Growing up in Panama City, it was uncommon for locals to venture to the San Blas Islands, an archipelago of approximately 368 islands owned by the indigenous Kuna. Well, the area was called Kuna Yala when I was growing up, but recently the Congreso Guna General decided to clarify their alphabet, and as a result concluded their native language has no ‘K’ equivalent. The region is now officially called Guna Yala.
Until recently, there were no roads across the cordillera — no easy way of going from Panama City’s Pacific shore to the San Blas Archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. It still remains a rather isolated part of the country, with one winding road that has been washed away in some parts. Only 4×4 SUVs are allowed to go beyond a certain point. Another option was flying into El Porvenir, but I heard conflicting stories about the airport being closed, and the airline flying the route going bankrupt.
I consulted with Manolo, a coworker of my uncle’s, who runs a tourism operation on the side. He recommended Guanidup (Kuanidup) because according to him it was one of the better islands with actual facilities (toilet and shower), and it was not one of the ‘party’ islands.
Most tourists can plan their trip to San Blas easily enough. Every hotel or hostel in town will sell you a package that includes the ride in an SUV across the country (a very narrow country, remember), the boat ride out to your island of choice, and however many nights you chose. I highly recommend at least two nights, but if possible a few more. It’s quite a trip just to get to the islands, I can’t imagine then turning around the very next day. It’s not that the San Blas Archipelago is that far, geographically, but there’s a lot of arbitrary Panamanian logistics that can test your patience. Even though you might leave the capital at 5-6 a.m., you might not be at your island till noon.
My SUV driver was bumping to reggaeton like nobody’s business, and it was driving me nuts. I swear I don’t care if my Panamanian citizenship gets revoked, but at one point, when he exited the vehicle to run an errand (yes, an errand), I took it upon myself to turn the radio down. All the non-Spanish speaking tourists in the back thanked me profusely. Following a two-hour winding drive that people with motion sickness will absolutely detest, we were dropped off at a port to wait for the lanchas. Each island runs its own lancha (or a fleet if you’re a baller island). The smaller the island, the more you’ll have to wait, because they want to make sure everyone that is headed to that island for the day has arrived, limiting the number of trips back and forth. So if you get there at 8 a.m. but there are rumors that a large group of Panamanian tourists are also supposed to be there by 9 a.m., you better get ready to wait for hours because those people are not going to arrive anywhere before noon. It’s what they call Panama Time. We waited and waited, and saw two boats from Guanidup arrive and dock, but none would take us because we were waiting for this mythical group of Panamanian tourists. Finally, around 11 a.m. the people in our group started to revolt. Some people were only staying a night, so they were essentially wasting their whole day waiting, only to turn around and leave at 8 a.m. the next day. So the locals did a lot of exasperated talking and negotiating with each other, and they agreed to send us in another island’s boat. By the way, both of the Guanidup boats eventually came back empty when it became evident that the Panamanian tourists decided to not go at all.
The boat ride out to the island was a wet affair due to the high winds and choppy sea. I’m sure it’s not as bad on calmer day, but we arrived soaked.
Most tour packages include 3 meals a day, the adequacy of which depends on who you are and what you expect. For breakfast we got pancakes, hojaldras (a deep-fried dough common to Panamanians), eggs and a slice of cheese. Lunch and dinner were pretty similar — rice, sometimes a little salad, and a seafood medley or fish. We never got any lobster or crab. According to the guys running the island, it was because of the bad weather but I’m not convinced, as people from other islands nearby did have better fare. There is no menu, you eat what you are given. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that, but keep that in mind if you’re a picky eater. Bring plenty of snacks in case you get hungry in between meals, as there are, obviously, no stores to buy any. Actually, you can buy overpriced Ron Abuelo and beers, which we totally did every night while shooting pool. Yes, they had a pool table in the middle of the bar (a larger hut). The pool table dug into the sand quite well though its levelness could be disputed by keener eyes. Who cared, we were in paradise with a few beers, and the world’s worst pool players amongst us (except for my winning shot!). As an aside, we all wondered how they got the pool table to the island. It must have been on a nice, calm day on the water.
