Wednesday, February 23, 2011
In Cahuita, Costa Rica, we’ve never had a need for an alarm clock. You can rely on the Howler monkeys to wake you every morning at dawn. Cahuita’s national park and the forest that surrounds it are filled with large families of howler and white-faced monkeys, like the one above, whose deep guttural sounds are intimidating the first morning you awake to them. When you finally spot the source of it - these cute, and even friendly little buggers - you are amazed that they can emit such deep, gorilla-like sounds. The howler monkeys are just one of the many reasons we keep coming back to Cahuita, rich in multiculturalism and biodiversity.
Earthy, crunchy….natural, charming, quaint and Caribbean, are all good words to describe Cahuita, which is a nice blend of Latino, rasta-fari and European culture. Its popular among surfers and big on ecotourism. The region has its own distinct Caribbean flavor, influenced by an influx of Jamaican laborers who worked the banana fields at the beginning of the 20th century, following the construction of the Atlantic Railroad. The dependency on the unreliable, if not exploitative banana trade has recently been overcome by government investment in sustainable tourism.
The main village of Cahuita consists of two main dirt roads without a town center – the main road ending at the National Park. The atmosphere is relaxed, with a great mix of tourists and locals of all ages, and the lingering scent of ganja in the air. There are coffee shops, a handful of small grocery stores and restaurants. There’s also a European influence seen and felt in the Italian and international gourmet eateries, surf shops and cabanas.
The local flavor is a blend of Latino and Caribbean influences – where rice, beans and plantains meet Caribbean curries. When you first glance at a menu, the choices seem overwhelming, but have no fear - you’ll eat whatever meat or seafood is available. My favorite dish was the pulpo (octopus) in coconut curry, served up on New Year’s Eve with a funny story.
A cute frog hopped along the edge of the wall next to our table in a packed restaurant. He came from the roof, and it seemed he was quite lost, high atop this balcony eatery. He was no small frog – wide-mouthed, tan & green and four inches in length. Stephen dared me to try to catch him and carry him to safety. I couldn’t resist, and almost had him in my grip before the slippery little sucker launched forward and landed smack in the middle of a lady’s back, seated at the next table.
I let out a gasp before covering my mouth in hysterics. Stephen thought this scene was terrific, but also felt the need to inform the lady which initiated a string of events. He tapped her on the shoulder, and upon receiving the news, jumped, causing the frog to jump into her hair. As she began flailing around, the rest of her party jumped to her aid, knocking over beer bottles. The frog leaped to the next table, which subsequently jumped and shrieked and now the whole restaurant was involved, including the servers who were trying to capture the frog. We couldn’t stop laughing at the mayhem I started, if only they knew.
The main attraction is Parque Nacional Cahuita, a huge expanse of both natural rainforest (2,711 acres) and the adjacent shoreline that includes 600 acres of coral reefs. Preserved by the government. It’s well-maintained, with beautiful sand, boardwalk and a 4 mile forest trail that winds right along the beach.
In the forest, you can spot sloths sleeping in the trees. During our second trip to Cahuita, we visited the Avarios Sloth Reserve, where we saw many cuties like the one above, who were rescued when they fell prey to disease or development. One had lost an arm when electrocuted on some telephone wires. A baby born with a central nervous disorder, was unable to cling to its mother and abandoned at the base of the tree. Avarios was featured on Jack Hannah’s Animal Kingdom, which spurred our second trip to Cahuita in 2006.
While sloths spend most of their lives in the tree tops and are harder to spot, the 4 mile long park trail is teeming with monkeys, iguanas, raccoons, birds, butterflies and other reptiles. We’ve seen the occasional armadillo or anteater scurry across the paths. The raccoons tend to linger, knowing that where there are humans, there is also junkfood.
Birdlife abounds in the canopies and tropical streams: herons, toucans, parrots, and macaws. All kinds of sea turtles nest near Punta Vargas, where according to our National Geographic Costa Rica guide, “the waves help bring them in at high tide.”
In past trips, Stephen and I have walked right into spider webs spanning less traveled parts of the trail, deep into the forest. It was the first time I’ve ever seen anything startle Stephen as he forged ahead, smack into a web stretching from one side of the path to the other. In the middle of these huge webs were gnarly looking spiders that span the length of an adult hand. This enduring image combined with my malaria medication, invoked vivid dreams in which the mosquito net above our bed became the web I found myself entangled in. The dark shadows of the room turned into long, hairy spindly legs that startled me right out of my sleep. I flew out of that bed like a bolt of lightning, screaming, “spider, spider!” as Stephen flicked on the lights and began searching under the bed for the monster that was about to eat me.
