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San Blas

The San Blas islands are 100 miles east of the Colon entrance to the Panama Canal
The San Blas are 100 miles east of the Panama Canal entrance

Language: Mostly Kuna, but more Spanish is spoken now than we saw in 1988.
Population: About 20,000 on the islands, and more inland.
Money: The good old US dollar, amazingly enough.
Landscape: Coral-reefed, sandy islands, covered in coconut palms and low shrubs. The Panamanian coast here is lined with mangroves, sicropia trees, bananas, and kapok trees.
Visited:  We spent from February 15-27, 2003 in the San Blas islands (and could have easily spent longer).

Cruisers: We are now publishing Downloadable Track Files in OpenCPN (.gpx) format and in MaxSea (.ptf) format (not all tracks are available in all formats yet - we're still working on it and they take time).  You can download the track files either by clicking on the links in the tables below, or by clicking on the track in the Google Map below the table.  The MaxSea files are in native format but the OpenCPN files are zipped so they download faster, and they need unzipping after they've been downloaded (which most operating systems do natively).  If 2 files are shown, the smaller one has been edited to remove redundant points from straight tracks.  This improves the speed of the download as well as performance once the file is loaded.  Sometimes MaxSea Track files are separated from the Mark (chart notations) files.  Download instructions are provided if you need them.

These files are provided free and we are actively soliciting cruisers to send us your track files so we can post them for others to download.  If you would like to to participate, please email us your track files (as attachments to our HackingFamily account, not our Winlink acct) along with your boat name and draft.  If you include your website and boat details, we'll link back to you from our Cruising Links page.

Disclaimer: While we always try to provide useful information, we can take no responsibility for its accuracy or usefulness.  Prudent mariners will always navigate using all means at their disposal, and will not rely solely on electronic navigation.

Panama and San Blas Tracks

Boat Draft Year Comments MaxSea OpenCPN
Taniwani 6.6' (2m) 2005 Slightly different from our trip 15 KB 7 KB
Note that Taniwani's San Blas tracks were originally made using GPS offsets to make the positions match the charts.  As of 2011, the CM93v2 charts were still incorrectly placed for San Blas.
We believe that we have successfully removed those offsets and that these track files are now corrected for WGS84.  However, like all electronic aids to navigation, we recommend that you not depend solely on these tracks for your navigation through the San Blas Archipelago.

See Taniwani's Panama & San Blas Islands Tracks in a larger map.

Looking past our hammock as we sail through the San Blas islands
Looking past our hammock as we
sail through the beautiful San Blas islands

History:  Legend has it that the Kuna Indians came down from the Panamanian mountains to the coast to escape the ravages of malaria.  They brought with them their canoes (which they had used on the rivers) and their language which continues through today.  In 1925, when the San Blas were totally governed by the Panamanian government, there was a large Kuna uprising that ended with the deaths of 22 Panamanian policemen and 20 Kunas.  After the uprising, the government granted the Kunas the right of self-government, and they have controlled the 2360-km2 ever since. Today, they even have the right to vote in Panamanian elections and two representatives in the Panamanian legislature.

Our trip around the anchorage had all three of us screaming like crazy.
Our trip around the anchorage had
all three of us screaming like crazy.

(Amanda age 13)  I must say, seeing the San Blas after four long days of sailing was a blessing. Green islands, white sand, and turquoise water. What more could I ask for? Well, I could think of some, but I'm not going to go there. Let's just say it was wonderful.

    Before we got there, Mom had said that the Kunas, the San Blas locals, lived on coconuts. I'm not sure if that's living from eating them or selling them, but I think they could do either or both at the same time. Those islands are jam-packed with coconut palms. It was obvious which islands people were living on because they had nicely cut out all the scrubby underbrush and big bushes, making it a lot easier to find coconuts that fell. The islands that weren't inhabited were almost impossible to walk through. It makes me wonder whether the Kunas choose the islands they choose because those ones are thinner, or so few of them because they are so hard to clear.
    In the San Blas, we met up with our friends on Vamp once again. After a year of nothing but email, it's amazing to see one another again. Rachel, Maya, Briana, and I, as well as Daryl, one of our visitors at the time, spent a lot of fun time swimming in the beautiful water or exploring islands after schoolwork was done for the day. Once, we were playing on the windsurfer board and instead of tying it to the big boat, we tied it to the back of a visiting dinghy, with a big 50 hp engine, and, well, eventually they had to leave. We had a fun little ride around the anchorage, shall we say?

