Paradise @ San Blas
We woke at 4am, showered, grabbed our wrapped up belongings and left Entre 2 aguas. Everything we had had to be water tight so everything was wrapped in a bin liner, inside another bin liner, inside another bin liner… At 5am, we would be picked up and whisked off to start our four day journey through the San Blas Islands, finishing in Colombia. Finally we would be in South America! We have loved every second of Central America, but it also feels like we have travelled such a short distance in nearly half of our allocated travel time. Whenever we would see Central America on a map, compared to the size of South America, it would feel like we had barely travelled anywhere yet.
Not much after 5am we were picked up and after collecting Marco and Lara, a German couple who have quit their jobs as Business Consultants to travel for an undetermined period of time, and Maya, a lovely British girl travelling through and meeting some friends in Colombia, we arrived at the supermarket where we were all to grab our final supplies then hit the road.
Backpacking Is Tough @ San Blas
It was a windy, awful two hour drive to the boats in Cartí, so awful in fact that even the Dramamine I took didn’t stop the impending sick that I swallowed. This happened a couple of times before I finally managed to tap Alice on the leg, unable to speak or move more than the inch. One look at me and she promptly got the driver to emergency stop. As I climbed out of the moving vehicle, I managed to keep everything inside, just. It was a very close call but after a 5 minute air break and a quick word to the driver to slow the fuck down, we were back on the road. Luckily we arrived not long after the near miss. Our group all finished wrapping up our gear and we jumped on the boats. Two boats, 28 travellers, six crew. We were off on our San Blas Adventure!
The San Blas archipelago consists of 365 islands, which is constantly growing and shrinking with global warming, the growing part comes from the local indigenous people, the Guna, also known as the Kuna. The Guna find areas in the archipelago where the water levels are low around some rocks. They then place a bunch more sand and plant a palm tree. If the tree grows, and the sand remains, they grow the island by placing more and more sand there. Pretty cool right? Global warming is destroying these islands and they are disappearing fast. We visited islands on our trip where the guides had been four weeks earlier and would tell us how meters of the island are now gone. Or how the whole island has shifted so now the beach is on the complete opposite side to where it was previously.
Panama separated from Colombia in 1903 and the majority of the Guna became a part of the new Republic of Panama and the minority remained part of Colombia. The old outsider’s exploitation of resources, colonial strains and Police abuse led up to the Guna independence on 25th February 1925 where the Guna basically killed a bunch of Panamanian Police officials and declared themselves separate from Panama…. Later Panama did establish a peace treaty where it protected the Guna customs and in turn the Guna accepted and adopted the formal school system, expelled all police from their islands and it was considered te Guna District of San Blas in 1938.
Fluting With The Opposite Sex @ San Blas
Within an hour and a half of being on the boats, we arrived at our first island. The weather wasn’t holding out for us, but at least it had stopped raining. The sand, although coarse, was white, and the water, as clear as I could ever remember seeing water. The kind of blues you see in adverts and always assume have been photoshopped. This was a very small island with a hut where Max, our French Guide, and David our Swiss Guide’s Assistant prepared our lunch whilst we paddled, snorkelled, chatted and played with the many sporting equipment they provided.
On this island we got chatting to Paul and Anita, a British couple from London/Wales that we had hit it off with at the daunting meeting the day before. We paddled into the ocean with a few others and whilst standing around some bright orange starfish, we started to get to know each other.
Lunch was served, a traditional Guna dish of smoked fish and soup of potato, yuka and some other vegetables. Unfortunately for our first meal there wasn’t enough and this could only lead to trouble. The meal itself was tasty enough, as much as you would expect potato soup to be tasty.
After some more paddling and games we all jumped back on the boats and headed to the final island for the day. As we sped through the archipelago, we came across islands that looked inhabitable, with their thick, dense jungle shadowing over the water. These islands looked so heavy and dense that they look like they should be sinking beneath the weight. Then we would pass islands with a single lonely palm tree, or a small hut.
Kayaking Kuna @ San Blas
Each of the islands are owned by Guna people, the only way the owner changes is through the sale or inheritance, solely to other Guna. The Guna allow outside people to marry in, but the outsider can never inherit or own Guna land.
