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.