On this trip, we packed a lunch one day and hiked to a more remote part of the beach, where we spread out our blanket and dozed off. We awoke to a masked bandit, far more plump (and apparently more skillful) than the one above, attempting to open our bag of goodies. He was so damn cute, it was hard to be cross with him, and he casually strolled away (obviously a Caribbean raccoon) when Stephen yelled at him to get lost.
Costa Rica abounds with reptiles, including over 160 types of snakes. We found this little guy, whom we think is either a common arboreal snake or the “chunk-headed” snake that preys on amphibians. He was casually hanging out in full view, along the edge of the trail. Stephen, being a snake lover, had no problem getting up close and personal for a photo. While the shape of his head looks threatening, we believe he is one of the more harmless types. We once passed a huge boa, crushed when attempting to cross the highway. Reminded of Lucy, who couldn’t come on the boat, but is finally living a fulfilled life as a new mama, Stephen immediately turned the car around to try to help him along, but it was too late.
Before leaving the park, we encountered un mono loco who was both engaging and frightening trail walkers. He was exceptionally friendly until the moment you wanted to walk away. He walked upright far more than scampering along on all fours, as though he believed himself to be human too. There are signs in the park that forbid the feeding of monkeys, and I wondered if he had landed some sugary junk food. As I snapped away with the camera, he walked right over to a spider web, plucked the gangly thing right out of the center, popped it in his mouth and crunched away. As Stephen began to turn his back on him, he crinkled up his little forehead and bared his teeth to show his displeasure. Unsure as to whether he might pounce, we slowly slinked away until we saw a new group of tourists approaching. Then we made a break for it to leave them discover just how cute this monkey was.
Stephen and I continue to stay at Siami Lodge at the quiet end of town. Sia Tami is down a dirt road, and is teeming with wildlife, since the property is at the edge of the park. There are several identical houses – all two bedroom, that go for $50 a night. The houses are cozy and airy, with beautifully landscaped yards: banana plants, coconut trees, huge fan palms, wildflowers and tropical plants that line the walkways. I could spend a month renting a place on this tranquilo property, where we had a howler monkey living amongst the trees in our front yard.
A French pastry chef and his children were actually renting the house across from us on a long term basis. We got well-acquainted with them the first night we made dinner and our kitchen utensils started breaking. I made my introduction with a half opened can and a second visit when our wine opener broke off mid-cork. When the final instrument broke, I told Stephen it was his turn, and he returned with a full box of éclairs for dessert!
We bought a lot of groceries in town to make use of the huge kitchen, but had sticker shock when we discovered the high taxes factored into the cost of everything, particularly wine and beer. After reading about how much Costa Rica typically invests in education, healthcare and the preservation of its climate, I wanted to believe that high taxes resulted in an improved state of well-being for all. But a local businessman shared his viewpoint on a top-heavy government, rife with corruption. Hmm….wherever you go, there you are. Or, same shit, different country.
Just the same, we were enjoying a vacation away from the boat and made good use of the house with hours spent on the front porch. Since we had seen much of Cahuita in the previous two years, I enjoyed doing a lot of nothing, like: rocking in a hammock with a good book, watching the sporadic rain fall and add color to all the landscaping, and sipping on coffee while observing our resident monkey in his tree.
One evening, I took a stroll down the lane, and encountered the monkey on the ground. He had just come down from the tree, and the family dog from across the way came galloping towards him. The monkey froze, upright in mid-stride. The dog froze too, and they locked eyes for a second before the monkey took off to join his family in the big tree at the end of the drive. For a moment, I worried what might happen if the dog caught him, but as the monkey reached the base of the next tree, the dog had a clear shot and let him get ahead before nipping playfully at his tail. The dog clearly just wanted to play.
On New Year’s Eve, the most popular local reggae and latino bar was overflowing with gringos, latinos and rastas, and was playing music for everyone. Up until midnight, locals paired off – some of the Latino men grabbing gringas to show them how to salsa. Then came the fireworks. Rewind the tape to early that afternoon, when Stephen wondered aloud what kind of a homegrown display we were in for. “I’m sure it will be somewhat official,” I answered, adding something about “Costa Rica seems especially interested in the safety of its people.” Fast forward to midnight: locals are launching small rockets of TNT in the middle of the street.
