Tag Archive: San Blas islands


Colombia to Panama by Ella Modesitt

Colombia to Panama

By Ella P. Modesitt

Leaving the dock from Santa Marta, Colombia I felt really really weird.  I was back on the sea and it was really wobbly.  It was almost too wobbly for my brother, he fell down and got a big puffy fat lip and bruised his gums and blood all over.   There was lots of blood.   Lots.  Boo hoo.

Just one of the big ships

When we went sailing, we went all night long and when I woke up I was in Cartagena, Colombia.  I saw lots of huge buildings all around.  When we left the next morning there was this huge ship that honked at us.  HOOOOOOONK!  He was not happy with us, because we were a little boat in his way.  There were forts on both sides that are so old.  Cannons used to work there to protect the forts and sink ships.  I’m glad they didn’t sink us.

As we sailed along, my dad caught a big Mahi Mahi.  It was huge – an inch bigger than me!  I’m seven years old so he was pretty big.  The Mahi Mahi was so entirely strong that he took the whole fishing pole off the boat and it sank to the bottom.  This was the cool fishing rod that we traded a kayak for with our friends on Bikini.  Well, we still had a line onto the fishing rod from another YoYo fishing line.  We reeled the line in from that fishing line slowly so that we could catch the fishing rod.  We didn’t lose it after all.  And we also got the Mahi Mahi.  When mom was filleting it, dad was washing off all the blood.  A shark smelled it and swam right under the boat.  And my mom was scared and didn’t want to stand in the water like she usually does.  The Mahi Mahi accidentally slipped out of her hands and into the water.  BooHoo.  My dad didn’t want to jump in the water after it because there was a big mean shark in the water.  We caught five other fish so that was good.

I saw land and yelled, “Land ho!”  We were in Puerto Obaldia, Panama.  I saw a baby

Land Ho!!!

dolphin swimming with its’ mama as we were getting close to the land.  We anchored Rivers2Seas.   Then, we went swimming as a family.

Chase and me played with some other kids in town on the playground.  Alan, Arturo and Alejandra played and swung on the swings with me.  Later, we walked around town. We played tag.   It was a pretty cool town.  There were lots and lots of cool people and really cool houses.  Some of them were huts and some plain.  Some houses were made out of wood and some from bricks and rocks and stuff.  The roofs were made out of thatch palm fronds.

I liked the main square because so many people were there.  One bench had “love” written on it, which I liked.  People were walking around, some with babies and some with kids.  There were lots of kids there.  People were playing soccer, volleyball, bingo and running around.  I swung and a little girl pushed me and my little brother too.  I liked them a lot.  Some were pretty and some had ragged clothes because they were really poor.

“Other than wanting to throw up, dinner was good.”

We had dinner there, which was pretty good, except for the chicken foot, which was pretty bad.  The chicken foot was fried and still had the claws on it.  If I had to eat that I would have thrown up for reals.  Other than wanting to throw up dinner was good.

Panama is pretty beautiful; there are coconut trees, banana trees and horses walking down the beach.  “HeeHaw” says one of the donkeys on shore.  People in dugout canoes fish all around us.  This is my 22nd country and it’s my favorite.

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Picking up our friends Evan and Olivia Bartlett from the airstrip brings smiles that can

Sammy and I – my hero

only come from seeing someone that you have been friends with half your life.  Our stay in Nargana is punctuated by visits to Sammy and Mina’s home.  On one visit his son gets a neighbors foot long land turtle for Chase.  He is happy just to look, but when he gets to hold it, he’s ecstatic.  Another visit Leroy, his son, climbs a coconut tree so that we can have some fresh juice.  Chase finds a suitable tree a week later, but gets stuck six inches up; I don’t even try.  Leroy is a hunter and gives Chase and I wild boar teeth for a necklace.  The three-inch tooth is more imposing than the shark tooth necklace that chase has, but I’d rather go against the boar.  Taking another dinghy trip up the Devil River brings less wildlife than our last visit with more talking and less scouting but is equally fun.

All three fuel tanks have been topped off from some suspicious 55-gallon drums but filtered through an amazingly dirty towel (so all should be good?)and we are ready to head out to some more picturesque islands.  Cocos Banderos is our destination along the tranquil seas.  The islands are small, spectacular palm-filled, translucent turquoise water surrounded havens.  My best part of the day is when I realize there are seven islands I could swim to today.  I make it to three.