The Guna also have a strip of land between Panama City and the border of Colombia where they have farms. Each Guna male is responsible for being able to feed his own family, and will be held accountable for such. The Guna have generally theee chiefs per (inhabited) island. These men meet nightly in their Ibeorkun (meeting house) to discuss all matters relating to the Guna people. These three wise men are normally picked by the predecessors, as they do not hold elections. These men then make the decisions for everyone. If you want to be a boat captain, you must ask these men, if you want to build your own house, or repair something, you must ask these men. They have the power to say no, or yes, to anything. They also regulate the price of coconuts every year to ensure no one gets ripped off. Coconuts are the biggest export business for the Guna. Coconuts are sold mostly to Colombians for make up, hair products, candy and wood, and the Guna stand to make around 30 million approximately each year.
We arrived at our island home for the night where there were two huts full of hammocks. We opted for the less populated eight hammock hut with Marco, Lara, Paul, Anita and a few others, while the rest jumped into the 21 hammock hut. Sceptical of the hammock arrangements, as Alice can barely sit in one to relax, the drinking and volleyball tournament began.
Beach Volley @ San Blas
The facilities were pretty basic as you would imagine but there is something pretty cool about an outdoor toilet and shower even if it is a bucket shower!
As the sun set, you couldn’t help but be awestruck by the oranges, yellows and reds bleeding through the hundreds of islands in sight. The weather was warm, comfortable enough to sit in the bath warm water of the sea or otherwise on the beach, and watch as the sun set and cast palm tree shadows through the water.
Dinner that night was an excessive amount of delicious shrimp curry, rice and sides. No one went hungry despite the initial mad rush to get food. The rest of the night consisted of excessive drinking for some, but mostly a relaxed setting for everyone getting to know everyone. Our group, although large, was full of amazingly interesting people.
The next morning, after a somewhat reasonable hammock sleep, we all ate breakfast and packed up the boats. Some sleeping better than others, and some still drinking during breakfast, it was entertaining at best. We got to know the rest of the guys sharing this trip with us, and it was easy to say that, with the exception of a small few who could not hold their drink and therefore made for very shit chat, everyone was extremely friendly and super lovely (despite 90% of the group being British with the constant apologies filling the islands).
Alice had had a sore throat from the heavy air con in Panama City which over the course of three days developed into her totally losing her voice. This was bliss although she still somehow managed to have just as many conversations, tell just as many stories (admittedly as squeaky whispers) and speak and get to know every single member of our enormous group.
Boats @ San Blas
We jetted off to the next island, and to our surprise this is where we would set up for the day and night! We were all expecting a few island visits or activities, but instead we were just there. Everyone broke off, some playing volleyball, some snorkelling, some paddling… it was a bit disappointing after the previous days volleyball tournament that we didn’t have any group activities.
Despite the disappointment of no group activities, we were introduced to some local Guna women, selling artesianals and refreshments on the island. The women were dressed traditionally with long strands of tiny beads wrapped from their ankles to knees, and wrists to elbows creating beautiful geometric patterns. A fabric wrapped around their waists to form skirts, with a short sleeved blouse decorated in vibrantly coloured gems. To complete this extremely colourful and beautiful traditional wear, the women wear geometric printed headscarf, rings and bracelets. Unfortunately they are probably not the finest artisanal craftswomen and what they were selling was all a bit naf.
Another beautiful sunset followed a short period of rain. The meals were unfortanely scarce all day, not really sufficient for the amount of people needing to be fed which creates a sort or Lord of the Flies atmosphere when it came to meal times. Otherwise the day was filled with relaxing on the beach, a game or two of monopoly deal and a lot of consumption of rum and beer.
As we woke up to the sound of the waves hitting the shore, we rolled out of our hammocks and repeated the previous days motions. Breakfast, pack up, jump in the boats, head to another island. When we got to this new island, a couple went off to watch the Swiss match whilst Al and I jumped into the water and went for a snorkel. We came across a beautiful coral shelf, with no bottom in sight, home to hundreds of brightly colourful fish of all sizes and on the way back in we stumbled across a little Red Sea horse. Happy as Larry, we had a little kip on the beach for the afternoon.
