Skipper Saul at Roland Roots Bar in Providencia

Kuna children from San Blas islands

Caribbean by catamaran  
– story and pictures by Larry Margolis
or view the published article in the Sunday Times (South Africa)

In late November 2013, I sailed with my friend Saul and four companions on his thirty foot Catamaran from Panama to the tiny Caribbean island of Providencia (via the San Blas islands and San Andres) – a round trip of some 950km in total.

Four of us arrived at Panama International airport in more or less the same hour (but off three separate flights) and we were taxied to the port city of Portobello where we were deposited at a well-known eatery and hostel named Captain Jack’s – bearing the skull and crossbones motif that we had joked about by email in the preceding weeks:

 “Aaarrh …if you have seen this flag and you are still in your boat, then you will know that ye’ have sailed too far!”

There we met our real-life captain Saul who had sailed (along with Gabi) east from Bocas del Toro to collect us. After a night anchored in the bay we made our way further east to the San Blas islands.

These approximately 378 islands and cays (several of which are unpopulated), are inhabited solely by Kuna Indians who once fled the Panamanian mainland and later gained independence from Panama. The Kuna people are diminutive in size, generally placid and friendly, and mostly speak their own language, with the recent introduction of Spanish - which was useful to us for purposes of translation. They survive largely in the trade of fish products, fruit and coconuts (which are privately owned and sometimes used as local currency). The Kuna woman (adorned with nose rings) create and sell Molas which are ornately patterned and colourful rectangles of cloth made by hand, which they conveyed to our boat in dugout canoes, along with fish, octopus etc.

We spent eight days exploring these islands, snorkelling the coral reefs, befriending these gentle islanders and transporting an ailing young girl in our boat to a far-off clinic. Her guardians would not allow her to travel to the mainland due to their belief that if she died away from home her spirit would be forever lost to them. It was only when the clinic doctor insisted that she would not survive without emergency treatment, and asked them to sign indemnity for this eventuality, that they relented and the sick girl was transported to a hospital in Panama City.

We then sailed for two days and nights to Providencia, which is owned by Columbia but lies about 775 km northwest (closer to Nicaragua). This far-off island has partially inherited the culture of neighbouring Jamaica (about 300km north), so both Spanish and English are spoken, albeit with a Rasta twang. For example late one night the owner of a beach bar recounted one of his many nautical misadventures in a soft baritone thus:

“…near Barbados there was a big hurricane which swept us out to sea … and then the humpback whale, he come back and chomp our boat mon.”

A striking attribute of this island is the visible nurturing of its ocean and mangrove eco structures, and the natural aesthetic quality of the houses, buildings, utility structures, sign posts, notices and “themed” bus shelters (resembling giant crabs, octopuses etc). The only air traffic to or from Providencia is via neighbouring San Andres (about three and a half hours south by speedboat), so it remains off the tourist routes and the authorities do not permit foreigners (even Columbians) to settle or to purchase property on the island. However they are most hospitable to the small number of tourists who do find their way to these shores and one of the highlights of our trip was a concert in the town square organised by Mr Bush, the maritime agent who handled our boat clearance, in honour of Captain Saul.

A few nights later we celebrated Saul’s 60th birthday at our hotel to the accompaniment of a local Calypso band on mandolins, guitars, etc, and our very own shipmate Pedro on his traditional flute pipes. Rum was the drink of choice.

We had a magical experience sailing to these distant islands, exploring vibrant coral reefs teeming with brightly coloured fish and sea creatures such as large crabs, turtles and a camouflaged stingray. (We were fortunate not to encounter the fabled red-eyed iguana that the Kuna children warned us of via their Spanish translator).

We then sailed back to Bocas del Toro (where we were besieged by ravenous sand flies) and later flew to Panama City where on our final day, we located a Kuna lady selling Molas in the old city who knew the father of the sick girl. She phoned the island and was informed that the girl was back with her family and recovering - a happy end to an unforgettable voyage.

photo gallery
or view the published article in the Sunday Times (South Africa)

© Larry Margolis