Ok, so maybe the title of this post is a bit misleading but living on the San Blas islands for 2 days with no running water or electricity really did make us feel like stranded castaways – in the best possible way, of course!
We booked the tour to San Blas through our hostel in Panama City. They had a few options: budget, party, relaxation etc, so you can cater the experience entirely to your requirements. From what I’ve heard, every single accommodation (from hotels to hostels) will offer reputable San Blas tours at the reception desk so don’t worry about booking online in advance – it’s much easier and cheaper to sort it out when you get there!
Originally, we intended to go for 3 days and 2 nights but due to the tour being over-booked we were only allowed to stay for 2 days and 1 night. At first, we were a bit gutted because we’d heard such great things about the islands and wanted to spend as much time there as possible but now, looking back, it was definitely the best thing for us. Plus, our hostel-staff pal, Daniel, managed to score us an extra night in our Bocas del Toro hostel instead so it all pieced together in the end.
Anyway, back to the details. The tours include absolutely everything in the price: accommodation, 3 meals a day, snacks, snorkel hire, boat transport from island to island and a shuttle bus from the hostel to the port. The shuttle bus picks you up in the early hours of the morning to ensure arrival at the port for when the boats depart (and to give you as much time as possible on the islands). It was probably a good idea to tick this trip off at the beginning of our travels because I can imagine that a 4am wake up call would be painful to any normal non-jetlagged human being…
When our driver arrived to pick us up we realised that the car was already full with people from other hostels and found ourselves crammed in the back of a jeep with absolutely no leg room. Considering it’s quite a bumpy 2/3 hour ride with a ton of winding roads, this wasn’t the most comfortable situation for any of us. Abbie also gets extremely travel sick, which was just the icing on the cake.
Whilst she did spend the majority of the time gripping the seats and gasping for air, the strong Turkish tablets she purchased before we came proved to do a good job of preventing the worst. Thank God. Wish us luck for the million-and-one more bus journies to come over the next 3 months!
We arrived at the Port at 7am, where we hopped on a boat to our new island home. On the way there, the boat stopped at a few of the ‘community islands’, where the locals live, to pick up food and drinks for us. These islands were crammed with shacks – there was litter everywhere and everything was just a dull shade of grey/brown. We thought it was crazy to see this kind of poverty just seconds away from white sand beaches and tourist holiday hotspots. Also, we couldn’t help but question how much money the locals actually receive for providing us with amenities – probably just a tiny portion of the amount that we pay to the tour company but, at the same time, they seem so happy to have tourists to do business with. Are we helping or harming? I wish I knew!
Our island was called ‘Isla Aroma’ and we knew instantly that we were in paradise as the boat docked next to a golden beach and endless rows of coconut trees. Before we had chance to explore, we were told to drop our bags in the dorms and get back on the boat ready for the day-trip.
Every day, the tour companies will organise an island-hopping trip. You can visit all different types of islands: ones with shipwrecks, gigantic ones with jungley areas, sandbanks, deserted ones with just a few palm trees and no houses, etc.
Our first island visit was pretty similar to the island we were staying on. It was medium-sized with plenty of sunbathing space and the clearest waters ever! We spent the morning soaking up the rays before enjoying lunch with the rest of our tour group.
The food is genuinely amazing. It sounds really basic – rice, beans, salad and fruit (if you’re a meat eater then there’s usually some chicken/fish to choose from too!) – but despite the simplicity, it’s seasoned so well and the quantities are so big! At the end of the meal, we were all told to wash our plates in the ocean and bring them back. It’s so funny that I’m meticulous about washing up back in the UK but, here, I think it’s totally acceptable to give things a quick rinse in salty water before re-using them! My attitude to hygiene when travelling is completely different to when I’m at home… oops.
After lunch we headed to a sandbank which is basically just a few small sandy spots surrounded by the shallowest water. The boats docked and started to play music and hand out plastic cups and drinks – a party in the middle of the ocean! We went snorkelling but the reef was so close to us that we kept accidentally catching ourselves on it and Alice got coral stuck in her foot. All it took was a pair of tweezers and Abbie’s steady hand to sort the problem out – no biggie!
