Log #40—The San Blas Archipelago
Wednesday March 14 through Tuesday March 20, 2001

Portobelo—Named by Columbus; Plundered by Sir Francis Drake

Click here for Becky's perspective on Log #40

On Wednesday March 14th, with the successful transit of the Canal behind us, we departed the anchorage area adjacent to the port of Cristobal, the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. We motor sailed east in large swells towards the bay of Portobelo—named Puerto Bello by non-other than Christopher Columbus in 1502 during his fourth and final voyage. That's amazing to me. I think the oldest history we have in the United States is the original McDonald's restaurant in Arlington Heights, IL.


Fort San Fernando, Portobelo


English sailor Sir Francis Drake, who gained fame looting Spanish ships and villages on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and for circumnavigating the globe, used Portobelo as a base in 1570. To the Spanish captains, Drake was known as the pirate El Draque. Returning to Portobelo in 1590 Drake destroyed the beginnings of the Spanish fort there. He died on this last voyage and, reportedly, was buried at sea in a lead coffin in the waters outside the harbor.

Spain extracted vast amounts of gold from South America. Virtually all of it was brought to Portobelo on a road called Las Cruces (the cross). The Panama Guide, our cruising guide written by Nancy and Tom Zydler, states that "according to Thomas Gage, an English born Jesuit, the warehouses of Portobelo would get so full of gold that silver ingots lay in the streets, unguarded."

In 1739, British Admiral Vernon finally destroyed the forts of Portobelo, although remnants of the forts can still be seen from anchorage today.

Portobelo's well-protected bay quickly dissipated any memory of the rough seas we had just crossed.

More Water Maker Blues

During our sail we turned on the water maker for the first time since Chris and I had installed the new membrane and fresh water flush system—only to discover that the feed pumps weren't priming. No water. That afternoon and evening, at anchor in Portobelo, Chris and I checked every aspect of our installation, and even went so far as to take some newly-installed components apart. The system wasn't producing water, and neither of us could figure out why.

Spectra Systems, located in Sausalito, provides exceptional customer support. So I called on the satellite phone and spoke with Glen, who gave us several suggestions for priming the pumps. One of the suggestions was to close off the seawater intake and prime the system with a bucket, "using a funnel if you have to."

Long after dark I sat discouraged, in the cockpit, trying unsuccessfully to prime the system. We had been working on the water maker for six or more hours. The cabinet under the galley sink had been opened wide, and its contents disgorged all over the floor of the main cabin, intermixed with every tool on the boat and all the parts from the electrical kit, not to mention assorted wire ties, cans of Pringles potato-like chips, candy wrappers, two discouraged crew members, and a bordering-on-depressed spouse.

In an effort to prime the pump, I poured water into a funnel, feeding into a 1/2-inch hose that should have been filling up, but wasn't. I asked, to no one in particular, where all the water was going. Chris responded by crawling under the sink—probably his 50th visit of the day—and announced that he had found the problem. One of the new hoses I installed had cracked around the hose clamp; only it was on the back side of the hose, against the wall, where we couldn't see it. The water I poured into the hose drained visibly into the locker under the sink. I replaced the hose and, bingo, the system worked. Fresh water, made from seawater, flowed out of the new membrane. On a boat heading to an area that is over a hundred miles from the nearest source of fresh water, that was a very exciting thing to watch.

The San Blas Archipelago—Home of the Kuna People

Thursday March 15 we sailed sixty miles east from Portobelo to the San Blas Islands—over 400 islands spread throughout 100 miles, inhabited by the Kuna people.

Originally dwelling in the mountains, the Kuna moved to the coastal areas and islands many generations ago. Historically, the Kuna have expressed a high degree of xenophobia. A February 1941 article in National Geographic stated, "Once it was sure death for a white person to be found in the San Blas country after nightfall. Strangers were required to leave before sunset, and if a stubborn straggler remained past the zero hour, whatever happened to him was his own fault. By such measures the islanders sought to maintain the purity of their race."


