You know those commercials for Corona beer, the ones with small tropical islands, deserted white sand beaches, waving palm trees, turquoise water gently lapping the shore. Everywhere you look in the San Blas islands (photos) is a Corona commercial. Many of the islands are uninhabited, others may have only 1 or 2 simple bamboo huts with thatched roofs. Some 360 islands that sit along the northern Caribbean shore of Panama, they are part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala. The Comarca also includes a narrow 226km strip of land along the mainland coast stretching to the Colombian border. This area is occupied by the Kuna, an autonomous indigenous group which operates with minimal interference from the Panamanian government. Land ownership throughout the Comarca is reserved solely for the Kuna. We were told that even the Prime Minister of Panama was rebuffed when he asked permission to purchase one of the islands.
As a result, don’t go looking for resort bookings, there are none. What you can do is have your own Robinson Crusoe experience. Some of the Kuna offer “lodgings” on their little piece of paradise. You can stay in a thatched hut with sand floor and a hammock or simple bedding, 3 meals a day and day tours to nearby islands for snorkeling or just daydreaming. Our experience in the San Blas was aboard the Gypsy Moth, a 54 foot sailboat.
This was one of my “must do’s” for this trip ever since I read about this option over a year ago. There is no realistic land route between Panama and Colombia. The Darien Gap is still considered too remote, rugged and unsafe. So your options are to fly or go by boat. Therefore, numerous sailboats offer an alternative. They organize trips between Panama and Cartagena, Colombia, some 200 miles to the east. Some of the hostels on both ends of the trip keep track of who is currently making the journey and gather comments from those who have booked with them to provide potential travellers with input for making their decision. The general itinerary is to spend 3 days cruising the San Blas and then 36 to 40 hours to make the transit to Cartagena.
We chose to book with the Gypsy Moth, owned by a couple from England with a 1 year old baby girl who have been making this crossing for the past 2 years. For our trip, only Sym was aboard, his wife, Amy and the baby were in Cartagena because the baby’s passport had been stolen and they were working on getting a replacement. As a result, there was a total of 10 passengers, 2 more than usual since one couple was able to use the main cabin normally used by Sym and Amy. That turned out to be Valerie and me. Purely by Sym’s choice, once we were aboard he began assigning quarters and directed us to the main cabin. It was quite nice since we had total privacy and a toilet “en suite”. The boat was very nice, well maintained, clean and in good condition. Our fellow passengers included a couple from England, a couple from New Zealand, a couple (who only met recently in Costa Rica) with the guy from Australia and the girl from Switzerland, and two single women, one from England and one from Scotland.
Our trip started with a 2 1/2 hour shuttle ride from Panama City to the little town of Miramar on the Caribbean coast. From there we were piled into a motor boat for a 1 3/4 hour boat ride to the San Blas island of El Porvenir where the Gypsy Moth was anchored and where we would get our passport stamp out of Panama. Over the next 3 days we would visit Isla de Perro, the East Lemons and the Western Hollandaise islands. At each location the islands would fit the universally accepted image of Paradise, not much to do but beautiful and inviting you to swim in the warm water and lay among the palm trees. We snorkeled and swam, swung from the boat on the pirate swing, laid in the boat’s hammocks and ate the great meals prepared for us by Sym.
After dinner on the third day it was time to hoist the anchor and start the trip to Cartagena. Since there wasn’t sufficient wind for sailing we were under power. We took turns standing night watch so Sym could have an opportunity for some sleep. During the following day we did have a few hours with a decent breeze so we were able to raise the sails for a while. Along the way we saw some dolphin and were able to follow alongside some whales for a few minutes. We’re not exactly sure what type of whales they were but a pair of them were swimming along the surface, occasionally blowing spouts of water and then gave a nice flip of the tail before going deeper. Simply phenomenal. Sym says this was only the second time they have seen whales making this trip.
Normally the boat would arrive in Cartagena during the daylight morning hours of the second day after departing. However, we seemed to have a steady current and following seas which led us to arrive at around 1:30am, much earlier than usual. This trip was a super fun experience that I’m glad we were able to have.