The Cocos Banderos

My father has helped us to concoct a story of buried treasure at the hands of Captain Hook.  Finding an old, although oddly smelling freshly burnt, treasure map in a bottle floating by, we decipher the islands and realize the treasure is on the island next to us.  Mounting a SUP and swimming expedition the six of us head out to find treasure.  Chase finds the old hut first, takes the right number of steps and when they find the “X” in the sand start digging like mad.  Ella finds a necklace of her Gram’s with jade and gold frogs.  Swooning and smiling she holds it to her chest like she is hugging Gram.  Chase finds a Snoopy doll, which sends him into beaming smiles and giggles.  “Snoopy’s back” is a constant refrain for several weeks.

Hanging out

Treasure found, we play a game of baseball on the island that’s the size of a baseball field’s

infield.  Home plate consists of two coconuts and the other bases are in foot deep water marked with starfish.  Giggles, splashes and cheers fill the air as we play.   Ella finds the smallest anchor ever weighing less than a pound and begs to keep it.  She knows that weight is such an issue, but really wants it.  It’s only a pound so we now have a 6th anchor aboard (2 for the dinghy, 1 plow that we use constantly and 2 danforth anchors).

With more exploring to do we take the dinghy to an island with two palms and a large sandy area.  Making life size sea turtle models fills the kids time while three adults snorkel the reefs surrounding our jewel in the sea.  The kids are learning more about sea turtles daily so when Chase points at the full moon in the sky and says that it’s time to lay eggs and starts making sand eggs, I am hardly surprised.

Moving on to the Holandes Islands brings us to an anchorage called the swimming pool because of the nine-foot depth and resulting green glow.  We jump ship immediately after anchoring, enjoying the cool waters of this giant pool.  The kids will swim anywhere, but they do prefer to swim in water where they can see the bottom – it’s understandable.  When the water is forty or fifty feet deep and the bottom can’t be seen it can send the mind into the what was that movement over there hysteria.

The kids jump from the deck into the turquoise waters below screaming in delight.  They have swordfights on deck, and then zoom down the slide as they chase after an imaginary Captain Hook.  Once in the water we catch starfish and silver dollars.  Mounting a SUP expedition, we head to a nearby reef for some snorkeling.  Using Ella’s new anchor we moor the boards diving into the warm water.  The shallow reef brings all the colors up brightly and we see a Spotted Eagle Ray and then an octopus – another successful expedition.

On the way over from Cocos Banderos I caught a Skipjack Tuna.  Lindsey shows Olivia how to

Sashimi appetizers

fillet it for sashimi and then we all enjoy a couple platefuls of the melt-in-your-mouth meat.  But, before the sashimi arrives they start throwing the scraps into the water.  A nice two-foot Snapper fish seems to be liking the dinner.  So do a couple of nurse sharks.  Armed with my Hawaiian sling I slide into the water.  The fish is squirrelly and doesn’t let me get too close.  Telling Olivia to “chum the water again”, she throws another handful of fish parts over the side.  I can get the fish closer but not close enough.  I grab my underwater camera to take some pictures of the sharks under Rivers2Seas.  One is four feet long and the other about six.  Swimming down the nine feet to the ocean floor is easy even though I have a camera in one hand and my Hawaiian sling in the other.  Feet away from the sharks, I start to video their circuitous path picking up the skipjack parts.  My first indication that something was wrong, although unheeded, is when I notice that the shark has spots all along it’s back.  Actually, I believe at the time I thought it was cool looking.

The shark does two loops looking at me from the same spot each time as I float on the surface.  On the third loop, it lunges straight at me fast.  My sling is six feet long and I’m holding it in the middle giving me a three-foot range.  As my foot pushes to keep me on the surface it comes close to the lunging shark.  I strike its nose hard with the sling twice.  The first strike feels like I have hit a piece of coral, hard and unmovable.  Except this time the hard unmovable coral is moving towards me pushing back my hand.  The second strike is softer and only hits the rubbery skin.  Lasting less than a second our battle is over and my opponent swims away.  Making a speed record back to the boat, I pull up the ladder as everyone wants to know what all the shrieking is about.  No grown man wants to hear that he was shrieking for sure.  But, sad to say it was true.  I’m just happy to be onboard.  A quick look into our aquatic oceans book reveals the Tiger Shark, juveniles having spots that grow together in adult years.  Looks like mine was a teenager.  Reading on it says that they are some of the most aggressive sharks in the waters.  Needless to say, but I doubt I shall utter the words, “chum the water again” while swimming with any shark.

