After a night in Managua on my way back from the Corn Islands, I arrived in Panama City by mid-afternoon on Friday. In anticipation of the upcoming next few days of roughing it in the remote islands, I’d booked a room at the luxurious Sheraton Grand Panama to ease the transition.
From this point on in the trip, I am joined by my friend and regular travel-buddy, Shannon, who arrived in Panama City late Friday night. Thanks to a flight delay out of Atlanta, Shannon didn’t make it to our hotel until well after midnight. As any good friend would, I obviously had wine waiting and we toasted to our impending travel adventures!
There wasn’t much time for sleep, though, as our 4WD transportation to the San Blas Islands was picking us up at 5am. For the first of our two-part visit to Panama, Shannon and I had elected to spend three days visiting Panama’s isolated San Blas Islands.
Run by the indigenous Kuna, the Archipelago de San Blas is part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala – a narrow, 140-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline and the almost 400 tiny palm-lined islands just offshore. An island for each day of the year, they like to say.
It is believed that the Kuna have lived in this part of Eastern Panama for more than two centuries and today they number around 70,000. Of those, about 30,000 live on the islands with another 8,000 living along the mountainous coast. The other 40,000 or so live outside the community (mostly in Panama City).
The Kuna run their district with minimal interference from the national government and were the first indigenous group in Latin America to gain such independence. Because of this, they are often considered a unique success story for indigenous communities. (To put it in more American terms, the Kuna operate with autonomy similar to that of an Indian Reservation in the U.S.)
How do you visit the San Blas?
The Kuna are fiercely protective of their beautiful land and have complete control over who visits it and how. Foreigners are not allowed to own businesses within the district, so all accommodation and transportation is 100% Kuna owned and operated. It all lends an air of authenticity to the area but it often makes travel there a challenge.
Information for this remote region is sparse online so I decided it would be best to use a travel agency in Panama City to handle the details. I’d gotten a referral for a local agency from fellow travel writer, Bill Friar, who writes the Moon Guide for Panama. Bill had given us a lot of good information about the islands and highly recommended chartering a sailboat to really visit the islands properly.
Of course, you can also opt for a simple day trip, a one-night stay, or a few days of island-hopping. Here are just a few of the options:
Bill referred us to Will at Panama Travel Unlimited. I inquired about the cost and availability for a charter and he suggested the sailboat, “Kokomo” which was available and reasonably-priced at $150/night per person (inclusive of all meals).
Unfortunately, while we were deciding what we wanted to do, Kokomo took a booking for the last of our 3 nights.
In the end, we decided to stick with Kokomo for the first two nights and then stay on one of the islands for our 3rd night figuring it would give us a little taste of both ways to see San Blas. Bill and Will both highly recommended the island of Kuanidup, for our overnight stay, so we booked there for our final night.
Visiting San Blas is tricky. If you want to go, you have to play by Kuna rules.
Which is fine except the Kuna don’t really have any rules…and the ones they do have often change as easily as a Caribbean trade wind. So let’s just say that packing your patience is key.
It was once only possible to visit San Blas by flying. But in 2009, a road to the coast was completed making land crossings possible through the mountains.
However, the road is still only navigable with a 4WD vehicle, and as we would soon learn, it’s not exactly a pleasant ride.
How to Get to the San Blas Islands from Panama City
After just a few precious hours of sleep (and possibly a few too many celebratory glasses of wine once Shannon finally arrived), we were up and waiting for our official Kuna-driven 4WD transportation at 5am.
Will had told us that the driver would pick us up between 5am & 5:30am and that we’d need to pay him the full amount of our trip in cash (the Kuna deal in cash only) when he arrived.
He didn’t arrive until 5:40am but we considered ourselves lucky. The next passenger he picked up had been told to be ready outside at 4:30am.
After picking up a final group of 4, our SUV was packed to the gills with bodies and luggage for the 2 ½ hour drive to the coast. This is apparently typical of land transportation to San Blas – late and packed.
But if you want to go, this is the only sure way to get there. Of course, you can always try your luck with the flights. We later heard a story of a couple who had booked flights through the national airline only to be called the day before departure and told that the airport they booked into had been closed for a year. It’s a roll of the dice, folks.
