Today, after three weeks in Panama's San Blas Islands, we begin heading for Shelter Bay Marina at the Atlantic Panama Canal entrance. We plan a stop tonight, Monday and Tuesday at historic Portobelo where in the 16th century the Spanish had a trading center and treasury to collect the gold plundered from the Americas. The fort was also much attacked by Drake, Morgan, etc. and Drake is said to have been buried at sea near Isla Drake just off the coast there.
San Blas or Kuna Yala as the indigenous people call their 'country', has been a worthwhile experience and to some a cruisers paradise. We found the many tiny islands picturesque with white sandy beaches, palm trees and surrounded by clear water when the mainland rivers are not spewing mud and debris when it rains. The coral and fish we saw in the limited snorkeling we did was OK but larger fish were rare possibly due to over fishing by Kunas and/or cruisers. There reportedly is no cigutera (neurotoxin algae) and barracuda are eaten. Biting insects can be a problem in calm weather and near mangroves. The Native American Kunas we meet were simple people living by choice on certain crowded islands near the mainland in thatch huts and getting around by sailing dugout canoes.
We made a special effort by water taxi (typical fiberglass panga style) to visit the village of Carti near the entry port of Porvenir. On one of the islands of Carti we found the Museum of Kuna Culture, Art and History and although the building and displays were quite rustic, Kuna religion, medicine, 1925 war of autonomy, handicrafts, natural history, etc. were all succinctly explained in English and Spanish ($5). The Mormon church has a prominent presence here with the best school and buildings.
The biggest industries we saw were selling handicrafts (molas) to tourists (cruise ships and yachts) and seafood (lobster, crab and octopus). They supposedly harvest coconuts for export and maybe that is why we were never able to buy any drinking nuts (taking coconuts yourself is strictly forbidden). Some Kunas are quite entrepreneurial selling mainland fruit and vegetables to your boat at anchor but the service is not regular. Our attempt at a river boat ride and hike to a waterfall at Rio Sidra was unsuccessful due to cancellation by the operator (Lisa the infamous Kuna transvestite). Mostly we encountered canoes selling molas and seafood and the occasional begging. Almost all asked us for Coca Cola (what a product) but we gave them water and used clothing.
Most of the yachts we saw here were certainly real cruisers (as opposed to charter yachts or short time mega yachts with owners flying in) although some do leave their boats at anchor or on a mooring for peroids of time in the Lemon Cays to go to Panama City or fly out. This is easily done from the West Lemons (9d32.76N, 78d53.80'W, 55 ft) by water taxi ($15 pp one way) to Carti where a 4x4 will tranport you ($?) in two hours on a muddy precipitous road to Panama City. People have also done one day shopping trips his way. Many however having in their eyes found paradise will never leave Kuna Yala. With an occasional yearly trip to Columbia to reset any permits and visas some have been here in hurricane free Panama for years and even set up restaurants, marinas, charter yachts (crewed), etc.