San Blas – Paradise between continents

​So after much waffling about in Panama City and a couple of days in Portabello things had finally run its course to the point that I was ready to board the yacht Rondevouz which will deliver me to Colombia. Normally the yachts sail to the prominent port city of Cartagena which is quite a ways along the northern coast of Colombia, but our schedule was to Capurguna, the first sliver of civilisation just past the Panama border, serviced only by sea with no road access. Although I’d be missing the picturesque sights of Cartagena this itinerary comes in quite a bit cheaper and saves me a decent amount of boring flat cycling getting south of Cartagena. So I was fairly happy all round.

OK, that might be putting it lightly. To add some perspective: I’ve never been on a proper yacht before, never mind as part of a proper ocean going voyage. Never mind a voyage that includes a couple of days in the famed San Blas archipelago. These 365 islands are the ‘Caribbean’ refered to in the Pirates of the Caribbean movie series. Johnny Depp clowning around aside, they boast century old outlaw pedigree for the role they played in smuggling gold and other contraband from the new to the old world by sheltering many an unsavoury character in the treacherous passages between the islands.

That is a very longwinded way of saying I had a lot to look forward to, and I was doing so hugely. A whole realm of new places, new experiences and not a single uphill to ruin the party.

The last sunset on mainland Central America

Previously I mentioned that Kuna Yala, as San Blas is presently known as, is administered as an autonomous area by the Kuna people. They are fiercely independent and self sufficient, coconuts is their primary source of income and is apparently still accepted currency on some islands. There is almost no development on the islands and the minimal tourist infrastructure, testimony to their dogged determination to preserve their way of life – also the reason that you at home have probably never heard of the place. The more cynical commentator will point out that by maintaining their autonomy its much easier to get in on the action provided by the lucrative drug smuggling routes which they find themselves smack bang in the middle of. Because the cartels aren’t exactly DHL-ing boxes of cocaine from Colombia to Central America and beyonf, neither are they carrying it accross the Darian Gap on their heads. Bottom line, never go scratching to deeply beneath the veneer-like surface of paradise… this was my ever present sense of balanced reality kicking in.

The Rondevouz, home for the next 5 days

Passangers and captain met up early on the evening prior to our departure before being shuttled to the yacht with the tiny shoregoing dinghy. The Rondevouz was very new looking and surpassed my expectations in terms of size as well. We ended up being 10 people crammed on board, Italian captain Fabio, with his Brazilian wife and 1 year old daughter, 4 Swiss and one Swedish backpacker (aka my roommate) and a Pakistani/Ecuadorian guy that seemed slightly out of place. And of course my bike, strapped to the flimsy side rails near the prow of the yacht, and very much exposed to the will of the elements.

The economy of space on a yacht is right on par with that of an airplane, except you don’t have to live on the airplane for days at a time. Intimate would be an euphemistic way of putting it…

The bedroom of Fabio, his wife and bady girl, also called the kitchen and cabin and about half of the total living space for 10 people. Tight in other words

From Portabello we had some nautical miles to cover to get to the islands. Fabio was worried about the steady ocean wind wipping up small choppy waves in the sheltered harbour, and delayed our departure that was meant to be that night. In the wee hours of the morning he decided the weather was not getting better and fired up the engine to get going. As Jasper and I slept a fibreglass sheet away from said engine I was also fired up before the prop started churning us out of the harbour and as such I went up to the deck to witness the action.
Fabio’s fears were soon well confirmed as he pointed the yacht head on into the swell and wind. My bike was precariously strapped to the precarious perimeter railings (wire rope running between upright supports about knee high) of the front deck, and I watched with building dread in the dim light as we crashed through wave crests and plummeted into the troughs, causing the whole yacht to shudder. The bike experienced this action from the vantage of a highly exposed front row seat. My faith in my light weight cable ties and shoelace gauge rope faded faster than the lights from shore, a solid and once taken for granted world I immediately felt was a fast disappearing reality. I foolishly shuffled forward in the gloom to check on the bike, grateful to find it rocksolid and earning, in retrospect, a well deserved scolding from the Captain. In these perilous conditions the deck is streng verboten. I plunked myself down in the rear lounge area and braced myself against the ever rolling and pitching, of both the yacht and my stomach. I was rapidly accepting that life at sea not my cup of tea. Although waves of seasickness also came crashing over me, I narrowly held it together and never had to call for the bucket.

