Still today it is not possible to cross the border between Panama and Colombia by land. There is a thick jungle inhabited by guerillas and drug traffickers and a road to connect these two countries doesn’t exist. This leaves two possibilities: The first one is to fly and the second one is to do a boat tour through the San Blas Islands. We decided to do the San Blas tour by speedboat. Most tourists do the tour on a sailboat and spend two days in open sea before reaching Cartagena. In order to avoid this, we booked the tour with San Blas Adventures which ends in Capurgana near the border to Panama instead of Cartagena. Altogether we spent only eight hours on the boat and had the rest of our time to explore the islands with its unique culture. This tour is different from the ones on sailboats as it gives greater value to the local community. It is not just a party boat that passes by beautiful islands but an authentic experience of the area. Further San Blas Adventures supports the local communities and works very closely with them on various aspects of the tour. Like this most of the money stays in San Blas.
The San Blas Islands are part of the Kuna territory, called Kuna Yala. The Kuna used to live in what is now Colombia. Due to conflicts with the Spanish and other indigenous groups, they moved to the coast. Today 42 of the around 370 islands are inhabited. Officially they are part of Panama, but they live autonomously and have their own political system, laws and values.
This area is famous for its pristine beaches with white sand and crystal clear water. Although it’s a popular destination in Central America, it is still very much untouched. There is no massive tourism and big hotels. Instead, the accommodations are eco-friendly and made out of natural materials. It is hard to imagine a place that comes closer to paradise than this.
The tour takes four days and three nights. We were around 30 people and travelled in several speed boats. On average we visited two different islands per day. One to have lunch and one for the night. Some of the islands were empty and we were the only people on them. Others had small villages and were inhabited by the Kunas. We slept in hammocks at the beach or in Kuna villages and had the chance to get in touch with the friendly, open minded community.
This is not a luxury tour. We learned that privacy is totally overrated and shared bathrooms with 18 other people which were only separated by a see-through curtain from the room where people were sleeping. On the other hand, we ate fresh lobster like kings. This would easily have cost a fortune anywhere else!
On our last night, we were lucky enough to see giant turtles lay eggs on the beach! Apparently they are in trance while doing this and therefore don’t get disturbed by what is going on around them. Only flashlights of certain colours disorient them and shouldn’t be used. It was fascinating to be part of this natural phenomenon. This was originally not part of the tour but the organisers decided to change the itinerary in order for us to see the turtles. Instead of sleeping on an island we spent the last night in a village on the mainland.
Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t perfect and we couldn’t visit some of the nicest San Blas Islands. The wind was also very strong on the last day and the waves were too big for us to get on the boat. Instead, we had to cross the border walking. It was a lovely little hike through the jungle in flip flops.
The tour ended in Capurgana, a quiet little town in Colombia. We had to wait until 5.30 pm to get our entry stamp because of siesta. The shops open randomly, sometimes only in the afternoon. People tend to hang out where the music is the loudest. Since it was mothers-day, we were expecting music all night. Luckily, the power went off at 11 pm and we had a good night sleep. The next day we went to swim in salt and fresh water pools. The salt water pool was a challenge since it was in the ocean and waves were breaking on the rocks around it.
The tour with San Blas Adventures was a great experience. It gave us the opportunity to visit places off the beaten track while enjoying the beauty of the islands. I would definitely recommend this tour, especially because it sets great value upon conscious tourism with involvement of the local communities. We enjoyed our time to the fullest and were looking forward to exploring more of Colombia!