I was surprised to learn that there is no real connection to Panama from Columbia by road, which put my initial plan of continuing along the Pan American highway to Central America completely out of the window!
With last-minute flights costing a fortune, we were only really left with the option of taking a private sailing trip across the border. Although an expensive excursion, having seen some pictures of the islands of San Blas (which form the main part of the 6 day adventure) we decided to splash out and have a ‘holiday within the holiday’.
Although we hadn’t actually seen the boat we booked, all the initial signs were good; the captain seemed very safety conscious and professional (having given us a slight discount for postponing the trip by 2 days) notwithstanding the fact that he had bothered to make an impressive business card and website.
After hearing some horror stories of local captains on unsafe boats sailing through the high seas drunk, we were prepared to pay a premium for this little treat of ours. Unfortunately our enthusiasm and excitement was damped somewhat before we even went on board.
As we approached the boat in the marina we were a little disappointed with its size, although comforted by the assurance from the captain (Frederico) that he would never take more than 10 people on his boat. We were the first people to arrive, however our fellow sailing companions soon arrived in force! Although they were a really lovely bunch, there was simply too many of them. The boat had rooms to sleep 8 comfortably, however there were 11 passengers in total as well as the captain and his skipper (Armando) not to mention a little rat of a dog (poodle) called Reina.
In an attempt to repress the Jewish mother in me, I decided to simply let it go and continue with the usual backpacker introduction chats, which have become the bane of my existence; where are you from? where have you been? how long are you traveling for? yadi yadi ydada
The group consisted of a couple from Brighton (Chloe and Rich), two German girls (Giana and Kathi ), one English girl (Jo), one Australian girl (Sarah), a weird Dutch couple (who I didn’t speak to once during the whole trip and so don’t even know their names!) and one French guy (Julian).
Frederico was soon ready to have us all aboard and asked us all to put our hands up if there were any couples in the group. Instinctively I was about to put my hand up but then soon realised that Dre simply looked to the floor given that he never likes to proactively tell anyone that he is obviously gay. In the most part I tend to agree with him and so kept my hand down. Being homophobic at this particular juncture proved to be a grave mistake since we were relegated to having to call the communal dinning area home for the next 6 days. If it wasn’t bad enough that we had to sleep on the narrow sofa, we had to share the sofa with Julian, the captain and the skipper (who got the worse deal since he had to sleep on top of the cooker!) and to top things off the dog!
After about an hour on board; having just seen all the others make themselves comfortable in their cabins unpacking all their stuff, the Streisand in me came out and we decided to take Frederico aside for a little chat about the whole arrangement.
What we thought was a reasonable request for a discount, sparked a full-blown arguement with Frederico who took it as a personal insult, insisting that in his 15 years of doing the trips he had never had any complaints. He quite literally erupted with anger and became adamant that he would ask the girls to move out so we could take their cabin. In fear of being type cast as ‘those people’ within the group, we simply agreed to just suck it up and deal with it.
Since Andre was such a pussy throughout the whole drama; preferring to stay schtum, I obviously had a strike put across my name by this Jackal and Hyde personality. Within less than a minute of the arguement ending, this bad-tempered Frenchman (the captain) was being as nice as punch, assuring me that this would be an amazing experience with the best cuisine…said with the conviction only a true french men could have.
The first meal he served us before setting sail didn’t do much to improve my general distrust of the French; cheap super noodles in a simple vegetable stock! At least the view of the harbor by night made up for the appalling cuisine.
After about 5 minuets in the open sea I could understand the logic behind the student meal; just about everyone except, Andre of course, fell sea-sick due to the bug swells that gave the boat and me a battering. We were soon projectile vomiting off the back of the boat which just happened to be my sleeping quarters. To add to insult, my camper bed at the back of the boat was flung around like a ping-pong ball making and already sleepless night worse!
Ironically this arrangement worked well for me since I sent the best part of the two days out in open sea hanging off the back with them. The most disturbing part of the entire experience was pulling a noodle from my nose!
The only real time I managed to pull myself away from laying down flat (apart from getting up to puke of course) was to run to the front of the boat to see the dolphins that decided to join us for part of the ride.
Despite being the worst 38 hours I have ever had to endure, arriving at our first island in San Blas (Holandas) made it all worth while. We arrived just before sunrise to what I can only describe as the most picture perfect scene. From this point on everything didn’t seem so bad. I even began to understand the moody french captain a little better…reminding me a little of my father and how precious he is with his boat.
The most breath talking scenery that felt like something out of a travel magazine was home for the next three days; remote uninhabited islands covered in large palm trees with the whitest soft sand, surrounded by crystal clear blue waters.
The little rat of a dog even became my friend…so much so that it became hard to see the difference between us…obviously we were using the same stylist!
The archipelago de San Blas consist of over 400 islands dotted along 226km of the Caribbean coast from the Colon Province in Panama to Columbia.
The islands themselves are surrounded by large coral reefs which in addition to providing some of the best snorkeling in the world, help keep the waters here clear and calm. Unfortunately they have also claimed a number of boats, making it feel like a boat cemetery at times.
We didn’t have an underwater camera to capture the explosion of colour we saw down there, so I have attempted to source the details of the fish from the net.
As an interesting aside, the lead coffin of Sir Francis Drake can also be found at the bottom of the ocean here. Thought of as a pirate by the Spanish, the English saw him as a hero for helping defeat the Spanish armada when they tried to take England in 1588 (FYI the big old boat near Borough Market is a replica of his ship the Golden Hind). Drake died whilst attempting to take control of Portobello and was buried the next day in the Caribbean; the scene of his most daring exploits.
