Discovering the San Blas islands in the Kuna Yala – Panama

20110327 We were meant to be across the Panama Canal by now and on our way to the Galapagos islands, but I couldn’t be happier with our decision to extend our stay in the corner where Central America meets South America. We left Colombia with big smiles on our faces after a whirlwind 10 or so days there and were planning on stopping in the San Blas islands for a few days…. we ended up spending almost another 10 days in the San Blas and could easily have extended it to much, much longer.

Flying the Panamanian Flag – our 16th country in 12 months.

The overnight trip from Colombia was mostly uneventful, apart from one big highlight – catching and landing a decent 2 meter SailFish (Like a marlin except with a big dorsal sail).  We hooked it on our old rod which somehow withstood the 15 minute battle to reel in the small beast, which surprisingly didn’t put up the traditional marlin fight.

is it a tuna?, noooo…. holy  S%#t, it’s a Marlin – ahhh.. SailFish!
 IMG_6903  IMG_6906
The lure was hooked on its bill rather then his mouth.

Andy skillfully removed the lure from the Marlin’s bill, and it was off to live another day. IMG_6912

By 11:00 am we had spotted the Coco Banderas islands, our first stop in the San Blas – an archipelago of 365 islands off the North coast of the isthmus of Panama. IMG_6913

Our escort in through the reef pass. IMG_6925

One of a number of ship wrecks that are a constant reminder of how dangerous navigating reefs can be. IMG_6931  
Caitlin all smiles as we glide in through the calm water sheltered by the outlying reefs. IMG_6950

We call this one Two-palm island.  IMG_6953

Negotiating the narrow entrance, Simon & Andy keeping a good look out.    IMG_6959

This looks like a good spot to drop the pick! IMG_6960 
And voila, anchored on the south side of Olosicuidup island in the Coco Banderas Cays.

An to our right is Guarladup island IMG_6970

Watching the sunset behind Dupwala island. IMG_6980

We woke up the next day in paradise and it was thumbs up from everyone.  IMG_6985

With another perfect day at our disposal, we motored south 30 minutes to Green island where our friends Espen and Maylin had been kiteboarding some weeks earlier. Before taking off, we setup the Tripod and tried to capture our elation of being in paradise! little did we know this was just the beginning.  IMG_6987
After a couple of weeks travelling through cities, the fresh air, sunshine and crystal clear waters got to everyone’s heads!

the local Kuna indians get around in some amazing hand made vessels, some under sail whereas others have upgraded to outboard motors.IMG_6991

Leaving the Coco Banderas cays in our wake.   IMG_6998

These fishermen sailed out to sea in the morning and returned in the afternoon, spending hours trawling up and down the outer reefs.  

The next day we got up at the crack of dawn, when the wind seems to be the strongest and packed the dinghy full of kite gear.

The big dinghy barely fits all of the equipment – 3 boards, 3 kites, pumps, harnesses, drinks and 3 excitable grown men behaving like kids!
Simon was first cab of the rank, getting into his Cabrinha.   IMG_7015
ready to fly as the anchorage starts to wake up.  IMG_7019

And the Don is away….

I was next as Andy played support crew on the dinghy. 

we got a few hours of kiting in before the wind died and it was time to head in for a BIG breakfast and some downtime.

Not a long way to go for lunch!

the kites waiting for the afternoon session as we relax on the boat.   DSCN0386

The wind died off as the day wore on. DSCN0392
Caitlin trying to stay cool in the midday sun!

Meals are a big part of the day, partly because everyone has healthy appetites, but also because meals take some planning – sometimes we will go for 2-3 weeks without having an opportunity to buy food, so we have to manage our supplies – making 84 meals per week!! (3 meals/day for 4 people) Catching fresh fish helps a lot as does the occasional stroke of luck – like a local Kuna fisherman paddling up with 4 huge crabs and countless lobsters and asking $12 for the whole lot!!!  IMG_7024
yes, you can have all of this for $12!
IMG_7028  IMG_7036
Crabs anybody?? this guy was still alive and kicking
6 minutes in a pot of boiling water and dinner is served!

