One day I woke up and realized I didn’t need any more ‘stuff.’ As the sun rose over the Caribbean and pierced the cerulean sky, I knew everything I needed fit inside a backpack. The ‘stuff’ that humans of our day have determined important, such as electricity, WiFi, and constant cell phone service, are all actually unnecessary. All you need are the basics: food, shelter, love and a little bit of rum. All mixed together on a pristine white sand beach with the tropical waters of the Caribbean lapping in the sunset. From an early age, especially as Americans, we are taught ‘stuff’ is important. Whether it be from various marketing channels or our peers, the social lesson we have embraced is that we need things to make us happy. At the end of our South American tour we learned with just how little we could live with and just how liberating that could be.
We first learned about San Blas Adventures from two of our Dutch friends; these guy are true travelers and claimed this was “best trips they had ever done!” Hearing that, it was inevitable we would go. Cap-stoning the end of our backpacker trip we each paid the hefty price of $450 for the four day, three night trip. Little did we know the experience we would gain would far outweigh the money spent.
San Blas Adventures operates speed boat tours through the islands of the Kuna people, who flourish here off the Caribbean coast of Panama. The Kuna people fled to the islands from the mainland after the Conquistadors invaded. Here, they found not only had they rid themselves of the Spanish pests, but the blood sucking kind (mosquitoes) as well. You can book a tour online in either direction between Panama City, Panama and Colombia by boat and see one of the most amazing cultures and beautiful archipelago of islands in the world. There are not many ways to transverse the border between these two countries, as the only other option is off-roading through one of the most dangerous jungles on the entire planet. Forget the lions, tigers and bears, this is one of the most highly trafficked drug routes in the world. Your other option is the sea route, by sailboat utilizing other tour companies. While tranquil, you receive much less time on the islands, and more time on the sailboat. Other travelers told us horror stories over beers in Colombia about boat captains kicking off their passengers and changing itineraries for the company of hookers.
San Blas Adventures was one of the first companies to operate boat tours between Panama and Colombia. One of the three owners of the company is a member of the Kuna tribe, so to book the most authentic experience and to incur the least amount of speed (wave) bumps possible, we highly recommend this company. When pre-booking online one is required to pay a $100 deposit. With this deposit comes multiple emails of the most specific set of instructions I have ever seen for a vacation. Read them once, twice, maybe ten times because these are imperative for your enjoyment for the next 4-6 days, well that, coupled with Poseidon’s temper.
These are some of the points I can not stress enough…
- Money: Read all points specific to money. While the deposit is paid in credit card, the balance is paid in cash, specifically USD. San Blas Adventures operates out of Panama, which barters in green dead presidents. Why you might ask, because the remainder of the money is paid to specific Kuna people, for our accommodations on each island, to our boat operators, for food etc. For the Kuna, “Visa is not everywhere they want to be;” their culture operates on cold hard cash and that’s what is easiest for them. Remember you are a visitor on their land. Basically show up with a minimum of $600, it will save you drama later.
- Also understand that regardless of departure point, your balance is paid in USD. If leaving from Colombia, pre-plan to have the money exchanged ahead of time. We traveled from Medellin and exchanged our money at the Bank of Colombia in the bus terminal. This process took over an hour requiring passports, signatures and fingerprints. The last possible point to obtain cash on the Colombian side is in Necocli (and will still need to be exchanged from Colombian Pesos to USD), there is NO ATM in Capurgana or Sapzurro.
- Bring only the Basics: all you need are a couple of swimsuits and dry clothing for evening time. It will all fit in your day pack. Flipflops are all that is necessary. I didn’t wear makeup for 5 days and it was fantastic; however, deodorant and a toothbrush will keep you from being “that person.” Pack a sweatshirt, it’s insane how cold a hammock in the Caribbean can be. It’s advised by the crew to keep all valuables and breakables in your day pack. Apparently the Kuna are not so gentle with the transport of your big backpacks. For electronics, double bag them, we brought super size zip-locks from home. You can buy bin liners (garbage bags) to cover both your day pack and your larger backpacks to try and keep them dry during the journey. You won’t actually see the larger backpack again until it’s time to say goodbye.
