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Sailing through Guna Yala, or how to cross the Darien gap

A full moon illuminates the black rolling seas. After four days of cruising between the San Blas islands, known as Guna Yala by the indigenous peoples, we are making the final passage overnight to Cartegena. Aboard the Wild Card, a 60 ft. Monohull sailboat, are 23 passengers including myself, 5 crew and the two motorcycles. The leg of the journey we are on is about 27 straight hours of sailing. Before the sun set about 20 minutes ago we got our last looks at Central America. People have been drifting in and out of sleep all day, recovering from the boating life; Drinking rum, sitting in the sun and swimming to empty pristine islands has taken the life out of us all. Between the accumulated hangover, sunburn, and gentle rocking of the boat there is not a soul among us that can make it greater than 4 hours without a nap. In the four days that we acquired our current state of being I saw a vibrant indigenous culture, meet some fantastic people, laughed a lot, set up a hammock between two palm trees on an empty Caribbean island, snorkeled in beatuiful reefs, and experienced some of the most relaxing five days of my life.

From Portobelo we drove a short 30 minutes up the coast to Puerto Lindo where we would load the bikes and finally leave the northern continent. When we left the hostel we had been staying at, there were lots of heartfelt goodbyes. In three days, we had made a nice little group of friends. Among them was a Venezuelan bomb maker fleeing a death warrant in his country. The day we left he was going to get married to a Spanish lady who had also been staying at the hostel in order to acquire a permanent residence visa in Spain. His previous profession was only revealed the final night at which point we were already getting along quite well. It is incredible to me to see the duality in people. He was genial and overly generous but had killed people in protest in Venezuela. Throughout the three days, I met more people than I can name individually who I was fortunate to share a day or even a couple of minutes with. Pulling out from the hostel, Carson and myself were treated to lots of waves from everyone who was awake at the early hour we were departing.

Arriving in Puerto Lindo, we were greeted by four large Panamanians who waved us to stop in front of a small ramshackle dock. Moored to this eclectically clad structure was a fiberglass launcha. While unloading the bikes we had many minutes to think about what could go wrong with the complicated operation set before us. I was first to go. Riding up the ramp made of two pieces of driftwood I pulled adjacent to the boat. I dismounted and turned off the pet-cock so that no gas would spill if we accidentally angled the bike too greatly. When I did this I realized that my engine was at full running temperature, around 300 degrees Fahrenheit. This decreased the number of possible handholds that we could use to muscle the bike. Hoping for no mistakes I grabbed ahold of one of my luggage racks and heaved along with everyone else. The front wheel was at the same level as the sidewall of the watercraft and it dropped in easily. The rear wheel was not as simple. Mounted to the rear of my bike is all of my luggage and therefore weighs far more than the underweighted front. It took some maneuvering, but soon we were loaded with me straddling my bike.

Sitting on the worn sheepskin where I have sat for 7,500 miles, I looked past my windscreen. Unlike all of those previous miles there was no asphalt below my tires. Instead of the black tarmac that I am so used to, water rushed at me and momentarily I felt like I was riding across the blue calm water. This illusion was shattered when we neared the sailboat and wake spat out by a speedboat almost toppled me and sent me into the bay. Alongside the light blue hull of the Wild Card we tied up the launcha and prepared for the loading operation, also known as the moment I have all been waiting for. From the early stages of planing this motorcycle trip I have hoped that Carson and myself would successfully make it to this day. In planning any road trip across the Americas there is always the looming question of crossing the Darien gap. The Panamanian isthmus is unconnected to Colombia by road. This is due to several factors ranging from political blockade to physical difficulties due to terrain. What this means to overlanders is an iconic detour. The solution that Carson and I decided on was this 5 day sail through the Guna Yala. On the small beat up dinghy I was a mere 6 vertical feet from beginning the crossing in earnest.

Ropes were tossed down from the deck of the sailboat. Two lines connected to the mast now stretched down to my bike. In a flurry of activity four people secured my bike to this makeshift crane. A large tow rope was wound around the skid plate and seat while a second rope was tied to my handlebars. When all the preparations were completed, my bike looked like it was ready for rock climbing. The main rope was locked into the anchor winch. Progressive tension was applied until the wheels both lifted from the deck of the shuttle craft. At this point I scurried aboard the Wild Card to push my bike outwards so that it could clear the metal railing. At the highest point my bike swung a full 6 feet above the deck of the ship. Guiding it by the front wheel and luggage rack, the first mate Ari and I lowered the bike back down. Somehow, the bike looked right at home lashed to the railing.