The next day was Andy’s birthday, so we decided to sail to Lemmon Cays where there was small bar on the island and even access to internet. It was also meant to be one of the better places to see all sorts of coral in one of the reef passes.

The reef did not disappoint.

IMG_7046  IMG_7050   IMG_7072 IMG_7076 IMG_7079   IMG_7085 IMG_7088  IMG_7098 IMG_7102

After a good snorkell, we took the dinghy for a spin to check out the surrounding islands and villages, before returning to Squander and preparing a  birthday dinner feast for the man of the moment. IMG_7106 IMG_7117 IMG_7121
the internet bar in the Lemmon Cays.

We had picked up some New Zealand lamb 2 months ago and had been saving it for a special occasion – Andy birthday seemed to be as good an excuse as any to BBQ it up, all was set and ready to go when a local Kuna "spoiled" our plans – he paddled up with a freshly caught Snapper and what looked like a trevally
the fish were still alive and for $10 he offered us both fish and he would scale and gut them for us…. Lamb was going to have to wait another day!!

Soon after a local Kuna family paddled up selling the local Mola, handmade patchwork squares that the local women sow and then make into all sorts of garments.
IMG_7131 IMG_7136
Caitlin a proud new owner of a Mola!

With the sun setting we got the BBQ fired up and cooked up Andy’s feast! IMG_7140 IMG_7141
Don Simon. "the male model from Mudgee" engineered an extra long carry tray for the 2-3 kgs of fish!


We had a great night, eating, drinking and even singing "Happy birthday"!!!

The next day, we decided to visit Dog island some 45 minutes around the corner, where a ship had run aground in the 1950’s and sat in only 2-4 metres of water making it easily accessible for snorkeling. 

Sailing to Dog Island!
Throughout the San Blas you spot tiny sand islands with little more then a hut on them!
IMG_7190    Approaching Dog island.
The bow of the ship stick out of the water. Apparently thanks to the captain beaching his leaking ship, most of the cargo was saved.  IMG_7169
Simon exploring the hold.
The ship or what’s left of it.  IMG_7180    IMG_7187
Nice camouflage.
IMG_7188  IMG_7192  IMG_7197  IMG_7208 
this little guy was tiny – centre of pic!
Amazing colors and crystal clear warm water!!
After a good snorkel, we visited the small island that welcomes guest and even has basic bungalows for people to stay overnight.
Loo with a view

after quenching our thirst with the "house special", we bid farewell to dog island and sailed onto Chichime – it turned out to be our favourite stop.

Adios Isla Perro!
The welcoming committee in ChiChime.

The baby spider monkey on the bow of the canoe was a classic! IMG_7246
hiding form the cold wind!
the traditional Kuna women trading in Molas


this one is for you Craig – bottle 1 of 6 – next one will be when we cross the Canal. IMG_7255
Squander anchored at ChiChime.

The main island has four families, roughly occupying a ‘corner’ each – You can walk around the entire island’s circumference in less then 20 minutes. The above family seemed to be the most modest and reserved and went about their daily lives seemingly unaware of our presence. Every day that we were there one of the men would spend 4-5 hours hand carving the piece of wood on the right of the above picture, he was half way through making a new canoe!  IMG_7264
The well beaten paths around the island
The dinghy "carpark"

The North Eastern tip of the island was our favourite. We spent many days lazing on the beach, playing with the dogs, kitebaording and meeting people from all around the world – Manuel and his girlfriend from Italy, Cassie from New Zealand, Angelica from Colombia (who incidentally wanted to come to Australia with us but needs a financial sponsor as she’s low on funds), Jasper from Denmark, a young couple from France, and numerous other people that made it a memorable stop.

