There are a few ways to cross over from Central to South America. One of them involves a plane, one of them involves a not insignificant risk of death in one of the world’s few remaining true wildernesses (the near-impenetrable Darien Gap), and one involves a few days drinking rum on paradise islands. Guess which one I went for.
An early morning jeep ride along some crazy roads led us to Carti, a tiny village on Panama’s north coast from where San Blas Adventures depart. They’re the only company which do a speedboat rather than a sail boat, meaning more island time and avoiding the notoriously choppy ocean crossing to Cartagena. (The flip side being that they take you to the Colombian border town of Capurgana, from where you need to organise your own onward transport by boat and bus to your destination of choice.)
We had a group of 14, relatively small given that they usually take 20-30 people each trip, and two guides – a Colombian called Brandon who had the enthusiasm of a small child, and a local Guna guide from the islands. The general premise is that they take you to two islands each day, one of which you can chill or snorkel on and one of which you eat dinner and sleep on. The snorkel island on Day 1 was impossibly small – you could walk around it in less than a minute. We had a hearty fried chicken lunch cooked by a local lady, kicked a ball around and got to know each other a bit. Unfortunately, the snorkelling was pretty terrible, as the island was surrounded by dead coral and the water was barely ankle-deep all around the island.
The evening island on Day 1 was the best of the trip – tiny, palm-fringed, inhabited by just a couple of Guna families. We played beach volleyball and watched a spectacular storm come in from over the hills of the Panamanian mainland.
We played Assassin, had an incredible meal of freshly cooked seafood (prawns and octopus) and had a few drinks while lightning from the receding storm lit up the sea like flash photography. It was a pretty perfect way to start the trip.
The next day we had what would become our usual breakfast (an array of bread, oats, granola, scrambled eggs and jams) before heading off to a much larger island for our first cultural experience of the trip. The speedboat rides were generally short (1-2 hours), and, thanks to the calm seas that the rainy season brings to the Caribbean, blissfully smooth. Apparently in the dry season it can get pretty wet and wild, as a result of the strong prevailing winds.
We got to explore one of the larger Guna villages, which was fascinating. 49 of the 365 islands of the archipelago are inhabited, and 9 of them have villages. The Guna people are indigenous and live remarkably separate existences to the rest of Panama, recognised by the government as a semi-autonomous region.
As we explored the village, we attracted a chorus of “hola!”s from the kids, who were far from shy and seemed pretty excited to see us, despite the fact that they see 4 boatloads of Westerners every week. Most of the buildings were built from traditional materials, with a couple of exceptions (for example, the school was funded by the Panama government so is more bricks-and-mortar). A surprising amount of the locals have phones, and there are little stalls with the same snacks that you can find all over Panama, but it’s still a very traditional culture.
That evening we got a chance to go into the school to watch the local children celebrating Fathers Day (which takes place the same week all over the world, apparently). This involved lots of singing and a pretty entertaining dance in traditional dress.
We made our exit (well, most of us – one of our gang went missing and was later found in a sweaty state after a game of basketball with some local kids) in time to catch an amazing sunset, feeling pretty lucky to be in such an amazing place visited by so relatively few people.
We slept in hammocks in little huts, as we did each night, though it wasn’t quite as beautiful a setting as the previous night, being a more built-up island. Night two was the latest of the trip, as we all stayed up in the dinner shack playing games and drinking late into the night, learning a lot about each other in the process! Most people had brought a litre or so of rum to avoid paying expensive prices for drinks on the islands, and we were never in danger of running short. Dinner was again excellent, with lobster burritos prepared by our guides. We worked on our pirate names (Brandon was very keen on this) – we had Fashion Pirate, Captain Questions, Pirate Nightmare and many more.
Day 3 brought more of the same – hardly a bad thing! Our “day island” was a bit disappointing, with not much of a beach, just spiky grass to lounge on – surely out of 365 islands they could have picked a better one. But San Blas is still a beautiful place to be, and in the evening we had a Q&A session about Guna life with our Guna guide, learning more about the indigenous way of life. We hit the hay relatively early, mostly pretty tired from 2 nights of the broken sleep you tend to get in hammocks.
Day 4 was mostly an admin day, with a lengthy wait at the Panamanian side of the border and another queue at the Colombian side. We landed up in Capurgana, which is actually a pretty nice little beach town. After a shower and trying to clear out the sand from all our wordly possessions, we met up for one final group dinner with our guide, who took us out for a really fun night at a salsa/reggaeton club in town (and, erm, definitely took advantage of his new role as night-out organiser rather than guide, in more ways than one).
We had a really good group, and the small size meant it didn’t fragment as a larger one might have. Some of us would see a lot more of each other heading further into Colombia, which was really nice as we had plenty of chance to reminisce about our San Blas trip. We also got really lucky with the weather, despite it being rainy season.
Areas for improvement – the snorkel gear needs heavy reinvestment, it would have been good to spend more time on more secluded islands, and some of the info we got post-trip (regarding onward travel, deals we could get in Capurgana, etc) was outdated at best, misleading at worst. But overall, it was a fantastic experience and a pretty awesome way to cross continents.
The morning after our night out in Capurgana, myself and a coup,e of others headed on to Cartagena, via (another, very bumpy) speedboat and a lengthy bus journey – most of the rest of the group would follow the day after. Those adventures will follow soon, hopefully!