I thought that the Cayos Holandeses were pretty beautiful, but the best was yet to come. Unfortunately, as day four of our trip dawned, the weather that had arrived the night before started to pick up even more (as Jan had warned us it would), and as we dropped anchor and headed south for a two-hour sail towards Cayos Coco Banderos, the seas began to swell. Switzerland is not known for its maritime expertise, so the 3m swell that greeted us was cause for whoops and yells from the rest of the passengers, but Jan and I looked each other in the eye and muttered, 'Ha, this isn't a big swell.' Just in case, I kept my eyes on the horizon and told myself that I've been through far worse, which seemed to keep the seasickness at bay.
The increased swell was indicative of a change in the weather, and Jan tactfully pointed out that this didn't bode terribly well for the ocean crossing to Colombia, which was slated for the following day. We turned east around the western Cayos Coco Banderos, passing to the south of these pretty islands, one of which is known as 'one-palm island' because – you guessed it – it's a desert island with just one palm. The only problem is that in an attempt to stop one-palm island from being washed into the sea, the Kuna have planted a small collection of other palms on the island, so the solitary palm is solitary no more, and instead it has a row of midget palms beside it, like a proud father palm taking his brood for a morning stroll... into the wind, in this case.
We were originally going to drop anchor at the western Cayos Coco Banderos, but a few of us had mentioned that we were really interested in seeing some of the local Kuna people and buying some molas, the colourful textiles that they sell to passing sailors. Ever open to tailoring the trip to suit the passengers, Jan suggested that instead we continue on to the eastern Cayos Coco Banderos, where there's an inhabited island where molas are on the menu.
What a great move that turned out to be; the eastern Cayos Coco Banderos are an absolute paradise, and they would soon turn into the undisputed highlight of the trip.
The Plate Incident
Jan dropped anchor in the middle of a cluster of three small, palm-fringed islands, one of which had a small thatched hut on it (though it would turn out that this was just a shelter, rather than a full-time Kuna house). There were a few other yachts sharing the shelter, but it wasn't crowded, which was a relief after finding Swimming Pool anchorage so full. To the north was the inhabited Kuna island, with a handful of larger huts under the trees, and to the northwest was a tiny island with just two palm trees, which we promptly named 'two-palm island'. It was an idyllic spot.
To get us in the mood for lunch we swam to the nearby island and back, but any pretensions I had of being a good swimmer went out of the window when Holly accidentally dropped a plate out of the galley window. Jan leapt into action, throwing on a mask and fins, and after taking a few deep breaths, he dived off the side and disappeared into the deep blue water. We waited, and waited, and waited, and eventually we heard a splash on the other side of the boat, and there was Jan, plate in hand. The depth gauge read 12.6m; there's no way I could skin dive down to that depth, and on the way up he'd even had time to rescue a coin that had fallen out of his pocket on the way down. Jan is a fully qualified divemaster, so this kind of thing is pretty everyday to him; to a landlubber like me who has problems duck diving from the surface to a couple of metres down, it's impressive stuff.
Soon after that we enjoyed the first of many visits by the local Kuna who lived on the island to the north. They sold us beer at a very reasonable US$15 for 24 cans, which went straight into the ice box, and they asked whether we could charge up their mobile phone, which Jan happily agreed to; it's always good to keep in the good books of the locals when you sail through here so regularly. During our visit they would pop over every now and then to try to sell us fish and more beer, because apart from making and selling molas, bartering with visiting captains is their main source of income.
That afternoon, we were stranded on our very own desert island. Two-palm island is just 40 paces long and 32 paces wide, and with one large palm and a smaller, rather battered companion in the middle of the island and precious little else to see – except for the usual collection of flotsam and jetson that you find on absolutely every island in the world – it felt more like a clichéd comic-book desert island than reality. So Jan dropped us off there for an afternoon of snorkelling and relaxing, because we just couldn't resist.
The current out here nearer to the ocean was pretty strong and Peta wasn't up for a snorkel anyway, so she sat under the palm tree and read while the rest of us headed off to snorkel round the island. The visibility wasn't as clear as it had been for the last few days, as the winds were picking up and the sky was bruising, but we spotted a large nurse shark sitting on the bottom, directly below us, and the coral was pretty interesting at the eastern tip of the island. But by far the most entertaining part was being able to photograph ourselves, alone on a tiny spit of sand in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, with water all around and waves never more than a stone's throw in any direction. It was bizarre and splendid in its isolation, and the mouldering wreck of a large cargo boat on the nearby reef only helped to underline just how fragile I felt, perched on such a tiny dot on the map.
