It was an auspicious start to our trip to the San Blas Islands. One that, while I don’t regret it, I would not necessarily recommend to our readers. I mean, staying up all night prior to catching a 4:30 am ride in a Jeep SOUNDS like a good idea, based on the thinking that you can just sleep during the car ride.
What they don’t tell you is that while the first hour, hour and a half of the ride is smooth sailing on paved roads (with the occasional stop at police checkpoints), the second half of the journey (which can take as much as two hours to traverse) is unpaved, crater-marked dirt roads, and the only way you can sleep through the ride is to have someone knock you out cold with a billy-club. I mean, to truly understand what I am talking about, you have to do the journey for yourself. I am not saying that it is unbearable, or that you shouldn’t do it. I am saying that after the novelty of the first 15 minutes of bouncing around like a rag-doll wears off, it is just not super-comfortable.
Upon arriving in El Porvenir sometime later, where you transfer your bags and belongings from Jeep to boat for the ride out to your island destination, you not only pay your driver the agreed upon amount (between $25 and $35, depending), but also a $2 “port” tax to the resident Kuna in Charge (KIC hereafter). I say “port” with quotations because it is merely a clearing by the river with a small covered area to wait for your boat/jeep to arrive if it is raining, or hot.
The boat ride out to the islands was really nice. Even though it was only 9 am, it was already starting to get really warm, and as pasty as we were, we busted out the sunscreen (mandatory). The boat ride took about 45 minutes, but the time passed quickly with the gorgeous scenery around us.
Each little island is a tribute to our ideal of what a Caribbean deserted island should be. Palm tress, sparkling white sand, crystal blue water, and small bamboo huts dotting what little dry land there is. Most of the islands are no larger than a football field, and some are so small that more than five people would make it standing room only.
Finally, our island destination was insight. We were staying our first night at Isla Robinson (although it is called by many names, depending on who you talk to), and it is the most popular of the “backpacker” destinations. Costing only $20-25 per night, you get a bed with a mattress (of varying conditions) to sleep on in a bamboo hut, and all your meals while you are there. Sure, the lodging is rustic, with no air-conditioning, no TV, no fans, in fact, no electricity what-so-ever, but that isn’t the point. The point is that you are isolated, and have no choice but to sit back, take a deep breath, and truly relax in a place that is not only breath-taking, but as much of a reprieve from our over-stimulated culture as it gets.
(Fine, they do have cell phone coverage out there – incredible – but don’t fixate on that)
Being us, we still managed to put together a nice little party on our first night. We sent out an envoy from our camp to recon and invite other backpackers to join us after dinner for some drinks and general merriment (“We have Ron Abuelo, Coke, ice and girls with us. Want to come over?”).
Isla Robinson, as it is by far the most populated with backpackers and other travelers, is your best bet if you are looking to meet other people while out on the islands. Keep in mind, we highly recommend getting a good group of people together and bringing your own party, as “most populated” means that there may be 5-10 other non-natives on the island- not exactly a guaranteed fiesta (although the KIC and several other guys that worked on the island did join us in the festivities, which made it all the more fun).
For the most part, when staying on an island, your Kuna host will offer to take you on a tour of a couple of the other islands, go snorkeling, fishing, or just out for a boat ride, depending on what you want to do. We definitely recommend taking them up on it, especially if they will be fishing for your dinner while out. It is a treat to watch your guide spear-fishing for lobster for your dinner that night. These guys are serious swimmers, holding their breath for minutes at a time, and can spot a lobster in a dark hole in a rock 20 feet down. I felt slightly inadequate while swimming next to our guide, but whatever.
We also encourage any of our readers that can play volleyball well to get out there and lay the smack-down on the Kuna guys on Isla Robinson. You would think that out of 9 games, we would at least win one, especially when we stacked our team with players over 6’ tall, and the Kuna average is 5’5”. Bastards. Lots of good fun, even if we got embarrassed over and over again.
For our second night, we decided to check out Isla Pelicanos, which translates to Pelican Island. Super appropriate. The island is home to literally dozens of Pelicans, which are constantly circling the island, and I spent hours laying on a hammock, watching them dive-bombing a school of fish right offshore. Isla Pelicanos is far more chill than Isla Robinson, and has fewer cabanas on it, which gives you the feeling of being a bit more Robinson Crusoe-esque.
These islands are incredible, and if you are in Panama, we highly recommend going there for a couple days. You can book transportation and lodging for San Blas at most hostels and tour agencies.
For more information about San Blas, check out our other articles-
What to Bring to San Blas
Paradise Found in Panama