Before coming to Panama, my friend Chris had told me that one thing I might consider doing here was to visit the San Blas islands. I had never heard of them before. He also told me he wasn’t sure if they were open to visitors yet because they had been completely closed off due to COVID. However, he thought he heard they recently reopened.
The San Blas Islands are controlled by an indigenous group, the Guna Yala tribe. They don’t just have jurisdiction over these islands, but also over some land on the northeast side of Panama. When you enter their lands, you need to show your passport. When Chris first told me about these islands and other things to do in Panama, it made me consult a travel book I bought back in 2019 called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I wondered if it referenced anything in Panama. Sure enough, it referenced two major things: the Panama Canal and the San Blas islands!
I wasn’t quite sure of what our schedule would be like and if it was something we could even do. Were the islands even open for visitors? No one could tell me for sure and I didn’t quite do my research.
But on Monday, while we were in Panama, I looked up some tour companies and found one -- Tao Travel 365 -- the posts were very up-to-date and they were indeed currently running tours to these islands. I booked my trip with them. I would be going solo. The price wasn’t too bad. Of course, the day that I booked the trip is the day that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp went down for the entire day. Luckily, I continued to communicate with them through email.
Normally they would have had me pay them through one of those apps, but instead they told me to bring cash to the driver. The price for the 14-hour round trip day-long experience was $104 USD (oh did I tell you the U.S. Dollar is the primary currency in Panama?) which included a private car picking me up where I was staying, driving three hours each way, including one stop each way (the first being at a grocery market where we could get some breakfast, coffee, and any other food, water, and sunscreen that we wanted to buy and bring to the island). Once we made it to the tribal lands, I would also need to pay $22 USD to the tribe for entry onto their lands.
Once we got to the docks, they then transported us by boat to two different islands, and also took us out to “a natural pool” in the ocean (more on that later). Plus, a nice lunch was included. I think I spent a few more dollars on a coke and some water throughout the day, but that was it. This turned out to be a very good deal and Tao Travel 365 did all as promised.
So, on Tuesday morning, I awoke at 4:30am, got ready and was texted by the driver that he would be arriving at 5:05 AM. We then made one other stop to pick up another solo traveler, a guy from Chile. The first half of the drive was pretty easy, as we had gotten on the road very early and went against any of the traffic that was coming into Panama City.
We stopped at that grocery market about 45 minutes north of Panama City and then the next two hours we headed right towards the islands. The last half of the drive there is very rugged. Now I know why we were in a 4x4 vehicle. We went through some mountains (not very high in elevation, but just somewhat rugged). Most of the roads on that back half had potholes about every few hundred feet, so the driver had to go slow and carefully drive around them and it was a bit bumpy. There were almost no other vehicles out here, with the exception of some other drivers with various tour companies. A few had to stop on the sides of the road because it appeared some of their passengers were getting car sick. If you tend to get car sick, you probably will on this drive. Me and the Chilean, we didn’t.
The landscape on the back half of that drive was beautiful. Lots of luscious jungle. We even paused a few times when our driver spotted an exotic bird or a monkey.
We arrived at the docks just before 9:00 am and waited under a pavilion for about 20 minutes until a boat came to load us and other tourists in. People were from all over, but mostly from various Latin American countries, as well as from Spain.
It took us about 20 minutes or so to reach the first island they took us to, which was called something like Assudub Bibbie Isla Perro Chico aka “Dog Island.” This is where we spent the majority of our day.
I mostly kept to myself. I felt like I was in paradise. It felt so deserted. This island was super small, but the water was amazingly clear, and blue-green in some areas. The tour package also included them loaning you some snorkeling gear. There was some kind of sunken ship just 100 feet from the shore that we were able to swim around and observe as well as observe some of the coral and fish life that was around the ship.
While in the water, one guy who was not with our tour group started talking to me. It turned out he was in his late 40s and originally born in Cuba. I asked him where he lived now. “Orlando,” he said. “You’re kidding?”
I told him I was also from Orlando. He lives in Apopka, about 30 minutes from where I have lived the previous five years.. He is also a big motorcycle guy. He owns a BMW motorcycle and rode it all the way from the top of Alaska down to Panama. He didn’t do this in one sweep. He rides for a week or two at a time and leaves the motorcycle in a BMW shop at various points along the way. Then six months or a year later he flies back and continues his rides. He just finished his ride down to where that road ends in Panama. And on this very day he rode it up from Panama City to the docks and then hired a private boat to get out to the islands.
He told me after he left Cuba he actually lived in Chile and Panama before making his way to Florida. That’s when I pointed to shore and told him that the other guy over there is from Chile. “He looks Chilean,” he said. I don’t even know what a Chilean is supposed to look like, but ok. The three of us were all solo travelers to the islands that day so when it was lunch time we sat together and had some nice conversations.
