What’s So Great about the Western Caribbean?
A Nomad Reminisces
Story and Photos by Liesbet Collaert
First, let’s talk about the Eastern Caribbean. A variety of islands, cultures, languages, people, food, drinks, and anchorages. Flavors of all kinds in the broadest sense of the word. You have white-sand, palm-fringed beaches, rewarding hikes in the mountains, and fabulous views of valleys, volcanos, waterfalls, and seascapes.
Don’t forget the affordable happy hours, sense of community, and reliable tradewinds. Sailors love it here. And what’s not to love? My husband, Mark, and I made some of our best friends in this part of the world and had an amazing time cruising up and down the chain, from St. Martin to Grenada, for three years. If you’re a novice sailor ready to island hop and immerse yourself into the Caribbean lifestyle, point your bow(s) towards the Eastern Caribbean. You might never leave, like those best friends of ours, who you can find working as a diesel mechanic and running a boat brokerage in the Isle of Spice.
If you’ve been cruising – or traveling – for a while, you might be familiar with the world’s most asked question: “What has been your favorite place?” Or its spin-offs, “Which island did you like best?” and “If you could pick one country, where would you return to?” or, wait, “Which area do you recommend the most?”
As a nomad for twenty years, I can assure you that this is not an easy question to answer. It’s more complicated and nuanced than just dropping the name of one place/island/country/town/beach. When I recount our life story of explorations in person, the eight years of cruising on our 35-foot Fountaine Pajot catamaran Irie in the Caribbean and South Pacific stand out. That part of the story allows people to dream away. Their eyebrows lift when they hear about the three-week Pacific crossing, their lips turn upwards imagining tropical beaches, and their minds go wild figuring out how we—as non-retirees—can afford this lifestyle (arguably question number two and a story for another day). Curiosity builds about this sailing journey, with the burning question: “What was your favorite place?” There we go again…
My answer is always the same: “It depends.” Followed by “Do you like being surrounded by wildlife?” “Are you interested in cultural immersions? Interactions with locals? Exotic food and drinks? Remote beaches? Spectacular scenery to hike in? Reliable sailing conditions? Attractive anchorages? Dog-friendly countries?” Their question turns more loaded than expected and is highly personal.
Now, if it was me answering my own rebound of questions, I’d respond with “All of the above.” You and I both realize the “perfect location” doesn’t exist, but there are areas in this magical and spectacular world of ours that offer a good combination of cruising pros. The San Blas Islands in Panama tick quite a few boxes. And what lies along the course there from the Eastern Caribbean is not too shabby either.
When Mark and I bought our small catamaran in Annapolis, Maryland, over a decade ago, we never anticipated the route we’d end up sailing. Our tendency is to take it one step at a time, and then find ourselves reaching much further than we ever anticipated. One recommendation from fellow cruisers followed another and before we knew it, the Western Caribbean, all of a sudden, proved possible. Our first destination: the out islands of Venezuela: La Blanquila, Los Roques, Las Aves. Back in 2011, it was possible to visit these island groups “unofficially.” None of us wanted to sail to the mainland of Venezuela – still off limits now for safety reasons – to get cleared in. All it took was for the Coast Guard to swing by and for us to fill out a form and exchange a couple of sodas for an undefined number of blissful days in this remote region filled with beaches, donkey trails, palm trees, and sparkling water.
The anchorage in La Blanquila wasn’t ideal, so we didn’t stay long. This and the breaking surf made it impractical to lower the outboard engine and put it on the dinghy. A row to shore and a hike following narrow animal paths and avoiding prickly cacti brought us to an attractive bay and blowhole.
Los Roques was my favorite because of its sandy shores, abundant marine life, and tropical surroundings. Because it has better protected anchorages, we allowed ourselves more time in this island group, which was turned into a national park in 1972.
Las Aves is known for bird watching, as its name indicates. The shores are rockier here and the vegetation somewhat different from Los Roques. It was a good stop to take a break from the long push west, towards the ABC Islands: Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao.
Curaçao had us in its grip for multiple weeks, for the wrong reasons. Boat work. The big lagoon of Spanish Waters was perfect for that due to its calm anchorage. We did have a wonderful day of exploring and birthday splurging in colorful, picturesque Willemstad and stopped at a couple of attractive beaches on the western side of the island, but all in all, Curaçao did not do it for us, and we were ready to jump off to neighbor Bonaire.
