There are a few options for crossing the border from Panama into Colombia, one of them being the San Blas adventures islands tour which we had heard so many people rave about before we even left the UK. You can either fly from Managua in Nicaragua, San Jose or even Panama City into any of the major cities in Colombia. VivaColombia is a relatively new airline which has cheap flights from Panama to Bogota. Other than that, there is a 3 day ferry which is expensive and extremely long as you don't get off the ferry at any point. The other option often preferred by travellers is the 4 day San Blas tour where you spend minimal time on water (max 3 hours a day), and you stop off to sleep on the islands which are inhabited by the Kuna Yala tribe.
The Kuna Yala tribe originated from northern Colombia, however due to conflicts with other tribes, they were forced out of their home lands and pushed towards the Darian gap. Looking for a safer place to live, they sent their people along the islands to find permanent residence. Today 42 of the 400 official San Blas islands are now inhabited, with only 7 Kuna communities living in the mainland. In 1927 following the split between Colombia and Panama, the Kuna Yala became officially autonomous, with their own power and regulations, and they remain the sole owners of land in the San Blas islands. Surprisingly, there are no five star resorts or foreigners running any of the islands.
Our trip left Panama on two small local speed boats and drove for about an hour through crystal clear blue waters until we arrived at a small island called Pelicano. Having seen images online of the San Blas islands and been skeptical of how true to life they would be, any doubt in our minds was completely gone. It was the most beautiful sight we've ever seen. Pelicano is a tiny island covered in white sand and huge towering palm trees. After unloading our stuff onto the island, the 4 guides started prepping our lunch for us, which we were hugely looking forward to after our 4.30am start. Lunch on day 1 consisted of fresh tuna steak cooked in tomatoes and onions with coconut rice... it was delicious, and what's more they were not shy on portion sizes. If this meal was setting the tone for the next 4 days, we were about to be in for an absolute treat. After a few beers we all hopped back on the boats and headed to Coco Banderas, the island where we were to stay that night. We were shown to our rooms - when we say rooms we mean one shelter with 18 hammocks inside - our first reaction was hesitant! However they actually turned out to be pretty comfortable to sleep in. The hammocks for the Kuna's are their way of life, where they live, sleep and even procreate. When they marry they are granted a 'marital hammock' which is a lot larger than the normal one, and on the day of the wedding instead of saying "I do", they are both placed in this hammock and swung around repeatedly. We managed a few nights sleeping like the locals, but it's safe to say we were super thankful for our double bed waiting for us at the other end!
Evening came and to our surprise the food only improved. We all sat down after our beach day to an extremely full plate of freshly cooked lobster, octopus ceviche, coconut rice and a huge array of garlic hummus/spicy dips. We were in absolute heaven. Desperate to make the most of the money spent on this trip, we collectively ate our body weight in lobster and then passed out in the hammocks. At 5am we woke to sneak a peak at the night sky and it was so worth it, the stars were huge and we even caught sight of two shooting stars, as well as purple lighting flashing all through the night.
On day two we woke early at around 7am to the sound of the sea and swam across to a smaller island opposite. When we swam back we were greeted to a dreamy breakfast, fresh papaya, pineapple and chia seeds, banana and passion fruit, yoghurt and granola, as well as bread, jam, peanut butter, sweet cake and tea/coffee. We hopped back on the the boat and headed south to an island called Playón Chico, where we really were back to basics. There was literally only us, the ocean, and the trees. Yida, one of the guides, led a yoga class on the white sandy beach, followed by a snorkel tour round the island where we saw the most beautiful corals inhabited by tropical sea life... Narrowly avoided some baby jellyfish on route back and thankfully we returned unharmed. Deidamia, the Kuna guide we had with us, explained how we would be visiting an island that evening inhabited by lots of the locals, which we were really looking forward to.
The boat to Tupile only brought more surprises, the guide called us all to look ahead where we saw a pod of dolphins swimming up ahead. They then proceeded to swim all around the boat we were on, and as the water was so clear we could see everything. It was one of those moments where you actually have to pinch yourself and ask if what's going on is real.
When we arrived at Tupile, we sat and chilled out drinking some coconut water from the coconuts which had just fallen from the trees above. The San Blas islands are actually one of biggest coconut producers in the world, interestingly they are actually one of the Kuna's main sources of economy, used as currency to exchange for other goods! We then wandered around the houses and played around with the local kids. They were so beautiful, and certainly not shy! One thing we really noticed was that despite not having half the amount of toys or games that kids are used to having back home, we genuinely don't think we have seen happier children. The island was pretty basic with regards to activities or things to do, but the locals were so unfazed and content with what they had. Another thing we noted was the traditional dress of the older ladies, it was genuinely incredible. They wear handmade bracelets/anklets called 'chakiras' which are worn all up their arms and legs. These match the colours of the traditional stomach pieces they wear called 'molas', which can take months to make. They also wear the traditional dress - a colourful sarong and bandana. Yida explained that this is normally worn by females once they are married, although in today's society it is less compulsory as it used to be. Most of the girls have septum piercings with heavy gold rings inside, and also heavy earrings. This is also a tradition and is normally done around one month after the girls are born! Their flamboyant, colourful dress and body piercings made us think about the kind of things westerners aspire to dress like, especially at festivals, which is crazy. We found their style mesmerising and inspiring.
The gender roles in the Kuna tribe are interesting as although they still have what we see as 'traditional' gender roles, i.e. The women cook and clean whilst the men do the farming, this is apparently not in a degrading way, and women are actually considered just as strong or even stronger than men. In fact, after marriage they move to the woman's house and take the woman's family name. Another way they seem to be so forward thinking is towards homosexuals. There are many gay people in this region, and it is totally not frowned upon, they are very welcomed into the community. Walking around you even see a lot of transgender or transsexual men, their belief is that if you want to dress in traditional women's garments it is totally accepted by all Kuna.
Our last island stop for day 3 was called Pino, which is the biggest island in San Blas. Unfortunately we weren't so lucky with the weather on the last day, but we still made the most of it. While the boys played football with some of the Kuna's, the girls sat exchanging stories whilst Deidamia made us some chakira bracelets as a souvenir. After a quick wander round the village in the afternoon, we came back to a yummy meal totally prepared by the Kuna's which consisted of chicken, rice, and beans. After a few more drinks and laughs we prepped for the last night in a hammock... And we were certainly ready for it to be the last. One 'bucket' shower, toothbrushing from bottled water every day, and the ocean as your loo for 4 days was by this point getting to us. We were certainly looking forward to getting to Colombia.
We woke at 7am and had another incredible breakfast, this time it was cinnamon porridge as well as the fruit, yogurt, cereal etc. Today was border crossing day, which we were warned could take as long as 5 hours. Thankfully we got really lucky and they decided not to search our bags so it only took an hour. The boat ride across the border was amazing... We were speeding across open water with the view of the Colombian mountains the whole way, we had heard some crazy stories of smugglers and illegal activity that goes on inside, but you almost can't believe it from a view that looks so chilled out and beautiful. The guides told us a funny story about when the drug smuggling trade kicked off during Escobar's era. When the cargo ships were passing from Colombia to Panama, if they sensed anyone following them, the easiest way to avoid getting caught was to drop all the cocaine from the boats, which would then in turn wash up on the Kuna beaches. At first the locals were unsure of what it was, so they used it as white powder to draw out the lines of the volleyball courts until they realised what it actually was!! Imagine the chaos when it sunk in.
The boat brought us in to a small town called Capurganá, where we are crashing tonight before the early journey to Cartagena tomorrow morning.