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66. San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala)

Panama

After a gazillion travellers and advertisements had pointed out all the amazing highlights of the San Blas Islands, we knew we had to get out there. We signed up for a two night stay on one of the cheaper islands, hoping that it would be small, tropical oasis where we could escape civilisation for a while. I don't think I was prepared for how small it would be.

 

We were picked up at 6am (after being told to be ready by 5am) and driven out to the port three hours away. A basic, open-walled boat drove us through the archipelago, passing by dozens of tiny islands studded with palm trees and occasionally a building or two. 30 minutes later we pulled up to one of these tiny islands, and the realisation that speck of nothingness was where we would be living for the next two days sank in. 

 

Franklin Island was maybe, at a stretch, 150 metres across in all directions. On this minute patch of sand, there were two resorts. By resorts, I mean a few wooden shacks lined up along the water containing a bed a nothing else (not even a lock on the door), plus communal bathrooms and a kitchen area. A few hammocks were strung about. That. Was. It. Also, no electricity until 6pm, which actually didn't bother us at all. A fence had been built down the middle to remind you which side you belonged to. We belonged to Senidup. 

I am not good with having nothing to do. I like being busy, on the go. I knew straight away that this experience would test me, but I felt prepared for the challenge. I had a long list of things to do so that I could never get restless. I also hoped to relax for at least part of the time, learning to be at peace with not being active 100% of the time. Many people have the opposite problem. They would love it here.

 

First item on the list: swimming. The water was crystal clear, the sand powdery and white, it was a beautiful day, so swimming was the obvious choice. The temperature was perfect. A few reefs and rocks meant that snorkeling was on the cards for later on too. Looking back at the island from the water, it was as though I was staring at a brochure for a tropical island getaway. The whole place was picture-perfect; even our rickety huts, that looked like they would fall down in a strong breeze. 

Lunch for me was rice, beans and salad, which was delicious, fresh and exactly what I wanted. Danny also received a fried fish, which we were sure was caught that morning just off the shore. We were pleasantly surprised to see fresh vegetables and to be given a healthy lunch. Some islands we visited seemed to subsist on canned, processed foods, but thankfully that didn't seem to be the case here. We asked about tours to other islands but were informed that nothing was going out today. That meant I had about five hours of time to fill in with nowhere to escape to.

 

I started in the hammocks, having a powernap and listening to the lapping of the water on the beach. I couldn't do this for more than 30 minutes before needed to stand up. I had energy to burn, so I spent it walking around the circumference of the island. The locals and the other handful of tourists must have thought I was crazy. It took five minutes to finish one loop, part of which was through the water. There was only so long I could keep that up (about 10 loops, it turned out). The rest of the day was spent between hammock-time, lap-walking, swimming and reading, swapping activities regularly to keep me relaxed (I know, I know, it sounds like a paradox, but keeping active really does relax me).

 

Dinner was served at 5pm, announced by the blowing of a conch shell. I think they might have struggled with my vegetarian status, as I was served rice with raw carrots and capsicum. As long as there was no meat, I wasn't complaining. Danny ate chicken with his meal, but then also ordered a lobster, caught fresh that day. It came out covered in the most garlicky sauce you would ever taste in your life, with vegetables and fried potatoes on the side. I would say it looked impressive, if it wasn't a dead animal on a plate. Danny loved it, happily handing over $20 for a dish that would cost about $100 back home.

After an early night to bed we woke about 6am the following morning, where I made myself stay put until the conch blew for breakfast at 7am. Staying in bed after I had woken up was something I NEVER did. It wasn't so bad, but I wasn't about to start making it a habit. Breakfast was interesting: Danny was given a fried, doughy dumpling-type pancake with tinned sausages and ham in sauce, while I was given a single, plain pancake. So canned food did make an appearance. We missed the peanut butter/Vegemite breakfasts of Panama City.

 

Following breakfast I completed a few more laps around the island, working off that whole, single pancake I ate. The rest of the morning was filled with swimming and researching the next stage of our holiday. Clearly I was not getting the hang of the "doing nothing" goal I had given myself. 

 

Once we had eaten lunch (again, rice and raw vegetables) we joined up with another couple of head out to Estrella (Starfish) Island, a much bigger but uninhabited island only 15 minutes away. Bright orange cushion sea stars, the size of dinner plates, were dotted along the sea floor in the shallow waters. Snorkeling over the top of them only held our attention for a few minutes; they didn't do anything, and when you've seen one, you've seen them all. We continued snorkeling out to deeper waters, watching large schools of tiny grey fish forming underwater clouds, flowing from one shape into another. It was incredible that they could all communicate with one another so everyone was on the same page. Out of the water we wandered around the parts of the island that weren't covered in rubbish, amazed at how idyllic the San Blas region was. 

My meals on the first day on Franklin Island were great. The staff remembered that I was vegetarian and prepared dishes accordingly. On the second day, it wasn't so great. For breakfast, lunch and dinner they forgot to prepare a meatless menu, which they could work around for the first two meals but they struggled at dinnertime. After politely sending my fish back they got to work in the kitchen, rummaging around for something they could serve me. It ended up being a fruit plate. Most of it was melon, which I hate, so Danny ate this while I polished off the few pieces of pineapple. Not the most satisfying meal in the world. Danny had ordered another lobster as a second dinner, this time without garlic. Salad and boiled potatoes were on the side, which Danny kindly offered to me so I didn't become hangry (he knows me too well). 

 

Breakfast the next morning was just as enticing. Everyone was given one empanada, filled with an unidentifiable processed meat. I was given the same dish, with raw veggies on the side. Weird. 

 

I completed my obligatory loops around the island before we grabbed some snorkeling gear and headed into the water. It took us a no time at all to find the coral, and once we did we discovered how much sea life there was right off the island. The coral itself was fantastic, with lots of colourful small- and medium-sized fish swimming in amongst the reef. I spotted my new favourite fish, the disco fish, and decided that the parrotfish was a close runner up. Black sea urchins were lurking every time I wanted to put my feet down to stand up (it was like they could predict my every move). Once the water became choppy the waves continuously pushed me over the shallow rocks, resulting in dozens of cuts to my hands and legs. I called it a day and hopped out. Danny continued on, seeing needlefish, squid and pufferfish. I should have sucked it up and followed him further out.

 

At lunch they remembered no meat! Rice, beans, salad (with more than two vegetables) plus cooked tomatoes, which I completely drowned in chili sauce. It was the best meal yet. 

 

We had another three hours of time to fill before heading back to the mainland, during which I did absolutely nothing. I sat in the hammock, read a little bit but mostly just stared out to sea. The world didn't end, I didn't rust up from lack of movement and I didn't become a nut case because I hadn't ticked something off my list (apart from the goal of doing nothing, which I could now tick off my list). I could do it! Even though it was only a few hours, I had to start somewhere. I'm sure I would have plenty more times to practise in the coming weeks.