Paradise and Palms @ San Blas
Later that day the guides had organised a surprise, some of the Gunas paddled over 14 of their traditional canoes for us to have a go at using. The aim was to race to our next island, which was approximately 200 meters away. Luckily the race idea fell flat on its ass as Alice and I barely managed to sit in the stupid thing without capsizing it! We seemed to end up with one of the smallest canoes but managed to get across the stretch before most. It wasn’t without its rocking, accidental zig zagging and screaming in fear and at each other. Let’s just say we have worked out Kayaking/canoeing is not really our strongest suit as a couple, and I think we can happily rule it out as a future hobby.
We arrived to the next island and the perfect organisation of the company transpired yet again, leaving 12 couples to fight over the four private rooms. We ended up jumping in a four bed dorm with Anita and Paul, not super stoked with the handling of any of these situations.
This island was an inhabited island with a pretty big village calling this island home. We were staying in a hostel that had been built for tourists, with toilets that dropped straight into the ocean. It’s one of those things, you are looking through the toilet bowl, straight into the ocean. Picturesque? Absolutely. Peeing (and more) on tropical fish…. not so much. Love thought it was the best and had a beaming smile every time she skipped out of the toilet.
After we had settled in, we were sat around chatting before the guides were taking us into the village to meet the locals. As we were chatting away, out of the corner of my eye I saw something move along the rafters of the hostel and sure enough it was a big fat rat. Not wanting to alarm anyone, or really acknowledge it myself, I remained quiet and only told Al. The hammocks from the previous couple nights were looking mighty comfortable right now.
Games @ San Blas
Our guides led us through the village to a setting where four girls and four boys, dressed in traditional clothing and donning traditional instruments, performed a very long and very repetitive traditional dance number for us, followed by a very competitive game of “Pato, Pato, Gallo”, or Duck, Duck, Goose. For our little village outing our guides had asked us to make sure we were wearing proper t-shirts and not bikinis etc. This obviously means dress conservatively as shirtless men, women displaying their cleavage, stomach or lots and lots of leg is deemed disrespectful. In true clueless backpacker style, over half of our group viewed crop tops, short shorts and tank tops to be totally acceptable. This annoys us so much, some people are a bit ignorant.
British Jess and Her Gals @ San Blas
Afterwards we were allowed to walk through the village, playing with the kids and seeing the Guna lifestyle. Most of this experience felt very “put on” for tourists, and somewhat uncomfortable as the local adults seemed a bit more “over it” than the children who were swinging off the arms of our group and giggling away at our Spanish and just general look.
Traditionally, the Guna women would chose the man they want to marry, then 6 men from the village would “kidnap” the man/boy and then throw him in a hammock with the woman. Part of the marriage would be the combining of households and the woman cutting her hair off, until this point, something she was not permitted to do. These days it is a little different, the Guna are very open minded. When we visited this village we could see openly gay and trans men playing volley ball with the rest of the village and women dressed in Americanised clothing. The women get a choice these days, when they have their first period, they are taken to the council, announced as becoming a woman, painted in ink, wrapped in banana leaves and kept at home for three days. After this, the whole entire village throws her a huge party where everyone drinks and parties, apparently harder than most. Besides these occasions, plus a few other rare occasions, the Guna are strictly prohibited from drinking. After the girl becomes a “woman” at the ripe old age of probably around 13, she is given a choice to live as a traditionally dressed Guna woman or not.
Guna Traditional Dancing @ San Blas
Jess Making Friends @ San Blas
That night we went for dinner at a local restaurant, where Max our guide had taken our orders much earlier in the day. We had the choice from pulpo (Octopus), Conch (sea snail), a mixture of both or vegetarian. Unfortunately, Max’s French accent betray some of our group who thought they had ordered “pulled pork” not “pulpo”. It was hilarious when at least six of our group turned the octopus down and said they had ordered the pork!
After dinner, we headed back to the hostel and in true fashion, all hit the beers and rum again as this would be our last night of the trip. The Irish couple Jane and Connor went to bed at one stage to find three rats on their bed eating their crackers, all of whom quickly took off up the walls once busted. Needless to say, no one slept well that night. That couple decided to sleep on the dining table, where we nearly joined them as we lay awake listening to the rats hissing at each other.
