Having a slice of paradise doesn’t come easy, nor should it. Otherwise everyone would have them, and be giving them away to all their friends. No, you need to work for it, suffer a bit, so you can tell the world you earned it.
When you’ve gotta get up at 4:30am and you’re assigned to an 8 bed dorm on a Saturday night, you don’t sleep. Some Brazilian lads saw to that by partying at the hostel until 12 or so and then exploded onto the street with a flurry of screaming and laughter. You’re grateful that they leave actually because it might afford you some precious few hours sleep and it did, until 4am .. just half an hour before I was due to get up and meet the girls downstairs. It’s dorm life though, and despite me getting up some half an hour later, scuffling around in my bags, running to and from the bathrooms, hauling my gear out the door, crumpling plastic bags and playing with zippers, that’s what everyone signs up for.
We all met downstairs, greeted the night-watch girl, who in her skimpy boxer shorts was dozily watching Colombian sit-com re-runs. Our driver arrived right on time and we hauled daypacks full of essentials (including a 12 dollar, 1 litre bottle of Barcardi) and several bags of food into the 4×4. We rattled off down the Panamanian streets, ending up at a flash hotel out the back of a kitchy night-club. We waited for some 30 minutes in a car blaring reggaeton and with a rouge cockroach on-board. The doorman had said the expecting passengers were eating breakfast but it was soon apparent they weren’t, so we left and picked up another girl at another hostel before finally getting the call that they were now ready. Returning to the hotel, some weary looking Dutch guys jumped in and brought with them the waft of a spilled jar of pickles. Big night by the smell of it.
We hurtled down the highway, seemingly fleeing the rising sun; passing the flashy waterfront high rises of the cities and into the smoke of rubbish fires; filling the air and trees as we hit the outskirts of town now brandishing typical roadside workshop frontages, littered roads and kids on their way to school. We soon turned off and the paved roads turned cragged and enclosed by jungle. We wound our way through the path, bouncing around inside the cabin, barely getting time to admire the amazing cloud forest ridden mountains. Kuna Yala are the people who govern this particular area. There is separate administrative and political control and their history is tribal and fraught with conflict amid the attempts to westernise the region.
We passed through their border and had their police inspect our passports before waving us through to the boat port. It’s about here where all sense of organisation dissolved and we watched car-load of car-load of foreigners come and go. Mostly to one of two Islands; Franklin and Robinson. We’d decided that considering both of these were ‘party’ islands and we wanted a ‘chill’ island, we’d opted for Iguana. A slightly more expensive island but more isolated and less inhabited. But it evidently caused a problem with our driver in his attempts to procure a boat. He’d been very insistent that we go instead to the ‘party’ islands. He’d told us his fare had included the boat trip to the island however we suspect he lacked this arrangement with the owners of Iguana. This came back to bite us when we tried to leave and the owners requested payment for the boats there and back.
Whatever the case, an hour and half or so later we were chugging down the mangrove river, to the mouth of the ocean and onto the mainland where our hearts jumped momentarily as we docked. To get fuel only evidently, not to stay. But the tiny little port town was full of ramshackle local housing with outhouses perched over the water, so come early morning, a chorus of plops could ring out around the neighborhood.
A few minutes later we were chugging our way again across the rich blue waters of the San Blas archipelago, with its 400 odd islands. You know ‘Survivor’ filmed a series here. And you can see why, everywhere, dotted around the horizon are clusters of palms trees, seemingly from the water, but it’s not until you get a bit closer that you can see the rings of white sand around their base. Some have little rustic thatch huts, other don’t. They’re completely isolated and uninhabited.
We motored in towards one of them, and watched the blue water turn turquoise. We jumped off into the sand, and hauling our gear, worked our way up to reception to inspect the rooms. There was one big thatch hut with 8 beds. A dorm. Or 3 other smaller huts on the other side of the island with maximum 4 bed capacity. Now by ‘other side of the island’ I mean some 25 paces. Through palm trees. To another sandy white, turquoise beach with lapping water. The accommodation was simply a hut, with some banged together wooden bed-frames and bamboo sticks to loosely form walls; meaning the ventilation was good, privacy not so good. As there’s heavy rainfall, the thatch roof is re-enforced by tarps strung up to the inside of the roof. But there’s flushing toilets and a shower. Well, more like a pipe with a fresh water tank atop it. But who cares! We had 3 meals a day included and some 3 other guests and 4 or so staff on the entire island. So that’s 3 meals a day, which ended up being fresh fish or chicken with rice, and a small salad, except for breakfast where it was just bread and instant coffee. What’s more it was signaled ready by a conch shell. It was the only thing we had to commit to during our 2 night stay there. Attending food served up to us. Tough stuff. The rest of the time we soaked our weary, traveling bodies in the tropical waters of the Caribbean and then dried them under the sun, or just lay between palm trees on hammocks, flicking pebbles at shells. By about 2pm or so most days a storm would blow in from across the water, rolling dark clouds would empty a downpour right on top of us, giving us a terrific opportunity to have a shower with a more consistent flow. Even better, move under a palm tree and get the water run-off from a giant palm leaf. It was magic. And then whats that sound? A conch! Dinners ready.
A slight blip on the radar was the company we had on the final night. Our island was invaded by some rowdy Aussies who spent the night telling us their awesome stories of drug induced hang-overs. And overdosing on sleeping pills. No thanks. We quickly fashioned an exit, under the guise of limited electric light and sat on the beach, watching the nights lightning roll in from the the other side of the ocean, listening to music on our little battery powered speaker system, drinking our rum and sharing some laughs. Great stuff.
But all good times must come to an end and the next day after bread and instant coffee we jumped on the boat, after a heated debate about payment, and motored back to the boat port. The lingering taste we had of dealings in this region is that everybody has an arrangement with somebody else and the tourists foot the bill. We’d had rounds and rounds of miscommunication and ill-instruction that whilst at the time is very frustrating, is simply an indication of business in the simple life. And I don’t mean simple as in ‘deer’ simple, but more just chilled simple.
The result of which was 10 of us piled into a car for 7 for the return journey. Whereas 1 Brazilian guy en route to the very same hostel, at the very same time, had the entire car to himself. San Blas is a great place to chill out and observe a tribal culture in the throws on modern tourism, but maybe try to chill out first, before you make the journey.