Oh, where do I begin? You probably have seen those pictures that are used as a desktop background showing a ‘paradise-on-earth’ beautiful place where everyone wants to end up at some point in their life. Let me tell you that places like these are not simply pictures on your desktop but they do exist on Earth. And one of them is in Panama, spreading across the Caribbean Sea, North-East from the capital.
San Blas islands belong to protected territory known as Kuna Yala, which is basically run as its own country and is inhabited by indigenous population, the Kuna people. The whole magic of this place is due to its authenticity. It is not easy to get to and it has its own borders controlled by Kuna people who allow you in as long as you are hosted by them. It is not possible to book the hotel, or lodge via the Internet, you can only do it through sources in Panama City, already on the spot. Therefore, territory though being incredibly beautiful is not turned into a touristic buzz, but is preserved as one of the hidden pearls of the Caribbean.
Getting to San Blas islands
I have read about these islands on the Internet prior to our departure to Panama but there was no option to book anything online, therefore, we had to research on the spot. It is very uncomfortable to get there, therefore, I guess not everyone chooses to go, but it so worth the trouble!
There are local carriers who can organize a trip to San Blas islands for you. Since we were going for the budget option we were not looking for fancy on-the-water lodges but something more affordable. One of the hostels in Panama City called “Mammallena” offered transportation to the islands and booking of a lodge for us. We went to the hostel a day in advance and made reservations, picking the cabins (and therefore, the island) where we want to stay. Make sure that you are making your reservation a day before departure, 7 PM latest. Once we chose our island we were supposed to leave the deposit that covers the cost of the trip and trust that driver is going to come and pick us up 5.30 AM in the morning at our hostel.
When it was already 6.00 AM and no driver we were getting concerned. Did they pass by earlier and we missed it? Are they late? Or did they just screw us over? Thankfully, I have a phone carrier with good roaming options so I could call Mammallena and find out what is going on. Turns out that driver could simply not find our hostel as they wrote down the address incorrectly. One other thing that you have to keep in might when in Panama City is that there are no street names (streets have numbers), that is why it is extremely difficult to find something without a GPS. Anyways, the car finally arrived around 6.30 with some other passengers and we finally left towards the Caribbean coast.
The way to the Caribbean coast lies through very hilly dirt road and can only be driven through by a decent 4×4 and an experienced driver. I, generally, do not have a weak stomach but even I was getting car sick on a 4-hour drive to Kuna Yala. The views were pretty but you just wanted the trip to be over as soon as possible.
When we finally got there we were stopped by Kuna border patrol which basically consisted of a tent and a desk guarded by two people with guns. They checked our passports, gathered a fee of 10$ per person for entrance and let us through. When we reached the sea the hostel driver said goodbye and just left us there. But the trip doesn’t end here as you still need to get from the seacoast to the island.
At a first glance it looks like the whole transportation process is completely unorganized and you are just left there not understanding what is going on, as Kuna people run through groups of tourists screaming something. We waited around 30 minutes. My Spanish skills are completely absent so I couldn’t figure out if someone will pick us up at all. You might have to use your social skills and make some friends with people who actually do speak Spanish. But as long as you know the name of the cabin or island you are going to and who is the driver or hostel that brought you, you will be fine. When the boat with people who were going back to the city arrives, the next part of the trip begins.
We were heading to Ina’s Cabin on the island whose name I sadly do not know. Our nice host Arcadio loaded us onto a small boat and we hit the road, or the sea, to be precise.
At first it was nice and slow, everyone was enjoying the ride but as soon as we get to the open waters, Arcadio hits full speed and we cruise through the sea so fast that the water is all over everyone. I couldn’t even open my eyes to enjoy the view of neighboring islands because the salty water was splashing in my face all the time. Be sure to have your sunglasses when making a trip like this, it helps.
On the way to our final destination we have a lot of shop-stops by neighboring islands where Arcadio had to go and pick up food, eggs on one island, fish and rice on the other. It was interesting to see the whole logistics behind how people live on islands like that and where do they get their food from. Overall, we spend around 2-3 hours on the boat before we finally get to our island. And then: OH-MY-GOD!
When we finally get there it seems unreal. Not only the white sand beneath the feet or see-through clear water, but the whole Kuna settlement was incredible. Chicken, cats and dogs around lodges made of palm trees, and family settlements with happy kids playing in the sun.
Before we settle, we go through technicalities of paying for our stay. It is rather flexible, you can decide to stay as long as you want, just let them know evening before if you would like to go back the next morning and they will make sure your hostel driver comes to pick you up.
We already knew that we are going to stay for 3 nights due to other plans we have made for rest of our trip in Panama.
