San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas

We spent a little over a month in the San Blas Islands.  Kuna Yala, as the locals call them, are 360+ islands sprinkled on the Northeast coast of Panama. The locals, the Kuna Indians, are considered to have the best-preserved tribal culture in all of the Americas. Most of the islands in the archipelago are tiny, the largest only being a few acres in area. Many are uninhabited, but its common to see one or two tiny palm frond huts on each island.

After our seasick night at sea leaving the Canal Zone, we arrived to an island called Porvenir to check-in. Although officially part of Panama, the Kunas consider themselves autonomous. This caused us (and all boats, as we later found out) some confusion over what paperwork was really necessary. Panamanian officials told us that we would not need special paperwork to enter Kuna Yala, but the Kuna’s disagree, and therefore required more paperwork, and of course an extra fee.

Before we could even set our anchor in Porvenir, two locals pulled their dugout canoe along side our boat to sell us their fresh-caught lobster. When I asked the man to give us a few minutes to get settled before making a deal, he agreed, but helped himself on to our bow and proceeded to show us where to anchor. We learned later on that Kunas don’t really have a concept of private property, because everything they have is shared with everyone else. We were also approached by several women selling “molas” or hand embroidered fabrics. Soon we were bedecked in molas and all set for a yummy lobster dinner.

I have never eaten so much lobster in my life, as we did in San Blas

Hand embroidered ”molas”

This woman, dressed in traditional Kuna clothing, was selling molas. I bought the one she is holding.

Chichime Cayes

We only spent one night near Porvenir before heading to the Chichime Cayes a few miles away. There were quite a few boats in this anchorage, but we managed to find a nice spot on the outer edge, an easy swim away from a sandbar. We did some snorkeling to check out the reef that surrounded the anchorage and although we didn’t see many fish we did see tons of starfish. In fact, the water was so clear that we could just lean off the side of the boat to see the starfish on the sea floor 20 feet below.

Chichime Caye


Exploring the island. Notice the shipwreck in the background. Navigation here is truly treacherous. Every single island group we visited, had at least one shipwreck like this one.

Starfish everywhere

Elan made this little sailboat out of a coconut and a piece of palm. It ‘sailed’ around in the surf for about 20 minutes.

The water off the side of the boat.

We meant to check out one more anchorage before dropping Deja and Jake off, but we were rained in, so we decided to spend a mellow day on the boat and exploring the beach. The island had two huts and a “bar”, which was basically a refrigerator next to a plywood table with a tarp strung over it. That works for us.

This shy little guy played hard to get the whole time we were on the island. He and his friend kept peeking at us, and giggling from their doorway.


We anchored near the island group Carti, so we could arrange to have a 4×4 truck drive Deja and Jake to Panama City for their flight out. The main island in Carti is Sugdup, which is also the most populated in all of San Blas. Roughly 1500 people live in an acre and a half. The island is literally wall to wall houses, the edges of which are all on stilts dangling over the edges of the island. The  locals live with their extended families in one or two room huts with dirt floors, bamboo walls and palm thatched roofs. They use little in the way of furniture besides the hammocks in which they sleep.

After Deja and Jake left us, Elan and I ended up spending a little over a week anchored outside of Sugdup because they had a small medical clinic. Somewhere around Panama City I was bitten by an insect, which over the next 10 days got more and more inflamed despite several days of oral antibiotic. When we saw the clinic during our wanderings of the island, I decided it was time to have it checked out. The doctor at the clinic was not happy about the looks of my leg; it had abscessed, and he admonished me for waiting so long (where else was I supposed to go, there is nothing out here!). I spent the next 8 days dinghying to shore twice a day to have antibiotics injected in my rear. Fun.

The clinic itself was… interesting. Although it was the most modern building on the island (it had cement walls and a real roof) it was open-air and a little rough around the edges. They had one doc, two nurses, and a pharmacist, all of which lived at the hospital 20 days on, then 10 days off. During my time there, I saw crabs scurry across the waiting room floor, a white rabbit hop down the hallway, and one day, just above the bed I was instructed to lay on, I saw the biggest spider I’ve ever seen in real life. His body was about an inch around, and if you included his legs, it was probably about 3 inches across.  I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little scared about receiving shots at a clinic with only one sink with running water, but it was better than my other alternative: do nothing.

