Sailing the San Blas Islands

A few years ago in Guatemala I met a traveler, Johanna, who told me that if I ever got the chance I should sail through the San Blas islands. Since that time I’ve wanted to take the voyage, and I couldn’t think of a better way to end this one and a half year trip than by fulfilling this dream.

The boat was a 45 foot Sun Odyssey run by Captain Jose Antonio and his partner Elly. Fellow passengers were an Aussie, Timmy, a Kiwi, Matty, and an Argentinean couple, Martín and Wanda. We sailed out of the Cartagena port at about 5:30pm in time to watch the sun set over the ocean.

The waters were calm, and I didn’t have to use the stock of seasickness pills I’d loaded up on. We did hit little rainstorms about once a day, usually early in the morning. The first night I woke up to the sound of thunder and felt the boat lean hard to one side. I looked up to my room’s window, through which I normally saw sky, and saw only water. I went to stand up, but wasn’t sure whether to stand on the floor or the wall. When I got up to the deck, Captain Jose was frantically pulling down the sails and soon enough we were back upright.

Other than that, the two day trip to the islands was uneventful. One of the best parts was being escorted by about a dozen dolphins as we arrived in the islands. They swam in front of the boat and on its sides, weaving and jumping and playing with us for a good 10 or 15 minutes.

There are over 360 islands in the San Blas archipelago, most of which are tiny and uninhabited, or maybe have one Kuna family living there in a hut. We anchored between two islands, each of which had a couple huts, jumped overboard and swam ashore to explore. That’s pretty much how the next 24 hours went. The next day we passed the “Island with 1 Palm Tree” and anchored up next to “Island of the Dog”. The reefs being shallow, there were lots of sunken boats, and we snorkeled over some of them to check out the forming coral and the fish hanging around.

I put on two applications, separated by an hour of soak-in time, of SPF-100 water resistant sun block, but still charred my back. A week later, despite applying half a bottle of aloe vera gel, I’m peeling impressively.

On the fourth night of the trip we anchored up next to Porvenir, an island just off the coast of Panama. We went on the island and met some of the Kuna people in their indigenous dress of bright colors and lots of bracelets around their calves and forearms. It’s a simple life they live, and it was cool to see it firsthand.

The next day we were dropped off on shore and took a 3-hour 4×4 ride (we were told it was 1 hour) to Panama City, where it was nice, except for my hollering due to sunburn pain, to have my first shower in 5 days.   In the end, Johanna was right — it was a trip worth taking.

Photos of the Cartagena skyline, the dolphins, sunsets, my travel mates, and a few of the San Blas islands are here.

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