Cruising Through the San Blas

We left for San Blas from the Rosario islands of Colombia. It was a pleasant downwind sail, with pretty consistent wind once we got away from the mainland. So we had a nice overnight sail, then watched the sun rise over the ocean and collected all the flying fish that had jumped onto the boat in the dark. This one left its wings extended, which is unusual.

We arrived at our first stop, Ratones Cay aka Aridup, in the early evening, with the islands and the mainland mountains behind them coming into view at about the same time. This was our first experience of just how terrible all the charts of this area are. The Bauhaus charts are widely agreed to be the best, but even they had the anchorage about half as deep as we found it. Meanwhile Garmin and Navionics were pretty sure Villa was on land.

We had noticed a little bit of weirdness with the furler, and when we got anchored we went to investigate. It turns out that one of the bolts that hold the furler on had just… left, at some point. So that went on our order list, right behind “figure out what size that bolt was.”

We were still a little strung out from being in the yard, so we settled into a relaxing evening on the boat. Captain was very happy to have free run of the not-moving boat with interesting things to stare at. Also Jazz was still sick.

The next morning, we watched a couple of canoes come and go from the island for a while, while Jazz soaked her pedicure-damaged toe. Jazz’s flu comfort-bucket had graduated back to being a toe-soaking bucket, as she tried to heal enough for some swimming. We were not quite there that day.

So we hauled anchor and headed to Coco Banderos. The passages between the islands are mostly behind a reef break, so the water was mostly flat for a very comfortable sail.

At Coco Banderas we were approached by a couple of guys in a canoe selling Molas. This is a type of traditional Guna Yala tapestry, and we picked one out to decorate some future unspecified thing. And we reveled in the opportunity to shower outside again.

After watching the sun rise over a good collection of neighboring boats, we took a short motor over to the west side of Coco Banderas, the Orduparboat anchorage. We had a mostly relaxed day, although Jazz couldn’t resist the urge to make a little more progress on the new window covers.

In the morning, we saw enough other people swimming around the cays that we couldn’t resist the urge to get in the water. Checking our gear, we found that our GoPro filter mount had deteriorated even further in its last three months of disuse. The magnets were super handy, but they did not pass the stress test.

Speaking of testing, we decided to finally run a test to get a practical measurement of our toilet plumbing. This is important to know when we’re using our holding tank; you want to make sure you get the waste into the tank, but you also want to fill it up slowly. So we put some dye in, and counted flushes until it came out the other end, while an inquisitive little school of jacks looked on.

Then Jazz joined me in the water, and we went fish-spotting! Here’s a juvenile french angelfish and a barred hamlet.

The most interesting thing to see was that these dead elkhorn corals had been partially or fully overgrown by what looks like an encrusting callimorph.

Otherwise, the coral around here wasn’t super healthy. But we had a good time swimming around; it’s just nice to be back in the water.

The next morning we sailed up to the Hollandes Cays. Jazz went to put on the next audiobook in our current series, and found that she had downloaded several that we’d already heard. An unfortunate problem, since we would be without internet for our whole time in these islands. So we spent the sail listening to The Aeronaut’s Windlass instead, the only first in a series that she happened to have downloaded.

We anchored at the Swimming Pool, and took Dinkus in for a walk around BBQ Island.

In the morning, we bought some bananas off a guy who paddled up to the boat, and cleaned the starboard water tank.

To reward ourselves for our hard work, we took Dinkus to the south of the island, where we’d seen several other boats snorkeling. The view from Dinkus was probably the highlight; here’s Jazz setting the anchor by hand, a little fiddly in the current.

The coral was not very healthy, but we did see a stingray, so that was nice.

The next morning, we motored just a couple of miles to Waisaladup, at the west end of the Hollandes Cays. Jazz and Captain competed to see who could do the best instagram thirst-trap pose.

Waisaladup had the best snorkeling we found in the San Blas, to the point where we went back in for a second day. The first thing we noticed on getting into the water was our chain, looped over itself as Villa had drifted aimlessly back and forth in the light wind. From there, it was a short swim over to the reef, which runs parallel to shore along the leeward side of the island.

There was a strong thermocline: the top foot of the water was maybe three or four degrees warmer than the rest. So we thought harder than usual about diving down. We did it anyway, though, because there were some cool critters. Here’s an especially ugly damselfish, and a decorator crab, both claiming little patches of fire coral.

Here are a stoplight parrotfish, a lizardfish, and juvenile queen angel.

There were a lot of big fan worms and urchins. There were also a lot of these knobby anemones, which Andrew thinks are just really cool looking.

This was the healthiest coral we saw in San Blas, with lots of living species. Even the elkhorn coral, though dead itself, was thoroughly covered with the same encrusting stuff we’d seen previously.

When we got back to the boat, we also found a little bait ball. Funny story: something hunted that bait ball all day, and at least a dozen tried find refuge in the dinghy. It took us a day to notice, and a few more to coax the last couple smelly culprits out of the space between the hull and floor.

