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Sailing through the San Blas Islands

Bypassing the jungle of the Darien Gap, Cameron Dueck sails to South America through the idyllic but 'dangerous' San Blas archipelago

 

A fierce sun ricochets off the white deck. Ahead, behind and to both sides of the yacht, all is calm aquamarine, barely rippling in the tropical breeze. A few low-lying, palm-crowned islands hover on the shimmering horizon.

As far as the eye can see, there are no pirates, crocodiles or naked natives daubed in war paint. There are no suspicious-looking speedboats skimming the sea, packages of cocaine floating in their wake. Just the endless, peaceful Caribbean Sea.

Nevertheless, these waters, off the coast of Panama, and the San Blas Islands that dot the horizon, have a colourful reputation for piracy, and crime ebbs and flows in this region even today. I didn't have much choice but to sail through these pristine, remote Caribbean islands, though, in order to get from Panama to Colombia.

The Darien Gap, a 160-kilometre swathe of dense jungle that straddles the border between those countries, stands in the way of an overland crossing between Central and South America. The Gap has been crossed, but fearsome Colombian rebel fighters, mountainous rain forest and treacherous swamps - not to mention the lack of any road - have deterred all but the hardiest adventurers and a few fanatical missionaries.

OK, I did have choices; but for the same amount of money it would have cost to fly - about US$400 - you can take a sailing cruise.

Jacqueline is a 56-foot catamaran and, although she could easily get us to Colombia's colonial port of Cartagena in three days, we've decided to extend the trip to explore San Blas, a Panamanian archipelago of nearly 400 islands and cays, of which only 49 are inhabited.

Jacqueline sets sail from Carti, a tiny port to which the Kuna people of the San Blas Islands come to collect fuel and staples while dropping off coconuts, fish and passengers bound for Panama City. The port consists of a few shaky wooden piers on spindly driftwood legs and half a dozen palm-thatched shacks, from which are sold cold drinks and transport.

Getting to Carti involved a three-hour taxi ride from Panama City on a roller-coaster road with stomach-flipping drops and curves so tight, car windows are left bearing the imprints of passengers' faces. The ride passed through a portion of the Darien Gap jungle, so we know what we are missing by taking the boat.

Within moments of our boarding, Jacqueline's bow has turned to the open sea. Fritz, the boat's colourful - as well as stubborn and rude - captain, explains the operation of the toilets and rules on using fresh water before getting to the more interesting details of the journey.

Crocodiles call these quiet, shallow waters home, he says. Given that we'll spend the first few days of our voyage frolicking in the sea, he tells us to keep a beady eye out for what appear to be "floating logs".

"If you see a small package floating by, please tell me," continues Fritz. "I will call a nice man who will come and collect it and give us US$2,000 for our efforts."

Fritz, who escaped Austrian winters to live by the rule that "if the coconuts don't grow, there I don't go", is only half joking. Drug runners pilot high-speed boats through these waters, from Colombia to Central America. As early as the 1600s, William Dampier, the English pirate and sailor who plundered this part of the Americas, had recognised the worth of the San Blas Islands to anyone hiding from the law. He described them as a rendezvous for pirates.

Today, when the heat is on, sea-borne criminals throw their well-wrapped cargo overboard, in the hope of collecting it later. Stories abound of sailors coming across one-kilogram packages bobbing in the sea, but Fritz admits he's never found one himself.

The Kuna were driven from the mainland to San Blas during the 16th-century Spanish invasion and have lived on the islands ever since. Although no longer naked and covered in war paint - missionaries long ago taught them about "sin" - they continue to live a subsistence life of fishing, hunting and harvesting coconuts. The Kuna now weave the artistic designs they once painted on themselves into the clothing they make, which they also sell to passing yachts.

Piraguas, or dugout canoes, some with motors, are the main mode of transport between the islands and the mainland.

After an island stop to clear Panamanian customs we drop anchor off another sandy bay and get down to examining the coral beds and brilliant tropical fish.

Later, we anchor at quiet Lemon Cays, surrounded by a handful of other swaying masts. It's a shipmate's birthday and we motor ashore under a star-studded sky, only to find the Spanish Bar, a small thatch-roofed building surrounded by plastic chairs, deserted. However, our arrival beckons one of the island's few residents, who produces a small radio, some patio lights and an armful of cold beers. The Spanish Bar is now open.

The extensive reefs of Holland Cays make for tricky anchoring but splendid snorkelling. Here we begin the serious business of spear fishing for dinner; and after hours of underwater hunting we have caught five crabs and two lobsters, enough for a meal if everyone shares.

A wall of dark clouds built up on the horizon while the catch was being brought aboard, and within minutes of the anchor being raised and Jacqueline setting sail the rain sweeps in. We turn our stern to the storm and begin our open-water crossing to Colombia, chased by peals of thunder and flashes of lightning.

A watch cycle is established as night falls, each member of the crew standing for two hours at the helm while the others sleep. The rain stops and Jacqueline steadily swallows up the nautical miles to the east, and the Colombian shoreline, through dark seas.

The voyage continues on open seas through the next day, and we spend much of it staring at the deep blue and watching the occasional commercial ship steam past, trailing ribbons of white froth from its bows. In the evening, with the sun still brightening the western sky, we get visitors: a pod of dolphins matches our pace, the mammals jumping, twirling and frolicking in our bow wave. They swim with us for an hour, seemingly goaded on by our shouts and whistles, before spiralling down into the depths and out of sight.

At 3am, Jacqueline motors into Cartagena. Subtly lit skyscrapers stand guard over the impeccably restored walled city. All is quiet save for the occasional barking of a dog. We drop anchor and snatch a few hours of sleep.

In the morning, we will go ashore to explore the city, our first steps on a whole new continent.

 

Getting there: United Airlines (www.united.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Newark Liberty International Airport, near New York, and daily from there to Panama City. Most San Blas Island cruise operators offer voyages in both directions between Panama and Cartagena, Colombia. Cruises can be booked through Hostel Mamallena (www.mamallena.com).

 

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