Voyage of Traveler / Blog

April 11, 2010

Traveler Postcard From San Blas Islands, Panama

Filed under: Year 3: July09 - July10 Greece to Newport Beach, CA, Caribbean — mrlawlerjr @ 2:56 pm

April 7, 2010
San Blas Islands, Panama

After Brian and I arrived at Colon and checked in with the Panama Canal Authorities to have Traveler measured and paid the fees ($1,750 for a boat our length to transit the canal), we scheduled a transit date of April 8 and 9. That gave us about a week to visit the San Blas Islands, a vast archipelago of 340 islands on Panama’s Caribbean coast midway between the Canal and the Colombian border.  The San Blas Islands are a favorite stop for cruisers either before or after transiting the canal.

On April 1 Brian and I anchored at one of the more popular islands (but only four other boats when we were there) called Chichime.  Within a few minutes three colorfully dressed Kuna Indian women, probably related, paddled out to Traveler in a dugout canoe to offer to sell us molas.  A mola is a hand stitched colorful quilt of cotton fabric, usually about 8″ x 10″ and often made into decorative throw pillows or stitched onto the front of a t-shirt.  Each mola is unique, takes a Kuna woman about a day to make, and costs about $20.  I bought six.  Not sure what I’m going to do with them when I get back, but they are beautiful.  We went ashore and made friends with the man of the family (only six Kuna live on this gorgeous tropical island.) The next morning he took Brian out in his dugout canoe to the reef to spear fish and try to catch lobster with a snare.  They brought back a couple of lobster, which we ate for dinner.  We also gave this Kuna family some medicine for their sick grandmother and some milk for a nursing dog with puppies.  One of the puppies, about 6 months old, broke its pelvis from a falling coconut, causing it to walk with a severe limp.

Barbara arrived the next day, April 2, by flying in a small plane from Panama City to the tiny island of Porvenir, just three miles form Chichime, where we dinghied in to meet her. After getting by without Barbara for the past three months, it was really great to have her back onboard Traveler.  We celebrated with a Captain’s Brunch with champagne!  The tiny runway at Porvenir was built by the US Navy in WWII and is the only airstrip in the San Blas, with one flight a day.  We then sailed four miles to the Lemon Cays, anchored and learned from a neighboring yacht that the group of 20 or so yachts in that popular small group of islands (within the San Blas Islands) were having a potluck dinner and happy hour that night.  Some of the cruisers had sailed from California or from Florida, got this far, and decided they didn’t really need to go any further–they had found their paradise–and have been cruising the San Blas for four or five years!

We stayed a week, snorkeled every day, met Kuna and explored uninhabited islands (loved Coco Bandero), and then had to sail back to Colon to transit the canal.

We stopped for the night along the way at Portobelo (also spelled Porto Bello and Puerto Velo on some charts).  What an amazing history.  Discovered and named by Columbus on his Fourth Voyage, it became the primary port for the Spanish galleons to transport gold and silver from throughout Central and South America to Spain.  For over one hundred years, one-third of the world’s gold passed through Portobelo.  The ‘Queen’s Pirate,’ Sir Frances Drake, the first British navigator to circumnavigate the world, died of yellow fever here in 1596 and was buried at sea at the mouth of the deep bay in a lead coffin.  Later, in 1739, at the height of the Spanish gold shipments, Adm. Edward Vernon sacked Portobelo and made off with millions in gold.  After that, the Spanish crown abandoned the overland route across the Panamanian isthmus and ordered its ships to sail the long way around Cape Horn to and from the west coast of South and Central America.

Portobelo is also famous throughout Panama for the colonial church, built in 1776, which contains the life-sized statue of the Black Christ on the cross.  Thousands of pilgrims come to Portobelo, many of them crawling on their knees to show respect (and a handful of those crawling come from as far away as Costa Rica!) each year for the Festival of the Black Christ.  The statute was being shipped from Cartagena to Portobelo when the ship sank in a storm.  The statue, in a wooden crate, floated, was found by fishermen and brought to Portobelo–considered a miracle.  That year, yellow fever swept through nearly every village of Panama killing thousands, but no one died in Portobelo–considered another miracle and attributed to the Black Christ–which is believed by the devoted Catholics of Panama to have miraculous healing powers. I said a prayer to the Black Christ for Traveler’s safe passage on our remaining 2,700 miles, the home stretch.

The next Postcard will be about our transit of the Panama Canal.

Living the Dream,
Michael with Barbara and Brian
Yacht “Traveler”

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