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Barry Mason and Holly Lewis from Sussex, England, sent The Visitor this account of a road trip to the reservation of the Guna indigenous tribe and the fabled San Blas islands.
Road trip to San Blas. It gives you a good feeling to drive out of the high-rise city on to the South Corridor heading for an adventure in the San Blas islands. The drive across the isthmus from the Pacific to the Caribbean is an adventure in itself.
The South Corridor merges into the Pan American Highway which continues on to the Darien. About 10 minutes past the town of Chepo there is a checkpoint where the police will check your ID. Another 10 to 15 minutes brings you to the junction of the Nusagandi Road where you turn left and head into the hills.
The road climbs steeply away from the highway and anything but a 4×4 would really struggle. The road weaves and winds its way up to the continental divide through beautiful jungle and is largely paved but at the bottom of most of the large undulations the tarmac is interrupted by stretches of heavily potholed dirt track. Again, a 4×4 is necessary here as a normal car would not have the ground clearance to safely navigate over the rough terrain.
After driving at relatively slow speeds for around 35 minutes, and crossing the peak of the inter-continental divide, you reach a police check point at the border of the Guna Yala territory.
Just around the corner you encounter the Guna check point where they will ask your reasons for visiting, how long you are staying and where you are from, before relieving you of $20 per person visitors’ tax and $5 for the vehicle (Panamanian nationals pay $5 and foreign residents pay $10). The road on the Guna side of the divide is fully tarmacked and it winds its way down through virgin jungle for a further 30/40 minutes to the coastal outpost of Cartí. The overall journey time from Panama City is about 2 to 2.5 hours.
The Guna here speak very little English so at the boat booking office it is advisable to write down the name of the island you intend to stay on. The prices for all the islands are written on a piece of cardboard and they even give you a wristband and receipt.
We stayed on the island of Porvenir which was around a 30-minute boat ride and cost $25 per person for the round trip. The boat ride can be choppy and may test your sea legs as you cross the deeper waters of the lagoon. Bringing a dry bag for safekeeping valuables like cameras is advisable.
We had made no prior booking at the Porvenir Hotel, but we arranged a room at the cost of $60 per person per night. The hotel is rustic, but for accommodation in San Blas it is relatively luxurious with proper beds, an en suite with running water, a flushing toilet and a very basic shower. The price included three meals and two tours to other islands each day. The food is basic but hearty, and the family running the hotel is very friendly and accommodating. There is only electricity for 2-3 hours every evening so make sure to charge your camera while you can – then lights out at around 8:30 p.m. so a head torch is highly recommended.
The San Blas islands offer the visitor the chance to experience paradise, however rustic, in a few days without breaking the bank and crucially, without the crowds.