Esli Bijker was 23 when he set sail from the Netherlands for a journey west on his Beneteau Oceanis 500 with no particular destination in mind. He crossed the Atlantic, and arrived in the Caribbean, where he was joined by Carolijn, his now wife. They had plans to cross the Panama Canal and head for the Pacific after about a year of cruising, but their trip was delayed when lightning struck the boat. The Beneteau would require many repairs before it would again be ready for a long journey. In the meantime, Esli and Carolijn decided to spend a few weeks in the San Blas islands, a collection of 365 bounty-islands along the Caribbean coast of Panama. Before long, they found out they never wanted to leave.
Over the past 10 years, Carolijn and Esli have created quite an attachment to the San Blas. They were married on one of the Islands, started offering crewed charter services on their yacht and eventually bought a guesthouse near the San Blas as a part-time home and tourist accommodation.
Carolijn holds a fascination with the Kuna Indians, the only inhabitants of the Island group, who still live in the traditions of their ancestors. They build houses and canoes with long-established craft and tailor colorful mola clothing with accessories. Their way of living off what the sea and palm-trees provide is the ultimate example of going back to nature.
Esli loves sailing the San Blas waters. They can be tricky because some reefs are still undocumented but after cruising the area for 10 years (with quite a few "scratches" here and there) he is confident he knows his way around. With 365 islands, 329 uninhabited, this paradise is never boring. There is always a new spot to discover. Since Esli is a great wave surf and kite-surf enthusiast, he keeps exploring the area in search of the perfect wave.
Esli and Carolijn were one of the first charterers in the San Blas Islands when they began. Back then San Blas was a very remote and undiscovered area. The only way to reach the Islands was by a small propeller plane that descended on a tiny landing strip on the Island of El Porvenir just twice a week. Although little has changed since then, Kuna Yala (the official name of the indigenous province) has become slightly more accessible with an every-day flight to Corazon the Jezus and a road going all the way up the shore of the area. Now more yachts offer charter services, even some crewed by Kuna captains and hostesses. But because the Kuna's don’t allow outsiders to own land in their province, the area is still far from exploited.
The adventurous couple created quite a network of yachtie friends in this area and together started a charter agency that provides charter services onboard private owned yachts for a real "yachtie-home-stay" experience. Since the area is almost impossible to sail without solid knowledge of the waters, bareboat charters are not an option. But the local charters make sure their guests experience all the highlights safely and with respect for the preserved nature.
For more information on the charter agency of Esli and Carolijn in the San Blas, visit www.oceantrips.com.