Imagine being cast away on a desert island. A light breeze drifts through your hair as you survey the clear, blue waters of the vast ocean. The soft, white sand feels pleasantly warm on the soles of your feet and the wide leaves of a palm tree offer some shade from the sweltering sun. The tempestuous storms that rage on the mainland do not reach this tranquil spot, affording you endless relaxation. This island need not be an object of fantasy, for it exists in Panama’s San Blas archipelago, tucked quietly away in the Caribbean Sea.
The San Blas islands are popular among backpackers, not only for the paradisiacal sunbathing opportunities, but also as an alternative means of crossing the impenetrable Darien Gap, which separates Panama and Colombia. The best way to experience the islands is on a sailboat. It may not be the most stormy passage of water, but five days at sea is an experience for any city-dweller. A fine choice of boat is the Delfin Solo, whose Turkish captains provide delicious food, great conversation and an all-round enjoyable sailing trip. The experience includes sleeping in a cramped, but not uncomfortable cabin bunk, perhaps assisting with the preparation of dinner and pulling the odd sail as the boat rocks in the swell.
Island life is as tranquil and laid back as one might expect. Dolphins and manta rays swim by lazily, monkeys may be visible high up in the trees and starfish hug the sandy shallows. The Cuña people who inhabit the San Blas islands offer beer and coconuts to their visitors. At the height of drug smuggling in the region, these friendly people would demarcate their volleyball courts with the cocaine that washed up on the shore, in a display of wonderfully sheltered innocence.
However, despite their rudimentary houses and relatively primitive way of life, there is no doubt that life for the Cuña is not as simple as it once was. There is an interesting contrast between tradition and modernity: the flat-screen television hanging on the wall of a shack, or the speedboat engine fastened to the back of a rickety, wooden fishing boat. The washed-up cocaine, once a source of sporting equipment, is now another means for the Cuña to benefit from the influx of young, carefree travellers.
One Cuña group that has yet to lose its traditional ways is the tiny community at Armila beach, situated just north of the Colombian border. Run as a gerontocracy and with its own ‘Congress’ to debate decisions, large-scale tourism clearly has not yet taken hold. Some young children, of whom there are many, stare shyly at visitors, hiding behind the colourful skirts of their mothers, or the low fences of their gardens. Meanwhile, others delight in playing with their exotic guests and posing for photographs. In a part of the world where the novelty of tourism tends to have worn off, this makes a wonderful change.
Aside from an insight into this charming community, the draw of Armila is giant sea turtles. For certain months of the year, mothers come to lay their eggs at night and bury them deep in the sand. After an hour of wandering through the darkness, we came across a quite enormous beast in the midst of laying her eggs. It was a truly remarkable sight, but I do feel for the turtle. I would imagine that having a few humans stroking her shell and taking photographs are the last things she wants when attempting to safely lay and bury around 90 eggs. Sadly for the baby turtles, only one in 1000 will survive to adulthood. Dogs, birds of prey, and fish will pick them off in the 15 years before reaching reproductive age.
One can only hope that humankind doesn’t also come to threaten the existence of these turtles. For now, the San Blas islands and Armila beach still carry that aura of tranquil exclusivity. However, more and more islands are gradually disappearing into the ocean and the turtles can only command their undisturbed stretch of coastline for so long one feels. For now though, the journey and experience are not to be missed. It is sure to be a highlight of anyone’s trip to Latin America.