I had heard very little about the San Blas Islands, and frankly that was part of the draw. When I told people I was going there, the most frequent reaction I got was, "Where´s that?" Well, the answer to that one is just off Panama´s Caribbean coast. The better quesiton would have been, "When is that?" To that, I can only answer, "Centuries ago."
The Islands can be reached only by boat or by the daily flight from Panama City. It took me two tries to book a ticket on the daily flight, which leaves at the ungodly hour of 6am, but the two trips to the airport proved well worth it.
I knew that it would be an adventure when I walked out onto the tarmac and found a propeller plane. It was by far the smallest plane on which I had ever flown, and my initial reaction was, "I really hope this thing can get off the ground." The flight held about 15 people and the cockpit did not have a door, allowing passengers to see out the front window. Once people began deplaning on the first few islands—the flight stops at several—the captain asked that those sitting in the back move to the front to balance the weight. Needless to say, I was more than a little stunned by the request.
Upon reaching the island closest to the one I wanted to visit, I paid the small entry fee and took a carved out tree commonly called a canoe to the island that I was to visit. When I arrived, I was told to wait in the middle of a small pathway between houses. By local standards, this was a mian street. There were no cars on the island. I took the opportunity to take in my surroundings. There were several rustic buildings of something like straw and wood. It was readily apparent that none had foundations. The local women dressed in traditional garb and went about their sewing and child rearing. I knew the next few days would be an experience.
A few minutes later, a little man greeted me and took me to the single "hotel". It was a small house on the water and, like almost all of the other buildings on the island, had no electricity. He gave me a cot and gave me a few hours to catch up on the sleep that I had lost by getting up in the wee hours of the morning.
He came back a few hours later and the adventure began. He took me to an island restaurant and chatted with me as I ate lunch. I´m still not sure what the food was, but it was better than I had expected. He explained that, like almost everything else on the island, it was communally owned and that the island residents shared the profits. Next, he took me to a friend´s house, though the entire island of about 1,000 could accurately be considered his friends, where we arranged a trip for the following day to a nearby uninhabited island. This particular friend had a television, one of a small handful on the island.
That evening I attended a traditional dance. It was little more than a few men and women running around and singing some traditional songs, but the obviously rich history of it made it a memorable experience. After the centuries-old ritual, my leprauchaun-sized guide led me back to what was my own house, as I was the only outsider on the island. There, I passed the evening hours reading by the light of a kerosene lamp.
The following day, my guide escorted me to the place of departure for the other island. The two of us rowed about a mile to an uninhabited island. In the hours that followed, I enjoyed my private island paradise as my brown hair turned blond. The snorkeling was mediocre, but the setting of a private island in the middle of the water was something of which most only dream.
I returned in the late afternoon and went to relax on my small deck. The island´s children had other ideas. I sent the oldest, who could not have been older than 10, to the store to buy chips and soda for us. We sat chatting for a while, with plenty of laughs at the expense of my espanol. Before they left, I showed them my goggles. They had apparently never used them before, and enjoyed sticking their heads in the water to see various small fish. I ended up giving them the goggles as a gift.
The following day I took to simply relax on the island and do some reading. As I sat out, I was approached by an old man eager to talk to the foreigner. We chatted about life on the island and his impressions of his visit to Panama City, which I considered civilization. Perhaps most striking was the fact that he considered the islanders richer than those on the mainland. After all, he reasoned, they had everything they needed and never wanted more.
At night, I observed a few minutes of a religious ceremony. The elders were laying in hammocks in the middle of the building, chanting in the local language, which all spoke as their first language, while the others sat on benches on either end. Again, though I didn´t understand a word of it, the ancient history of the ceremony made it almost mystical, even for a Catholic.
On the final day, my guide canoed me over to the mainland for a tour of the Carti lands there. I had thought that they had survived mostly on fish, but apparently they had quite an area for growing fruit.
The Carti Sugdub community welcomed me with open arms. Everyone with whom I came into contact welcomed the chance to chat with someone from the outside world, while at the same time seeming perfectly happy with their station in life. While I personally would never choose to live as they do, it was readily apparent that it is possible for people to be rich without money.
All told, the San Blas Islands have easily been the least forgettable and most interesting of the several places I have visited on my nearly year-long trip. I´d highly recomment a visit to anyone, especially to those who have given up on the prospect of time travel.