Wednesday, September 26, 2012

72 Hours in Panama's Stunning San Blas Islands - 8-16-2012

From August 15th until the morning of August 18th, I was on a sailing charter that cruised through the San Blas Islands of Panama. I can tell you without exaggeration that the San Blas Islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have seen myself. A previous post talks all about why you should visit these gorgeous islands. This post covers Day 2 of my sailing charter. Read about Day 1 here.

The San Blas Islands, Day 2:

The Da Capo - San Blas Islands, Panama
I woke up early on the Da Capo's deck to a deep blue morning sky punctuated with wispy cotton ball clouds. I had slept the night above deck, dreaming of a tropical paradise while the Da Capo anchored in one. Being on vacation, I treated myself to a couple more hours of sleep below deck before I started my day for real. Yay, sleeping in!

After a quick breakfast with Captain Mats, his family and the two other passengers, we left our night anchorage in eastern Cayes Limones and sailed east two hours to Cayes Hollendaise. The journey was smooth and I found myself quickly getting accustomed to the rocking waves, salty sea spray and stiff breeze. There's something magical about this part of the world. The water is so warm, as is the air...but it's pleasant and not in any way oppressive. Every island we passed had white sand and thick green jungle. Every island had at least one simple hut built from wood boards and a thatched roof. The San Blas Islands really were a tropical paradise, unspoiled by the over development and exclusive resorts that turned so many stunning locales into generic, expensive, culturally bankrupt, Westernized tourist traps. Waikiki or Cozumel, anyone?

We anchored far from shore when we arrived in the Cayes Hollandaise. "The reefs come up quickly here as you approach shore," Captain Mats told us. It was fine, though, the five minute swim through calm, warm, green-blue water was heavenly and I hadn't done much more than splash around the previous day. A proper swim felt good. Curious schools of bright yellow and blue fish came near me a few times during my swim, wondering who the interloper was.

White sand beach in the Cayes Hollandaise
This island in Cayes Hollandaise looked to be uninhabited. Ilonka and I walked through the jungle and around the shore for a good 15 minutes and didn't see a single hut. Captain Mats' six year old son, Mateo, accompanied us and played guide, energetically explaining to us in Spanish which plants were medicinal, which the birds ate, which had pretty flowers when blooming, and so forth. We walked along the soft, white sand beach and waded waist deep through water so clear it seemed you could see forever through it if you dunked your head in it and took a look. After climbing over a few palm trees that had fallen into the sea,we came upon a small crescent-shaped cove. Partway along the beach, several trees reached over the water, creating a shady place to sit in the warm water and rest. How was it possible that every place we stopped at was more beautiful than the previous place?

Ilonka and I sat down in the water and talked for a while before Mateo got bored and started acting up. Ilonka volunteered to accompany him back to the Da Capo since she could see I was completely enraptured with my picture post card gorgeous surroundings. The pair walked off and I was left in silence.

Cayes Hollandaise
Gentle waves of clear water lapped quietly against my stomach. Tiny yellow and grey striped fish came up and swam underneath my legs. Palm fronds whispered in the warm tropical wind. For 10 minutes or 30 minutes or two hours or forever, I sat in that turquoise water, on top of white sand, beneath the blue and grey sky, and in front of a wall of dark green palm trees. I had NEVER been so satisfied with my life as I was right then and there.

I remember eight months ago being stressed about my job's future and about what the future might hold for me in general. "Have I saved enough money to take a break? What about passive income? When can I walk away from this three hour commute and do something I love, like travel?" I used to worry. How I wanted to run away back then to a beach side paradise and find a jungle to explore, warm water in which to swim. Now I was doing just that...I was vacationing in paradise...a beautiful, verdant paradise with crystal clear perfect water. I had jettisoned the commute, the office politics, and the job. I had saved enough money to take a break. I was living my ideal life. Talk about manifesting my will!
Ingmar interrupted my serenity and we talked a bit. He was having as great a time exploring the island's jungle and reef as I was soaking up its peace and beauty. I accompanied him further around the cove before he suggested we turn back. We had been away for a while and he said Captain Mats wanted to reach our next stop, Chichimi, by mid afternoon. Satisfied, but by no means sated, I returned to the Da Capo with Ingmar. I'll definitely be coming back here one day. Soon.
I totally ate all of that.
We left Cayes Hollendaise and traveled another couple hours east to Chichimi, where we stayed for the afternoon and anchored for the night. Shortly after anchoring, I kayaked ashore with Ingmar and we explored this island. We also kayaked to two other nearby islands, but only observed them from the sea. Just like yesterday, the water between these islands was so shallow we could have walked from island to island in shin deep water. Back ashore, Dina prepared a sumptuous lunch of skewers, rice, two salad, another rice dish, rice/banana/milk for dessert. She was friends with the local Kuna family and they helped her some as well. Ingmar and I cooked the skewers on a BBQ at the beach. 
Ilonka in Chichimi in the San Blas Islands, Panama
After lunch, Ilonka and I took some pics of this tropical paradise, and took some tourist shots of each other. During part of her 20s, Ilonka modeled professionally. She stopped in her late 20s, but there's no doubt that it's still in her blood. Just like riding a never forgets how to do it, right?