Best Boat Buddies @ San Blas
The next day we were all keen to leave rat island, and after about an hour and a half on the boat, we arrived at the Panama border where we had to unload all our belongings, carry them up the beach and lay them out in a very specific pattern for border control to inspect. One of the two officials brought out the sniffer dog, who flinched every time the man moved. This poor animal was so petrified that it was drooling out of fear at one point. By this time the officials had made themselves clear that they were the big guys on campus and none of us could leave the area we had been put in.
Once the dog had finished, our guides had a slightly heated discussion with the officials, and then came over to break the news to us that they had decided that they wanted to check every single one of our bags. Now there were 30 of us, including the guides, who all had one waterproofed wrapped big bag and one or two day packs each. This was going to be a nightmare and was going to take forever. Then the officials decided that no one was even allowed to leave for the bathroom.
First to be checked was our guide who had a carton of cigarettes taken from him, but once they had offered one pack to the officials, they were allowed them back. Great, this is how this is going to be. The officials started pulling everything out of people’s bags, one by one we would go up and present our bags. Each check took at least 10 minutes. At one point the official pulled out a bag of tampons from one of the girls bags and waved them in the air asking what they were.
Pato…Pato…GALLO!!! @ San Blas
We decided to wait until last, because there was no way they would have the stamina to do this for everyone. Alice had a theory that they would just get less and less efficient and eventuallly give up, so we hung near the back. It wa Amore the fact we didn’t want to unpack our amazingly packed and waterproof bags just for them to find nothing of interest and to have to repackage them and nothing be waterproof anymore. Sure enough they started to check less, the checks got quicker and less efficient and more than half way through, they randomly decided that two people were permitted to grab their bags and just go without being checked. I made sure I was one of these people and picked up six of our eight bags and marched my way through. A couple of minutes after they completely gave up and sent the rest of the group through without inspection. Absolutely insane. Alice was so annoyed, she gets really frustrated with inefficiency especially with officials and just couldn’t believe that they randomly let two people go without picking them themselves. Surely if people did have contraband they would volunteer themselves as the people that don’t get checked! Alice just couldn’t believe they didn’t just pick a few people to check properly, that way it would be random and everyone could potentially be picked. Instead they just wasted so much time by checking lots of people but not properly. We think their bosses must have recently told them off for being too slack but they just don’t have an efficient checking process in place to do anything other than Oh plus, they don’t give a shit, they are just watching the clock before they can leave work.
We watched another football match in a local panadería that we missed half of because of Dumb and Dumber at border control, before jumping back into the boats. Ten minutes later we arrived in Sapzurro in Colombia (finally we had made it!!!), where we had amazing Colombian tómales (the best we’ve had) for lunch on the beach. Afterwards we took over a local soda to watch the England match . The lady who ran the soda decided half way through that she hated all of us and had a bit of a tantrum, but after charging most of us $2 US to use the bathroom, she made a tidy profit. England drew against Belgium, bit of a rubbish match.
Strange Irish Man @ San Blas
We had to change boats to Colombian boats for some nonsense reason and we waited for ages for our guides and some locals to work out how to fit 28 people and all our bags into two boats. We all jumped in and after some insanely fast driving and wave bouncing, in less than five minutes we were in Carpugana. The last stop of our San blas adventure. After braving the high swells and high speeds of the over capacity boats, the group grabbed our things, disbanded to clear through border control and find accomodation. Neither of these were challenges, as the one border control official may as well have been in a hammock stamping passports, and Carpugana is a small ocean side town, accomodation was plentiful and easy to find.
Everyone met back up for a “last dinner” that night, although we would spend the next two days (and for that matter- the next few weeks) practically following each other around. It was a big group; but it turned out to be just the perfect amount. We really enjoyed our San blas crossing, and it was greatly made by the group we got to share it with, the organisation could have been a lot better and the activities were a bit scarce but the friends we made made it for us.
We had finally made it to South America, and what a beast of a continent we still have in front of us. Central America, we have loved every single moment travelling the vast countries you have to offer, and we are far from done with you.
Kuna Kayaks @ San Blas