That night, Holly cooked us old clothes, and they tasted divine. Ropa vieja ('old clothes') is a traditional Cuban dish made from slow-cooked beef in a tomato-based sauce, and apparently it was what they gave the sailors when they came back from their sea voyages, with them all still dressed up in their old clothes (sailors the world over tend to have a fairly liberal atitude towards clean clothes, as I can attest). There are various other stories about how the dish got its name, but this felt like the most suitable one as we sat there under darkening skies, wondering what the ocean passage was going to be like.
Change of Plan
Luckily, Jan's main aim on this trip was to make it comfortable and safe for the passengers, and he'd been keeping a close eye on the weather. He contacted his father in Norway to ask him to check out the weather forecast online, as the one Jan was using was by now a week old, and it turned out that the wind was going to pick up even more overnight; although it would calm down the following day, this would mean that the waves would be really bumpy for the ocean crossing, as it takes at least half a day for the waves to calm down once the wind has died. It wasn't looking good for the open ocean crossing to Cartagena (which was always going to be the hard bit of this trip anyway).
So Jan announced that, instead, we'd have another day in the Cayos Coco Banderos, because this was a lovely anchorage and it made no sense to bash our way through an ocean swell if it was going to calm down the following day. This was great news; rough ocean passages are absolutely no fun at all, and I'd been trying to keep a lid on my feelings, but to be totally honest I was dreading a 40-hour crossing in high winds. But now we had another day to relax, and instead we'd be weighing anchor at 4pm the next day, effectively extending the trip to a seven-day, six-night excursion, with four full days in the San Blas Islands. What a bargain!
That night, as the winds blew outside and the rain sqalled around us, we opted to while away the hours by watching one of Jan's DVDs. There were some technical issues, as Jan's TV had taken a hit on his Atlantic crossing, when the boat had been leaning hard to port and a wave had broken over the starboard side and into the cabin right where the TV sat. This had turned the bottom strip of the screen into a strange mess of colours and shapes, which looked for all the world like a Jackson Pollock-influenced channel ident, but it was when the bottom third of the screen suddenly went blank and refused to come back that we realised it was going to be a bit of a challenge watching Blood Diamond, the movie that a show of hands had democratically chosen. Still, we managed to piece the plot together from the top two-thirds of the movie, and as we watched Leonardo DiCaprio strut his South African stuff on the (very) small screen, I realised that this was the first film we'd watched in months – since leaving for this trip, in fact. It was a pleasure just to forget about travelling for a couple of hours and sink into Hollywood, if only for the novelty.
Another Day in Paradise
Our bonus day, day five, turned out to be the best of the lot. The winds calmed down, just as Jan had said they would, and the sun came out, so finally the islands came out in resplendent turquoise under blue skies, and we got the paradise photographs that we all wanted. We happily spent the morning snorkelling around the nearest island to our anchorage and exploring the deserted island to the west of us, and then in the afternoon we took the dinghy to the Kuna's island to check out their molas.
Molas are hand-stitched textiles that are made up of multiple layers, with the layers cut back to create a three-dimensional effect. The subjects are mainly things that the Kuna see in their everyday life – birds, fish, aquatic scenes – or just pretty geometric patterns, and the colours they use are vibrant and joyous. As a memento of a visit to the San Blas, molas are pretty perfect, as they squish into a backpack easily, they're hard to damage, and they look lovely when put into a frame and hung on the wall back home. I told Peta how many dollars we had to spend, and she spent every single one of them on three lovely molas and a pretty headband, all of them made in the same layered manner.
But even more interesting than the molas were the Kuna women who were selling them. The Kunas wear traditional dress – or, at least, the women do, as the men seem to be happy in the standard trouser-and-shirt uniform – and it's a wonderful splash of colour and design. They wear hundreds of colourful bracelets on their shins that together look like multicoloured socks, and their skirts and blouses are vibrantly coloured, with molas worn on the front and back of their tops (mola literally means 'blouse' in the Kuna language). Add in colourful head scarves and more bracelets on the forearms, and the effect is distinct and invigorating, particularly when you add in their ready smiles.
All good things must come to an end, though, and after we'd explored the Kunas' perfect paradise island and soaked up our last bit of San Blas sunshine, we returned to The Black Dragonfly to stow all our belongings and get ready for the ocean passage to Cartagena, some 200 nautical miles away in distant Colombia.