Molas from the San Blas Islands

But today, the San Blas Archipelago overflows with cruisers from the US, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and other countries. And the Kuna now look to these cruising outsiders as a prominent source of income. Kuna women aggressively sell molas, vivid patterns stitched from brightly colored fabrics. The men sell crabs, lobsters, molas, and their labor.

The primary cash crop, however, continues to be coconuts. Each tree on every island is individually owned. Nuts are sold to Colombia, but the market is diminishing over time, leaving the Kuna with a dwindling source of income, and even more dependent on cruisers. (The only way to visit this unique geography and culture is by boat.)

Kuna society is tribal, dominated by the village chief. Strict laws govern the behavior of their citizens: Kunas must pay for permits to travel to other villages or mainland Panama, although some children attend the university in Panama City. The society is also matriarchal, dominated by women. Husbands move into the compound of the wife's family. Better toe the line boys.


Kuna Invasion:
Women Sell Molas on Andanté


Late Thursday afternoon we checked in at Porvenir, the port of entry to the San Blas Archipelago. Early next morning a dugout canoe approached with two women, two young girls, and buckets of molas for sale. These women understood the concept of target marketing: they had staked out the entry port and made sure they were first in line for all recently arrived yachts.

They pulled alongside and displayed some of the molas from the canoe. But soon one of the women asked, politely, if they could come on board. No sooner had the sounds "y…es" formed on my lips than all four of them were on the aft deck with molas covering every square inch. They sold aggressively: While you looked at one, they tried to sell you five more. Want a mola of a fish? No problem; they had 15. Want a certain color? Twenty more appeared with the exact color you were looking for.

The women sold not only molas, but necklaces, bracelets, mola shirts, and mola dresses. Inventory of small shirt sizes lacked a little bit. But what do you expect from a dugout canoe?

I tried to use my expert negotiating tactics on the transactions, but the price was firm. You want to get 10 items for $100 instead of $130? They take two molas out. After you've paid the $100, they then immediately try to sell you the two additional molas that you were interested in for $30.00. This is called capitalism, and they seem to understand it much better than many of our elected representatives in Washington DC. So my proposal is that every US senator and congressman should be forced to spend six months in the San Blas selling molas from a dugout canoe.


Kuna Women in Traditional Dress

Encouraging the women to leave the boat. Now that proved to be a bit of a challenge. Between the four of us we probably spent about $150 US. But from their perspective, there were buckets more of molas to buy, and as far as they were concerned, we had buckets of cash to buy them with. Eventually, we did convince them that we really, honestly, sincerely, didn't want to buy any more molas.

As far as my negotiating skills, I was able to get several free photographs out of the deal—even though I had to give a couple of molas back. But they were small molas. And I only have to write royalty checks for three years instead of four. So really, I came out ahead. I just shouldn't have given my American Express card number as collateral.

I felt privileged to shoot any photographs at all, because most Kunas shun photographs. Kuna traditions taught that their souls passed from their bodies in through the camera lens.

Just Like the South Pacific, Only Better

Friday afternoon we sailed from Porvenir to the Western Naguargandup Cays, a secluded anchorage that Heather selected from the guide book.

The next morning, before we had gained consciousness, a steady stream of dugout canoes approached us with drive-buy capitalism. First came a mola-selling family: father, mother, and little boy. We bought. Next came Venancio Restrepo, the "master mola maker." (Probably a registered copyright.) We bought. Next came two guys selling fresh crab. We bought. Next came another family: father, mother, and young infant. "No mas molas," I pleaded. Mom was extremely displeased. She let it be known with a look that was licensed to kill, and a few choice words that I did not understand, but did get the gist of.

Later in the day, despondent and all alone in my aft cabin, I sat sullenly, trying to figure out how all my money could disappear in these remote anchorages. But later that evening we feasted on fresh crab and a bottle of Chilean wine, which made things a little better. We anchored off a series of palm-tree lined, white sand islands that rival anything in the South Pacific.