As they exploded just above our heads, I was trying to admire them while also ducking for cover. The embers and debris were raining down on the tin roofs and in the street around us, with a sound akin to hail. Less than 15 feet from where we stood, a man lit a firework while holding a baby on his hip. A band of rastas began a serious drumming session inside the bar to commence the mayhem. The fireworks were never ending, sporadically erupting well into the following afternoon. The walk home was precarious, like walking through a landmine of explosives combusting at street level.
The climate is so diverse, that within hours you can travel from tropical beaches to dense cloud forest in the Central highlands where most of the population lives. There’s a volcanic chain of mountains, including the still active Arenal, where resorts have been set up around the resulting hot springs. The entire landscape spans 12 “ecological zones” that include: “tidal mangroves, dry deciduous forest, tropical rain forest, subalpine grassland, and cactus covered, desert-dry savanna, (National Geographic guide).” Of all the places we’ve been thus far, Cahuita remains at the top of our favorite places to escape to. At every turn, there is amazing vegetation and wildlife. The beach is gorgeous. The culture respects the land, with 25 percent protected in wildlife reserves or national parks.”
The free and relaxed atmosphere of this town is the reason we keep coming back and even fantasizing about buying a plot later in life. The main highway was recently paved and we’ve noticed a huge difference in traffic just over the past few years. The increased accessibility is both good and concerning, but so far the growth seems positive and controlled. We love it here because it’s unpretentious and has a colorful populatin with virtually no class distinction or animosity between races. The people are good-natured and the whole town has a raw, natural beauty – but is developed with enough creature comforts that you don’t have to feel like you’re roughing it to enjoy it.
Tuesday, February 1, 2011
From August to December, we covered the San Blas archipelago of over 300 islands (East to West), leaving only once to do a major provisioning in Portobelo. In August, we had three more friends aboard: Moncie & Brigitte at the beginning of the month and then Christine a couple of weeks later. We were reunited with JC (Jean Charles), our charter captain in 2006, when we first fell in love with San Blas, with our friends Annie & Russ on Mohini and Dan & Yo on Jacana. We also met Tom & Julie aboard Gris Gris from New Orleans. They all fed us amazing dinners (sharing their cherished food stores when the nearest grocery store is 50 miles or a day sail away). They kept the wine and laughter flowing and our sanity in check in this place where it is easy to lose track of time and everything you thought you knew.
San Blas is like the doorway to the Western Caribbean, where many sailors from all over the world convene before or shortly after transiting the canal. We had the pleasure of meeting a diverse group of yachties from all over the world: couples, singlehanders and families with young children. It was interesting to be gathered together in such a remote part of the world, living temporarily among one of the last indigineous groups of people. Many conversations resulting from the cultural experiences and observations revealed both similarities and differences in perception.
After just a few weeks in San Blas, we anchored in the eastern part of the Coco Banderas and Stephen noticed that we had settled in next to “Thai Phou,” the 42 foot Jeanneau we chartered in 2006. Jean Charles wasn't aboard, but sailed in with guests a day later on another boat in his fleet. He swam over to greet us (he says he’s swimming more these days to work off years of wine and cheese). In minutes we transitioned from recognition to recall of memories from our trip. JC had recently lost his business partner to cancer and inherited the boat that he was now training his newest Kuna captain to sail.
As long as JC was in the area, we were always invited to join his charter. This was a great introduction to Kuna Yala, as they hopped to a new island each day. The first couple we met and spent the most time with were Zena and Jean-Urbain Hubau, a well-traveled couple originally from France and presently living in Brazil. They were extremely generous to share their time and meals onboard. JC is an amazing cook, so we were spoiled too early in our trip. In the weeks to follow, if we weren't lucky enough to score some crabs from the locals, every food group came from a box or can.
On the island of Miriadup, JC introduced us to the Kuna family that maintains it. They prepared a typical meal for us: squid ceviche, barracuda caught that morning, coconut rice and salad. There were quite a few pets on the island including a green parrot, a dog and an iguana acquired just that afternoon when they shook it down from the top of a palm tree. Jean, who is very fluent in Spanish, informed us that he overheard plans to eat the iguana. JC was in denial that this could be true and insisted that the iguana was “good for tourism,” and they wouldn't dare harm it. But when we returned to Miriadup on our own, the iguana was nowhere to be found and we were told that “the dog got it.”
