San Blas Islands

04th March 2011

With a feeling of unease we handed over our passports in a bar in Cartagena (Colombia) [1] to Captain John, owner of the 18 metre yacht Wild Card which was going to take us to Panamá via the San Blas Islands.  A group of 16 backpackers boarded the following evening and were soon under way, leaving the city lights behind.  While we didn´t sail off into the sunset, we motored into the night – nearly the same thing.


Out in the open ocean the wind was 10 to 15 knots with waves of 2 to 3 metres.  Pam was hurled out of our bunk during the night when a bigger wave broke over the boat.  Even with sea sickness pills we were feeling terrible and wondered why we had decided to travel 180 nautical miles in open sea in the windy season.  All was forgotten when the first of some 365 idyllic, mostly deserted, white sand, palm filled islands of the San Blas Archipelago [2] came into sight.  What a paradise.


We spent 3 days moving among the islands, anchoring for snorkelling and swimming in the clear water.  Out of nowhere appeared Kuna Yala indigenous in canoes with fish, octopus, lobsters and conch shells for sale as well as the colourful molas made by the women.  The Kuna Yala people have autonomous control of the San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala) and allow no development – there are no hotels or resorts.  They do not permit marriage to outsiders so these people remain the most traditional indian group in the Americas.  The mola is part of the traditional women´s blouse still worn today.  Several layers of different-colored cotton cloth are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer.  The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down.  The stitches are nearly invisible.


John was full of surprises, producing a cheesecake for 2 birthdays on board and cooking up lobsters one night with a delicious seafood stew he had spent hours in the galley preparing.  All the seafood was so fresh it was still alive when it went into the pot.


All too soon it was over and we faced more rough seas to reach the mainland of Panama.  We awoke in a tranquil bay of Portobelo[3] surrounded by jungle covered hills.  Portobelo was founded in 1597 by the Spanish and became an important gold port.


Captain John on the Wild Card

Tom and Luke, the crew

The first of the San Blas Islands

Kuna Yala man fishing

Wild Card

The passengers on board

In the bunk

Beautiful islands

Lobsters for sale from the canoe

Kuna Yala women come to sell molas

Some of the colourful molas laid out on the deck

Women in Kuna Yala wrap colorful beads around their legs to create intricate and beautiful patterns

Another island

Sailing canoe

Densely packed village occupies the whole island

Village child

You could come by helicopter

John tenderises the octopus

Seafood feast on the deck of Wild Card

Two of the passengers enjoying their lobsters

Happy as pigs in poo

Sailing canoe

Windswept island

Not one more coconut tree will fit on here

Going ashore on one of the islands

Sparsely populated island

One last swim

Portobelo harbour at dawn

Old customs house

Fort at Portobelo

Cannons inside the Fort

Ocean bird

Portobelo church

Lady selling and wearing molas