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It’s obvious that no 30-day trip around Central America would be complete without a visit to Panama. And that’s where I’ve arrived today.
From my last stop in Nicaragua’s fabulous Corn Islands, I spent last night in Managua before catching a morning flight to Panama City.
In anticipation of the upcoming next few days of roughing it in the remote San Blas islands, I book a room at the luxurious Sheraton Grand Panama for night #1.
You know, to ease the transition.
From this point on in the trip, I am joined by my friend and regular travel-buddy, Shannon. Thanks to a flight delay out of Atlanta, Shannon doesn’t make it to the hotel until well after midnight. Since I’m a good friend, I obviously have wine chilled and waiting.
Cheers to the next two weeks of travel adventures!
The San Blas Islands
For the first of our two-part visit to Panama, Shannon and I will 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. The autonomous region is a narrow, 140-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline with 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. Today, they number around 70,000.
Of those, about 30,000 live on the islands, and another 8,000 live along the mountainous coast. The remainder reside 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 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 can make travel to the San Blas Islands a challenge.
Information for this remote region is sparse online so I went straight to an expert.
Fellow travel writer, Bill Friar, writes the Moon Guide for Panama and referred me to a great local agency in Panama City. Bill also highly recommended chartering a sailboat to see the San Blas Islands properly.
Of course, you can also visit the San Blas from Panama City on a simple day trip, a one-night stay, or a few days of island-hopping. Here are just a few of the options:
To sail the San Blas or stay on an island?
Shannon and I agree the charter boat idea sounds like a winner.
So I reach out to Will at Panama Travel Unlimited to inquire about the cost and availability of a charter. He suggests the sailboat, “Kokomo” which is available and reasonably priced at $150/night per person (inclusive of all meals).
Unfortunately, before we pull the trigger, Kokomo takes a booking for the last of our 3 nights.
Undeterred, we decide to stick with Kokomo for the first two nights and then spend our final night on an island. This way we’ll get a little taste of both ways to see the San Blas.
The island of Kuanidup comes highly recommended for our overnight stay, so we book there for our final night.
Visiting the San Blas Islands is tricky.
If you want to go, you have to play by Kuna rules.
OK, 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 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 the most 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 are up and waiting for our official Kuna-driven 4WD transportation at the un-Godly hour of 5:00am.
Driving to the San Blas Islands
Will says the driver will pick us up between 5:00am & 5:30am and we will pay him the full amount of our 3-day trip in US dollars when he arrives. The Kuna deal only in cash.
He arrives at 5:40am but we consider ourselves lucky. The next passenger he picks up was told to be ready outside at 4:30am.
After picking up a final group of 4, our SUV is 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 fire way to get there.
Flights to the San Blas Islands
Of course, you can always try your luck with the flights. We later hear a story of a couple who booked flights through the national airline. The day before departure, they got a call from the airline saying 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.
How is the drive to San Blas?
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, there’s a stop at a Kuna border crossing where your passport is checked and everyone is charged a $6 tourist tax.
Tip: Bring plenty of US dollars with you in small denominations for fees like this.
Transferring to our sailboat
Exhausted and a little queasy, we finally arrive at the rickety dock almost 3 hours after departing Panama City.
We pay another tax ($1.50) to someone at the dock and are directed to a small wooden boat. This Kuna boat will transfer us to our sailboat, Kokomo, anchored offshore.
The sailboat charters are the only non-Kuna owned “businesses” allowed to operate in the area. So this wooden boat transfer is how the Kuna make their money on charter guests – a fee to transfer to the boat.
The boat ride is 20 uncomfortable minutes of saltwater-pelting, captain-bailing, soaking wet misery for which we are each charged $15. Blessedly, we are ultimately delivered to the deck of Kokomo dripping wet and mildly-traumatized but in one piece.
A Few Days Aboard Kokomo
The owners of Kokomo, Denny & Becky, are a retired couple from Seattle. Once we change into dry clothes, we all hit it off immediately.
Though it seems like we’ve already had a full day, it is still only 9:00am and Becky has hot pancakes waiting for us.
I think I love her.
As we devour breakfast, Denny raises the sail and navigates toward our first stop in the archipelago, Cayos Holandeses. We’ll explore these islands today and then anchor here for the night.
It’s about 3 hours away and after a lovely sail we reach the Holandeses by lunchtime.
Our delicious lunch consists of turkey wraps and fresh-baked cookies for dessert (three cheers for Becky and a sailboat oven!). After lunch, we’re craving a beach and a lounge chair. So Denny gives us a ride in the dinghy over to Turtle Island to spend the afternoon.
Like many of the San Blas Islands, Turtle Island is home to just one Kuna family and the patriarch greets us as we come ashore. He welcomes us and requests the fee for use of the island (which Denny explained in advance), just $2 per person.
Four dollars seems like a perfectly reasonable rental fee for an entire island so we happily pay up!
