Yeah, we spent about 2 weeks of March, 2011, in the San Blas islands on the eastern (Caribbean) side of Panama. I'll just get it out of the way right now and put up this cliche photo of the exotic white-sand San Blas coral island with the happy native happily paddling his sailing cayuca to his simple happy home at the end of his happy, simple day. Here ya go. You'll find something similar on every Caribbean cruiser's blog you can find. We're all about the blue skies, palm trees and white beaches.
The San Blas gets a lot of hype for being one of the premier cruising grounds in all the world, but we found ourselves having to really try to enjoy our time there. What ended up being so...meh?
The March air was generally warm, as was the water - after all, this is Central America. However, there were still some pesky little weather systems moving through the Eastern Caribbean to our location in the Western Caribbean every few days. This meant generally cloudy skies for us, winds in the low-to-mid-20s, choppy water, and two-hour daily rain squalls. This is mild weather in these parts. We were never in any danger but dinghy travel and snorkeling were a bit uncomfortable. The bigger problem was reduced visibility in the water. Snorkeling wasn't much fun on all these cloudy, choppy days, and travel between anchorages was suboptimal due to the choppiness and the reduced ability to see all those pesky shallow areas. At one point we were pinned down by choppy weather for about a week. Also, this was our first exposure to truly shallow water with only a couple of feet to spare under the keel. There wasn't much confidence on The Fox.
On the upside, I made a couple of excursions onshore to look for seashells and was semi-successful. On one of my low-visibility snorkeling adventures I spotted my first-ever nurse shark...or did she spot me? We found a few anchorages that were nicely calm and sheltered, so that was good too. But something else was missing.
We had a cultrual conflict. The popular cruiser anchorages - all in the Western San Blas - are freakin' packed, which is a very different experience than we had throughout the Eastern Pacific. Here in the San Blas, you have a handful of Very Popular Anchorages: Porvenir (for checking in and out of Kuna Yala); Chichime; East Lemon Cays and the Eastern Holandes Cays. Based on the check-ins we heard on the daily VHF cruisers' net, in these four anchorages you will find roughly 200 boats, about 80% of all the cruising boats in the entire archipelago. These anchorages are not big but they are overstuffed. For example, if you arrived at the Chichime anchorage you'd estimate it could hold 9 boats - and you'd be correct. Most San Blas denizen/cruisers told us that they feel it's overcrowded if it has 11 boats anchored there. When we were there in March? There were nineteen boats.
Just because you can shoehorn 19 boats into an anchorage, doesn't make it a 19-boat anchorage. It just makes it unsafe. People were anchoring on top of each other like you wouldn't believe. We saw a lot of amateurish anchoring techniques. And since this is a very international destination, few of these boats spoke the same language as the boat they were anchoring on top of. What could possibly go wrong?
We get the willies in situations like this. We'd try to visit one of the other better-known anchorages, but would find it so crowded we felt we should move on rather than risk anchoring too close to all the other closely-anchored boats and have problems if/when the wind shifted. We found out later from Cap'n Jack in Portobelo, that in fact, every June when the wind does indeed shift, about 10% of the boats anchored in San Blas end up on reefs. So maybe our having gotten the willies was a good thing.
Photography was a real challenge. Consistently cloudy skies gave lack of color contrast to photos. Plus, the islands are all flat, with the same cover of palm trees or houses packed shoulder to shoulder all theway to the waterline; as one cruising guide put it: "all these islands look alike."
We'd only planned a couple of weeks in the San Blas archipelago, so we'd given ourselves a "learning curve" rather than a "relaxing destination." We did not take other cruisers' advice and sail further to the east, away from the overcrowded cruiser hangouts. Had we allowed ourselves more time for the weather to improve as April arrived, the conditions would have been calmer and the visibility much better. As it was, the last few days we spent in the San Blas in late March, the weather did improve and we discovered why it's the popular cruising destination it is: the skies and the sea were bright blue, and under water, the sunshine really lit up all the neon colors of the coral and the fish.
So THAT'S why people sail here and never leave. NOW I get it.
If we can we'll go back to the San Blas. Next time we'll explore further east, out of the dense cruiser zone. If the weather's nice and sunny, we'll be snorkeling and fishing as much as we can. We'll stay longer, as long as the weather and our longer-range itinerary allow. We've learned our lesson.