2020 Update: I have friends who flew to the islands in February 2020. They flew out of Albrook on a charter flight with Helicopteros Personales, which was recommended by their charter boat company. They reported that, other than luggage limitations (which wasn’t a problem since they had packed light), the flight was short and very pleasant. In the future, I would definitely look into the flight option versus doing the drive again.
The first half of the drive on smooth highway roads is fine; however the second half is not for the faint of heart or the “empty of stomach.”
To reach the coast, it’s necessary to traverse a mountain range with steep climbs up increasingly winding roads. Since many sections of the road are washed away, the drive can only be attempted with a 4WD.
Along the way, you stop at a Kuna border crossing where your passport is checked and everyone is charged a $6 tourist tax.
Exhausted and a little queasy, we finally arrived at the rickety dock. After paying another tax ($1.50) to someone at the dock, we were directed to the small wooden boat that would transfer us to Kokomo which was anchored offshore.
Since the sailboat charters are the only non-Kuna owned “businesses” allowed to operate in the area, this is how the Kuna make their money on those guests – a fee to transfer to the boat.
The boat ride was 20-minutes of saltwater-pelting, captain-bailing, soaking wet misery for which we were each charged $15 and (blessedly) delivered to the deck of Kokomo mildly-traumatized but in one piece.
A Few Days Aboard Kokomo
The owners of Kokomo, Denny & Becky, are a retired couple from Seattle and (once we’d changed into dry clothes) we all hit it off immediately. Though it seemed like we’d already had a full day, it was still only 9am and Becky had hot pancakes ready and waiting for us.
I think I love her.
As we ate breakfast, Denny began sailing us toward our first stop in the island chain, Cayos Holandeses, where we’d be exploring the islands for the day and anchoring for the night. It was about 3 hours away and we reached it by lunchtime.
After a delicious lunch of turkey wraps and fresh-baked cookies for dessert (yay, Becky!), Denny gave us a ride in the dinghy over to Turtles Island to spend the afternoon.
Like many of the San Blas Islands, Turtles Island is home to just one Kuna family and the patriarch greeted us as we came ashore to welcome us and request the fee for use of the island – $2 per person.
Seemed like a perfectly reasonable rental fee for an entire island so we happily paid up!
Denny left us with a radio to call when we were ready to be picked up. We spent a little time exploring the island before settling into two palm-shaded hammocks near the water for the rest of the afternoon.
Island bliss, indeed.
The Kuna-Cruiser Economy
We returned to Kokomo around 4pm just as a Kuna canoe approached selling lobsters. Denny expertly selected some unlucky candidates for the next night’s dinner and the enterprising Kuna family waved goodbye and headed on to the next customer.
While the Kuna may not like the fact that the many charter boats sailing their waters are foreign-owned, we learned that they do rely on the cruisers to buy their crops and products.
Tiny wooden Kuna boats can be seen regularly pulling alongside the many sailboats, catamarans, and yachts offering everything from the catch of the day to vegetables grown in their gardens.
It’s a great resource for the cruisers and a source of economic support for the Kuna. Becky told us that sometimes the Kuna boats just pull up looking for fresh water or even to charge their cell phones.
That’s right, many of the Kuna do have basic cell phones…though since most of the islands don’t have power, they have no way to charge them. One enterprising Kuna even showed up once with 10 cell phones for Kokomo to charge (which they were kind enough to do).
It’s an interesting dynamic between the cruisers and the Kuna but it ultimately seems to benefit them both.
After we showered up, Becky had lounge chairs set up for us on deck and chips & salsa waiting.
We uncorked a bottle of the wine we’d brought along and enjoyed a sunset cocktail before heading below for a delicious dinner of lasagna and homemade bread followed by pineapple upside-down cake for dessert.
Did I mention Becky is quite the baker?
That night, despite the fairly cramped quarters of our tiny v-berth cabin, Shannon and I both slept pretty well.
The next morning we awoke in time for a delightful breakfast of egg and vegetable scramble and Denny hoisted the sail for our brief trip to the next chain of islands, the Lemon Cays.
The Lemon Cays
While the Holandeses are the chain most frequently visited by cruisers, Denny had told us he thought the Lemon Cays were far superior. And I have to say, after seeing them, I’d agree.
We anchored near Dog Island for the afternoon and set out in the dinghy to snorkel an old shipwreck just offshore. I’ve never snorkeled around anything but coral so it was a fun experience to explore the wreck (allegedly a rum boat that sank in the 50’s). The shallow water was unbelievably clear and there were lots of fish darting around.