Because we had to stay there for over a week, I asked if there was anything Elan and I could do to help out at the hospital. The nurse informed me that they were desperately low on bed sheets. They had 5 beds (all side by side in one tiny room) but only 2 sheets in the whole hospital. They were draping whatever they could find over the beds: tyvek building wrap, wrapping paper, etc. I had a few small bolts of fabric on the boat that I was intending to make into skirts, so I offered to make them some new sheets. They took the fabric, but asked to do the sewing themselves. The women here are such skilled embroiderers, that I’m sure they’ll do a prettier job that my clunky industrial sewing machine anyways.

About halfway through my treatment, I got another bite that threatened to do the same as the first. When I showed it to the doctor, and asked what I should do about it, he laughed and said “If you don’t want any more bug bites, go back to Seattle Washington”. Ok then. This is just par for the course in the tropics. We do what we can to prevent bites and cuts and scrapes, and when we get them anyways, we will have to be extra careful in keeping them clean and covered to prevent infection. That would be fine and dandy if we had lots of fresh water for washing, but we only had about 2 gallons of water per day in the San Blas, that’s not much when you consider it has to be used for drinking, brushing teeth, dishes, cleaning, etc.

Another Camera Bites the Dust, er… the Water in Carti

One afternoon, while Elan was working on a project up on the bow, our camera, our expensive, brand spanking new, camera, slipped out of his pocket and, splashed, into the water. I couldn’t believe it, some luck with cameras we’ve had! We thought we’d won the camera vs. water fight by buying a waterproof camera this time, but that doesn’t really help if the camera falls out of reach into 30 feet of water. Neither of us are that proficient at free diving, so we enlisted the help of a local lobster fisherman. He found the camera after about 5 minutes of diving, and it only cost us 20 bucks and two beers. Phew! Now our camera is rigged up with a floating key-chain. Live and Learn!

Lemmon Cayes

When I finally got the OK from the doctor to switch from injected antibiotics to oral, we skipped out of Carti and motored 7 miles to the Lemmon Cayes. Although there were about 20 boats in the anchorage, only 2 or 3 had people on them. A new mooring field has just been set up there, providing the only place to leave a boat (aside from on anchor) in San Blas. We spent about a week in the West Lemmons, snorkeling, relaxing and working on boat projects. I think I read about 10 books in the month we spent in the San Blas. The “bar” on the island boasted the only internet connection for miles and miles. It was slow, but internet none the less.

Can you believe that water?!

Anyone need a place to stay? Comes with your own private 20 square foot island.

Elan’s new friend, who kept wanting us to drink beer with him at 8am.


Dinghying in the West Lemmons

Yet another shipwreck.

There weren”t a ton of big fish in the San Blas, but the coral was amazing.


Apollo hated it when we would snorkel. He spent the whole time barking at us to get us out of the water.

We have been having trouble with our radar lately, so Elan climbed out mast to inspect the radar dome. It turned out to be fine, but it was a good excuse to take a few interesting photos.

My crazy husband, climbing away!


The mast climber

View from the top of the mast.

Panamanian flag and our Bellingham Yacht Club burgee.

Grocery Shopping – San Blas Style

Every time we move to a new anchorage, a few locals row out to sell us their goods the instant we arrive. The closest real grocery stores are in Panama City, a 2 hour ride overland in a 4×4 truck, so we have come to rely on the basics sold by the locals, mostly fruit, molas, lobsters, crab and conch. There are a few “stores” on the more populated islands that mostly sell beer, rice, flour and occasionally some wilty looking fruit or veggies. You can forget about any kind of meat or dairy, it just doesn’t happen here. There is a “veggie boat” that cruises around the most popular anchorages in the area once a week, but we only managed to catch him once. When he came, we hadn’t had anything fresh in over a week, so we bought some of everything he had. I’ll admit that I danced around the boat and singing that I felt “rich” with all that fresh food. Its funny how your standards change!

Here is some of the loot we have bought out of the other canoes:

… a lovely bunch of coconuts….


We bought this giant crab and 20 little conchs for 4 dollars. We actually threw most of the conchs back into the water because they were so small. Overfishing and harvesting animals that are too small is a big problem here. We tried to talk to the locals about leaving the ones that are so little, but when that didnt work, we would buy them and throw them back in.

This is what the conch meat looks like.

Spiny lobster. Almost too pretty to eat!

We bought a dozen mangos and 5 lemons for about $2. Yum!

We liked this local who would paddle out to us to sell us fruit.


This weird fruit was called “pifa” or something like that. The guy we bought it from told us it was like a mango, but you have to cook it to eat it. As it turns out it’s nothing like a mango, but more like a mushy pumpkin flavor.

This is what the critter looks like before….

…and this is what he looks like after he’s been cooked. You have to cut all the icky stuff off, and then you can eat the tough white meat.