The beautiful Rio Diablo (Devil's River)
The beautiful Rio Diablo (Devil's River)

(Chris age 16)  Although I certainly welcomed the end of the days at sea which brought us to the San Blas, I would have enjoyed the San Blas at any time. They were beautiful, sandy islands, literally covered in palm trees. In fact, I wouldn't have minded a bit less greenery so there could be some beaches, but as it was, if you wanted to walk around the perimeter of most of the islands, you would get wet.
    The really great part of the San Blas was underwater. Down on the extensive and diverse reefs, seen through crystal clear water, were fish, corals, octopi, crabs, sharks, rays, conch, and lobsters. We ate a really good lobster dinner one night, and watched stingrays leap out of the water (around six feet high) like they thought they were dolphins! Aside from more insects than I appreciated, it was absolutely wonderful, especially with the Harshbargers coming to visit.

A delightful anchorage in Coco-Banderos Cays, taken from the spreaders
A delightful anchorage in Coco-Banderos
Cays, taken from the spreaders

    The other really neat thing about the San Blas was going up the Rio Diablo, a river which comes off the Panamanian mainland and empties at the point where the San Blas islands meet the Panama coast. The river was fairly shallow, and some parts were tricky to reach even by dinghy, but it was a lot of fun to go up and explore.

(Jon)  Yes, I could have spent much more than 2 weeks in the San Blas.  The clear water in all the glorious shades of blue, aquamarine, turquoise, royal blue & umpteen others, the picturesque palm covered islands, the colorful Kunas sailing around in their dugout canoes, the magnificent snorkeling, & the great wildlife (over and under the water), all combine to make the San Blas a truly delightful experience.  Getting there after a rather ugly 4-day crossing, to find long-lost cruising friends made it even more appealing.

Hammock on a delightful island in the Chichime Cays of San Blas
Hammock on an island in the Chichime Cays

    The Kunas typically live in (rather crowded) villages just offshore from the mainland.  But each village seems to have claim to several of the outer islands, and they would send various families to those islands to "watch the coconuts" (actually, to harvest the fallen coconuts to sell to Columbia).  These families would also keep the islands neat and clean, clearing the underbrush to make a delightfully manicured appearance.  Recently, the Kuna seem to be making money elsewhere, as it seemed to me that fewer of the islands were being maintained.
    To get out to the outer islands, the Kuna make dugout canoes (which apparently cost about $80).  Paddling these canoes is relatively straightforward once you get your balance, but the Kuna also sail them!  They rig a short mast, a bit of bed-sheet or similar cloth, and a pole (sprit) to keep the far corner out.  How do they keep it from tipping over?  They jam in a board that sticks over the side, & send someone out there to keep the whole thing upright.  Great fun to watch.  These guys are really good sailors.  They would often sail miles out to meet us in an effort to sell us fish, molas, lobsters, or anything else they thought we'd pay for.

Sunset over the Panamanian mainland from our Nargana anchorage
San Blas sunset over the Panamanian mainland

(Sue)  After 15 years, the islands are as lovely as I remembered. This is certainly the one true remaining paradise of the Caribbean. As I expected, I was enamored of the molas -- the reverse appliqué fabric art work done, traditionally, by the Kuna women as front and rear panels on their blouses. I love rich hand stitchery, embroidery and weaving, and especially love the finest cut molas with their multi-layers, intricate designs, and joyous colors. The family budget suffered a bit each time a new canoe arrived with Kuna people (men and women) selling their artwork. Sharing this beautiful landscape and rich culture with friends from home was especially wonderful. The San Blas used to be considered a place one traveled through on the way to the Canal. Now, however, it is a wonderful cruising ground of its own right. If the Pacific weren't calling, we, too, might consider spending a few months in these peaceful, friendly islands.

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