Unlike the Captains of those times, Captain Frederico had insisted that there be absolutely no alcohol drunk whilst being out in the open sea. Although this alarmed the English contingent on the boat, it seemed to make perfect sense from where I was kneeling! As with most Brits on tour, the beer was open by sunrise that morning and continued throughout most of the trip. Given Andres disgust at this truly ‘English’ trait, you can imagine how pleased he was that the heavy drinking took place every night in his room! Thankfully the first night in San Blas was spent on the beach with an open fire cooking some tasty sausage and potatoes, my only one complaint was that there simply wasn’t enough of the great tasting food.
Although still hungry, Andre was happy, since he got to show off to the rest of the group by catching huge crabs.
We also managed to catch a whole host of other things for dinner!
The three days were spent sailing around islands and visiting some of the local Kuna people who call this paradise home.
The Kuna are not the most welcoming of tribes, although if you had to share this place with hundreds of tourist on big yachts you can understand why. They are however, extremely interesting and worthy of a paragraph or two.
The Kuna Indians have governed the region since the 1920’s when the Panamanian government granted the tribe the right to govern themselves following a Kuna uprising which saw the death if 22 Panamanian policemen and 20 Kuna who befriended them as part of the revolt.
Today they not only rule themselves but also have two representatives in the Panamanian legislature as well as the right to vote in Panama. Today there are an estimated 80,000 Kuna spread Along the cost line as well as the islands. Whilst the majority speak Spanish, they have their own language (Kuna) which sounds unlike anything else I have ever heard.
They also have their own flag which at first I found a little disturbing…although not as much as ‘tha Gerrmanns’ on board!
I later realised that it was in fact the other way round and is a symbol used within Buddhism meaning peace.
Those that live on the islands live in such close proximity to each other that only 40 of the 400 islands are actually inhabited; the rest are mostly left to coconut trees, sea turtles and iguanas.
Few of the islands are more that 10km from the main land, with all the heavily inhabited ones being very close to the cost in order to be close to their agricultural areas and vital natural resources, such as water, firewood and building materials.
Also on the mainland are the giant trees that are used to construct their chief mode of transportation – dugout canoe called a cayuco.
The Kuna still stick to many of their traditions which I find astonishing in this day an age. The women for example are not given a name until she has had her first period, at which time a party is held where her hair is cut short and her parents select a name for here with the help of a medicine man. Until that day the girl answers to a nickname. Most Kuna women still dress as their ancestors did; with a gold ring through their nose and a black line painted from their forehead to the tip of their nose. A length of colourful printed cloth is wrapped around the waist as a skirt, topped with a short sleeve blouse covered in brilliant coloured molas (traditional Kuna textile). To make themselves more attractive to the men they wear many necklaces, rings as well as colourful beads that completely cover their lower legs.
Interestingly, should a man want to divorce his wife, he can only remarry once he has had his first wife’s approval.
The inhabited islands are jam-packed with bamboo-sided, thatch-roof houses often housing multiple families as such the hordes of tourists (particularly from the huge cruise ships that stop by for a photo opp) have led many of the Kuna to become disenchanted with the idea of foreigners in their islands.
In addition, the behavior of many tourist is appalling to the Kuna, particularly the scantily dressed women. As a result of repeated violations of their privacy and sensibilities, the Kuna often ask tourist to pay fees to visit and will not allow photos to be taken without paying a fee (as result many of the pics of the locals here are from the net since we are on a budget, especially after blowing it on this trip!).
Thankfully the young children don’t seem to see any issue with tourist, something we experienced first hand when we went to a smaller island.
Since the below picture is already out their in the public domain (thanks Andre!) I feel I have no choice but to explain myself. Before you think I was violating sensibilities so to speak…I was introducing the children to the world of Angry Birds on my iPhone!
Andre prefered to go old school and play boring word games in the sand; ironic really since he is Mr. Digital!
Whilst on the topic of the children, there is an abnormally high number of Albinos within the community, I later found out that they in fact have the worlds highest incidence of Albinism. Since few Kuna marry outside their villages they are all inbred! Usually short, large-headed and thick-necked (reading this back is making me question whether I am inbred since I seem to fit this description with the addition of webbed feet!).
When seen amid the rest of the Kuna, the albinos can be quite captivating.
In some societies, albino children are viewed as freaks of nature and are ostracized by their peers. Not so in the Kuna society. Kuna children are taught that albinos are special people – children of the moon – and that they are destined to be leaders.
As a result, the moon children are not only the most popular kids in the tribe, but they are also the most rebellious due to their big egos. Unsurprisingly a high percentage of moon children put their abundant confidence to work for them and actually become community leaders.
As a final interesting fact, until the late 90s the principle currency was the coconut! The Kuna grow them like crazy, harvesting over 30 million on a good year. They barter away most of these to Colombians in return for fruit, clothing, Nescafe and other goods. The Kuna are shrewd businesspeople; because until recently their economy was based solely in the sale of coconuts and so they protect it by fixing the price which is determined once a year by the tribes chiefs. This is also a way of preventing the Kuna starting price wars with each other which would hurt the community by lowering the standard of living and potentially forcing some Kuna out of business. I find this particular notion extremely telling with regards to the culture amongst the Kuna people.
Unfortunately, even with such strict adherence to their traditional values and culture, the modern world is slowing changing their way of life. An alarming example of this is the effect the cocaine trade from Columbia is having on the people.
The U.S are strictly prohibited from patrolling their waters, which means that it has become a hot spot for illegal drug trafficking. Often large shipments of cocaine are dumped in the sea, which for a price, the Kuna are willing to retrieve, before passing them along as part of the route into the U.S market. To make matters worse, a lot of these young hungry Kuna men are now also using the stuff, creating an addiction which will no doubt cement their poverty and dependency on wealthier more powerful nations.