Our journey in South America had come to an end and we were in one of the most beautiful cities in the whole continent – Cartagena. We had to make a decision on our next steps into Central America. We had been on the road for 8 whole months in South America and we knew we had to make the right choice. Our goal was to travel for a whole year just using buses, trains and boats and Colombia & Panama are separated by The Darien Gap which is a remote, roadless swath of jungle and is extremely dangerous and off-limits so the options were either boat or flight.
We’d done some research online and stumbled across San Blas Adventures. The reviews online were fantastic, it looked like an absolute ball and it would allow us to travel a little more along the Caribbean coast in Colombia and take a boat through the paradise islands of the San Blas. The San Blas Islands (or Guna Yala known locally) is an archipelago comprising approximately 365 islands & cays and only 49 are inhabited. They lie off the north coast of Panama, east of the Panama Canal. What honestly could be more appealing we thought?
Before we knew it we had booked online and paid the $120 US dollar deposit each (the rest was to be paid in cash on arrival at the first meeting). San Blas Adventures were immediately super helpful and engaging, keeping in regular email contact. We were asked to read a lengthy FAQ, sign and return, making sure we were fully aware of how the adventure trip was operated. This gave us confidence that the organisers were really prepared and experienced.
We were instructed to reach a small town in Colombia on the coast called Capurgana where San Blas Adventures have an office. We were to reach this point two days in advance of the trip where we would meet our guide, Svea, assistant Lena and volunteer Eden. The team would run through the whole adventure process and this is where we would pay the balance. We had to make sure we had plenty of cash prior to arrival as there’s not ATMs for quite a while… It was also really nice to meet the rest of the backpackers on the trip in advance! Capurgana was also the spot where we all stocked up on supplies to take with us from the local connivence stores. (You can never have enough rum OR water!) also who knew you could buy such HUGE bottles of rum?
FYI: We made the journey ourselves in advance from Cartagena to the beachside town of Neccoli by bus then onto Capurgana by boat costing 60,000 pesos and took about an hour and a half. We stayed at La Bohemia hostel. San Blas Adventures can also arrange this for you if needed…
The following day was the day we would make the journey together from the small town of Capurgana to our final stop in Colombia – Sapzurro with the rest of the backpackers. The boat was included in the overall price of the trip. We arrived in Sapzurro, a tiny and charming beachside town lined with welcoming locals. We checked into the Dona Triny hostel where we paid 25,000 pesos for a dorm bed. That evening we had a group dinner at the hostel too which was 20,000 pesos each. Totally worth it for a whole fresh fish!
Coconuts and rum in Sapzurro – the last spot in Colombia
The following morning we were up ready to leave at 8am. We were all buzzing to get going to the islands. Unfortunately it was pretty grey that morning but we hoped the weather would be better once we hit the paradise islands…
We all boarded the two boats- our main bags wrapped and sealed in bin bags and our day packs all waterproofed up. We knew our main bags would be stored elsewhere in advance so everything we needed had to be in our day packs and organised! So the speed boat was off – the crew are all local Kuna men who are honestly some of the most amazing and helpful people you’ll ever come across.
It was a 30 minute ride to our first point – Puerto Obaldia (the Panamanian border). All our bags were sent for checking and we made our way to little bakery to wait for our passports be stamped! This was my country number 46 and our 10th country in 8 months and we were TOOOO excited! We actually ended up waiting about 3 hours in the end here – the police search high and low for any potential drugs. To be fair everyone on the trip had been travelling for a while so we all knew how long border controls can take… so none of us were particularly surprised! Once the passports were finally back with us it was time to board the boats again and be on our way to our first island. The water was a little choppy but after a while we got used to the rhythm of the waves. We arrived at our first stop: Atidub – also known as Isla Atalano which was honestly breathtaking. We were met with fresh coconuts which a few us spent no time in filling up with rum! White sand and huge conch shells lined the beach and tall palms towered over the straw huts. Local kuna people floated slowly past on their wooden canoes interested to see who was visiting this week. We had a fantastic lunch of hot tamales (rice, veg and meat mix) and got to know each other while snorkelling and swimming in the turquoise waters. They even had a small cool box of beers for purchase at $2 each which went down a treat. We later learned that each island provided the drinks for purchase as a move little source of income for their island.