Not a little lobster!

The spiny lobsters are covered in tiny razor-sharp horns. Mean looking, but sure are tasty!

There is also nowhere to get fresh water out here. The locals catch rain water for drinking, so we rigged up a kind of rain catcher for the boat too. We didn’t have any success with it. Most folks on sailboats just dam up their scupper drains to guide rain water into the water tank deck fill. That would work great for us, except that our decks are also the doggie bathroom area. Finally one night, when we were down to our last few gallons, the sky broke open with a massive deluge. We scrubbed down the deck, and spent most of the night bucketing water from the scupper drains into our main tank. We caught 33 buckets of rain before calling it a night, I calculated that we captured 77+ gallons in all. We filled every bucket, pot, pan and container we own. Not too shabby! Again, we felt rich after weeks of skimping, we even treated ourselves to a freshwater shower each. De-lux! 🙂

Kuna Culture

The Kunas, while famous for their cultural preservation, appear to be on the verge of major social changes. The elders all still wear traditional dress, but most of the youth dress like any other young Panamanian. Although most still use the traditional Ulu (dugout canoe), many have added outboard motors in the handful of years.

The local culture constantly had us shaking our heads.  Almost everyday, someone would row up to our boat and demand food, water, candy, or clothing. They would just hand you a water bottle and say “agua” and we rarely would get a “thank you”. Although we often had precious little food and water ourselves, we didn’t have it in our hearts to deny anyone food or water, but we did start asking for things in return, even if it was just a coconut or a sea shell. Also if someone offered to sell you gas, buy you a phone card or give you a water-taxi ride, the only thing you could be sure of was that they wouldn’t do it.  It was hard for us to grasp why, if they wanted food, water, and clothes, why they wouldn’t jump on an opportunity to earn it when given an easy chance (we would try to hire them for little things like boat rides, or try to buy things that are plentiful like limes for too much money). Up until recently coconuts were litterally used as currency out here. That cultural difference probably accounts for much of what we didn’t understand about their motivations.

While we loved the islands, we never felt totally welcomed there. If I said hello and smiled at 5 people, maybe one would respond. I imagine that is part of how they have managed to preserve their culture all of these years. However, the islands are amazing. The water is amazingly blue with white sand beaches. Coconut palms sway peacefully in the warm breeze. The snorkeling was great, with lots of neat coral formations.

Coco Banderos

When we left the West Lemmons, we motored 18 miles to the Coco Bandero Island group. The Coco B’s were our favorite spot in San Blas, so beautiful and tranquil with crystal clear water.

Beautiful anchorage at Coco Bandero

Is that a happy doggie face or what?!?

Monkeying around

A tree climbing hermit crab. He had such a cute little polka-dot shell.

Sunset over the Coco Banderos

Because there is so much moisture in the air here, the horizons are often hazed over. A visible sunset was an uncommon treat.

When we arrived to Coco Banderos, as we were anchoring in the narrow anchorage between islands, we noticed that we couldn’t get the boat to engage in reverse to set the anchor… then it wouldn’t engage in forward either. We killed the engine and eventually realized that we had stripped the splines off of our transmission coupler. Ah, just another mechanical problem in paradise.

We stripped the splines right off the transmission coupler.

Since the coupler wasn’t repairable, our only choice was to order a new part from the US. So, the next day we towed the boat past the reefs with a friend’s dinghy, sailed the 18 miles back to the West Lemmons, then towed the boat past several reefs to the safety of the anchorage. The entrance to the anchorage required several dog-legs to avoid shallows and reefs, and the roll of waves building up on the reefs made for a treacherous ride in the dinghy, side-tied and towing the boat. After we lost our engine in Mexico, I swore I would never do that again, yet there I was, doing my best to keep the two boats from folding in on each other as first the dinghy would roll over a wave, and then the big boat. This time, I hope, will be my last!

We used the internet at West Lemmons to order the part, but could only get it as close as Panama City. We paid a ridiculous amount for shipping to get the part fast, so that we could still catch our flights home to the US a week later. After it was delivered to the FedEx office, Elan had to take a water-taxi, then a two-hour 4×4 taxi, and then a city taxi to pick up the part. The road to the coast is only open during daylight hours, so he had to spend the night in the city, which meant Apollo and I spent the night alone in San Blas. Elan spent most of the next day trying to get a taxi to take him back to the San Blas, after the first four drivers failed to show up, he managed to get a ride with a Cargo company, but by the time he arrived to San Blas, none of the water-taxi drivers would risk running him in dusky twilight. He finally found a driver who got him halfway home, then stopped at a different island, kicked him out, and said “I don’t feel like going to W Lemmons anymore, get out.” Fortunately, we knew a local on that island who agreed to take Elan home, for a pretty penny, of course. What a nightmare.

