The San Blas are a group of 357 small islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama inhabited by the Kuna indigenous people. The Kuna are politically independent and therefore the San Blas archipelago has its own law. At times the Kuna have made deals with narco-traffickers from Colombia, making the area a prime route for drugs coming up to the U.S.
While in Colombia I had heard that rather than fly to Panama, one can charter a boat that would sail for several days in the Caribbean Sea and that the cost was approximately the same. Since I had just secured an extension on my trip (thanks Margie), I opted from the slow and beautiful route.
After staying out all night and watching the sun rise on the beach, I headed to the Cartagena Yacht Club to meet up with Captain Hernando and the rest of the guests for our voyage to the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama.
I arrived at 6am with the captain´s niece Maria Jose and her friend Margarita, with whom I´d been partying the night before. Here they are:
Hernando had asked us to arrive between 8 and 9am. Because we were waiting for the fifth passenger to arrive and had issues getting our passports stamped, we left Cartagena at 6pm. So, we started our adventure by spending an entire day waiting on the docks and developing increasing skepticism about the competence and/or sincerity of our captain.
But, as we bid South America farewell, our spirits were relatively high. Everyone was frustrated with the delay, but anxious to get on with the trip. Our crew consisted of Captain Hernando, 57 years old, from Bogota; Joris and Judith, a young Dutch couple (in rear below); Ivan a surfer from Madrid (at right); Maria from Buenos Aires (at left); and me.
A few hours out, we got our first reality check. We were on a small boat on the open ocean and it was impossible to spend much time downstairs without getting sick. After helping to make sandwiches for dinner that night, I couldn´t eat mine and then threw up. I think everyone actually threw up that first night.
The next morning, our troubles continued when we discovered that lack of wind would extend our trip time; and that the refrigerator on the boat was broken. Hernando had told us that all meals were included, but encouraged us all to bring snacks and beer. Our crew responded admirably to this request--and we now faced an extra day of travel with several cases of beer that would have to be consumed warm.
El Capitan's response to this situation confirmed our growing suspicions about his generally surly nature. Here he is:
Apparently used to drinking warm beer, Hernando consumed a large amount of it. When we finally arrived at the islands and pulled up to our first stop, a solution to our warm beer problem presented itself. Hernando had described the indiginous owner of the huts where we'd be eating lunch as "like a brother to him." But, when I suggested that he ask the guy if we could put our beers in his refrigerator he balked--he wasn't comfortable asking such a favor.
Well, I suggested, we could pay him a small amount to "rent" his refrigerator for the afternoon. Hernando agreed this was a good idea and said it was fine with him if I wanted to pay him.
Wait a minute, I responded--the broken fridge is YOUR responsibility, not ours. It's not our fault that your boat is broken. He responded a) by saying he was fine drinking warm beer so it wasn't his problem; and when I pushed back on that b) taking credit for the natural beauty of the surroundings--complaining that he brought me to this beautiful place and all I could focus on were the small things.
This was emblematic of his general attitude the whole trip. He treated us like deckhands rather than clients. I kept wanting to remind him that WE were paying HIM.
Well, I don't think he was quite prepared for a law student who increasingly didn't give a shit if I pissed him off--so he eventually relented and got our beers into the fridge (not sure if he paid).
Things Looking Up
Aside from the lack of wind, broken fridge and crusty captain the trip was great. The islands were truly beautiful; the weather was perfect; and our crew got along well.
We swam in crystal clear waters, snorkled around beautiful reefs, explored a wrecked ship, ate seafood caught hours before, made a campfire on the beach at night, saw dolphins and tuna swim beside our boat, drank warm beer and whisky at night, and generally did not much else for 3 days.
Here are some pics, with many more to come once I receive a CD with hundreds more in the mail:
A Lesson Learned
Overall the trip was great. But, apparently I didn't do enough research on my captain. I was warned beforehand that some captains are way better than others and this could make a significant difference in your trip. But I had found Hernando through the main hostel in town, where the folks vouched for him; and I had just hung out with his niece all night--so it seemed like a good fit. Oh, well...