San Blas Islands - The hidden gems of Panama!
Is this not the most beautiful place you've ever seen? Well, that's my little hut on the right hand side, a place I stayed for three of the most relaxed days of my life.
Welcome to Isla Sanidup, one of 378 gorgeous islands that form a small archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, 150 km northwest of Panama. Collectively referred to as the San Blas Islands, these bits of paradise lie within the Guna Yala, or land of the Guna Indians.
My trip starts in Panama City, at the Casco Viejo Hospedaje, the fun, colourful hostel I'm staying at that's just a few blocks from the sea.and smack in the centre of Panama City's gorgeous Old Town. Someone at the hostel tells me I should visit the San Blas Islands if I have time. If I have time? I have nothing but time on this, month 5 of my year-long trip through Central America. Yeah, I'll go. How do I get there? Well, just come this way chica, the hostel folks tell me, we'll get you organized.
And at five in the morning, I'm loaded with several other backpackers, into a 4x4 jeep. We take off out of the city and, soon, are winding along a dark ribbon of highway through the Darien Gap - a lush and forbidding jungle - a dangerous one, I've read. Dangerous for several reasons, not the least being its claim to fame as the drug trail...where cocaine and other illegal drugs make their way up to the USA.
Our jeep travels fast through the 90-kilometre no-man's-land, a pace I'm happy, no, ecstatic, about given Panama's Travel Advisory about the Darien Gap: "Criminal elements and drug and human trafficking networks operate in these areas. Police presence and emergency response are extremely limited."
And if that's not enough of a warning to keep me on my toes as we speed through the region, I think about the description I'd read earlier in this traveller's blog on the Darien Gap:
Virtually impassable mountains
Overgrown, often unmarked trails
Almost totally uninhabited, so if you get lost or injured you’re on your own
Unfriendly wildlife – we’re talking about snakes as big as your arm, man-eating cats that are bigger than the snakes, crocodiles and caimans in the rivers, biting ants and spiders that can drop down your shirt without warning … you get the idea.
Countless mosquitoes, sometimes carrying diseases like malaria and dengue fever
Highly questionable water quality
Limited food availability (eat local plants or carry your own)
Nearly 100% humidity
Crazed drug traffickers
Desperate paramilitary Colombian guerrillas
Paranoid government police
Risk of kidnapping, rape, torture or murder
This guy doesn't look so scary though. Maybe a little rough around the edges, but...he's smiling...isn't he?
Anyways, thanks perhaps to speed and good timing (we must have snuck through during the mafia's coffee break), we safely reach Corti, a small town on the northern coast and the edge of the beautiful Caribbean Sea.
After standing around looking at each other for an hour, we're herded down to the water and into small, wooden boats. One similar to this luxury model but with a motor (obviously). We take off, becoming soaked in minutes as the hull of our boat pounds through the sea.
One by one, the other boats break away from the group to head in a different direction and soon, we are just two boats with a total of twenty passengers.
An hour into our wet trip, I see a speck on the horizon. And as tiny Isla Sinidup comes into sight, I'm literally gobsmacked. If any place can be called paradise, this is it. Palm trees, like green stars against the blue sky, sprout from pristine, white sand I see circling the island. And around the isla, nothing but sparkling, turquoise sea, clear right down to the sandy sea bed.
I drip my way off the boat and follow the other guests off the small dock and onto the lovely white beach. There, a small group of people attired in gorgeous, bright colours stand, chattering loudly amongst themselves. They call out to us in words I don't understand then wave us over.
Someone does a quick head count then one of the men heads off with half our group, leaving the rest of us checking out the bamboo huts amongst the trees where we, clearly will be sleeping tonight. There's not enough pretty huts to go around and I end up in a wood-framed box with a double bed. I'm a bit disappointed but throw it off, knowing I won't be in my room very much.
After dumping my pack, I stroll back to a little shack by the dock that we were told was our restaurant. Other than breakfast, I've not eaten anything and am hoping I won't be too late for whatever they're serving for lunch. I'm happy to see smiles aimed my way by a few folks sitting and I sit down by a fresh-faced woman about 30-ish, her short brown hair pulled messily into a ponytail, and who, like me, is without a speck of makeup. She introduces herself as Jan from Switzerland and we immediately start sharing our trip stories. Pretty soon, a nice young Dutch couple, Anka and Jon, come over to our table. Their English has barely a speck of an accent.
A moment later, our host, Jaka, a handsome young Guna man with a long, dark braid down his back, comes over. He introduces himself and the pretty, tanned blonde girl leaning into him intimately. Looks like an island romance to me. Sweet. Blaire greets us confidently, Her gregariousness and accent clearly reveal her as an American.
Jaka disappears then brings several small plates of octopus, shrimp, clams and crispy platanos over (the latter like a dried banana chip without the sweet). Nice!
We dig in, and Anka and Jon share what they know of the Guna people.
Apparently, the Guna are the sole owners of the lands within the Guna Yala. White people cannot own land here nor are they employed on the islands. Over the last decades, tourism has grown like crazy and there are little cabana 'resorts' like this one on lots of the islands, most of them larger than this one.
The beautiful designs they wear are molas, multi-coloured applique art that the Guna have made and added into their clothing for centuries. The molas are so culturally significant to the Guna, our friends tell us, that their sale anwhere other than Panama and Colombia is prohibited. And when the mola is sold, it is as a pillow case, or an art piece, not as a piece of clothing - a purposeful design meant to discourage outsiders from wearing what is sacred to the Guna people.
I see two of the lovely Guna ladies walking out of the bathroom with their mops and pails (the only bathroom on the island, by the way). And on that note, I'll digress for a moment. As I write this, it is 2012. And San Blas was not a luxury destination then, nor, I doubt, now. The islands are for those who crave beauty and culture and who don't mind simple living.