It was also during lunch that we sat near one of the local members of the Guna tribe, who told me that there are 365 islands that are part of San Blas. “One for every day of the year,” I told him. He smiled. I am pretty sure he figured that out a long time ago.
When you are first leaving the docks you pass by lots of small little islands to get to the one we were on. One of the first islands is a little bit bigger than many of the others and it is crowded with little homes. When I asked this member of the tribe where he lived, he told me it was on that island we saw as we made our way out here. These islands felt deserted. One of the other members of the Guna tribe that I met that day told me they are much busier on the weekends, but we were here on Tuesday and said the middle of the week is like this. You feel like you’re out here on your own. I told him I was from Florida and that these beaches were much better than Miami -- and much less crowded.
This felt like one of the greatest slices of paradise I’ve ever encountered. There are no developments here. The islands and the waters are clean and because they are protected by the tribe and not easy to get to, I imagine they will stay like this for a long, long time. I hope so.
The Cuban guy from Apopka told us there is a “piscina natural” or “natural pool” out in the waters about a 15-minute boat ride away and that’s where his boat captain was taking him next. The Guna tribe member overheard this and told me and the Chilean that we would be headed out there too on our boat. The man from Apopka left about a half hour ahead of the rest of us. There were probably 20 or so people in the boat that we took out there, but it didn’t quite take 15 minutes. I think it took 5 or 6 minutes.
I didn’t quite understand what they meant when they first said we were going to a “natural pool.” But then as we approached, I could see it! The waters between the islands were deeper, and a dark shade of blue, but then there emerged this blue-green water, almost clear, in a circular shape. And it was almost perfectly circular. It seemed almost like a sandbar, except the water was probably 3 or 4 feet deep. We all just hopped out of the boat, grabbed some snorkeling gear and swam around. The circular shallower area was probably 50 to 100 feet in diameter with the boat anchored right in the middle.
The other unique thing here was all the starfish. Wow! Incredible. I enjoyed swimming right up to them and just observing each one for a minute or so at a time. They were big and beautiful and each ranged in different colors and textures. I didn’t have an underwater camera, but it would have been perfect to take home some photo memories of these starfish. However, the memories of those beautiful starfish are sealed in my mind. Hopefully forever.
We spent about 45 minutes or so out here in the water -- which was also a perfect temperature. We were very blessed with a beautiful day with no rain and minimal clouds.
There were another two guys there who were from El Salvador but now living in Dallas. They had gone to high school together in El Salvador, went to various places in the U.S. for college, and now both found themselves in Dallas for different areas of work. And now, each of them also has a brother that lives and works from Panama. They traveled down from Dallas together to visit their brothers and then took a day trip out here to the San Blas Islands. What a small world it truly is.
The Apopka man had actually been taken to a different natural pool (there are more than one of these out here?) but saw our boat from a distance and asked his captain to take him to where we were so he could say his goodbyes to us. He took a photo with me and the Chilean, the three of us in the water, and then took down my phone number telling me he’d send me the photo. It’s been a month since the trip and I still haven’t heard from him. Not sure if he forgot or took down the wrong number. We’ll see if we ever cross paths again.
After we left the natural pool, we headed to a small island right across from the one we were at in the morning. This island didn’t have quite the same nice beach as the first island and the air was clouding up a bit and I think we were pretty much done with the water. But the island had a nice bar area. I thought maybe they’d serve us a drink, but instead they offered us coffee. I think a few people bought some beers, but I’m not much of a day drinker, it seems to only make me tired, so coffee seemed about right. I also had some extra water bottles in my bag. The island has a swing, attached to two palm trees. I got on the swing for a few minutes, just enjoying my last minutes in paradise.
One of the nice things about these islands is there’s no cell phone service or WiFi. Of course, it may be frustrating if someone is trying to reach you or you want to reach someone, but in other ways, it was really nice. The day prior, it was frustrating not being able to use WhatsApp, Instagram, or Facebook all day, when those platforms mysteriously went down worldwide. Today, however, I was glad I was without any use of my phone service. I just enjoyed these remote, peaceful islands. After about an hour or so on this last island, around 3:00pm or so, they then took us back to the docks on the mainland, where we arrived just past 3:30pm.
At this point in the day, the water was a bit rougher and the boat ride back was going against that current and slightly longer, maybe 30 minutes. These are fairly small boats, so they bump up and down against the water quite a lot. I am a bit used to this now, after taking some similar small craft on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, where the water gets the same way in the afternoon. If you’re not used to this, it might be quite annoying and a little uncomfortable at times. But I just embraced it and enjoyed the ride. People pay big money at theme parks for similar thrills. As we headed back, I took in the scenery of the water, as we passed by other small islands on the way back.
Our original driver from the morning was waiting for us -- he does this almost every day, about five days a week or so, he told me. In addition to me and the Chilean, we also took on two other passengers on the way back. Where were they from? Also from Chile. What a world.
