Kuna Yala (San Blas) Islands, Panama

Above from left to right. Panama (for perspective). The cross country route we took through dense tropical jungle to the Caribbean coast and our 5 boat trips to/from two islands and the mainland.

This is a long story but we hope it will give you some insight into the trials and tribulations (well ours anyway) of travelling to these beautiful islands.

San Blas is an island archipelago in an autonomous Kuna indigenous region consisting of over 365 islands of which about 49 are inhabited. The Kuna people administer the islands and control the overall level of tourism that is allowed.

We stayed on two islands over six nights. Narasgandup Bipi Island and Icodub Island.

Picture sun soaked islands no bigger than a city block ringed with white sand beaches, thick coconut palms and clear azure waters surrounded by breaking waves crashing over the reefs that protect these idyllic islands in the Caribbean off the east coast of Panama.

Throw in rest and relaxation, sun tanning, swimming in crystal clear waters, fresh seafood for lunch and dinner, cheap cold beer and you have all the fixings for a perfect 6 night 7 day getaway.

Now meet “Remy”, our San Blas Island Travel “Specialist” from San Blas Wild Travel who’s favorite line is “trust me” and who’s wife worked at reception at our hotel (The Executive Hotel) in Panama City and highly recommended “this person” as someone who can definitely help us plan a great getaway.

We connected on WhatsApp with Remy on Thursday, January 26th and met at our hotel on Saturday. He seemed like a nice man, happy to meet us but kept saying “trust me” during our 1+ hour meeting. This should have tipped us off. He danced around answering questions definitively, bragged about being rated number 3 on TripAdvisor and said he knew the islands and the Kuna people inside and out. So, we trusted him.

Our senses should have warned us or at least we should have taken a one day breather before committing ourselves to use his services but we had become frustrated trying to arrange travel to the Pearl Islands and we were concerned we wouldn’t get anything planned and this seemed to just fall into our laps. We should have known better. We explained what we wanted and he said he could deliver and we trusted him.

We were organized and ready to go Sunday evening and we crashed early for our 5:00 am pick up. We were told we were to be picked up in a 4×4 with our driver and an excellent English speaking guide who was to accompany us on daily excursions if we chose to do them. We were further led to believe it would be just the two of us for the 3 hour journey across Panama to the east coast.

At around 1:00 am we woke up to an alarm going off outside our hotel. This happened a couple of times during our 5 night stay in Panama City. I rolled over and looked at my night stand and noticed I had a WhatsApp message from Remy sent at 10:30 pm. “So sorry Mr. Robert. The island you were supposed to stay on tomorrow is having a medical inspection so I have to send you to a different island”.

Here we go.

I sent a “what the hell is going on” reply and then later sent another stating that as long as our accommodation has a private bathroom and the island is nice then we will let this ride. “Yes indeed it does and here is a video” he replied. “Trust me”.

The video was a short clip of a nice over water bungalow with a terrace overlooking the water, a lower deck to enter the water and a quick view of a similar bungalow beside it. Wow, it looks nice!

Five in the morning arrives and we have a driver and another passenger from the hotel and two more people already sitting in the back seats of a large 4×4 SUV. There is no English speaking guide and already three people over the limit of a “private vehicle” and we still had one more person to pick up who ends up cramming himself between us in the middle of a two seater.

We proceeded on a three hour journey, two of which was paved highway and the remaining hour on a pot holed winding mountainous road through the rainforest crammed together and extremely uncomfortable. There was next to no space to store bags or luggage so the poor guy stuck in the middle between us had to balance a large pack on his lap the whole 3 hour journey while Joyce got squashed every time we hit sharp bends in the road. The scenery however was beautiful.

We arrived at the port at 8:30 sharp and were directed to our boat and headed out into heavy seas. It was close to a one hour, very rough journey to Narasgandup Bipi Island. We got drenched from head to toe and looked like drowned rats when we finally arrived. We expected this could happen so it was no big deal really. Part of the adventure. We wish we had a Go Pro or something mounted to our heads. The video would have been great.