The next day we resume our swimming regime, but the kids keep a weary eye out for sharks.  They have played a game since birth called Hey mister shark what time is it, asking if they want to play, they steadfastly refuse.  With the two SUP boards tied in a line of the back they run down them trying to stay on until the end.  Giggles galore.

During all the play the man on the boat behind us continually comes on deck to glare at us, shake his head then head below.  As we are heading out to do some more snorkeling from the SUP boards he asks to speak with the captain.  Having been standing on a SUP already it takes less than fifteen seconds to arrive, yet he has demanded twice more to speak to the captain, even though I said I would be right over.  When I arrive, he says, “You’re the captain?” with utter disdain.

“Yes, how are you today?”

Ella diving into the “Swimming Pool”

“Are you going to move?”

“No, we’re going snorkeling.”

“You must move.  You are too close.”

“We aren’t that close to you, the anchor is dug deep and we have lots of scope out in this nine foot deep water.”

“Well, since you’re the new kid on the block I’ll tell you.  The wind blows hard here and will drag a poorly anchored boat.”

“Yes, I know.”  We have already had some 60-knot storms come through and know of other boats dragging and hitting reefs.  That’s why I dive on the anchor each time and let out more scope than most boats.

“If you don’t move I’m going to ram my bowsprit up your ass of your boat.”  By the way he says boat I can tell he doesn’t like catamarans.  By the glares at the kids all day I can tell he doesn’t like kids.  By the glares and mutterings at our happiness I can tell he doesn’t like much.  Our conversation goes nowhere, but I don’t like the fluky way the boats here try to push opposite ways and I don’t want to hit another nearby catamaran.

“I’ll move.”

“You should read a book on how to anchor.”  He then throws some more obscenities at me, turns around and walks to hide in his cabin again.

The fight gets the best of me and I tell him “there’s no need to be an asshole.”  The singlehander with nobody else to talk to loses his marbles at this point and becomes raving mad.  Luckily, I can’t understand a word he is saying.  He is Swiss and has reverted back to that.   Unluckily, his antics make me laugh which sends him into hysterics.

I head back to Rivers2Seas and we decide to not just move, but to move to a different anchorage a half-mile away near a different island.  The kids don the name of Captain Grumpypants to the man who we would see a few times over the next two weeks.

There are several types of sailors out here: singlehander men (I’ve yet to meet a singlehander woman), couples, couple with kids, pairs of men (I’ve only seen one pair of women) and then large groups usually charterers only out for a week.  Most of the groups get along fine, except the singlehanders.  These men have ditched it all and shunned society.  Or they just don’t get along with anyone.  Or they just couldn’t find someone to go with and left before their dream never happened.  Some of the latter are the ones who crave companionship and can latch onto anyone who can speak.  The others degrade into this mental instability where they talk to themselves muttering constantly.  There is nobody to share any of the good or bad moments, nobody to talk about experiences or confusing situations that are constant in a travelers’ world.  The longer these guys are out here, the more unstable they seem to become.  I have travelled alone before and I don’t mean the going to a fancy hotel and eating at nice restaurants type of travel that can be fun.  Expedition travel is different with tough challenges hardships and glorious triumphs.  That type of travel for me is unpleasant and not nearly as rewarding when I’m alone.  While misery loves company, so does happiness.  I like the fact that for years to come Evan will see me and say, “Chum the waters.”  Life is more interesting with people in it.

Our new anchor from the days of pirates

Reanchoring by a nearby island, we drag through the sand then catch on something that holds us well.  I’m worried that we have hooked a piece of coral and as soon as the wind shifts we’ll no longer be hooked and drag to the next island.  Visibility isn’t great in the 35-foot deep water, but I can tell there isn’t a large coral head holding the anchor.  Diving down I can see the outline of something straight.  A couple more dives tells me that it’s an anchor covered in coral about three feet by five feet.  With some serious work over the next couple days, I winch up the 150-pound anchor attached to a 3-inch chain twenty feet long.  It’s seriously rusted, old as anything and undoubtedly cool.  Figuring it must be a pirates’ anchor from at least 200 years ago, I manage to hammer off the rust and coral before getting another crazy memento from our trip.  (Research now puts the date between 1785-1825.)  I’m doubly glad that I let Ella keep her one-pound anchor.