Bonaire, oh Bonaire. This small island captured our hearts. Everyone stops at the leeward side of the land mass, close to the capital of Kralendijk. Anchoring is not allowed, so mooring balls are provided for a fee. Because of the crystal-clear water, strict environmental rules, and abundant underwater life, you don’t have to go far to enjoy a spectacular snorkel. Bonaire, where even inspecting the boat’s bottom is a pleasant chore…
For more underwater fun, you can take a dinghy ride to little sister Klein Bonaire, where you can enter the water from a sandy beach. Elsewhere on the main island, descending a rocky path towards the sea and maneuvering protruding boulders are required. If you like mingling with underwater life forms, Bonaire is the place!
Surprisingly for an island this size, there are inland adventures to be had as well. Washington-Slagbaai National Park is worth a visit and when renting a scooter or car to circle the island, don’t forget to stop at rum distillery Cadushy in Rincón (try the Belgian-brewed cactus beer), the donkey sanctuary, salt mounts, slave houses, kite surf beaches, and ponds sporting flamingos.
Aruba was just a jumping-off point to Colombia for us. A few weeks in the popular beach town of Santa Marta and colonial and colorful Cartagena over Christmas followed and then, the two of us were ready for the healthy mix of culture, nature, wildlife, beaches, and paradisiacal vibes of the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala) in Panama. Again, we had no idea how long we would stay. The fact that our time here amounted to a full year, with occasional crossings to the mainland for provisioning and boat maintenance, tells you something about the magic of these islands.
The San Blas is an archipelago on the Caribbean side of Panama that stretches for over 100 miles and is populated by the Guna Indians. The region consists of around 365 islands and cays, most of them uninhabited. The western part is the most popular with cruising boats, while the eastern part, which lies closer to mainland Panama, has islands that overflow with thatched huts and dwellings. From these villages, the Indians can more easily access the rivers of the continent for their water supply and crops. Anchorages at this end of the island chain are often brown from run-offs and therefore less attractive to sailors.
What makes the San Blas Islands so special? For cultural experiences, understanding local customs, and meaningful interactions with Guna Indians, the populated eastern side with towns like Nargana and Ustupu offers more chances for interactions and immersions. But to indulge in what the archipelago is best known for, its tropical scenes, one should head to the mostly uninhabited isles on the western end, like the Hollandes, Lemmon, Cocos, and Chichime Cays.
Here, you find a true paradise in the form of white-sand beaches framed with palm trees and healthy coral reefs with nurse sharks, turtles, and colorful fish species. Guna families rotate living on these isles and are often willing to sell—or trade for—coconuts (which you are not allowed to harvest or collect), fish, crab, and lobster. Small settlements might offer simple meals or soft drinks and sometimes you will find minuscule shops with Kuna bread (narrow pieces of baked dough) and produce.
A specialty of the Guna, created and sold by women, are molas, intricately stitched pieces of fabric that are flamboyant as well as strong. Females wear these pieces as an integrated part of their clothing, while tourists incorporate them into pillowcases, purses, or wall hangings. Any amount of time spent on these islands will yield a selection of molas to choose from – onshore or offered by dugout canoe alongside your boat. The quality varies and some of the women are deemed master mola makers.
Because of the increased popularity of the San Blas Islands, fees are charged by some municipalities, anchor restrictions have occurred, and the charter business has picked up. In general, anchorages are plentiful, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding the “ideal” spot. Also due to the presence of yachties, entrepreneurs from the mainland often visit the more crowded cays with produce, beer, and frozen chicken. These home deliveries are affordable and save you a trip back to Portobelo or elsewhere on Panama’s shores. As a matter of fact, one can sustain in the archipelago for months at a time, since copious amounts of rainwater, sporadic wells ashore, or a water maker will take care of that basic need.
Of course, no place is perfect! The downfalls about visiting this island group are the insane summer rains with lightning that has ruined many electronics and even cruising dreams. The nasty no-see-ums/sand flies as well as mosquitoes can venture out onto the water and cause havoc on human flesh. On shore, this certainly can be a problem. And internet appears to be spotty.
But where else in the Caribbean can you anchor in turquoise water, jump off your boat for an intriguing snorkel over colorful reefs, do yoga in the shadow of palm trees, buy affordable produce and seafood, chat with an indigenous family, feast on coconut water (with or without a sprinkle of rum), hop between cays by dinghy, go fishing, swim ashore, and string a hammock to relax or read a book, all in one day?
If these activities are boxes to tick on your favorite pastime list, then yes, I would highly recommend a visit to the San Blas Islands. And, if you get bored of this peaceful life or chased off by the heavy storms, just aim for the Pacific Ocean next.
Liesbet Collaert is a freelance writer, photographer and editor who has been a digital nomad for 20 years. She is the author of the “refreshingly honest” sailing memoir Plunge—One Woman’s Pursuit of a Life Less Ordinary.