We struggled out of the boat and were shown our bungalow.

Hmmm, we didn’t see this bungalow in the video. It was nice and located at the edge of the water and had a private bathroom but wasn’t over the water and had no terrace or outdoor sitting area. We agreed to take it, we didn’t really have a choice as the two others that did have outdoor terraces were booked. We dried off, organized our stuff a little and proceeded to explore a bit of the island.

The Island was beautiful.

Right beside our bungalow was the entrance to a small Kuna pueblo of thatched huts neatly arranged along sandy path ways. These are the people who have lived here for generations and administer the island.

Further on was a beautiful sandy beach and several small sand floor bungalows for rent, a little restaurant/bar and more pathways through thick coconut palm groves through the middle to the other side and to the opposite end of the island from where we were.

We had a very nice lunch of fresh fish, salad and plantain and then headed to the beach for a while then back to our bungalow for a shower after which we went to the restaurant right beside us, had several beers and then an amazing feast of fresh crab. Things were looking up.

Bedtime came early.

We had a long day and we both had one of the best sleeps we’ve had in a long time. No air conditioning, just the wind blowing through the bungalow and the waves lapping/sort of crashing along the shore. We knew we had to leave early the next morning but we also figured that our next island would probably be just as nice as this one.

In the morning we had an 8:00 am departure and another bone bashing soaking wet boat ride to Icodub Island. On our way we passed several idyllic looking islands and then not far off in the distance a rather barren looking island with a nice looking beach. The island was maybe the size of 1 1/2 – 2 football fields and sparsely dotted with palms and looking like well, a football field with some palm trees. We asked the boat driver if this is our island and he says…….YES and we said NFW!

We were not happy campers.

There is no way in hell that we would have agreed to spend 6 nights on this island, 5 nights now but even 5 nights was 5 nights too many.

We got off the boat and carried our bags to the reception area where we were met with some puzzlement. “Who are you? Hmmm. We don’t have your names in our little book here. Remy? Hmmm. Are you paying for the accommodation?”

We are now seriously pissed off campers.

The people behind the reception counter made a couple of calls. I asked if it was Remy they were talking to but only got smiles and nods. They then showed us a picture of a guy on their cell phone and asked if this was Remy. We replied it looks like a guy in a dark closet and it’s impossible to tell. That’s fine, we have a bungalow with private bath and it will be ready in a few minutes. Progress.

During this time I sent a WhatsApp to Remy demanding he call me and telling him this island was completely unacceptable and we really really really aren’t happy. He didn’t call us but he did say he would get back to us with some options.

After an incredible amount of back-and-forth Remy suggested two options. Number 1 was we should stay where we were because they have fewer visits. We are sure option number 1 was his easiest and cheapest way out of this mess. Option number 2 was to return to the first island, Natasgandup Bipi Island, the beautiful tropical island straight out of the post cards. The choice was obvious. We replied we wanted option number 2. What time do we leave tomorrow morning? 3:00 pm he responded because the seas are calmer. We call Bullshit!

We spent the night in a nice bungalow right on the waters edge and only 50 metres from a reef with giant crashing waves. Don’t get us wrong. The location was beautiful but unfortunately the wind howled all night through our slatted walls and the crashing waves made it feel like we could be swept away at any moment. It had a nice front porch but you had to practically tie yourself down so you wouldn’t blow away!

We had most of the day to kill before our boat trip so we lathered up with SPF and headed over to the beach. It was a nice beach.

There were white cheap plastic lounging chairs scattered about and a fresh boatload of day trippers. The problem was most of the lounging chairs were broken and the ones that weren’t were taken by the day trippers! This really sucks! And they played really loud sucky music too. And the picnic tables in the middle of the field looked like leftovers from an old Russian/Soviet hotel in Cuba.

Morning arrived and we had our included breakfast of scrambled eggs and some mashed plantain patties or something. We are not complaining. This was a typical breakfast. sometimes it came with a sausage. A hot dog wiener actually. We wished we had a bit of fruit but the coffee was fresh brewed and not bad. The night before we had the usual choice of fish or chicken. The fish was grilled whole and was dry but okay and the chicken was good. Almost like KFC.