Most evenings we stayed aboard Squander, relaxing and going to bed early – one night we went ashore and had a full moon bonfire on the beach – good times!
Andy & Caitlin hanging out as Negra minds the kite.

the coolest beach dog – Negra and her mum hangout all day on the beach.

We contemplated borrowing Negra and making her a boat dog, but after hearing the tragic story of her father we decided to let her live on land – apparently her father belonged to one of the yachties who stopped by last year. It seems the yachtie’s dog fell in love with Negra’s mum and they had a whirlwind romance….  when the yachtie sailed away, after a few hours the dog decided he wanted to stay and jumped overboard to try and swim back to the island – he never made it 🙁 but is survived by Negra and her mum who continue a daily vigil on the beach!

Manuel, the energetic Italian was a super keen spear fisherman and for days he entertained us with tales of 40 and 50kg grouper that just got away – to be honest we kind of doubted the veracity of his stories, until one day he returned to shore with this monster at the end of his spear – a 40KG Grouper!!!  DSCN0448
the villagers skillfully gutted the monster and saved every piece including the organs. Apparently they smoke the fish and preserve it for future consumption. 
Thumbs up from Simon as the afternoon clouds bring some perfect kitebaording breeze!
Local village life goes on without much care or consideration for us.  

One day the local boat delivered a bunch of Bamboo to build a new hut and everyone got involved unloading it.


Angelica is planning to spend a few months living amongst the Kuna, helping out, learning about their culture and hopefully finding a yacht to sail to India via the South Pacific.


Negra hanging out with her new friends 


We kited almost everyday, yet this seems to be the only picture – guess we were having too much fun!   IMG_7293

After the full moon party Jasper came over with some traditional Danish BitterDrum – Most of us went to bed at a reasonable hour, but Don Simon put in an almighty effort chewing the fat with Jaspers’s mate from Denmark – the only evidence left over was the empty bottles in the morning! IMG_7297
We see all sorts of boats sailing around the world, this 100+foot steel beast sailed in on our last day – an impressive go-anywhere boat from Germany!

Long faces as we bid farewell to San Blas to tackle the challenges of crossing the Panama Canal and say goodbye to Caitlin.  IMG_7307

The Caribbean side of the canal some 30-40 ships anchored inside and outside the breakwater. IMG_7316
The town of Cristobal part of the city of Colon – a previously unknown fact to me – Cristobal Colon is the Spanish translation of Christopher Columbus!
Approaching the breakwater entrance, you have to time your entrance to avoid the revolving door of ships entering and leaving past the biggest port and starboard markers we have ever seen.
Container ships everywhere you look!

We eventually snuck in through the breakwater under sail and headed straight for the international melting pot which is Shelter Bay Marina – our home for the next 10 days!IMG_7339

IMG_7341 IMG_7342

We have pulled Squander out of the water and as I write this, she has already had her bum scrubbed, two new coats of antifouling, a freshly greased prop and has been loaded with food for the next 3-4 months.

Andy took Caitlin to the airport, So Simon and I were left on our own to pull Squander out of the water – the massive facilities here made it a breeze compared to the efforts we had to go to last time in Lagos in Portugal.  IMG_7368
Ready to slide the slings under Squander

too easy – she looks tiny in the big travel lift!
12 tonnes of boat!
After a quick pressure wash, she’s ready to go on the hard!
taking Squander for a walk!
FedEx packages and envelopes everywhere….
South Pacific charts bought on
The brand spanking new spreader arrived in one piece from France!

the view from the Galley hatch at night – Hot and humid Central America! IMG_7410      IMG_7427
Labour is relatively affordable and of a high standard in Shelter bay marina, so we decided to have the boatyard do the hard work of sanding Squander, whilst Andy tackled our electrics issues and Simon and I went shopping.
Panama is cheap and has a big range of produce from around the world

Banana Boat sunscreen sponsors Squander – I wish!! IMG_7438

We also have a new crew member onboard – he is a virtual version of one of my closest friends from Australia who arrived via FedEx as the real person has commitments that prevent him from travelling with us – his real identity will be revealed in the next blog, but feel free to guess and post your comments below – the resemblance is uncanny so shouldn’t be too hard!!


