We buzzed past several white-sand islands and waved to some kids sitting outside a hut over the water. After about an hour, our captain slid our boat effortlessly into the white shore. We jumped ashore, quickly checked in and set out for exploration. Within a couple of hours I had swam, taken pictures of the sunset, cracked opened a coconut, met a few locals, walked around the entire island and had eaten dinner.
Was that all to do here? Did I just do it all? My busybody and New Yorker mind was humming.
Pablo – I called to my husband – maybe we should ask about cutting our stay short. I don’t know if I can stay here for three nights. Two nights, okay, I can do it, but I think we are going to get bored here quickly! I looked around and saw the others reading calmly, sun bathing or smoking a cigarette, content with paradise.
What was wrong with me?!? Was I incapable of enjoying the perfect off-the-grid getaway?
Just three days before arriving in San Blas, I woke up in a Panama City hotel room just before the alarm sounded at 4:28 AM. Even though I had gone to sleep late, after indulging in local Carnival festivities in Panama City, I was excited because we were supposed to meet our driver between 5 and 6 AM for our transfer to San Blas Islands (or Kuna Yala in their indigenous language). I popped downstairs to bring my groggy husband coffee and quickly denied him his “ten more minutes” of sleep. We packed, dressed and dragged our things downstairs where we waited in the lobby until our driver, Francisco, showed up…about 40 minutes late.
Francisco’s 4×4 Land Cruiser, packed to capacity, quickly transported us past the famous Panama Canal, colorful buses decorated with both religious and awkward sexual images, through rough roads to a checkpoint, where we were asked by armed police to show our passports and pay a tax as we entered the Kuna territory. Finally, we made it to the riverside village of Cartí and were directed to a small motor boat for our hour ride to our island – Robinson Island, a small island about the size of a football field. We had purchased a packaged service including transportation, a daily excursion, three meals a day of fresh-caught fish and basic accommodations in a private cabin for three nights at the most agreeable price of $175 per person. We carried our own water, beer, sunblock, bug spray, and some other necessities.
The San Blas region is north of Panama City on the Caribbean side and consists of approximately 360 islands, many containing just a few palm trees and a fisherman’s hut. The Kuna people have only recently been receiving tourist in the last five years. They don’t have electricity (a few families and hotels have generators) or running water and they had to import clothes and food stuffs from Panama City. Outsiders who are not part of the Kuna culture cannot buy land or build in their mostly autonomous region.
Our first night staying on our island someone lit a bonfire and we happily sat up into the night enjoying each other’s company and the incredible bright starry sky. At one point, I experienced a moment of calm and realized that my fast-paced life in the city is indeed stressful and has raised my threshold, requiring constant stimulation and a routine schedule. Thankfully, it did not take long to adjust and rebalance. The next morning I woke up at sunrise, went for a run, practiced yoga in the shade of a palm tree, swam for hours searching for the best coral reef and met locals at village coming-of-age festival. On our final day I watched pelicans dive for fish and enjoyed reconnecting with my surroundings and simple living. We swung rhythmically in a hammock chewing coconut meat for hours. I didn’t feel the need to do anything except enjoy my wonderful company. By the last day I was completely calm and relaxed.
Three nights of detox was not enough, I was not ready to leave and will be returning as soon as possible.
*GETTING TO SAN BLAS (KUNA YALA) & LODGING INFORMATION:
-Most hotels in Panama City can arrange a packaged tour for you upon arrival
-I arranged the full package with LAM Tours, which seemed to be the best price. There are several other companies. Hostals such as Mamallena and Luna Castle are great resources too. Here is a breakdown of costs:
Transportation each way costs $30 per person in a shared 4×4. Roads are pretty rough with steep hills, there are no buses or public transportation.
Kuna tax is $20 per person
Boat transfer: $10 – $40 depending on your lodge. Kuna Yala is gigantic and it could take hours to get where you are going, ours was a 45 minute transfer to Robinson’s Island.
Lodging ranges from $25 + for private cabins and full board. Ask if this price includes excursions (they will probably charge at least $2 at island or to enter a village)
-Coco Blanco comes highly recommended for the most deluxe accommodations at about $390 per person for three nights – even here, expect basic facilities
-What to bring:
Snorkels (we rented broken ones at $3 per person) and full batteries for your camera
Snacks, water, liquor, sunscreen, after-sun, etc