Not realising that Easter week is a massive deal here, our plan was to head over to Panama's tropical paradise The San Blas islands by ourselves and work it out as we went along using boat taxis. However the girl on reception at our hostel in the city said all the islands she knew that let people stay were full and it may be better at this time to try and find a last minute tour to avoid disappointment. We didn't fancy the idea of spending all out time floating from island to island looking for place to stay. Luckily we managed to find an available tent on Coco Blanco island through Panama Travel Unlimited and booked a two night three day stay.
The San Blas islands are home to the Yala Kuna people. We had read about them whilst in Bogota at a exhibition about their famous textiles the Mola, and were excited to visit some real Kuna communities.
The Kuna community on the islands are autonomous from Panama making the San Blas kind of their own country. Don't forget your passport! They run everything from the jeeps to Panama City, to the boats and all accommodation on the islands. No outsider is allowed to operate there even if they marry in, which in itself is not really the done thing.
Our driver with four other tourists arrived at our hostel at 5:15am in a chunky 4x4. Within moments the lights of Panama and drunks returning home were behind us, not because we were staying near the edge of the city but because he didn't take his foot off the accelerator the entire drive. This continued up a rollercoaster of switchback roads up and over the mountains to Carti harbour on the Caribbean coast.
The harbour was pretty chaotic with boats, jeeps, and clusters of confused looking tourists and Panamanian families all being moved about for no apparent reason. Someone took our names and passport numbers and disappeared for an hour. Eventually we found our boat and bounced off in the spray to Coco Blanco.
Coco Blanco is a Robinson Cruiso style island that could fit inside a football pitch. A small thicket of palms stood in the centre with a ramshackle collection of little palm roofed huts huddled beneath them. The whole island was surrounded by white sand and crystal clear water which lapped gently on the sand thanks to the many off shore reefs. It was the perfect stereotypical tropical island that you might draw as a kid, all it needed was Tom Hanks to run down the beach talking to his football friend Wilson and the image would be complete.
The island is inhabited by two Kuna families. One is happy to host tourists whilst the other has kept to their traditional ways. For this reason the island is split in two. Curious children and curious guests would often meet at the half way line for a good nose at each other.
A tiny old lady with deep set wrinkles, high cheek bones and a golden ring through her nose rocks gently in a hammock out of the afternoon heat. Hundreds of bracelets made from tiny beads run up her lower legs and fore arms. She has a bright colourful Mola sewn into the front and back of her shirt and she wears a bright red and white head scarf. She looked over catching my eye and gave me a big toothy smile even though her two front ones were missing. An equally colourful and textiled younger lady possibly her daughter walks past with a bucket of sea water and disappears into a hut followed by a lovely white dog, which then reappeared and stood directly below the swinging hammock, scratching his back with each swing.
Down by the waters edge on the islands halfway line three young children splash about on a half submerged tree trunk. The bright sun turned their dark skin golden against the unbelievably blue water. One little girl remains by the fence fascinated with what we are doing. This really was a wonderful place to spend some time. I could have just sat quietly watching life pass by on this little island for hours. In fact that's exactly what I did.
Later that afternoon the tiny old lady walked round to the other side of the island with a handful of dollar bills and then returned with a large bowl of freshly caught fish. It's good to see both families are profiting from us visitors even if only one family is hosting.
We took most of our meals here (mainly fresh fish and rice) and spent most afternoons just lazing about on the sand, snorkelling or in my case canoeing around the island in a small one man canoe, which was harder than it looked as I started drifting backwards and sideways along the north shore and nearly capsized trying to correct myself much to the amusement of the local children watching from the beach.
We slept on Mantaray Island about a ten minute boat ride away as there were only simple dormitory style cabanas on Coco Blanco. Mantaray Island had a large flat grassy area in the centre with a collection of tents amongst a small palm woodland. It too was very tranquil and simple, but maybe not as pretty as Coco. The tranquility was only interrupted at 6:30am by the sound of a conch shell being blow which was our signal the boat had arrived to take us over to Coco for breakfast. Most days followed the same pattern, after breakfast we visited a different island for morning then would return to Coco Blanco for lunch. Afternoons would be spent relaxing on the beach till dinner then once it got dark we went to bed. It was simple, sandy and satisfying.
Perro Grande Island.
This is one of the San Blas's more famous islands I think due to its large sandy area for swimming as many of the other islands quickly turn into rock / coral reef if you wade out too far. We saw it coming a mile off due to the collection of luxury yachts and a cruise ship moored just off shore. If I'm honest my heart sank a little as it was super crowded and we were hoping for empty tropical paradise. Still we had a swim and a doze then looked around the little makeshift stalls in the centre where smiling ladies sell their Molas and other artisanal crafts. We found a pair of lovely blue and navy Molas one of a crab and another of a lobster. Apparently the designs of each Mola come to their makers in dreams. They are supposed to be sold in pairs, one for the front and one for the back panel of your dress or blouse. They can symbolise all kinds of things from simple celebrations and protection, to the coming of age of a young woman. We just thought they would look great hung up in a bathroom.
As well as many islands there are also some patches of sand that didn't quite make it to the surface creating a shallow pool protected by reef in the middle of the ocean. We stopped off at one whilst heading back to Coco. It's kind of surreal jumping off the boat in the middle of the sea for a stroll.
Another Perfect Island
One morning we visited another perfect island (I can't remember the name of). It was about twice the size of Coco Blanco and looked out over to a ship wreak that had run aground on its off shore reefs. There was one smiley family living here and a few local Panamanians that were staying in tents for the easter holiday. We took a stroll round the island (that took about five minutes) then borrowed a snorkel off a friendly Dutch family and went for a closer look at the reef. The visibility was great in the clear waters, around the red and copper coral were loads of colourful little fish. Closer to shore was a cluster of hermit crabs in giant shells and the odd bright orange starfish bigger than an out stretched hand.
Our final morning was spent on a much bigger island called ChiChiMe It was pretty busy with families enjoying their holidays listening to loud reaggeton. We followed the beach until we arrived back where we started about fifteen minutes later. We had a swim, snorkel and snooze. It was a nice lazy way to spend our last few hours out here. The evening before an Irish couple and a British couple had joined us on our camping island for dinner and beers. We all had a beer in a little palm hut avoiding the hottest part of the day before the family running our trip moored up at the jetty and zipped us back off to Coco Blanco for lunch. We said our good byes then made our way back to Panama.
As we waved goodbye to the family a teenage girl in traditional garments and a bright pink Mola was walking up the beach. Her look was timeless following the Kuna style that goes back hundreds of years. The only giveaway was a luminous green trucker cap pulled down over her face at a slight angle. Kids these days !