On our trip four years ago, I scolded Steve & JC for their merciless defeat of the vertically-challenged Kuna in a volleyball match. This year, I watched in amazement as the Kuna made an epic comeback. They had obviously been playing a lot of volleyball in the past four years, and seemed to beef up a bit too. Now they were pulling out sneaky, Harlem globe-trotter like tricks to smear the gringos faces in the sand. To compensate for height, one Kuna got down on all fours, while another jumped up onto his back to spike an incoming ball. “I used to feel sorry for the Kuna, but now I want to kick their ass,” I told JC when I vowed to join the charter group in a rematch the following day.
The volleyball matches took place on the island of Kuanidup, also site of the Kuna “eco-resort.” It's a compound of about 8 “rustic” cabanas with one centrally located building with toilets and showers, a shelter with picnic tables (the restaurant), and a recreational hut with a bar and pool table right atop the sand. Stephen came up with his own version of “Hotel California, “ that goes, “Welcome to the Hotel Kuanidup….it’s asi-asi.” Translation: "It’s so-so.”
Brigitte & Moncie came well prepared to do some snorkeling and exploration, but their adventure started well before they landed in Kuna Yala. They checked into a “quaint” hotel in an otherwise questionable section of Panama City, the night before flying into the islands. Brigitte and Moncie are two cuties who never fail to attract attention, so the cabbie and hotel staff felt it necessary to whisk them into the lobby before too many locals noticed the gringas. But you can’t keep the two of them penned up for long. They braved some catcalls to explore the surrounding neighborhood and sample the local cuisine before calling it a night in a room where they weren’t going to get a lot of sleep anyway.
When their tiny plane touched down in Playon Chico, they had their first experience in a main Kuna settlement, where families live without electricity or plumbing. We headed for the Coco Banderas islands while the girls slept below. We had the anchorage in the West Cocos mostly to ourselves, apart from a brief visit on the island with Accelsio & Cristobalrino, 17 & 18 year-old Kuna fishermen who sleep in a makeshift shelter during the week.
We first met the boys when Steve and I had a blanket and chairs spread out on the beach near their shelter. They were finished fishing for the day, and just had one large conch in their ulu (dug out canoe). We felt like we were in their front yard and offered them water and snacks, which they gladly accepted. They had no water on them or anywhere near their campsite. Then the two boys pulled up coconuts to sit on and we insisted that they share our blanket. We were only able to have so much conversation given our limited Spanish, so when we were at a loss for words, we settled for beer and cards instead.
They gave us a coconut (the main economy, strictly forbidden to visitors unless offered by Kuna) and their only conch. Overcome by what we felt was unnecessary gratitude, we invited them aboard for dinner and cooked up some conch and pasta. I was worried that we wouldn’t have enough to feed these teenage boys, but was forgetting that the Kuna usually only eat one meal a day. I swear the boys only took three bites before they were both full and then forcing themselves to finish the rest. We felt like overindulgent Americans, as we at ours and finished theirs.
When we first met the boys, we noticed they were so skinny that their shorts kept falling off. Accelsio asked Stephen for a pair of shorts, which he would have gladly given him if they weren’t twice the size of the ones he was already wearing. When we did our major provisioning in Portobelo, we purchased a new pair of shorts for each of them, and made a trip to their island to give them their Christmas gifts just before leaving.
We'd like to be altruistic, but in reality we exchanged English for Kuna curse words. However, we later discovered that the words we taught them were far more scathing, as offensive words simply don’t exist in the Kuna language. The literal translation of their phrase for “f&*k off!” was “go away!.” When we last saw the boys, they asked us to take them to Bocas del Toro with us. The look on their faces said, "Please get us the hell out of here." While I would love to open the door to greater opportunity, my conscience would not allow me to transplant these boys a couple hundred miles from home with nothing more than a change of clothes. And we weren’t looking to adopt two young men.
We enjoyed catching up with the girls over long breakfasts and endless pots of coffee spiked with rum. Our afternoons were filled with snorkeling, lounging on the beach and flipping through magazines, trying to tell one Kardashian from the next. Our evenings consisted of sundowners, boiled crustaceans and solving the world's problems by the time the bottle was empty.
We tried to fill the girls’ week with all of the highlights of life in the San Blas, but somehow managed to share a little slice of American life with the Kuna instead. After an afternoon of snorkeling and purchasing molas (the local crafts) on Dog Island, we went ashore on the island of Kuanidup for dinner at the Kuna “resort.” Over dinner, we met a European woman staying in one of the cabanas. She quickly joined our party and we turned the hut that served as the bar and rec area into a dance club. Brigitte hussled two Kuna boys shooting pool.
