This is a long blog but full of good information about what to do in southern Panama, Darien Gap tours and the Kuna and San Blas Island tour for backpackers and budget travelers...
So how do I begin with explaining today? Well I guess it started at 4:30 AM when we woke up, had a half-eye-open cup of coffee and grabbed our backpacks for a 5:00 AM transportation pick up to Cartí and the Kuna Yala San Blas Islands on the southern Caribbean coast of Panama.
Wednesday and yesterday after our Panama Canal outing we researched the different places to visit in southern Panama. At first we were thinking about going to the Darien Province and hiring a guided 4-5 day tour through the edged of the Darien jungles to Pierre Ranger Station and Cana valley OR maybe doing a tour through the mangroves and rivers to the Emberá and Wounaan Indian tribes. However, through our research we very quickly found out these tours are run by only a handful of tour companies, one being Ancon Expeditions (the oldest and almost monopolized), and the tours start at approx. $750+/person. WAY out of our budget, especially when we still have sailing the Caribbean from Panama to Colombia, an Amazon tour and Machu Picchu and all of South America in the future. So instead we opted to go straight to the San Blas Islands and for a homestay with a Kuna Indian family plus tours to different San Blas Islands, which we found through Lonely Planet, Blogspot and Facebook. There website is: www.cartihomestay.info
and email firstname.lastname@example.org
. So, that is how we got to waking up at 4:30AM today.
Eulogio, one of the two Kuna brothers that run this operation, just so happened to be in Panama City so he came with the driver to pick us up in a Toyota Parada Jeep 4x4 at Mamallena’s. The road north across Panama is not bad at all, but once you get to the Comarca de San Blas or the Kuna Province the mountain road becomes very curvy. One guy in our Jeep got car sick. It took about 4 hours for us to arrive at the Cartí dock after stopping a few times: for breakfast, to buy fresh water (there is not much fresh water on the islands and it is very expensive), pay the Kuna fees (total $8), and get our passports checked by the Kuna military.
From the dock we took a dingy to Cartí Suitupo, were Ryan and I dropped off our backpacks at the Kuna homestay, which happens to be Eulogio and his brother Germain’s house. Before we could fully take in our new “Kuna home”, for the next three nights, we quickly changed into our bathing suits and got back in the boat. Next we stopped off at another island, Hook Island, which the brothers have Kuna-style cabanas (these are a bit more expensive) for the other tourist on our tour. After everyone’s bags were settled it was back into the dingy and to another nearby typical San Blas white sand, palm tree filled island to hang at the beach for the rest of the day.
**It is important to mention that a majority of the San Blas Islands are inhabited by the Kuna Indians and while some of the families let tourist sunbath on the bleach white sand and swim in the crystal clear turquoise and sky blue waters, they do charge an average $2 fee whether you stay 5 minutes or all day.
Lunch was brought to us at the island (3 meals/day are included in the tour) and later in the afternoon when we were picked up we returned to the Hook Island for fresh lobster and boiled potato dinner. We watched our first real colorful sunset in Panama then returned with Eulogio and Germain back to their home on Cartí Suitupo. It was a long and exhausting day packed with beautiful scenery but the best experience was still yet to come.
The toilet and showers on the Kuna islands....
The toilets are a communal slap stick roofless shack. The toilet seat screwed on to a bench with a hole in it. You have to bring your own TP and there is nowhere to hold on if you want to squat for a number 1 or 2. We were curious what happens to the poop since everything goes straight into the ocean and why it doesn’t float away but after stepping out of the toilet and looking down you can see this special group of fish that enjoys eating feces. The shower is fortunately isn’t communal and is connected to the home. It is just outside the home and again a slap stick closet size roofless cubicle with two 50 gallon drums filled with rainwater and a jicara bowl to collect water to dump on yourself. This makes showering a bit of a chore and I definitely can’t wash my thick super long hair. Between swimming in the ocean and rinsing off with lots of rain soap water I think we should be clean enough for a couple days we are here. It’s like camping to me, but everyday life to the Kuna.
Oh by the way the Kuna home is generally a single room all purpose home with the stove/kitchen in one corner, the dining table at the back, sleeping hammocks hanging from the roof and clothes/ toiletries/ everything else draped over stringed up ropes; all this in the typical Panamanian thatched roof house. Because this is a homestay the brothers built a second story on their home that has three rooms with double beds and/or dorm style. It is quite comfortable in the homestay because there is electricity from 6pm-11pm, which means lights, a fan, and internet, unlike the people staying on the cabana islands whom only have battery operated box lights. We are both super happy about our choice to come to Carti Homestay in the San Blas Islands, but now I am so tired and exhausted I can’t wait to get some good sleep. SO Good Night!!