Packages also includes a tour each day to other nearby islands, such as Star Island where you can snorkel and see Starfishes, or to the indigenous community, or to Isla Perro and its sunken ship. The catch is that even though the package might be sold to you as saying you’ll get to see the sunken ship, for example, there’s no guarantee you’ll actually go unless every other person in your island agrees to go there. This might be different in larger islands where there are more people — and it might have been different if we had more people in Guanidup, but we were such a small group (about 10 people) that it’s not financially agreeable for the locals to send two boats out on different tours, and therefore spend extra money on gas. Where the majority wants to go, is where you’ll likely end up going. If the majority wants to go to Star Island instead of Isla Perro, well you’re going to Star Island. If you’re only there for one night, then you will not see the sunken ship or the community. That’s another reason why you want to stay several nights.
Other islands were a good 20 to 30 minute ride away. There were islands even farther away like Cayos Holandeses that are not included in the tours. For an extra fee of $150 or more, the locals will take you, but good luck trying to convince everyone else in your island to go and pay extra. I suppose if you’re willing to go by yourself and pay, they’ll take you, but since everyone in our group was content with the nearby offerings, the possibility never came up.
Luckily for us at Guanidup, we were a laid-back group, so there were no disagreements about what tours to take. Everyone seemed happy to go anywhere. But I could imagine conflicts if you had a different group, and a handful of vociferous people adamant about taking one tour over another.
Star Island was beautiful as were most islands. There is snorkeling, swimming, tanning, and at some islands they sell beers and souvenirs. Make sure to bring your own snorkeling equipment, although there are some for rent, but don’t count on it. Isla Perro was also great. I was hesitant because I heard it’s one of the more touristic islands due to the sunken ship, but it was fairly empty and I thought snorkeling around the ship was pretty cool — tons of fishes! Remember to have cash on you, because every island that you visit charges a $2 entrance fee. No package will include those fees — the packages might include port fees and other random entrance fees the Gunas impose just because they can. Clarify what is included when setting things up with your agency or hostel.
The facilities in Guanidup were perhaps better than other islands, but still poor at best. The toilets were actually fine. To flush, you use good old gravity, by pouring a bucket or two of water into the bowl. To call the showers functional would be generous. They consisted of a trickle for a minute or two, and then nothing. I gave up after the first day and remembered the days onboard the Cramer, when we used fresh water from the communal hose to soap up, and then jumped into the sea. This not being a nudist island (I don’t think there are any), bathing suits should stay on during these type of showers.
One night, I tried sleeping in the hammock outdoors, but in the middle of the night, a storm came through and the wind woke me up just in time to run into the hut for shelter. Huts are also very basic, with a sufficient mattress and no floors. If there are more people in the island than there are huts, people have been known to set up camp.
On the last morning, we piled up back into the lancha for the 30-40 minute ride back. From my limited experience at sea, I could tell that it would be a dicey ride back. There were huge swells and high winds. We put on our dilapidated-looking life vests, and they handed us ponchos to stay dry. As we got going, it became evident that this would not be an easy ride back. I noticed we started heading toward a smaller island, and the driver said we were picking up some people from that island, since their boat was too small for the swells. Fear spread through boat, made worst by the fact some people were facing aft, meaning they saw the swells rise past the height of the boat. The driver, a Guna native clearly familiar navigating these waters smiled nervously as he revved and stopped, and tried to ride the waves as best he could. At one point, I decided to take off the stupid poncho because if the boat capsized and we all ended in the water, I could envision the poncho being a huge hinderance to staying afloat, life vests or not. When we got closer to land, and into the safety of the river leading to the port, I asked if this is as bad as it get. The driver said yes, that any worst than that, boats wouldn’t go out.
Whatever the hassles of getting there, the small inconveniences, and near death experiences, it is a stunning setting, surrounded by nothing but the sound of the ocean and wind. Who cares that you can’t wash your hair for a couple of days? You have a lifetime to shower. Swim in the ocean, read a book on a hammock, talk to your fellow travelers, enjoy the conversation and the silence. Buy those overpriced beers, share your Maria cookies and enjoy the stars in the night sky. Enjoy that in your lifetime you’ve been privileged enough to have met San Blas.