Panama Day Three – San Blas Islands

I wasn’t quite sure why we were stocking up on so much beer and abuelo rum, vodka, coke, soda, crisps, biscuits and loads and loads of ice at 6 in the morning.  When we got to our desert island paradise in San Blas (“Panama’s secret – don’t tell anyone!” as M’s cheerful brother A kept telling us), an archipelago of some 378 islands on the Caribbean coast of Panama, it became clear.  16 ramshackle huts stood on our island, one of the 49 inhabited here, that must take about 2 minutes to walk around – and the only thing to do on a desert island is talk, eat and….drink.  We were the envy of the island with our 2 cool boxes full of ice that kept the beer crisp and cold.


Before we had the luxury of this simple yet glorious existence, however, we had needed to drive a rollercoaster of a road to get there.  The road was one of dizzying bends and stomach churning peaks and troughs, and the journey had taken 2 hours – which passed quickly listening to A’s playlists of rock classics and more contemporary Indie, including the Libertines, who I am also fond of.  Still, I was green by the time A had finished driving to the checkpoint which marked the start of indigenous territory.  This area, known as Guna Yale now, is inhabited by Kuna Indians, who speak the local language Kuna, so this checkpoint marks the start of their world, their laws, their customs and language.  It was a strange checkpoint – a local in a t shirt, shorts and shades came up to the window.  ‘2 Panamanians and 2 extranjeros (foreigners)’ said A.  The checkpoint ‘official’ explained the charges:  $10 a head for foreigners – $4 for Panamanians.


From here, the road was even more hazardous – only SUV 4 wheel drive vehicles are allowed past this point, so if you had somehow made it in a car, you were required to leave it at the checkpoint and you were driven in a jeep to the jetty for a fee.  Incredibly, 3 years ago, the road had no asphalt, and the journey from the city took 1-2 days and required winches to be tied to trees to get jeeps up.  Some people were stuck for days before more powerful jeeps arrived to help out.

A and I bonded well – he was a mine of information.  At 28, he had already done more in his short life than most would ever do.  He had lived and worked in London for 6 years for a Law firm, and was a qualified pilot.  The most impressive thing of all was that he was a member of the East India Gentleman’s Club,  a club steeped in British Colonial history and reeking of sweet gin and cigar smoke….the ace in the pack.


We arrived at a jetty, parked up and loaded boxes onto a motorized canoe, and we chugged down a mangrove-flanked channel and into a choppy Caribbean.  Everybody got absolutely soaked – but it didn’t matter.  We were passing desert island after desert island, postcard perfect, almost comical at times (one tiny island has only one palm on it – the world’s loneliest palm).  It felt like we were traveling pioneers embarking on a real adventure.


We arrived at our rustic quarters.  A got us 2 huts on the beach side, as on the other side the North Summer wind makes it too cold to stay there.  We walked around the island.  A tiny place.  Only the huts, 3 toilet huts, a dining area and a pool table.  Time here is governed by the ringing of a bell that signals it is time for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  Hammocks were strung up all around.  We met a friendly American couple and all of us bonded well.  Within minutes the first of many beers was cracked open, and the early afternoon played out like a desert island dream, lazing in the hammocks, drinking beer, chatting, and listening to M’s playlist on the speakers she’d brought.


In the late afternoon we went on a trip across the rough water to a locally inhabited island.  We came across a shy, almost reclusive people, living a very basic existence.  Each island has its own chief.  Unfortunately, interaction was solely for financial gain.  A photo of anyone in the village sets you back $1.  Some locals try and sell you crafts, or put ankle beads on you that the locals wear up to their knees.  They were not curious to find out who you were, where you came from….and the only English they spoke was ‘$1’.  It was a shame, as it would have been nice to have had the opportunity to actually speak to some people and get to know them.  It cost money even to hear one of them speak.  The village chief charged everyone $2 after talking in Kuna about the village for about a minute.  Even the children had the $1 sign down to a tee.  And so tourists are seen as a source of only income not curiosity, and no approach was made to any of us if it wasn’t for potential monetary gain.  There were lots of albinos on the islands too, caused by in-breeding….there isn’t a lot of choice of partner on a desert island.  All in all, it was an interesting yet somehow disappointing village trip that left a hollow feeling….I didn’t learn much, and had had no opportunity to get to know the life and culture of the Kuna at all….we were off the first island in 10 minutes and off another island in about 15.  We were like the daily money boat to the locals.


Back on our own desert island, night fell after a simple fish dinner.  We took photos of the stars, listened to Latin songs, drank abuelo rum, chased crabs around, then it was time for our beds – a simple bed on a sand-floored wooden hut on a desert island in the Caribbean.  Life could be worse.

Author: Neil

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