Harboring fantasies of being a castaway on a deserted island? Consider a trip to Panama’s San Blas islands.

By Becky Cooper
February 12, 2016
San Blas Island
Credit: Rebecca Cooper

There are 365 pieces of paradise scattered in the Caribbean, just off the coast of Panama: the San Blas Islands. More than 300 of them are uninhabited, all are coated in coconut palms, and most are too small for Google maps to bother with. The Kuna, a tribe indigenous to Panama, run the islands and have fiercely protected the land, their culture, and their independence. That means no hotels, no chain restaurants, no foreign-owned anything. The best way to find a cell phone signal is by hunting for it on a dinghy.

You can arrive on these islands by speedboat from Panama, or, for even more of an adventure, sail with a crew from Cartagena. A five-day trip, stopping over in some of the most gorgeous and remote islands in the Caribbean for about $500? Yes, please.

There are a ton of sailing companies that organize this trip, but one stands out above the rest: a French-owned boat called the Velero Amande. The site promises charcoal barbecues, abundant lobster, and a personal cook. A culinary adventure by sea, it seems. There’s a boat leaving from Cartagena just before Christmas. I sign up, pay the deposit, and hold my breath.

San Blas Island
Credit: Rebecca Cooper

It’s sultry hot from the second I deplane in Cartagena, though I find relief in the terra-cotta lined room at Casa India Catalina. I fill my three days in the city with ceviche, siestas, and popsicles. The streets bump with merengue and salsa music; walls are soaked with color and wrapped in azalea bushes. The city smells of sizzling arepas, and I wander, despite the heat, pulled around every corner by a building more beautiful than the last. I watch, mesmerized, a man shave a block of ice into a snow cone; I dance on the rooftop of the Malagana Café & Bar, emboldened by the fresh passion fruit caipirinhas; I cool off in the ocean breeze as I tip-toe along the city wall. All sense of time disappears when I slip into the Santa Clara hotel’s courtyard, accompanied by Gabriel García Márquez books and chirping birds, but I am the most charmed sitting outside El Baron one evening, in the reflected light of the Iglesia de San Pedro, sipping a chartreuse-tinted basil cocktail. Every night, after I meander my way home, the click-clack of carriage horses through the window lulls me deeply to sleep.

The day before my departure for San Blas, I drop off my passport at Blue Sailing, the agency that coordinates all the boat trips through the islands. The next day I set off for Manga, about a half-hour walk from the center of Cartagena’s historic district, where a dinghy skids up to the dock. “I’m Victor, the captain,” the man in the dinghy says. He looks at my hiking backpack and at the runners on the boardwalk behind me. “Normally the police come to check your bags, but they won’t be here for an hour. So... Do you have drugs?” I tell him no. “Okay,” he says, and I hop on.

The boat, a monohull, with a big kitchen area and dining space, is large enough to sleep twelve. The cabins are as bare-bones as you’d expect from a vessel where space is key: each can sleep two, but you have to be willing to slide on the mattress under the low-hanging ceiling (the effect is not unlike an MRI machine, but oddly comforting in a cocoon-like way). But on this trip, there are just seven of us: three crew and four passengers. The cook is a 27-year-old Parisian named Sophie who left a job in television for the San Blas Islands. The skipper, Esteban, is also from France. He’s spent all his life on boats, he says.

San Blas Island
Credit: Rebecca Cooper

Victor explains that we’re waiting until 2 a.m. before we set sail to stand the greatest chance of smooth seas. It’s a straight 30-hour sail to the islands, which are much closer to Panama. (It’s best to do this journey from Colombia to Panama, and not the other way around, for that reason.) Around 11 p.m., after a few hours of listening to the lapping waves, we all tuck in, except for Esteban, who takes the night shift.

With Dramamine, I sleep well into 11 o'clock. I don’t feel sick, but I can’t stay awake. The waves keep rocking me back to sleep. Some hours later, I’m finally steady enough to go on deck. We’re traveling eight to ten knots, and the sea, cupped around us, looks like cobalt jelly. The crew is fishing. They’ve dropped a line with a seven-inch fish, hoping to catch a two-footer. The net of pineapples, sun-ripening in the back of the boat, swings. I realize I can use the pineapples to tell time: one for each morning’s breakfast.

