- The Caribbean showing off : Salsa and seafood
- A backpacker´s recommendation
- The history of the Kuna minority
- Life is easy on Senidup
- Unusual roommates
- Paradise activities
- A good birthday
I am back in Panama City now after 4 unforgettable days on an island half the seize of a football pitch! But let´s first come back to where I left you, namely the capital of Panama.
The Caribbean showing off: Salsa and seafood
After a short stopover in the capital of Colombia, Bogota, I arrived in Panama City, which is completely different from what I expected. I had never seen a picture of it nor did I read into it before getting here, however, I expected something similar to Bogota. But this city looks more like Hong Kong or Bangkok than the capital of a fairly small country. The Panama Canal generated a lot of trade and wealth and nowadays this city boasts hundreds of skyscrapers. Our very chilled hostel is located in the very middle of this business part of town, not necessarily the nicest, but the price/value of this hostel and its relaxed atmosphere is top.
We took it very slowly in Panama City, as Cecilia had a 30 hour ordeal to get here and as we did not want to rush things. Moreover, we knew that we would come back to this city after the 4 days in the San Blas Archipelago and that we would have enough time later to visit the famous Panama Canal, the old city and the beautiful parks.
The one thing we had to visit on the first day was, of course, the fish market. It is located right at the sea and I loved it: Salsa music playing everywhere, a distinctive Caribbean atmosphere and fresh seafood as far as the eye can see. The classic dish is Ceviche, a raw fish snack which I already had in Chile, however, every country has its own version of it. Due to intestinal restrictions I didn’t try it, but Cecilia says she absolutely loved it and we will head back tomorrow for some more variations of this awesome 2 dollar snack.
What I did try was the standard dish they offer: coconut-beans rice with the most amazing seafood curry I have ever eaten. They basically make a stew with 15 different kinds of seafood (mussels, shellfish, sea snails, octopus, etc…) and add a lot of spices I do not know, which gives it an amazing kick. All of this for 5 dollars per portion. So we sat down at the ocean side, Salsa in the back and ate this high quality seafood
A backpacker´s recommendation
My birthday. After last year´s absolute nightmare 10 000 miles on the other side of the planet on Koh Phi Phi I tried to lower expectations for this one. I knew that I would spend it with Cecilia, which was already amazing, however, we did not plan too much upfront. Then, in South America, I met a couple of people in Mendoza who told me that the San Blas archipelago northeast of Panama City was the best place they had visited in Central America. I did know about this place, but we dropped it due to the high costs to fly out there and for accommodation.
The backpackers, however, assured me that you could take a 4×4 through the jungle and then a boat to get to those islands and that some of them offer quite cheap backpacker huts. So we looked into it and here in the hostel in Panama City the very helpful hostel owner Daniel helped us organize my birthday in paradise.
It is very important to get a good islands, one that suits your needs, as you cannot really move around a lot and most islands are literally the size of a football pitch or even less. You always get all your meals on the island, plus accommodation. But when Daniel told us that a friend of his, Toni, runs a relaxed backpacker hostel on a very small beautiful island the decision was easy: 4 days in paradise.
The history of the Kuna minority
San Blas is where the Kunas live, an ethnic minority that has a unique status and culture. These island people have been living off fishing in the San Blas archipelago for hundreds of years. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, however, Panama started imposing their customs and tried to eradicate the Kuna´s traditions. In 1925 the Kunas took up arms, killed a couple of Panamanian police officers which led to a “revolution” resulting in Kuna Yala´s (the name of the area where they live) independence.
Today, the Kuna enjoy a very special status: when crossing into their territory, visitors have to present their passports and to pay a fee. Land can only be owned by Kunas and foreign interference is strictly controlled. The Kunas hate Panama and train themselves for the “unavoidable” clash with Panama in a compulsory seven year military training in the jungle of Colombia. Interestingly, after this period all young Kunas are send abroad to come down and most of all to acquire highly valuable skills with which they can then help their country. This is all paid by a government fund (not of Panama, of the Kuna). The people we have met have been sent as far as Spain and Argentina to study. I was astonished by this sort of thinking, considering that these people live in huts made of palms and spend their days fishing with harpoons.
The two Kunas we spoke to most, Toni and Nali, explained how their society follows socialist ideals and they all live according to the principle “peace and love – one blood, one people”, which means that every Kuna feels responsible for any other Kuna. As a result they all work for the same objective, a happy Kuna society. Nowadays their main exports are coconuts to Columbia, lobsters to the US and tourism of course. I do believe, however, that a great share of their government funds come from Colombian drug traffic. Because the US´ and Panamanian military are not allowed into the Kuna region, all the drug boats coming from Colombia stop on the deserted islands of this Archipelago on their way north. The Kunas cooperate with the Columbian militias, supposedly because of their ideological commonalities. It does at least seem possible that the reciprocal services exceed political ideals though.
Life is easy on Senidup
The island we were heading to is called Senidup. It is really really small, as in you can walk around the entire island in about 2 minutes. The island belongs to two people: Toni and Franklin. In the middle of the island a ridiculous iron fence divides the two parts from each other. We arrived on Toni´s side and got the following introduction straight away: first, be wary of the coconuts – the green ones are fine, they do not fall, the orange and brown ones are dangerous though (this is not a joke, they are literally falling down from 15m trees all the time). Second, do not lift the starfish out of the water for longer than 10 seconds, otherwise they will die (the sand around the island is full of big orange starfish). Third, when he blows through his huge conch it´s time to eat. Lastly: welcome to paradise.