Hiding behind a small island after just a couple of hours getting battered on the open seas. My bike had some stories to tell from its exposed perch

Luckily Fabio wasn’t loving life either, but his primary concern was keeping his yacht in one piece, a battle he felt he was losing ground on. After a couple of hours of fighting the seas in daylight my prayers were answered as we ducked behind a island close to shore and found a shade of tranquility.  We ended up snorkeling around the island, chilling and socialising there for the rest of the day.

Fabio had as motoring along again from the dead hours after midnight. Word amongst the other passangers was that if you stay lying down in your bunk you have the best chance of not meeting your stomach contents. I’d also been popping some motion sickness pills and trying to stay hydrated. However my bladder was forever trying to get dehydrated and as such I was soon up and crashing my way under deck to the bathroom. Bladder relieved, it was my stomach’s turn to demonstrate how I really had no control over my bodily functions, and I shakely stumbled upstairs to the lounge to get fresh air, hoping to relieve the building nausea. As it waxed and waned, it became increasing clear that I kept inching closer to the inevitable. The bucket and I became well acquainted during this session. Eventually I had nothing left to give and headed back to my bunk. Despite it being pre dawn and with a stiff wind, the sleeping quarters were stifling hot and supressive. Dampness is putting it very politely.

First glimpses of the islands

Emerging back on deck later that morning the sea was found to be much calmer and the first of the famed islands dotted around the horizon. As some came closer my first reaction was the improbableness of their presence, simply put they seemingly shouldn’t exist. The white sandy patches of land barely stuck out above the lapping waves and seem held precariously together by the palm trees – how the palms survived was another mystery to me. Surely the might of the sea we just battled through will over time reclaim the land? Fair enough, on the north easter horizon I could at times make out what must be fairly large breakers crashing on the reef that protects the whole chain. But still, the islands were so fragile looking that I’d imagine just the timeless swell and retreat of the tides will be disturbance enough to erode them away. But alas, that is obviously not the case and 365 of them gallantly keep on defying nature.

Anchored just of one of the bigger islands which a couple of families call home, providing basics services to tourist with had a bar and restaurant and beach huts.
Paradise does seem to draw a crowd

We pulled up to one of the larger islands and trying to find a parking spot was more difficult than at brunchtime on a sunny Sunday morning on 4th Ave Parkhurst, opposite one of those trendy places who’s names I’ve luckily all but forgotten. Rockatello? Alas, we weren’t the only ones looking for a slice of paradise as a dozens of other yachts were anchored around the islands.

The following days are best retold through some pics, but involved blue skies, white sandy islands, crystal clear waters and sunsets as you’d expect from an island paradise. A night time island braai and post midnight swim back to the yacht rounded out the experience. And people think cycle touring is difficult..

The picture of island paradise. Beach and palmtrees and tranquil blue horizons in every direction
Stoked and seasickness all but forgotten. Worth it

The time passed all too quickly and having lost a day due to the poor weather made it seem even more fleeting. It was with some sadness that Fabio fired up the engine to navigate us out through the labyrinth of islands and waterways back to the open seas. Here my last expectation was met as he unleashed the main sail and harnessed some of the ever present wind. I could even lend a hand operating the capstan to set the sail. All of this greatly bouyed my yachting experience, and improved sea conditions helped immensely, resulting in a pleasant day and a half of sailing.

Yacht life:

When we sighted land again, it was surreal to contemplate that this was South America. A goal that was once only a flight away that instead ended up taking over 4 months of cycling to reach. But now I was here, and the next chapter of the ride was beckoning me with new experiences and adventures to be had. And I could not wait to get stuck in.

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