Having a San(d) Blas(t)

From Bocas del Toro we took a 10 hour bus into Panama City. We had 1 day and some shopping to do. Incredibly, we spent our entire day shopping at Albrook Mall – a vast, sprawling temple worshipping the consumer gods. Seasickness tablets, beach blanket, quick dry swimming shorts & deck shoes for Jim, and a new snorkel set to replace the ones we left in the Nicaragua taxi etc. Too tired at the end of all that to actually see any of Panama City.

Loaded up with a LOT of dollars to pay our captain, deposited in various pockets and pouches, we jumped on a bus to Colón and then spent a hot 2 hours at the heaving chicken bus station waiting for (or on) our bus to Puerto Lindo where the boat was anchored.

Chicken buses have interesting personalised liveries.. check out the CSI fan!

Sights at the bus station included drunks drinking strange colourless liquid from what appeared to be the same receptacles they were using to fuel the buses, and a million hawkers selling anything from crisps, drinks and fruits to a broken watch and a radio aerial. Eventually we were all packed in tight, and off the bus went.

At Puerto Lindo we met 4 others who’d been on the same bus, and the rest of our 12 person boat crew. 2 from Poland, 1 from Alaska, 1 from New Mexico, 2 from Canada, 2 from Ireland, 2 from Switzerland, and us. Oh, and an Argentinian Captain and French first mate. Plenty of beers later…

… we got a lancha to our boat, the Amande!

There ensued a debate about who would take the 3 person cabins….

Luckily (and I am SO thankful for this), Jim and I had opted to pay $50 more than the others in order to secure a cabin with private bathroom. The others drew straws to assign rooms, assuming the lucky ones were the private doubles at the front of the boat. Little did they know.

Feeling a little queasy on the fairly rocky water, Jim recommended we just delve into our sea sickness tablets before sleep. So we did.

After some very patchy sleep in an oven-like cabin (even with the few windows open), Sophie (our ship mate) had toasted some bread and set out coffee and cereal so a few of us ate, then we set off at 8am to the San Blas islands on choppy water with overcast skies.

Everyone was up on the deck, excited. After about 30minutes, the first person got into the dinghy with a sick bucket. After another 30mins a second person joined. Everyone else took their seasickness tablets at that point (Jim and I feeling smug).

6 hours later, after a game of musical chairs in the dinghy and very little talking, we arrived at Chichime (chee-chee-may) – a desert island lined with palms, with just a few sail boats anchored offshore.

After a lunch of pasta and fresh tomato sauce, courtesy of Sophie, Victor (El Capitan) skiff’d us across to the island and left us to wander around for 2 hours. We snorkelled a little, walked the circumference in about 10 minutes, and sat at the bar… yes, there is a bar on a desert island! A few Kuna huts, palm trees, and a bar. I’m totally behind the prioritisation going on here!

Dinner (chicken fajitas and salad) was ready for us when we got back to the boat, along with a rum cocktail. As we were eating, we could hear splashes and blow-hole breathing. We got our head torches and followed a group of dolphins immediately around the boat in the crystal clear water, chasing needle fish that were sheltering between the skiff and the Anande. Incredible! They are so fast, darting under the dinghy, leaping out of the water, surfacing to breathe. The Captain told us this never happens close to the boat, or at night, we were amazingly lucky. Jim and I were on washing up duty, we kept having to break because we could see them still at it next to us! Most phenomenal washing up experience… ever!

“There is no other phenomenal washing up experience. The next best experience is the dishwasher!”

We were up early the next day after a better/calmer night on the water to snorkel the sunken yacht about 100m from the boat, and a bit of reef nearby. Lots of fish, starfish, beautiful lion fish (although they are not indigenous and considered a pest here)… but the highlight for me was a tiny fish, about an inch, that swam with me for an hour. Hiding under my chin or belly as I snorkelled, or right in front of my nose if I was swimming forwards – it was amazing! I nicknamed him Ron and everyone took photos. Clearly I was his safe-haven, so it was with great sadness that I eventually had to swim up to a sand island to get the skiff back to the boat… I had taken him a long way from his home and abandoned him! I felt terrible.

Onwards we sailed (well, motored) to Porvenir, the tiny island with an airport for small planes and an immigration office. El Capitan went ashore with passports whilst we jumped in the water and swam by the boat. Then it was off to Kuandiup. We ate freshly caught lobster and crab for lunch, with pasta salad and tuna/potato salad. Awesome food from our French Chef, after being caught by the Kuna and handily dispatched by El Capitan on the deck.