In the time we spent waiting on parts, we worked on a few other nagging projects. We have been keeping an eye on one of our shroud chain plates (the shrouds hold up the mast, and the chainplate is where it connects to the deck), which appeared to be lifting out of the deck. When we unbolted everything, we discovered that one half of the U-bolt was broken, and the other half broke while we were working on it. Yikes! I guess we will be adding “replace all chainplates” to the to-do list.

New and old U-bolts.

We were originally planning to fly out of Panama from Bocas del Toro, 200 miles further up the coast, but because we had to wait for the part, we chose the closest marina we could find, Green Turtle Cay. We had one day to prepare the boat to be left during our trip to the US. We are nervous about leaving the boat, we’ve never left it unattended for this long, especially at a non-floating dock with short 12 foot fingers. We used every single dockline and fender we own to suspend the boat between the short finger and a cement piling. Hope that’s enough!

Going Home!

We had to come to the city 4 days before our flight to get Apollo’s paperwork organized for the airlines. It took all day, 4 cab rides, a vet visit, a bank visit (I actually got kicked out of the bank for wearing shorts, which is apparently against bank policy, but that’s a whole ‘nother story), several stamps and some official looking paperwork. What a spoiled little doggie! As I write this, I am sitting on the 25 floor of the Trump Towers in Panama City. There were only two hotels in the whole city who would let us have Apollo with us. Our cheapest option, which was way out in the suburbs smelled a little moldy, so for only $20 more, we opted for the fancy Trump Towers right in the heart of the city. It feels so strange to go from ‘roughing it’: no showers, no make-up, and sharing a twin-size bed to taking 2 bubble baths a day and lounging on a king size feather bed. Apollo even got his own fluffy doggie bed and a bag of goodies. Haha, that’s $20 well spent if you ask me!

Lux puppy bed

We fly out on Monday, and have our fingers crossed that all goes well with the dog. It’s a first for us, and I’m sure Apollo will be happy to be back on firm ground in Seattle. We’ll be home for about 7 weeks: tentatively in Bellingham for Aug 16-20, Prosser for the rest of August and a bit into September, then Tonasket for the rest of Sept. We may make a second appearance in Bellingham before we fly out on Oct 3.

We can’t wait to get back to the Northwest. We are craving real beer, a good American cheeseburger, and non-instant coffee, but most of all we are SO excited to see our friends and family. We love it out here, but it’s also exhausting being two small people against the big, big world; where it’s always an all-day affair to buy diesel, haul water, locate food, etc. We took a lot of things for granted when we lived in the States, so we plan to fully enjoy them during the next 7 weeks!

Can’t wait to see everyone!

Ashley & Elan


8 thoughts on “San Blas Islands, Panama

  1. Hi Elan and Ashley ~ It is so fun to read about your EPIC adventure!!!! Thank you for sharing your photos and stories. Safe travels back to the Pacific NW. Love to you both and to Apollo too.
    Glory xo

  2. I am sure you have things lined up but if you need a bed while in Bellingham we have one with your names on it. Safe travels

  3. Ashley and Elan,

    When you are in Tonasket swing by the Alpine Brewery in Oroville. I’m a friend of your dad’s, as a matter of fact his band is playing in our beergarden on Sept 8.
    I’m the owner of the brewery and have been following your trip for a while. I did a lot of sailing when I was your age, mostly in the Mediterranean.
    I think it’s great what you are doing and would like to meet you.


  4. Hi Ashley & Elan –

    I’m part of the FB Seafarer group. I’m getting ready to go for a Caribbean sail as well and trying to put our budget together. How much did you end up paying to get in to the San Blas Islands? Thanks! Can’t wait for you to get back out sailing again. Love following your adventures.


    • Kelley,

      It isn’t expensive. I can’t remember exactly, but it was less than $50. I can’t wait to see you guys out here 🙂


  5. Hi Ash and Elan, Greetings from Montana. After an afternoon of driving the tractor and cutting big logs into firewood, it was so fun to catch up with your blog and loved all the pics and amazing stories!! Sorry we missed you while you two were home but we would love to meet you someplace before next May. We sure had fun in the BVI’s a couple years ago. Anyway we think this is a great adventure so keep up the very interesting blog. We love you and keep you in our prayers. Uncle John and Aunt San

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