So we finally made it to our last destination in Central America, the San Blas Islands. Going from Panama to Colombia you are faced with two choices: a flight or a boat trip. It is near on impossible to go through the Darien Gap, unless you fancy encountering jaguars, kidnappers, drug smugglers, FARC soldiers or other wild animals. We had heard so much about the islands before travelling so it was a no brainer despite the higher cost of doing it compared to flying. You can either take a sailing boat from 8 to 20 people in size, these spend 3 days around the islands followed by 40 hours in open waters to Cartagena on some of the roughest waters on the planet. Alternatively you can take a speed boat tour where you spend a lot more time on the islands, sleep on them and only have 8 hours at sea close to the mainland over 4 days. This trip is what we did and the journey finishes in Capurgana, just south of the Panamanian border.
For our trip organised by San Blas Adventures we were picked up from our hostel in Panama City at 5am in jeeps to meet up with the full group at a supermarket to buy supplies. As all meals were included supplies meant rum, juice, water and snacks. Fully loaded we set off in the jeep for a 2h30 drive north to the Caribbean sea where we were to board the speed boats. Once we arrived there were a few forms and other conversations about the next four days to be had with our tour guide Brendan. Eventually we boarded the two speed boats with the other 28 people who we were to sleep, drink and eat with on the islands and made our way to the first island. This boat journey was easy as it was between land so the water was calm. We passed many tiny, white, pristine islands and after the hour journey we arrived at what was to be ours for the afternoon. Jumping off the boats the sun appeared and blue sky was all around us which was a surprise as we had been told the weather hadn’t been great.
The first island was very small, by small we mean you could stand on one side and make out the person on the far side. The Kuna people made us lunch which consisted of a pumpkin stew, rice and a tray full of fish to add on top – it was delicious. The rest of our time there was spent snorkelling, getting to know the group, reading and drinking beers provided by the Kuna people. Whilst we were snorkelling we saw some amazing things. To start off with the were about 100 starfish of different colours in the shallow waters, plenty of small colourful fish, and best for last a small mantra ray that zoomed past underneath Stu. To say it was a great start to the trip would be an understatement.
After a few hours it was time to make our way to the next island where we would be spending the night in hammocks. This island was a bit bigger, complete with toilets, bucket showers, huts and most importantly a volleyball court. We were asked to introduce ourselves to the group again for names sake – this involved showing our best dance move too – then it was time for more swimming and snorkelling. Niamh actually managed to see a small reef shark in the waters on one side of the island which was awesome. Stu and a group of the guys started a volleyball match that involved a lot of diving on the floor while the rest of us sat drinking some beers on the beach. After a very hard day it was time for dinner and boy were we in for a treat! The three guides – Brendan, Peche and Lena – cooked up a storm with octopus ceviche, tomato prawns (millions of them), stir-fried vegetables, coconut rice and a version of mashed potatoes. None of us were expecting food this good. After filling our bellies the night of heavy drinking, music and games began. The group had a good time and eventually one by one we’d drop out of the party and into our hammocks for a surprisingly comfy few hours sleep before being awoken at 5AM by a massive storm.
After trying to resist the storm for a while and fall back asleep we all gave up around 6am and got up for an early breakfast. Breakfast was prepared for us and we were treated to a wide selection of fruit, oats, yogurt, cake, jams and spreads, porridge and maybe even more than that! After breakfast and an hour or so chilling time it was time to hit the sea again. Unfortunately the storm was still lingering with some heavy rain and a rough crossing in sight. We were told it would take roughly 2 hours to reach the next island. And sure enough around 5 minutes into the trip we were right in the middle of some seriously heavy rain and very rough sea water. Everybody on the boat got completely soaked through despite the roof. Once we were out of the rain cloud we thought that would be the worst part done. However the sea continued to be very rough and the side effect of having stopped a couple of times in these really choppy waters was that a couple of people on our boat needed to be sick shortly after. Niamh definitely was NOT one of those people…
After our eventful journey we finally arrived at our next island where we were to spend the whole day and night on. This was again a bigger island however instead of two huts for sleeping we were all in one massive hut with hammocks. Again we had a bucket shower, toilet, hut for eating in, volleyball court and the vast surrounding blue water. The day was spent going between snorkelling, reading, volleyball and beers. The snorkelling here was even more impressive as once you got past the seaweed the water cleared and a corral reef appeared with a huge drop off down into the depths. Stu managed to dive down and swim through a hole in the reef where he saw multiple fish of all different colours. Other than volleyball there was also a tightrope line put up between two palm trees – down the bottom of the tree not the top. This as you can imagine is pretty hard and neither of us made it past two or three steps. That evening we all sat around on the beach before our dinner of massive chicken burritos, these again were delicious like all the other food. The evening was spent playing drinking games and listening to Disco Stu on the decks – aka Niamh’s portable speaker. Again we spent another comfy night in the hammocks before our wake up call at 7AM.