After lunch, and the obligatory jump off the boat to cool down in the perfect water, Victor took us across to the island.

Much smaller than the previous islands, Kuandiup has about 3 huts, palm trees, a volleyball net, and yes… a bar! Oh, and THE best sunset setting. I guess there were about 20 of us on the island, including the Kuna who live there.

Dinner was ready when we got back to the boat, again. This time roast beef and dauphinoise potatoes. OMG. Delicious. We had some rums and polished off a bottle of sambuca Jim and I had brought along to share.

Interesting chats with Sophie about a first mate who was a serial killer and kept bumping off captains. Also talked about the Kuna people, a tough bunch who fought for the right to own/manage the islands separately from Panama in the 60s. No foreigners are allowed to own a business on the islands, only 2 have hotels (run by the Kuna), and they are “Coconut Barons” – they export 30m coconuts to Colombia every year, and instituted a price fixing rule from the outset so that no Kuna undercut others and risked a downward price drive.

Off to bed we went around 11, full and happy.

Being on a boat is ace. What a life! The only 3 challenges were close quarters with 13 others (full capacity), heat below deck and sea sickness (although not for Jim or I). The rest is paradise. Luckily we had a good group, all polite and no big personalities. We also had the cabin with private bathroom, at the middle of the boat. The others rooms were two triples, housing a couple and a single person on a third bed about 5 inches from the ceiling, and two doubles at the front of the boat that leaked a massive amount of water on the inhabitants when we were moving. I think Jim and I had quite a different experience from the others, all in all.

How fun would it be to charter a boat with Captain, Ship Mate, and 6 friends? Too much.

The next morning we sailed along to Kayos Hollandes and were dropped on the island with the best snorkelling so that Sophie and Victor could get the boat ready for open sea that evening. The island took about 45 minutes to walk around, with reef very close to the beach along one side. We all snorkelled in the perfect, clear water.

This video was shot using a mobile phone in a plastic case, apologies for quality, but gives you an idea of the clear water in the sunshine, the fish and the coral.

We had lunch back on the boat, Sophie had made a cake with left-over fruit from breakfast that was awesome. Unfortunately, as we ate we saw two small cruise ships (i.e. about a 100 people on each) anchor and send streams of people in skiffs to shore. The small island was suddenly overrun with cruisers.

As Victor dropped us ashore a woman in her 60s hurried up to the boat:

“Does anyone speak English? We’ve established a zodiac channel. You can use it if you like.”

Victor shrugs as if to say “This ain’t your island lady!”

Yes, we are all tourists, but this really spoiled the experience (that day) for us. Its such a shame seeing the way this desert island idyll is going. We spent the afternoon trying to find a spot away from the crowd, unfortunately also away from the best beach and snorkelling spot.

Dinner was Filet Mignon a la Moutarde, with rice and cous-cous, and bananas cooked in cognac for pudding. Delicious.

At 8pm we set off for open water. Most headed to bed before or just after, intending to use the drowsy seasickness meds to sleep through the worst of it. It was VERY rough water, with huge swells tipping us this way and that.

The next morning I was up at sunrise to experience open water for the first time, full of excitement! Islands were incredible but this was just as awe-inspiring for me, a new experience.

Around 10 spotted dolphins were playing in the bough wave and giving some spectacular leaps out of the huge swells of the open ocean at the sides of the boat. I had imagined I would be scared in open sea, but I sat at the back of the boat, looking at the sunrise and the undulating swells and waves, the dolphins and the huge sails now up to keep us steady… and all that came to mind was a sense of openness, relaxation and absolute freedom. Admiring the majesty of nature, and subconsciously appreciating that you are totally at its mercy, I suppose you simply relent and give up to it. Complete elation.

The day passed with reading, snoozing, eating (fruit salad, peanut butter sandwiches, ham & cheese sandwiches, then lentil salad and crackers for tea.. all prepared amazingly by Sophie on the roller-coaster wave ride) and marvelling at the sea.

After another good sleep we awoke at 3am to the sky scrapers and shipping containers of Cartagena! The gang were mostly up on deck already, unable to sleep in their soaking wet cabins.. shame.
Amazing, amazing, amazing experience, incredible also that we were able to do this on something resembling a backpacker budget (about £400 each).



5 thoughts on “Having a San(d) Blas(t)

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