After a few days in Panama City, my friend Helene and I booked ourselves onto a tour to the San Blas islands. I hadn’t originally planned to go there because I thought you could only visit the islands as part of the journey from Panama to Colombia or vice versa. Many backpackers choose this option to travel between the two countries because flights are just as expensive and you get a chance to see these beautiful islands thrown in. However I found out in Panama City that this wasn’t the case! You can also do one/ two night stays on the islands, which fitted in with my plans time-wise! It was pretty expensive, I paid $165 for two days, one night- that included all travel, all meals and one night’s accommodation on the islands, but still seemed like a lot of money, especially as you pay by cash. Interestingly, the islands are not technically part of Panama, they are their ‘own country’ run by the indigenous people, the Yuna Gala, so you have to remember to pack your passport!
Our transfer was due to pick us up around 5:30am from the hostel, so there were plenty of blurry eyed faces! I had slept so badly, waking up so many times thinking I had missed my alarm and the trip! We were picked up by a 4×4 land cruiser and being first one in, I lucked out and had to sit right in the back with no windows and where the air con didn’t reach- it got pretty uncomfortable! Shortly after leaving, we made a stop at a supermarket to buy breakfast and some snacks, then we left Panama City via the Pan American Highway. This shop is where you normally would buy your alcohol but we were there on the ‘Day of the Dead’ holiday, when the locals respect the dead and alcohol isn’t allowed to be sold. But we were told we could still buy beers on the island! Halfway through the journey we turned off the highway and started driving through the rainforest along steep roads that were absolutely full of potholes, and so hilly they felt like rollercoasters! Our driver clearly know the route well and did very well. He even pointed some wildlife during the journey like toucans!
On arrival at the ‘port’ aka wooden shelter, we were assigned our guide, who was called Mel and from Yuna Gala. Apparently noone other than the Yuna Gala people are allowed to lead tours there- tours companies are just the middle man. Each of the tour companies have a different ‘home island’, so it’s never too crowded. We took a small boat over to our home island which was called Assreyaladub. It was really nice, mostly palm trees with a few straw huts, one of which was our dorm- an extra long hut with ten beds inside.
We popped our bags into the hut and headed back to the boat which was taking us to another island to explore. There are approximately 365 San Blas islands and around 49 of these are inhabited. We were to visit two islands and a snorkelling point today. The first island was beautiful- I don’t know what it was called but the sea was turquoise and there were starfish near the shore. We had two hours there so we walked along and found a spot to sunbathe and go to swim (and all proceeded to fall asleep!) Next we stopped at a snorkelling spot when the water was really shallow- this is because it used to be an island but a tsunami had buried it and it sunk. There weren’t many fish but when the sun came out from behind a cloud the water was such an amazing blue colour.
We got back on the boat to visit the next, equally pretty island where we were to have lunch. All of these islands looked like paradise! The only place it reminded me of was El Nido in the Philippines. Lunch consisted of the choice of either fish or chicken with rice or fries. I chose chicken and rice- it was a huuuge leg but it was actually quite nice! After lunch we returned to the Home Island, where we chilled for the rest of the afternoon. Annoyingly it got quite cloudy and cold, so we sat in the communal hut area and chilled there. I definitely didn’t pack enough ‘activities’, I had imagined being busier or part of a bigger group when there. I only had my diary which I had no interest in catching up with!
I spent the evening chatting to the other people in our group, until we got called for dinner. Dinner was fish and rice/ chips. The fish came whole and we weren’t entirely sure how to eat it at first but when I got the hang of it, it was pretty nice! After dinner, we chatted a bit more, and then most people started going to bed, even at 8pm! I stayed up with the last few and we played a couple of games of Uno in the dark with some soggy, smelly cards we found, but even we gave up around 9pm.
The next day we were woken by the conch shell, which called us to breakfast. We had scrambled egg with veg and bread and jam- again pretty yummy. Then by 7:30am we were on the boat to go and visit the Yuna Gala Community, the floating villages we had passed on the way in. We were shown around the community by our guide, like the small school, hospital and other bits they have there. It was pretty incredible how they’ve built all of this up on the water! The day we were there was the Panamanian holiday, their 115th Day of Independence from Colombia. So even though the Yuna Gala aren’t part of Panama in some contexts, they definitely were today! The Panamanian flag was flying everywhere and the children were making preparations to walk through the community, in different types of national dress.
We stayed there watching the celebrations for an hour or so then walked back to the jetty. While we waited for our boat, there was the most gorgeous puppy and I got to cuddle it. It was so soft like a little lamb! We got the boat back to the island and chilled there for the rest of the day. Because it was Panamanian national holiday, many of them head to the coast and the island had really busied up full of people coming down for the weekend, with wheelbarrows full of food and drink. It looked like tonight would be alot more lively, it was a shame we were leaving! At around 3pm we packed up and got on our boat back to the mainland. In the 4×4 on the way I got to sit at the front, it was better there to appreciate the incredible scenery driving through Panama. Also a better view to experience the incredible potholes- we saw one car’s exhaust get hit and the car kept smoking from there on which was pretty worrying!
We arrived back in Panama City around 7pm and because of the Independence Day holiday celebrations, the way onto Casco Viejo was actually closed. Our driver had to take a very long route round, trying to get us as close to the hostel as he could with all the extra traffic. We walked the last bit. Outside of our hostel the actual procession was marching past which was cool- we had the best view from a safe spot.