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.


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