More hours dash by in a daze. At 8 p.m., after a dinner of ham and cheese sandwiches with lettuce and tons of mayonnaise—I’ve started to worry about the culinary part of this expedition—everyone heads back to their cabin. “Good night,” Sophie says in French. “Sleep well,” I say in return. ”See you tomorrow in paradise,” she says. I laugh and head into my cabin. “No, for real,” Sophie calls to me.

At 7:30 the next morning, everything is sticky. It’s been two days since I’ve taken a shower and the air is tropical. I throw on my bathing suit, determined, after a day lost to sleep, to make the most of everything. I walk to the back of the boat. The cobalt blue has changed to the light blue-green of sea glass where the waves stir up the white sand, and just outside that, a deep turquoise that L.A. pools aspire to. Three little islands, like inverse mirages, rise up out of the sea: the Coco Banderos Cays. They’re so picture-perfect desert island, I have to laugh.

We drop anchor and pack snorkel gear into the dinghy while Sophie makes passion fruit-pear-guava tarts, reviving my culinary hopes for the trip. Esteban brings us to one of the uninhabited islands. It’s stunning, and we are the only ones on shore. I snorkel to the coral break, looking for the (harmless!) sharks and barracuda that are supposedly teeming in these waters. “Groupers swim right up,” Esteban had mentioned. I don’t see any, but in a little cove I run into a school of electric yellow fish. I stop swimming and float, suspended in the warm water, moving with the fish, in sync with the waves. I relish the silence that I’d forgotten how much I needed.

San Blas Island
Credit: Rebecca Cooper

After an impeccable lunch (coconut eggplant curry; a spinach and avocado salad flecked with mint) that erases any lingering doubts of Sophie’s talents, I head over to the inhabited island with Sophie and Victor, who are gifting the local Kuna oil, milk, and a bag of rice. We pull the dinghy on shore and walk the goods past huts strung with hammocks. “This is Rosalinda’s island,” Sophie explains to me. “It’s all one big family, and she’s the head of it.” The Kuna are a matrilineal society—women control the money and are often the appointed elders of their island.

We enter the largest hut, smoky from a palm bonfire. A young boy is fanning the flames with a palm leaf. Victor calls for Rosalinda, and she enters a moment later. About sixty-years-old, she’s short—not even five feet tall—but impossibly regal, with a tattooed line down her nose and a gold piercing dangling from the center. She wears beaded bracelets on her legs up to her knees.

We give her the groceries, and she throws her arms around Victor, beaming. She pulls him, excitedly, to a neighboring hut, eager to show him something: her big new gas-run fridge. It’s for beers to sell to foreigners, she explains in Spanish. I rush outside to take a look and bang my head on the bottom of the hut’s doorway. Everyone laughs.

Back on the boat, four Kuna come by in an ulu, a hand-dug canoe made from the lumber of the Kuna Yala forest. They’ve brought a large haul of lobsters, caught probably within the last hour. “They’re strong sailors,” Sophie tells me, “and extremely strong fishermen.” Victor buys seven for 25 U.S. dollars. He places them in a rope net, and hangs them off the back of the boat to keep fresh for Christmas dinner.

I’m awoken on Christmas Eve morning by the smell of crepes. Victor’s flipping them, one arm on his hip, and we pile on guava jam as fast as he can make them. Later, we pull up anchor and sail another hour (with the lobsters still hanging off the back) to the Holandes Cays. Sophie talks up the snorkeling here, but the current carries me horizontally across the reef and threatens to push me onto the sea urchins. I rest on the beach instead. This island is bigger than the last—I have to turn my head to see the whole thing—with a wider band of sand and a thick forest of coconut palms in the center. Despite the two other groups of tourists—a family and a band of Australians—the island is remarkably not crowded.

Esteban announces that Victor is preparing a real Argentinian barbecue. We follow Sophie and the smell of burning charcoal from the beach to Julio’s hut—he’s the elder Kuna on this island—and meet his wife and dog, Achoo. Esteban moves the slab of ribs on the charcoal to make room for the plantains. He rubs the steak in Victor’s emerald chimichurri sauce and layers red peppers on top. The crew cracks open beer. Sophie pours everyone else wine.

