Visit to Mormake Tupu
19 February 2018
A new bottle of Abuelo 12yo rum came aboard today. It may be helping me catch up with my blogs. The past few months have been a whirlwind on Uproar. San Blas is a region unlike any other place we have visited. I've written about the beautiful islands and unusual people who inhabit this area but there is still more to be said. Lisa, Laura, Glyn, I visited Isla Maquina or more commonly called, Mormake Tupu. This means mola making island. Molas are the intriguing needlework, embroidery quilting artwork of the Kunas. Venancio, one of only four mola making men in the San Blas visited Uproar weeks ago. We succumbed to his fine art and bough six molas at far above tourist prices. But they are treasures of art.
We told Venancio our friends from home would be visiting and they would like to see his molas. Sure enough when we anchored in East Lemon Cays with Glyn and Laura, it wasn't long before Venancio came in his ulu (dugout canoe) to show them his wares. Laura is an artist in fabric herself and loved the display. Venancio's brother Idelfonzo mentioned he gives tours of his island, Isla Maquina. A few days later Uproar anchored in the lee of his island. Idelfonzo motored out in his ulu and informed us we could find better anchoring in another spot. We followed his recommendation and he ferried us ashore.
Ashore was his own dock leading to his extended family home. That is typical of the Kuna, they have multiple generations living under one palm-thatched roof. Idelfonzo (name was a challenge for all to remember) immediately brought us into his home, a long and narrow hut with sleeping hammocks, cooking fire and even a small store with a non-working refrigerator. We followed him through the village to the Saila, chief of the village. The Saila was not only the chief but medicine man. He had bowls of herbs and leaves he was quite proud of. There was also a Tapir in one cage and monkey in another. Children were all around and not the least bit shy of seeing visitors. We were informed that we needed to pay $5 to the Saila for anchoring in his village. We did with no reservations. This was not a “shake down” we experienced in some areas where no village was in sight.
Idelfonzo gave us an extensive tour, showing us the school, churches, both Christian and Kuna and meeting hall. They hold counsel every evening. The hall was closed and we could not enter. I bought a package of Kuna Cola (like Coke) and there was much discussion for what the cost would be. I may have received the Yankee discount (double the Kuna price).
We walked by one hut where a family was outside. They held up a young baby and pointed to Idelfonzo. All were laughing hysterically! They made it clear it was his baby. Idelfonzo acknowledged it was his in a quiet voice. He was quick to change the subject. Human nature knows no borders.
One meager hut shadowed an old lady who wanted us to see her molas. She spread them on the sand floor with pride. They weren't that great and we weren't interested. Idelfonzo told us to pick one out. He would pay for it and give it to us as a gift. He explained she need money. We did and asked if we could take her picture. He said we would need to pay her $2 for a picture. I handed him a $2 bill. She was quite reluctant until he explained it was real US money. We took a few pictures. Laura felt bad that this lady sold her sole to us for $2.
I asked Idelfonzo about Nuchu. He took us into his hut and showed us a basket full of carved idols. Each family member had a Nuchu, made specifically for them. If they were sick, the Nuchu would be brought to the medicine man of the village for inspection. Sometimes the medicine man would send the Nuchu to another island for another consultation. Idelfonzo warned us not to touch a Nuchu. He held them up to show us and said, “If you touch this, you die because you are not Kuna!”
I had read that they will sell a Nuchu to outsiders that does not have spirit. The guide book says these are cheap balsa wood replicas. I asked Idelfonzo if I could by a Nuchu. He didn't say much until we got back to his hut. He brought out a Nuchu his nephew had carved. It was three feet tall with two falcon heads at the top and a large nosed face below. It was very heavy wood and took a lot of work to carve. “Five dollars, but it is sleeping so you will be safe.” Sold! That Nuchu is strapped to Uproar's bimini frame. Since, we have caught a large Barracuda! The Nuchu was facing toward the cockpit and Lisa and Laura thought it was a bit creepy. They said it should face aft. Sure enough the next day it had turned aft. I swear, none of us turned it aft!