A local Kuna family comes by in their dugout and leaves later after we buy some Christmas

presents for family back home.  Having invited us to their home on another nearby island we show up the next day in our dinghy.  Cries of “Tortuga” greet us before landing.  Once again Chase is the hero in these parts with a name everyone

New friends

loves; Turtle in English, Tortuga in Spanish, Yauk for small turtle in Kuna, Morro for large turtle in Kuna.  We constantly hear cries of “Tortuga” from passing dugouts.  Today it is the beginning of a friendship with these locals.  We have some fun with them and when I bring out my camera the fun really starts.  Families are posing together and with Ella and hanging out in their canoes as a living room set.  A woman who a week later I discover is Sammy Morris’ niece introduces her 11-month-old son as “tortugito” – little turtle.  Chase is ecstatic – kinfolk.

Ah! The anchor. Evan and I had a great time paddling this dugout.

As we are leaving I tell Eric who speaks the best Spanish of the bunch that we should trade

paddles.  Immediately, he comes out with his best paddle and we are both happy for getting the better deal.  He tells me to try his paddle out with his dugout.  It’s fun.  Getting Evan, my

paddling buddy for years in with me, we make an erratic circle with laughter all around.  These boats are tippy and responsive.  Eric keeps telling me to look out for the rock below.  Not too worried, we continue on.  I’m more worried about the crab attached to the back that keeps grabbing my paddle.  When we stop Evan gets out and proceeds to dump us both in to the great hilarity of all present.  That’s when we find out about the anchor, a rock, that we have been dragging around.  Once again, the joke is on us.

As we are leaving, a fishing boat has entered the bay and it’s time for work.  Heading back to Rivers2Seas we tow their dugout behind us.  Later, I call them over and present them with fish hooks and Rivers2Seas hats.  In a great gesture later that night they return with five small lobsters as gifts.  It’s actually rare for the Kuna to trade or give gifts back so we are deeply grateful.  They teach us how to devein them by using the antennae which works wonderfully.  Later a large lobster dinner becomes our birthday celebration for Olivia.

We have had a great visit from our friends, but after nine days it’s time for them to go.  They are travelling in Panama for three weeks and obviously wanted to stay longer and we wanted them to stay too, but food, propane and diesel are all in short supply or impossible to get here.  Every day they spend here is a day earlier we would have to leave the San Blas Islands.   They find a ride to Carti on a 75-foot megayacht, which I bet takes only an hour.  It would have taken us 2-3 days there and the same back.

More storms and more lightning

The storms took a break while Evan and Olivia were here but come back for four days straight.  Several hours each morning are filled with lightning strikes to close to count the distance, tingly feelings in our hair and thunderous roaring that reverberates through the boat and our bones.  I get some cool video of a couple strikes but am a bit scared to get too much.    Another boat sees a strike forty yards from us that strikes a coconut tree.  Our Kuna friends had a strike hit six feet from their hut that he said almost made him go deaf.  I kept part of the tree that exploded from the impact.  We get dozens of strikes within a half-mile of Rivers2Seas.  It has been a bad season for storms and many sailors are reporting that 10% of boats have been hit resulting in $4,000-45,000US in damages.  One friend half-jokingly wanted to wrap herself in aluminum foil to protect her.  She settles for earplugs and closing the curtains to form a cave and hides under the covers.  If you’re not scared of the lightning out here, you’re not paying attention.

Once the storms subside there is enough light for us to travel again.  Our goal is the Eastern

Many reefs around here are marked nicely with wrecked boats. Not exactly comforting.

Lemons, but light is fading as we enter the large bay.  Our horrible charts and less than adequate books are not much help as we negotiate a 8 foot sand bar while skirting several reefs.  As with many of the reefs here a smashed up sailboat rests on one of the reefs from a sailor with not enough light, time or experience.  Our charts show a shoal that we can find and several rocks that we cant.  The water is deep inside the bay at 60 feet but most all of the boats are moored and won’t swing.  With a minimum of 240 feet of line out we will swing almost 500 feet in a circle.  Not knowing where the rocks are or the bottom composition we try to anchor once, drag and bring it up to head for a different anchorage.  The kids were ready to swim and are unhappy; so are we the light is fading fast.