We eat and drink with the Kuna in the shade of palm trees until we’re tipsy—Esteban is playing footsie with Julio’s wife—and sleep it off on the beach as the crew packs up the gear. For the next two hours, I watch pelicans dive for fish and wander into the palm forest to work up an appetite for Christmas Eve dinner: lobster steamed with cabbage and soy sauce. Sophie follows it with warm chocolate cake, studded with brazil nuts, floating in an expertly prepared crème anglaise. Victor pours champagne in gold-tipped flutes. “Ito malando,” we cheer, toasting each other in Kuna.

San Blas Island
Credit: Rebecca Cooper

The next morning starts early. We pull up anchor at Holandes Cays and head to Porvenir Island to clear immigration. Fifteen minutes into the trip, the fishing line goes taut, and Esteban runs over to reel in a silver Bonnet tuna shiny with beads of seawater. “A Christmas present!” Sophie exclaims. Esteban knifes it in the heart and filets it in the back of the boat. After another hour of sailing, we moor in the Chichime Cays. A number of boats are in the harbor, and husks of old ones that didn’t clear the reef dot the horizon. A few Kuna are fishing in their ulus in the distance. There is, consistent with this deserted paradise dream, nearly no one on land.

This island is stunning: bright turquoise water, a wide, pristine beach, and photogenic huts that can be rented for $40 a night, I hear. I’ve forgotten my snorkel gear on the boat, but that’s for the best, since the current is still too strong to properly swim. I trek to the hammocks I’d longed for since the morning and swing my sandy legs into the belly of one. Later, I ask a Kuna man for a coconut, and he comes running back with a giant green one. (Coconut trees may cover all the islands here, but I’m warned not to take one for myself. Every tree, and therefore each coconut, belongs to one of the Kuna.) His son waits obediently near his cutting board as he whacks the young husk. He angles his long, thin knife to the center of the nut to cut a hole just large enough for my mouth.

We get back to the boat before sunset. The others shower while Sophie prepares the last meal. I can’t bear to pull myself out of the sea, half because the rushing current feels like a massage, and half because I know it’s the last time I’ll be in those waters.

The next morning, my alarm rings at 6 a.m. and I groggily finish packing. I run to the front of the boat to lie out in the breeze and the quiet one last time while we wait for the speedboat to take us to the mainland’s coast. The full moon is still visible in the west when the Kuna-driven speedboat arrives. An hour’s ride takes us from the open sea to the Caribbean shore of Panama: a vaguely apocalyptic narrowing with tree stumps and a lazy, winding river flanked by lush vegetation. I half expect a crocodile to pop out at any moment. We anchor by tying the boat to roots that poke out horizontally from the shore. I climb off and the ground is wobbly in the good, spent-too-long at the beach way.

I exhale, deeply, and a full-body wave of relief washes over me. I realize, on some level, I’d been holding my breath the whole trip: worried that the relationship with the Kuna would be a Disney-esque tourist show. Or if not that, then that the islands would be surrounded by bobbing trash, or that the current wouldn’t carry me fast enough to catch my flight in Panama. Because, to be honest, it all sounded too good to be true. A week-long trip on a boat with a personal cook that didn’t require being underwritten by a financier? A part of me didn’t let myself believe it until it all had happened, until my glasses were unmistakably dusted with Panamanian dirt.

The last leg of the trip is a four-hour 4x4 ride through the jungle to Panama City. The winding mountain roads eventually give way to industrial stores, giant chain supermarkets, and, finally, the long roadway hung with lights that announces our arrival. My flight’s the next morning, so I have one night to enjoy the city—sunset cocktails in swinging chairs at Finca del Mar, an exquisite dinner in the Casco Viejo (Capital Bistro Panama’s seared white tuna served over coconut curry risotto), and a long wander through the boardwalk at night.

At the airport the next day, the immigration officer scrutinizes my passport. She looks at me and flips rapidly through the pages, looking for something. Finally, she finds my entrance stamp and smiles. “Ah, San Blas,” she says. “Bellas, no?”