Wednesday, December 11, 2013


Yeah, this is not the boat we took. Ours is the sailboat in the top right corner...the Luka.
From the earliest days of this voyage, our luck with boats has been something less than stellar.

Early readers of the blog will remember the original Boat Trip From Hell, as we sailed/drifted for 12 days from Palau to the Philippines with two Germans on their small, not-exactly-modern sailboat. 

Forgetting those painful lessons learned on the Pacific, we tried sailing again months later in Madagascar, this time spending nearly 20 hours crammed into a narrow, dugout ocean-going canoe with a sheet for a sail and the entire Indian Ocean (but no privacy) for a bathroom.

More months and thousands of miles had passed. Surrounded by stunning seas, Panama was the final stop of the trip. The San Blas were some of the most scenic islands we'd ever seen. And we'd soon enough be land-locked back home for who knows how long. 

So yeah, you know where this is going. We decided to sail again. On a boat. Overnight.

But this time, we chose wisely.  

While eating fresh-baked bread and drinking strong Panamanian coffee at the only bakery in Potobello, we overheard three American twenty-somethings talking about a boat trip. From what we could hear, they would be sailing later that day, heading through the San Blas Islands and on to Colombia. 

Naturally, Liz leaned over and said, "Excuse me, did you say you're leaving on a boat trip?" 

Half an hour later, we had already met the Luka's capable, friendly, and honest captain, Bea, who was running around town like a mad woman provisioning the boat in prep for their five-day trip. We told her our plans (a one-night trip in the San Blas was all we had time and budget for), and she said, "Sure, you can have my cabin and we'll drop you off tomorrow somewhere you can catch a motor boat to where you need to go next." 

Like our captain Bea, we spent most of the day running around Portobello buying stuff for our trip. We also squeezed in time visiting the remains of the 400-yr-old fort, watching a soccer game played atop cannons hauled on Spanish galleons, and looking out over the deep bay, the supposed burial place of THE Sir Frances Drake, whose lead-encased body no one's ever found.

We did see an interesting liquor selection at one of the two stores in town that sold booze -- Abuelo rum, Night Train (really?), a fifth of Tanqueray gin for $10, and something called Kentucky Cream whiskey, none of which we tried.

If you do make it to Portobello, a quintessential but gritty sailor town Jimmy Buffet sings about in "Cowboy in the Jungle," you may as well try to meet up with Captian Jack. The pony-tailed, wanna-be pirate is a teller of tales and schemer of schemes who knows just about all there is to know about the surrounding area and far beyond. He also serves quality food, cheap rum and decent rooms if you don't mind bunk beds and a little noise. We loved it.

But the real reason you come here is to catch a boat to places further afield...and so we did. Less than 12 hours after we met our American friends and Captain Bea, we were sailing the Caribbean on a 52-ft ketch, sipping rum, seeing the sea and petting the Luka's official living mascot, Wacek, seen below.

After a peaceful night among a ludicrously starry sky, we shared a filling breakfast with our fellow passengers before disembarking at El Porvenir, a tiny strip of sand and palm trees that hosts a hotel, a recently-paved runway and the San Blas Guna General Congress. 

Here, we took a group photo with our fellow travelers as they departed for Colombian and Kip had to go meet with the big boss (Speaker of the House?) to negotiate our motor boat back to the mainland. 

All in all, it was one heckuva way to spend some of the final days of our trip...and more importantly, to re-affirm our faith in sailing, not to mention in our decision-making abilities when it comes to boats.  

Big thanks to Luka, Captain Bea and the crew! 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013


There's so much to love about the San Blas Islands.

The stunning clarity and colors of the water that laps soothingly over the white sand beaches, which Liz could never seem to get enough of. The ubiquitous bead anklets and bracelets the local Kuna women wear to signify whether they're married or not. The lady below, preparing fresh fish for our dinner is married, as noted by the wide wrap around each ankle. 

The quality of food and accommodation varies from island to island. Since only Kuna people can run businesses in the San Blas Islands (no foreign-owned companies allowed...meaning the Hard Rock San Blas will not be happening there anytime soon), the hotels and accompanying restaurants are run by the same one or two families who inhabit whichever island visitors end up staying on. 

While this often means sleeping arrangements are rustic and meals can be culinarily-challenged at times, the overall experience is one that's becoming more and more difficult to come by.

Above, Liz stands in the doorway of our hut. Amenities include one naked light bulb hanging from the palm roof, one thin mattress resting on cross-cut palm trunks, and a hammock for when the bed filled with sand. After lights out, the darkness is profound, as are the starry skies and the sounds from the waves nearby and the palms overhead. 

For families or groups, there are larger huts with multiple hammocks.

But the main attraction can only be the islands themselves. Picture perfect, whether from a distance...

Or frozen in yoga pose atop one...

Or closing business deals just next to one.

If you have time, the San Blas are so worth a visit (or two). While you're there, take some time to enjoy the scene, learn about the locals, and consider a volunteer activity such as  a beach cleanup.

And of course, don't forget to take dominion over your own palm-crowned private island. It's as unique a place as we've seen on the trip and will definitely be making our Top 10 list, if we ever get around to putting one together. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


From live volcanoes to high bridges to the Taj Mahal, for some reason we like having our photo taken while jumping in the air. Tourists.

So when we saw this reclining palm stretching out over a beach in the San Blas Islands, we went right to it. More or less.

At least the sand was a safer landing than the one Kip would've faced if he missed this jump in Thailand...or if this jumping cat crash landed in a monastery in Burma.