San Blas - Kuna Yala And My Pirate Dreams.

Trip Start Nov 24, 2007
Trip End May 15, 2008

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Flag of Panama  ,
Saturday, April 5, 2008

ˇAye, Shiver me timbers! Make no mistake about it, in my previous life I was a pirate. For the last five days I have been living my dream sailing the beautiful open waters of the Caribbean Sea and soaking up the sun like a marooned pirated on the beaches of the Kuna Yala Cays.

For six STRAIGHT years for Halloween when I was a kid I dressed up as Captain One-Eyed Jack, Admiral of the Black, and Buccaneer I was. I had the perfect lego-man pirate too. No matter how badly I wanted to be a pirate as a kid though, nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the Caribbean... and charm it truly holds out on the open seas. Argh! Where do I begin.... First a slug of rum.

Leaving Cartagena was bitter sweet. Colombia not only is one of the most scenic, diverse and geographically impressive countries that I have ever visited but compared to all other South American countries I have spent time in, I have met no people as open, friendly, animated, generous, colorful, tenderhearted and in the end...just plain happy as those in Colombia. I could go on about this forever but then I wouldn't get to write about how extraordinarily picturesque the San Blas Islands were as we sailed up to them on our third day in the open sea.

First off, our sailboat trip up to this point. Getting a boat from Cartagena to Panama City isn't extremely difficult but it can definitely be a process selecting a trustworthy captain...and a trustworthy boat to boot. The last thing you want to do is hop aboard a suspect sailboat end up in Davy Jones's Locker right? Several private boats sail the route between Panama and Colombia offering space for travelers such as us for a price. While it definitely sounds like a wonderful little adventure it doesn't mean that all captains are of equal capabilities. Frankly put, the best ones with the safest boats probably don't care to take backpackers to and for to earn a buck. In these waters there have been multiple shipwrecks and if the conditions are bad, the water gets extremely rough. With its proximity to land, weather definitely is up to frequent change. Number two, some captains have spent far too much time in the open sea and in polite terms, are a little fucking wacko; making you all the more cautious about which captain's hands you put your life in. Lastly, to top it all off, I'll ask you a question. What leaves Colombia by boat in mass exodus northbound towards the United States? Hmmm...If you guessed that white powdery stuff known as Cocaine, kudos to you. You're not the only one sailing northbound, are you? Stories, validated ones at that, have been told about drug boats getting caught in magnificent storms, wrecking and eventually sinking to the bottom of the sea without anyone ever knowing or desiring to report them. If caught, they will even go great lengths to destroy any evidence that could send them all to prison for years. So what is the evidence? Stacks of money floating out at sea and some even finding there way to the shores of the San Blas. Imagine an indigenous women walking up on a stack of greenbacks and wondering what she'll use them for. Basically, one must surely be cautious about getting caught up in a drug trafficking scenario otherwise it would be one very long time away from home to think about it.

The first captain we met was "Chilombian." Yep, I'll say it one more time so you can start thinking about what this guy just might be like. He said it with a weird smile, "Soy Chilombian." One eye looking at you, the other veering off like he had just seen an imaginary friend walk jump aboard his boat.  Lucho was born in Chile, but thought he was Colombian because he had spent so much of his time there or so he said...or thought. To put it simply, he had done way to many drugs in his young life and his brain was big-time scrambled. Doing cocaine to him was probably just his casual morning pick-me-up after last nights binge. Or in between the heavies he did for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Not only did the Chilombian's eyes cry 'I'm a fucking unpredictable crazy man,' but he basically said it a time or two as well. He was growing marijuana on his boat, handled our passport stamps and his business skills to convince us to going with him on his boat were a display of self-taken photos of him while on drugs and pictures of so called 'travelers' dancing around naked on his boat! He said he had pictures of the San Blas islands but after 30+ pictures of him, other weird looking naked people and no such island pictures I think he must have only been there in his dreams. Oh...Lucho....I'm sure Chilombia exists somewhere in his own little world.

In the end we found an older long haired Colombian captain named Hernando and his first mate, his young Colombian girlfriend. Maybe a 30 year difference but both were charming people and over the course of the trip we had a fabulous time with the two other couples on board. Although we had a late start because the guy stamping our passports felt like he didn't want to for a while, (I was suspect on how the process worked) we set sail at dusk and for the next two days were in the open seas of El Caribe. Each of us took turns sailing the boat, be it midnight, 2am, 4am, whatever. During the night we took the helm for two hour shifts. During the day as long as we cared. Half dazed on dramamine and feeling slightly sea sick, I didn't quite enjoy having to get up in the middle of the night but once at the wheel steering the boat 270 or whatever degrees by compass on a starlit night, nothing beats that feeling. Phosphorescence glowing enchantingly as you rise and fall with the gentle waves, the sound of splashing water against the bow - rythmically taking you into a deep transical state of mind. Sailing to some of the most beautiful islands in the world...Can you imagine it?

I'll skip forward to save writing a novel. Time in the San Blas was like stepping foot on the prettiest beachfront property you can imagine 200 years back in time. Of the islands we set foot on, coconut trees hung out picturesquely over the water and huge conch shells littered the beaches like large pieces of confetti; so much that it almost seemed unnatural. The water was so unnaturally clear and aquamarine you swore you could see 100 ft below. We basked like cats in the sun all day and played like worriless children in paradise. The only experience I would have traded it right then and there for would have been a chance to dance on top of clouds.

The Comarca de Kuna Yala are the San Blas island chain that is home to the Kuna people who after a bloody and violent uprising in 1925 against Panama were granted permission to autonomously govern their land. Remarkably, they have been in contact with Europeans since 1502 when Columbus encountered the islands way back when and to this day strongly preserve their way of life, traditions and language. Not much as changed. Although people can visit the islands from Panama, there are very strict limitations as to where you can go and what you can do.Therefore, many of the places that we visited were very difficult to access because we did it coming through from Colombia.

For more info/pictures check out

Since our captain and his girlfriend were not gringo expatriates they seemed to have a little more relation to the inhabitants of the particular islands we stopped on and I think we had a more authentic experience feasting on fresh caught red snapper, roaming the islands freely and seeing what it was like hanging out amongst a tri-family dynamic. A few of the younger Kuna who spoke Spanish also shared a little insight into their lives, history and culture although they were protective and reserved about it which we all respected. It was probably one of the main reasons they have continued their way of live and tradition for so long. Before we left Colombia I had written down about 30 or so phrases in the Kuna language and attempted to do a little cross-cultural communication as a show of respect with one of the older ladies who made some of the most impressive molas that we saw in Panama and that I fully regret not getting more of. Hers were so unique I found none like it in all that we saw in Panama City. She spoke no Spanish and I butchered her Kuna language but in the end she had a twinkle in her eye and we understood each other pretty well. It was a sweet memory I won't forget. I only hope that the San Blas can stay the way that it is for a very very very long time...

A few translated words.English-Spanish-Kuna
Yes - Si - Elle
Thanks - Gracias - Dot Nuet
How are You - Como Estas - Bede Nued Guddi
Goodbye - Adios - Degi Malo
Good Luck - Bueno Suerte - Nuegan Bi
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