The Great San Blas Adventure: Part 2

We watched the plane that we were supposed to be on fly away. As it flew over us we waved our arms as if we were stuck on a deserted island.

In a way we were. With one plane a day, which is usually full, there was no guarantee we could get off the island any time soon. We looked to our canoe driver for guidance.

He stammered something in Spanish. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was, but it certainly wasn’t an apology. He turned the canoe around and headed for Rio Sidra. Rio Sidra is the “big” island of the chain, but that’s relative.

We pulled up to the concrete pier and climbed up on to the island. Unlike Isla Robinson, Rio Sidra doesn’t have a single tree on it. Its hard packed dirt that’s packed full of a few small concrete buildings and lots of thatched huts. In between the huts are small gaps that function as pathways to navigate the island. There’s a larger path that goes down the middle of the island. It’s not a road, though – there are no vehicles on the island.

We walked down the main path and crossed over the basketball court that belonged to the nearby school. The kids from the neighboring islands all take boats there every day to go to school.

Across the basketball court was a small restaurant, possibly the only restaurant on the island. We sat at one of the two tables. The owner came to our table with a big smile and no shirt.

“Don’t worry! I speak English. I served a lot of people in the army. I cooked for them.”

There were no menus. The one dish at that time of day was “breakfast”, which is two deep fried biscuits. We all wolfed them down, diet be damned. Our guide left before we began eating and still hadn’t come back by the time we finished.

The Germans were less concerned about the situation than we were. They didn’t have a flight home the next day like we did. They stayed in the restaurant while Todd and I headed out looking for our guide.

We found him near a pay phone.

“What did Mr. Robinson say?”

“We can’t call him until 10. He’s sleeping.”

That was two hours away and our chances of getting home soon are slipping away fast. After realizing that the payphones on the island were out of order we paid someone to use his cell phone and started hammering away.

We called the airline. It was Friday and there wasn’t another flight out until at least Monday. Could we charter a flight? No. Was there any other way to get out? Not that they knew of.

Our guide offered that there was a small town an hour away by boat. From there there was a primitive dirt road that could be used to get to Panama City in four hours on a hired 4×4. But we had to reserve a 4×4 in advance and no one seemed to know how to get in touch with them.

We started putting some pressure on our guide. We had to get back today. What was he going to do? Could he call Mr. Robinson?

“I’ll be right back.”

We watched him run away through the maze of thatched huts.

After an hour he still wasn’t back. Another hour passed and there was no sign of him.

Todd and I set out through the village looking for him. He was nowhere to be found. We went back near the dock and continued to wait. No sign of him. We figured out that the name of the town to go to was “Carti”, but we couldn’t contact anyone there.

There was another guy from the island who had come on the canoe with us. He knew where our guide was, but wouldn’t tell us.

“I’ll go get him.”

He disappeared too for at least half an hour. When he was back I asked him about Mr. Robinson.

“He’s in a hut. I’ll get him.”

“No. Take me there.”

He reluctantly agreed. We navigated the paths until we got to yet another thatch hut, where our guide was doing cocaine.

Great. We’re stranded on an island in the middle of nowhere and our guide is doing cocaine.

“You need to take us to Carti.”

“Ok, but first I have to bring some stuff to Isla Robinson.”

“No. We need to go now.”

We manage to corral everyone and some boxes of equipment into the dugout canoe for the ride to Carti. Twenty feet from the dock we started taking on more water than could be bailed out. Our U-turn to the dock almost landed us underwater. Even our guide had a momentary look of panic.

“I’ll take the canoe to the island, get the big boat, and pick you up.”

The menu had changed in our two table restaurant. The one option was now “lunch”, which was fried chicken, rice, and salad. We sat there picking at our food, betting on when the boat would get back.

It came back earlier than we expected, given its captain’s penchant for sitting in huts and doing cocaine, and we started off towards Carti. This time Todd and I had full rain gear on, and our packs had their rainflies on. It felt glorious to use our gear.

For some reason I imagined that Carti would be a small bustling town. We’d be able to walk around and choose a 4×4 company to take us to Panama City. If they were closed, we could choose a hotel to stay at. The accomodations wouldn’t be fancy, but they’d be comfortable enough.

I was wrong. Carti has only one building in it which is half waiting area and half restauraunt. Rows of 4x4s were parked outside. Kuna indian women, dressed in their traditional dress, wait on benches under the awning.

None of the 4x4s have drivers. We pay two dollars each for a “facility surcharge” and wait on a bench. No one knows when a 4×4 with a driver might come along, if at all.

We wait for hours. Todd takes a nap, I listen to my MP3 player, and the Germans play scrabble on a really cool travel board they brought.

A 4×4 finally comes. It looks new and safe. We’re going to make it back after all. The driver gets out and waits for a boat – he’s not for hire.

An hour later another 4×4 comes. It’s the worst looking 4×4 I’ve ever seen. The white paint is faded, chipped, and in some places covered in putty. Its two doors lead to a cramped interior swathed in ripped vinyl. There’s an extra battery in the footwell of the passenger seat.

This, of course, is our ride. At least this means the road can’t be too bad, otherwise the thing would have never made it here.


The road is insane. It’s like something that hard core 4×4 enthusiasts would drool over. No section of the road is straight and flat. If it’s not a sharp corner ahead, then the 4×4 is skidding trying to keep its traction going up the hill or is careening back down the other side. The red mud road is flanked by thick jungle foliage on each side.

It’s an adventure hampered only slightly by the noxious fumes circulating through the passenger compartment.

We go down a steep windy hill and I see a river ahead of me. We must have gone the wrong way – the river is 80 feet long and looks deep. And it is deep. I can tell because minutes later it has flooded through the footwells of the car and our ankles are underwater.

An hour later we’re not in the 4×4 anymore. It’s broken down and refuses to start. We’re miles away from any sort of civilization. After half an hour of not being able to fix the car I’m secretly hoping that we have to sleep in the jungle.

The driver clearly doesn’t share my secret desire. He has now disassembled the engine into little piles of metal pieces. He blows through a small greasy metal gizmo, trying to dislodge something from it. This doesn’t seem like it will work.

But it does. Forty five minutes later, we’re back on the road. The car isn’t even backfiring as much as it was before. We finally clear the jungle and after a brief switch to a taxi in Chepo, we’re home free.

What a way to end our trip to Panama.


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