I saw multiple islands on my San Blas sailing trip. Life (though temporary) on a sailboat is an experience that’s implanted in my mind forever. The captain was a character I’ll never meet again nor forget. The clear blue waters of the archipelago weren’t saturated with tourists or reminiscences of a corporate lifestyle. My meals were caught from the Caribbean Sea: fresh. And the magenta sunsets brought tranquility.
I was nausea when I sailed from Portobelo, Panama, to San Blas and from San Blas to Cartagena, Colombia. I was the vomit comet.
And The Ugly
The San Blas sailing trip resulted in my three-month-old iPhone 6S breaking.
San Blas Sailing: The Journey
On May 16, 2016, I was originally supposed to take a jeep at 5:30 a.m. to Carti, Panama, then a water taxi to Captain Rudolph’s sailboat, African Queen II, where we would depart towards the San Blas Island and then to Sapruzzo, Colombia.
Unfortunately, I received an email the night before from Kandry from I Travel By Boat that the trip was cancelled. She offered another alternative: the sailboat Victory was sailing from Portobelo on May 19 through the San Blas and to Cartagena. Kandry told me I can stay on the boat until it departs, so I took the offer since I save on food and accommodation. The sailboat cost was $450 ($50 deposit to Kandry via PayPal and $400 cash to the Captain) and captained by seventy-six-year-old Hernando Higuera, a Colombian born in Bogota. I didn’t have to pay anything extra for entering the Guna Yala indigenous reserve.
To get to Portobelo, I went to Albrook Station in Panama City, took the bus towards Colon for $3.15, got off at Sabinitas, took the diablo rojo (colorful schoolbus) for $1.65 to Portobelo, and got off at the docks.
I was early because I arrived around 2:45 p.m. and I told Kandry I would be there between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. I took the water taxi to Victory for $1. While I was getting onto the sailboat, the Panamenos working on the taxi told me there is a hot Argentinian girl working on the sailboat. Nobody was on the sailboat. I assumed they were at shore (they were actually waiting for me on another dock).
I told a guy working the waters to tell Captain Hernando I am here. I waited for about 45 minutes for the crew to arrive: Captain Hernando and two Argentinian women both named Florencia and in their 20’s. I couldn’t help but notice the Captain’s striking blue eyes and his curly white-and-grey hair. His eyes were glowing in the cloudy weather.
“I’ve been sailing between Cartagena and San Blas for 18 years. I never change the route, because San Blas is paradise,” Captain Hernando told me while explaining the San Blas sailing trip and guidelines.
In late afternoon of May 17, it was raining and I saw both Flor’s using the rain to take a shower on deck. I showered in the rain five minutes later, but the fudging rain stopped while I had soap and shampoo still on me. I tried to salvage the situation and try to remove as much soap and shampoo with the drizzling, but to no avail.
I stayed on the sailboat for two days with the crew while docked at Portobelo. On May 18, Captain Hernando took care of the immigration paperwork on shore.
In the evening more guests joined Victory: Raul and Tito, two Argentinian men in their 50’s who were travelling together; Marta, an Italian in her 50’s who was Captain’s girlfriend; and Pablo, an athletic Spaniard.
For dinner, the sailing crew made a mean tuna salad. I had two servings with it while sipping on some Abuelo rum. Around 10 p.m. we departed from Portobelo to the San Blas Islands.
I drank too much rum; I even drank the captain’s rum. With the sailboat tipping in every direction, I was vomiting at night and had a hangover the next morning.
We arrived in San Blas, near the island of Chichime, in the late morning of May 19. I thought my day was abolished due to my hangover. Luckily, I recovered by late afternoon and was good to go.
The local Kuna fisherman came to our sailboat by motorboat. They were selling fish straight off their boat. The captain bought three large red snappers for dinner. From what I read, only the Kuna are allowed to fish in these waters.
Even every coconut, on the ground or tree, even unclaimed, belong to the Kuna. No intruders are allowed to take over these islands.
