The stupendous San Blas Islands

I just got back from four days / three nights in the San Blas Islands.. I am not prone to superlatives, but these islands were a definite highlight of my trip thus far.. in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. Travel magazine-worthy white sand beaches, clean, clear water great for snorkeling (although not a ton of fish), relaxed, friendly locals, and cheap living. There are 1-hr flights from Panama City to many of the islands, and according to my guidebook, comfortable hotels to stay at, in case you’re tempted.

Naturally, I took the more adventurous (read: budget) route. I had been given the contact of a guy named Aaron by fellow travelers I met a few weeks ago.. I called Aaron the night before leaving, and he arranged a car to pick me up in Panama City along with other tourists from around town.
The San Blas Islands are autonomously managed by the Kuna Yala Indians, an indigenous group who have occupied the islands for hundreds of years. Although technically part of Panama, they have successfully maintained their administrative independence┬á – Panamanian police, courts, tax laws, etc don’t apply here. As a result, we had to submit our passports to the Panamanian police as we left Panama proper (oddly, we didn’t have to show them upon returning.. you would think they would care who enters the country more than who leaves..)
After stopping for supplies, the road turned to a rough dirt track carved through the jungle. Although we were in a 4×4 LandRover, there were sections I would not have thought would be driveable. We approached a river at one point and I thought oh, this is where we transfer to a boat. Nope, the driver plowed right through it and carried on. Adventure!

Eventually we came to the end of the road, where long wooden dug-out canoes (with outboard motors) were waiting for us. We all piled in and took a 45-minute ride through rivers before reaching the Carribean. We arrived at one of the more populated islands, where Aaron lives with his family. The populated islands like this one are not particularly clean or pretty, since they don’t have beaches and are very built up (as much as can be with thatched roofs and bamboo walls), but they are culturally interesting.

There are 400 islands in the archipelago (only about 50 of which are inhabited), and they are all quite small. Even the ones with airstrips on them are no larger than the size of the runway. This island I arrived at (one of the Carti islands, can’t recall the exact name) was maybe 100 yards x 50 yards, and had 400 people living on it in 40 families. I decided to spend one night here for the cultural experience. I turned out to be the only tourist who stayed that night, which was a treat. I walked the pretty paths and explored the neighborhood (which took all of 10 minutes), paying my respects to the elders, saying “hola” to the kids, playing with the puppies and kittens, and generally observing their life. It’s a very relaxed pace, as you can imagine. People sewing, beading, sweeping, cooking, repairing their huts or boats, or more often than not just hanging out gabbing. The kids and teenagers were really happy and giggly.

The accomodations are quite rustic. I actually had a real bed in my own hut, which is a bit of a luxury. The floors are packed sand. All the locals sleep in hammocks, the entire family in one room. [Which makes sex a bit of an challenge.] During the day the hammocks are strung up to the rafters, and the room now becomes available for other uses.. a great use of space. There is a modicum of electricity on these heavily inhabited islands, but hardly any lights or appliances. Most people have gas cookers and kerosene lamps. A supply boat comes every few days with gas canisters. In the evening people play music on their cell phones since no one owns stereos. Ordinarily every evening there is live traditional dancing and music (for themselves, not for tourists), but the performers had gone to Panama City for some special occassion. I was bummed to miss that.

continue reading the rest of this post (and view the photos)…

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