We asked if we could buy Dulup (lobster). Right next to Idelfonzo's hut was a stone enclosure or aquarium. We saw a variety of fish there when we landed on the island. There was also a pig and chicken in cages. He said there were lobster there. He and another friend put on masks and jumped into the enclosed pool. This was their livewell! After 15 minutes or so, they snared four small lobsters for us. Cost was $20. Idelfonzo said we were to pay his friend because they were his lobsters.
Idelfonzo mentioned his niece had trouble with her eyesight for making molas. He asked if we had glasses. We gave her a pair and she was so pleased. Two other ladies came shyly toward us, wanting glasses. We emptied our backpacks with two more pairs. The seemed to scrutinize them and accepted them without a word of thanks. Well, we tried.
This island was certainly a community. I estimate it to be between five and eight acres. We were told 275 people lived there. Idelfonzo was sincerely interested in the welfare of his neighbors. He was a gracious host to us while showing his home and sensitive to his neighbors. The Kuna lifestyle seemed worlds apart from ours but we are of one blood. Experiences like this are the priceless rewards of the cruising lifestyle.
Return to San Blas
17 February 2018
Glyn and Laura, long time sailing friends from Milwaukee, joined us on Uproar in Colon. They were having quite a journey. They visited Bill and Judy (who sailed with us for the Great Lakes part of our journey) in the Bahamas, then flew directly to Colon for three weeks on Uproar. Lisa and I finished our official business, registering for the Panama Canal passage and applying for a French, long-stay visa for French Polynesia. With Glyn and Laura settled in, we headed back to San Blas.
It was far from an easy trip! Winds had picked up and were over 20 knots from the northeast, exactly the direction we were headed. First day was a motorboat ride to Portobelo, 22 miles driving into 6 to 8 foot seas! We made it and had an interesting walk around this quirky town. Portobelo was the first Spanish settlement that shipped gold and silver back to Spain in the early 1600s. It is heavily fortified but was still a favorite target for pirates, sacked and burned multiple times.
Day two was much the same but our course tipped a bit east. We motorsailed in strong winds and building seas. Perhaps some seas were over 10 feet. Miramar was listed as a possible anchorage in the guide book. It was just barely capable of accommodating Uproar. The entrance was surrounded by reefs and rocks. Tricky doesn't begin to describe the safe passage but once inside, all was quiet. We anchored Uproar near two rows of derelict fishing boats. Commercial vessels were using the narrow channel and shouted to us that we were in the way. We rowed lines to shore and to one of the fishing vessels until we were clear of the channel. But when tide went out, we were aground. The bottom was soft but I don't sleep that well when Uproar is not floating. Next morning we were able to use the anchors to kedge off the bottom with ease and go back to the rolling seas.
Day three was a bit longer but we were able to sail much of it. Perhaps we were getting used to the rough conditions. After three long days slogging to weather, we anchored in East Lemon Cays, San Blas. Ahhhhh! Uproar sat still at anchor in clear water and perfectly flat seas. OK, there were about 20 other boats in the anchorage but this took nothing away from the beauty. We stayed two days and snorkeled right off Uproar on some of the most beautiful coral reefs we have ever seen. Five islands surrounded the anchorage with sandy beaches and palm trees. There was even a small restaurant and a few huts with coolers of beer. Paradise at last!
Glyn and Laura took the passage in stride. It was worth it to visit San Blas. Venancio came by in his brother's boat to show Glyn and mostly Laura his molas. Laura, an artist herself, enjoyed seeing these needlework blouse panels. Venancio and his brother made themselves at home in Uproar's cockpit and showed Laura and Lisa about 100 molas. Venancio's brother, Idelfonzo, invited us to tour their traditional village on Mormake Tupu. The name means “mola making island.” I will write a separate blog about this tour. We were given real insight into the lives of Kunas on this tour.
Uproar took us to other idyllic, palm covered islands of Green Island, Coco Bandero, Gunboat Cay and back to East Lemon, Banderup. We did stop at Naragana, one of the more populated islands for some groceries and to visit again with Frederico and mi amigo, his son, Bastor. Bastor was sound asleep while he was waiting for his shorts to dry in the sun. He came out of his hut wrapped in a towel to say hello. We walked the bridge to the island of Corizon de Jesus and saw the boys stacking up barrels and boxes to re-install the basketball backboard they had fiberglassed back together.
