The door to the Pacific

We arrived in Panama through the land of the Kuna indians. The Kunas autonomously control a part of Panama called Kuna Yala (aka San Blas), an archipelago of hundreds of postcard perfect islands with white sand and tall coconut trees. As soon as we anchored in these turquoise waters, a small man came rowing in a traditional dugout canoe (aka ulu) to sell coconuts and yuka. In a broken spanish he invited us to visit his village and the cemetery. We agreed for the next day but he stayed, as if expecting something. After a few diplomatic tricks, i finally understood that he had paddled from far away and was expecting some lunch and a place to rest from the sun for an hour or so. The next day, we went directly to the “congreso” of the village to introduce ourselves to the chief. Kenza and Rocio could not help but comment about the tiny frame of the people: “why are all the adults the size of children?”. They were also surprised to see the women in bright traditional outfits while the men wore regular clothes. Indeed, the women wore gorgeous bands of wini beads around their forearms and calves along with colorful applique blouses (aka mola) representing scenes from nature. Through the bridge of their nose they bore a gold piercing. As a skirt and head scarf, they wore a colorful fabric similar to the african “pagne”, with patterns inspired by nature. A novelty as well for the girls was the large number of albinos due to the fact that intermarriage with non-kunas is prohibited. When we visited the cemetery, it was interesting to see the open huts below which rested, in hammocks buried underground, the bodies of entire families along with their most cherished belongings. A renowned hunter did not have relatives to maintain a hut over his tomb but had it decorated with the skulls of his fiercest catches, jaguars.

The villages themselves have no electricity or running water. They are comprised of sanded streets with huts made out of palm leaves, bamboo and sugar cane. Most huts have solar panels and some have generators. The communal toilet is literally a cabin with a hole to the sea and Rocio was stunned to discover fish living in the toilet bowl! The water supply is collected from rain and rivers on the mainland. Fresh water for washing is often taken from dug up wells from which salt water is filtered through the sand and the roots of trees. For provisioning, all islands and cruisers rely on very few basic convenience stores that receive fruits and veggies once a week. Due to the scarce supplies, we quickly turned to fishing, baking our own bread, and very creative cooking! Our most exotic catches were a one and a half meter nurse shark and an eel (that we let go). In many parts of Kuna Yala, even in those remote from the mainland rivers and mangroves, crocodiles and caymans are common. Divers reported seeing bull sharks, tiger sharks and lemon heads too. This always made for a very imaginative swim (for me at least). Gonzalo had a blast spear fishing and providing for all our hungry mouths. What made our passage in Kuna Yala most memorable though were our new encounters. We became close to a handful of other cruising families with kids. We found a social life again after months of being lonely sailors and the kids became part of a new pack of “mini globe trotters”. Every morning was spent home schooling (or spear fishing and fixing something on board for the dads) and every afternoon a new island was transformed in a playground by a dozen hyper creative boat kids.

On our way to Colon to cross the Panama Canal, we navigated up the brown waters of the Chagres river and spent a magical night hearing the screams of monkeys and birds in the surrounding jungle. In Colon, a ride around town, had us stunned by the level of poverty and lack of security (especially compared to relatively wealthy Panama City just a few kilometers away). Crossing the Panama Canal was quite an experience. Through the 50 kilometers of canal that join the Atlantic to the Pacific, we rafted up to two other boats. Being the center boat, and first timers, we had a few scares when the two other boats rafted up to us in a totally discontrolled manner. Our participation became even more crucial when the cleat of the starboard boat gave in to the upward stress of the lines. By default, we became active line handlers to get through the six locks and avoid any collision against the sidewalls. Watching the gates shut or open as the water levels rose or lowered under us was mind-boggling – and to think of all the great minds behind this engineering and all those who lost their lives building this connection between two great oceans! We felt like ants compared to the gigantic cargo ships that were transiting along us in the opposite direction. Our first sight of the great Pacific ocean was the skyscrapers of Panama City. Apart from the truly charming old town (very similar to Cartagena in Colombia) and the very chaotic but authentic markets (fish and fruit/veggy), we were eager to leave the traffic jams, dust, and shopping malls of the city behind. We escaped for a few weeks to the untouched Perlas islands, offshore about 8 hours away from Panama City with our dear friends Julie Marie, Richard, Gaston and Marie (visiting from France). With pristine beaches revealed at every tide (5 meters tidal range), uninhabited lush forests, and waters incredibly “alive”, we finally got the feel we were living our first real Pacific ocean experience. We fished like never before. In just one dive, Gonzalo spear fished 9 fish (snappers, trigger fish, groupers), enough to through a fantastic barbecue on the beach with friends and replenish our freezer. Another night, we rafted up with our good friends from the catamaran Zorba and has a candlelight sushi dinner. That same spectacular night, the water was filled with plankton leaving streaks of fluorescent bubbles over all that was moving- absolutely extraordinary!

With this first delicious taste of Pacific wilderness, we rushed back to Panama City to accelerate the preparations for the big crossing, just on time to depart with our boat friends: Amelie IV (Canadians) , Zorba (Belgians), Perry (Americans), and Mandala (Canadians). As for all our big crossings, Tito (Gonzalo’s dad) will be with us. This time we opted to get some extra help to ease the navigation pains, and to try to stay as sane as possible. Marion and Yoan (a young French couple we just met) will give us a hand on board in exchange for a ride to the other side of the ocean. So, on March 6th, Kazaio begins the long journey across the Pacific. The first and only stop will be to the Galapagos.

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