Our first taste of paradise
The San Blas Adventures boats
The first stop – a game of volleyball
The Kuna people live in 49 villages across 36 of the San Blas Islands and 13 coastal communities. It was just ten minutes in the boat before arriving at Caledonia Island. Some of the others chose to canoe over in a race! Caledonia is one of the biggest inhabited islands in the San Blas. We settled into our rooms (which had a light and small foam mattress beds) on this fabulous (Kuna owned) hostel that sat over the water and had a small jetty we could jump and swim off of.
The amazing hostel set up
Our amazing rooms right over the water in the village
That afternoon we headed out on a walk around the village. To our surprise hundreds of children greeted us with ‘high fives’ ‘holas’ and even some ‘hellos’. It was honestly so amazing. Within 5 mins of steeping outside many of the guys on the group were running and screaming along with the children. The children were ALL so adorable and so full of life. 900 people live in Caledonia in traditional wood and palm huts, living a simple and economical lifestyle cooking meals over wood fires. The majority of the woman still wear the traditional Kuna dress and are adorned with beads (known as Uea) on their arms and legs. The whole island was a pleasant surprise – there was no ‘dressing for the tourists’ vibe. The people seemed happy to share their culture with us. The afternoon continued with a traditional dance in the main square and playing ‘duck duck goose’ with the children. We learnt from our guide Svea that 12 years of school is mandatory for Kuna children. The first 4 years they learn subjects in Kuna, the next 4 years in Spanish and the following 4 in English, therefore preparing their children for the future if they someday chose to leave San Blas/Kuna Yala. Children are also sent to the mainland in Panama to attend secondary school.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many children at once!
Tom entertaining all the amazing children on Caledonia
Just love these photos!
That night we headed to a local restaurant for dinner where we tried conch for the first time. It was unsurprisingly REALLY tasty. We took our drinks with us to the restaurant too which was super relaxed. That evening we sat in the common area, bought plenty of beers and mixers from the Kuna owner, played loads of tunes & drank until the early hours. The evening ended with a rendition of ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams that echoed through the whole hostel.
I woke the next morning super early at 6am. I was hoping to see a sunrise but unfortunately the weather was not agreeing with us. We knew it was rainy season so it was going to be a little hit or miss whether we would get clear skies. I sat on the jetty that morning and watched hundreds of fish swim below. Kuna people slowly floated past. It was so peaceful. Without traffic the islands are so quiet it honestly feels like a different planet.
The village view early morning
The breakfast that morning was splendid and many of us couldn’t believe our eyes when we saw peanut butter on the table amongst fresh fruits, yoghurt, granola and fresh bread. It far exceeded our expectations. (If you’ve travelled in South America you’ll know you never see peanut butter…) We set off around 8:30am. It was going to be the longest boat ride of the trip- 3 hours so we knew we had to prepare ourselves! The sea was quite choppy and it was a little rainy. We were about an hour into the journey when the second boat had an engine issue so we all climbed into one boat l and we were off again! We eventually arrived at Pelican Island. It was a slightly larger uninhabited island with really tall palm trees towering overhead. The island was honestly so striking – EVEN in grey skies! We spent the afternoon playing cards, enjoying cold beers and exploring. There was some incredible shells there. There was also some really cool benches up in the trees and the perfect instagram spots. Svea, Lena and Eden rustled up a fantastic pasta salad and dips (yes HUMMUS) for lunch and we all took a nap on the white sand.
Exploring Pelican Island
One of my favourite photos
Lunch spot on Pelican Island
The next stop where we were headed for our second night’s stay was Revolution Island. As we arrived on Revolution island we immediately noticed lots of solar panels and a few modern conveniences- shops and more women wearing western clothing. We learnt from our guide that solar panels were actually provided to the Kuna communities through a 30 million dollar grant to the Kuna people from the Panamanian government. Pretty impressive. We were separated into two groups that afternoon and then into two dorms which sat over the water and were filled with brightly coloured hammocks. The ‘kuna toilets’ were just outside too, which had a bucket shower and a toilet which hung over the sea. Quite pleasant really, having that gush of breeze every few minutes…
That evening we had chicken burritos, super delicious YET AGAIN… the staff put so much work into the meals everyday. The evening carried on into the night playing ‘one truth two lies’ and the CLASSIC ‘heads down thumbs up’ with shots of rum on hand.
It was time to retire to our boudoir and we stumbled around trying to drunkenly climb into the swinging hammocks. The wind blew through the open windows in the dorm and the sea gently splashed against the wooden boards.
