San Blas – Colombia to Panama the scenic route

San Blas, Paradise islands, white sands, small Caribbean towns and local indigenous tribes

The San Blas Islands are a small archipelago that run from the Atlantic border of Colombia along the Darian coast of Panama. It’s a popular but not common destination due to its remoteness, and if you Google San Blas you’ll see why we chose the border crossing at sea rather than by air. Paradise islands, white sands, small Caribbean towns and local indigenous tribes. We will be camping on a deserted island one night and staying in a local Kuna tribe village the next.

San Blas

Once all the crew are together, and rain shower stops, we head just round the coast to an even smaller town called Sapzurro. Here we will spend the night, pack up the boat and meet our fellow travellers. Again, we get lucky with the group, a nice bunch of people, no idiots or small kids. There is a fairly miserable older Spanish couple who decide early on they are not going to help out with any of the cooking or packing and are quickly ignored for the rest of the trip, left alone to get on with their whining. The one surprise of our travels is that the people we get on with the least are not the 18 year old spoilt brats or the perpetually drunk party crowd but the slightly older travellers. Although they want to appear to be coping with the backpacker lifestyle, they continually moan about everything as if there might be a concierge lurking around the corner who might make it all better.  Some people are better suited to cruises, maybe that will be me in a few years and the grumpy old man is in me just waiting to surface – Leah might say that’s already happened.

Sapzurro is barely a town, at best it’s an attempt at a village. The Panama border is literally down a path and over a hill; we’ve heard reports of a stunning beach only a 20 minute walk away so we decide to check it out. To get to La Miel beach (officially in Panama) you first head to the back of the town and then walk up a muddy hill to a passport control at the top. Passport control is a generous description, it’s a couple of young soldiers with guns who write your name in a book and wish you on your way. We meet a couple from Cuba there who came into Panama without either a Colombian or Panamanian visa and were being held in no-man’s land indefinitely. They have been there all day and we later discover all night. We felt bad for not engaging with them, but it’s was not our fight and we certainly didn’t want to get involved.  It probably ended with a couple of nights in a holding cell and a flight home; I’m not sure what they expected as they came with no visas, what a pair of muppets.

La Miel beach, if discovered, would almost certainly sit in any top 10 beaches list.  We’ve read many of these lists on the internet and actually been to  lots of them, but few compare. We arrive late around 4pm with the sun still hot and the beach empty. Think powder white sand, water as clear as Evian and warm too. We waste two hours and remind ourselves how lucky we are.

La Miel - Panama

The next morning we are off.  Our boat is a small launcher. Two motors, a dodgy GPS (that I suspect is not actually working) and 13 passengers, heading off into the middle of nowhere. The first day’s itinerary was a stop for a rest and swim on a small island before another two hours at sea finding our island for the night.

The Darien Gapster - Our boat

En route we pass a place called ‘Scottish Point’ the scene of an attempted invasion by Scotland! No kidding! The invading armada landed here with the intention of taking the coast as their own but most died of Malaria before they got inland. A second invading force was sent, but they too all died of Malaria. They gave up, an amusing attempt at a Celtic empire.

After a small rain shower the sun breaks and we drop anchor off a small island, it’s beautiful and looks like a location from a Survivor episode. There are a couple of Kuna locals on the island who tend the coconuts (it’s virtually their currency) and they sell us a bunch as we settle in with a campfire, tents on the sand and more than a few Coco Locos (coconut water and rum drank straight from the coconut), falling asleep on the beach. If you’re reading this whilst sitting at work, sorry.

Setting up camp on the island

The next day we head out again and have lunch on another tiny island. Again, if you’re reading this at work, look away now.

San Blas - worth the trip

That afternoon we land at our home for the night, another island inhabited by the local Kuna, a fiercely independent tribe who have fought to keep the San Blas theirs. We are far from the orchestrated tourist ‘villages’ of Lake Titicaca. This is the real deal. The island is obviously poor; families live together in a one room hut and the local ‘shops’ are bare. But everybody seems happier that most you see on a morning commute in London. We have dinner cooked by the captain in the backyard of one of the families, known by the crew. Toilets are a hut on stilts over the sea, amusingly proper porcelain surrounded by planks of wood; it empties straight over the fishes.

Local toilets

After the meal we’re invited into the hut of the family and also meet the current village chief. Everybody’s a little shocked by the living conditions, around four kids, and another four family members all in one room in hammocks or a mattress if lucky. No wardrobes, so all clothes are hung from the ceiling and a central fire/cooker means the air is smoky. Slightly humbling, and although a tad voyeuristic it was a genuine invitation to meet and so was an incredible insight into these people’s lives. Leah found a new friend in the backyard.

Leah with breakfast

The next day it rained hard, our short boat ride to the mainland was uneventfully but the walk from the boat to our onward transport left us drenched. Slightly shell shocked from the past few days’ experience (it just didn’t seem real), we get into shared taxis for the rollercoaster ride to Panama City.