The San Blas Islands are a little pocket of paradise that are virtually untouched.
Found just off the coast of mainland Panama, the archipelago of over 300 little islands is home to some of the best and most beautiful beaches in the world. But if you’re looking to connect to Wi-Fi or cool out in air conditioning while sipping mango mojitos in your five-star bedroom, you’ll find none of that here. That’s part of what makes the San Blas Islands the gem atop a crowning glory.
There’s hardly any electricity, hardly any technological invasions and more importantly, hardly any people. In planning my trip to Panama, a tour to the far-flung set of islands kept popping up as a must do from other globetrotters who’ve gone before me and it was definitely something I could not miss. Photos of the cartoonish beaches intrigued me. “This can’t be real,” I thought. But once I arrived, I soon realized that at some point you just have to stop snapping photos — beauty of this kind simply cannot be captured by any camera’s lens.
Now, getting to the San Blas Islands was an adventure in itself, though. For a quick trip from the city, you can take a 40-minute flight, or like us, you can take the scenic route and drive. Once you get there, here are some of the reasons I found myself never wanting leave — and why you won’t either.
The indigenous Guna Yala Village
The tour started at 5 a.m. A bumpy, but adventurous three-hour ride from the city center took us to a rural part of town and brought us to the foot of a mountainous jungle. The one-hour drive up the mountain was breathtaking. The lush greenery with sparkling beaches peeking through provided all the scenery I needed as we ascended. You’d think no one lives up there, but way up in the mountains of Panama is a village called Guna Yala. The indigenous people and their land are highly revered and protected, to the point where we needed passports to enter the heavily guarded gates. The people there are self-governed and make up their own laws and rules. Essentially, they don’t depend on mainland Panama for anything. To get to the beaches of the San Blas Islands, you have to go through them. There’s no electricity and all of the “necessities” we crave daily are nowhere to be seen.
The people are quiet, self sufficient, nature lovers who are big on culture and family. The women wore bright, colorful clothing, using intricately designed beads for jewelry. My eyes were instantly drawn to the kaleidoscope of color and of women hand sewing these vibrant frocks and creating leggings, made completely of beads. They’re actually called “winis” and I wanted one. This elderly Guna woman placed my sandy foot in her lap without hesitation and, in my head, welcomed me into her Guna family by wrapping my ankles with the traditional ware. The Guna people are modest people seeking to live life as their ancestors once did — simple, in wooden huts covered with thatch palm leaves and without the invasion of modern advancements. After a short visit to this authentic Panamanian village, we took a short drive to a small dock where a little boat was waiting for us. On the 30-minute boat ride it looked as if heaven was awaiting us from all angles.
The beaches, sandbanks and starfish
Towering palm trees and crystal blue-green waters danced before us. Our tour was set to boat to a different island every hour and at each stop, my heart literally skipped a beat. All of the tiny islands were surrounded by only water and peace. The sea had so many shades of blues and greens, I lost count. The boyish hues welcomed us with a warmth I’d never felt before and I was so ready to become a citizen. The bright white sands felt like powder under my feet and gently exfoliated my toes. This had been the first time I’d been on a beach in years and it was everything my body needed. The beaches of the San Blas Islands rival some of the most beautiful in the world; I live in The Bahamas and must admit that even the beaches here have stiff competition. Even though there were several tour groups arriving on the islands, they remained quiet, tranquil, serene and almost secluded.
Something that must be seen if you visit the San Blas Islands are the magical sandbanks that peek out of the water when the tides are just perfect. Large beds of sand provided the perfect spot to drop us off in the middle of the ocean. We were literally in the middle of the Caribbean Sea standing on a bed of stand with only water surrounding us, and no land in sight. It felt like we were in the center of the world and seized the opportunity to dance with the ocean and play with starfish. However, be careful not to bring them to the water’s surface — starfish are a prized possession for the Guna people who are overprotective of the beautiful sea creatures.
The fresh caught seafood
When was the last time you had seafood fresh from the sea and tossed in a frying pan just for you? This is life in the San Blas Islands. Tiny shacks were set up on just about each island serving the most delicious island dishes. From lobster to hog fish, conch and crabs we definitely got our fill of great food paired with rice, mixed vegetables, plantains, washed down by a cold Panamanian beer and water.
For the first hour or so I frantically searched my phone for any sign of a Wi-Fi signal. I was determined to share the beauty of these islands with my friends and family through InstaStories and Facebook posts, but nothing worked. No signal, no Wi-Fi, no connection…no problem. Being on an almost deserted island forced me to enjoy the people around me and forced me into conversations I would’ve missed had I gotten a few bars on my phone. I sparked a conversation with a newly married couple from Palestine and learned so much about their country and culture. The forced, but welcomed disconnection also helped me to reconnect with myself and to enjoy real rest and relaxation. I became one with nature. No machines hummed, no generators purred, and modern day advances were no hindrance. Everything was at ease and at peace.
My visit to the San Blas Islands came at the end of my trip to Panama. This day-long tour and excursion was the perfect cap on an amazing trip. Mainland Panama gave me the city girl in me all the shopping, partying and frolicking I needed, but I’ll forever cherish my time in these islands like the precious gems they are.