Denny leaves us with a radio to call when we’re ready for pick-up later. We spend a little time exploring the island and then settle into two palm-shaded hammocks near the water for the rest of the afternoon.
The peace and tranquility of these tiny islands remind me a lot of my visit to the South Pacific’s remote Cook Islands on Round the World #6.
Island bliss, indeed.
The Kuna-Cruiser Economy
We return to Kokomo around 4:00pm just as a Kuna canoe approaches selling lobsters. Denny expertly selects some unlucky candidates for tomorrow night’s dinner and the enterprising Kuna family waves goodbye and heads on to the next customer.
The Kuna may not like the fact that the many charter boats sailing their waters are foreign-owned. But we learn they do rely on the cruisers to buy their crops and products.
Tiny wooden Kuna boats are spotted regularly pulling alongside various sailboats, catamarans, and yachts. They offer 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 tells 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. Unfortunately, since most of the islands don’t have power, they have no way to charge them. Once a Kuna pulled alongside with 10 cell phones for Kokomo to charge (of course, they were kind enough to help out).
It’s an interesting dynamic between the cruisers and the Kuna but ultimately it seems to benefit them both.
Sunset dinner on Kokomo
After we shower up, Becky has lounge chairs set up for us on deck and chips & salsa waiting.
She is quickly becoming my favorite human on the planet.
We uncork a bottle of the wine we brought along and enjoy a spectacular Caribbean sunset. Then we head below for a delicious dinner of lasagna and homemade bread followed by pineapple upside-down cake for dessert (my new favorite human is also quite the baker).
It’s the perfect end to a long but amazing day. In fact, I’m starting to think I could get on board with this sailing lifestyle (and eventually, I do!).
The Lemon Cays
The next morning we awake to more savory aromas coming from the galley.
Becky has prepared a delightful egg and vegetable scramble and Denny is busy hoisting the sail. Today, we’re sailing to the next chain of islands, the Lemon Cays.
While the Holandeses are most frequently visited by cruisers, Denny says the Lemon Cays are even better. (And by the end of the day, I agree!)
After a relaxed two hour sail, we anchor near Dog Island and set out in the dinghy to snorkel an old shipwreck just offshore. The wreck is allegedly a rum boat that sank in the 1950’s and snorkeling around it is fascinating.
The shallow water is unbelievably clear and there are tons of fish darting around.
Shopping for Kuna Yala Molas
Back on the boat, Becky flags down the passing boat of Lisa, a Kuna friend who is famous for making the best molas in the islands.
Molas are a traditional Panamanian craft made of brightly-colored fabric squares sewn together to depict landscape scenes, fish, turtles, or birds. They are very intricate creations and a single one can take weeks to make.
Lisa, a transvestite Kuna (yes, you read that right), is revered throughout the islands for the quality of her molas. She is happy to come aboard Kokomo and show us her work.
We peruse the colorful options and each select one to buy as a souvenir of our trip. Then we bid Lisa farewell as she heads off to the next boat.
One Palm Island
That afternoon, we move Kokomo over to the East Lemons where we will anchor for the night. Then we board the dinghy to visit a tiny island with just a single palm tree (aptly named One Palm Island).
Around the island there is a giant sand bar with oodles of starfish and sand dollars.
Later, Shannon and I take out Kokomo’s kayaks and do our own tour around a few of the islands in the East Lemon Cays.
Meeting the Kuna Yala
Tonight, we’re meeting fellow cruisers for a fireside happy hour on Nuniudup Island, next to where we’re 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. Instead of requesting a fee, they ask only to be included in the festivities.
The other cruising family is going to bar-b-cue, but we have lobsters waiting for us back on Kokomo. So we join just for happy hour and arrive in the dinghy bearing wine and appetizers.
Becky quickly makes the rounds with the friendly Kuna family to introduce everyone.
The Kuna have their own language but most understand some Spanish. Becky and Denny speak a little Spanish so we are able to communicate in a rudimentary fashion.
Exploring Nuniudup Island
While the others in our group start up a spirited game of bocce ball between the palm trees; Shannon, Denny, and I head off to explore. It’s a small island and we’re hoping to see where the family lives.
We find the family’s two huts and several hammocks and they are extremely friendly and graciously invite us to have a look around.
One of the older women gestures toward my Nikon DSLR camera and is trying to tell me something. I’ve heard that most Kuna want to be paid if you photograph them (usually a dollar or two, which I’m happy to do), so I figure that’s what she is trying to tell me.
But after a lively debate with a serious language barrier, Denny deciphers that they actually want me to take their pictures so they can see the image on my camera’s digital display.
The woman rushes into the hut and returns with an old, worn photograph of an older family member. It’s clearly a cherished possession. The Kuna don’t get the opportunity to see images of themselves very often so this is a big deal. I worry that I can’t print anything for them but Denny promises to try to get a photo or two printed and bring them back.
Once we break the code and I enthusiastically agree to the photo shoot, the women practically sprint back to the huts to put on their Sunday best.
What follows is to this day one of my favorite travel experiences ever.
