Panama City

It was quite a shock arriving in Panama City after having spent four days in huts on desert islands. To be fair Sarah and I were so exhausted all we wanted to do was sleep, so it wasn’t long after we arrived that we were fast asleep and then even managed to enjoy a lie in the next day.
I don’t know why but I was actually pretty keen to see Panama’s most famous sight the Panama Canal. We were lucky that just as we arrived a couple of huge containers were going through the locks. So we stood and watched the boats go up and down, very exciting!!
Impressive as it all was, I thought there were more locks. In fact there were only 6 stretching the whole way across the canal. The impressive fact was that it costs on average $100k to pass through the locks and between 30 and 40 boats make the passage everyday. Not bad income for the Panamanians!!!
Panama City itself is dominated by skyscrapers and had a very multicultural feel to it. Well multicultural in terms of the fact that there were lots of expats no doubt due to the global interests in the canal and some rather more flexible tax laws!!
The original old town was destroyed hundreds of years ago, but a new town was built near the entrance to the canal and a lot of the buildings still remain there today. It was really nice strolling around looking at the old buildings. It is an area that is being redeveloped quite extensively but it looks like they are trying to retain an old feel to the place. It’s all very nice and will end up being quite expensive I reckon.
We had a bit more of a walk through the city but eventually the heat/humidity defeated us. We could see lightning and hear thunder but it wasn’t raining!! Just very humid.
The guides from our tour suggested that we all meet up to watch the sunset from the rooftop bar in the Trump hotel. It was quite cool to see this other side of Panama and nice to say goodbye and thank them for organising such a wonderful trip. I can only imagine what the pictures would have been like if it had been Sunny! T

At the Panama Canal watching big ships going up and down.

Even a small Yaught squeezing in.

There was a constant stream of ships waiting to use the locks.

A basic street in Panama.

No Crocs allowed on the metro system!

Some areas of Old Town which have been restored.

The old and the new Panama

Really nice wandering around the old part.

Lots and lots of building work and restoration being done.

Panama by night!

Last day in San Blas

With us all again waking up with a stinking hangover we quickly reconvened in the water. After 3 days with not great showers, musty smelling clothes and sand everywhere I think we were all ready for some luxury.

We made one last stop off on a island with nothing but palm trees and had lunch there. There was a little coral reef around the island but the problem was to get out there you had to wade through 30cm of water over spiky rocks. I gave up as I had scrapped myself one too many times but Tim continued and as you can see by the photos it was worth it. Lots of beautifully colored coral. I can imagine that if we had sunny weather the island would have been breathtaking. But according to our guides it is nice to have the overcast weather because it means you can actually spend time on the beach. 

We soon found ourselves back in the boat traveling the last hour and a half to hit the Panamanian main land. We were met by a fleet of 4x4s and then spent the next hour traveling along a hilly and windy road which did nothing for our hangovers. The road soon hit a motor way and within a few hours we had crossed a continent! From the Caribbean coast to the Pacific.
Panama City was an assault on the senses after San Blas. We were dropped off at our hotel and after a delicious shower and a dinner we slept like babies. The San Blas adventures was a fantastic experience and we are so glad we decided to travel from South America to Central this way. It wouldn’t be for everyone but we loved it! S

A picturesque view from the water.

Some of the amazing coral formations Tim took from the reef surrounding the island

The whole island! So amazing.

Recovery 101

The whole group! 

San Blas day 3…more tropical islands!!

So we got up today with a 3 hour boat trip ahead of us but there was a bit of a storm!! Not quite as much lightening as the first day but enough wind to delay us for a bit.
Luckily there was a clear patch of sky in the distance to pin our hopes on and soon enough we were on our way. All of the San Blas islands are protected by a reef so the sea was actually fairly calm and we spent the three hours gazing out at some of the 360 tiny islands that make up the San Blas.
As we sped past I couldn’t help wondering in amazement that the Kuna people hadn’t cashed in and sold a couple of them. I mean they are truly paradise islands and I am sure that they must have been offered some serious money!! Apparently though the elders are adamant that they want to preserve the Kuna traditions. But every year technology gets closer and closer and the Kuna people get more and more exposed as to what’s out there. In fact we saw one of our boat captains checking Facebook whilst relaxing on one of the islands.
I do hope that they retain their solidarity and when I think about it we did not get to socialise much with the Kuna adults. The children were happy to play with us but apart from selling us beer and water the adults gave us a wide berth.
I have a feeling that the western world might destroy the Kuna people without buying the islands anyway. Our guide, who has been doing the tours for 7 years, reckoned that over 5m of land has been lost on a couple of islands already. It might be a race as to whether a greed for money is created resulting in a sell off or global warming results in the islands getting flooded.
Well before they were sunk we had one last night to enjoy and we arrived at yet another paradise island. This was an island solely for our use. The families which owned the island took turns to live there and they lived on one side in a collection of 3 or 4 huts. There was a large open sided hut for us all to eat in and then we were all sleeping in hammocks under thatched roofs. It was all very rustic and had a definite desert island feel about it.
The waters were turquoise and crystal clear and we all spent a lot of time alternating between sitting in the water and playing volleyball. The volleyball pitch was probably the best located in the world and we all had a great time playing. Well almost all of us as there was a German PE teacher who struggled very much with the concept of having fun rather than following the rules!!
All in all we had a great group of friends now on the island and the beers and the rums were flowing freely!! We were fed lobster for dinner which was delicious and then carried on partying through the night!