The night’s stay at Ina’s cabin also includes three meals a day. And man, did I love those! At a first glance there was nothing special about the food, but on the other side, we were enjoying fresh home-made cuisine of the indigenous people which you wouldn’t find anywhere else. The selection wasn’t big due to the fact that food supply wasn’t easy. We usually got chicken with rice, tuna, potatoes and some days we also got fresh seafood including huge shrimp or what looked like a lobster. Anyways, something that you would pay a lot for in Europe. It was all very very tasty and made with love.
The way we knew when it is food time was also amazing. Kunas blew the horn in order to notify us when the food is ready, everyone’s favorite sound of a day.
And in case you were feeling hungry in between the mealtimes, there was always an option to go for a coconut, which were lying around everywhere. The only problem is that it is not an easy task to open them, therefore, we had to ask our dear hosts to help us with that. But coconuts are so nutritious that once you open one, it can keep you full for the rest of the day.
A Regular Day in Paradise
After we settled, we decided to take a tour around the island and see what is what. It took us about 10 minutes to walk across the whole island, including stops to take pictures and stuff. Yes, it is really small. You can see both coasts standing in the middle. I am not an extremely morning person, but living on a tropical island with two-meter walk to the sea, you’re kind of getting used to waking up around 6 AM. And it is the most beautiful part of the day which might only compete with sunset. The sun is still weak but shining and you are opening your eyes without realizing that you are waking up to be in this amazing beauty.
Together with other girls I’ve met on the island we started our mornings with a short but very resourceful yoga-session greeting the sun, followed by the short dip into the water before the sun becomes unbearably hot.
And then comes waiting for breakfast which is usually served around 8-9 AM. You will notice that Kunas are not the most punctual people, hence the horn is a good solution.
We also had a volleyball net on the island, so sometimes we used it to play beach-valley. All other times were mostly occupied by reading a book, relaxing in the hammock, tanning or snorkeling in the sea.
Sun is setting down at 6 PM sharp and it gets pitch dark, therefore, there is not much one can do in the evening except for drinking with newly-made friends or looking at the stars.
Trip to Pelican Island
If you’re already tanned enough or are getting bored sitting around with a book, you can ask your host to make a trip to the neighboring island which is included in the price. We packed our snorkeling gear and our host Arcadio gladly took us to the island called Pelican. In case you didn’t bring your own gear, they have some to borrow, for free, obviously. The island is called so because of the high number of pelicans flying around hunting for fish. It is a good place for snorkeling, we saw some coral riffs, starfish and took plenty of nice pictures.
In order to manage the expectations, here are some technicalities you have to know before going to Ina’s Cabin in San Blas islands:
- the lodge is made of palm tree, you can hear everything in and out
- the sand is your floor, which adds on to the feeling of being on the island, not in the hotel
- there is no electricity on the island, so your phone might not last long. But I advice you to forget about phones and computers altogether and enjoy the break away from civilization. Just make sure your cameras are charged, as you will want to take a lot of pictures
- there is no drinking water on the island, so make sure to bring your own supply of drinks. However, you can buy a small selection of drinking water, coke or alcohol from Kuna and it is not as overpriced as they say, but a bit more expensive than in the city, obviously
- unless you are staying in the private lodge, there are no doors to your room, so it won’t hurt to keep your eyes on your belongings. However, it is rather doubtful that someone will steal something. It is an island, so there is no where to escape
- There is only one toilet/shower for all the guests. Though the toilet has a seat and all, you have to use a rather unique way to deal with flushing and have to keep in mind that shower has only cold water to help you clean from the sea salt
- There is absolutely no entertainment on the island, don’t expect to see cafes, restaurants and dance clubs, the island is only like 1 km in diameter, so you have to entertain yourself. Its a good idea to bring a book, otherwise, you can borrow from selection of books that were left by previous visitors that Kuna’s have in the kitchen
The lack of comfort that we are used to is not comparable to what you get instead. It is an extremely refreshing experience to stay on the island like that. There is no power, no ability to escape, so you are kind of forced to get away from social media and internet life and go talk to real people around you who are in the same place. It is incredible how different life gets if you turn off the electricity and isolate people on the small island. They start to talk to each other! And that was my favorite part of staying on the island, ability to re-evaluate the importance of live communication. We met some really nice and interesting people from all over the world during these three days we stayed there.
After four days and three nights on the island it was time to say goodbye and go back to reality. When we were going back the waves were more merciful and didn’t splash that hard, which was a pity cause I already had my sunglasses prepared for the ride. We said goodbye to our awesome hosts and were picked up by our hostel driver who brought us back to Panama City.
The stay at San Blas islands was an extraordinary experience. The beauty of the white-sand island and blue sea mixed with warm hospitality of the local hosts made it unforgettable. It is a perfect place to take a break from busy city life and get a complete relaxation, forgetting about troubles, internet, and work. Besides the regular vacation-on-beach experience you get to live alongside the indigenous population of the region and observe how they live, communicate, eat and raise kids. I will definitely miss it and use it again and again as my ‘happy place’ during meditations and stuff..