We sent our food by kayak to a Kuna family on Chichime to cook the red snappers, bake the potatoes, and cook the rice. The Argentinian crew made a side of salad for the meal. Fish doesn’t get any fresher than this.
In the evening, the sunset from Chichime looked as if a fairy sprinkled the sky with colors of magenta and amber. There were no ugly skyscrapers blocking the sunset. When total darkness arrived, the moon blessed the archipelago with its radiant white.
We returned to Victory by kayak and called it a night.
During breakfast on May 20, Pablo put rum in his coffee. We ate scrambled eggs with a side of watermelon.
After breakfast, we departed Chichime and sailed to the Cayo Lemon area.
Captain Hernando bought red snappers again. This time he bought like 10 as opposed to 3, because these ones were smaller. He also bought 3 or 4 small lobsters from the same fishermen. The seafood was cooked by the Kuna women on Nunudo Island.
I only saw 4 inhabitants on Nunudo, all women in their 40’s to 70’s. Maybe the men are fishing and kids in school. This is one of the smallest islands I have been on. It takes less than 10 minutes to walk around. There are only 3 cabanas, all located on the northeast side of the island. The island has about 100 coconut trees.
There is a clear view of the sunset in the west from Nunudo Island. The water is aqua clear with some vegetation and debris. Birds, which look similar to a smaller version of the raven, inhabit these islands. Crabs and starfish can be seen in the water.
In the evening, I used my DSLR, tripod, and flashlight to paint with light.
When we returned to Victory, four of us went on the kayak. The kayak can only carry 2 or 3 people. But Pablo, Raul, Flor and I went on the kayak. The kayak partially sank into the water and was tilting. My legs and bum was submerged in the water. We were concerned it will flip over and decided to head back. I was glad because I had my camera with me. I didn’t want to lose a $3500 camera system due to a flipped kayak. But Pablo and Raul then decided we can make the three minute journey to Victory. It was the kayak journey from hell but my camera survived.
The next morning on May 21, we sailed to Cayos Holandes.
We all went snorkelling except for Captain and Marta. It’s intriguing how we can be 500 metres away from the shore and still stand up.
Later, Pablo and I kayaked to a nearby island which appeared to have no inhabitants. It was too big to walk around before dinner.
The Kuna fishermen came to our boat again. This time they had no seafood with them. Captain asked them to catch some lobster. Ten minutes later, the fisherman returned with lobsters, which they took back to one of the islands and cooked it.
The lobster wasn’t fully prepared, because Captain needed it to make soup. The lobster soup hit the spot and was made with onions and garlic. On my second serving of lobster soup, I added hot sauce and freshly squeezed lime juice.
Around 5 p.m. we were about to set sail to Cartagena. This will probably be the last time I visit the San Blas Islands. I took one last dip into the water. Capy called me, “marica” for jumping into the water so late.
“Are you going to take pictures?” Tito asked when the San Blas Islands were behind us. “I just want to enjoy the sunset,” I replied. The sun was partially blocked by clouds and had the starlight effect. I saw scattered sun rays piercing the sky.
The sailboat was shaking and tilting on the waves that were between 5 and 10 feet. It wasn’t easy to stand up. I eventually went to lie on my bed and tried to read. But my stomach was turning. I puked a bit without alcohol in my system. I was puking even when I had nothing to puke. WTF. The worst part about puking is the hydrochloric acid that stays in the mouth if it’s not rinsed with water. The acid can damage the gums.
The cabin also smelled bad because we had to close the trap door. There was no fresh air circulation below deck. I didn’t smell any better.
While I was trying to sleep, water leaked on to my bed. What I didn’t realize was that it was also leaking onto my iPhone. The piece of shit iPhone broke. The trip just got more costly.
We arrived in Cartagena on the morning of May 23. I was so happy when the San Blas sailing was completed. I was able to take shower at the yacht club, yet I was still more grateful for the journey than the destination.