Breakfast was similar with fruits, yogurt, oats, Kuna bread and cake before our longest boat ride to the final islands. This time Niamh thought ahead – in other words everyone reminded her – and took some seasickness tablets provided by Steph, hero!! The journey was really quite rough with everyone being soaked through two minutes in, those at the back were just being constantly wacked in the face with water. What happened next was quite unbelievable. The propeller of the other boat broke about an hour into the journey at sea. With the boat carrying spare parts all Brandon needed to do was jump in and screw the new one in. Yeah pretty easy right? However whilst trying to reach the back of the boat with the spare propeller in his hands, a big wave rocked the boat he fell in and dropped the propeller. We were all now feeling extremely sea sick as the boats were not moving and the waters were rough. Luckily our boat had another spare propeller so Brandon managed to fix it this time around and off we went once more. We arrived into calmer waters with the Kuna village on the right and a tiny island on the left where we were to spend a couple of hours. This island was the only one with mosquitos and lots of sand flies which weren’t a problem on any of the others. Sleeping and reading were the main events as everyone had a slight hangover. Lunch as you guessed was delicious with pasta salad, tuna salad, beetroot and carrot salad, bean salad all served with Kuna bread, Tzatziki and hummus.
After lunch it was time to head over to the very last island where we were to sleep in the Kuna village itself. There were two ways of getting there, first being the speedboats, second being the canoes. The majority of us chose the canoes these being the wooden kayaks that the Kuna people use. This was probably the best part of the trip because within seconds different pairs had capsized with the wooden boats being incredibly hard to balance and steer. We didn’t capsize however we wobbled side to side so much at the beginning that Stu was submerged in water at the back and Niamh was frantically scooping water out with the tiny plastic tub. With some pairs being pretty good at paddling and balancing and others going around in circles we all eventually arrived with everyone laughing at us as it looked like Stu was actually under the water.
Once we had all been given assigned beds into the huts we got changed and set off into the village. The first thing we saw was a dance from the local school children. The dance was a traditional Kuna dance with both boys and girls involved. They were wearing traditional clothing, the boys were playing a flute whilst dancing and the girls were dancing and switching in pairs. It was a privilege to see the traditional dance and the whole group really appreciated it. After the dance we all played a game of duck duck goose with the kids, a few of the group slipped when running around making it hilarious for all. After the games finished we had the chance to walk around the village meeting different locals and being introduced to their way of life. The village consisted mainly of little children and adults as the older teenagers all make their way to the mainland for university and tend to stay on the mainland. After seeing the village we made our way back to our huts to get ready for dinner at the local and only restaurant. There was a choice of octopus, conch, chicken or vegetarian which came with salad, rice and beans. The conch was nice and tasted very similar to octopus. After a lovely meal reflecting on our 4 days at sea we had a few beers and all headed to bed as, one, we were all knackered, and two, there were rules to respect in the Kuna village.
On our last morning we were treated to some scrambled eggs, bread and fruit, packed up our bags and made our final journey to the boarder crossing which we had been warned about. We were told that it could take 6 hours plus because the workers at the crossing can pick and choose if they want to make our lives harder by searching every single bag, pocket and compartment. We arrived at this deserted boarder town where there was really nothing and we were asked to put all of our bags in lines while the dog checked them. After this they seemed fine with everything so we took our big bags back to the boats and then walked to a cafe to sit and wait for our passports to be checked. After an hour Lena arrived and said they have decided to check every single one of our bags because they found 6 bricks of cigarettes on the boat. Although we weren’t too sure how these got there, or even if they were there but we had to go by their rules. Eventually after a couple of hours all the bags were checked with nothing to be found and our passports were handed back and we made our way to the final stop of the trip Capurgana.
We stayed in this little boarder town for two days, had a great meal with everyone on the trip, watched the Colombia vs England game in the streets and washed all of the sand off us and our clothes. Overall we loved everything, the people, food and locals. If you ever find yourself in Central / South America and want to experience the San Blas tour we would 100% recommend San Blas Adventures. We had such an amazing time, thanks to everyone!