San Blas Islands

Oh, San Blas…Imagine a little boat with bench seats of people covering themselves with garbage sacks as it flies over the open ocean rising up with every wave and crashing down so hard that your back cracks, water sprays, and you swear you’re about to die…for about an hour, I laughed in near hysteria as we traveled to Isla de Diablo…or Devil’s Island, our destination for the next few days. This is after waking up at 4am to be picked up by a fully camouflage 4×4 vehicle and winding through the jungle for a few hours to reach our “port” on the Caribbean side of Panama. When I could open my eyes every couple minutes after wiping the saltwater and perhaps terrified tears from them, I looked out over the ocean and saw little bits of land and palm trees popping up everywhere. The archipelago of San Blas, also known as Guna Yala, is made up of more than 365 islands, only 49 of which are inhabited. Some are so tiny that they have only a few palm trees, while others have entire villages.  It is picture perfect paradise.

My friend and I originally had wanted to do the multi-day boat trip from Cartagena to Panama passing through San Blas, but the dates didn’t work out. Instead we found a tour through a company called San Blas Dreams that visited the Cayos Holandeses amongst other islands that lasted for 3 days and would ensure we were on an island for Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. The payment was a bit complicated, as there’s a deposit to the company, then a part you pay to the driver that picks you up, then some to the boat drivers at the port, and then the rest to the Guna Yala family that hosts your primary stay island (ours being Diablo). As things typically go when you travel, not all worked out as planned. Upon arrival to the island, we found out they could not take us to Cayos Holandeses the following day because it was too far away and the weather had been so windy the past few weeks that it was too dangerous to go there in our boats. This led to a lot of debate since part of our payment was specific to visiting those keys. Luckily we negotiated that they’d take us to different island instead.

Lodging on the islands is primitive, and you have to be willing to rough it for a few days! I was pleasantly surprised to find working toilets and even 2 showers in the shared bathroom building. Of course it was just a pipe that shot out cold water, but it was great when I finally decided to rid myself of all the salt water and sunscreen accumulating on my body (yes, I may have only showered once while there…don’t judge. The ocean is a natural bath!). The sleeping accommodations were literally shanties with a tin roof and slats of wood slapped together with a mattress on top of a wooden frame inside and a single lightbulb that was connected to a solar energy panel. The floor was the sand itself, so sleeping those few nights was not the most comfortable, but taking naps on the beach in the sun more than made up for it!

The first afternoon, they took us and some people who were just day tripping to the islands (which seemed to me really far to travel if only coming for an afternoon!) to the island of Chichime (pronounced CHEE-chee-may). This turned out to be my favorite island of all and the one we requested they take us back to the following day. The most pristine water and sand that you can imagine, with all the shades of blue as you looked out to sea. If you have a chance to go, I highly recommend making this island your primary stay! Later, we stopped at a “piscina natural”, which was literally a sand bar and island in the making in the middle of the sea. Again with water so clear you can look down and see all your toe nail polish!

The following day, we lounged on Chichime again where there was hardly anyone to be seen besides the boats docked nearby that must have been passing the Christmas holidays on a yacht through the archipelago (#goals). That night was Christmas Eve and we were served lobster! Now, I probably didn’t clarify this enough, but basically each island is owned by an indigenous Guna Yala family (though our island was bigger, so there were two families). This family is in charge of the lodging, food, and so on and it is their entire livelihood. There were only a few other people overlapping with our days there, so it was pretty private. Earlier that day, the father of the family had asked us if we liked “langosta”. I couldn’t remember the word in that moment, so I just answered “yes” assuming I’d eat whatever it was. Afterward, my friend and I debated and tried to remember…I knew “langostino” are the big shrimp, like crawfish, and I thought langosta was lobster, but I thought surely they won’t be serving us lobster when we’re only paying them less than $200 for all the trips, food, and lodging. Sure enough, later that day a friend pulled up on another boat and made “deliveries” which included some freshly caught lobster. There were several throughout that day and Christmas day as friends from other islands connected with the families on our island for the holidays. Lots of cases of beer, food, and so on as it all has to be delivered by boat. (I even rescued one boat from being taken out to sea as I saw the waves pulling it off the sand and I jumped off my towel and ran off to grab the rope and try to pull it back before its owner saw and ran to help me.)

Christmas Eve dinner included SO much food, as we got our full dinner and then they bring us another plate with the strangest mixture of food I’ve ever seen in my life…fried rice, candies, egg salad, cake, and grapes. Apparently some of them are common Christmas foods and the cake was because it was the owner’s daughter’s birthday that night! We all sang happy birthday to her and then sat playing cards with some of the local kids for a few hours. One gal named Kay came over from the other family’s hut and made friends with us. She taught us some card tricks and shared her independent travel stories that she’s been doing since the 60s. She was quite the inspiration to us to keep doing what we’re doing and living this incredible life we’ve been fortunate enough to have.

On our last day (Christmas day), we visited the island across from us called Perro Chico (Little Dog). This was quite a hopping little island with lots of visitors, especially because there was a “barco hundido” (sunken ship) right off the island that you could swim to and snorkel around. There were tons of fish, anemones, and coral growing in and around the ship. Our return trip that day was less bumpy than the trip out to the islands and besides getting major motion sickness on the 4×4 ride back to Panama City, we arrived safe and sound and ready for a real shower!

This was one of the top island trips I’ve ever had and highly recommended to anyone willing to get off the beaten track. I’m still hoping to do the Cartagena to Panama trip at some point in the future!