Jurassic Park Jungle Rides, Shipwreck Snorkeling, Ghost Stories and Island Camping on San Blas Islands, Panama

Jurassic Park Jungle Rides, Shipwreck Snorkeling, Ghost Stories and Island Camping on San Blas Islands, Panama
Pelican Island... It's hard to believe but in real life, it's even prettier than this picture!

Pelican Island… It’s hard to believe but in real life, it’s even prettier than this picture!

From Panama, hopping over the border to Costa Rica is pretty easy but it’s pretty hard to get anywhere else, making this the final stop on most people’s tour of Central America. However, sailing on a charter from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia is an increasingly popular option for those willing to brave over 40 hours at sea on drug trafficking routes. I learned about it from a Brit in Bocas, who was looking forward to the pit stop in San Blas Islands, just as much as the opportunity to continue her journey into South America. She heard that the indigenous inhibitors of the island only used coconuts for currency up until the 1990s and that they orchestrated the males’ first sexual encounter to be with another man. “Whoa!”, I exclaimed, officially intrigued as evidenced by my widening eyes, “I need to go!”. In addition to her comments, I had heard Dustin and others rave about the beauty of San Blas, a collection of 365 islands (one for every day of the year!) with less than 40 inhabited.

Until this trip, I thought a beach was a beach so I preferred a convenient, mediocre one than “waste time” journeying far to find one. But prior to Panama, the beaches I’ve experienced were crowded with sun-burnt tourists toting seam-bursting bags, unhappy babies and squealing seagulls ready to attack for a snack. Never have I experienced the complete tranquility of San Blas’s unoccupied white sand beaches with woven hammocks blowing lazily in the breeze, suspended by palm trees that generously dropped rejuvenating coconuts.

As one might expect, getting to paradise wasn’t easy. The previous evening, I stayed in Hostel Panamerica in Casco Viejo, Panama City to surprise Jen from Bocas (who I knew would be staying there). Sure enough, she walked down the stairs as I checked in, her jaw dropping in surprise to see me there. I wore nearly the same expression when I saw her flanked by two tall men with handlebar mustaches, red parachute pants and suspenders. Apparently, the Urban Circus decided to have a spontaneous series of free performances in the courtyard outside of Panamericana. This also explained why the power was out in half the building so the front façade could be dramatically illuminated when they sent acrobats out of the top windows, wound up in sheets, to descend dramatically to ground level. Sharing a hostel with circus performers doesn’t guarantee the quietest night’s sleep and so getting myself organized to wait, bleary-eyed on the curb by 5 AM was pretty brutal.

Jeep Ride Through the Jungle & Entering Kuna Territory
A Jurassic Park Jeep picked me up and I joined two Dutch, two Brits (well, one was Russian but has lived in London the past 15 years) and two American girls for yet another topsy, turvy 2.5-hour ride through the jungle. Thank God, we had a 4×4 because these roads made the rollercoaster ride to David look tame. The (mostly) paved roads folded in on themselves like a matchbox car mat, crumpled and discarded in the corner of a child’s closet, and every so often we’d hit a dirt patch of car-eating potholes. Usually, I can read, write, sleep, Sudoku… do almost anything in the car, but if you get car sick, you may not survive this part!

Eventually, we reached Kuna Territory, where we had to pass through a guarded checkpoint, get our passport examined and pay a $10 entrance fee before being allowed to enter the protected park. Several decades ago, the Kuna won their independence and maintain autonomous territory with their own laws, enforcement and chief-run government. I’ll dedicate a post to the Kuna’s fascinating lifestyle and traditions because co-existing besides them made living on the island unforgettable.

The Kuna are a reserved and curious people who, just like myself, take awhile to warm up to people. The captain, with his larger-than-life size (from perpetual beer drinking) and personality was a notable exception. Immediately upon arrival, he wanted to know where we were all from, chatting with us Americans about his college education in Wisconsin and bubbling over with excitement when he heard there was a Russian on the trip, “Let me call my Kuna friend! He studied abroad in Russia. You’ll meet him later but he’ll want to talk to you now!”. Since the Russian speaking Kuna didn’t pick up, we fortified ourselves with a traditional Kuna breakfast of a fried egg and corn cakes then boarded a boat to our Hook Island home for the next three days.