The drive back seemed more annoying than the drive in. The first half - about an hour and a half or so were the bumpy roads with potholes and rugged mountain ways. It felt like being on the safari ride at Animal Kingdom -- for an hour and a half -- or maybe two days! And, we had no cell phone service during that entire time. At least I had a few podcasts downloaded and were able to catch up on a few. But I just wanted to get back to the city. After four days, I was tired and these bumpy roads were not pleasurable.
Finally we reached the main roads -- and it was smooth sailing back, almost no traffic. Once I had gotten into cell phone range, about an hour or so from Chris’ apartment in Panama City, my text messages and emails started to come through. And one was from Marshall. I had wondered what he was doing with his day back in the big city.
Well, this guy was flying!! Back in Orlando, over the past couple years, Marshall has gained some hours flying some small private aircraft (typically 4-seaters similar to a Cessna) through a flight school. He seems to have gotten this bug from his WWII-era Air Force pilot grandfather.
And on this day, Marshall had gone to Albrook airfield and signed up to do a flight lesson there. He took off and landed on the same air strip that his grandfather had taken off from and landed on probably hundreds of times in the 1940s. He wanted to get up and see the similar views his grandfather had. Except now he also had views of a very large and modern Panama City skyline. He told me he was in the air for about an hour, flying around parts of Panama, over jungles and over the Pacific Ocean. He even got a nice glimpse of all the cargo ships waiting for their turn to pass through the Panama Canal.
As for us back in the car, we were making our way into Panama City. We dropped off the Chilean first and then about 10 minutes later or so, I was dropped off at Chris’ apartment building - at precisely 7:00 PM, as they advertised. It was exactly a 14-hour day trip.
Marshall was on his way back to the apartment from some errands when I arrived at Chris’ place. I showered and got ready to go to dinner. Chris and I were simply waiting for Marshall, who arrived around 8:00pm. But minutes before Marshall arrived, Chris had an emergency come up at work that involved an inspection of one of the ships coming through the canal that his company was responsible for, so he wasn’t able to join us for dinner as he had to rush into the office where he worked the rest of the night.
Marshall and I decided to try out a restaurant in Casco Viejo that was owned by one of the guys we had met in that cigar lounge the previous day. The guy told us it had an outdoor terrace where we could smoke cigars. And the other guys there told us the food was great. They were not lying.
The name of the restaurant is Casco Mar and it comes with my highest recommendation. The weather was perfect outside, and I simply had an appetizer that was filling enough -- it was some kind of strip of steak. And then of course, we had some cigars. I had one extra on me (I thought I might want to smoke one on the islands but there were signs everywhere saying “no fumar” and plus I wasn’t really ever in the mood there). The restaurant also sells some cigars so Marshall bought one there.
The atmosphere at Casco Mar was very nice, sitting in a comfortable environment, on an outside terrace with a little bit of a waterfront view on a perfect night. We recounted our four days in Panama, traded more thoughts about the Panama Canal and shared how each of our final days went. While our final day was mostly solo, on our own adventures, we had now come together to celebrate one last night in Panama.
Chris never made it back from the office. In fact, he got in around 1:00am but I had gone to sleep by about 11pm or so as I had to wake up at 6:00am the next day to catch my 9:30am flight back to Guatemala City. So I said my final goodbye to Marshall, since his flight was a bit later in the day.
We had an amazing time in Panama, seeing history that was also part of the history of our country, the United States. We were able to finally set our eyes on the iconic Panama Canal, and experienced a modern Panama that is emerging into quite a gem in Central America.
I am still conflicted about whether the United States should have turned over control of the Panama Canal to Panama. But I think it’s safe to say that since that decision was made and control was put into the hands of the Panamanians, this country has been thriving. I think it’s also safe to say that the canal that was built under direction and leadership of the United States has also been a blessing for Panama and all the economic output that it has fostered for them. Maybe this was U.S. policy that was actually done right all along. It’s a question that will have a lot of opinions, but at the end of the day, Panama seems to be heading in the right direction and our relationship with them seems to be great.
As an American, I took off on that flight out of Panama feeling very proud of what the United States did not just for Panama, but for the world. And I am equally proud of what Panama has accomplished since gaining full independence of their entire country for the first time in their history just two decades ago. And maybe most of all, I am very grateful for our Panamanian friend Chris for showing us so much hospitality and taking us around all the great parts of his city and the former areas once built by the United States but now in the good hands of the Panamanian people.
I look forward to visiting again and perhaps leading a future Fearless Journeys group trip here to bring others so they too can see the sights we were blessed to have the opportunity to encounter on this first trip to Panama. If any of these writings has stimulated your interest in Panama, I’m curious to know if you’d like to come on a trip here together with other members of the Fearless Journeys community. Drop me a line and let me know!