We woke up the next day with slightly stiff necks and even more grey skies. We were hoping we would at least see one day with bright blue skies! It was a delicious breakfast again and we boarded the boats towards what looked like a storm. (A new engine had been provided to the other boat pretty much straight away by the way… amazing). The kuna were adamant we should get going before the storm got too bad. After about an hour we were hit with torrential rain and got so soaked. We are all in our swimwear though so it wasn’t the end of the world but because the boats are so quick the rain comes in at quite a force and the boat crashes down on the waves quite spectacularly.
Before we knew it we were making a stop at another nearby island so we could wait for the storm to pass. We were invited into a Kuna families home where we were given hot coffee. After a while we were given a small tour around the village and met some more of the lovely locals. They also had some handicrafts and bracelets to buy. We learnt all about the school but unfortunately we couldn’t have a look around because we weren’t dressed appropriately – the school children were SO smartly dressed and long trousers and shoes are a must at all times. We were also shown around the beach area where there were some small wooden huts – these were apparently holiday huts for the Kuna people to rent. Really adorable.
After about two hours of rain we were OFF and headed to Coco Bandera Island. The rain cleared and we were finally feeling motivated again. When we drew up to the island it was a literal OMG moment. The Island was surrounded by amazing turquoise waters, even clearer than the last, the sand was even whiter and the island was opposite two more paradise spots, close enough to swim too.
Our spirits were lifted when we found a cool relax area, a bonfire area, western toilet, and the cutest hammock area on the sand. We all felt so relaxed. Some of the group played volleyball all afternoon and the rest of us went to snorkel. As we jumped in the water we were met with a ton of huge orange starfish. We carried on our swim for about half an hour to find the most INSANE coral reef. The San Blas is actually home to the third biggest coral reef in the world so we were eager to experience it. The water was full of incredible coloured corals, multicoloured fish, electric jellyfish, eagle rays, manta rays and a ton of other amazing stuff. We swam for about an hour loving every minute before we got pretty tired and it was time to head back to chill with the group.
Just check this out:
Amazing snorkel spots
In love with these starfish
The clearest waters ever & my new Kuna necklace!
Coral & fish
More amazing corals
San Blas Adventures have lots of recycling projects in place
The new toilet block painted by guide Lena
Such fresh sand
Jack & I enjoying paradise on Coco Banderas – our favourite island
That night we were treated to the most prawns I have EVER seen in my life, octopus ceviche, potatoes and quinoa. Svea and the team rustled up some rum punch too and told us we would be setting up an epic bonfire that night. We looked up to the sky and saw FINALLY the clear sky we always hoped for. The sky was filled with stars! The evening involved copious amounts of beer, rum and red wine, toasting marshmallows on the fire the beach feeling the sand between our toes. To be honest at that point we all felt that despite the grey weather we had had an absolute blast and we still had half a day to go! We eventually found our hammocks at about 3am after renditions of crazy frog wearing a snorkel and losing a nose ring in the process and the bonfire was nearly out. What a last evening to remember…
I woke at 7am after just a few hours of sleep & saw some light trying to escape through the wood… SUN IT WAS FLIPPING SUN !!!!!!!! I jumped from my hammock in actual amazement. Anything could happen on these islands. From torrential rain to bright blue skies in no time. Pretty quickly the whole dorm was up and ready to get in the sun to soak up those last day VTT (valuable tanning time) vibes. We spent the morning snorkelling some more, sunbathing and taking those last min pics for the gram. We were all in love with this island, it was definitely my favourite. The set up was so spot on it was the paradise we always dreamed of coming to.
Little did we know we were in for a real treat and we would be stopping at the most insane little slice of heaven on the way back towards mainland Panama. We stopped here at our final island until early afternoon for a fresh fish lunch and a swim on STARFISH BEACH. YES STARFISH BEACH. I was in absolute heaven. Hundreds of starfish covered the shallow waters. It was mind blowing for me & one the best things I’ve ever seen.
I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
Serious chill time
Our time in the San Blas/Kuna Yala with San Blas Adventures was up. It was time to drag ourselves on the boats again headed for Carti on mainland Panama, where we would meet our jeeps that would transport us and in two hours we would be in Panama City. We were all exhausted and slightly overwhelmed from the last few days but we couldn’t believe how much FUN the whole experience was overall. It really was THE MOST EPIC way to travel to Central from South America.