San Blas: Goodbye for now to the Caribbean

Published: November 19th 2013
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Panama to San Blas

The San Blas islands are an archipelago located in the Kuna Yala district in the Caribbean sea off Panama, however they do stretch all the way down to Colombia. Only around 15% are inhabited, with the rest comprising of a small piece of sand and some coconut trees, just above sea level. They represent to me the typical picture post card snapshot that you have in your head of the Caribbean, with aquamarine water, eye-burning bright white sand and the green of coconut palms. Underneath the water lies the world's third largest reef.

On our first stay in Panama City a few months back, we had found a good company to do a trip with out to the islands, and it made it easy for us to arrange as we burnt our way down south from Costa Rica. Leaving Puerto Jimenez by ferry, the skies were dark and full of moisture, and by the time we got to Golfito, it was hammering down. Arriving at the border, we waited out the worst of the rain on the Costa Rican side before walking through ankle deep water to get into Panama. I was wearing flip flops, mojo hiking boots, which decided to fall apart at the most inappropriate time. I guess the constant water logging we received in Isla Ometepe and Corcoavdo had dissolved whatever glue was left holding the soles together. We made it to David, Panama's second largest city, that night, and stayed another night. David is more like a big agricultural town then a city, and it was a pleasant enough place to stay for a few days, with plenty of good produce to enjoy and a nice hostel. Two days later, we were up at 4.30am for our trip out to the San Blas islands.

The drive out to the gulf traversed its way over a beautiful rainforest with Toucans sitting in the trees and brown flooded creeks and rivers everywhere. It was raining heavily, and with lightning lighting up the dark skies, it was not looking promising. However, as we made it to the river port where our boat would be, the rain thankfully cleared as we loaded up the over sized dinghy with all our supplies and 14 people. Leaving the river, the water was still a very murky brown, but soon there was a discernible border of brown and aquamarine. The sea was choppy, with a decent swell and we knew we were going to get wet. As the driver pushed the little motor up a notch, we were soon bouncing along through the waves with a constant spray drenching everyone in the boat. The water was flying in so quickly and with such volume that it was not possible to breath through your nose without almost drowning. So with heads down, mouths open and hands firmly clenched on the seat we spent the next hour getting absolutely soaked. At times the boat would hit a big swell where we would fly up one side and then lurch almost at 45 degrees down the other side. Exhilarating and slight unnerving at the same time, it will be a ride i remember for a long time.

The sun soon broke free of the clasps of the clouds and we pulled up to Isla Perro (dog island) where the best part of the day would be spent snorkelling a shipwreck and having lunch under the shade of a coconut palm thatched cabana. Although uninhabited, it was quite busy, and being the weekend a lot of Panamanians were there cooking up freshly caught lobster and playing volleyball. The snorkelling was quite good around the wreck, with lots of bright corals, but not so many fish. Soon the rum was flowing and we all proceeded to getting slightly hammered under the shade of the cabana, every now and then cooling off in the water.

Leaving the island in the mid afternoon, we journeyed a small distance out to the starfish pool. In the dry season, the pool is actually a small island, but in the wet season it is under about 50cm of water and large starfish congregate here. The island/pool is in the middle of the sea, with deep water surrounding it and no other islands in close proximity. It was a surreal experience, sitting in the middle of the ocean drinking more rum, playing with starfish and watching the sun make its way down across the western sky. Heading off before the sunset to Nalu Negra (who our guide, Loni, was chief of) we ran out of diesel in the middle of nowhere, but we still had rum! A quick phone call, and 30 minutes later a boat from the island came to provide us with a some much needed diesel and we were off again, arriving at Nalu Negra before darkness set in.

Fuelled up on run, mojo and i chased the local children around the village until we were drenched in sweat, and the parents started calling the kids in for dinner. A nice dinner was had, and then we sat on the pier watching the full moon, drinking more rum and talking gobshite till the wee hours. There is no electricity on the island, with only generators providing some power for a few hours in the early evening. Our room had no ventilation, and it was a hot nights sleep, eventually stirring in the morning in a puddle of our own rum smelling sweats. After breakfast, we were shown around the village, visiting Loni's residence as well as the local community hall where important meetings are held, and then are celebrated afterwards with of course, rum. With no sewer system, numerous drop boxes are strategically perched out over the ocean where people can do their business, and the fish congregate for a feed.

Blessed with another beautiful day, we journeyed out to Isla Achutupo, where we would spend the rest of the day. The island is comprised of one house, a toilet and a few hundred coconut trees. We snorkelled off the beach on the numerous reefs, as well as out in the channel where a few rotting sailboat carcases had met their demise, and were slowing being broken apart on the reef. It was a fantastic day, but were we feeling a bit weather beaten and therefore happy that we had decided not to extend for another night on the islands. Instead opting to return to Panama City to spend the last 2 days of our time in Central America.

Additional photos below
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Coconut anyone?Coconut anyone?
Coconut anyone?

Isla Achutupo

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