And what a paradise it is. You sleep in small, palm tree bungalows, which do not even have a floor, it´s just sand. You spend the day on the beautiful strip of sand which extends into the turquoise sea and you can therefore go swimming. There are no currents whatsoever, nor any other natural hazards (just the falling coconuts). When it´s raining you can move to the bigger, open-air bungalow next to the beach where Toni has his sound system and plays reggae all day and salsa at night. On our side not more than 15 people stayed in the bungalows, towards the end we were around 6 and after we left Ben, a Bavarian, was left all alone on the island.
The whole place is run by Toni´s family, so the sister and the other women cook, he and his cousins take care of the buildings and the tourists. It was nice because you kind of get a good insight into the Kuna culture, especially at night when the guys finally relax, take out the Abuelo rum and start talking about their culture and their way of thinking.
As always: the best things in life come at a certain price. A palm hut built on the sand might sound very romantic, well, it´s not. First, you have sand everywhere all of the time, in the bed, on your clothes, in your hair. Then, water is very scarce, they have to go to the mainland, into the jungle every morning to fill up two canisters of freshwater which are then used for showering, cooking and drinking. Even if they have it, the shower is more like water dripping down from the top. So yeah, I didn’t really shower in four days. Electricity is also a problem, as they have to use a generator which didn’t work when we got there. They will install solar panels soon, but we had to rely on our headlights the first night. On the second and third it did work though and Toni could show off his DJ skills in the little open air hut.
However, the most annoying thing about this island are the insects. I mean, I really do not care about insects. I have seen them all and it doesn’t bother me. But this bungalow was quite extreme. We detected four different “pets”: Carlo the crab, digging his way in and out of the bungalow constantly. Then an army of ants in every possible size. Then a family of cockroaches which would occupy the walls right next to you, and there is just no way to ever get rid of them, so we just tried to ignore them. Lastly, worst of all, the fleas. On the first night I got bitten around 80 times, not kidding. Contrary to mosquitos, one flea can bite up to 50 times one after the other. Their bites are incredibly itchy, stay for days and there is nothing you can do. So for 4 days we just lived with them. Cecilia got bitten too, less than me (my blood is an insect´s favorite), but still a lot. Now, back in Panama City, we had to bring all of our stuff including backpacks to a laundry to get rid of these bastards. But hey, totally worth it!
So what can you do on such an island? Chill, chill, chill and wait for it, chill. With a life structured only by the conch sound telling you that it is dinner time, life seems quite unproblematic. Then the big decisions: am I getting up to get another coconut? Should I take a snorkel and swim around the island´s reef?
The food was very nice. Especially when they caught lobster and we got to eat it. Nali told us how they catch it: on the boat they smoke a joint as it relaxes them and slows down their heart beat, enabling them to stay longer underwater. Then they dive with a stick in their left hand and a kind of iron lasso in their right. Once they reach the corals, they start annoying the lobster with one stick and as soon as it comes out they get it with the other. But you have to stay down there for minutes and he was telling me how he got sent to the island of the best divers to learn how to do it, and how these people can dive down 15m without goggles for minutes and will catch up to 10 lobsters in half an hour. We had it with a nice, simple marinade and I can see now why lobster is such a delicacy.
Toni told us that he could show us around the archipelago if we found 10 people to do it. Not a problem, if there is one advantage of studying philosophy, it´s that I find convincing people very easy. So a very mixed group of people took off for a tour around the beautiful archipelago.
First, we went snorkeling around dog island. About 70 years ago a ship sank in the shallow waters of this island. As a result, you can go snorkeling around this 35m ship, which is nowadays covered by corals and fish. It was amazing because you usually do not get the chance to do this without knowing how to scuba dive. But the current was very strong and I didn’t last very long down there.
After this we visited Viagra Island. It is a very small island in the middle of the sea. In fact, it is so small that only a single palm tree grows on it, hence the name… We had a great time on the ship which was only made better by stopping off in the middle of the ocean to watch some dolphins. Apparently they really like humans and that´s why they come so close to the boat. You can go snorkeling with them, however, “unfortunately” they had a couple of babies and these do not know how much power they already have and it can get dangerous. We saw dolphins three times in these 4 days, amazing animals, really elegant and beautiful.
Later we went watching a lot of starfish and ended the trip on another small island drinking beer and talking to the Kuna about their culture. It was very interesting and I highly respect them for how sustainable their government (which is composed by the different island chiefs) is thinking and acting and by the strong sense of unity and community that I encountered in their explanations.
A good birthday
On my birthday it actually rained all day and we didn’t do much, which was not a problem considering how awesome some of the people we met were. So we spent my birthday talking to these people, looking out for brighter spots in the sky and guessing in which direction the wind was blowing to determine whether we would get a glimpse at the sun or not. At night, we spent hours in the dark with our new friends planning how we would catch our first lobster the next day. This objective was soon dropped the next day when we realized that catching a lobster is slightly more difficult than we thought.
I really enjoyed my time in San Blas and on Senidup and I can only recommend it to everyone who doesn’t care if for a couple of days some commodities that we take for granted in the Western world do not exist, if in turn you can have paradise instead.
Thank you guys for all the birthday wishes, I received them only today but they were very much appreciated. Now we are back at the hostel looking forward to 2 days in the capital before heading on into the mainland jungle. We went to the supermarket, bought some nice vegetables and fish and will now be preparing Asian style fish with rice, top stuff! Also we found out how to really cut down the travel expenses: taking the cheapest hostel, the cheapest bed and then sharing it – top!
Alright, I hope you guys are all fine and you will hear from me soon.
Hasta luego viejos