The Chichime Islands are only a couple miles away so we skirt around a sailboat wreck 70 feet off port and head through a reef cut.  At Chichime two wrecked boats mark two separate reefs, but another six are unmarked.  The confusing guidebook points the wrong way.  Lindsey’s keen eye from high above sees the reef and points the way.  Inside we anchor with another 20 boats in soft sand.

Teaching local kids to SUP in Chichime

Grabbing a beer for Lindsey and I and lemonade for the kids I relate my stories of these three islands in my past.  My first sailing experience was to travel through the Panama Canal for five separate boats, then to work aboard Chantyman and sail to Portobello and then this anchorage with two other sailboats.  It was my introduction into paradise.  The smallest island with two palms on it became my campsite while there.  We didn’t stay long before heading out to Providencia and the USA.  I came back here a couple years later with Bobby and Chad when we bought the dugout canoe.  The island to our starboard is where machine gun toting policeman arrested us then dragged us on to into Nargana.

Ella practices getting high for reef spotting.

One set of three huts lined the shore of one island; the other was only used to get water out of a well in the middle.  The islands are all the same size; a football field, a half football field and a volleyball court size.  Now though, there are five settlements of huts, a bar on each of the larger islands, a backpacker hostel with cabanas, tents, showers, volleyball and dining area, 20 boats in the anchorage and a helicopter even landed on one island.  Paradise was found in my absense.   Disheartening for sure, but not unexpected.

All but a couple of the boats are the singlehander men that seem so strange.  The vibe is weird here, the Kuna come begging for goods and the scenery is marred – we stay two nights before getting out.  Long enough for someone to board us in the middle of the night and steal all the money out of my wallet lying in the entrance.  The $100 is not of significance, but the violation is without a doubt.  Other cruisers are adamant it was not the Kuna but one of the other cruisers.  We agree, but it is sad.

As one boatload of cruisers is talking to us from their dinghy (to ask if we had a dive compressor they could use, which we don’t) they were astounded that we had been in the San Blas for six weeks and they hadn’t seen us.

“We started in the Eastern San Blas and have been working this way slowly,” I said.

Just one of the beautiful islands surrounding us

“Oh, the Holandes.  I don’t like it there.  There are too many Americans.”

“No, the Eastern San Blas.”

“Huh?”  He’s confused.

“We started in Puerto Obaldia, then Puerto Escoses, Isla Pinos, Mamitupu, Ratones Cays, Isla Tigre then we hit the Western San Blas in Nargana.”  It’s defeating for all of them in the dinghy.  We have been travelling the uncharted waters of a very difficult area with kids.  He had tried to insult me with his crack about Americans in the Holandes, yet it proved we have done so much more than all of them.  It feels good.

Leaving the Chichime Islands behind we motor two miles away to Yansaldup Island.  It takes an hour and a half winding through tight channels between reefs.   A wide bay surrounded by reef has one other trimaran ¾ a mile away and us.  Our type of home.

A great beach for the kids

We rest doing boat chores for several hours and then SUP trips to nearby islands a couple miles away and redneck snorkeling (using the dinghy over reefs to check out the animals below) each day.   A week later it’s time for us to head over to Porvenir to check out of the San Blas Islands.

Porvenir is an island with only an airstrip on it and the customs house.  Nowadays it is twice as long as it used to be.  With my buddies after our dugout canoe trip we waited here in our hammocks for a boat to take us to Puerto Obaldia on the Colombia/Panama border.  Each time a plane would land, twice a day, the local Kunas would come out to watch.  I thought they were amazed with flight and all it’s possibilities.  Actually, they were just watching NASCAR – Kuna style.  So many planes have crashed on the short runway plunging into the sea that all want to see it happen.  Made me glad we were waiting for a boat and not a plane.

