This is part 4 of 5 part series of our travel to Panama. Click here if you want to go to part 1.
Paradise is the first word that comes to mind when I think about San Blas. With white sand and palm trees surrounded by crystalline turquoise water of the caribbean sea, these desert islands, untouched by civilization, look like a masterpiece of a great painter. My eyes have never witnessed anything like that and we were all thrilled with this unforgettable experience.
There are 378 islands within the archipelago and they are part of the Comarca de Guna Yala, a semiautonomous territory of the Guna Indians. If you enter the San Blas area, you have to obey their rules and tradition. Tourists can’t move freely around and the best alternative to get there is using one of the Guna’s shuttle services that take you from Panama City to the Caribbean coast, where travellers are met by Guna boatmen who ferry them to the islands.
We took a slightly different approach and decided to drive ourselves to San Blas. We met a Brazilian friend who lives in Panama City for many years. She gave us the contact of one of the indians responsible for making the transportation to the islands. We exchanged some messages via WhatsApp, half in English, half in Spanish, and I was unsure that he fully understood our plan. Nonetheless, I assumed we had the basics sorted out and we also had an agreement about the price for taking us to two islands of our choice. We followed the recommendation of our friend and opted for Isla Pelicano and Piscina.
From Nightmare to Paradise
The day before the scheduled date, we heard about a Navy statement to avoid sailing in that area with small boats for the next five days or so due to strong winds and big waves. I immediately sent a message to our boatman asking if we should postpone our trip. He said that we shouldn’t be worried because it was a beautiful sunny day there and he was sure the weather will stay the same the next day. We took that response with a grain of salt, but decided to go anyway because it would be very difficult to schedule another date to visit San Blas if we were going to wait for those five days.
We woke up early next morning with a positive thinking that everything would work out, packed our stuff, food and drinks and took the road. This time my X100 stayed safe at home and I took just the GX–10 which I have no regret using it under harsh weather conditions, sand and salty air.
It took us about one hour to drive from Panama City to El Llano where we take the road to Puerto Carti. Although this 30-Kilometer road is mostly paved, you must have a good four-wheel-drive car, as they are the only vehicles allowed to pass the border cross station into the Comarca de Guna Yala, where you must stop to pay the tourist tax. The reason is simple, there are passages with running water on the track, steep climbs and hairpin turns with sheer drops that will make you feel like on a Roller Coaster. We knew this in advance and rented the car accordingly.
There are beautiful landscapes along the way but I couldn’t stop because the road is too narrow and I was going to block the cars behind me. Now I regret that I haven’t taken any pictures or video, even if I had to do it from inside the car.
When we were nearly there, the sky got completely overcast with dark clouds and within minutes started to rain. Suddenly a silence took place in the car and I could see the disappointment on everyone’s face. I thought to myself, the trip is ruined. Out of nothing my 4-year-old daughter started to chant a Brazilian music to stop the rain, and soon everyone joined her singing pretty loud. It was a fun moment to relax a bit, we have a lot to learn from our kids, definitely.
When we finally arrived at Puerto Carti the view was quite underwhelming. The infrastructure is pretty basic, the water has no resemblance of what you expect from the Caribbean sea and the rain was not helping the place to look any better. As soon as we got out of the car, the Guna taxes began. You have to pay for everything, I mean everything, from parking to the restroom. I paid yet another tourism tax and I couldn’t even understand exactly why. They expect tips for anything, even to point me to where was the guy I have the arrangement. Be prepared with a lot of small bills if you have the intention to go there.
I asked the boatman about the rain, he said every morning is the same thing, it rains for a few minutes then stops. And sure enough in a couple minutes there was no more rain. Within 45 minutes, we were all in the boat ready to leave. The helmsman was a man of few words. I asked him how long it will take to get us to Isla Pelicano. He said around 30 minutes, in Spanish of course, and we didn’t hear his voice anymore until we arrived at our destination.
Those 30 minutes seemed like an eternity. Suddenly that navy warning we ignored made a lot of sense. The sea was very bumpy and the boat was going really fast jumping over the waves and hitting hard back on the water. We were all scared, I held my daughter’s arm firmly because I was afraid she could fall off the boat. My mother-in-law was terrified and asking me to talk to the helmsman to take us back. When she gave up this idea, because it will take longer to go back, she started to pray out loud.
As we got near a group of islands, the helmsman slowed down, the water was calmer and we finally realize the reason we were there. I couldn’t believe my eyes with that magnificent view of those desert islands. The different tones of the water, from dark blue to bright turquoise, have to be seen to be believed. Paradise, we were in paradise.
When we finally get off the boat at Isla Pelicano, we were welcomed by two Guna indians. Each island has an owner, but not necessarily they live there all the time, only when there are tourists. They offered food, drinks and some handicraft items and, you guessed, charged once again more tourist taxes. We were the only tourists there for hours, it was like a private island for most of the time we spent there. We were having such a nice time that we decided to skip our visit to Piscina.
We scheduled with our helmsman to pick us up at 4:00 PM. He arrived 15 minutes earlier and was a little drunk. He kept drinking beer all the way back to Puerto Carti. Luckily we had more passengers on our way back helping to keep the boat on water. Once we get there, we quickly packed everything and left in time to cross the border control station before it closes at 5:00 PM.
It was quite an experience to spend a day in San Blas and I will do it again if I have the chance.
Next and last part, we are going to talk about Bocas de Toro. Please, if you have any question or just want to leave a comment, use the comment section below. Thanks for reading.