We found one unbroken lounger so ended up using our beach blanket on the sand and enjoyed the sunshine, the beach and the beautiful Caribbean waters. And the blowing fine sand that infiltrated every pore of our bodies.

Check out time is 9:00 am. Will we have a problem because we check out at 3:00 pm? Well how about that. No problem.

At this point we have to give a very big thank you to Alex. Alex was a real gentleman and the men and one of the older women of the Kuna Yala who live on this island were extremely friendly. Interestingly the three young girls who worked in the restaurant were just like the young people we see everywhere today working in the hospitality industry. Uninterested, unfriendly and disconnected. The world is a small place.

Our boat arrives at about 3:15. We hop on and then start heading in the wrong direction.

Here we go again. Let the fun begin!

The seas are very heavy and in between crashing waves I get the attention of the guy who stands in the front of the boat.

The island is that way I yell. Yes it is he replies but we are taking you to the the port where you will change boats and then proceed to your idyllic island in the sun.

I don’t think I’ve said NFW as many times in my life within such a short period of time.

I demand they stop the boat and get Remy on the phone. We are so effing pissed off now that once I have Remy on the line I yell at him and try to make him understand how he has ruined what we hoped would be a tranquillo vacation. And I called him many names from the book of very pissed off phrases and names to use when you are very pissed off!

The boat stops dead in the water. We bob and float while the boat operators decide what to do. After my very vocal tirade a decision is made. It turns out they didn’t have enough gas to take us back to island number one so we proceed to a Kuna village on a nearby island where we can get gas and then proceed to our destination.

The boat ride was the worse so far. The boat slammed hard wave after wave and again we we got completely soaked. We arrived back at island # 1 at around 4:30.

We were welcomed back with open arms by a couple of the locals and then had our euphoria, based on the belief that we would spend the rest of our time here, four nights, crushed and destroyed. They had an over water bungalow available but only for two nights. The remainder of the nights were sold out!

Now it seems to us that if returning to this island was an option, you would think the person presenting this option would know the status of the accommodation he is offering us. You would think that he had realised how upset we were and how much he had screwed up. You would think that maybe, just maybe he might have a slight idea of how to run a tourist business. You would think.

It is difficult to explain how we felt. Very upset. Extremely pissed off. Ready to throw the towel in, stay the two nights and then head back to Panama City.

That is what we originally told Remy after we found out our situation but then decided it was probably better to lay around a beach on a crappy island than hang around Panama City for two days before we departed to Costa Rica.

It was 5:30 before we had moved into our bungalow. We showered off the salt water and headed over to the restaurant located beside our bungalow and also over water and consisted of one table and several local children. The beer were cold and around 7:30 we were treated to another fantastic dinner. This time lobster and plantain with tomato, cucumber and cabbage. It was delicious and we shared at least three lobster between us.

We took advantage of our stay and enjoyed the beach, the island and the people and we think we made a new friend or two.

Our boat ride back to Iacadu island was the first smooth ride we had. We were met with smiles from a couple of the local men (as mentioned they always seemed to be much friendlier than the women) and were shown to another bungalow (one of about six). It was nice and it would do for the last two nights we had to spend before heading back to the mainland and city.

We have no complaints about our accommodation on this island. It was comfortable, we had a toilet and the shower worked in an island kind of way but the last breakfast was just cappy.

Yummy. Sauté hot dogs.

An 8:00 am pick up took us back on a smooth dry boat trip back to the mainland where were met with a private SUV and driver and our 3 hour journey back to Panama City.

What we thought was going to be an amazing six night journey into the Kuna Yala Islands turned into a quagmire nightmare of back and forth from one island to the other and then back again. We did a total of five boat trips, four between the islands and one back to the port. All the enjoyment was lost when we had to continuously pack up and ride in heavy seas, get drenched and then have surprises at the other end.