Carson’s bike was next. Weighing in at a mean 550 lb, his BMW makes my Suzuki seem like a bicycle in comparison. I was not at the dock when it was loaded, but soon after I had my bike strapped on he arrived in the launcha. The ropes which had seemed so substantial around my Japanese machine seemed insufficient for the larger motorcycle. Utilizing both the anchor’s winch and a secondary manual winch the bike slowly raised from the smaller boat. Carson and three others struggled to keep the bike from smashing into the side of the Wild Card while myself and Ari guided it over the railing. When the bike was at the apex of its path another boat passed us. The wake that struck the side of the boat caused both Ari and I to lose our grip. Carsons bike toppled us easily and we fell onto the deck. It was a fight the rest of the way down but soon we had both wheels on the deck. In the chaos, I lost my keys but nothing else. Of the multiple possible bad outcomes I had conceived at the beginning of the day, losing my keys was fairly low on my disaster scale. With our bikes loaded, we packed our belongings, chose the one outfit that we would wear for the rest of the trip and were assigned our small cabin.

Soon all 18 passengers were aboard. With everyone jostling for a prime position on the cushioned deck the 60 foot boat started to feel quite small. It was 11:00 when we departed from Puerto Lindo to the first of many islands we would visit. Before we set off I made a point to jump into the ocean and cool off, I was dumping sweat from all of the heavy lifting. After the quick dip we set off. By sunset, we were anchored off the coast of a large Guna island with about 200 inhabitants. Setting the precedent for the rest of the trip, we all proceeded to get drunk and play round after round of cards. In this type of social dynamic I am usually the first one to drop. After half a bottle of rum and around 10 losing hands I retreated below deck and fell asleep. A perk of being the first asleep is that it is then easy to be the first awake. With the exception of the last day I was always the first out of my bunk.

At 6:30 the next morning I woke and jumped into the cool water. Before the dip I was feeling a little crusty and hungover, I emerged feeling refreshed. I had a full 30 minutes alone on the deck before anyone else including the crew had woken up. Looking around I got a preview of the next three days. The few clouds far in the distance cast their shadows across the transparent water. Combined with the gentle swell of the waves the entire horizon was like a kaleidoscope of shades of blues. Through this foreground the sun was rising, having been completely occluded only moments before. On the other side of the boat, two islands were just being illuminated. One was dominated by small huts. Later in the day we would enjoy a tour of this island from a local Guna (pronounced Koo-na). The other island was more typical of the area. Around one hundred palm trees rose from the center of a white sand ringed island. On the fringes were two huts with canoes gently bobbing outside. During the tour of the more populated island, I would learn that the other island was inhabited by a single family who were responsible for the collection and eventual sale of the coconuts produced by the many palm trees. Coconut trade is the main economic force in Guna Yala.

Progressively people emerged from the crowded cabin; Below deck all wall space was home to a foldout bunk, tight quarters were impossible to avoid. Coffee was served and soon we loaded up and made our way to the island for our tour. The guide’s name was Cannabis and if you could not tell from the name he is a Rasta. Cannabis was adopted by a German family in New Jersey when he was less than one year old. This stage of his life lead him to speak perfect English, so the tour was quite informative. As he got older he bacame curious about his height discrepancy between him and his Germanic siblings- the Guna are the worlds second shortest people, second to only the Pygmies of New Guinea. His parents told him of his birthplace and soon he determined to visit the islands. On the trip he felt a strong connection with his biological mother and determined to stay. I have no doubt that he would now be unrecognizable to those who knew him in New Jersey. Waist length dreadlocks fall over a brightly colored shirt with an image of the Hindu goddess shiva. Getting of the dinghy he offers me a hand and welcomes me to his home with an exclamation of peace and love. With a huge smile on his face he points the way to the store where we can stock up on supplies for the trip.

The tour was incredible. We began by sitting in the large thatch roofed hut in the middle of the island. In this building the island congress meets nightly to discuss matters of the island. From the center beams four hammocks sway surrounded by wooden pews. In these special seats, the four chieftains will swing and preside over the congress. A mixture of politics, folklore and oral history is the usual agenda. Every sizable island will have a congress like this one but this will be the only one that I am fortunate enough to enter. Exiting through a doorway much too low for myself we continued out to the beach. Canoes of various shapes and sizes line the sandy oceanfront. These traditional craft take up to six months to hand carve. Huge trees on the mainland are felled and craftsman chisel, saw and shape the wood until the tree has been converted into a seagoing craft. The boats range in size and decoration. The largest I saw was well over 25 feet, the smallest looked like it would sink if I got into it. Some were vibrantly painted with primary colors but most were bare wood. In the distance I saw a family of 6 paddling from the mainland in their canoe. When I asked Cannabis how long this took I was shocked to learn that it was well over 4 hours. If the boats are more lightly loaded a sail can be attached and using this method, Guna fishermen are able to more effectively cross the sometimes long distances to the best fishing spots.