The pool table was leveled pretty well for sitting directly on the sand. One thick piece of wood supported the thatched roof in the center. A small stereo system behind the bamboo bar pumped music at the loudest volume I have ever heard on any Kuna island. I couldn’t help but feel like we were probably breaking some traditional Kuna laws, and would have to answer to the Congreso (the local chiefs) in the morning. Brigitte thought the boys were cute and gave one an innocent kiss on the cheek when saying goodbye. Traditional Kuna law states that they may not marry outside of their tribe – so we joked with her about the “loophole” that fails to cover one time hookups.
Before the girls left for Panama City, we toured a Kuna village and rode up the River Diablo through the rainforest, via our dinghy. Brigitte’s favorite part of the trip was the snorkeling, while Moncie’s was the rainforest. Moncie's an environmental scientist researching invasive species in the Chesapeake - and was easily enamored with wading through the river. While she overturned rocks Brigitte helped me wash some clothes, and Stephen pretended to get eaten by a crocodile. We sailed on to Playon Chico, where we had one last dinner together before sad goodbyes.
Christine flew into Corozon de Jesus just a couple of weeks later and had flown straight through the night without checking into a hotel. Despite her long journey, she was psyched to have finally arrived, and we celebrated with a breakfast cocktail - at least it contained fruit juice.
Like Brigitte & Moncie, we took Chris to the Cocos first, where she also enjoyed crustacean dinners and snorkeling. It was fun to explore the reefs with Chris since she’s an advanced diver and was educating us about underwater species that we hadn’t even noticed before.
We built a beachfire at sunset on an island with just a handful of palm trees. We’ve named this one “Yoga Island,” as it is my favorite spot in San Blas to do yoga. Stephen and I often have beach fires in order to burn our garbage – the best way to dispose of trash in San Blas. Sometimes the Kuna will offer to dispose of it for you for $1 a bag, but we quickly learned that too many of them simply take it inside the mangroves or up a river to dump it.
We sailed with Chris to the East Lemons, a cluster of islands about 2 miles from the shipwreck that we snorkeled on Dog Island. We had an adventurous dinghy ride to Dog Island with a sizeable sea swell that made our inflatable seem more like a white water raft. By the time we made it to Dog Island, a brief squall was passing through, making the currents around the wreck too dangerous to snorkel. We had to make a call on whether to stick it out and hope things would clear, or potentially get stuck on the island with worse conditions for navigating back to the boat. We pondered our decision over a couple of beers underneath a shelter of dried palms, while we watched Synchronicity pitch in the swell far away at anchor.
Suddenly, the sun came out and the current eased up. We had liquid courage, and snorkeled on the wreck that we had wanted Chris to see. Unfortunately, Chris had not learned an important lesson that came after 7 seven years of marriage to Stephen – don’t follow him. The man has NO FEAR, like the t-shirt, and always emerges from tight spaces unscathed. After a kayaking incident in Barbados, where I blindly followed him into open waters beyond the reef and earned the nickname “shipwreck,” I now choose to play it safe. Chris is very calculated, but when she followed Stephen through a chamber of the sunken boat, she was bitten by the craggy reef.
When we emerged from the water, she had an unsightly gash that needed tending to. Back at the boat, Captain Maguyver’s medical services were needed. It was the second time he performed surgery that week, as he had to extract a fish bone that had been lodged deep in my throat, using a flashlight and a pair of tweezers. We administered local anesthetic (a cold Balboa) and Stephen decided he would need an anesthetic as well. While Chris and I were feeling a bit squeamish, Stephen cleaned out and treated her wound. Poor Chris had to hobble around the boat and in and out of the dinghy for the rest of her stay. When she made it back to the States, her doctor told her Stephen had actually done a decent job.
While Chris was aboard, she had the pleasure of meeting the infamous “JC,” owner of San Blas Sailing, the charter boat company. He invited us to an island in the Hollandes, where he was entertaining his newest guests, a mother and daughter from France. While ashore, Chris got to meet a Kuna family, get a traditional ankle wrap, and purchase some molas. That evening, we joined JC and company aboard his boat for dinner. Chris got to sample some of his yummy French cuisine.
Before Chris left, she also experienced a sunset ride up the river through the rainforest. Our last meal ashore with her was truly typical – without menus or any clue of what you’re about to eat. Over a box of wine (the only way you can buy it), we recapped our trip. Chris was packed in no time, as she is truly the most efficient traveler I’ve met. She even had one of those small, microfiber towels with super drying capability that is just slightly bigger than a hand towel. We were sad to see her go.