So, the bottom line is this. Do your homework when travelling to the islands, try to connect directly with the specific island administrators, be prepared for some plan changes but by all means:


Panama City, Panama

Panama City is a large metropolis strewn with skyscrapers and on weekdays is clogged to the hilt with terrible traffic. It has a history dating back to 1519 where non other than Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias Davila founded the city on August 15th. The city was the starting point for expeditions that conquered the Inca Empire in Peru.

Obviously much has changed but nothing brought more change and benefit to the country than the construction of the Panama Canal.

Over the years since the building of the canal but also much more recently, in the past few decades or so, building and growth outweighed environmental concerns so today there are no real beaches that are swimmable with many areas polluted by untreated sewage. We’re told recently great effort has been put into sewage treatment but the people are resigned to the fact that it was too little too late. This according our driver who took us on a drive and tour of the Panama Canal.

There isn’t much to really see and do in the city other than to visit the Miraflores lock on the canal, watch a good Imax presentation on the history and construction of the canal, visit the Bridge of the Americas (one of three that cross the canal) and check out old town Casco Viejo.

Casco Viajo, Old Town Panama

We booked five nights in the city which was a little too long. We found it to be very expensive to eat out as everything is priced in USD. We also found again that the vast majority of restaurants do not cater to English speaking tourists. They do not have English menus and rarely anyone on staff speaks English and on several occasions we were treated like they would rather not have to serve us. And this in a city that boast itself as a major tourist destination. Again, we do not expect people to speak English just because we do but in an international financial hub and staying in the main hotel zone one would think there might be at a little effort shown towards us non Spanish speaking peons. We did howeve have some pretty good food.

In our opinion, spend as little time as possible in Panama City, have a plan to visit the San Blas Islands (more on this later), the Pearl Islands, Bocas del Toro or whatever you want to visit but for us at least, the city didn’t offer much of interest to us.

Panama City, Panama. A Prelude

Our flight out of Cartagena departed at 9:36 am, so we arrived the required three hours in advance and proceeded to the BC check in line. We were flying Copa Airlines and they had a promotion where we could bid on a Business Class upgrade and if successful we would get the upgrade for the price we bid. We were successful so we were looking forward to breakfast in the BC lounge and maybe a further snack on our flight. We bypassed all the Economy lines and proceeded to check in except we couldn’t check in (they did not allow us to) because we did not have proof of an onward flight out of Panama.

This is only the second time this has ever happened to us ever in all of our travels and no matter how hard we pleaded to just check us the in and we’ll deal with it at the other end if need be, they wouldn’t.

So now we’re scrambling but fortunately we arrived early so we had time to feverishly find a flight, make sure it could be cancelled within 24 hours, pay and then wait to receive the email confirmation with our etickets. “You have mail!” Yes, our etickets arrived within seconds. All set.

We proceeded back to the check in counter. When the agent asked for proof of onward travel we showed her our flights. She didn’t ask to see who the passengers were or anything other than the most basic information. We could have taken a frigging screen shot of any itinerary and it seems this would have sufficed. This kind of BS really ticks us off!

So now we’re looking forward to the business class lounge where we can unwind a little so we proceed through customs and immigration and security only to find out on the other end that there is no Copa Airlines Business Class Lounge in Cartagena International Airpot! We doubt there was one in Medellin so our guess is the only lounge they have is in Bogota International.

We’re starving by this point so we patiently wait in line at a tiny food kiosk stuck in the corner by the entrance to the public washrooms and purchase two cafe Americana and two ham and cheese sandwiches lightly toasted in some sort of moisture removing apparatus resulting in a warm and very dry ham and cheese delight.

We did get to board before most of the other passengers but all that meant was we had to wait in the hot sun on the tarmac for 10 minutes longer than all the other suckers while waiting for the cleaning crew to finish their business.

The seats on our flight were comfortable, the cheesy or some other kind of flavoured crispy twists were superb and the coffee and orange juice, “naranka!” I was told is the correct pronunciation, were divine.

One hour later, welcome to Panama City.