So now that I've perhaps lost some of you more fastidious, high-class holidayin' readers, I'll return to my story. I try to catch the women's attention as they leave the toilet shack but they're very shy and avoid my eyes. I follow them all the way over to the other side of the island before I'm able to get them to stop.
They are lovely up close, with their warm, dark eyes, and so pretty in their ruffled, flowery blouses, the sleeves puffed out like mine did in the '80s. Up close, the molas are striking, with strong, contrasting colours zigging and zagging through multiple mazes.
Not for the last time, I wish I could speak with these people. I should have learned some basic Guna or Tulekaya phrases before I came, I guess. Darn. But...sign language and props will do for what I'm looking for now. I hold up my camera and ask a question with my eyes.
"One dollar," they say with a smile and a no-nonsense look. Ha, I laugh to myself. They've got that bit of English down pat. I'm disappointed at first, of course - I hate to pay for photos. But then... I think about how irritating it must be to put up with thousands of people taking their pictures. People constantly invading their privacy. They've clearly decided that they don't have to give it away for free anymore. Good for them. And so, though I'd rather have had a less commercial interaction with these pretty girls, I appreciate their entrepreneurial efforts and give them the dollar they want. But,being the frugal backpacker that I am, I stretch my dollar. I make them sit for two photos!
After the photo-op, I wander back over to the path that I know leads to the beach . As I reach the pretty playa (spanish word for the day), loud music startles me out of my peaceful thoughts. Covering a substantial piece of the beach are big beach towels, upon which multiple brown, glistening bodies lie. The girls lie with their heads close together, whispering, and the boys are on their feet flipping a hacki-sac amongst themselves. They're calling out in a language I'm not surprised to hear. I could have guessed they were from X. This nationality, I've come to realize, like their music a LOT. And they like it loud, fast and constant. Yes, I'm stereotyping but...it's true.
I weave past the group and find an empty spot on the sand to sit. The smell of coconut and salt permeate the air and it's wonderful. For awhile anyways. Within ten minutes, I can't take it anymore. Not the music, nor the heat. I don't know if I've ever felt this depth of heat before. I feel like I'm boiling from the inside out. A few people wander by with snorkels and masks. There's a thought! I have a snorkel and mask!
In less than five minutes, I'm walking into the water and within another five, I've floating over a huge round pile of coral-covered rocks. The reef's swarming with fish. Graceful angelfish, some yellow and black, others cirulean blue. A goggle-eyed cow fish swims by, its bulbous white body covered in brown spots and its little fish horn poking sharply from its forehead. Such funny creatures those cow fish. I continue circling the reef, Two huge parrot fish nose in and out of the rocks looking for who whatever parrotfish eat and I glide quietly behind one, mesmerized at the incredible mix of colours and spotting - she's blue as the sky with riffles of pink and bright pockets of yellow. Pale spots dot her greenish body, then a messy swipe of orange across its chin like a misdirected paintbrush.
Around and around the reef I go, exploring every new nook I can see. As I pass one dark hole, a huge green head emerges and I stare into the steel grey eyes of an emerald green moray eel. I can almost hear his silent hiss as he watches me. He sinks back into his hole. Wow. What a creepy creature.
Though other islands within the archipelago are larger, Isla Sanidup can be walked around in about ten minutes, if that. On the 2nd morning, I start at my hut, leaving shallow footprints behind me on the white sand.
On the other side of the island, I run into another set of cabanas with hammocks on the beach in front of some of the huts. Huh? This must be where the other group went. I wander into a large building and find tables set end-to-end - wow, much bigger than our meal shack. This is a real restaurant! And that sign says lobster! Hmmm...I wonder if I could move? Yes, there's room, but they don't know if I'll get a refund from the Johnson's, We're different families, the Franklin's tell me,
I hustle back to my old eating shack, and put my request to Jaka. He's not happy about it and frowns as he refunds me my money. He's losing money, I realize. I feel bad but it's such a beautiful spot over on the other side - I can already see myself swinging in the hammock in the sunshine, reading my book. Sorry, I mutter guiltily as I turn to go pack up.
Over at the Franklin's, I'm given the pretty BAMBOO hut I want with my very own hammock out front. And inside, is just as pretty iwth a big double bed covered in a bright blue quilt over a thick mattress. It's a much brighter and happier space and, although, I do feel bad for abandoning the Johnson's, I'm thrilled .
But then...I go to the restaurant. The large group I saw earlier at the beach fills it up. Not one of the kids smiles at me, and when I try to start a conversation, it lasts only a moment before a friend comes and wraps the person up in a private conversation. The guy behind the food counter is too busy with the huge crowd to even look up at me as he piles some food on a plate and slides it over to me. I eat alone and silently.
After dinner, I leave the restaurant and pensively wander to the beach. There on the sand are my buddies from the Johnson's - the Dutch couple and Jan, the Swiss girl.
"Hey guys! I say brightly, inwardly thinking I miss you all so much!
"Where did you go? We haven't seen you for 2 days." Jan asks. "You missed the starfish trip. Jaka took us to this island where there were thousands of starfish in the water - it was like an underwater sky.
Isla Sanidup on the San Blas Islands is one of the prettiest places I've ever seen. I learned a valuable lesson while I was there. It goes something along the line of this quote:
"Don't mess up something good by looking for something better. You might just end up with something worse." (from lifeslessons.com). (Don't be manipulat'n fate).
I loved my hammock and pretty little bamboo hut, but I mistakenly valued them higher than I should have. Friendships are much more valuable than a view and an ambience.
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