Six months was plenty of time to discover an abundance of unchartered attractions including deserted beaches, reefs, tropical rivers, rainforest and Kuna villages. The total population of Kuna living in Panama is somewhere around 50,000. About a third of more of the population live and work in the cities of Panama: Panama City, Colon or Changuinola (Costa Rica border town).
The remainder of Kunas still living in the San Blas territory, (Kuna Yala) are concentrated in the larger settlements near the mainland. Many of these settlements have gone “non-traditional.” While most continue to live in homes constructed of bamboo walls and dried palm roofs, some have afforded concrete structures with the financial help of family members working outside of the territory. Nargana is the most advanced of these settlements, boasting “24 hour lights” enabled by a massive generator. There are roughly 1,500 Kuna packed onto this island, and while many still maintain traditional customs and dress, a larger number are donning NY Yankees caps, jeans and D&G knockoffs.
On the island of Nargana is a small health clinic, bank (no ATM), school and small jail. This island is good for restocking with produce, homemade bread, eggs and some canned goods as many of the Kuna operate small tiendas – but supplies are inconsistent. There are two small restaurants in Nargana, and ordering a meal is always an adventure. While fishing is their livelihood and source of sustenance, the
Kuna aren’t very good at filleting or preparing fish. We became excited when we saw the daily catch that we were about to order – it looked to be about 20 lbs. or more and certainly capable of providing more than a few good filets. The end plate was an over fried cut with side fin, scales and all.
While I can’t blame the Kuna for wanting the opportunities and luxuries of modern society, they’re leadership is a bit archaic and they have progressed to an awkward stage that has left both their people and environment vulnerable to the byproducts of unsustainable growth. Trash is perhaps the islands’ biggest problem. We noticed a difference immediately from just four years ago, as many of the islands are strewn with plastic and miscellaneous junk: chairs, shoes, clothing, and parts of appliances. We were anchored in the beautiful East Lemons one day when Stephen noticed two Kuna dragging a refrigerator behind their motorized canoe. With his binoculars, he watched as they dumped it just off the reef. As they passed by our boat on their way back to their island, he said, “muy malo,” (very bad). In response, they said it was no longer a problem, gesturing with their hands that it has “gone away, out to sea.”
All of the islands are owned by Kuna, and the Congreso (their form of government) assigns families to look after individual isles and harvest the coconuts – once the main economy and currency. The dollar or “plata” has replaced the coconut, and as a result, bartering has all but disappeared from the culture. The small remainder of the population (a few thousand) still opt for a traditional lifestyle in the outer islands, such as Isla Pinos at the eastern most end of the island chain.
Isla Pinos was our favorite island in San Blas, as it had a diverse topography and a quaint village in which the richness of Kuna culture could still be observed. Isla Pinos is known as “Tupback,” meaning “whale” because it is shaped like a giant whale surfacing from the sea. It has the highest elevation of all the islands at 150 meters and a great trail for hiking to the top. On this trail we saw a ton of wildlife, monos (monkeys), a black & green specked frog, reptiles, and interesting birds.
The island had almost everything the Kuna needed, eliminating the need to make trips up the rivers and into the rainforest on the mainland. There was a significant fresh water source that was piped into a catchement system and we passed many Kuna women on their way to the stream to bathe or do laundry. We hiked the circumference of the island, discovering a number of gorgeous coves, groves of coconut palms and hillsides covered in banana trees. About a mile and half around the western edge of the island, we discovered a pile of wooden planks cut with impressive precision given the lack of available tools, and the beginnings of a large canoe.
As we kayaked past the main village on “Tupbak,” a Kuna man in knee high rubber boots walked through the trees along the shore, shaking a feed bag. Suddenly a large pig came running towards him, oinking excitedly. Talk about free range pork. In many of the villages, large wooden pens are built within the family compound or on stilts over the water to house the cerdos (pigs) and their babies. Chickens also roam free, and roosters crow just about anytime of day. I suppose they are as unscheduled as the Kuna.
In the center of town is the building that serves as the main meeting place for the Congreso. It’s headed by the head Sahila or chief of the village and his assistants who help to interpret his “ancient wisdom” as he rocks in a hammock in the center of the room during daily afternoon gatherings of the entire community. Sahilas from all over the islands meet a few times a year for district meetings known as the Congreso General of Cultura.