- DO NOT BRING DRUGS: Your guide is not playing around. A few months before our tour a German man was caught with 2 grams of Colombian powder at the check point into Panama. Word on the street is, he is still in Panamanian Prison. You are checked entering Panama, you are checked leaving Panama. This is just not worth it; I assume South American prison is not fun, so just enjoy your rum and life!
- Charge everything before leaving civilization: While you won’t have signal…less time for Snapchat, more time for bonding with new friends. You will want to capture the beauty of this paradise you get to call home for four days and all the memories in tow. Charge up your mobiles before leaving the for the islands. We did have electricity available in Sapzurro the night before we left, so leaving Colombia this is your last chance. A back up battery pack is also a good idea and in our opinion a must for every traveler. If you are a GoPro user, maybe 2 back-up batteries—you know.
- Don’t be a squirrel: Be nice to your guides, as they are there for you. Please and thank you go a long way. At the end of the day they are not here to change your pampers or fix your personal travel mishaps; but keep you safe and introduce you to the wonderful Kuna culture.
As much are nobody likes rules, the ones mentioned above are important, because this trip will change your soul if you come open minded. Starting in Necocli, you take the 8 am ferry to Capurgana. We spent the previous night in Punta de Aguila hotel in Necocli. This hotel had one of the best reviews on booking.com, and a triple room set us back around $8 per person, including breakfast. The ferry is your first taste at what the next few days will be like. The ferry boats are larger than the boats you will use to transverse the San Blas islands to Panama, but the waves are the same. One of the guys on our tour watched someone vomit on his backpack. Upon arrival in the colorful coastal town of Capurgana you will have a few hours to kill before the tour group briefing.
Around 12 everyone huddled together at the San Blas Adventures office for our official tour meeting. Here is where we met Pedro, our Brazilian guide and his assistants David from Switzerland and Julia from Germany. Pedro broke down our plan for the next few days and gave us the 411 on what to expect. He collected our passports to stamp us out of Colombia, while we set off to buy important provisions like rum. We later poured the contents from our glass liter bottles into empty plastic water bottles–a more effective way to transport when riding 10 foot waves. The ferry between Capurgana and Sapzurro were the smallest boats I have ever seen deemed sea-worthy, considering the size of the waves beating up against the hull. On the 10 minute ride we managed to get insanely wet as we clutched to our day bags for dear life.
Once in Sapzurro we headed to our pre-booked hostel. I highly recommend staying with the hostel Hotel Triny that San Blas Adventures utilizes. We pre-booked Hilltop Sapzurro hostel in advance with fear that upon arrival, we would not find accommodation for 8 people last minute. Upon arrival we found the hostel a mess, without proper beds for our party. One bed had a random store of knock-off perfumes and condoms; I guess everyone needs a side business! We evacuated after it was confirmed that Hotel Triny recommended by San Blas could easily accommodate us.
We awoke the next morning ready for adventure. While traveling we refuse to use the word ‘adventure’ in the present tense. Doing so has lead to an immense amount of crazy situations, including but not limited to running away from a tsunami, multiple credit cards losses and a terrifying boat ride though the Straits of Malacca. So when we booked with a tour company which used the word adventure in its title, we knew we were doomed. We boarded our trio of speed boats, not really knowing what to expect. Boats one and two kicked to life, but ours didn’t, the motor refused to turn over. The Kuna drivers tried again and again and finally the boat surged to life; we were on our way.
“Catch me at the border….I got visas in my name” (Paper Planes, M.I.A)
Our first stop was the Panamanian border, which we reached within 20 minutes. Our guide David pointed out the actual Panama border– a cliff of black rocks which jetted out into the ocean. I was surprised how quickly we changed between the two countries and how soon we were docked on Panamanian soil. As briefed, the border guards wanted to inspect all our luggage after checking our documentation. After the lead customs official apologized for the ‘inconvenience,’ a barking German Shepard we named “Sugarplum” was let out to sniff our bags. See we are not playing around, listen to your guides, its just not worth it…
“I’m on a Boat” (The Lonely Island, ft T-pain)
This tour is different from the other tours of the San Blas islands, because as opposed to sail boats, San Blas Adventures utilizes speed boats. This gives you much more island time and less chance for sea sickness; although some members of our party had their fair share, blame it on the rum. The boat time between islands each day is approximately two hours and the ride can be correlated to riding a wave runner. The speed boats travel in a pack of three for safety, two for passenger and one for supplies. These boats are not huge; they ride the waves of the Caribbean like a rogue cowboy.
