Welcome to a Caribbean untouched by the package holiday masses – islands inhabited instead by their own indigenous tribe, with their own rules and way of life. Where time has little relevance; the sun rises…and the sun sets.
I’m making my way through the San Blas islands, or to give them their proper name, the Kuna Yala Archipelago. They sit just off the northern coast of Panama, and for many travellers, passing through the 365 idyllic islands is one of the safest ways of crossing the border from Colombia.
The Panama coastline is still visible, its jungle-covered mountains rising on the horizon, shrouded in haze and mist. But while it’s an area of natural beauty, it’s definitely not a place to visit – the land between the two countries is notorious for drug cultivation, smuggling, armed rebels and death.
Travellers who have tried to make their way across the border through the Darian Gap have simply disappeared in the past, possibly falling foul of those controlling drug traffic in the area, the deadly wildlife, or simply just getting lost in the wilderness. There are many reasons its known to be one of the most dangerous areas of the world.
So the safest way is to either fly across the lethal area, at a price, or turn the journey into an adventure with four days island hopping around some of the most beautiful islands on Earth. We’re talking stereotypical Caribbean perfection- lush green palm trees swaying in the breeze over powdery white sand, crystal clear water lapping onto the shore, every colour of blue reaching out towards the horizon as the warm Caribbean sea drops down to a coral reef teeming with brightly coloured fish. When you think of a desert island, this is probably the image that springs to mind.
This trip also comes with an added bonus. There is absolutely no phone connection, no internet or wifi, no Facebook, no Twitter or Instagram. None of the modern day vices that keep most people these days, myself included, strapped to a smart phone or tablet. For four days, I’m having a modern life detox. So much so, Ive had to warn parents and friends I’ll be off the radar for a few days while I’m bobbing around in a speedboat and enjoying life as a castaway.
It takes two days even to reach the starting point for the trip, from a delightful little cove called Sapzurro. From Cartagena, it involved nine hours in mini vans and two boats. The beauty of the journey for me, on a bit of a whistlestop tour of Colombia, is that it gave me a great opportunity to see the real country. And for the first time, it became clear that this is still a very poor developing nation, with straw hut communities lining the route to our first overnight stop of Necocli.
Necocli doesn’t even feature in the Lonely Planet guide that’s helped me along the way, and with few tourists venturing to the area, I stuck with four Australian girls who I’ve been making the journey with. Kelsey, Rhiannon, and two Sarahs have been friends since school. Kelsey has been travelling for many months, her friends flying out from Sydney and Adelaide to all meet up and see the world together.
We found a restaurant in what could be classed as the town’s main square, and along with the usual bit of Aussie and Brit banter, enjoyed chicken and rice. I passed on the fish soup starter that arrived beforehand, complete with its random blob of ‘something in the middle’.
The next morning, it was an early start for the 8am boat to Capurgana. Gradually, the beach beside the ticket sales hut filled with a mix of backpackers and locals eager to make the journey.
Street food sellers gathered to satisfy the breakfast hunger pangs of the blurry eyed seafarers to be. Two dogs followed us from the hotel to the beach, clearly with inside information we’d not had breakfast and would be bound to give in to temptation at some point. I opted for a traditional Colombian arepa, a slightly dry, fried maize pancake with an egg in the middle. It’s not the tastiest of foods, but it filled a gap. Our two doggy friends also got a reward for their patience.
One of the warnings we’ve all been given about the trip is our bags can get wet, and to wrap everything in bin bags beforehand. Entrepreneurial stall holders were selling giant sacks for about 25p each, into which we eagerly placed all of our belongings.
Three giant engines on the back of the boat – the sort I’ve seen bolted onto the back of powerboats – indicated this wasn’t going to be a quiet, gentle meander over the deep blue sea. It was hold onto your hats fast, and soon had us heading towards lush green jungles and quaint cove settlements, dropping off locals and supplies to some of the most isolated people in the country.
Capurgana is one of those places, only accessible by boat, a beautiful setting full of local life.