When the day trip is over, you return to your original island to relax before dinner. We decided to have a shower seeing as we were covered in sunscreen and sea salt but unfortunately we didn’t feel as clean as we might have hoped…
Let me explain. Before we left Panama City, we met a girl in our hostel who had just got back from San Blas. She told us that there were no showers/toilets on the islands and that there was no point taking shampoo or bodywash. Stupidly, we just accepted what she said instead of doing our own research and we were a bit gutted to spend a whole 48 hours without soap.
That said, after the water shortage in Panama City, we were pretty used to the no-shower thing and it didn’t bother us too much – we just stood under the trickle of rainwater and hoped for the best.
We had some time to relax before dinner so we decided to walk around the whole island. This took us approximately 3 minutes – it was so tiny! Although it’s an amazing place to spend a few days, we think cabin fever would eventually creep in… unless you’re happy to just spend the rest of your life in a hammock. I realise this might sound appealing but to be so far away from an accessible peanut-butter supply should be enough to make anyone uncomfortable.
We sat on the pier and watched the world go by, wondering if we’d end up on a private island again any time soon. San Blas is a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ kind of experience. Potentially one of the only places I’ve ever visited that genuinely looks like the Google image search – it’s the definition of paradise.
After a dinner of potatoes and vegetables, we went straight to bed. Alice and Abbie slept soundly but I was up all night – thunder and lightning, humidity and mosquito bites are not my favourite combination. On a positive note, I was up early enough to catch the sunrise and took a morning stroll around the island when the light was just creeping through the trees and everything was still. I’ve thought long and hard about the right words to describe this moment but I just can’t seem to do it justice. You need to experience it for yourselves – and yes, that’s a cop out but seriously, go!
If the thought of a dorm and no clean water fills you with dread then know that there are dozens of islands all with different vibes. There are basic camping grounds where you bring your own tent, dorm rooms, private rooms, luxury cabin rentals and honeymoon suites. San Blas is for everyone – no excuses!
On the second day, there were eggs and bread for breakfast. I don’t eat eggs but luckily I had a stash of peanut butter and pringles that I’d brought with me from Panama City. Maybe not nutritious (and definitely not attractive when i am ravenously swirling my fingers around the jar) but 100% yummy.
We headed out for the day-trip at around 9am. This time the island was a lot bigger and jungley but the waters were even clearer and there were SO many starfish! We snorkelled for a while (I got stung by something that I didn’t actually see) and then we decided to sunbathe for a while. The tanning competition is definitely on. Well, between me and Abbie. Alice has already been on 3 holidays and is still a shade of pinky white (lost cause) but watch this space – a winner will be declared in Mexico.
While we were lying down relaxing, we were approached by a guy who said ‘Hey, where are you from, I have a bet with my friends’. We replied, ‘England’ and he threw his fist into the air signalling to his friends that he was right. He invited us over but we, obviously, declined. About 10 minutes later he came back with the line ‘Hey, can you take a picture with me, I have a bet with my friends’. At this point, we started to question whether these ‘bets’ were just a way to feel less embarrassed about talking to us. Oh, and just a heads up to any of you guys thinking about giving this technique a go – it doesn’t work.
Before the end of our time in San Blas, our boat driver, Alex (who’s real name is Elbert) took us to his home island – one of the community islands that I mentioned at the beginning of this post. Alex/Elbert was so proud and excited to show us his island even though to us it just looked like a really poor slum. I’ve always said this about Latin America but these people are always happier despite having so much less material stuff.
The island was really small and people were living in shacks made from slabs of metal and wood – the bathrooms were public and just a toilet seat with a hole to the ocean directly below it. That said, there was a museum, a prison and a gay nightclub. Who needs a sewage system when you have these vital amenities?!
On the way back to collect our bags from our island, the waves were really bumpy and we got absolutely soaked. We thought it’d be a good idea to change clothes so that we didn’t have to sit in a car for 2 hours soaking wet but we ended up just getting wet again 😭. The ‘drowned rat’ look is all too common when travelling….
So, that’s all for our island escape. It’s time for us to head to the carribbean coast – Bocas del Toro is calling! 🌴