The contrast between the inhabited islands and uninhabited islands couldn't be more stark. Inhabited islands are very crowded with palm huts and a few concrete buildings for schools, etc. There are only a few trees on these islands and sandy paths between huts. There is no grass or vegetation. Outhouses are just booths hanging over the water. Sad to say, garbage and trash goes right into the ocean too. One cruising friend pointed to a diaper floating by, “at least it was nicely folded.”
The inhabited islands are close to the mainland so inhabitants can paddle up the rivers for farming and hunting. Outer islands are usually not inhabited. They are the coconut farms. Glyn and I noticed that there were burned patches among the towering palms. We deduced that these burn patches were prepared to grow more palms, we saw coconuts covered with fronds sprouting new trees. These islands were devoid of any plant life other than coconut palms. Coconuts are very important to the commerce of the Kuna.
The 10 days in San Blas went by quickly. The ride back to Colon was the opposite of our slog to San Blas. Strong winds on the beam had Uproar rushing along for another visit to the quirky town of Portobelo the first day, then a broad reach for 22 miles back to Colon. At Colon we berthed at Shelter Bay Marina waiting for our canal transit.
Glyn and Laura know well that anyone who sails with us will be blogged about. I have a lot to say about them sailing with us and I have little to say about them sailing with us. Glyn and Laura just fit right in. The three weeks they spent with us flashed by. We had some great meals, played cards, drank some rum, played some music, swam, snorkeled, sailed and did it all over again. The weeks were filled with activities and new adventures, culminating in our Panama Canal transit. It was hard to say goodbye when they taxied away from the Balboa Yacht Club.
San Blas home of the Kunas
15 February 2018
San Blas Islands are know by the locals as Kuna Yala (land of the Kuna). This 100 mile stretch of the Panama Caribbean coast starts at the Colombia border and encompasses the coast line and outlying islands. Panama has given up trying to assimilate the Kuna into Panama and allows them to self-rule. They are still Panama citizens and can vote in Panama elections but make their own laws. Each village has three Sailas or chiefs. The traditional villages have council every night where the chiefs lay in hammocks and discuss matters of the village. These councils can become boring so one member is appointed to scream out at times to wake up those who are bored. We did not attend council but visited one of their meeting buildings.
Kunas are the second smallest race on earth. Only the African Pigmys are smaller. Their main source of income is selling coconuts. We were warned not to take a coconut, even from uninhabited islands. They also hunt and farm off the rivers that spill into the Caribbean. Fishing and lobstering are other sources of food and income. Their society is matriarchal. Men take on their wife's name and move into her family. Women control the money and business. Women have an elaborate, traditional dress with strings of beads covering much of their calves and forearms. They wear headscarfs and blouse with front and back pieces of artistic needlework called molas. These molas are truly art and any cruiser has many opportunities to buy them. We bought six.
Enough about the Kunas, google if you want to learn more. I will have a difficult time describing our journey through their land. As mentioned in our last blog, we were “billed” for just anchoring in their waters. This seemed inappropriate after we paid $400 clearance fees into Panama. I politely declined to pay more. Seems the Kunas know there are dollars on yachts and want some for themselves. We gladly traded with the ulus (dugout canoes)that came by offering fruits, vegetables and lobsters. We did pay the chief of one island when we were presented to him after touring his village. I'm sure the $5 we paid went to good use.
But when anchored in a remote island with no inhabitants, we were approached by a boat trying to collect $60! I calmly discussed that we already paid to enter Panama, showed them our papers but they still insisted that that was “different.” I used my negotiating tactic that has worked well in the past. I just sang Bob Marley “Redemption Song” until they were sure I was crazy and left! I had to repeat this performance at a few more islands with similar results. Good that they left us with smiles. Who doesn't like Bob Marley?
The eastern San Blas consists of islands just off the mainland that contain villages. Uproar traveled with Skabenga and Mana Kai throughout. Not many cruisers venture into this area. Anchorages are between the mainland and islands. The water is murky and is reported to contain crocodiles. After anchoring at Mona island, I went for a swim. Shortly after, Skabenga called on the radio and said they saw a 10 foot crocodile right next to their boat.
