After just over a week in Shelter Bay preparing the boat and waiting for the pushpit to be repaired we began the trip to Portobelo and the San Blas Islands beyond that. We left on a beautiful day with fine winds. Weaving in between the tankers that filled the vast anchorage outside the break water, our long-awaited voyage into the Caribbean had begun. The further we got from Shelter Bay the stronger the wind became. The contrast between the downhill ride we had in the Pacific to the steep, choppy seas and trade-winds found in the Caribbean was a stark one. The constant water coming over the deck showed us that our windows were not sealed nearly as well as we had thought. The constant drip, drip, drip of water into Josie’s bunk was almost too much for her to bare. Everything was beginning to get damp and tiresome as we finally made it to Portobelo. It was a short trip but it wore us out.
After a short rest we hopped in the dinghy and headed for shore; excited to have a rest from the kayak. Portobelo was far more interesting than we had expected. The well-preserved old Spanish fortifications and cannons were without fees, gates or velvet ropes. You could explore freely and go where you please. The openness of the forts made it all feel more as if you were in place where something really happened long ago. It is also a vivid reminder that even though these structures are amazing, the men who built them wiped out the history, culture and knowledge of millions of people. To add to the mixed emotions, the diverse culture in this part of the world that emerged in modern times is as vibrant and beautiful as the people that live here.
As the sun came up it was time for us to go. We left early in hopes that the wind would be less severe as we rounded the headland and that we would make it to San Blas islands before dark. With a 20kt headwind, tacking back and forth, dodging dangers and trying to take advantage of the slightest changes in the wind, we made consistent progress. But despite our best efforts it was clear we would not make it to San Blas before sundown. So a new plan was hatched and we headed to Turtle Cay bay.
Once we arrived we noticed how the north swell had made the anchorage untenable. It was rumored a marina was being built here but we were unable to see it. Looking over the charts and seeing all bays in the area were north facing did not make me too happy. Fortunately, our luck turned around just as we were considering turning our boat around. The first boat we had seen all day headed straight into the harbor, put its fenders out and disappeared. We followed suit keeping a weary eye on the uncomfortably close shoals and as we approached the beach the entrance appeared. It was marked with the tiniest buoys I had ever seen. Keeping one eye on the depth sounder, we slowly made our way through the narrow channel and found a marina mostly finished and rented a slip. The price was right($12/night), even with no showers. The only problem was that the marina did not have floating docks and our free board was well below the height of the slip fingers. So we had to tie the boat from all sides to keep it off the dock, but the height and distance made getting on and off the boat a bit of an exercise; Gidget even miscalculated the jump and ended up in the water once.
The grounds were unmolested and there were two isolated beaches on the grounds. It was a shame we did not stay more than one night and enjoy the natural beauty found here. But we had friends we wanted to meet up with in San Blas and were anxious to see the islands that we had heard so much about. When talking about the San Blas Islands you often hear things like “I was only planning to stay for 3 months and I stayed for 3 years”.
So once again we casted off at first light and made the 30nm trip to the islands. The headwinds still persisted but they were down to about 15kts and once behind the protection of the reefs the choppy seas were flat and the uncomfortable ride became a joy. Our first stop was Chichimi island. The approach to the anchorage was easy enough with good light and a watchful eye. The anchorage itself was crowded but our relatively shallow draft gave us much more option than the larger boats had. We moved up into the shallows and dropped anchor in 9ft of water over sand.
The San Blas islands pose a beauty that even in person is hard to believe is real. The price of admission, over 3000nm of hardships and difficulty, was well worth it. From our position we could simply dive into the crystal waters and swim to coconut-laden shores. It was a true paradise in every sense and we wanted for nothing but more time.
After a few days in Chichimi we pulled anchor and headed to the Holandes Cays, another set of islands in the San Blas chain known for some of the clearest waters in the Caribbean. We chose to anchor just off of Tortuga (BBQ) island, the expansive shallow sand bottom gives the water just the right turquoise color that should only exist in dreams. This is a popular spot but as luck would have it the anchorage was nearly deserted. This is where we spent our 4-year anniversary: sitting on a small quiet island, watching the sunset and eating delicious seafood prepared by the Kuna Yala people. It was perfect.
Dark clouds blew in from the northeast as the sun set on our last day in San Blas. Throughout the night the sky was filled with blinding bolts and flashes, torrential rains and thunder that cracked and grumbled almost endlessly. I look up at the island next to us only to see a bolt cut through the sky frying a coconut tree as thunder cracked in perfect synchronization. The sound was deafening and the streak of light was burned into my vision well after the event. The next 12 hours of squalls that followed served as a reminder that it is not always sunny in paradise.