It’s insane to look over at your sister boat and see it flying out of the water, skimming the top of the waves and realize you are doing the exact same thing. Our second day on the water the waves reached over 10 feet. Sea water poured into our boat and all I could think about was the Titanic, but sadly we were sans Leonardo DiCaprio. I walked off the boat that day soaked from head to foot, and my eyes stinging from the salt water. I have never seen Anna be so green in my life, meanwhile her cousin Josh seated on my left belted out an excited shout every time the boat peaked over a wave and became airborne.
Our guide Pedro said this was the worst he had ever seen the waves, hence our arrival was delayed a day. If the waves are deemed unsafe, extra days might be added to the tour, at a cost of $25 a day. San Blas Adventures highly suggests giving a minimum 2 day cushion on the back end of the tour for delays. This means it’s in your best interest to not have immediate flights booked or onward travel plans set in stone. Plus you get extra island time #winning!
“The sun is shining and so are you….” (Sun is Shining, Axwell ∧ Ingrosso)
The plan each day is to split between two islands. The first island is typically deserted and reserved for sun, relaxing and splashing in the waves. Later you move on to a nearby island to have dinner and sleep. As we docked on our first island, our souls entered paradise. The day time islands are your perfect white sand beach island covered with palm trees, which shaded us from the hot Caribbean sun. As usual, we lasted about three minutes before jumping in the waves. Here is where lunch was served, all washed down with fresh coconut water mixed with rum; it was the perfect way to start every afternoon. The beach contained a volleyball net, snorkeling areas and shallow waters to play. San Blas adventures carts around a huge bin full of sports and water equipment for you to play with and there is plenty of snorkel gear to go around. Let’s just leave it at Julie and I are an epic fail when it comes to volleyball.
The second and third islands followed similar pattern. Day two includes a trip to Monkey Island, home to a pair of spider monkeys. They each had their own unique personality, one loving to cuddle while her rambunctious brother stole Julie’s sunglasses. On our final day we stopped at Pelican Island, which you can walk the circumference in 3 minutes. In the shallow clear waters surrounding the island, you can find hundreds of starfish resting in the sand. Careful with these fragile creatures though, as too much time out of the water will kill them.
“I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel, with the capers on a square plate.” (Broccoli, D.R.A.M)
I can still describe every bit of food they served us on this tour. This is mostly because everything was delicious and the portions were huge. Us girls often found ourselves scraping our plates over to a guy friend as we could not finish. Considering the cooking circumstances, I was highly impressed with the meals our crew served. They can also accommodate a wide range of dietary requirements, if notified in advance. According to our guide David, he had never seen a group go through so much hot sauce. Pretty much the only thing missing from my life in those 5 days was pizza, but the rum helped me cope.
Our first night at dinner, to get everyone mingling instead of staying comfortable in their own cliques, the guides started up a game that we would play out til the end of the trip. It’s the perfect icebreaker as you form alliances with people and start bonding over diabolical schemes.
Water, soda, beer and coconuts are sold by the Kuna people at a price of $1-3. The Kuna on each island keep a running tab in a notebook and you settle up at departure time. They usually have plenty to get you throughout the night…. unless someone named Josh decides to be bougie as hell and buy the entire cooler of beer for a shot-gunning party. On some islands you can purchase liters of rum. Your guide will know–plan ahead, no one likes an empty bottle.
“Blame it on the Night….” (Blame, Calvin Harris)
There are thousands of islands inhabited by the Kuna people. Some of the smaller islands are home to 1-2 families, while the larger islands are covered with a “Kuna city.” These house several families, have schools, shops and some even restaurants and sleeping accommodations. Our sleeping quarters varied from wooden bunk houses built over the water to hammocks in a thatched hut on the beach. Each provided their own unique twist on island living. Don’t expect luxury accommodations, this is basic; however I was comfortable and slept well every night. Bucket showers are a thing and a bottle of water will take care of your teeth, otherwise just pretend you are a mermaid and live in the moment.
