The Great San Blas Adventure: Part 1

We called Mr. Robinson, as instructed.

“Hi. We’d like to come to Isla Robinson on Thursday.”

They’re barely mentioned in guidebooks, but every seasoned traveler who goes through Panama City knows about the San Blas islands. They’re stuck in the northeast of Panama City. By law, only Kuna Indians can own them.

Every random traveler we met would rave about the islands and tell us that we had to go. Every week we’d intend to go, but then put it off for work. With our last week approaching we hastily called Mr. Robinson, whose number is passed from traveler to traveler, and told him we’d be there for two days.

There’s only one flight out there every day, and our flights there and back were the only two that were still available for the week. I wondered if it might be a bad idea to come back the day before our flight out of here, but we had no other options.

The night before our trip a taxi driver told us that we only needed to get to the airport fifteen minutes in advance since it was a domestic flight. We were glad to hear this since the flight was at 6am. Every few minutes of sleep would be precious.

We woke up at 5am, packed, and ate breakfast. We got a taxi to the airport and arrived fifteen minutes before the flight as was suggested to us.

“I’m sorry, it’s too late for you to get on that flight.”

Some advice. At first we were told that the following day’s flight was full as well but a little persistence and pretending not to understand the rejection someone left us with seats on the next day’s flight.

We’d have only one day on the island but it was better than nothing.

We arrived much earlier at the airport the following day and made it on to the 24 seat plane with no problems. The tiny plane bounced around through the clouds, prompting many of the passengers to hold on to the ceiling for dear life or make the sign of a cross on their chests.

Todd took a nap.

I tried to take pictures out of the window, but they didn’t come out very well. Within a few minutes of leaving the city we were over the jungle. No roads or signs of civilization could be seen – just miles of uninhabited jungle.

After forty five minutes we land at the “airport”, which is nothing more than a clearing in the jungle with a dirt runway. No roads lead to it, just a relatively shoddy pier with some brightly painted dugout canoes attached to it.

Todd and I, of course, are very excited. We’ve spent all of our time in the city so it’s great to see something this primitive. We take out our cameras and start filming and snapping pictures.

We find Mr. Robinson’s associate and he ushers us onto a dugout canoe which is having water bailed out of it. It has a small motor on the back.

Once we sit down in the canoe we’re handed a large tablecloth. We don’t understand so the canoe attendant gestures that we should cover ourselves with it. We might get wet.

The canoe sets out into the ocean and within just a few minutes we regret not having put our cameras in our bags. Water is spraying us with every wave that we cross. We hold our cameras under the tablecloth, but somehow they still get wet. By the time we get to the island we’re totally soaked from head to toe.

We hardly care, though.

The island is amazing. It’s a tiny plot of sand whose perimeter can easily be jogged in two minutes flat. We land on a cleared semicircle of a beach which juts out into the ocean, but the rest of the island is covered with small thatched huts, hammocks, and coconut trees. From any point on the island you can easily see the ocean on every side.

It’s a breathtaking view of pure paradise.

We’re shown to our hut. It’s like every other hut- just one small room with two cots and a small shelf for our backpacks. Some previous tenants have made some simple wind chimes out of coral and hung them near the door in the front.

We walk around the island in awe. I stop to climb a tiny coconut tree to get a coconut. A couple minutes later one of the Kuna comes up to us and cuts it with a machete so that I can drink it. It’s delicious.

Most of the day is spent staring at the sea from a hammock which rocks naturally in the breeze, or sitting in the dining room hut with the other travelers. There’s Adam from Israel, Frank and Stephanie from Germany, and Niles and his girlfriend from Ireland.

Frank tells us all about Germany, particularly Berlin where he lives, and for the first time makes me eager to go visit the country. He offers to show us around when we get there this summer.

It’s interesting talking to all the travelers. Isla Robinson is the smallest and most primitive of the San Blas islands, and I think it attracts a certain type of traveler, although I can’t imagine anyone not loving it.

We talk about where we’ve lived and visited. All of the foreigners are incredulous that people in the US actually believe what our news stations tell us. They say that they get CNN as well and it’s common knowledge overseas that the US news is manipulated and not to be trusted.

They all love their countries. They say that everyone in Europe hates Bush and the way America bullies other countries, but that they don’t hate Americans because they realize that the people aren’t responsible for what the country does. It’s very interesting to hear this unfiltered view of the US.

Interestingly, everyone speaks excellent English.

Meals are simple. Beans, fish, or chicken with rice and salad. With the exception of the small freshly caught fish, the food isn’t particularly good. It doesn’t matter, though. You don’t go to the island for the food.

We do our Crossfit on the island as the sun sets. We find a log to use as a barbell and we do pushups and jog around the island. I used the GPS on my watch to measure the perimeter, which almost a perfect quarter mile.

After our first lap around the island the 10 year old Kuna boys get interested and start running with us. For the rest of the workout they sit while we do our pushups and shoulder presses and then try to race us around the island.

After we finish and collapse onto some logs they stay with us and talk to us in Spanish. They tell us about living on the island and about the travelers they meet. They’re both exceedingly friendly and bright.

It was difficult to see the sand during our final lap around the island, and by the time we’re finished hanging out with the boys the sun is totally gone. The stars are spectacular. You can see that some are red and some are blue, and you can even see part of the cloud of stars that forms the milky way.

We lie down in our cots in the cabin. It’s pitch black and all that we can hear is the crashing of the waves ten feet away. The floor in the hut is just the sand that was there when they built it.

It occurs to me that this is the authentic experience that fancy resorts try to recreate all over the world. Except that instead of having a hand built hut that’s made by the same guy that catches your fish, theirs are mass produced or even made out of synthetic materials. It’s not the same.

The reason the experience is luxurious is because it’s so carefree and simple. It feels real because it is.

We wake up the next morning at 5:30. We were told that the boat would leave for the “airport” at exactly six am.

At six we’re standing with the Germans, who are also leaving, and admiring the amazing sunrise. The boat driver is nowhere to be found.

Finally he shows up and mutters some excuse for being late. He starts preparing the boat to the protests of the German girl.

“We can’t take that boat! It almost sank two days ago. It’s too small for all of us.”

Apparently they took a trip to another island and the tiny dugout canoe took in too much water and nearly sank. He insists that it’s the only boat that we can take and assures us that it’s ok.

Todd and I have learned our lesson from the first trip. We are dressed head to toe in rain gear, and have our cameras wrapped in our bags with the rain flies on.

As expected, the canoe does take on quite a bit of water, but Frank does his best to scoop it out with a milk jug that’s been cut in half. As we near the dock we see the plane land. The new batch of visitors leave the plane and gather their luggage.

And then the plane leaves. Without us. We’re three minutes from the dock.

To be continued…

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