Kuna Yala, Panama
After almost a year of repairs and relaxation in Bocas del Toro, we finally decided it was time to leave. Our original thought was to get through the Canal and down to Ecuador as quickly as possible so that we could re-connect with our friends on Listowel Lady, but as is usually the case, we decided to take our time and enjoy the sites. Once you’re through the Canal, it’s not something you plan on doing again in your own boat.
Just a few weeks before we left, my Mom and my second youngest sister, Annaliese, came to visit from Portland, Oregon. They had a hell of a time getting down to Panama City, with 6 bags of luggage (all stuff for the boat and Christmas presents) and many connecting flights that were cancelled and re-routed, but finally made it. I met them in Panama City and we enjoyed some of the sites like the Seafood Market and the Old City. We caught the afternoon flight to Bocas and arrived at Eva Marie around sundown to find Dave up to his elbows in generator grease and the cockpit was completely torn apart. We had run out of water due to the lack of rainfall just before I flew to the city to meet up with family, and Dave was hoping to have the generator assembled to run the water maker, but he ran out of time, so we had to lug water from Sam’s fresh water spring 5 gallons at a time. We were in serious water conservation mode, but the girls did great. We took them snorkeling along the mangroves, spotting my favorite cowfish or trunkfish; we spent a day at the Red Frog Beach and saw the cutest monkeys while walking back through the jungle to the dinghy; we toured the bat caves in Bahia Honda and our private tour guide helped us dig up thousand year old shark teeth; we enjoyed happy hour at a local bar with Windfall and Nekton and then raced dinghies back to the bay; the tour of the chocolate farm in Dolphin Bay was educational and delicious; we took a taxi to Starfish Beach on the other end of Isla Colon for seafood stuffed patacones (fried plantains) and maracuya con ron (passionfruit and rum); Starfish Beach was completely deserted and we lounged in the warm, shallow waters trying to toss a huge, water logged coconut in a game of “coco coconut.” Oh, and of course we took them to our favorite places to eat – The Bocas Brewery, Leaf Eaters Cafe and Om Cafe. It was so nice to have family come and visit, and to have them stay on board Eva Marie.
We had many goodbye dinners and get togethers before leaving Bocas, but we finally sailed off to Escudo de Veraguas. The anchorage was incredibly rolly and we had a lovely 35 knot squall with torrential rain scare us in the middle of the night, so the next morning we very quickly checked out the island and then pulled up the anchor (which ended up being rather dangerous since the anchor had dug down so deep the night before and the waves were lifting and dropping our bow 6 feet).
The overnight sail to the Rio Chagres was rough as we had 20 knots on the nose and big, choppy seas. Luckily, Dave and I got seasick at separate times so someone was always feeling okay to be on watch. The entrance to the Chagres was very intimidating with the seas crashing on shallow shores and rocks, but we gently nosed our way in and just a few hundred yards into the river and everything was peaceful. The rain started pouring buckets and so we scrubbed the salt off the decks and showered naked in the rain. The magical energy of the Chagres with its incredible wildlife in indescribable. We spent 5 days relaxing, doing yoga and meditation, collecting wild mangoes, snapping photos of toucans and touring Fort Lorenzo.
We made the short trip over to the Canal and handled all of the logistics of getting measured, filling out paperwork, and paying for the transit. The Canal is incredibly noisy and industrial with huge cargo ships all around you. Colon does not cater to cruisers so there were no comfortable anchorages or easy places to leave your dinghy, but we managed to provision and then sailed off to Portobelo. We met a lovely young couple from Sweden, Petra and Erik, but unfortunately they had just sold their Alegro 27 and were flying back to Sweden the next day. Still, we had an amazing time with them and hope to visit them in Sweden for some fika and sauna! We also made new friends, Manu and Sayra on Desperado, who were also sailing for the San Blas, so we made plans to meet again. 20 miles away from Chichime we were caught in the largest thunderstorm we’d ever seen. With 55 knots of wind, we were screaming down the choppy waves at 9 knots, sails flogging, the ocean trying to suck everything out to sea. Wearing just my bathing suit at the helm, the rain pelted with incredible force that it actually hurt to steer the boat. Pips was terrified, to say the least, Dave cranked as hard as possible on the winches to pull in the sails that had managed to work themselves out of their furled state, and it felt like the storm lasted for hours, but was in reality only 30 minutes. Later on, we found out that these storms, characteristic of San Blas, are called culo de pollo, or chicken butt. Chicken butt? More like stampede of buffalo! We lost some important items overboard and suffered some damage to our jib, and I was very shook up by the whole ordeal, but we made it to Chichime before sunset.
San Blas was the name given to the chain of islands by the Spaniards, but it is called Kuna Yala by the native population that inhabit these beautiful and desolate islands. Kuna is the name of the people and Yala refers to the mountain range on the mainland. As we did not plan on staying for longer than a few months, we kept to the western part of the archipelago. On our third day, anchored in the “hot tub” our good friends Eric and Terry from Nekton came buzzing around the corning in their dinghy. We thought that we would not see each other again when we said farewell in Bocas, and were thrilled to have friends to cruise around with. Dave and Terry both have a passion for Irish fiddle music, so we enjoyed many musical dinner parties with them. Nekton also loves diving and snorkeling, so we joined them in many snorkeling expeditions. And with those two, it really was an expedition. Everyone says how warm the waters of the Caribbean are, but when you snorkel with these two marine life lovers, you need a wetsuit. The coral was some of the most vibrant I have ever seen, with fuchsia pinks and neon purples. The fish that we saw were incredible, some of my favorites being the spotted trunkfish, French angelfish, sergeant majors, puffers, parrot fish and Caribbean squid. We also had many encounters with large sea turtles, eagle rays and nurse sharks. The most magical experience I had was one evening, anchored behind Green Island, a huge turtle surfaced right next to the bow of our boat, where I was enjoying the sunset. The ancient looking turtle, made eye contact with me, and dove down along our anchor chain, surfacing again a few minutes later to look me right in the eye. I swear it did! This happened 5 times, and so for 30 minutes I sat, mesmerized by this beautiful creature. Spirit animal? I think so 🙂