The only way to get around is to walk, and to move goods its a mule or horse and cart. There are no roads and no vehicles in this secluded part of Colombia. But despite its picturesque, isolated location, there is a very stark reality that is facing so many countries and people these days. As we were waiting for the immigration office to open, I noticed groups of people and young children arriving off boats at the jetty. Many had Wellington boots or walking boots on, some were carrying machetes wrapped in newspaper. All had a backpack on their back, and lacking the care free spirit of locals and fellow travellers.
It was Kate, one of our San Blas Adventures guides, who told me what was happening.
“They’re refugees from Africa, they come here on boats and make their way into Panama through the jungle,” she says.
Kate tells me how she had been speaking to one of the migrants the day previously, who told her they had travelled from the Democratic Republic of Congo in search of safety and a better life. It seems as well as making their way to Europe through the Mediterranean, many are also crossing to Brazil and Ecuador to try to find a new life.
“They come up through Brazil and other countries, and from Haiti and Cuba, and try to reach North America,” Kate continues, before telling me she fears for their safety after watching many of them simply walk through the village, up a hill and off into the jungle.
And it’s true. I watched as another boatload of migrants landed at the jetty, quickly having a sheet of paper checked by officials and then waiting as a group by the harbour. Whether there were people smugglers or organisers around, I wasn’t quite sure, but I opted to keep a low profile with my camera for my own safety. It was clear there was a leader somewhere, but I couldn’t quite work out who.
Considering the sweltering heat, many were dressed in warm clothes and hats, all clutching large bottles of water. Young children stuck by their mums. One mother carried a baby.
On their backs, many had backpacks that I and my fellow travellers are carrying. But its not swimming shorts, towels and sunscreen they’re lugging around inside. It’s their entire worldly possessions. As much of their former life they could possibly fit into a few cubic litres of space from their home land. The only things they’ll have to remind them of who they really are when they reach their new life. If they manage to reach a new life.
Soon they began to walk off together, families walking side by side at a meaningful pace. I walked a short distance with them. There was no talking or discussion between those who were heading off through the village. Just a focus on following the heels in front.
I took a few photographs of the village, capturing the migrants as they passed through, and watched as they marched off into the dense green jungle which surrounds Capurgana, probably unaware of the dangers within. Yet, for all the armed gangs, drug smugglers and swamp conditions ahead, for some it’s safer than staying at home. Despite borders being closed in recent months, they head off towards Panama, the usual route taken passing up through Costa Rica, eventually through Mexico and then, for the lucky few, a slip under the radar into North America. For many of us who witnessed it, it was a moment that made us realise just how fortunate we all are to live in safe countries with freedom to travel – yet some estimate up to 300 migrants arrive daily in this tiny village to make the perilous journey.
For us, our passports were stamped and we were officially out of Colombia, with another boat journey to a remote village called Sapzurro serving as the final outpost in South America.
Situated in a calm, shallow bay, it’s a perfect place to go for a swim with the growing number of new friends who will be taking part in the trip. Local children, accustomed to regular stays by foreign backpackers, played games by swimming underwater and popping up in front of our faces. For the first time, we met all of our fellow San Blas adventurers – 21 in total for the trip, a great mix of Australians, Brits, a couple from the Netherlands, two girls from Germany, two brothers from Israel and CJ, whos originally from Fiji. Many have been travelling around South America for months. I quickly became friends with Jack, who’s just completed a physiotherapy degree and had travelled out to Rio de Janeiro with friends from university to watch the Olympics, making their way around the continent ever since. Our leader for the journey is an Italian guy called Marco, who has been taking travellers around the San Blas islands for years and clearly enjoys the laid back island lifestyle.
The next morning, we walked along the jetty and joined our boats for the first time, two speedboats with glass fibre hulls and slightly hard seats. We were handed bright orange life jackets, and sped off out of the harbour, and out of Colombia. Just a few minutes after reaching the open water, we passed a cliff, complete with what appeared to be a huge crack down the middle.
That crack is the border between Colombia and Panama – the dividing line between Central and South America. And with a few bumps over the waves, we were officially heading north and along the Panama coast, still alongside the dangerous Darian Gap, and towards an army outpost where we would be stamped into the country after a lengthy check of bags and documents. It provided most of us with a chance to stock up on rum and mixers for the trip, the locals enjoying our custom.
