THE WEEKLY #103: HAMMOCK LIFE IN THE SAN BLAS ISLANDS
This week Josh and I made it from Colombia to Panama. It took us five hours to get across the border with sniffer dogs and a slow, slow process. Our journey took four days but it was an epic four days. We were exploring the San Blas Islands on our way from Colombia to Panama and I spent the last couple of days writing a huge guide to transit from Colombia to Panama through the San Blas Islands. These are the anecdotes from that guide that sum up what went down in the last seven days of my life on the road.
THE PANAMA – COLOMBIA BORDER
We woke early and jumped in our passenger boat, which we would be cruising for the next four days. This was the official start of our San Blas Island tour. All of the bags were wrapped in black garbage bags, people were showered and smelt nice. The next four days would be all about the adventure and that kicked off with our first stop at the Panama/Colombia border.
Our boat pulled in and we were asked to bring out all of our bags and lay them in rows on the wet cement. Stil,l in the black garbage bag,s a sniffer dog was released from a small cage as a soldier with a machine gun led him around our bags. He finished and luckily none of the guys in our group had been dumb enough to try and smuggle anything across the border!
We thought that might be the end of the process. However, they indicated we would need to have every single back, every single pocket individually searched. This took about an hour for our group of 13. After we finally finished we went to the local bakery with our bags to chill and wait for our passports.
After five hours of waiting on the island, we finally got our passports and could head off. It is a pretty lengthy process as the guards need approval from the head office. It doesn’t seem like the most efficient system ever but if you want to get through via boat this is just par for the course. We had a kick around with some local kids, watched the world cup, had numerous coffees, pastries and chatted amongst ourselves. Five hours passed quickly.
Leaving our lengthy process of border security behind us we got back in our boat and headed off in the direction of Atidup Island. It was finally time after 2.5 days of transit to enjoy the San Blas Islands tour. This is where the fun began.
Atidup Island was beautiful. No-one else there, it was our private island for the afternoon. A beach volleyball court was sheltered by plentiful coconut trees. The sun was out and the good times were rolling. All around us were beautiful yet empty, palm-tree-laden islands. Most of the islands we would see on the trip seemed untouched or occupied by one small bamboo hut.
Coconuts and beers were available but Josh and I opted to get straight into the water to snorkel the nearby reef, which turned out to be amazing. A huge shelf of reef drops down into the dark abyss. Hundreds of fish swam about the brightly colored coral. We even found a tunnel that we held our breath through for a few nervous moments!
Back on dry land we grabbed a coconut and settled into a chair. The local Kuna tribe from Caledonia village had sent across a boat of talented kids to perform a traditional dance. They are the champions in the region and it showed. It was a great show from the kids, some as young as five getting in on the action with flutes and dancing.
In the distance, the sun began to set over the layers of mountains in the Darien Gap. From beneath the palm trees, we watched the early colors develop. We jumped in the boat to watch the final moments of the sunset, which spectacularly lit up the dense layer of clouds above.
We arrived after sunset at Caledonia Island, which would be our home for the evening. It is the main Kuna Island in the San Blas Islands. The village is home to 900 people, 600 of which are children. The Kuna people sleep in hammocks, eat a lot of seafood and the kids love soccer. They have a rich history and have overcome a lot throughout the years.
There is just one hostel and restaurant on the island, both of which offer luxuries like beer for sale and allow alcohol consumption. Alcohol is not allowed outside of the hostel or restaurant. We had a big group dinner of octopus, fish, and vegetables before heading back to the hostel for a few drinks.
Our accommodation at Caledonia Island was simple but everything we needed. The bungalow style accommodation hung out over the water and one side and was an epic spot to welcome in the new day. Our legendary crew made us a breakfast of fresh fruit, Kuna bread, chia seeds, peanut butter, coffee, and tea. The food was really good throughout the whole trip but breakfasts with the fresh tropical fruit were my favorite.
After quickly packing up we set off for a big day of adventures on our San Blas Islands tour. In the San Blas Islands archipelago there are 365 different islands and on this trip, we would be setting foot on five of those! We boarded our boat and settled in for a 2-hour drive. It would be the longest boat ride of the adventure. You get to spend 90% of your time on the islands and 10% (8 hours) in the boat throughout the entire 4 days, which is prime.
