Postcard from San Blas, Panama

Having a husband who trades in shrimp has certain advantages. For one, the kind of shrimp he sells are exclusively farmed in countries with a hot, tropical climate and palm trees. So occasionally – very occasionally – I get to travel with him when he goes to visit aquaculture plants and meets with potential suppliers. The last time was four years ago. When he suggested I come with him on a trip to Central America – Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama – I was so happy I did a little dance.

Arrangements were made to have the cat minded, the plants fed and the kids watered, and off we went! Yay!

The first week was dutifully spent on the shrimp trail from Tegucigalpa to Chichigalpa, from Leon to Managua, and on to Panama City. After that, we decided we deserved a few days off and drove to the Atlatic coast of Panama to catch a boat to the many pretty islands that make up San Blas.

Imagine the steepest road you have ever seen. Imagine the windiest road you can. Now imagine they are one and the same, and you have the road that connects the outskirts of Panama City with the Guna Indian territory known as San Blas. What you get, in fact, is a road that was cut through thick, steaming rain forest and what I can only describe as a 90-minute, gut-twisting Universal Studios ride with an Indiana Jones theme (complete with monkey calls, giant cicadas, rising steam and superlative tropical vegetation) which alternates the slow-motion passing over the top of a hump in the road with the 4×4 plummitting to certain death the next sharp bend in the road in the hollow between two mountains over and over again. 

With his left hand, our driver was perpetually texting, with his right hand, he was usually adjusting the radio station, and every now and again he would completely let go of the steering wheel, causing me to close my eyes in fear. All the while, he was chatting away happily about how the San Blas islands were on the direct route between Colombia and the USA and how drug runners would cross the archipelago in go-fast drug boats. The Indians regularly find 25kg bails of cocaine, which they sell for $400 in San Blas – a bail whose worth in Panama City would be $4000 and $40,000 in Europe. Once, one of those boats got stranded on a sand bank and was swiftly abandoned by its occupant to avoid the police and the DEA. Apparently, sales of big-screen TVs and large pick-up trucks skyrocketed in the area in the six months immediately following the event…

By the time we arrived at the first Indian adminstration checkpoint, I was more than a little green around the gills.  You can’t get past the checkpoint without your passport. San Blas belongs to the Guna (or Kuna) Indians and they have a very clear idea of how to run the place to their advantage. They demand an access fee of $20 per foreign tourist ($5 for locals), plus extras here and there. For example, it’s another $20 for the motor boat shuttle to the sailing boat or island you have booked for your stay. If you set foot on an island, even if you snorkelled over from your boat, the Guna residents of the island charge a further $2 per person. If, on top of that, you wish to eat a coconut (most islands are almost exclusively covered in coconut palms), they charge another $1 or $2 per coconut. How’s that for free enterprise, eh? 

They also come around on their hollowed out tree trunk boats to sell you molas, a kind of hand-sewn patchwork of zoomorphic images you can turn into cushion covers or wall hangings (if you have the cash). The Guna society is matriarchal. Women dress in fabulously colourful traditional clothes – every day – with mola blouses and gold and bead necklaces and fancy anklets that can go up as far as their knees. I first thought they were leggings of sorts. When two Guna Indians get married, the new husband joins his wife’s family and is expected to contribute to the household financially. Nevertheless, the seilas or village chiefs, are usually men. The head honcho is called the cacique, like in pre-Colombian times. There are three caciques in San Blas. Although this territory is part of Panama, the Panamanian police is not allowed to, say, arrest a member of the Guna tribe in his house without first getting the approval of the seila to do so.

A friend of ours in France happens to own a catamaran based in San Blas that is skippered by a Breton who lives on board all year round. We were dropped off by the Guna shuttle boat and… did nothing for two full days. Well… Nothing… We sat and read and ate and drank and sunbathed and talked and played chess and swam when we got too hot and occasinally snorkeled to look at fish and corals and tried to catch our dinner. We caught exactly nothing. Luckily those crafty Guna also catch fish and sell them to the people on the sailing boats, so dinner was looked after. 

Steven, our skipper, and Brevio, his Guna deck hand, cooked fresh fish for every meal. It was just divine. Fish on the grill, fish from the oven, pan-fried fish and raw fish marinated in lime juice and coconut milk… 

Dessert was always fruit. There is something very special about eating ripe mango, drizzling tangy lime juice over a fresh, orange papaya, or biting into a slice of pineapple that was left on its stalk until it was sweet and juicy instead of picking it green so it would survive being transported half-way around the world for us to eat in Europe.

What more can anyone ask for? Crayfish! The highlight – despite thunder and lightning that threatened to put out our little coconut-fibre barbeque – was a grill loaded with super-fresh crayfish (cousin of the lobster, but without claws). I think no-one spoke that evening except to ask for more.

San Blas is said to have 360 islands – one to explore each day of the year.

Wish you were here!


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