Here are the other 29: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
A Kuna family photo shoot
They come out of the huts pulling traditional tops on over their heads as they run. They gather the family in various groups for photos: mother and daughter, younger kids, older kids, sisters, daughter with her doll, etc.
Then we do individual portraits of each person.
Each time I take 3-4 photos and they rush over to view them on my camera. The smiles of wonder that light up their faces as I scroll through the photos makes my heart soar.
Especially the youngest children, who I suspect have never seen themselves like that before. I know my camera battery is running low and I just pray it will hold out until I’ve taken every last photo they want.
There are multiple wardrobe changes and they even want photos with me, Shannon, and Denny. It’s a whirlwind of activity and I’m thrilled to make them so happy.
Note: It’s apparently a cultural thing not to smile in photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it that they were happy!
I would give a million dollars for access to a printer right now to print these all out for them.
Eventually, they seem to decide they’ve taken every conceivable photo and I feel like it’s OK for me to go. I can’t get the smile off my face, the entire experience was priceless.
It’s 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.)
Back to Kokomo…
With our task complete, we rejoin the others back on the other end of the island and head back to Kokomo for our delicious lobster dinner.
After dinner, I go through all the photos, edit them, and put copies on a thumb drive for Becky and Denny. Fingers crossed they can print them and bring them back to the island eventually.
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 overjoyed!)
Last Day of Sailing Kokomo
This morning we awake to Becky’s yummy French toast as Denny sails us to Kuanidup Island where we’ll be spending our final night in San Blas.
We are so sad to leave Becky and Denny. They are tremendous hosts and we feel like part of the family after just two days.
And we were able to see so much more of the San Blas Islands than those who simply stay on one island. We say heartfelt goodbyes and board 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.
We beach the dinghy on Kuanidup and Denny sticks around just long enough to be sure the “hotel” is indeed expecting us before heading back to Kokomo.
When we arrive at Cabanas Kuanidup, we aren’t sure exactly what to expect.
The Kuanidup Island Experience
We’ve seen pictures of the beautiful island on Panama Travel’s website but we know the accommodations will be, ah, “rustic.” The island has shared bathrooms and no power. We also know that the wooden huts have nothing but beds and a sand-floor.
In the dim light of early morning, we wonder exactly what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
The owner (who speaks no English) shows us to our cabana and it is just as advertised. Not so much a room as simply a shelter and a place to set our bags. We take a quick look around and hope the tarp-lined thatched roof will at least keep us dry if it rains.
But thankfully we didn’t come here for the 5-star accommodations! So, after dropping our bags in the hut, we each grab a beachfront hammock and a good book. We’re also pleased to discover the island does have a generator that powers a beer cooler.
Cheers. To. That.
An hour later, the sun reaches full brightness and we’re finally able to appreciate the stunning beauty of the island. Kuanidup is considered one of the most naturally scenic islands in all of San Blas.
And if location is everything in real estate, this island is 5-star after all.
We walk around the island taking pictures and just drinking it all in. The water is bathwater warm and brilliantly turquoise. There is literally nothing to do on this tiny island but relax in a hammock – with book and beer – and enjoy the view.
So that’s exactly what we do for the rest of the day.
Meal time at Cabanas Kuanidup
A bell rings over the dining hut when lunch and dinner are ready. And each time the 5 or 6 other guests on the island pour themselves out of a hammock, eat and return.
The food is decent, whatever fresh seafood they catch that day and some rice. But it’s certainly not Becky quality. Good enough for one day but it might get tiresome if you’re there for a week.
That night we watch the sunset, have dinner with our fellow guests, and retire to our hut. Flashlights are at the ready in the event of a middle of the night bathroom run.
The bathrooms and shower are seriously questionable. And the sand on the floor of the huts means constant sandy feet so we never quite feel clean while we’re there.
Sleep is a challenge that night. It’s not super hot, but the lack of any breeze leaves the air thick and stifling. Sometime in the middle of the night, I abandon the hut in favor of one of the outside hammocks just for the breeze.
Departing the San Blas Islands
Thankfully, we survive the night without rain. But after three nights of sleeping in muggy discomfort (the sailboat was great but the tiny v-berth wasn’t the most comfortable for sleeping), we are both looking forward to the air-conditioned Sheraton back in Panama City tonight.
The folks at Kuanidup load us into their boat for the trip back to the dock. There, we again meet up with our driver, Manuel, who will deliver us back to Panama City.
Both the boat ride (in a much larger boat this time) and the drive are more pleasant than the previous trip. And we are thrilled to arrive back in Panama City and discover we’ve been upgraded to a suite at the Sheraton Grand.
Back in Panama City…
I may or may not have shed a grateful tear when I saw the giant marble shower. in our suite.
We take turns luxuriating in hour-long showers to remove the sand from all the places sand should never be. Then we order 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’s been 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. But the San Blas Islands were definitely worth it.
Next up…exploring Panama City tomorrow!