The tour took slightly less than 45 minutes. I this time, we circumnavigated the whole island. Everyone I ran into was extremely friendly. One of the four island chiefs was Cannabis’ father. After the short tour of his house I stayed a little longer than everyone else to ask about the wood carvings that were set in a cloth lined basket on the earth floor of the hut. The carvings are said to contain protective spirits. They are carved by shamans who then give them to island chiefs to safeguard. The smallest looked to my untrained eyes like rough toothpicks while the largest was football sized. I asked if the different sizes represented different spirits but he indicated that they all were equally important. Indeed on second glance it seemed like all were the same image, differing only in size. Thanking him I left the hut and rejoined the tour group.

That night we sailed to another island for dinner. Arriving by dinghy we immediately saw a huge pot with about 20 lobsters boiling in it. The giant meal was being prepared by a Guna family. As the second round of people arrived from the boat lobsters were coming out offer pot. To split the lobsters the son used a long machete, pounding on it with a baseball bat sized piece of wood. Mesmerized and starving all of us circled around watching our food being prepared. I watched all of the preparations and hardly moved for the half hour that we waited. After the feast another group of people arrived from a second boat. With the 40 people we had an enormous bonfire and stayed up late into the night.

One thing that I have glossed over is the crew of the ship and their friends that we kept running into sailing around the San Blas. Debbie, our Capitain, and Wayne, our co-pilot and engineer, sailed from South Africa 18 years ago. Since then they have sailed up and down the coast offering charter, mechanic and captaining services along the way. They are excellent sailors and mechanics and I spent many hours listening to Wayne’s stories about people he has met or harrowing passages that he has made. It seemed like in every bay they knew another sailor with his own stories and one of my favorite afternoons was spent on a beach with one of these characters. Carson disappeared one day while I was taking a nap. I was told he went to someone’s boat and soon I saw him coming ashore on a paddle board. Behind him in a small engineless dinghy was a shirtless man who had clearly spent many years on a boat. After rowing a sinuous course with a few loops Dave, Carson’s new friend, made it ashore. For the next three hours we sat swapping beers, cigarettes and stories. Dave is from Ireland and his strong accent and foul humor placed him immediately. Dying laughing from all of the times Dave has woken up in a dinghy 6 miles offshore after a night of debauchery we soon attracted a wide audience. The sailors we met were fully committed to their lifestyle and they took seriously the moments that they weren’t working to fix some broken component of their vessel.

Looking up at the sky at this moment, I can see the running lights of an airplane soaring above me. Shooting through the sky at 500 miles per hour, many people onboard are probably asleep. A couple of hours ago they took of from parts unknown to and will arrive in another couple of hours. Our paths are parallel separated by thousands of vertical feet, but our experiences are so much different. The trip that they make will soon fade from memory like flights do. Separation from the ground allows rapid transit around our planet, but it puts a massive barrier between us and the realities of the world below. It is not always reasonable to spend 5 days in transit, but I feel blessed that I have been able to see this incredible part of the world instead of flying over. The Guna people are gorgeous and as the seas rise their way of life is in danger of disappearing. I wish I took more pictures but hopefully I gave a good approximation for what I saw. Peace and Love.

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7 thoughts on “Sailing through Guna Yala, or how to cross the Darien gap Leave a comment

  1. How great, Griffin. Love reading everything you write and photos are fantastic. Love the juxtaposition of your and Carson’s blogs. Both so real, present, and characteristic of your individual personalities. Love, Sally

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  2. Griffin, It’s been entertaining and insightful following you and Carson on your trip. Bravo! George, Chloe and I will be in Columbia 12/31/17-1/16ish. I’m not sure where you will be but would love any tips, ideas you may have and we’d love to meet Up with you if timing allows. I’m not sure where yet except Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin certainly. Let me know if you anticipate being in Columbia then. Happy trails Griff! XOAnita

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    • We will be South at that point, but I would be more than happy to give some advice. I am in Cartegena for a couple more days and will be going to Medellin and bogota later in the month. I will keep you updated glad you are enjoying the posts

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  3. You’re reminding me of Hemingway in your lust for life and adventure. I’m enjoying being an arm chair companion on this great journey. Anxiously await each installment!

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