The waves weren’t too bad for most of the trip to Pelican Island but I was definitely glad to be on a boat for 2 hours and not a sailboat for 4 days. Two hours was enough. We rolled into Pelican Island, another deserted island for our group of 13 to enjoy for the afternoon. One of the great parts about this San Blas Islands tour is that it wasn’t rushed. Sometimes on a trip or island hopping adventure, you get one or two hours on an island. We would get 3-5 hours. It meant you could play volleyball, explore, have lunch but also wind down and read a book. You didn’t get to the accommodation at night completely wrecked from trying to fit it all in.
Beach volleyball fast become the activity of choice for our crew. It’s always risky spending four days in tight quarters with a group of others but I think the adventurous nature of this trip ensures everyone on board loves the beach, being outdoors and wasn’t looking for a luxury, glamping experience. Everyone was keen to get involved with activities, games or exploring.
Josh and I shot some hoops on the jungle basketball court despite both scoring 1/50 shots. It’s just how you look in the photo right?
After another amazing lunch of quinoa salad, pasta salad, and chicken, we lay on the beach watching small sailboats ferry coconuts to and from the villages.
TUPILE (REVOLUTION ISLAND)
After our relaxing afternoon at Pelican Island, we docked into our home for the night, which was Revolution Island. It got the name after being the central hub for the revolution when the Kuna tribes came together here to take back their land. Now, Tupile, is a peaceful village with kids playing volleyball and soccer, older women making bracelets.
We went on a short tour of the village but Josh and I got sidetracked and ended up losing our group and getting involved in some games and soccer with the local kids. It was a crazy afternoon of laughs and fun hanging out with the kids and teenagers of the village.
Dinner at Tupile was amazing! The crew made chicken burritos, Panama style, and a pumpkin sauce. It was incredible the quality of food they were coming out with as they cooked from small islands with ingredients we had brought in coolers from Colombia.
Our beds for the night would be hammocks. I had never slept in a hammock before so this was a first for me and it ended up being more comfortable than I had expected. I slept in shorts and a t-shirt without even a blanket, although some in our group used blankets that had brought.
Another day, another island. We set off from Tupile and made our way to Isla Pelicano. It took about an hour and we arrived mid-morning. The island required almost no exploring as it was about fifty meters across the island at the longest point, which made it a sweet little spot to hang out on the sand, read a book and fly the drone!
The snorkeling at Isla Pelicano was pretty cool. While we didn’t quite find any epic reef, there were so many starfish and we even came across a spotted ray only a few meters out from the shore. You can tell this is a region with a diverse array of wildlife. Dolphins, fish, rays and everything in between had been spotted during our San Blas Islands Tour.
Lunch was outstanding once again with multiple healthy salads and tuna baguettes. It’s amazing that the best, healthy food we had during our time in Colombia/Panama was on a deserted island in the middle of the ocean! The crew really rocked it at every meal.
This island was beautiful, but it wasn’t until I sent the drone up to explore that I saw how epic the reef system was around Isla Pelicano. Huge drop-offs from the shelf into deep blue water create an epic contrast. Giant blue holes look like perfect spots to snorkel, explore and watch the native marine life.
COCO BANDERA ISLAND
After Isla Pelicano, we made our way to our headquarters for the night, which would be Coco Bandera Island. It was a beautiful little island, about 100-meters long. It was adorned with palm trees and white sand with a few huts for sleeping, cooking and the local Kuna people. We slept in hammocks inside the bamboo and leaf huts and eat our meals out in the communal hut.
Luckily the huts had strong roofs because that night a huge storm hit us. We managed to stay dry and despite the storm, it wasn’t cold, just very wet!
Coco Bandera Island has a volleyball court, which our crew made the most of for several hours! There was also some great snorkeling to be had and we even watched a few dolphins cruising around the island. Not long ago a huge sea turtle came ashore to lay her eggs. The hatchlings had already scampered out to sea before we arrived.
We spent the night enjoying a few beers, which were available for $2 a bottle on the island and some rum we had brought from Colombia. Sat around a bonfire on Coco Bandera Island in the middle of the ocean was the perfect end to our last night of the San Blas Islands tour.
We packed up at Coco Bandera Island and enjoyed a relaxing morning in the sun. After lunch, we made the 1-hour boat trip to the port in Panama. Here we loaded into jeeps organized by San Blas Adventures and made the 3-hour journey through the jungle to arrive at our Hostel. We were pretty damn tired and dirty from our epic trip so we showered up and got a good nights sleep at Mamallena Hostel in Panama City. If you want to book a night of accommodation at Mamallena for the night after your trip you can click here.