Further west we encountered reefs and offshore islands. Kunas live only on islands close to land where they can paddle up the rivers for their farming and hunting. Offshore islands are heavily planted with coconut palms. These islands are idyllic, sandy beaches with towering palms. They are postcard beautiful! Anchorages are calm and water clear.
Our flotilla of Uproar, Skabenga, and Mana Kai (Skupman) cruised these delightful islands in perfect weather. We visited Naragama, one of the more advanced islands for some groceries and a nice, local lunch. Coco Bandero, Green Island and East Lemon Cays were some of our favorites.
We cut our San Blas visit to a short two weeks because we needed to go to Colon to get registered and documented for the Panama Canal transit. But we would soon return....
Sand Blasted to San Blas
19 January 2018
I mentioned previously about the extreme winds driving sand and coal dust through Uproar in Santa Marta, Colombia. We left the sand pile to head 250 miles to Obaldia, Panama. Obaldia is the eastern-most town in Panama, right on the Colombia boarder and the start of the San Blas region of indigenous people of Panama. We cleared out of Santa Marta, listing Obaldia as our next port. This part becomes significant later on.....
Wind was brisk but not screaming when we left Santa Marta. But it soon died and we motor-sailed much of the way to Panama. Our route paralleled the Colombia coast. We first passed Baranquilla, a commercial port and city. The Colombian coastal towns are built along major rivers bringing water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Caribbean. They not only bring water but whatever gets dumped or dragged into the water.
Around Baranquilla our flotilla of Skabenga, Uproar, and Mana Kai encountered huge logs, refrigerators, mattresses, and best of all, a bloated pig! Once again, Colombia is not a cruiser's mecca. Uproar shut the engine down and sailed through the debris field to protect our propeller and drive gear. We still maintained at least 4 knots. Once out of the crap, we lit up the Yanmar and picked up the pace.
Cartagena was the the next major city with a large river flowing to sea. Once again, we dodged junk in the outflow. But finally we were in clear water. Still, very little wind and burning diesel.
We approached Obaldia the second morning of our passage. That's where we encountered a slight delay. A Colombian Coast Guard Cutter steamed purposefully toward our flotilla of three boats. Mana Kai was first boarded by a large RIB (rigid bottom inflatable, launched from the cutter). We were the magic seven miles from Panama, Colombia felt they had the right to inspect us before we entered Panama waters.
Uproar and Skabenga slowed down even though we hadn't been hailed by the coast guard at that point. After about 15 minutes of searching Mana Kai, I called the coast guard, using our abbreviated boat name, “Uproar.” I asked if we were free to proceed. I received the response, “Tumultuous, you are to remain for inspection. Now, I didn't hail “Tumultuous Uproar.” They had the full name from our exit papers from Santa Marta. They were laying in wait for our arrival. Otherwise, they would have not know our boat's full name.
We were second for inspection. The RIB with 8 seamen came alongside. They didn't have proper fenders but I quickly tied a few on our port side. All were armed and courteous. But they violated an important nautical courtesy. They didn't ask permission to board. They just climbed aboard. They did ask permission to go below. Three seamen went below and Lisa assisted them in inspecting all or our salon lockers and our forward cabin. We had junk piled in the quarter berth and they just waived it off for inspection. The inspection was probably 20 minutes but seemed like a long time. I had an amiable chat with the seamen in the cockpit and still on the RIB.
Colombia has cleaned up their drug trade. This has had a positive impact on their country. I guess they are trying hard to keep it that way. One officer questioned Lisa extensively about the packages of powered milk, Trader Joe's scone mix, and even the big bag of pencils we hand out to impoverished schools. They were also curious about the huge pile of $100,000 bills of Venezuelan money we kept. Lisa explained it was worth less than $1 USD. When they left, the captain said, “You are OK.” I said, “Our friend, Skabenga, is OK too.” He laughed but they still motored over to Skabenga for their thorough inspection.
We made our way to Obaldia, a rolly anchorage with a rough dock and shabby town. The next 100 miles of Panama coastline are home of the Kuna Yala or San Blas islands. They are indigenous people who have fought to rule themselves independently from Panama. They are the second smallest race of people in the world, just bigger than African Pigmys. We were looking forward to exploring the world of these people and their beautiful islands.
