My Time in Paradise: Boating Through the San Blas Islands

Imagine paradise. Really, imagine it. What is paradise supposed to be? In movies, advertisements, books, and other avenues of multimedia talk of “paradise,” the place that many people wish they could visit, vacation, and live. Paradise: a private island with white sand, clear warm water, and nothing but coconut trees and ocean all around. Well… that’s what I had the chance to experience for four days in the Caribbean off the coast of Panama! 

I first learned of this opportunity in Guatemala. In my second week of my travels, while still taking Spanish lessons in Antigua, I met another traveler from England who was telling me about his trip. We realized that the two of us had pretty similar itineraries, both heading through Guatemala and Central America and then into Colombia. Silly me didn’t realize it at the time, but you can’t just take a bus from Panama to Colombia. No sir. There are no roads because the stretch of land connecting the two countries is thick, dense jungle. It is considered pretty dangerous to cross this stretch of land on foot because of the wild and because the path through the jungle is still frequently used by drug traffickers trying to smuggle cocaine (and other drugs) out of Colombia. It is possible to trek across the border this way, but only with an experienced guide. Even with one it is expensive and still considered a risk. Soooo….no bussing or trekking possible here for me. Most people take flights across the border. But thanks to my buddy from Antigua I first learned of the possibility to take a boat from Panama to Colombia! How unique. Upon further research, I learned that it was a bit of a pricey endeavor, at least for my backpacker budget of ~$30 a day. However, throughout the rest of my time in Cental America, I met many travelers who had done the boat trip and who exclaimed, “It was one of the best things I’ve done on my whole trip!” And so, I reasoned with myself that it was probably worth the extra money for such a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. I could be down with pirate life for a few days. 

When I got closer to Panama, I started looking into the different companies which offer boat trips to Colombia. All of them travel by/through the San Blas Islands of Panama on the Caribbean coast. All of them, except one, take sail boats. There was one company which operated on a speed boat. A speed boat is a speed boat. It’s not a nice lush comfortable sail boat. But the benefits of taking the speed boat were less time on the actual ocean (about 2-3 hours a day) and much more time on the actual islands. Plus, it was cheaper. I don’t like open ocean much, I liked that we slept on the islands and not in the boat, and obviously the cheaper price (by $150!) made the decision for me. 

I spent a few days in Panama City before the boat trip. There, I met some of the folks that would be on the boat trip with me. On the first morning that we set off, we all woke up before dawn, piled into jeeps, and drove the 2-3 hours to Cartí, a fishing town on the Caribbeam coast of Panama where we were to start our trip in speed boats. We tied all of our bags in giant garbage bags to protect them from rain and sea water while in the boats. Thankfully we did, because within 30 minutes of setting off, it began to pour. And pour it did. Not just pour – it felt like the sky opened up and dumped a whole ton of wind and water onto us and into our two boats. Of course, our trip guides started passing around bottles of rum to ease the discomfort from the rain by getting a little tipsy. It rained so much that halfway to our first island, the boat captains had to stop on a random island to unload the boat of water so that we didn’t sink! Alas, we were all drenched to hell, and upon arriving on our first island (which we weren’t supposed to land on at all), we jumped into the ocean. Really it felt no different except that it was warmer (not necessarily wetter) than it was on the boat. Ha! 

A few minutes later when the captains were ready, we all hopped in the boats again and began our journey once more, still passing around the rum. Eventually the sky cleared up and we could see speckles on the sea as we passed by them – other parts of the San Blas Islands (there are more than 350 of them). Imagine riding in a boat and seeing tiny islands all around you with nothing but sand and coconut trees. Nothing but literal Paradise. It was amazing!!! 

At around noon that day, after 4-5 hours of traveling in Jeep and then getting drenched in the speed boat, we finally arrived at our very first San Blas Island. So of course, we all got drunk. To be fair, there wasn’t much else to do on such an island, except to swim, snorkel, play volleyball, or just relax and hang out on the beach. I mean, when you’re on a deserted island, why wouldn’t you get drunk?! 

The island was very small – I could walk the entire circumference of the island within minutes. Across the way, there were other islands dotting the seascape. Throughout the day, we chatted, drank more rum, played games, swam around, and generally just hung out while taking in the incredible scenery. That night we had dinner together, and then partied until we passed out in our hammocks. 

Below are a few of the pictures I took on that first day. 