On the boat to Hook Island

On the boat to Hook Island

Arrival on Hook Island
As soon as the hull hit sand, we heard the bellow of a blown conch and a tan, bearded man swung himself on board. “Welcome to the Island!”, Brando began with a lazy smile, in slow, purposeful speech that contributed to his embodiment of the stereotypical island hermit. We awkwardly disembarked the boat and lumbered onshore to tour the facilities: tents under pelican-poo-splattered tarps, toilets self-flushed with ocean water and hammock strategically placed so a falling coconut won’t kill you while napping. Throughout our time, Brando continued to reveal magical, mystical properties of the island, which sounded too good to be true. “We don’t have locks or storage lockers but everything you leave will be safe on the island”, “the island has ants but no bugs that bite- you don’t have to worry about mosquitoes or sand flies here” and later, during the campfire when billows of smoke surrounded our drying laundry and he saw our panicked faces, “Don’t worry. Your clothes won’t retain the smell of smoke from palm trees”. We nodded and smiled, without believing but sure enough, everything he said proved true.

Brando harvesting starfish near Isla Perro Grande

The island guide, Brando, harvesting starfish near Isla Perro Grande

Island Excursions
A daily field trip to other islands punctuated lazy days of hammock swinging, coconut drinking and snorkeling on our island. Each day, we’d typically hit a snorkel island, a drinking island and occasionally a bonus island. All with misleading names. Hook Island didn’t look like a hook but had Pelicans, Pelican Island didn’t have pelicans but it did have a nudist 1.5-year-old security guard, Starfish Island had starfish but it was more of a sandbar than an island. We snorkeled a shipwreck at Isla Perro, where disco dotted fish weaved in and out of algae-covered hulls. One of my favorite finds were spiky, brown sponges that made me miss my pet hedgehog that I gave away prior to my trip. We found wolf fish, lion fish, manta rays (in Pelican Island’s deeper reefs), squid, enough starfish to cover ourselves like mermaids and other wildlife.

In addition to incredible scenery, the company was fantastic. Contrary to his appearance, his “if lost, return to Austin, Texas” tattoo gave away the fact that Brando our grizzly-looking guide hadn’t grown up on the island. However, he’s been here for the past three months after driving his Subaru across Central America and has slowly been integrating himself into living amongst the Kuna Community. He even scored us an invite to attend one of their traditional, smoking-drinking-in-a-hut-fiestas on our final day (stay tuned for the next post!). A Kiwi, who works for the hostel who arranges the tour, joined us to photograph the adventure and she was filled with crazy tales- getting embedded with shrapnel and kidnapped in Egypt, bloody scuba dives and tips from owning an adult toy selling business. The Brits had us ready to book a flight to London to indulge in high tea and crumpets. The Dutch introduced us to their cheesy 90s pop songs (see below) and gave us language lessons, first teaching us  “neuken in de keuken” (sex in the kitchen), a phrase people from the Netherlands love to jokingly claim as their customary greeting. The Kuna kids ran rampant looking for high fives and hugs. We ended each day with travel tales and ghost stories around a palm tree campfire, breathing in the sweet, almost-caramelized smelling smoke under the stars.

Best part: three days with no technology, only a couple hours of electricity (which we didn’t use), no mirrors, just heart-to-heart conversations and enjoying the moment.

Song of the Moment: We’re Going to Ibiza by Vengaboys

If YOU want to experience island paradise: A variety of tour companies and hostels arrange trips to San Blas or you can arrange transportation/housing/food for yourself. I did the Ultimate San Blas Tour by Panama Travel Unlimited, which I highly recommend. It costs $269 per person for transportation, food, housing and guided 2-3 daily island outings (with snorkeling and activities). Right now, the cost is essentially equivalent to what you’d spend creating this trip yourself, without you having to stress about logistics. Make sure to bring cash- some of the islands you visit have $2-3 mandatory “donations” which support the islands’ Kuna caretakers.

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  1. Jimmy Foote
    Jun 11, 2014

    Whoaw.. Never heard about this. Almost sounds too good to be true.. Maybe you could film “The Beach 2” here

  2. Juliet Archer
    Dec 5, 2014

    Thank you for the great post Katie! Did you stay in a tent or cabana on Hook Island? And which option would you recommend?

    • Katie
      Dec 7, 2014

      Hi Juliet! I was in a tent and the weather was perfect so it was lovely. The weather is supposed to be sunny in that part of the world 300 days a year so odds are good that you’ll have a similar experience but when it comes to tent versus cabana, pick your personal preference.


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