What if there was an archipelago in the Caribbean with an island for every day of the year (and a few spare ones)? With white sand beaches and turquoise water, where you could let the days pass by swinging in a hammock underneath palm trees, drinking from a coconut, and not worry about anything? What if I told you a place like that exists and that it’s called San Blas?
How to get to the San Blas islands
San Blas sounds magic and the images Google shows make you want to pack your swimsuit and find a way to get to the islands. Right now.
The way there isn’t long but it’s rough. From Panama City it’s a 2.5 hour drive in a 4WD and the road through the hills to the Caribbean side of the country goes up and down and left and right and sometimes all at the same time (I know it’s not possible, but that’s how it feels like). And the drive is just the first part of the journey.
The driver drops you off at the port from where the boats to the islands depart. At the hostel they told us to just relax, the driver knows where you’re going and he’ll bring you to the right boat. What they didn’t tell us (and what seems to come as a surprise to every traveler to San Blas) is that we’d get soaking wet on the boat (no, don’t try to take out your camera for the ride. Unless you plan to buy a new one anyway). The boats are small and fast and jump over the waves; it’s like taking a 40 minute long shower. With salt water. Yummy. They put the luggage under a tarpaulin but it’s better to bring some extra plastic bags – better safe than sorry.
We organized our trip through Mamallena Hostel in Panama City. They can provide a driver and book the first night for you on one of the islands. If you want to stay longer or go to another island, you can just ask the owner of the place; everything is very relaxed on San Blas and the locals can take you to any other island by boat.
Naranjo Chico Island
San Blas isn’t cheap. Transport costs about USD30/person each way (there’s no public transport) plus $20 tax to enter the Comarca de Guna Yala, the autonomous territory of the Guna indigenous people. Accommodation costs anywhere between $20 and $100 (or probably more) per person, but the price includes three meals a day.
We’re staying at Ina’s Place, on Naranjo Chico Island. The cabins – dorms or privates for two people – are very basic: Bamboo huts thatched with palm leaves, sand floor, and simple beds. Running water’s not always available and electricity only in some places (not in the huts though – bring a headlamp). But who needs more when the beach is five meters from your doorstep?
The island is very small, in ten minutes you can see all of it. On one half of the island is a Guna village, the other half is shared by two hotels.
The Guna people
Most Guna people live in Guna Yala, Panama, though there are communities in other regions of Panama as well as in Colombia. They speak Guna, a language of the Chibchan language family. The small children we met on the island didn’t speak any Spanish yet, they’ll learn it at school. About 50’000 Guna people live on the 49 major San Blas islands, most of the islands are uninhabited.
In the morning we were woken up by birds – so many different birds on such a small island! That day the weather looked much better; the day we arrived it was cloudy and almost chilly, a cold front was responsible for this major inconvenience because “cold and clouds” just don’t go with “Caribbean”.
A tour to Isla Pelícano
From the island you can do tours to other islands. The price depends on… the distance? Maybe. Together with some other people we went to Isla Pelícano, a small uninhabited island (there are just two abandoned huts) with a beautiful white sand beach and turquoise water and lots of pelicans. They are very interesting to watch when they’re fishing. They circle over the water and then suddenly dart into it, there’s a huge splash and then the bird emerges again, swallowing its prey.
Whereas the others continued on to Isla Estrella, we stayed on Pelícano, exploring the island, taking pictures of the pelicans, starfish, and palm trees, sunbathing, and relaxing at the beach. It’s not often that you can have a whole island for yourself.
At 12 noon however, I was starving and at 12.30 the boat still hadn’t come back to pick us up and we started to feel pretty LOST. Opening coconuts without a machete is hard and shortly before we started digging for fresh water and making spears for fishing, the boat arrived and took us back to Ina’s where lunch was waiting for us.
San Blas: A unique experience
If you’re just looking for great beaches, there are places that are much easier to reach and less expensive. San Blas is much more than just beaches: What’s really special about the islands is to see how the Guna live here. The islands are so small that somehow it’s hard to imagine how someone can actually live there (not just for a few days) but in its essence, life here isn’t much different from life anywhere else: People work, and wash, and cook, they rake leaves and tend their gardens, the kids play outside, and greet the visitors with a loud “Hola!”.
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