There is no way to write a single blog about the Guna Yala land and waters, and the Guna people, and do them justice. So we will break this up into three parts. This is the third part: the sea and the cruising life.
The remoteness and simple lifestyle in the Guna Yala make it unique among Caribbean cruising destinations. There are no stores (except some veggie stalls), no restaurants, and few distractions. There is only so much lying on a beach you can do, so you have to get creative. You have to make your own fun. Fortunately for us, we were often in the company of great friends, and also met new ones.
Upon arriving in the western Guna Yala, we linked up with the crews of Ketchy Shuby, Mila, Trilogy, and Life Aquatic. We were worried the kids from Ketchy Shuby would not remember us because we had not seen them in over a year since saying farewell in the eastern Caribbean, but we were wrong. Shortly after dropping our anchor nearby, we heard their voices calling out to us, “can we come over?”
Over the next few weeks, we reconnected with our dear friends over sundowners on the beach and watery play dates. The kids came to ¡Pura Vida! and taught us how to make ravioli from scratch, dusting our cabin with flour in the process. Of course, no visit from the Shuby kids is complete without a game of Trouble.
We rang in the new year with a roaring bonfire thanks to the assistance of a local man that supplied us with ample dry wood and palm fronds. To our complete surprise, some nearby boaters had a massive stash of fireworks they set off at midnight. We still had a few bottles of French sparkling wine from Martinique, so the celebration was quite the fancy affair.
Some days, the festivities just happen. While anchored all by ourselves off an island with a local Guna family, a small fleet of French sailboats arrived and anchored around us. They all knew each other and had planned a beach party to say farewell to the island caretakers, who were returning to their village. The new arrivals invited us to a potluck lunch where we enjoyed food, music, and butchering the French language. Fortunately, between Spanish, English, and our rusty French, we communicated.
Our favorite way to discover a place is underwater. Our love of diving allowed us to explore the pristine underwater world. There are no dive operators in the entire Guna Yala, so most reefs have not seen a human presence except for the occasional snorkeling sailor, or local freediving fisherman.
The reefs are immaculate, healthy, and full of life. There is however, a nefarious, invasive beast. The dreaded Lionfish. When we asked locals for permission to dive near their islands to kill Lionfish, they were thrilled. Locals are afraid of the venomous fish and do not hunt it, but they understand that our culling efforts improve the health of the reef and their fishing stock.
But you certainly do not need to be a diver to enjoy the spectacular reefs. We saw amazing wildlife and thick coral beds while snorkeling in just a few feet of water. The shallows are especially good for spotting octopuses and rays.
In addition to all the fun, we had to do boat work. Maintenance never ends, and it seems to pile up even more when you take a few days off to relax. We definitely lived up to the cruising cliché of “fixing your boat in exotic places.” In the Guna Yala, however, you’d better have everything you need, because there are zero hardware stores or chandleries. More than once, we heard calls on the VHF radio net of a desperate cruiser searching for a spare part or tool. The good thing is that if someone can help, they usually will. It is an unspoken bond among cruising sailors. You never know when you will be the one in need.
We developed a rhythm with the easygoing life in the Guna Yala. We would spend a few days in the popular anchorages socializing almost daily, then we would sail to a secluded spot and enjoy the solitude. The beauty of this archipelago is that you are never more than an hour or two from the next great anchorage. On the way to one place, you might decide to stop somewhere else. There are just so many islands.
Although we have only spent five months in the Guna Yala so far — we plan to spend next year here too — we’ve started to get a feel for the rhythm of the seasons and the cruisers. Fall and winter are windy and they are the high-season for cruisers. We met quite a few part-time cruisers that arrive in November and leave in May.
May ushers in the rainy season. The winds die, completely. Breezy days turn into saunas and the seawater temperatures reach a balmy 87 degrees Fahrenheit. The calmness also makes for spectacularly clear seas where you can count starfish right from your boat in over thirty feet of water. The diving is glorious and delightfully warm.
The rainy season also brings an ominous change: lightning. Storms develop over the mountains and roll out to the islands with boisterous thunder. From the shelter of a house on land, nearby lightning is just a frightening occurrence. On a boat, however, it can be catastrophic. A direct hit can mean complete destruction of many of the boat’s systems, even a potential total loss in rare occasions. Every year, several boats get struck here. For this reason, we chose to leave the Guna Yala in May and return in November. We will miss the warm, crystal waters, but we will also keep our sanity.
Our plans now include our first ever seasonal haul-out, where ¡Pura Vida! will be on the hard while we spend a few months living like land people in Costa Rica. Stay tuned for some not-so-aquatic adventures from the rain forest mountains later this year.