Children Greet Us in Nargana


On Sunday the 18th we sailed to the island pueblo of Nargana, also known as Isla Rio Diablo, a small island off the mainland. Here we met Federico, a self-defined liaison between cruisers and the village. Federico informed us that generations of his family had lived on the island, and had originally moved there because of malaria in the interior.

Our first stop on the island was at the hut of the secretary of the village Congreso, the tribal governing body. We disbursed $6.00 to the Congreso for the privilege of anchoring in the bay and visiting the town.

Next, we paid an official visit to the village chief, which was actually more of a brief handshake as we passed each other in the street. We then received an official tour of the village, which included a visit to Federico's hut, the main square, the local store, and the bridge that connects Nargana with Corazon de Jesus, its neighboring village island to the east.

Both villages reeked of smoke from burning coconut husks, which emanated from almost every hut. The dark, pungent smoke hung low throughout the village's dusty streets, and even wafted into our anchorage. The smoke permeated anything that came into the vicinity of its haze. One afternoon, Federico's 'woman,' as he referred to her, laundered our clothes, sheets, and towels. After washing the fabrics in a bucket, she hung them to dry in her back yard. Everything returned to us had absorbed the dense, musky, smell of smoke. We had to wash almost everything several times again to remove the odor.


Family Preparing Their Ulu
to Visit Another Island

The Kuna people live a life based on subsistence. They burn coconut husks for fuel. Fish for food. And collect drinking water with their dugout canoes, called ulus.

Ulus provide the main source of transportation for Kuna families, and you are as likely to see them with mainsails and headsails as you are to see them with outboard motors. They create sails from white cloth, but sometimes use any available material, including rags or sheets of plastic. You see these tiny sailboats with their white sails dotting the entire archipelago. And as you watch them approach and then sail past, you realize that you're not watching young boys playing with small sailboats, but rather a father, mother, and children using their primary mode of transportation to move from island to island. The Kuna sail their ulus as effortlessly as we jump in the car and drive to the mall.

That evening, we celebrated Chris and Heather's last day by patronizing one of Nargana's new restaurants. Given the sanitary conditions on the island, or lack thereof, I had an uneasy feeling about the restaurant. With no running water on the island, how did they sanitize the pots, pans, dishes, and flatware? This is not a question you want to ask while halfway through your main course. Probably better not to know. Then, the next day, we realized that our meal had been prepared with the freshest water available—collected from about two miles upriver.

Tuesday morning I deposited Chris and Heather at the local airstrip, a short dinghy ride from our anchorage. I waved good-bye as their plane flew off towards Panama City, and the flight that would return them to Seattle. Later that afternoon, we picked Federico up at his waterfront hut for a tour up the Rio River. The primary attraction, which we never came close to, were white-faced monkeys that reportedly live in the trees lining the river.


Collecting Drinking Water
From the River in Rio Diablo


Instead, we learned that Federico, and other villagers, make the trip upriver four or five times a week to collect drinking water. They travel in ulus—some with outboard motors; but most paddled by hand. They travel to an area of the river where the "water is fresh and clear." This turns out to be a bend in the river where the water is fast-flowing and least stagnant. Here they fill large plastic containers with the river water, and then paddle the return trip back to the village. The untreated water is used for drinking and food preparation. That night I had second thoughts about all the work I had to invest in my water maker. It all seemed worth it: near distilled quality water at only 240 parts per million with the flip of a switch.

Federico also took us to the village burial grounds—located, incidentally on a high section of ground upstream from the water collection site. The Kuna cemetery contained about 50 graves. Family members had placed belongings of the deceased person on the top of each grave. Similar to the Egyptians, Kunas believe that inanimate objects also have a spirit, and that these objects can assist the deceased person in the afterlife. So the person's possessions are left at the gravesite. If this is not done, the person's spirit will return to collect the articles.


Up Next ...

Log #41—The San Blas … Continued

New Logs | All Logs | Route Maps | Links | Sponsors | What's New | Home | Contact | Search