Monday, October 22, 2012

Tips on Cruising the San Blas

The Kuna Yala presents some primo cruising grounds - more than 300 tiny islands to explore, great snorkeling and fishing, interesting local culture, an off-the-beaten-path kind of lifestyle. What follows are a few things we’ve found interesting or helpful in exploring this little slice of the world.

Get The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus. It is pricey at $70 but essential for navigating the San Blas Islands where there’s a reef or shallow spot around every corner. We’ve heard from everyone who has sailed this area that his waypoints are spot on and not to trust any other map. Indeed, our chartplotter and Navionics were way off in several spots - once showing us anchoring literally in the middle of an island - whereas Bauhaus got it right. Obviously, good sunlight and a person on the bow wearing polarized sunglasses is a must too, but the Bauhaus book really takes the edge off of sailing in these reeftastic waters.

The weather. Before we left Bocas, someone told us that the weather in the San Blas is way better than the weather in Bocas. Maybe it’s just the time of year that we’re here, but he was way off. Yes, there is a nice breeze, making for cool, fanless nights, but it rains every day with oftentimes stormy results. Big, dark clouds bubble up off the ocean and roll in with plenty of thunder and lightning to go around. In fact, we have disconnected our major electronics due to the enhanced electrical activity we’ve experienced here, and every year several cruising boats are struck by lightning.

Buy a bunch of food first. For real. People say there are grocery stores everywhere. Well, not so much in the San Blas. There are stores of sorts, and, yes, you can buy a limited variety of fresh vegetables, eggs and scrumptious Kuna bread. You will not starve, but I really suggest stocking up on canned vegetables and fruit before coming here and any dry goods or specialty items you might want because you probably won’t find them. There is no cheese (except a limited supply of that yellow single serving stuff from Nestle), no butter, not much booze besides Balboa, not a lot of meat and not a ton of fruit apart from some abused looking oranges and the occasional pineapple. Thankfully, we went on a massive shopping spree at the big El Rey grocery store in Sabanitas outside of Portobelo, but even so we’ve had to get creative in the cooking department. 

Fill up on everything before you get here. You can get diesel, gasoline and propane in the San Blas, but it’s expensive and can be complicated. We picked up an extra 15 gallons of diesel at about $5.25 a gallon and, let’s just say, it didn’t look like the best quality. Gasoline is more prevalent but is also expensive, and propane tanks here have a totally different connector than American tanks. This created an interesting situation for us, in which Vlad had to rig up a connecting hose and then bear hug a propane tank for two hours until most of the gas transferred from the Panamanian tank to our tank. If he wasn’t such a crafty problem solver, we would be eating cold corn out of a can.

This is a great place to save cash. Yep, you heard me. The San Blas has really been a positive influence on our cruising kitty. Granted, we did spend $400 on food before we arrived here, and we were pretty well filled up on diesel. But still, this month we’ve only spent $350 so far, and that includes my mola spending spree and purchasing $100 worth of diesel. There’s just not a lot to buy here, which means it’s great for saving money, which means it’s extra great for us.


  1. I love cold corn out of a can :)

  2. Super helpful post Attila! Thank you!

  3. Loving these tips!! How is the water situation there? Ever get the "Maker" working?