Going Big

Bliss in the San Blas: A monthlong idyll exploring the unspoiled islands of a Panamanian archipelago.

Apr 24, 2001
Outside Magazine

There were 11 people crammed into our tiny dinghy—my wife and two daughters sandwiched between seven Kuna Indians. As we wound our way up the Azzcar River beneath a dark, green canopy of mango trees, I felt as if we were in a budget version of The African Queen. My daughters were laughing and chattering with five Kuna children by speaking that miracle kid lingo that transcends all languages. Elacio and Humberto, the children's fathers and our guides, were pointing out the parrots that screeched overhead and the crocodile trails that parted the grass along the banks. I watched the kids draped over the rubber tubes of our dinghy, dangling their toes in the water. Elacio must have caught my concerned expression. Not to worry, he reassured me, the crocodiles were not man-eaters, though they were known to snatch the odd chicken or dog. Still, I couldn't help thinking that, from water level, our merry expedition looked too much like a giant, floating corn dog, smothered with tasty tots.

Bound for Elacio's finca (farm), we had embarked from the village of Azzcar, where Elacio's wife, tattooed and bedecked with nose rings, had stood waving goodbye to us from the rickety bamboo dock. Our family had been living aboard a catamaran in the Caribbean for the past year, and had just arrived in the San Blas Islands, an archipelago stretching along Panama's Caribbean coast from the Canal to the Colombian border. The float on the Azzcar was a side trip in a month devoted to exploring the San Blas's 300-plus dots of paradise.
With only occasional Kuna villages of thatched huts sprinkled along the chain, the green palm islets and white-sand beaches are mostly uninhabited. The diminutive Kuna Indians (only slightly larger than Pygmies) own the islands and are struggling to preserve their culture by fishing from dugout canoes, or cayucos, and growing fruits and vegetables on their mainland fincas. Imagine visiting this forgotten corner of the Caribbean: no beach condos, no tiki bars, no jet skis, and no poolside reggae bands playing knockoff Jimmy Buffett to tourists covered in oil. Here, a turquoise ocean blended with a sultry sky to suspend the islands around us in midair.

We'd nicknamed one tiny islet "Starfish Island." In the warm water near shore, my girls had carefully collected great, burnt-orange starfish and worn them as mermaid crowns or, holding them lightly in their hands, waited for the tenuous extension of soft tentacles to tickle their palms. Starfish Island, hardly 200 feet across, had given us a booty of tropical riches, including buried treasure. My older daughter, Sawyer, age eight, had hidden precious possessions (hair ties and colored rocks), and we had trooped through the silver palms and mangroves to follow her burnt-edged treasure map to where X marked the spot.

Snorkeling along the shore of another island, I'd pulled my younger daughter, Riley, age five, down through the water to gaze into the metallic eyes of a six-foot nurse shark. She'd surfaced shouting through her snorkel with her eyes wide. We'd snared great red crabs—one claw the size of my fist and filled with enough sweet, succulent meat to spill out of a steaming crab omelet for four. Fishing, we'd caught an octopus that produced a mayhem of squirting water, tangled suction cups, and screaming daughters until we managed to get The Thing off the hook. We'd spent an entire afternoon building an epic sand castle that rivaled Buckingham Palace. Then, huddled by our beach bonfire, we'd told scary sea-monster stories and watched luminescent sea worms swirl and corkscrew in the surf.

When I think of the time we spent in the San Blas Islands, it's a certain image from the trip up the Azzcar that I recall most warmly. The kids are up ahead, still wet from collecting tadpoles in the river. They laugh as they bite into golden mangoes and the juice dribbles down their chins. They walk hand in hand with the tiny Kuna children up a path cut through a towering stand of bamboo. We are in a rainforest 3,000 miles from home, and yet, as a family, as close to home as we ever get.


Getting There Nonstop flights to Panama City depart from Miami, Atlanta, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles. To get to the San Blas Islands, fly out of Albrook, Panama City's domestic airport, to Achutupu, where you can snorkel or take a short boat ride over to Dolphin Island, one of the more popular beach destinations. Aviatur offers flights daily at 6 a.m. for about $60 round-trip (011-507-315-0307). The intrepid can hop a Kuna merchant ship from Colsn and make leisurely stops at islands down the line. Either way, it's best to secure a place to stay on any island before you go, as the limited number of lodges can fill up quickly.Travel agencies like Panama Jones (888-726-2621; www.panamacanal.com) and Lost World Adventures (800-999-0558; www.lostworldadventures.com) provide tour packages and can help you make reservations.

When to Go Panama's equatorial climate varies little year-round, except during the mid-April-to-December rainy season, when clouds and afternoon showers cut the heat.

Resources For more information, call the Panamanian Tourist Office (IPAT) at 011-507-226-7000, ext. 112, or log on to www.pa/turismo/sanblas. Check out Lonely Planet's Panama guidebook or www.lonely.planet.com/destinations/central_america/panama/. To sail through the islands, contact a yacht-charter broker who can book you crewed and provisioned boats starting at around $1,500 per person per week. Try Russell Yacht Charters (800-635-8895; www.cruisinginparadise.com) or find crewed boats on the Web at www.caribbeancharter.com