One of the reasons we chose to go to Panama was the San Blais Islands. A group of 360 tropical islands off the northern cost of Panama which are controlled by the Guna, an indigenous group who maintain political autonomy from Panama. Picture Gilligan’s Island run by a Guna family. Sun, sand, snorkeling and palm trees with no big resorts.
We booked a two night, three day trip from Canada with Panama Travel unlimited who operate out of Hostel Mamallena for $500 US for two. The cost included all taxes. Fees and transportation from Panama City. I suspect we could have saved money by booking the tour at the hostel in Panama City but we had limited time and we really wanted to make this trip so we booked it from home in advance. Transportation and lodging are controlled by the Guna you could probably do this trip more independently but it would be a bit of an adventure and you would definitely need to speak better Spanish than we do.
We were picked up in a 4×4 along with two others at Hostel Mamallena in the early hours of the morning. The roads were great until we turned off the highway for the last hour of the 2 ½ hour drive. Once you leave the highway the road deteriorates rapidly. There were times when the SUV was tilted at an angle so steep I thought we would roll over. The road is two way but the holes are so big you need to drive on both sides of the road to get around them. Our driver and many of the other drivers on the road obviously knew the road well. He and the other regular drivers literally drove around the few tourists in rental SUV’s who were definitely out of their comfort zone.
About 20 km before the port to the islands you enter Guna territory. You need a passport to enter. We and ours and were quite disappointed that we did not get a stamp. The car behind us did not have passports and were trying to negotiate a way in, I believe they were unsuccessful. There is a $20 tourist charge to get past the checkpoint which was included in the package we bought.
It’s a 20 minute drive from the checkpoint to the port the boats leave from. When we arrived at the port we were deposited by our driver who passed us off to another guy who gave us all wrist bands. He asked for our passports which he gave to a new guy sitting at a card table. The card table guy had a big stack of random passports. The table collapsed at one point and all the passports went flying. They collected them and put them back on the table in random order. The one thing I really don’t want to loose on a trip is my passport. I get nervous when anyone takes it and I try never to let it leave my sight. Obviously I am not the only one because everyone was watching carefully to make sure their passport was still there. The card table guy was assigning people to boats so we were also a little concerned about the now totally random order. Would Harold and I end up on different boats to different Islands for the next three days?
We eventually got our passports back. We were both taken to the same boat. We had no idea where we were going but we eventually arrived at Isla Diabios where we would be staying for the next two nights.
When we landed we handed over our passports to a new guy. We were assigned a tent, asked what we wanted for lunch and told to be ready to leave the island for a tour in 10 minutes. So we changed our clothes grabbed a few things we might need and got on another boat which took us to the island of Chicheme Grande. We hung out there with free rum & coke and chips & salsa for a couple of hours. The snorkeling was not very good but the Island was pretty and bigger than many of the others.
At the time we were totally confused but we eventually figured out how things work. Each of the larger islands is home to one or more Guna families. Each family operates their own homestay like the one we were staying at and each day boats take tourists from the island they are staying on to other islands and homestays to visit. Chicheme Grande actually had several families and homestays on the island. Isla Diabios where we were staying was home to two families and two homestays. While we were out “visiting” a different group was on our Island doing the same.
On the way back to our Island we stopped at a sandbar in the middle of the ocean for a swim. They call it the swimming pool as you can stand up. The water was crystal clear and a beautiful blue.
When we returned to our island we were served a lunch of fresh fish and left to amuse ourselves for the afternoon. It turns out that Isla Diabois has some of the better snorkeling in the area. We were served dinner and then left again to enjoy the Island.
This pattern was repeated for the next two days with visits to Pelican Island which is beautiful but very small and Big Dog Island which is a better spot for swimming but it was the weekend so it was crowded (relatively speaking) with day trippers from the mainland.
Overall the San Blais Islands are incredibly beautiful. The sand is white, the ocean is clear and blue and the Guna are friendly and hospitable. The women make tapestry blocks (mola) and bead pieces. The more traditional women cover their arms and legs with the beads and leave them on until they make a new set. We did not get many good pictures because they are not comfortable having their pictures taken.
We took our shoes with us on our first trip but we soon discovered that they were totally unnecessary walking in and out of the ocean on white sand beaches so we just left them outside our tent. When we went to leave the island and go back to the city our shoes were gone.
To this day I have no idea what happened to our shoes. Unfortunately as it was a short trip we had left most of our belongings behind at the hostel so we did not have any additional footwear. In the end we traveled back by boat, and 4 x 4 all the way across Panama to the hostel barefoot. Other than the parking lot at the port is was not too bad and it does make a good story.
Whenever we went anywhere we were in motorized longboats and we always traveled with a couple of other boats. We discovered why on the way back to the mainland. The motor on one of the boats failed and the other boats pulled it out of the way so it would not crash onto the reef.
A few final pieces of advice if you go:
It’s a very slow pace so bring a good book or two.
Bring lots of sunblock you are never really out of the sun.
The best snorkeling we found was on Isla Diabois
Isla Perro Chico is supposed to have better snorkeling but it is also considered the party island
Avoid the weekends if you can
If you want to get a more real experience of life with the Guna you can arrange a homestay with a family in one of the villages which are not designed for tourists. It would require more investigation and you would probably need to do it from Panama.
The Guna have their own language but most of the people we interacted with spoke Spanish. Almost no one spoke English…take some Spanish lessons before you go.