Ingmar and I went sea kayaking again after Ilonka's impromptu shoot. This time, he and I rowed to several nearby shipwrecks, including a large single hull yacht and a small freighter rusting away on top of a reef that reportedly ran aground when the night watch fell asleep. We must have kayaked several miles because I remember being quite tired. Ingmar got out of the kayak a couple times to go snorkeling, but I was content to rest in the kayak and enjoy floating on the sea. 

Bonfire in Chichimi
More than an hour later, he and I came back to a dinner of lunch's leftovers and amazingly flavorful chicken that Dina marinated and BBQ'd. To top it off, we started a big bonfire (not as big as the ones I've seen in Playa Samara) from dried palm fronds. By the time the fire was dying, I noticed the air had grown heavy and still. Distant peals of thunder and forks of lightning announced an encroaching storm. Ingmar, Ilonka and I commandeered the Da Capo's raft (which Dina had brought), and kayaked back to the boat through the pitch black night. We arrived at the Da Capo less than a minute before the heavens opened up and a downpour began.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

72 Hours in Panama's Stunning San Blas Islands - 8-15-2012

From August 15th until the morning of August 18th, I was on a sailing charter that cruised through the San Blas Islands of Panama. I can tell you without exaggeration that the San Blas Islands are among the most beautiful places on Earth, and certainly one of the most beautiful places I have seen myself. A previous post talks all about why you should visit these gorgeous islands. This post tells the story of Day 1 of my sailing charter.

The San Blas Islands, Day 1:
Carti, Panama
The first day of our charter, our 4x4 taxi picked me and several other travelers up from Hostal Mamallena in Panama City at 5:30PM for the four hour ride from Panama City to Carti. Only three of us, though would be doing the boat charter. Ingmar was a 24 year old Austrian guy who looked a bit like Harry Potter, if Harry Potter was 6'4" and built like a mountain. Ilonka was a 32 year old Dutch woman who turned out to be a former model and currently owns her own interior design firm back home. And of course there was me, the former economist turned backpacker. The scenery outside of Panama City is beautiful, by the way -- winding roads and dense jungle for hours. Around 9:00AM, our taxi dropped us off at a dirt parking lot a wooden dock and two water taxis. This, apparently is Carti. We waited 20 minutes for the water taxi to arrive, but it gave the three of us plenty of time to talk and begin getting to know each other.

The Da Capo
The 30 minute taxi ride from Carti to Captain Mats and the Da Capo was smooth and was very pretty. Light blue sky above, dark blue water below and dark green jungle in the distance reminded me I was along way from Los Angeles. We greeted Captain Mats, a sixty-something Swede from Stockholm as he helped us onto his boat. Once aboard, Captain Mats showed us around his 36 foot sloop, the Da Capo, and collected the $300 from each of us for our three night cruise.

Captain Mats is a former investigative journalist and media consultant. He worked for decades for the largest newspaper in Sweden before he and his wife started their own media consulting firm. During the post-Internet bubble of 2001 to 2003, many of his clients merged or were acquired. The successor firms saw PR and media consulting as a cost center and so Captain Mats' business dried up. He and his wife sold their PR firm, split up somewhere along the line, and he dedicated himself to his lifelong hobby -- sailing. His adventures took him across the Atlantic multiple times, through the Caribbean and for the last several years, to the San Blas Islands.

Ingmar, Ilonka, your author making friends in San Blas
We start our trip when one of Captain Mats' Kuna friends rows out to the Da Capo in his canoe. He comes aboard and greets us with a friendly smile. In accented, but perfectly understandable English, he invites me, Ilonka and Ingmar to Nalu Nega, the island he and his family live on, for a tour. "Bring your cameras and leave your shoes," he advises with a laugh. Damn good advice for any tropical vacation, I'd say!

The Kuna are friendly folks, but aren't shy about asking for a dollar every time you take a picture with one. Thankfully, there were plenty of other great shots to capture, including charming wooden huts, clear water, and smiling children who were gracious enough to not ask for money. Our guide explains that about 20 families live on this island and that his uncle is chief. The island has a school, a sparely appointed hostel, a basketball court and a few small stores selling bottled water, bug spray, soap and other simple consumer goods. He gives us a tour of his hut as well, a huge structure with hammocks and clothes hung throughout. Large pieces of thin, multicolored, patterned cloth partition the large hut into "rooms." There's no running water or electricity, but I'm still impressed at the small luxuries the hut has. The large luxuries of free time, a warm climate and a stunningly picturesque locale that come with living on this island leave me more than a little jealous.