Interlux ACT – you better be a bloody good antifoul!!! IMG_7441
Simon & Andy gave plenty of love to teh dinghy too, gluing and repairing it as needed – thanks guys!!
Freshly antifouled – Squander’s looking fast!!
Simon already has VM on the push up program

And so it is time to bid farewell – I will be emailing everyone once we know our exact Canal crossing time and if you happen to be awake you may be able to watch us live on the Canal webcam



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The three sets of  locks of the two-lane Canal work as water elevators that lift the ships to the level of Gatun Lake, 26 meters over sea level, and later lower them again to sea level on the other side of the Isthmus of Panama.

This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Kez

    Oh for GOODNESS’ SAKE – the life you’re leading Gav – it’s just amazing!! Pat just said to me that he can’t view your blogs anymore as he’s headed into the “active resentment of Gav’s life” zone!! Too funny!
    Hope you’re well – you all look it anyway – and safe – which you also look! Thanks for the updates, keep ’em coming, and one day……ONE day…….we’ll see you again!
    Much love,
    Kez x

  2. Adrian & Jan

    Hi Gav

    Squander is looking fantastic.
    Have a great canal transit, look forward to a wave on the web cam.
    Best wishes for a fast and safe Pacific crossing.
    All the best
    Jan & Aid
    The other Squanders

  3. Pani Stenkiewicz

    Drogi Gawelku
    Wzruszajace przepowiesci mlodych ludzi wedrujacych po morzach swiata, jak mewy biale na blekitnym niebem. Pamietam Ciebie kiedy niemal wywrociles nas z katamaranu zeglujac po Myall Lakes w Nowej Poludniowej Walii w roku tysiac dziewiecet osiemdzieciatym dziewiatym roku. Ty draniu! Prawie sie zsikalam ze strachu, jednak wiem ze teraz masz twoje silne rece mocno na sterze, i ze jako Kapitan wspanialych przygod mlodosci cos sie nauczyles o zaglowaniu!
    Chcialam napisac krotka poezje teraz, ale gotuje mi sie rosol i tez Miecio konczy wedzic swoja kiebalse, wiec zakoncze z usciskami i pozdrowieniami dla wspanialej zalodze Sklondera.

  4. Caity

    Awesome awesome blog gav!!! Missing the boat life a lot at the moment..keep the amazing stories coming and I will continue to be very jealous. Have fun boys! Xx

  5. Piero

    Mi querido Gavino!!!!! dude the underwater photos are out of control… and the size of that crab? unbelievable! hope you have a safe cross over to the pacific… A huge hug from us 4 🙂 yeap… we are going to be 4 soon… october again 🙂 LOVE LOVE LOVE!!!!!!!!!!

  6. gianni

    I wish i was there to enjoy… maybe one day…Ha ha ha…

    enjoy as much as you can!!!

    all the best,


  7. Michael

    Stunning underwater shots guys, and the quintessential palm island in front of the boat is going to become an iconic shot of the trip (amongst others)!!!

    Looks like the snapper was expertly cooked … must’ve been sensational! I’ve been racking my brain over the last year to work out who Don Simon reminded me of, and you just answered it for me … Kenny Sutcliffe – Back to you Richie!

    P.S. Was wondering why I woke up Saturday morning with my upper body aching … I can see results already 😉

  8. Maroun

    wow, i recognise VM’s shoes….just missing the t-shirt print!!
    as always, awesome pics and adventures…idyllic location, friendly locals, delicious food, sunshine and …..a sad love story!! there’s gotta be a movie script here!!

Comments are closed.