It was a great end to the San Blas trip. T

The weather wasn’t great for boating when we woke up, but you could see a glimmer of light in the distance

Slightly windy.

The crew all ready to go!

Such a beautiful place, shame we couldn’t have the sun come out just for a couple of photos.

Sarah having an anklet made, the Kuna woman is wearing hers and they indicate that she is married.

Some shots of the volleyball action.  I wasn’t allowed to wear my ring!

Like a true athlete, cooling off after the sporting day!

The view of one side of the island where the huts which we slept in were, and the other side where the volleyball pitch was.

Us with the guys.

Our speedboats.

The toilet and shower block!

Sarah enjoying her rum and coconut on the beach

Dinner being prepared.

Lobster anyone!  There was so much that we couldn’t finish it all

Day 2 in San Blas

After waking up with a killer hangover, we then packed up and had a one and a half hour boat trip to our next island destination. The sea was calm and we even got a little bit of sunshine but the clouds soon closed back in. 
The next island was again a Kuna village but our little accommodations were on one end of the island. We were staying in cute little bungalows with our own toilet and shower. There were two doubles in the room and Tim and I got Stevie and Louie to share with. 
We then whiled the morning away swimming and relaxing under coconut trees. After lunch we jumped back into the boats and headed to monkey island. The man who owned this tiny little island owned 2 pet spider monkeys. Apparently the Kuna eat monkeys and their mother had been killed so he took them in and hand raised them. The island was only about a ten minute boat trip and when nearing the island the view was amazing. It was literally a deserted tropical island covered in palm trees. So beautiful.
The monkeys were tied up between two Palm trees. Our guide insisted that they were normally left to roam free on the island but the owner tied them up for us so we could get close. We all hoped he was right. The monkeys were amazing. Their features and mannerisms were so human like and their hands so soft and articulate. Their movement up and down the trees and their use of their tail as a 5th appendage was phenomenal! 
We then spent the next few hours swimming, playing frisbee and volleyball and drinking beer. It was awesome. Our group really was awesome, apart from the 2 older couples who kept to themselves we all got along really well.
Once back at the cabins in the late afternoon we started up another game of volleyball which was really fun. Until Tim announced that he had lost his wedding ring! Everyone quickly joined in on the search and we were convinced that we would find it. After about an hour of not finding it our hopes were getting dashed. We decided to call of the search until it was dark and use lights instead. Though as Tim was on the left hand side of the net and that area had been search intensely we were not hopeful. A lot of us thinking that maybe he had lost it earlier and didn’t realize. After dinner a few of us went out and looked with flashlights. After scouring the left side of the net we moved to the right side and after stopping to look at a cluster of hermit crabs one of the girls bends down and picks up Tim’s ring!!! We couldn’t believe our luck! It had travelled a good 10 metres from where he lost it. We obviously have good Karma. S

There are so many uninhabited islands around here.  Each are owned by a Kuna family who have the rights to the land and the coconuts on them

They pack quite a few huts onto the islands where they live.

Some islands have been built up on top of the coral.  These just have enough space for the huts.

This is how we have been getting around.

Our island for the night

Almost blue skies!

We all spent a lot of time relaxing and chatting in the sea.  The colour of it was just fantastic 

Or sunbathing

The locals off fishing.

The village on the adjacent island was like nothing we had seen before.

Our first views of Monkey Island!

You can just make out the monkeys next to the hut.

Posing in paradise

The crew, we have said it before but we were very lucky with our group.

Quite amazing playing with the monkeys they were fascinating to watch.

Sarah and the girls!

The adventure begins!

