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.


  1. Aloha Henry,

    I just wanted to thank you again for submitting your article to the Byteful Travel Blog Carnival. It’s been included in the 14th BT Blog Carnival which was published today.

    So, if you could retweet, stumble, or "Like" the blog carnival, I would really appreciate it. It would also help people discover your article, too!

    Also, you ought to consider using a different blog theme. Even on my Macbook with the latest i7 processor (from 2012), it still seems sluggish. Too much javascript, I’d suspect, and I find the user experience here cumbersome. (It might also be why people don't comment much on your articles.) And I’m sure you could find another theme that doesn’t use so many effects. The message is more important than polish, after all.

    Thanks again. Looking forward to your submissions next time! :)

  2. Hi there, Henry! It looks like you really had fun visiting San Blas Islands, huh? You look cool while holding that coconut. Hehe! Was it mouth-watering? :’) Like you, I always found myself awake during the night when I get to visit beautiful places like this. I just want to think over those wonderful things I did the whole day, I guess.