A ‘Cook’s Tour’ is a ‘guided but cursory tour of the major features of a place or area’. It’s named after Thomas Cook, founder of the British travel agency that bears his name, and a fervent member of the temperance league. The first tour of his career was for league members attending a temperance conference. A ‘Kook’s Tour’ is our private one-off tour by Captains Keith and Jaime Pomeroy of S/V Kookaburra, who provided an in depth buddy-boat cruise of a large portion of the Guna Yala Region of Panama. While charts still refer to them as the San Blas Islands, most cruisers here use the term preferred by the native inhabitants, the Guna Yala people.
Prior to leaving St. Thomas, we’d purchased ‘The Panama Cruising Guide’, by Eric Bauhaus, which offers waypoints for safe passages into many harbors, coupled with firmly worded suggestions regarding the best times for entering and leaving the more tricky anchorages. The Pomeroys met us at the entrance of Isla Porvenir, the only port of entry where we could clear in to both Guna Yala and the country of Panama. It was late in the afternoon and, had we been alone, we would have anchored nearby for the night and picked our way through the reefs when the morning sun was high. Since the ‘Kooks’ had been in and out of Isla Porvenir a number of times, they nimbly led us immediately to an inside anchorage. Thus we started our tour the way we would continue: We entered the Bauhaus waypoints prior to each day’s sail, and then we followed Kookaburra into and out of the anchorages, recording our track in order to refine our course on the chart plotter later. While most cruisers visit this region without incident, at least six sailboats have been lost on the reefs this year alone, so in addition to being delighted to spend time with our dear cruising friends, we were grateful to learn from them during our first days in Guna Yala.
Keith took us ashore at Porvenir where it cost us $453.00 to check into both the country of Panama and the region of the Guna Yala: $180.00 for our vessel; $13.00 for documents and paperwork; $100.00 per person for entry into Panama for one year; and $60.00 to the Guna Yala. We later found out that the Guna will request $60.00 every month—20.00 for the boat and each person on board. Officials with receipt books in hand visit the anchorages on small motorized boats to collect these monthly fees. In addition some island groups are under the jurisdiction of yet another Guna governmental body which requires a $10.00 per month anchoring fee. If one can be hunted down each month to pay these fees, the total cost of two people living at anchor on a boat ten-meters in length is currently $1233.00 per year. In exchange, there are no services and very few navigational aids. (Just prior to publication, by order of the Guna Congreso, fees for anchoring in the region were set to increase by a ridiculous amount. The translation from the Guna language clearly indicated the fee would be $5.00 per square foot of the vessel, per month. Members of the Facebook San Blas Cruisers Group speculated that perhaps they meant $5.00 per linear foot. If either is enforced an exodus of cruisers is predicted.)
We first met Jaime and Keith in Grenada in 2011. They are excellent captains, enjoy discovering new places, and are—fortunately for us—not members of the Temperance League. Since they were leaving for a trip back to the states only a week after our arrival, they planned our Kook’s Tour to introduce us to four anchorages, veggie boats, mola makers, fellow cruisers, prime snorkel spots, and places to avoid. After we checked in, both boats weighed anchor and headed for East Lemmon Cays for the night. All of the islands are owned by the Guna Yala people, some of whom charge small fees for going ashore, but others are available for exploration, cruisers gatherings, and trash burning. During the week we anchored in East Lemmon Cays, Sabudupored, near Barbecue Beach at Holandes Cays, and back to East Lemmon for the final two nights of our tour.
Here is some of what we learned:
Yes, there are musicians on boats in Guna Yala and my partner EW was delighted to meet Denny Flannagan from S/V Kokomo and Jim Osborn from S/V Ullr during our first week in the islands.
When trying to snorkel at Barbecue Beach, check the current, and make sure both fins are firmly attached before letting go of your boat. I was swept away from La Luna and had to grab onto a boat anchored at our stern and wait for Keith to rescue me. I wasn’t in danger; I was embarrassed.
Such reefs are best viewed via a drift snorkel, with a dinghy tied to one of the group. It is exhilarating to sweep up over an underwater hill to startle a large ray that has been sleeping in the sand.
Wise cruisers will remember that there are no ATMs in the region. Provisioning the ship’s stores and the captain’s wallet will require an expensive one-day trip to Panama City via local launch and jeep, or an eight-hour sail and a few days in Isla Linton or Portobello.
There is plenty of excellent snorkeling with many kinds of coral and fish, as well as rays, sharks, and the occasional shy turtle.
Cruisers also enjoy swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, and kite-boarding—though the winds for kite-boarding are better during the winter months.
The Guna Yala Region is starkly beautiful, with high green jungle hills on shore, and tiny sand islands in the anchorages.
Rainy season is from May through November and they aren’t kidding. The rain showers frequently include thunder storms, and a number of boats are hit by lightning each year.
There are ‘rules’ for trash burning. We burn all paper and plastic, we drop jars and crushed tin cans in deep water as we sail between anchorages, and we give our aluminum cans to the Guna who can sell them for recycling in Columbia. Trash burning can also be an excuse for a party on shore. (Heck, we’re cruisers; any excuse for a party is good enough for us.)
This is generally considered to be a cheap place to hang out during hurricane season. One of the reasons being that there are only a few ways to spend money other than purchasing fresh produce, limited groceries, box wine, Balboa beer, and molas. Wise cruisers will remember that there are no ATMs in the region. Provisioning the ship’s stores and the captain’s wallet will require an expensive one-day trip to Panama City via local launch and jeep, or an eight-hour sail and a few days in Isla Linton or Portobello. From there you can catch a bus to Sabanitis, Colon, or Panama City.
To recap: Checking into Guna Yala and Panama: $439.00. Exploring the area with friends on S/V Kookaburra: Priceless.
Now sailing in the Western Caribbean, Barbara Hart lived aboard with her husband year-round in Maine for eight years. She has an active blog: www.HartsAtSea.com sharing what she’s learned about living aboard, cruising, and staying married.