For the next few hours we bumped, splashed and jumped over waves in the Caribbean Sea, which was great fun until one particularly hard landing knocked out one of our engines, not to mention giving a few of us sore backsides!
Thankfully, we were only bobbing around on the waves for a short time before the engine was restarted, and we made our way to our first stop, a beautiful island with calm waters where we all swam, soft white sand between our toes, and palm trees offering much needed shade from the blisteringly hot sunshine. After a few games of volleyball, it was on to a stay with the Kuna people who occupy the islands.
There are around 300,000 Kuna Indians, with about 50,000 dotted around on the 49 islands of San Blas that are large enough to live on. They all have their own community leader, with fishing, fruit and harvesting coconuts being the main sources of income and survival. Tourism also provides income, by charging people to visit or stay on their islands, and in return they cook, provide accommodation and sell drinks.
Staying with the Kuna people meant living like the Kuna people too – we were on their island, so we were to do things their way. Our accommodation was ‘rustic’ according to Marco. It was certainly that! The girls were given beds for the night, but for the lads, it was a night in a hammock, set up inside a number of wooden rooms with a hatch that opens up to let a bit of a breeze in.
The shower was also an experience – not a shower as such, but a barrel of water. A large plastic bottle, cut in half, was the ‘bucket’ which you used to pour the cold water over you.
As for the toilet facilities, well they resembled a Glastonbury long drop, except there was nothing at the bottom apart from clear blue water and colourful tropical fish.
“Its ok, you don’t need to worry about anything, the fish eat things that drop into it,” said Marco when we arrived. I’ll let you work out what he means.
A night of rum, laughter and group bonding followed, everyone getting on really well with banter and jokes all round. There were a few sore heads on the boats the following morning, which also turned out to be the bumpiest sea journey of the trip. Those onboard the other boat had a particularly eventful journey, with one of the outboard engines being a little problematic. For around 20 minutes they were left stationary in the water, the large waves rocking everyone onboard.
It got a bit much for some, with Stef and Niall, two friends from Hertfordshire, particularly feeling the effects. From our vantage point, as we slowly circled the stricken boat, we could see quite a few heads in hands. Not from Kelsey however, who every time I saw her was in fits of laughter at the state of her fellow sailors.
Thankfully, the engines were sorted out and the sickness onboard the lead boat disappeared once the next island home for the night was reached, with red wooden huts and the luxury of a double bed each being welcomed by all. A visit to a neighbouring island, with two rescued spider monkeys we could interact with and more swimming and ball games kept us entertained.
The monkeys were wonderful animals, and we were assured they roam the island freely unless our trip is visiting, tethered only for a couple of hours so that they could play with us, and vice versa.
They had a particular favouritism for the female members of the group, frequently walking up and asking for a cuddle from them. Jack and I persevered to get their attention, only succeeding to win them over just before we left.
Like a child, one held its arms out to me and began swinging from my hands, climbing all over me and generally having a great time. He rewarded me by urinating on my foot.
Overnight, a storm set in, waking us at 6am by what sounded like a hurricane outside. The rain was torrential, the wind bending trees outside our wooden hut. It didn’t take long for water to start coming in through the thatched roof, dripping onto beds and forming a huge puddle near the bathroom door. There was nothing we could do but sit it out – it was too dangerous to go out in the boats while the storm was raging, and with bits of soggy roofing dropping around us, it was a very damp morning on the island as we awaited fairer weather and calmer waters.
But the storm clouds cleared enough to allow us to make our final island, where we spent our last night as a group together. It was quite fitting that a beautiful sunset came out of nowhere to provide a group photo opportunity, and the evening was rounded off with an incredible amount of lobster and marshmallows around a bonfire. I chatted for hours with Kate, one of our guides, about her travels and her hopes to run a hostel one day, then helped her prepare the milk for the morning after finding out the gas stove was no longer working on the island.
With a pot of water simmering on an open fire, good friends, a bit more rum and plenty of laughter, it was a fitting end to life on the islands. Tomorrow we head to my final stop: Panama City.