The village surrounding the Congreso is comprised of small family estates of three huts with an inner courtyard. Most are situated along the shore with a small wharf that contains an outhouse at the end of the pier. There’s usually a primary school, a few tiendas (stores) that get regular shipments from Colombian trading boats, and the village hall. Volleyball, basketball and soccer are really popular with the Kuna, and there are many fields and courts devoted to these sports throughout the islands. While many are makeshift with available wood and fishing nets, some are the nicest structures in the village. Isla Pinos’ young soccer team became enamored with Stephen when he started kicking around the ball with them. He suddenly had a band of groupies that following him.
As you walk along narrow dirt paths that wind through the community, you pass by doorways where grandmas rock in a hammock with their grandchildren. During the day, women tend to the household smoking fish and sewing molas for tourists or for their own personal clothing. Traditional dress is a floral print blouse with short “poofy” sleeves, sinched by elastic at the crease of the elbow – with elaborate molas integrated into the torso, to completely cover the midsection. The skirt is a long piece of fabric with a two-toned design (usually an animal print with navy & bright green or bright orange) rolled up at the waist. Calves and forearms are wrapped in “wini” – long strings of small, colorful beads threaded in geometrical motifs. The more traditional women will also wear a red and yellow headscarf, gold ring through the nose and face paint (a thin black line down the center of the nose and bright red and pink rouge over the cheeks). To say their dress is colorful is quite an understatement.
Throughout the village, children run and play or bathe themselves in little tubs outside their hut. They are always really happy to see you. Huge welcoming parties of children run to shore as we anchor the boat and yell “Hola! Hola!” until they’re blue in the face. When we finally set foot on the island, the more bashful ones play hide and seek with you, while the extraverted wrap themselves around your legs and waist.
There are usually great smells emanating from small fires that burn inside the huts: roast fish and stews with boiled yucca, plantains or rice, and baking bread. The men are gone from the village most days. Most paddle to the outer islands in their “ulus” (dugout canoes) to fish or skin dive for lobsters on the reef. On their way back to the village, fishermen would pull up alongside our boat, offering to sell whatever they could from the day’s catch – mostly lobster and giant crab. If we were lucky, sometimes pulpo (octopus) and conch – very tender and delicious when prepared right.
Family members take turns inhabiting these same islands to tend to harvest coconuts or sell molas to tourists. Fewer paddle to the mainland and trek deep into the rainforest to tend to banana plantations or gather wood for building materials. Up the River Diablo near Nargana, Stephen and I hiked deep into the rainforest following a foot path along the water pipe to its source almost 5 miles in. We were impressed with the vast amount of land and resources available to the Kuna and could not understand why there were so few plots for farming. It seemed that if they were a little more industrious, they would have much more to their economy than just the coconut. One of the village elders explained to us that it is becoming more difficult with each new generation to engage the youth in farming. They go into the city for their secondary education and realize they can earn a day’s wage in an hour without the backbreaking effort. We were also told that farmers have become discouraged by thieves who steal their crop on the days they aren’t tending to them.
It’s unreasonable to expect that youth who seek education and opportunity in the city will return to Kuna Yala willing to abandon what they’ve come to know in the developed world. As we hiked away from the village on Isla Pinos, we came to a particular spot along the shore (perhaps the best spot to receive a signal), where Kunas came to talk on their cel phones. And TV sets have begun to pop up in huts, tiendas and restaurants on traditional islands where antennas tower high above thatched roofs and generators hum in the background. TV seems to dominate the atmosphere wherever it exists. Steve and I entered a restaurant where a Jackie Chan movie was playing with Spanish subtitles on a huge flatscreen. Imagine a giant flatscreen in an open air restaurant without a plumbed bathroom or printed menus. A group of Kuna (including our waitress) was glued to the set, and we were whispering our order so as not to interrupt. We ate in silence as we watched the other patrons become completely captivated by this world that contained inaccessible realties.
The trickiest part of sailing among the islands was spotting reefs. Polarized sunglasses were absolutely necessary. We developed a system of hand signals so that I could communicate while perched up on the bowsprit to Stephen back at the helm. I was thankful for the experience in the East Caribbean that enabled this to be more of a fun challenge than a stress fest. Holding was not always the best, since the bottom often consisted of sand mixed with coral rubble, so Stephen always dove down on our anchor to test it.