Damn that coconut was good. Yay!
Your author and a coconut in San Blas. Damn it was yummy.
Also awesome was sipping coconut water from a freshly opened coconut, which Ingmar, Ilonka and I did leisurely under the shade of a palm tree after our tour of Nalu Nega was complete. After Captain Mats' friend rowed us back to the Da Capo, we sailed east about one hour to Isla Pero (Dog Island). Dog Island is a tiny island that took all of 15 minutes to walk around. People don't go there for the hiking, though. They go there for water so clear you could see forever, so blue you think you're in a painting and so warm you'd think you had died and gone to tropical heaven. As soon as the captain dropped anchor, Ingmar, Ilonka and I were in the bathwater warm sea. Ingmar explored a sunken wreck just off shore. I swam with Ilonka to the white sand beach.

Isla Pero (Dog Island), Panama
I'll never forget how beautiful that day was, with its crystal water, warm breeze, dark green palm trees tall against a sky impossibly blue and endless, and my amazement that places this gorgeous still existed in the world. Also striking was how I was exactly where I wanted to be, and had wanted to be for a long time. Seven months prior (and for many months before that), I was unhappy, working a job I didn't enjoy and wishing I could run away to tropical island paradise where I could bask in peace and beauty. And now...I was! That afternoon, I realized that I was a long way from my old life, and I couldn't have been happier about that. It's a wonderful feeling to experience a dream coming true. I remember thanking God and the universe for my life a lot on this Panama trip, but never as much as I did when I soaked in Isla Pero's calm and beauty.

Ingmar, your author and Ilonka. San Blas Islands.
For several hours on this idyllic mid-summer afternoon, I alternated talking with Ilonka, and swimming around the island's reefs with Ingmar...a pattern I'd repeat for the next two days. Ilonka and Ingmar were vastly different people, but I enjoyed both their company. Ilonka and I thought about the same things frequently: purpose, building something for the future, living a life that honored our values and dreams. Her's was a life of glamor, adventure, but struggle as well. Through everything, she worked hard desired to be successful as an entrepreneur and interior designer. Ilonka had a great life story and I could see how it forged her into a strong, assertive woman. She guarded her sentimental side with a certain coldness, but it was there if you looked...and if you earned her trust. She wore a ring on her left hand -- part reminder of a past love her heart clung to despite him treating her badly, and part hope that she would find a new love who would respect her. Looking back, I think meeting her on this trip and spending hours talking to her in San Blas, and then back in Panama City, was my trip's highlight. There wasn't anyone I met on this trip whose company I enjoyed more than Ilonka's. Ingmar was young, adventurous and active. I didn't have much to talk about him with, but he could always be counted on to go swimming, sea kayaking or photographing with. Part of me envied his youth and all the traveling he had done at only 24 years old. How could I so easily have traded my youth for over a decade of stress and late nights at the office?

Sunset in Cayes Limones, Panama
The afternoon passed all quickly. Too soon, the three of us swam back to the Da Capo and Captain Mats sailed us east again to our night anchorage at eastern Cayes Limones. We anchored between three islands that formed a loose triangle between them. Much of the sea between the islands was so shallow, you could walk from island to island and stay dry above your knees. Ingmar was eager to go sea kayaking. I had never kayaked at all and I wanted to try, so we went together. I sat in the front of the kayak and he sat behind me. Ingmar's muscles were twice the size of mine, and his never tired. Still, I kept up as best as I could. We kayaked between all three islands, admiring their white beaches and green jungles from the water. Small bright blue fish swam beside our kayak. Brighter orange starfish on the shallow sea floor almost glowed in the weakening sunlight. I could reach into the water to grab one and barely get my elbow wet, the water was so shallow here. Tired, but completely at peace, Ingmar and I rowed back to the Da Capo for dinner as afternoon faded to evening.

While Ingmar and I were out, Captain Mats' girlfriend, Dina, prepared a sumptuous, creamy lobster pasta for dinner.  The lobster was fresh. Kuna fisherman had caught it that day and sold it to us from their canoe not three hours prior to dinner. I do try to eat well when I travel, and this meal was still the best of my Panama trip. The company was excellent as well, and we all talked, ate and drank the rum I bought late into the night.

After everyone was asleep, I found myself still awake. It wasn't a tense wakefulness, though. It was a peaceful, serene wakefulness that wanted to enjoy the evening. That night, I don't recall how late, I climbed up to the deck and lay down. Above me were more stars than I had ever seen before. Tiny white lights twinkled in the sky from horizon to horizon. The brush stroke that was the Milky Way was nearly directly overhead. The air was warm and calm. Gentle waves rocked the boat and splashed lazily against the hull. There under the stars, in the warm air, a million miles from my old life, I slept through the night on the Da Capo's deck.