Back on the boat, Becky flagged down the passing boat of Lisa, a Kuna friend who is famous for making the best molas in the islands. Molas are a traditional Panamania craft made of brightly-colored fabric squares sewn together to depict landscape scenes, fish, turtles or birds. They are very detailed and can take weeks to make.
Lisa, a transvestite Kuna (yes, you read that right) has become somewhat famous in the islands for the quality of her molas. She was happy to come aboard Kokomo and show us her work. We each selected one to buy as a souvenir of our trip and bid farewell to Lisa as she headed off to the next boat.
That afternoon, after moving Kokomo over to the East Lemons where we would anchor for the night, all four of us boarded the dinghy to head out to a tiny island with just a single palm tree (aptly named One Palm Island) and see a giant sand bar with lots of starfish and sand dollars.
Later, Shannon and I took out Kokomo’s kayaks and did our own tour around a few of the islands in the East Lemon Cays.
Meeting the Kuna Yala
That evening, we had plans to meet up with some friends of Becky & Denny’s on another boat for fireside happy hour on Nuniudup Island, next to where we had both anchored for the night.
The Kuna family living on the tiny island is known to be friendly to cruisers looking to bar-b-cue and (instead of asking for a fee) only asks that they are included in the festivities.
Though the other cruising family was on the island to bar-b-cue, we had lobsters waiting for us back on Kokomo so only went over to join in the happy hour fun. We rode over in the dinghy and arrived bearing wine and appetizers.
Becky quickly went around to each member of the Kuna family and introduced herself and asked their names.
Though the Kuna have their own language, most understand some Spanish (which Becky and Denny have a passing familiarity with) so we were able to communicate in a rudimentary fashion.
While others in the group started up a spirited game of bocce ball between the palm trees; Shannon, Denny, and I decided to explore the small island and see where the family lived.
As we entered the side of the island with the family’s two huts and several hammocks, they were extremely friendly and graciously allowed us to have a look around.
After we’d been there for a while, one of the older women gestured toward my Nikon DSLR camera and was trying to tell me something.
I’d read that most of the Kuna want to be paid if you photograph them (usually a dollar or two, which I was more than willing to do), so I figured that’s what she was trying to tell me.
But after a lively debate with a serious language barrier, Denny deciphered that they actually wanted me to take their pictures so they could see the image on my camera’s digital display.
The woman went into the hut and came out with an old, worn photograph of one of the older members of the family and it was obviously a cherished possession. The Kuna don’t get the opportunity to see images of themselves very often so this was a big deal. I didn’t have the ability to print anything but Denny promised to try to get a photo or two printed and bring them back.
Once we broke the code, I enthusiastically agreed. And the women to practically sprinted into the huts to put on their Sunday best.
What followed was one of my favorite travel experiences ever.
A Kuna family photo shoot
They came out of the huts pulling traditional tops on over their heads as they ran. They gathered the family in various groups for photos: mother and daughter, younger kids, older kids, sisters, daughter with her doll, etc.
Then we did individual portraits of each person.
Each time I took 3-4 photos and then they rushed over to me to view them on my camera. The smiles of wonder that lit up their faces as I scrolled through the photos made my heart soar.
Especially the youngest children, who I suspect had never seen themselves like that before. I knew my camera battery was running low and I just prayed that it would hold out until I’d taken every last photo they wanted.
There were multiple wardrobe changes. They even wanted photos with me, Shannon and Denny. It was a whirlwind of activity and I was so thrilled to have made them so happy. (It’s apparently a cultural thing to not smile in photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it.)
I would have given a million dollars for access to a printer to print them all out on the spot.
I thought they might never tire of our photo session. Finally, they seemed to decide they’d taken every conceivable photo and I felt like it was OK for me to go. I adored the entire experience.
It was one of the most uniquely authentic experiences I’ve had in all of my travels and I’ll never, ever forget it. (You can view the entire family photoshoot in the gallery below.)
With our task complete, we rejoined the others back on the other end of the island and headed back to Kokomo for our delicious lobster dinner.
After dinner, I went through all the photos, edited them, and put copies on a thumb drive for Becky and Denny to try to print and take back to the island.
