Sailing to San Blas & A Jungle River Mission

Sailing to San Blas & A Jungle River Mission

Pulling up the anchor and setting sail had us feeling like a couple of kids on Christmas morning. We’re on our way to cruisers bliss! A turquoise sea with 378 tiny specks of Caribbean white sand flocked with coconut palms.

We’ve been listening to sailors gush about the famous San Blas Islands since we announced we were coming to Panama. After the past couple weeks of tackling boat projects, we’re ready for some serious play time.

As it goes in the cruising community, we made a couple of friends who have been before and they’re heading that way a day before us. They gave us the scoop on some of the local customs and picked out a good anchorage for us.

The San Blas islands are home to an indigenous tribe called the Guna (also known as Kuna and Cuna). They protect their land and culture with such fierceness, the Guna Yala region is basically its own country. They have political autonomy so the Panamanian government rarely interferes here, which allows the indigenous people of San Blas to police themselves. These Kuna laws are unwritten and are subject to change at anytime. Our goal as travelers is to tread lightly, be friendly and ask permission before doing…well…just about anything.

Well, we may not have found any tarpon but we had an awesome time poling and trolling up the river in that skiff.  New experiences, new friends and picture perfect islands…what more can a cruiser ask for?  I guess I can think of one thing:  A swim up bar at the sand bar!

sailing and exploring san blas
drone views of san blas
exploring the river in san blas

Our new friends have to sail back to Linton Bay (insert sad face here) because this was just a short scout mission for them.  I know we’ll cross paths with Rufus and Kate again because that’s the beauty of life on a sailboat.  The cruising community is close knit and when we hoist our sails, we go where the wind blows.  Convergence is inevitable.

Curious to learn more about Rufus and Kate?

exploring san blas islands

Community. [kuh-myoo-ni-tee] Noun. A social group of any size whose members share common characteristics or interests. Community isn’t found in a specific location, its found in people.

Sailing San Blas

These are challenging cruising grounds for a variety of reasons.

  • the charts are not 100% accurate
  • water is shallow
  • anchorages are mostly unprotected if the weather kicks up
  • locals make the laws and change them often

We read a variety of conflicting information which is due to the ever changing and unwritten local and national laws. When we went into the maritime authority office to get a zarpe for San Blas, they said we didn’t need it. We read a tribal leader might come out and collect a fee that could range anywhere from $20 a month to $10+ a day. We were never approached for money, but we weren’t anchored near a popular island either.

visual navigation
sailing san blas
san blas islands

Lot’s of locals came by to sell us their goods, or invite us to their beach to buy beer, coffee or soda. Each Kuna visitor was friendly and welcoming.  Most remembered our boat and didn’t try to sell goods a second time.  Even though we had 4 visitors before 8am the one morning in the video, it wasn’t much of a hassle, in fact it was enjoyable to wave and bridge the language barrier with a big smile.

Eric Bauhaus is a household name in Panama because of his book, The Panama Cruising Guide. We got by fine without it, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been nice to have. By the time we had seen the book in person we were already over half way through our time in Panama. Our friends had a copy (you see Rufus flipping through in the video) and its loaded with photos, charts, hidden anchorages and local customs. It’s the only place we found information on what the Kuna people allowed and didn’t allow. So, if you plan on spending a decent amount of time cruising in Panama, it’s well worth the purchase (but be warned, it’s not cheap at $50-70 USD).

Eric Bauhaus, The Panama Cruising Guide:

All in all, we had a great experience with zero issues.  Most sailors we spoke with reported the same. Our Garmin Bluecharts were pretty accurate, and using our radar we were able to see which specs of land didn’t align perfectly.  No matter what, this is a place where visual navigation should be your go-to.  San Blas a beautiful stretch of islands well worth exploring for as long as you can.

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jason and nikki wynn

Sailing Report

To see our full map with interactive pins, click here:

sailing san blas map
  • Dates: 10/25 – 11/1/2017
  • Nautical Miles Sailed: 52
  • Anchorage:  Yansaladup.  You can find it on Active Captain near the Lemon Cays and just east of Cayos Chichime.
  • Cell & WiFi:  Until recent years there was zero cell reception in San Blas.  We found a strong 3g signal near Isla Porvenir while our anchorage (5+ miles away) had intermittent reception.  A Cell Booster is a must here if you want a chance at catching a few bars, but there’s no guarantees here in paradise.

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In The Galley

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