Synchronicity was the perfect sailing vessel for San Blas. Unlike many cruising boats, she can take off in very light winds – which is what we had on most sunny days. At the beginning of our stay, winds would range from 5 – 10 knots, allowing us to glide atop smooth, reef protected waters in between islands. The scenery was always breathtaking no matter where you looked. To the north, there was a beautiful ocean horizon dotted by palm tree islands. To the south, a continuous mountain chain, covered in verdant rainforest -not a spec of development for over a 100 miles. We were always surrounded by coral reef islands, rimmed in white sand, followed by the palest green and turquoise blue water.
The overnight passages among the islands along Panama’s Caribbean coast have been among my favorite. We’ve been able to take advantage of perfect weather windows with limited squall activity. This makes for tranquil night watches, where all you have to do is set the sails, babysit the wind vane from time to time, to make sure she is keeping us on a good course heading, and just relax and enjoy the stars. On each passage we’ve made, we’ve been visited by pods of dolphins. This never ceases to be an amazing experience. They’re like surfers…they love to ride the waves and show off their tricks as they leap from the crests and dive under the hull. Sometimes they twist and spiral around each other, endlessly. They love to play and call others to the party. It will start with two fins arcing their way towards your boat. Then before you know it, 5 and 10 more show up. Suddenly, we’re surrounded by a pod of 20 to 30 dolphins who will stay with the boat for up to half an hour before they disappear in the depths below.
The most spectacular display we’ve seen at sea, was the lunar eclipse that occurred on our second night en route to Bocas del Toro, just before Christmas. It was about 2am, and we had just crossed Panama’s major shipping channel into Colon when the moon began to fill in, a light shade of brown cast from Earth’s shadow. It was just us and a big freighter a few miles away. I wondered how many of their crew were also out on deck enjoying the view, as the moon filled in completely, revealing a plethora of constellations.
Even Gretchen enjoyed hanging out in the cockpit with us at night, when she usually prefers a spot buried between sail bags in the quarter berth. One evening, the seas were so calm, that she laid on top of the dodger gazing at the moon.
On our way to Bocas del Toro, Synchronicity made record time. What could have been a three night passage was completed in just two. After flying along at an average of 6.5 – 7.0 knots, even under reefed sail, we finally came to a halt when fighting a 2 knot current about 20 miles outside of Bocas. At this point, the boat actually seemed to be going backwards. Only then did we start the engine and motor the rest of the way in.
The greatest danger we experienced in San Blas were the intermittent squalls that could sometimes pack a punch with strong winds and ominous lightning. While steep waves remain my greatest fear at sea, Stephen has realized lightning is his kryptonite. Most evenings, lightning was a constant part of the night sky once the sun went down. At any time of the night, you could pop up on deck to watch a spectacular light show of pink and purple flashes and feel safe knowing they were at least 30 miles away.
One evening, shortly after Thanksgiving, the lightning ceased to be a spectacle of beauty. Of course, the worst squall we experienced would catch up with us in the only anchorage where our anchor failed to stay set. Around 5:30 am, the winds kicked up, and we worried about dragging into the shallows or onto the reef. We couldn’t see through the wall of rain, how close we were to the shore, so Stephen went straight to the cockpit in only his boxers to start the engine. I put my foulies on and went over to the quarter berth behind the chart table to grab his, when I felt a strange static and electrical current that made me jump back. I felt a jolt of adrenaline rush through me like someone took electric paddles to my heart. I met a wet, shivering Stephen in the cockpit and handed him his rain jacket as we were both realizing that we had just been struck by lightning. Our electronics (chart plotter, wind instruments, GPS) suddenly went haywire. Our friends on s/v Mohini hailed us on the radio to say that a bolt struck a tree on the shore just behind us. We were truly lucky that it was most likely a side strike that traveled from ashore and hit our boat. After consultation and guidance from friends who had been through lightning before, Stephen was able to get our systems up and running again, saving us much time and expense.
Our very first (and hopefully last) lightning bolt truly “struck” Stephen as he shared his feelings that while he LOVES sailing, subjecting our home to the elements is no picnic. My response surprised us both, as I erupted into uncontrollable laughter. I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face and my throat hurt from not being able to catch my breath. Stephen looked a little bit worried and unable to grasp the humor. “I’m sorry….” I started, when I could finally speak again. “I just think it’s hysterical that after 4 years of endless planning, preparation, 2 major downsizings, 30 foot seas, near separation, and finally a lightning bolt…that we’ve come to realize that maybe it’s not so great to live on your boat!” But with great risks come truly great rewards...and on most days I think it's all been worth it.