After one month in Colombia, it was time to say goodbye to South America and cross the border into Panama, the southern country in Central America. Even though Colombia and Panama have a land border, there are no roads connecting these two countries. One reason for this is the prevention of drug trafficking and the only way to cross the Darien gap is by plane or charter boat.
For me the most convenient way was to fly to Panama. Another option preferred by many backpackers is to book a 5 days sailing trip from Cartagena that goes through the amazing San Blas archipelago. This option is not cheap (400-600$) and the first few days at sea are not very enjoyable. Sea sickness guaranteed!
Panama is well known for the Panama Canal, a major maritime link that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Panama used to be part of Colombia, but it became independent with the help of US, who was planning to build the canal there. In 1870 they paid Colombia 10M$ for the land where the canal had to be built and the construction started. It is now one of the most developed countries in Central America, with most of the tourists visiting the Caribbean coast.
San Blas – The Paradise islands
If you are looking for the paradise islands, I can tell you that they are in Panama. San Blas archipelago has over 350 beautiful white sand islands with coconut trees surrounded by crystal clear waters. What else would you want to relax for a few days? No internet, no clubs, no tourists. When you see those drawings with a stranded guy sitting on a small island at the shade of a palm tree, that was inspired by San Blas. It is not even expensive to book a tour.
What is interesting about San Blas islands is that they are an autonomous region in Panama, controlled by Guna people, an indigenous local community. They live a traditional lifestyle and there are no developments or modern infrastructure on the islands. This means no hotels, no electricity, no internet, no airports, no bars or restaurants. Accommodation is provided by the local families in the basic beach huts with sand floors and a simple wooden bed. Bathrooms and showers are shared and there is obviously no hot water. Each family cooks for their guests, usually fish and rice. For 10$ you can upgrade your meal for lobster.
I can say I had a blast in San Blas. For three days I threw my phone away and I lived a hakuna matata lifestyle. I was waking up every morning with the breakfast prepared and ready to do nothing. I’ve spent most of my time chilling in the hammocks under coconut trees or swimming in the blue water. A complete tour of the islands was only 15 minutes. I’ve done it twice! One day we did a boat tour to other amazing islands and some snorkelling. At night I was counting stars until I was falling asleep. It’s hard to think that what we consider an exotic holiday, for Guna people is just everyday life.
Sadly, due to global warming and the rise in the sea levels, San Blas archipelago will disappear in the next hundred years. I know there will be people in 2118 reading this blog post, so you need to hurry up!
The Guna people are descendants of the ethnic groups that lived on the Caribbean coast during the Spanish invasion. They fled to San Blas archipelago to escape the colonization and preserve their language and culture. You can see them wearing their colourful traditional clothes all the time.
Gunas fought the Panamanian government for independence and received the status of autonomous territory with it’s own laws and administration. They still live a basic life and the lack of infrastructure is one of the biggest problems. There is no waste collecting system or sewage infrastructure on the islands, which means all the trash and waste goes directly into the sea. I’ve seen a Guna woman throwing trash and plastic bottles out of her house directly into the water. It’s really a shame that this community is not doing more to protect these amazing islands they live in.
There are some interesting facts about Guna culture. First of all, the Guna families are matrilineal, which means the groom get the name of the bride. In their culture the woman is very respected and she is also the head of the family. Their administration is mainly formed of woman.
Gunas also have the highest rate of albino population and the lowest rate of cancer and health diseases. In their culture they think you steal their souls if you take a photo of them and their flag has a big swastika in the middle.
Bocas del Toro
Bocas del Toro is another beautiful archipelago in Panama, but completely different from San Blas. It is a party place with many hotels, resorts, bars and clubs. It is similar with the islands in Thailand or Philippines. The main town is not particularly nice, but boat tours can take you to remote beaches.
Unfortunately I didn’t have the best weather while there. August is the middle of the rain season and the day I did the boat tour we got caught in a storm. It was raining so bad that I couldn’t even keep my eyes open on the boat. When we arrived on Zapatilla island, the most beautiful one, instead of enjoying the beach, we stayed for two hours under a roof waiting for the rain to stop. It didn’t stop and we had to leave back to town.
Boquete and the Lost and found hostel
Panama is not only about the beaches in the Caribbees. Boquete is a nice small town in the mountains, next to Baru volcano. Again, due to bad weather I couldn’t explore too much of the area. One day I went to visit some waterfalls, but as soon as I left the bus it started raining so bad that I had to go back.
In between Boquete and Bocas del Toro, there is a cool hostel called Lost and Found. It is in the middle of nowhere, in the mountains. I had to hike 20 minutes from the main road with my big backpack to get to it, but it was worth it. The views from the hostel are spectacular and the vibe is really good at night. The best thing is the 6 hours treasure hunt challenge in the forest and the detective style challenge inside the hostel. I failed miserably at the detective challenge after I found a big spider behind the furniture while looking for a clue. Game over for me.
Panama City is a crowded concrete jungle with skyscrapers, highways and all the American chains you can think of. It is mostly a transit city for most of the tourists. It is not the kind of city I like and I’ve spend only a couple of days there. The main attraction in Panama City is the Panama Canal tour, where you learn about the construction and the history of the canal. You can stare for hours at the boats slowly crossing the canal. Another thing to visit is Casco Viejo, the old town of Panama City, where some old buildings are still standing.
I’ll continue further north in Central America to Costa Rica.