Monday, February 22, 2016

San Blas, Panama

I don't even know where to start with this one. From the moment we woke up at 5am it was an adventure. A 4x4 packed with seven people & backpacks on the roof takes you on a 4hr journey through hot Panama city then over drenched rain forested mountains & windy roads. Finally, we arrive at Carti, where a small boat is waiting for us. Two young fellas, jump off & pack up our stuff into black bags, I guess we are about to get a little wet. It is no longer raining but the sky is grey & hot. On the boat we are joined by a young couple & a Greek family. We arrive at our tiny little island 40mins later. The sun is shining & from the distance I can see just 4 cabanas. I am thinking to myself, wow, we have hit the jackpot. Our island is owned by Alta Gracia. She is part of the Guna Yala. Actually this entire area, on the map of Panama is owned by the Guna Yala. You must get permission to enter, you pay fees, they allow a certain number of tourists daily and have fundamentally different rules from the Panamanian Government. You will not find luxury 5 star hotels on any of the thousands of islands. They will not allow this development or the foreign takeover of their land.

Honestly, this is the closest thing to having your own small private island. It is just us and 8 other people. We are escorted to cabana 1. There is no electricity, no wifi, & lukewarm water, to be fair, exactly what we were expecting. Cabanas are basic, 4 beds in each because they can sleep up to 7 people but we had the entire thing to ourselves. There are no mosquito nets because there are no mosquito's in the middle of the ocean. Sand floors, so if you are a person who doesn't like sand in your bed then this isn't the place for you and the best part, the ocean 6 steps from your door. You can walk the entire island in less than 30 seconds.

So what does one do for three nights on an island? You wake up at 7am, you go for a swim & check out the local coral right outside your door. You get a breakfast call around 8am by chef Josue & get to enjoy it with the other guests. You then hang out on a hammock, read a book, tan yourself, take a 2 minute walk around the island, go for another swim, read some more, take another 2 minute walk, change hammocks, take notes, eat lunch, read some more, drink beer, drink water, swim again, eat dinner (you can watch them catch your lunch & dinner everyday, it always consists of some kind of fish, crab or conch) & that is basically how day one went. It could not have been more relaxing if I tried.

On the afternoon of our second day however, we went snorkeling around a small ship wreck at Isla Perro (Dog Island). This island is not as pretty & small as ours but it does have a glorious coral reef just off the beach. Unfortunately, if you are staying on this island, it does bring a lot of daily tourists. After our snorkel, we went to see starfish beach. What an incredible experience, we are in the middle of the ocean and the boat slows to a stop. He tells us we can get out, so I look overboard, the water is only 2 feet high, literally in the middle of the ocean. I jump out and sure enough the water is only to my knees. It used to be an island until it sank which is why it lies at a different sea level. We walk around, spot some starfish, little fish and a sting ray. The water is so warm & you can watch the waves breaking a little further out. I could sit here for hours. Unfortunately, I do not have my camera for these moments. This is the hard part of the traveling photographer. When do I bring it and is it safe from the elements.

Day 3 started with a morning tour of the Guna Yala village nearby. There are a lot of rules while in the village. No photos of people without permission. If you ask, you may have to pay. No photo's of people's houses, kids etc. You may photograph the village from a distance. During the tour we met Alta Gracia, she is does statistics at the local hospital & her son (Noreil) was showing us around the island, he's also our boat driver for all tours. We learned in the Guna community the woman inherits everything which is how Josue & Noreil's mother got the Nubesidup Island. We also learned that at the age of puberty, they throw a 4 day party for the girl. She sits on a throne for 4 days while they all party around her. Some parties cost up to $10,000 as they invite people from all the neighbouring islands. The saving for a party this big begins once the child is born. Wow, that is a lot of money. Actually, while we were on the island, we saw the remains of a party from the day before. There were bottles everywhere. They sure do like rum.

Alta Gracia

Guna Village

Catching our dinner

The one thing I found weird was the recycling situation. It doesn't seem to exist anywhere in Panama. People are always burning their rubbish or you always seem to be driving through a cloud of smoke. Even on the islands of the San Blas they burn everything, not while we were there, but I did see a pile in the making. It had everything from plastics to coconuts to branches. The Guna villages are way worse & you can often see plastic floating around the perimeter of the villages. I have no idea how or why a system has not been figured out yet. It was something that all of Panama had in common, the constant smell of burning plastic. Hopefully in the next decade someone will find a way to ease this situation so that the waters remain free of rubbish and the air unpolluted. Unfortunately tourists then add to it with cigarette butts on the beach and cans in the water. It's sad to see beer cans while you are swimming in the coral. We need to respect their/our oceans & respect the beautiful sea life that you are paying serious money to see.

For anyone interested in going, there are plenty of tour companies but each offer different islands. Panama Travel got this one right. For us this was truly a magnificent, quiet, relaxing experience. If you want to party, this is not the island for you. Your price depends on how many of you are in the cabana, how many nights etc. Included in that is your 4x4 from Panama City, boat transfer to the island. What is not included are Guna Yala taxes & Fees $22 p.p. Bring food and water. You can buy some beer on the island for $2 but at the supermarket it is $3.50 for a six pack. I obviously recommend Nubesidup for many reasons including the food, the activities and especially the welcoming Guna family.

A coral reef lies waiting outside your door in the crystal clear waters

Italian Couple we met: Francesco & Camille. They both love diving. Francesco lives & works in Italy while Camille is in Barcelona. Photo by Farah Khan

Another great couple: Eliza & Nick. Eliza is Chinese/Panamanian & currently studying in NY. Nick is Australian, living & working in Hong Kong. Photo by Farah Khan

Click for images from our day with The Embera Tribe