The police at the dock were most courteous and explained with a mixture of Spanish and Spenglish what we needed for clearance. It took several hours, $400 and a huge pile of paperwork. Patience was required as the paperwork was mostly filled out by officials who scanned our documents for relevant information. We did get a small, local lunch, stroll of the town and a few beers in the meantime.
Obaldia has a small military base, probably 20 strong, concrete buildings and sand streets. We saw no motor vehicles, nothing requires more than a 5 minute walk. As we were leaving, the lady at the copy shop (and refrigerator with cold soda) gave us a receipt for $10 marked Kuna. I played dumb and just walked on. Seemed she was collecting a fee for the Kunas, indigenous people of the area.
Back on our boats, it was clear that Obaldia was way too rough to spend the night. Our flotilla of three motored 1 ½ miles across the bay to a protected anchorage. This was adjacent to an authentic Kuna village of grass huts. Not long after we anchored, a ulu (dugout canoe) with 6 boys paddled alongside. They were all smiles and readily agreed to be photographed. A few climbed on the back of Uproar. I brought out Sophie for them to pet. They had looks of horror until I made it clear she wouldn't bite. They asked for nothing and left after a lot of smiles, handshakes and waives.
But then another ulu with two ladies in traditional dress and a man paddled out and demanded $10 for anchoring in their bay. We showed them our clearance papers and even the $10 receipt from Obaldia. They were insistent that we pay them $10 also. I conveniently used the language barrier to frustrate them until they left. This was not the welcome to the land of the Kuna I expected. We had just paid $400 to enter Panama, the most we paid to enter any country so far. The scenario was to be repeated several times but did not overshadow the voyage through this unusual part of the world.
Colombia by Land
18 January 2018
As unpleasant as Colombia is by sea, it is a delightful place to visit by land. Santa Marta is a sprawling city with a popular sea front. We were told right away by the marina that Santa Marta people are “happy and safe.” They were all of that and more. Not much English is spoken so we spent some time with “Spanish for Cruisers” an excellent language tutor for us. Restaurant prices are very reasonable, even the excellent higher end restaurants. Street vendors crowd the major streets, all welcoming. We often heard, “Welcome to Colombia.”
The working part of town was an interesting 12 block walk. The blocks in this area seemed to specialize in a certain trade. Several blocks had small, auto parts shops. Cars parked in front were jacked up, replacing brakes, mufflers and suspension parts. There were fruit and vegetable areas and some with fresh meat or fish. Fruit and vegetables were very fresh and great prices.
Lisa and I were admiring a very large tree. An older man brought a handful of unusual seeds, gesturing that they were from the tree. I wanted to find an aluminum pole to replace the whisker pole. I received a lot of directions and help but couldn't find the right piece of tubing.
Minca is an area in the Sierra Nevada mountains, above Santa Marta. There is a rushing river through this area with many falls. Coffee farms and nature preserves make this area great for eco tourism (whatever that is). We booked two nights in Casa de Azul, a basic hotel with 10 rooms on the Minca River. This place is basic! But it was clean, served nice meals and had delightful staff. They welcomed Sophie and she was on her best behavoir. Chris and Karen from Skabenga were with us as well as new friends, Ian and Cathy from Sea Cloud. We had a great time hiking in the area. One day we hiked 8 miles and gained about 2,000 feet of elevation. We were whipped! The only way down was to walk or ride on the back of motorcycles. Six tiny motorcycles (150cc) arrived to carry us back to the hotel. This was a thrill ride over rough dirt roads. My driver didn't put a wheel wrong. I kept calling him “Rossi” and he would go a little faster.
Cartagena is the oldest Spanish port in the new world. Gold from the area was loaded onto ships here, bound for Spain. The British, French and Dutch pirates knew this well and regularly attacked Cartagena. The Spanish built a walled and fortified city to protect their treasure. Here they built a thriving and opulent city with cathedrals and beautiful parks. This is a major tourist area and we enjoyed exploring here.
Just outside the walled city was the village of Gethsemani. This was where the poor people lived who worked in the walled city. We stayed in a small hotel here. Gethsemani has become the bohemian area of Cartagena and we loved it! There was a small square near our hotel where local residents as well as tourists congregate every evening. It was a delightful, neighborhood scene.