I have no doubt they’ll do their best to make that happen and I can only hope that 10 years from now that family will be pulling my photos out of their hut and gesturing to another tourist to update the family album.
(Post-Trip Update: Denny was indeed able to get several of my photos printed and brought them back to the island. He said the family was thrilled!)
Sailing Kokomo – Day 2
Our second night on Kokomo was not quite as restful as the first.
Late that night a major thunderstorm moved through the area necessitating the closing of the hatch over our cabin – the only source of airflow.
It quickly became stifling down below as the storm raged on for more than an hour with deafening crashes of thunder and frighteningly-close bolts of lightning. Even after it passed and we re-opened the hatch, the blanket of humidity in the air made sleep elusive.
The next morning we awoke to Becky’s yummy French toast as Denny sailed us to Kuanidup Island where we’d be spending our final night.
We were so sad to leave Becky and Denny. They were tremendous hosts and we felt like part of the family after just two days. The food was so much better than we expected (it’s truly remarkable what Becky can do with a basic sailboat kitchen).
And we were able to see so much more of the San Blas Islands than those who simply stay on one island. We said our heartfelt goodbyes and boarded the dinghy with Denny one last time for our ride to Kuanidup.
Can you stay on the San Blas Islands?
The short answer is yes. But definitely expect a “no-frills” (and by that I mean no plumbing) experience.
Denny stuck around long enough to make sure the “hotel” was indeed expecting us before heading back to Kokomo. When we arrived at Cabanas Kuanidup, we weren’t sure exactly what to expect.
We’d seen pictures of the beautiful island on Panama Travel’s website but we knew the accommodations would be “rustic” and that the island had shared bathrooms and no power. We also knew that the wooden huts had nothing but beds and a sand-floor.
In the dim light of early morning, we weren’t sure exactly what we’d gotten ourselves into.
The owner (who spoke no English) showed us to our cabana and it was just as advertised, not so much a room as simply a shelter and place to set your bags. We just hoped that the tarp-lined thatched roof would at least keep us dry if we were in for another storm like the night before.
But thankfully we didn’t come for the 5-star accommodations! So, after dropping our bags in the hut, we each grabbed a beachfront hammock and a good book.
About an hour later, once the sun had reached full brightness, we were finally able to appreciate the stunning beauty of the island. I’d read that it was considered one of the most naturally scenic islands in all of San Blas and if location is everything in real estate, this island was 5-star after all.
We walked around the island taking pictures and just drinking it all in. The water was bathwater warm and brilliantly turquoise and there was literally nothing to do on this tiny island but relax in a hammock and enjoy the view…so that’s exactly what we did for the rest of the day.
A bell rang over the dining hut when lunch and dinner were ready and the 5 or 6 other guests on the island would pour themselves out of a hammock, eat and return. The food was decent, whatever fresh seafood they’d caught that day and some rice. Good enough for one day but it may have gotten tiresome if you were there for a week.
That night we watched the sun set, had some dinner with our fellow guests and retired to our hut with flashlights at the ready in the event of a middle of the night bathroom run. The bathrooms and shower were seriously questionable and the sand on the floor of the huts meant always having sand on your feet so you never quite felt clean while you were there.
Sleep was a challenge again that night. It wasn’t super hot, but the lack of any breeze at all meant the air was thick and stifling. Sometime in the middle of the night, I abandoned the hut in favor of one of the outside hammocks just to get a breeze.
Thankfully, we survived the night without a storm. But after three nights of sleeping in muggy discomfort we were both looking forward to the comforts of the air-conditioned Sheraton back in Panama City.
The folks at Kuanidup loaded us into their boat for the trip back to the dock where we again met up with our driver, Manuel, to deliver us back to Panama City.
Both the boat ride (in a much larger boat this time) and the drive were more pleasant this time and we were thrilled to arrive back in Panama City and find that we’d been upgraded to a suite at the Sheraton Grand.
I may or may not have shed a grateful tear when I saw the giant marble shower.
We took turns taking hour-long showers to remove the sand from all the places sand should never be and then ordered room service for lunch while still sporting fluffy hotel robes.
It’s hard to believe that two months ago, I’d never even heard of the San Blas islands and now they are forever etched in my heart. It was an incredible three days, but for now, I’m happy to be back at home in the comforts of a 5-star hotel.
My ability to rough-it apparently has an expiration date of +/- three days.
Next up…exploring Panama City!