San Blas Islands, Panama
There are three ways to get from Panama to Colombia. One way involves crossing the Darién Gap, which sounds like and amazing adventure if you have ample time and money to prepare for an extended 4x4 adventure through the jungle. Not to mention expertise in the area, as it is my understanding that guerrillas still operate in the area and you stand a reasonable chance of becoming a special member of their group... The second option is to fly, and the third option is to take a boat. We weighed the pros and cons, of option two and three, and came to the conclusion that flying would be fast and expensive, whereas boating would be slow and expensive. We chose to take the boat... We initially heard about taking the boat, from other students at our Spanish school in Guatemala. Everyone raved about it! From the moment I heard about this option it stuck with me; this is the kind of thing that is right up my alley. Who could say no to 4 days of camping on remote tropical Caribbean islands and the opportunity to interact with the aboriginal people of the area?! I looked up some more information on it, after first hearing about it, and found that it has been written up by National Geographic as an experience of a lifetime. We had to get to Colombia somehow, and the boat option was a couple hundred USD more than a flight, but included meals for three and a half days, accommodation, and transportation, so from a strictly economic perspective it made sense - although it would still be way above our loosely adhered to daily budget. Oh well, you only live once!
YOLO has been used WAY more times than I can count, on this trip. It seems as if it is almost daily... Examples: More deep fried chicken? YOLO! Private room? YOLO! Paragliding? YOLO! Three day boat trip through the Cayes of Belize? YOLO! Hot chocolate with cheese? YOLO! Etc... As you can see, the list is extensive. Although, as I write this, I’m starting to think we might have a problem with self control...
We went with what I think is the largest and most well known tour operator doing this trip: San Blas Adventures. They were more expensive than other operators, which threw me for a bit of a loop, but they were recommended by so many people that we’d met along our travels, we booked with them anyways. After doing the trip with them, the extra expense is worth it. The tour operator was really well organized and the food was out of this world! I also had some reservations about doing the powerboat tour instead of the sailing tour, but without question I would say that it was the right choice. It is faster, and a hell of an experience ascending and descending twenty foot waves in a small powerboat. that is loaded way beyond what we would consider safe in Canada. Initially when I had read that the power boat option meant that you would only be in the boat for up to three hours a day, it seemed like we would be bored out of our minds with so much time to spend on the islands. Also, somehow sailing seems like so much more of an adventure to me. I was wrong...
After a two hour drive in some Land Cruisers, from Panama City, to god only knows where on the East Coast of Panama, seventeen of us piled into one boat, and disembarked from the mainland. Within twenty minutes of leaving shore, we were hammered by rain. Rain like I’ve never experienced. Everyone scrambled to put on their rain jackets, but it was futile. The rain was coming into the boat so hard you couldn’t keep your eyes open. Instantly drenched, I would spend the next forty five minutes with water pouring down my face so hard that I could barely inhale without drowning. Generally I am down for a good adventure, but after about half an hour of this, I couldn’t help but wonder if the plane was the better option. The powerboat was a RIDE! When the boat isn’t sheltered by a reef, you are hanging on to anything you can find to keep you planted in your seat as you crash through wave after bone crunching wave. In the tour fact sheet you get before you leave, they tell you to triple bag your backpack in garbage bags, so that it might stay dry - ours didn’t. Between intense tropical rainstorms and what seem like huge waves when you're sitting in a rinky-dink boat, us and our bags didn’t stand a chance.
The boat was thirty foot, open haul, fiberglass, and shallow haul design. It was not designed to cut through the waves, so much as ride above them and maintain speed. It was operated by two guys, one at the back driving blind, and another at the front who signals directions for the driver to follow. The engine looked to be about 20+ years old, was a 75hp Yamaha, and would intermittently cut out at low speeds. This was not a vessel which would be considered by most people to be particularly seaworthy, or even appropriately engineered and fitted out for the sea conditions. However, the Kuna people have been boating this coastline since time immemorial, so I assumed they probably knew what they were doing. Also, wearing a life jacket was mandatory, so in the event of a capsize I would survive to live out my life long dream of playing castaway on a tropical island!
Two hours later and we finally arrived at our first island camp, and it was stunning! I want to describe just how incredible all of the islands were, but I honestly can’t. The closest I can think to say, is imagine what your dream tropical island paradise would look like... This was better than my wildest imagination. The colors, the sounds, the beautiful sunsets... And maybe the most incredible part was the sense of relief that you still have a functioning spine after hours of wave bashing. The human body is truly incredible!
Our accommodations, for the duration of the trip, would be a large cabanas with hammocks for everyone. All of the islands on the trip are owned by the Kuna aboriginals; each island a little slice of tropical paradise. The Kuna maintain the islands and are responsible for piloting the tour boats. The islands, though not big, were made up of beautiful Caribbean sand, palm trees, and varying amounts of low growing vegetation. Each island had a beach volleyball net, which became the focus later in the afternoons with matches between the Kuna and us (the travelers). The Kuna live for beach volleyball, and beat us more times than I care to admit.
Two to three hours of aqua bronco, heated volleyball matches, sipping on coconuts, snorkelling, and enjoying lobster that was literally the size of your arm! Rinse and repeat for the next three days. AMAZING!! Ahhhh, as I write this, I wish I could turn-back time and re-live it all over again. If you find yourself in need of transit from Panama to Colombia, or vice-versa, this trip offers so much more than a means of transport. I would come back to Panama just to do this trip again.