26. Panama City & San Blas Islands

A flying, and costly, visit to Panama City served as the base for our trip back to Colombia via Panama’s gorgeous San Blas islands. 

Panama City – 4 Jun

James and I flew without fuss from Medellin to Panama City’s domestic airport with Air Panama. It was such a normal journey that I can’t recall the flight at all. In the cab to our hostel I had a strong feeling of being somwhere in America- namely Miami. The roads are ugly and functional, filing giant 4x4s along a scenic waterfront lined with gleaming skyscrapers; wire fenced basketball courts were packed with locals in their replica NBA gear. 

After checking in to our cool little hostel in Marbella (El Machico) we had a dip in the pool to get some relief from the oppressive heat. Here is where we met up with Sam, James’s friend from home; the three of us would be together for ten days or so as we head back to Colombia. We carried on the US feel by enjoying a McDonalds lunch underneath a huge concrete flyover with a gorgeous skyscraper in view.

Panama or USA?

Next we visited the cause of this particularly potent US influence (beyond the heavy normal economic and cultural influence the US has over all of Latin America) – the Panama Canal. The engineering feat, started in 1881 by the French before being abandoned, restarted by the US in 1904 and finished in 1914 – fundamentally changing global shipping routes. Control of such a powerful economic & naval logistics route- is very valuable and therefore political; as we (the British) clung on to the Suez Canal for as long as possible (til 1956), so the Americans controlled the Panama Canal until 1999. Quite amazing really but I didn’t feel any animosity – the US invested heavily in infrastructure and the canal they’ve left drives the Panamanian economy. 

We went through the average museum (which sported some politically incorrect mannequins) before watching the slow process of a large container ship descend through a lock, towards the Pacific, with a small private yacht squeezed in for good measure. It’s a bit underwhelming but it’s an engineering wonder of the world so is a bucket list item!

It’s sinking!!!

In the evening we briefly got away from the US feel with a pleasant but expensive dinner in an old town restaurant. The old town is the only European part of the city I saw but the armed police presence and general cleaniliness remibds you you’re not in Spain. We must have been having American withdrawal symptoms because our next stop was to Trump Tower casino. I was desperate to take his donations to my trip and ….if we’d have left at 2am I would have. Sadly when we left at 3am it was a different story (must be first time that’s happened in a casino)- made worse by the fact we were being picked up at 5am for our San Blas tour. 

San Blas Islands – 5 Jun

A horrible start. Picked up in the pitch black in a 4×4 and driven to the Atlantic coast, squashed in with some other guys, luggage and lots of bottles of water. The cramped space and windy roads weren’t ideal conditions for the badly needed sleep. Our delirious state wasn’t helped when we unloaded onto a hot (at 8am) and stuffy port with no guidance as to what the next steps were- nothing happened for an hour.

Put a brave face on for the camera chaps

Eventually our fellow travellers arrived in other jeeps and some semblance of activity kicked off. We’d missed the briefing the day before so didn’t know who the guides were or that we were supposed to have bin bags for or main luggage. We eventually worked out the former and scrounged the latter – good thing we did too! The inauspicious start to the trip continued when one of our two boats’ twin engines didn’t start meaning extra people had to pack onto one boat and leave the other to totter along at half pace. 

“Who’s idea was this” was the thought of the morning and it strengthened as we headed out to sea, directly at one of the darkest set of clouds I’ve ever seen. It’s bite was as bad as it’s bark…the darkness soon translated into torrential rain, high winds and extremely choppy waters. Our little fishing boat and life vests suddenly seemed grossly inadequate, but at least our bags had bin bags covering them! Finally we couldn’t risk staying out and quickly pulled in to the closest island and requested shelter- any port in a storm after all. We stripped off and giddily dived straight into the bath warm sea, big bottles of dark rum being slugged gayly and passed to and fro as lightning forked down around us. This was the turning point of the trip- from this point on (3.5 out of 4 days) it was awesome. 

The rain passed as fast as it had come and we continued the 30 minutes to ‘our’ island. A tiny little spot owned, and inhabited, by a family from the Kuna tribe which governs San Blas. The afternoon sun rammed home the idyllic nature of the islands and now “who’s idea was this” was a brag, not an accusation. We snorkelled the crystal clear waters, swam the 100m to the next island, played beach volleyball and drank rum spiked coconuts until the sun set. We had our first fantastic dinner of the trip, made by our two tour hosts (plenty of fresh seafood on the menu) before a bonfire party on the beach and the welcome of our hammock beds.

Not bad ey
Not your regular game of beach volleyball
Sunset and rummy coconuts
It was a long day

After a surprisingly decent hammock sleep we were greeted the next morning by a wide breakfast spread and plentiful (if dodgy) coffee. I believe the sense of disbelief in, and appreciation of, a place is heightened when you awake there and that morning was no exception- last night wasn’t a dream, we were actually there. No storms threatened us that day and we powered on to our next island, two hours further down the archipelago to the south-east. The rest of the day was spent on a gorgeous beach on an uninhabited island before returning to our digs at the end of the largest Kuna island settlement- about 150m long and 30m across. We had a guided tour around to understand how the Kuna live / interact with the Panama government and, of course, play with the endless supply of cute kids. Another night of great food, booze, portable speaker music and exposed hammock sleeps was had.

Me and Sam in our ‘beds’
Strolling round the Kuna village

Day three followed a similar pattern on yet another island; after all… if it ain’t broke. A slight cloud cover later on in the day and a flat grassy patch next to the beach saw a game of barefoot football take place- what it lacked in skill it more than made up for in physicality. A forced philanthropic ‘litter picking’ walk back to town along the beach, (through the scrub, at dusk) saw us pick up a tiny amount of the rubbish sadly lining the shore and had us bitten to pieces (James won with about 15 on his back).

Lunch being prepared

A traditional game of bums preceded the football
What I haven’t mentioned so far is the fantastic group of people we’d been fortunate enough to enjoy our San Blas experience with- too many to name. Over the last few days the relationships had been slowly forming and on that third night it all came to a head. A “pick 3 dares” game to initiate a first time tour guide smashed down any group shyness and as the alcohol flowed the night got better and weirder. I won’t go into details but it was one of the most spontaneous, free spirited and fun nights I can recall- “rum bum”, “….come on Andre show us all” and wooden pole chin ups will long trigger vivid memories. 

Our awesome tour group
The most important game of RPS I’ve ever played – and lost

Day four was a boring but necessary day. We travelled to the border point and wait a couple of hours as Panama’s immigration officials telephoned our details one by one to somewhere with a working internet connection. After successfully stamping out of Panama we continued on 20/30 minutes further south back into Colombia where we said goodbye to our Kuna ship and her awesome crew. 

Time to kill whilst at the border

A Colombian boat was required to take us the final 20 minutes to Capurgana where the tour properly ends. Here we stamped back into Colombia and had a fun farewell dinner at a local restaurant before ‘enjoying’ a local salsa / reggea / techno discotheque. Around dinner and between songs people were checking UK general election updates- with 10 medics in the group there was a clear preference! 

Weirdly enough, my first night back in a bed was not at all restful thanks to a series of animal attacks at the crappy hostel. A cat jump on a chair, a lizard hitting my foot, a cat jumping on me in the middle of the night and finally a lizard pooing from the ceiling onto my pillow only cms from my face. I was keen to get back to civilisation – it was brought to us in the form of a bumpy two hour ferry across the straight to Necocli and a seven hour coach. Destination – Cartegena. 

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