So after having enjoyed a couple of days of sunshine and no wind and then the weather not being great yesterday, the morning we awoke to begin our adventure to Panama there was a huge storm. In fact there were lightning strikes and the rain was pouring down.
We had packed our bags in bin liners so we were fairly confident our stuff was going to be okay but the weather wasn’t playing the game at all. So all we could do was wait. Still we had loads of people in our group so everyone was just mingling and getting to know each other. This was okay but really we all were getting a bit worried that we were going to have to stay another night in Sapzurro.
I wouldn’t say that the weather completely cleared but it lessened enough for us to pack the boats up and leave. Now these weren’t especially big boats by any stretch of the imagination but the captains were born and bred locals so we had faith. It was a fairly rough journey and we were completely soaked by a combination of the rain and the waves but we made it finally to border control in Panama.
Now I do respect the fact that the border point we were crossing at has had a lot to deal with in the past. It is one of the main access points for smuggling drugs north towards America. There were lots of “wanted” pictures on the walls of some fairly suspicious looking characters. So we were expecting to be given a thorough search and inspection.
Well it turns out that the soldiers manning the border didn’t do anything thoroughly except waste time!! It took a good couple of hours to simply get our passports stamped!! We were first in the queue! There was also hardly any cover so we were all huddled under a small tarp with our bags waiting to get to these fantastic islands we had been promised.
But still the soldiers would not do anything!! It wasn’t as if they weren’t going to let us into Panama it was just that they seemed to refuse to start the process. It was obvious though that the more we pushed about speeding the process up the slower they would go, so all we could do was wait and hope that the weather cleared.
Eventually we got through and the weather looked to be clearing on the horizon so we were off to paradise.
The San Blas is an archipelago of about 360 islands all protected by a reef and when the sun comes out they look absolutely fantastic!! The Kuna people live on and own the islands and usually a family will own its own island where the principle produce is coconuts and the principle pastime is fishing.
The first island we stopped at was a private island with only a volleyball court and a hut on it. In the hut they sold beer. Just perfect. The sun came out and we all enjoyed a swim in the crystal clear waters. We ate a late lunch of chicken and rice cooked in banana leaves and then spent the rest of the afternoon snorkelling. The place was just perfect.
We were spending the night in a town called Caledonia which had 900 inhabitants and was on another small island on its own. On arrival we were greeted by the locals performing a ceremonial dance and Marco, our guide, gave us a brief run down on the Kuna people and their traditions in this village. They are a matriarchal society. Their main source of income is lobster, fishing, panning for gold on the main land and also they find packages of drugs floating in the ocean that people have dumped and they pick them up and sell them to the mainlanders. There is a slight issue with rubbish with the Kuna’s as they believe that everything eventually must go back to the ocean. Which was all well and good until plastic, aluminium  and glass started making its way onto the islands. They are slowly realising the effect it has on the environment and the clean up has been made easier by the fact that you can get money for every plastic bottle and aluminium can you collect.
The kids were all very excited to see us but we didn’t see much of the adults. We were each charged a dollar to use our cameras and then we were told to negotiate with anyone we wanted to take a picture of.  
The kids were absolutely fascinated with us and we soon worked out that the best way to take pictures was to give one of them the camera and let them start happily snapping away! The girl we gave our camera to ended up wanting to see the pictures she had taken. Once we had shown here she started flicking through all of our photos and soon was surrounded, with us trying to explain where everything was.
After enjoying some conch for dinner. (Not sure how my conscience is coping with that decision). The evening descended into drinking and carrying on with everyone in the group. These trips are always fantastic but certainly made better when the other people you are doing it with are good value. This bunch certainly were.
The most amusing comment of the evening occurred when I met Rufus who also went to the RGS Guildford. After the initial chat I casually wondered what year he would have been in when I was there. He asked what year I left school and promptly announced that he wouldn’t have even been born!!! Much to everyone’s amusement!! T

Not the best start to the adventure!

A brief lull in the rain and we packed up the boats and headed for the Panama border.

Slightly soggy but still in good spirits.

We then transferred onto our actual boats that we would have for the 4 days. We met our Kuna boat captains and off we went to our first island in the San Blas about an hour and a half away.

The Panama border control. Pretty sure it would be rather easy to just drive your boat out a bit and enter Panama a little further down. 

The first view of a Kuna village. 

The building on the left perched out over the water is the toilet. All of their houses had this.  Needless to say we had to be a little careful where we swum. 

The island just around the corner from the village were we had our lunch and a relaxed for afternoon

We went for a snorkel around the island and there was some amazing coral.

I spotted this on the snorkel out. We think it is the conch eating the star fish but we are not 100% sure.

Back at the Kuna village, this was our lodging. Very basic and the bed was a little musty smelling and we may have seen a rat running around but it was still great.

The view through the toilet! 

The Kuna people performing their traditional dance. The ladies wear these amazing beaded calf and forearm cuffs to show that they are married. They are sewn on and are constantly worn.

Kids were everywhere! The Kuna were recently given solar panels by the Panamanian government so they have tv now and interestingly enough the number of children has decreased.

A few shots from around the village.

The little girl who took our camera and proceeded to make us show her all our photos.