While our car was making its way across the Caribbean to Colombia, it was up to us to find our own way. We could fly from Panama City, take a sail boat across the ocean or go for the cheapest option which involves a number of outboard motor boats followed by a series of long bus rides. The motor boat option had the added benefit of getting to see a number of additional small towns along the way and spending the most amount of time on the San Blas Islands, an archipelago just off the coast of Panama. Having logged our fair share of miles on public transportation during our lives a day of travel on even the worst of roads seemed a lot less intimidating than the 36 hours of open water sailing that we would have faced had we taken the sail boat. Of the sail boat option, we had heard a number of horror stories of incompetent captains, lack of food supplies and rampant sea sickness. However, we quickly realized our choice was just as susceptible to a bungling, inept crew as any other.
The first whiff of incompetence was as simple as the captain leaving his cell phone at the docks. This would have been lost on us in the grand scheme of things had we not been floating at sea with a broken motor within the first hour of our trip. As it turns out it had slipped the captain’s mind to put oil in the gasoline which is extremely bad for a two stroke engine. When they eventually figured out why the engine had been sputtering we were able to continue our way to the island where we would be spending the night. Not before having to stop twice to ask for directions. Many times throughout the trip we found ourselves wondering if these two had ever made this trip before.
The first night we spent on a tiny island which was packed from end to end with people on holiday. Of the approximately 378 islands part of the San Blas archipelago, this was one of the 49 that is inhabited. The islands are home to an indigenous group called the Kuna Indians. The isolation of their geography has allowed them to sustain their cultural autonomy from the rest of the mainland. They have their own language, governing body, and religious ceremonies, although there are traces of western organized religion. The women in their society are celebrated. They are a matrilineal society where the bridegroom becomes a part of the bride’s family and takes the bride’s last name. Most of the ceremonies revolve around major events that take place in a women’s life and the women in Kuna society are known for their distinct and colorful dress.
When you envision the model deserted island in your mind with the grove of coconut trees surrounded by crystal clear water, this was exactly where the boat would drop us off. We spent our days snorkeling, cracking open coconuts and trying to convince our taste buds that rum is good. By the end of the trip our two guides were able to pull things together enough not to overshadow the beauty of the beaches and the people. Our final night was spent in a “hotel” in a Kuna village. We had the opportunity to walk around the thatch roofed huts taking pictures of kids who absolutely LOVED posing for the camera. This tiny little island that would take less than ten minutes to walk from end to end was packed with an entire community. By watching the crowds of kids running freely throughout the island looking after each other without the presence of adults I couldn’t help but think about how natural of an environment this must feel for a kid. We were able to catch smiles and hellos from locals passing by that exuded a general level of happiness that seemed extraordinary. It’s hard to avoid romanticizing such a idealized community when only catching a glimpse. But it does give you ideas of what to look for when choosing your own.
On the final day of the trip we were dropped off at Playa Blanca in La Miel, Panama right on the border of Colombia. Our trip offered a free night of camping in this town, but we were in a rush to meet our vehicles and had to get stamped into Colombia as soon as possible. After a relaxing swim on the gorgeous beach, we packed up our things and got ready to hike to the next town, where we’d catch another boat to our destination for the night. Separating us from the next town was a steep 20 minute climb up a series of stair cases that lead to a breathtaking view of the crystal blue ocean on either side. Marking the saddle were two flag poles, one with the flag of Panama and one with the flag of Colombia, as we happened to be standing on the border of the two countries. As we asked the military guard to take a snapshot of the moment it struck every one of us how climactic of an entry we were making into the next phase of our trip. We had carried ourselves by foot from one continent to the next. We feel excited, we feel energized, we feel ready for South America.