Wichi Walla is the island forty meters from Porvenir.  With one last effort to find a sail for our dugout canoe I ask a local, Ernesto, for help.  Soon this wiry man with passable English is bringing us home to home in our efforts.  The first sail is nice but lacks a jib.  The second home we must parade through fifteen kids watching a movie on a big screen TV.  It seems so oddly out of place with the sand floor, bamboo framed thatched hut.   Up above in the rafters are large bags full of clothes and other things; it appears that some Kuna are packrats and hoarders.  We continue the search and settle on one for $30 Balboas (actually they use US dollars and don’t even print their own money except for a handful of coins).  A crowd of ten men has watched the episode and thinks it is hilarious that an American would want one of their sails.  I have only two twenties and nobody has change, absolutely typical.  I buy the man’s well-used wooden ironwood paddle that he has used for dozens of years for the extra ten.  We both made a great deal.

Walking back through town that is very accustomed to tourists with a sail, mast, boom,

I’m going to miss sights like this

spinnaker pole and paddle, we are seen as suckers in the house.  We get accosted for more purchases with women and kids streaming out of their homes selling their goods.  Finally boarding the dinghy we have the sail set up, five paddles, a new bracelet for Lindsey, a mariachi gourd, a calabash bowl and a shiny jib.

It is with great sadness that the anchor is brought up at 6am.  The San Blas islands have treated us so well.  This is the place I most wanted to visit on our round the world voyage.  I love the Kuna people and their affinity for traveling in canoes either by sail or paddle.  The exquisite white sand islands surrounded by deep blue water and sparkling emerald water are what people view paradise as – and they are right.  This is paradise here.  We worked hard to get here over the last year and the last seven weeks has been everything I had hoped.

Sailing over tranquil seas riddled with tree trunks and coconuts brings us into Puerto Lindo.  The anchorage is a surprise with 75 boats in the protected bay.  Monkeys howl from shore and then are answered by the troop on the far shore.  Parrots squawk in that crazy call that cannot be mistaken.  A cacophony of other bird sounds rise deep within the jungle walls.

Lindsey has taken a lot of grief over the comment about the log looking like a crocodile.  Sitting on the trampoline listening to the jungle, she says, “Is that a camel?”  We all laugh at her before even looking.  Ella is adamant that camels only live in the desert.  Oddly, it is a camel.  I feel as though we took a wrong turn somewhere and now are living in the Madagascar movie.  A few days ago we saw the same four engine propellered plane as in the movie come low out of some dark clouds with one engine out, flames and smoke spilling out.  We guessed that a lightning strike took it out.  We couldn’t see if four penguins were the pilots, but it’s possible.

Puerto Lindo has some cool areas to explore by dinghy, but is filled with old cruisers ready to die and boats that already have.  Meeting a boat with two boys four and five keeps us there a couple extra days as they play and laugh together.

inside the fort, soldiers wait for the likes of Henry Morgan

Heading to Portobello just a few miles away, brings us into one of the most famous ports

keeping Spanish gold (mostly) away from pirates like Henry Morgan and Vernon.  The place had been ransacked and burned many times and the forts just kept getting better.  Making some hikes to four of the forts takes up most our day as we pretend that the cannons are aimed at captain hook and his cronies and our Ninja Turtle and Fairy Princess are there to help.

Hauling up the sails is refreshing as we haven’t been able to sail in the Kuna Yala.  The sail is cut short as we weave in and out of freighters waiting to cross the Panama Canal.  Literally there are over 50 all around, some moving, mostly anchored.  It’s intimidating.  Smoke billows over Colon filling the air with an acrid smell.  Later, we find out that people are rioting and protesting the sale of land burning cars and shooting policemen.  Our planned restocking will have to wait, it looks like we may be having spaghetti again tonight.

We are in the marina at Shelter Bay now waiting for weather to head north.  Having only spent 3 nights previously in a marina (except leaving it in Santa Marta to head to Colorado) it’s a weird world of cruisers coming together.  Normally we would be anchored out, but all but one person we meet insisted on the safety of the marina.  Many had stories of scary incidents.   Colon is one of the most dangerous cities around, so spending $500US on lodging seems like cheap insurance.   We have, however, told the kids it was just so they could swim in the pool, enjoy the library, have cheap juices in the bar and go on jungle hikes during the day – all for them.

Happy still!!!

The Kuna Yala (San Blas) are my favorite place on earth – a true tropical paradise.  Reefs and lightning keep most sane people out.  Luckily, we aren’t sane.