Ok, where do I start?
One very interesting thing about Panama is it’s georgraphical makeup: Panamá is a so called landbridge; it connects the landmasses between Costa Rica and Colombia and has two coasts with completely different characteristics.
I’ve told you about one of those coasts already: Santa Catalina was a beach town located near the Pacific. Let’s hop over to the other side, shall we?
San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands are a group of smaller and bigger carribean islands just off the Atlantic coast of Panama.
Some of them do have people living on them, some don’t. The whole area of San Blas is a self-contained Guna Community and therefore only accessible for strangers and tourists through booking a tour.
The tours start from Panamá City and will then transport you up to the coast where you will then enter the boat to get your to the island you will be staying at.
El Machico Hostal
The Hostel we’d stay at in Panamá City. It is very central and you can walk almost anywhere downtown. it may take you a little longer to get to Casco but you can always book an Uber or a taxi through reception.
Talking about reception: Their are amazingly helpful! I got talking with one of the guys a little more and he was very forthcoming, helpful and social. He wasn’t into selling us anything but genuinely tried to help.
Like with most hostels in Panamá breakfast is included: It’s pancakes. Like anywhere. Pancakes and bananas. You can grab as many as you like and they’re always fresh.
The hostel has a pool but I didn’t get to use it, there was just so much going on!
All in all a great budget accomodation.
San Blas Dreams
The easiest way to book one of said tours is through a hostel. Most offer help and assistance with booking but it is most likely, that they will refer you to San Blas Dreams.
They’re the company we went with and they’re the company most people will actually go with.
Now San Blas Dreams is somewhat partnered up with Hostal El Machico – which was coincidently the hostel we’d stay at in Panamá City. We did stay at a different hostel for two nights before our pickup … Let’s say it was less than satisfactory. It didn’t matter, though, since they will pick you up anywhere.
After pickup you will drive through the rainforest – it is a rocky road and it might take a while – before you’ll enter a tiny little harbour. It’s time to meet some of your rommates for the next couple of days. People regroup according to what island they will stay at.
It is important you pack lightly since room on the boats and in the dorms is incredibly limited.
Plan or no Plan
Organization … is a bit rough for our “Western Sensitivities”. The entire tour is run and planned by Guna indigenous people. There is no real itiniary so most trips come down to more or less spontaneous decisions. Which, honestly: Does not matter.
You will stay at an island, leave said island in the morning to head out, visit another island, hang out at one of the natural pools and head back. You’ll have all three meals at “your” island and then the rest of the day off just to hang out at the beach.
Since there is no real plan going in there, you never really know where you’ll go that day. It is a bit hard to get into that mindset of “everything goes” but in the end: im on vacation. I don’t have a timetable. I don’t need one. So I don’t think the (lack of) organization is too bad; you just have to let yourself go a little.
Greatest Guide around San Blas
Ok … Here’s my highlight: Tropical islands are great … But a fun guide is even better.
We arrived on the first island we’d visit, had a look around, marveled at the white beaches and blue ocean … And met our boat driver: Germaine. Germaine was a huge fan of Germany – obviously, since is name sound so close to “German” – and a huge fan of “Octoberfest-Mallorca-style” German music. Now: German music isn’t good. Most of it really, really isnt, especially if it’s made for partying. It’s the kind of stuff you can only stand when drunk.
Not so Germaine. Germaine loved that kind of music. He loved it so much, he’d play it all day, every day. Now: Here I am, flown across the planet just to stand on a perfect beach listening to Oktoberfest-music. And it was such a hilarious situation! Oh man!
We also went to Germaine’s home on our last day: And there was a huge Germany flag and a Jägermeister bottle hanging from the ceiling. So in case you meet Germaine: Please say “hallo” from me 😉
San Blas and the Guna
The Guna are one of Panamá’s eight (still left) indigenous people and they’re all over San Blas and try to live their life as untouched as possible. Now, since there is alot of tourism going on there right now, that’s not always as doable as you’d think. I think that is something we should very much be aware of, when travelling to such remote places. However, the San Blas tours are also the main income stream for some of them.
I found it somewhat interesting to be able to meet such a different culture, you can get talking easily – though you should be able to speak Spanish (some only speak their indigenous language) – and you should always stay respectful. These people life on the island. You wouldn’t like for someone to come over and just have a look around your home without asking.
It is possible to take a look at their traditional life and to get into trade with them: The Guna wear incredibly beautiful and colourful clothing and beaded brace- and anklets they wrap around their limbs. You can buy those and some traditional needlework there.
You can also see their little huts and hammocks they sleep in (honestly I’d prefered a hammock).
There was this one family near our dorm: Grandma, mum, kids and puppy all living together. The abuela would sell and make bracelets outdoors while the kids and their puppy would play out in the sun. They were amazingly welcoming and comfortable to talk to. We got to play with the pup and I made a friend in a tiny Guna toddler (I got a high five, which is honestly the greates honour a kid can bestow on you).
The Guna Village
On our last day we got to visit a huge Guna village. It took a little getting used to since their style of life is so different from ours. The houses are usually made from wood or metal and there is no flooring.
It was kind of interesting to see this community, though. Everything works in and of its own: Like clockwork. Truly amazing.
There’s several schools – no university, though – shops, restaurants, a hospital … It’s pretty cool.
I found it somewhat sad, though, that the Guna never leave. They grow up in San Blas, the die in San Blas … I don’t want to judge to much, since life is life and everybody gets to do with it whatever they like … Yet it seems like a very sad outcome of life to me. I also totally aknowledge that I’m from a completely different background. And I have a certain respect for loving your tradition and community that much.
That’s that. I can’t believe I’ve actually come this far already! I have alot going on as well, but sitting down weekly and sharing my thoughts with you has really become an integral part of my week. It helps me ground myself a little and I get to share my travels with other people.
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