The San Blas Islands are some of the most beautiful in the world, suspended in the perfect Caribbean waters on the northern side of the isthmus. Each of the reputed 365 islands has a different character and style, from the thriving center of Guna culture Carti to the tree covered leafy paradise of Dog Island. Some islands are so minute that only one or two trees can live on them, providing a stalk of green sticking from miles of shallow blue ocean.
Local Guna children wade out in the shallows for up to a mile, with homemade surf boards and plastic bottles for water fights, and will wave at passers by in boats. Spanish is generally spoken here, but a few phrases in the indigenous tongue will certainly help your Carti homestay be that much more enjoyable. I stayed a night in El Porvenir, an island an hour from shore by boat with a small air strip for Cessna aircraft on private flights. This island has a wonderful panoramic of the archipelago, with its situation in the centre of things meaning sunset and sunrise can be magnificent. The stars at night can be astounding, thousands of little points of light streaming down onto the isolated pockets of land before glimmering off waves breaking in the distance.
The drive out to the coast is itself quite a fun journey. Hopping into a sturdy 4×4, you roar out of Panama City and down dirt roads until you reach a small river. Descending the steep bank with your packs and the help of the Guna guides, you clamber into rough and ready boats of all descriptions – from Pangas to large tour boats. Passing through the narrow waterway and its overhanging trees, you emerge into a watery inlet of half submerged, sun bleached dead trees. They stick precariously out of the water at dozens of different angles, having floated here following storms and the flooding of the coast. Threading your way through these is a real adventure!
Staying here was really a magical experience, with everything from the journey to the starry nights on El Porvenir making for the perfect mini vacation. I wish I could have spent more time with the Guna people on Carti as they seemed genuinely warm and friendly. I had a pretty amazing conversation with an old Guna gentleman who spoke 4 languages fluently – giving me a chance to flex my spanish muscles! A real must for anyone looking to discover something very different in Panama.
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