“24K Magic” (Bruno Mars)
Our last night our guide promised us magic…..We arrived at a small island which was inhabited by just one family and claimed our hammocks, which were lined up under roofs made of bamboo. We filled the rest of the afternoon with our usual games: playing on the white powder beach, relaxing in the hammocks, and card games of course. This was paradise, how could we ever want go home? Our fun was broken up with a call for pictures, as Pedro wanted a girl group photo for the company’s website. Following though in typical girl spirit, we concocted several creative poses, including a three tier pyramid. We learned that it was all just a rouse; as we rounded back to the beach, we saw one of our own, Dano’s boyfriend drop to one knee and ask her to marry him, as the golden sun dipped into the horizon.
If that doesn’t start a party, then I do not know what will! The only thing missing was Champagne, but this is the middle of nowhere and you can’t have everything. It was our last night and we determined to make it a memorable one. Our guides gave us access to the leftover fruit salad from the morning and we attempted to mix up some sort of sangria. This somehow generated a beer shot- gunning and log wrestling contest; I think the boys had some insane idea of making this the island version of American gladiators. Dinner came soon enough consisting of a lobster feast which made Red Lobster look like a biotch. So much lobster stacked on top of each other, it was a tower of heaven.
The bonfire was lit and the speakers were hooked up; we spent the rest of the night dancing around the fire and sealing our new friendships– it was magical. As I settled in my hammock, swinging in the night breeze, my only regret was that I couldn’t stay here for longer. I could have spent another five nights in that hammock and another five days swimming around that island hanging out with my new friends. I was not ready to go home….
Why I would go back again tomorrow
I was not ready to go home, I was not ready to go back to civilization, the constant beeping of the phone, the loudness of the billowing city, I was happy in my bubble. “Everything I need, I now know for sure, I can fit in a backpack.” This is from my favorite book “Grounded” that I have read six times. It’s true, every time I take a trip like this I learn I can live with less and less. Some clothing, my pair of Converse chucks which are ripping at the seams, and a stuffed black lab puppy that I cart everywhere (to remind me of home). However, we have been tricked into thinking we need things to make us happy. More and more I realize it is experiences, travel, friendships and love (and maybe a little bit of rum) that are true happiness!
Our soundtrack for this adventure, prefect for island dreams and rum coconuts Julie’s Hammock Playlist, here is the Spotify link: https://open.spotify.com/user/julie.kristine/playlist/03xGmhGzlpYZVNnevjhSuy
Check out our other Blogs about Panama:
Way too Wanderlust Reccommends
San Blas Adventures: www.sanblasadventures.com
- M.I.A. “Paper Planes.” Maya Arulpragasam, Wesley Pentz, Topper Headon, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Joe Strummer. “Kala.” London, XL Recordings and Interscope Records, 11 Feb 2008, digital download.
The Lonely Island. “I’m on a Boat.” Andy Samberg, Akiva Schalter, Jorma Taccone, Wyshmaster, T-Pain. “Incredibad.” Universal Republic, 3 Feb 2009, digital download.
- Axwell Λ Ingrosso. “Sun is Shining.” Sebastian Ingrosso, Salam Al Fakir, Axel Hedfors and Vincente Pontare. Single, Sweden, 12 June 2015, digital download.
- D.R.A.M., Lil Yachty. “Broccoli.” Roget Chahayed, Julian Gramma, Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, Miles McCollum, and Karl Rubin. “Big Baby D.R.A.M.” Atlantic Records and Empire, 6 April 2016, 7″ and digital download.
- Harris, Calvin. “Blame.” Calvin Harris, John Newman and James Newman. “Motion.” London, Deconstruction Fly Eye Columbia Records, 5 Sept 2014, digital download.
- Mars, Bruno. “24K Magic.” Bruno Mars, Christopher Brody Brown and Phillip Lawerence. “24K Magic.” Atlantic Records, 18 Nov 2016, digital download.
- Stevenson, Seth. (2010). Grounded. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.