After two long days with lots of travelling and sightseeing, this was the day of the trip I’d been looking forward to the most. The Guna Yala (previously San Blas) Islands lie off Panama’s northern coat in the Caribbean Sea and looked like a little slice of paradise: the archetypal tropical islands of white sand, palm tees and turquoise waters. The day got off to a slightly wobbly start when our 4.30am 4×4 pickup vehicle didn’t arrive due to a traffic accident. Being a little sleep deprived from such a busy few days, this didn’t go down well in the group. But it all got sorted and we were on the road by 6.30 – and at least it meant we got a bit of hotel breakfast in.
I may have to come to regret the breakfast though, as the journey to paradise does not run smoothly. The islands and province surrounding them are under control of the indigenous Guna people, and the only way in is via an extremely precipitous drive along a twisty, turny, up and down road through dense forest. Despite the road being only a few years old (previously you had to take a flight and then a boat) it’s already pitted and potholed, so is distinctively uncomfortable and feels much longer than its 37km. I tried to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and not just count down the km markers! You also must remember to bring your passport as the Guna insist on checking it as you enter the port. You really wouldn’t want to turn back for it.
One last hurdle is the boat ride out to the islands, made by speedboat. This was a little choppy but not that bad, and the memories of the 4×4 ride was already fading as we started to spy island after tiny paradise island on the horizon.
There are about 300 islands in the group, which are in the ownership of Guna families and get passed down through the generations. Every time you dock on an island a Guna will spot you and ask for a dollar or two to use the beach. Some islands are more built up – by which I mean they may have a little hut for selling snacks or handicraft souvenirs – but the feeling really is of being amongst desert islands.
Our first stop was Elefante, where we had a bite of lunch and a beer.
We then did a bit of island hopping – Dog Island, Pelican Island, one which was barely a hump of sand out of the ocean but had the most amazing crystal clear shallow waters, perfect for paddling and having a beer.
I swear I didn’t Photoshop this: the colour of the water was incredible.
We reluctantly tore ourselves away in the late afternoon: the gate out shuts at 6pm sharp so if you’re not out, you’ll need to stay the night. The ride back didn’t feel so bad as coming in, and there was a lovely sunset.
Buoyed by a relaxing day and the thought of a lie in (to the lofty time of 8.30am) in the morning, once back in Panama City we headed to the old town for a bit of nightlife and dinner. It was nice to be amongst young locals and start to see what the city side of life here is like. We had some lovely cocktails on the roof of the Tantalo hotel, with views of the modern city over the rooftops…
… and a brilliant tapas dinner in its restaurant. Lots of veggie things, from fried queso fresco with lime to aubergine sashimi and sublime macaroni cheese. We then bar hopped to a couple more before turning in for the night, sunburned and happy.