On day two, I awoke with the sun but could not move out of my hammock. That’s because I was hungover as fuck…probably because of that entire bottle of rum I drank all by myself the day before. Ouch! It was one of those hangovers in which you are in so much pain that you cannot even begin to take your first steps to recovery. You just lay there hoping the pain will subside. I needed water. I needed to eat breakfast. I needed some ibuprofen. I needed to brush my teeth. I felt like I needed to puke. I also needed to jump in the ocean because I was sweating so much from the heat, or maybe just from the hangover. I needed to change my clothes and get ready for the day because our boats were departing soon for the next island. But none of those things happened when I needed them to because I just couldn’t be bothered to move out of my hammock. Over the course of an hour, each of the three trip guides tried waking me up individually. To each of them, I muffled, “Yeah okay, I’m coming.” But I just couldn’t move. But finally, with only a few minutes to spare, I managed to shovel down some food and water, quickly packed up my stuff into my backpack, and ran across the sand barefoot (I could not find my flip flops) over to the boats which were about to depart (and in which everyone else was already seated with life vests on), then hopped in and found an empty seat. I may have even still been drunk at that point, but I did feel slightly better. 

However. I underestimated the power of the ocean to make me feel even sicker. One guy in our group had injured his rib badly a few days before the boat trip, and he requested that the captain of our boat drive a bit slower so he wasn’t getting bumped and shuffled around so much. A slow boat ride with big waves means my stomach was churning, and since I didn’t have time to throw up before we left the island, my stomach was very unhappy. About halfway through the ride, I had to request that the captain stop so I could throw up over the edge of the boat. 

The boat stopped in just enough time – I stood up and began puking, one, two, three, and then a fourth time. And while that was happening, one of my guides, Bram, started shouting, “DOLPHINS! DOLPHINS TO THE RIGHT! Everyone look!!” Since I was seated at the back of the boat on the left, most of the group had no idea what was actually happening. There weren’t really Dolphins – Bram had said that to trick all of them, distracting them and giving me some privacy with my puke. How nice!!!!! I still am so thankful for him doing that. It was so kind, totally unexpected, and also hilarious. I later told everyone from our boat that Bram had just said that because I was throwing up! 

After the puke incident, I felt a little better but still not great so I slept a little for the rest of the ride to our next island. And when we did finally arrive, after drinking more water and eating lunch, I was almost ready to start drinking again! Haha, not quite. 

But I did spend the rest of the day swimming, snorkeling, laying on the beach, and hanging out with the others. It was another beautiful day on a deserted island. Some more pictures from the second island are below.

Sometime in the afternoon on the second day, we all clambered back into the boats for a short ride to the third island, the one that we would sleep on that night. We arrived on our first inhabited island – one of the villages of the Kuna indigenous people. We walked around the island, played and ran around with the children, and learned a bit about the Kuna culture. Some cool things I learned about the Kunas: when babies are born, they receive a hammock which remains theirs to sleep in for their entire life; they do not drink alcohol, except on special occasions; such special occasions usually include celebrations of women (first period, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, etc.); when a couple gets married, their two hammocks are combined and they are swung around 12 times to signify their union; and they use coconuts as their currency when trading with the country of Panama. That is not an inclusive list by any means, but I thought their culture was really fascinating. I also really enjoyed walking around their villages and playing with the kids. Another unique experience in the villages included using the toilet. You have to walk to the end of the dock, where there is a wooden shack. Upon entering, you realize that the toilet is a hole over the ocean! (The fish eat everything so the water isn’t contaminated… I just didn’t swim near that part of the island.) Below are a few pictures from the first village. 

This is an actual, full-grown monkey, that one family kept as a pet! It looks a bit like a gremlin, and it sounds like one, but they are actually friendly enough to hold, which I did!

On Day 3, we left the island for our last island of the trip. This was the largest island that we visited during the trip – big enough to get lost in the jungle, or to find a quiet place on a stretch of beach to relax without anyone else in sight. For most of the day, we spent in a field along a beach. Almost as soon as we got off the boat, I went venturing around the island by myself in search of some cool spots. I found loads of beautiful (empty) beach, with incredible views across the ocean to other islands. I found cool rocks, lots of crabs, more coconut trees, and thick jungle. Then I walked back and hung with the crew for the rest of the day until we moved to another part of the island, where the village was located. Here we had dinner, met some more Kuna, partied together one last time, and then passed out in our hammocks! Below are a few pictures of this village. 

On the last day, we piled into the boats one last time en route to the Panama-Colombia border. A bit later after getting our passports stamped, we arrived in Capurganá, Colombia! I was so excited to be in South America again (after studying abroad in Chile two years previously), and especially enthused to be in Colombia after hearing so many raving reviews from tons of travelers who I met throughout Central America. Capurganá is a tiny Caribbean beach town, with very strong waves, yummy Coco Locos (delicious alcoholic drinks that you sip from coconuts), not much infrastructure in the way of tourism (good because there weren’t many travelers, but bad because shotty wifi and frequent power outages). The group had one final group dinner in the evening, celebrating each other and the end of our journey. It wasn’t the end, however – I saw almost all of them various times throughout Colombia.

After two nights in Capurganá, I made my way to Cartagena via (another) speedboat and then a bus. I was excited to be back again in South America, and so ready to embrace all that Colombia had to offer me. More adventures awaited…


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