We stayed another night here, and Andrew spent the second day cleaning out the port water tank and trying to figure out the state of his broken laptop. This involved calling Dell, his first actual phone call via our Iridium go, which would have been a milestone to celebrate had it been to anyone but Dell support.

Meanwhile Jazz started the sewing part of the window covers. She was particularly proud as she had reached the end of an 8400 yard spool of size 46 lightweight UV thread. That’s four and three-quarters miles, or 7.7 kilometers. There has been much sewing on this trip! Fortunately, we have a spare. May we reach the end of this trip before we come to the end of this second spool of thread.

Waisaladup is a really pretty place to hang out, and we’d likely have stayed longer were we not nervous about the fact that we were technically not checked in. It’s permissible to stop and rest between ports, and there’s some gray area around how long you can do that, but we figured we shouldn’t push our luck too hard. This is also why we stayed in the outer islands, rather than spending more time near the coast where there are more locals and culture. Before COVID it was possible to check in at the east end of the country, but that port is since closed, so we would have had to pass a full day’s sail past the San Blas to check in, and then come back, and we’ve resolved not to go east any more. Plus, we were already feeling late to the Pacific, as our haul-out had taken more than double the time we expected.

So despite really liking this place…

…we moved the next morning. The next stop was Banedup in the East Lemons. We sailed for an hour or so, and then Jazz took her afternoon wrap-nap.

We went snorkeling here, and maybe didn’t make the best choice of spot. We tried to swim from the boat over to the wall at the edge of the island to our east. But we didn’t find a way across the reef break, so we were left swimming through a shallow area with mostly dead coral. Some cool stuff popped up, though, like a giant anemone with big arm tips, and a candy-cane coral, and this random fluffy seaweed ball.

After a rinse back on the boat, we took the dinghy around for an explore of the anchorage. We stopped at the little bar on Banedup, where we chatted with some younger folks who were passing through on a big charter cat.

Banedup is one of the closer anchorages to Porvenir, where the mainland projects out towards the San Blas. So it’s a convenient place to meet up with your land-based friends or charter guests, though chartering in the San Blas is actually illegal as it’s seen as cutting in on Guna Yala tourist revenue. Depite this, there’s a water taxi service that can get you from the airport to a boat, so you see people arriving with suitcases.

The next morning we visited “Dog Island”, which had a fairly constant stream of boats bringing tourists in from the mainland. (Like the one above, but packed much more tightly with day-trippers in orange life jackets.) It’s a tiny anchorage with a big sign, and a nice sandy sloping area that makes a secure day anchorage, if not a welcoming one.

We were mostly there to snorkel a wreck, which several people had told us was the best snorkeling in San Blas. It was neat, but at this point we’ve seen lots of wrecks.

We got out on the beach to pay the visitors fee, and then basically turned around and got back in the water. We were rewarded for our diligence with the biggest bait ball we have ever seen. It was wild. We swam through the middle and it slowly flowed around us. Stunning.

We dragged ourselves away from the bait ball, mostly because we didn’t want to spend too long in range of the tour-boat propellers, and headed further north to Chichime. There, we dropped anchor in the 40-foot basin, dried the soggy bills we’d brought into Dog Island, and set up the sewing machine again.

We made two attempts to snorkel here, first swimming off the boat without much success. Annoyingly, between the attempts, a guy came by in a canoe trying to advertise for his store on another island. Despite us being soaking wet, and not going in that direction, he kept asking us to get something to write down his phone number “so we can give it to other boaters.” Most of our interactions with the locals were friendly, but this guy harassing us while we were swimming and bumping his canoe into our freshly waxed hulls left a sour taste.

So once we got him to leave us alone, we took Dinkus to the west of the island, to what had looked like some healthier coral on the way in. This was also not particularly rewarding, and we came to the conclusion that this anchorage was better enjoyed above the water.

And that brings us to Raul. When we dropped anchor, an enthusiastic guy paddled over to our boat, and told us that he would be hosting a dinner and bonfire on shore, for $5 a person, and that there were 14 people signed up so far. Great, count us in! So we came to shore, and spent the next hour or two alternately chatting with a very pleasant group of Danish sailors and watching Raul spiral. In broken English, he pattered “Happy for me, Raul, today, 45 years, Raul”, from which we eventually inferred that it was his birthday. To celebrate his good fortune, he pressed “free” beers on everyone, “happy for me!” As the evening wore on, he gradually got higher and touchier, and told us either that his cousin had given him a million cocaine dollars or a million dollars worth of cocaine. Based on his behavior we guessed the latter. So it got dark, and the vibe got uncomfortable, so we paid for the food (and the beers), and ferried the Danes back to their boat in our dinghy right as Raul finally got the bonfire started.

The next morning, we were setting up the sewing table when a coast guard boat slowly cruised around the anchorage, and pulled up to Raul’s island. Given the amount of alleged cocaine involved, and the fact that we were still not checked in, we elected to haul anchor a day earlier than planned and avoid any association with that situation. It took us a few minutes to haul anchor, and we motored slowly out of the anchorage, and we didn’t see the coast guard move before we were out of sight. If anyone stops by Chichime, please let us know what happened with Raul!

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