After Cartagena, we planned to spend a few weeks making our way up the coast of Panama, visiting the Guna Yala archipelago (formerly the San Blas). Technically, you could visit a different island every day for a full year–ranging from a white sand, deserted island with a single coconut tree to populated larger islands with bridges and shops. The area is collectively governed by the Guna people who have sagely held off gold miners and mega hotel developers.
This place is remote enough that our navigation map shows a big blank white space of “Uncharted Waters”. We used a guidebook of surveyed/sounded maps from Eric Bauhaus called Panama Cruising Guide. Mr. Bauhaus graciously lists waypoints to follow that will keep your boat off a reef, an unfortunate event that occurs for non-waypoint followers each year.
We had one month of provisions, prepared for no internet, and hoped we’d have at least a few visits from the Guna in pirogues selling fruit, veg and fish. Instead, within a day of arrival at a pretty anchorage, we were visited by ‘Celery’ in a dug-out canoe who – of course! sold SIM cards with unlimited data and anything else we wanted.
The data access is island-specific, and Ian discouraged me from choosing an anchorage based on proximity to the cell phone tower. It turned out that the most beautiful island and reef with the best fishing also had the worst cell phone reception, so we became accustomed to our cell phones lazily ping-ing off faraway towers to receive messages from home hours or days later.
We also had regular visits from families selling molas, the intricate fabric art so recognizable in the area. And we had regular visits from fishermen selling lobster, squid, and reef fish. They assured Ian that spearfishing is permitted (actually we learned that it is illegal, along with kitesurfing and boat chartering) and Ian ended up fishing a few days with some young guys, bonding over spearguns and breath-holding.
The area is pretty amazing: clear cerulean blue and turquoise waters, moderately healthy reefs, really friendly locals. We’d put it as the number 1 spot we’ve visited since getting the boat. If you’re interested, don’t let a pandemic or the heavy carbon footprint of getting here prevent you from seeing this place – even with the most optimistic emission scenarios, these islands are on the global top-ten list for disastrous impact of storm surges and extreme flooding. But the Guna Yala collectively has a strategic relocation plan. They own the land on the mountainous mainland as well and have already started building infrastructure. I feel like they should advise developers in Miami.