San Blas Islands, Panama
A Little Slice of Paradise!
Like most of the countries I visit, I don't know much about them until I start planning the trip. I rarely go back to the same place over again, well, because there are so many other places I haven't been. Panama wasn't really on the top of my list of places to go, but since we were planning Colombia, it seemed a natural stop on the way home. I would certainly go back to San Blas though!
I knew so little about Panama before getting there that I didn't even realize they use the American Dollar there. I have been so used to exchanging money that it didn't even dawn on me that they would use our money. Yes, they have their own, but rarely used or found, unless you're a local.
Personally, I didn't care much for Panama City. For me, it was just too western, too big and not very inviting. Part of it might be that we had just come from Colombia which I loved, for the opposite reasons. Don't get me wrong, there were cool parts and I'm glad we went, but my suggestion is no more than a day or two in the city and move on. We did have fun getting lost on a hike to the top of Ancon Hill, well, not really lost, we just took the long way around, but the view from the top was well worth it. We also spend an afternoon at the Panama Canal, which was cool to see. Check!
In our short time in Panama however, the best part we saw, by far, was San Blas. We were told there were 365 islands within the Archipelago de San Blas, (although I've heard varying numbers) and it's located on the northside of the Panamanian mainland in the Caribbean Sea. The vast majority of these islands are uninhabited and many are extremely small. The native people there are known as the Guna and most can be found on a few of the main islands.
We booked our trip through Cacique Cruiser and I would certainly recommend them again, depending, of course, on the degree of luxury you expect. (We decided on the upper level of cheap, which means our own 'cabana' on the island.) The SUV picked us up around 5am, along with stops are various other hotels and hostels until it was nearly full. After a quick stop at a local grocery store for some snacks, supplies, and beer we set out on a long, slow, three-hour, gut wretching drive to the Caribbean side of Panama. The scenery was spectacular, although I was happy to be out of the car by the time we got there. There was one stop on the way, as the Guna people are autonomous within the country. Meaning they have their own leaders, laws and passport control. For perspective, think American Indian Reservations.
At the port, we loaded onto what I would describe as a 'ponga' boat, though I'm not sure that is the correct term and took about a 45-minute boat ride to our island, and wow, what a beautiful place! The island itself was a couple hundred yards long, with palm trees throughout, 'bathroom' on one end, communal buildings, local housing in the middle and 'cabanas' on the other end. You could walk around the entire beach in about 10 minutes.
The cabanas consisted of a thatched roof structure, sand floor, bamboo walls, very much what you'd expect. There were a couple 'dorms', but like I said, we splurged and got our own. The rooms had no locks or electricity during the day and were simply a couple of beds raised off the sand, awesome! We had only a short time to change into 'wet' clothes before our Guna local guide, Ian, (who was small in stature but large on personality), rallied everyone to head back out to explore other islands. I think the spots they choose change each time, so you never really know where you're going, but each had its own charm.
Again, I will let the pictures tell the story. Our days were filled with island hopping around the most beautiful places I may have ever been, completely pristine and picture-perfect. By midday, our guides were whipping up lunches, complete with rum drinks and we were safely back on our own island by the middle of the afternoon, with plenty of time to hammock, journal, play games, nap, swim or simply watch the sunset. The food was basic but good, local and fresh. In the evenings, they would crank up the generator for lights and some music to allow people to get to know each other.
We spent three days and two nights on these islands and I could have easily stayed longer. The simple life, free of the internet, tv or other distractions, with such amazing beauty, was pure bliss. If you prefer more luxury, there are certainly ways to do it, for a price, but for us, it was exactly what we needed and expected. It was just the right amount of 'roughing it' while meeting some great people and experiencing the island life exactly how you picture it.
Our last stop on the way back to the mainland was the larger island where most of the population lives. That alone was worth the experience to see how the majority of the Guna people actually live and it happened to be high school graduation day. I would highly recommend this place to anyone. Again, choose your preferred level of price and comfort. Our experience is probably not for everyone, but for pure pristine beauty, put San Blas on your list, now!