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Dave and Jan's travels, day 298:
San Blas Islands

12th March
The San Blas archipelago lies off the north coast of eastern Panama. It's a long chain of tiny islands, and according to the Panamanian tourist board, there are 365 islands, one for every day of the year. According to the Kuna people that actually live there, there are 378. Who do you believe?

At any rate, there are lots of them, and pretty much all have white sandy beaches, lots of coconut palms, and are perfect tropical islands. The Kuna have been defending their culture ever since the Spanish arrived nearly five hundred years ago, and it says a lot for them that so far they've hung on successfully. At the moment the province has its own system of government which revolves around each island's chief. Another highlight is their police force, or more accurately their lack of a police force. Tourism is highly controlled, for example there are no restaurants, you eat in your hotel, and you get permission from the local headman in person each time you set foot on a new island.

The local economy centres on coconuts. For some reason the local coconuts are uniquely tasty, a fact which enables them to sell the things to their Columbian neighbours in return for various other foodstuffs. This, along with crops the islanders grow on the mainland, and a lot of seafood, adds up to a reasonable diet. The people themselves are short, mostly below 5 foot, but pretty broad and healthy for the most part. The women nearly all wear traditional dress which includes intricately crafted appliqué molas sewn into colourful blouses. They wear bracelets made from strings of beads that wrap around their legs and arms twenty or thirty times, cunningly threaded so that patterns appear. Then there are loose head scarves. Make up consists of a black line drawn down the nose. Chunky nose rings pierce the flesh between the nostrils.

We stayed at the Dolphin Lodge, which shares an island about 400 feet by 200 feet with around twenty or so huts occupied by locals, a group of whom run the hotel. They seem to spend a lot of the day laughing, they're very friendly, and we had a great time there which we were only sorry was quite short. The local kids are endlessly fascinated by us, and us by them, and we had a lot of fun trying to communicate in Spanish, a second language for both sides.

Apart from lazing in the hammock with a good book, we did manage a few activities. One was a trip to the nearby island of Achutupu for a food shopping expedition with our hostess. Another was a visit to an uninhabited island for some sensational snorkelling. A third was to another island where we met Pablo, who spoke a lot of English, had married an Englishwoman, lived in Hampstead for a while and on the island, until he found Hampstead "too complicated" and she found the island of Mamitupu equally undesirable.

We also had a few chats with our fellow guest, a Columbian businessman living in Panama. After covering the arrogance of the USA, the importance of rainforests to the world's ecology and the South American economy in Spanish, we were duly exhausted, so it was back to that book and hammock for a while. We also met Alberto the Parrot - see photo.

Finally, a word about the trip there. The islands are served by light aircraft that only fly between 6am and 9am, so both directions - particularly from Panama City - require an early start. It's usually cloudy above the mountains that run along the middle of Panama, which makes for a bumpy crossing, and each of the half dozen stops the aircraft make are on bumpy little strips cut out of the jungle. The whole thing is more like a local bus than a typical airflight. On one trip David qualified as the biggest person on board, and was duly rewarded with the honour of sitting next to the pilot. Fortunately he stepped out of character and avoided contact with any controls.


   (click thumbnails for a larger picture)

Desert Island Life

Albert the Parrot and friend

San Blas Islands


Dolphin Lodge