannot be composted or fed to fish is burned.)
A bigger problem is rising seas due to climate change. In The Panama Cruising Guide, the bible for sailors who sail these waters, Eric Bauhaus writes: “Every time I do a survey . . . I need to remove cards from islands that are no more than shoals.
Keen to show us the best snorkeling spot, Fred navigated the Zenith to a place called “the islet of sand”, so named because of its lack of trees. What was once a cay is now a sand spit surrounded by a coral reef. Over time, Fred saw hermit crabs fight over an ever-shrinking territory until it was almost covered by the Caribbean. We snorkeled for over an hour with Marina, who pointed out the sculptural coral as fascinating as the fish.
The starfish glowed orange and the dolphins frolicked in the waves beside us. We were so enthralled by the vibrant underwater world that we didn’t notice how far we drifted in the currents. Fred picked us up in the dinghy and carefully motored out to the vanishing cay, where we dug our toes into the sand that would soon be completely submerged.
“The water is rising more and more every year,” Chemier told me later. “In about 50 years, the Guna people will have moved to the mainland because of the submergence of their islands. It is a destination to see quickly before it disappears.