Colombia is noted for emeralds. I researched emeralds online at the marina and was armed with some basic information. Lisa and I shopped extensively for just the right earrings. Yes, we found them!
It was well worth the 4 hour bus ride from Santa Marta to Cartagena. If you believe Colombia is a dangerous place over-run by drug lords, think again. It is a beautiful place to visit......by land, not so much by sea.
Our recommendation for cruisers sailing from the Eastern Caribbean to Panama would be to skip Colombia. Spend all the time possible in Los Roques, Venezuela. Fly to Colombia from Bonaire, Curacao or Panama. Hotels, meals and travel are quite reasonable in Colombia. You will save the $1000 in marina fees for a marina that will fill your boat with sand and dust. But do visit this delightful country.
Colombia by Sea
17 January 2018
Colombia is a delightful place to visit....just not a yachting destination. Marina Santa Marta is a first class marina and the city of Santa Marta is an enjoyable place to visit. Minca, mountain eco tourism area, is an hour taxi ride from Santa Marta. It is also easy to get a bus to historic Cartegna. But one has to endure the Colombian capes when sailing from the ABC islands. One French sailor mentioned the capes of Colombia are rated as the 5th most treacherous in the world.
Skabenga and Uproar left Bonaire in 15 knots of breeze for the 350 mile passage. Karen Shipley had re-joined Skabenga. When we arrived in Santa Marta, Lisa and I were wondering if she was booking a flight back to Wisconsin! Yes, it was a good one. The first cape was Paraguana, Venezuela. We were sailing along smoothly until then. A squall hit pretty hard with 40+ knot winds. And it lasted for at least an hour. After the squall, the seas were sharp and large (3 to 4 meters) and the wind continued over 20 knots.
We radioed Skabenga that we were diverting to Aruba for repairs. At that time we weren't sure if we would stay in Aruba or continue. We tore our main during a reef. One squall brought a big wind direction shift which gybed our whisker poled out jib. The carbon fiber whisker pole whipped back to the shrouds where is snapped in half. I'm ashamed to admit it but we foolishly were towing our dinghy. We could easily have lost it in the squalls and seas. We sailed 15 miles to a protected cove off Aruba, hauled the dinghy and taped the small tear in the main and stowed the damaged whisker pole.
We left Aruba late afternoon in easy sailing conditions, it was just a 4 hour delay in our trip. All night we had less than 15 knots and sailed comfortably. The next day was also pretty benign. Peninsula De Guajira is noted for rough conditions but gave us an easy pass. Then on to Cape de la Agula, only 5 miles from Santa Marta. The wind blew and the sea flew! We don't have wind instruments on Uproar but have a pretty good idea how strong the wind was. When we are surfing down waves at over 11 knots with just a small jib out, it is blowing squirrels out of trees. Skabenga saw 50 knots. We had over 35 knots continuously with much higher gusts. Seas reached 5 to 6 meters! These seas are not ocean swells, they are sharp, wind driven waves.
The autopilot had trouble in the waves and we skidded down a few of them sideways. I steered by hand the last 4 hours until we rounded the cape. Once around the cape seas calmed down a lot but the wind still blew! It was an easy trip into the Santa Marta sand box.
The marina is first class but the constant, screaming winds blew sand and coal dust through the marina night and day for two solid weeks! We kept the boat closed and fired up the A/C. The deck had small piles of dirty sand which we are still cleaning out a month later. This is not the kind of cruising we signed up for. This is not the placid anchorage behind a beautiful island we are used to.
But marina life has its advantages. Sophie loved the frequent walks, even though there was no grass around. We became reacquainted with cruisers we had met in the Caribbean and made a lot of new friends. Greg and Caroline from Laquesta were our neighbors. Caroline noticed a rip in our sail cover. She immediately offered to fix it for us. She dragged out her Sailrite machine to the sweltering hot cruiser's lounge and spent several hours making repairs and patches. Thanks Caroline, it looks great now! They also dog-sat Sophie when we traveled to the mountains of Cartagena for a few nights.
We spent Christmas and New Years in the marina. Cruising friends make great substitutes for family when family is far away. We all had good times together. Uproar had a traditional rum punch party for about 40 cruising friends New Year's Eve. We went through about 6 gallons of rum punch!