The best kept secret in the Caribbean?

November/December 2006

To the editor: The San Blas Islands are less a well-kept secret than an often-overlooked cruising ground. The islands are a sailing paradise unspoiled by excessive tourism.

Composed of more than 100 islands off the eastern coast of Panama near the Colombian border, the San Blas Islands remain a largely unknown area. Their location in the southwestern corner of the Caribbean prevents many voyagers who sail in other areas of the Caribbean from venturing to the islands. This is a shame. While voyagers fantasize about the South Pacific, about anchoring in calm lagoons surrounded by scenic reefs and interacting with interesting indigenous peoples, the San Blas Islands offer such an opportunity much closer to home.

Adding to the allure of the San Blas Islands, and Panama in general, is the relative affordability of food and housing. Granted, the accommodations are basic and anyone expecting the luxuries of a resort will be disappointed. However, the simple pleasures of enjoying good food, warm, clear water and white sand beaches in beautiful surroundings more than compensate for any lack of modern conveniences.

The San Blas Islands are spoken of as a single voyaging destination, but in fact, the islands span 35 miles and are arranged in two strings of islands – one forming a barrier reef to the Caribbean Sea and the other in the lee of the barrier reef, closer to shore. There are several deep passages through the outer reef that allow entry to the calmer protected waters between the strings of islands. Once inside the reef, there is plenty of room for sailing among the many scenic islands.

The topography of the San Blas Islands resembles that of the British Virgin Islands. Reefs rise up out of the deep water to cut down the waves that have made their way across the Caribbean Sea. The protected lagoons are sheltered by the reefs and are often surrounded by several small islands. There are no navigational markers and all navigation is visual. As a result, most boats try to move among islands between the times of 1000 and 1400 while the sun is high, providing the best light for identifying the various shades of water that indicate depth. Charts are consistently inaccurate and should be used only as a rough guide to identify dangers. The clarity of the water makes navigation fairly straightforward, although it helps to have a person on the bow or slightly aloft to aid in guiding the vessel through reefs.

Throughout the San Blas there are many islands that contain small villages. These villages, more common near the mainland, house the local indigenous people, the Kunas. Even on extremely remote islands Kunas can be found, sometimes with a single family living on a small, isolated plot of land. These islands typically have one or two thatch-roofed huts surrounded by palm trees. When a boat arrives at an island, the local Kunas row out to the boat in dugout canoes and offer to sell molas, which are hand-woven wall hangings or pillow covers. These beautifully stitched molas range in price according to size and quality, but a square foot mola typically sells for about $5 U.S. dollars. The Kunas often speak some Spanish, as well as Kuna Yala, a local dialect unique to their tribe.

Voyagers to the San Blas Islands usually come from either the eastern Caribbean, via Venezuela and the ABC islands, or down the western Caribbean via Guatemala, Belize and Costa Rica. Many sailors completing a world cruise and planning to transit the Panama Canal enjoy spending several weeks or months in the San Blas Islands while awaiting a weather window in the Pacific.

The passages from both the southern and western Caribbean are fairly straightforward and there are a number of scenic stops along the way that can break up the passage into more manageable legs. Due to the location, waves from the Caribbean Sea tend to pile up near the San Blas Islands, so the passage can be rolly at times. Winds can also regularly strengthen to upwards of 30 knots depending on the weather patterns impacting the Caribbean, so forecasts should, as usual, be monitored.

For voyagers seeking an escape from busy anchorages in search of phenomenal natural beauty and interested in an authentic local culture, the San Blas Islands are one of the top voyaging destinations in the Caribbean.  

By Ocean Navigator