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Touring the San Blas Archipelago
By Ilene Little
When tourists read about Panama, they learn about the San Blas Islands. It’s every traveler’s fantasy island location. Comprising three hundred sixty-five picture-postcard perfect islands –“one for each day of the year,” said my Guna host– only 40 are opened to tourists.
It’s all true what you hear about the San Blas Islands. The powdery white sand, piercing turquoise water, palm trees, grass huts and a kaleidoscope of watery scenes engulf you from all sides.
The 1-½ hour drive from Panama City to get to San Blas can seem long, but you can also fly to the coast. Either way, the journey really begins when you board a panga for the ride offshore which can sometimes last up to an hour.
The typical panga boat found in San Blas is a sturdy, 25-foot open boat powered by an outboard motor. They seat approximately 16 people or less, depending upon luggage. Most have Bimini tops with side-curtains.
A trip to San Blas is an inner as well as a physical journey. The little hat-shaped islands appear dotted along the blue horizon, many of them no larger in perimeter than 600 feet (182 meters) and separated by five or six miles from nearby islands.
The island destination I stayed at was Senidub. It felt like I was on my own private beach, but with just enough other people to enjoy idle conversations with new friends.
I went “hostel” style on a back-packer budget. I was able to stay four days and three nights for $75, which included three simple meals a day of fish or chicken with rice, garnished with the occasional tomato or pineapple slice. The whole trip, including transportation and tours, cost me a little over $200.
The meals are adequate. If you require more than Nescafe coffee, ketchup and hot sauce, you might want to bring your own condiments or your favorite foods. If you spearfish or buy from passing fisherman, you can dine on lobster and fresh fish.
Every island I visited had a tiny store that sold, in addition to molas (the traditional costume of a Guna woman), soft drinks, and an assortment of candy, beer and rum. Coconuts were abundant and often rum and coconut drinks were part of the evening beachside gatherings.
I was amused to be given a pink wristband upon arrival. I would call it the Guna version of an all-inclusive vacation destination.
Being a snorkeling buff, I spent every day either in the water, exhausted at day’s end in a hammock, or taking tours: the Guna version of island hopping by panga to see other islands.
Dog Island was the best “beginner snorkeler” destination I’ve seen anywhere in the world. There’s a shipwreck, part of which is accessible in shallow water, and a bounty of colorful coral heads fanning out in all directions from the wreck in deeper depths.
Every sailor who has cruised San Blas seems to know Dog Island. It’s obviously a destination perfect for cruisers to anchor and let the kids (of all ages) go play together with other kids on a deserted beach.
There are many good guides. Two I can recommend based on my own trip are:
Ricardo Fernandez, a college student, fluent in English.
Manuel Gagné. Manuel is from Quebec, speaks fluent English as well as French. He is an excellent choice for French and English speaking tourists wishing to experience islands in Panama and Colombia.
In Panama 607 6154 1453
In Colombia 313 876 9881