After we left Panama City we were on our way to Paradise #1, the San Blas Islands. I mentioned in an earlier blog that this area is where the Kuna People live. They not only live there, they govern the land as well. There isn’t a paved in Kuna land, so our four hour trip was by 4 wheel drive. Well, the first hour was on paved highway, but the other three were on dirt roads; steep, mountainous dirt roads. It was fun and the views were wonderful!

At the end of our bumpy ride, next was a boat ride to our island. One island out of 400! We were the only two on our boat and enjoyed the view and even enjoyed the layover on a more populated island, until the wait in the hot sun was getting unbearably long. We watched the comings and goings of the Kuna people, especially the women in their colorful dress. When two started to load up heavy items to the front of our boat, Jim jumped up to help them. This also took a rather long time, but when all was loaded up we took off. Not to our island, but we headed towards what ended up to be a very tiny island where these women lived. The boats are small, they go fast, and the water is a bit choppy. All makings of a wet ride, the Kuna women had their backs facing the front and facing us. They were wrapped in a colorful floral print plastic table cloth to keep dry, holding it up high enough to save us from some of the splashing water as well. Since we were only a couple of feet from them, I got to really check out their outfits, their rosy cheeks, their very thin intricately designed gold jewelry, and their cell phones as well! I think the younger lady was text messaging someone. Everyone loves modern technology. Jim helped them off the boat, they thanked us and off we went finally to our island. I could never tire of the views we had on the way, tiny islands from just a mound of sand, to a mound of sand with 3 trees to something maybe the size of a city block all surrounded with clear water varying in color from deep blues to turquoise to sea foam greens. After around 3 hours in the hot sun in the boat on the glaring water, we finally made it to Robinson’s island to find out that the other people in our 4 wheel drive took our place before we arrived as the “resort” they wanted was full. So, we got comfortable on the beach in a hammock while they sussed out what to do with us. Robinson’s island was small, but with a good population of Kuna people. The children running around on the beach, the two dogs sniffing at us and the women trying to sell their bracelets made it all very entertaining.

Finally, they found room on another island for us but it was more expensive than Robinson’s. We negotiated for the same price and then off we went. We landed on an even smaller island, Los Pelikanos, and it was ours, all ours, to ourselves ours…as in no one else was spending the night there but the two worker dudes. I was not sure if we were going to be by ourselves all 3 nights, or just one, and if I would go crazy with no one but Jim and two stooges-like local guys! I jest; the two were funny, and hard working as well! Water for our outdoor shower is boated over from the mainland in barrels. They somehow put the heavy barrel of water on the beach and then bucket by bucket bring the water over to the water tank for the shower. They also have to keep the whole island clean by trimming dead palm fronds, picking up trash and other stuff that washes up on shore. This is in addition to cooking for us and unloading daily supply deliveries. Like I said, they work hard. Mind you, they nap for several hours in the afternoon as well!

Click Photo Below for San Blas Photo Album:

Panama – San Blas Islands – March 2009

It was more magical than I thought it would be, after a boat filled with afternoon visitors from other islands left, we were on our own. We set up house; literally, I decorated the front of our bamboo hut with dead coral, drift wood, rocks, coconuts and shells, lots and lots of conch shells! I was a busy little beaver and all while Jim relaxed on the hammock 2 feet from the doorway and around 10 feet from the sea. Soon after that we moved to the perfect spot to watch the sun set, just me, Jim and Wilson the hanging coconut! The sunset was paradise picture perfect, and soon after dinner was announced. We went to the communal dinning palapa for fried chicken, boiled potatoes and beer. A very basic meal, but on paradise it tasted like an epicureans delight! After dinner we hung out under the palapa for awhile as it had the only light on the island. Light powered by the sun, good use of an over abundant source! We talked with our hosts a bit, two very comical happy guys, one typically Kuna looking and the other an Albino. It seems albinism is very common in the Kuna people and they are looked upon as someone special. My favorite memory was when another guy showed up with some supplies, the blond guy held up two fishes for us to see and all he said with a big smile on his face was, “Almuerza! Almuerza!” (meanng “Lunch! Lunch!”) for us all tomorrow! They were always laughing in a goofy way behind their bamboo walled kitchen hut, Jim and I loved their presence. Back to our night alone on Los Pelikanos, it was dark on our hut’s side of the island, no lights, no moon, just palm trees, sea, sand and a hell of a lot of stars. We went to bed early as we had been up since 4am for the trip over from Panama City, and we slept like little paradise island beach babies!

We woke the next morning to bright sunlight streaming through our bamboo walls; it did not take us long to head over for some breakfast. The breakfast was also simple, but not much to it in size or taste. It did fill our stomachs enough to laze about the island until lunch! After breakfast we did our morning 5 minute walk around the island, nothing like a good healthy walk to work off the extra calories! When we made it back to our hut, Jim plopped in the hammock and I set to finishing the task of decorating the front of the hut. A decorated island hut is a happy island hut! Have I turned into Brie from Desperate Housewives or what? Uh, I would not go that far, I doubt Brie would sleep in a hut with bamboo walls, sand floors and crabs to boot!

Our day went about like this, hang out at the hut, walk around a bit gathering decorative supplies, sit in the hammock and read or stare at the ocean, walk over to the sandy beach side of the tiny island, greet new people that arrived, swim, snorkel, take pictures of star fish, take pictures of the too true blue water, have lunch, sit around and talk, swim more, snorkel a bit more, talk more with peeps, go back to the hut, read some, and so on…all on an island about the size of one acre.

For dusk, all gathered on the sunset side of the island with bottles of rum and coke. We talked, the sun went down slowly, we watched, and we were all thankful we were experiencing such a beautiful and peaceful place. After the sunset and dinner “Burning Palm” started. A bonfire fueled by dry palm fronds. A tiny island, rum and fires go hand in hand and fortunately, there were no island, rum or fire related injuries. We left earlier, leaving the true “Burning Palm” partying for the Johns Hopkins med students on Spring Break.

Upon returning to our humble little hut, we had a little surprise, two little surprises. Our hut had crabs, nothing that big of a deal as most of the times as soon as we returned or turned on our flashlights they were already back in their little hole homes, but not on this night. Two were guarding their prized findings. Uh, how do I say this, something we used earlier in the day, but had forgotten to throw away, was now in the greedy little claws of the two crabs. And these crabs were not going to give up their prized findings easily! It was quite comical, me with a stick trying to convince the crab he really did not want that particular piece of garbage. But the crab thought differently and won. He finally scurried away with it into his tiny little sand home. The other crab was very small and did not have a good grip on his booty, so I went in and took it back. Did not know crabs were such scavengers, but they are for sure. I can not stop thinking about the crab nestling himself comfortably on top of his new find in his cozy little crab cave. I know you are wondering what their prized piece of garbage was, but it is just easier if you see it for yourself in our photos. Needless to say, we fell asleep that night giggling!

We woke to yet another glorious day on paradise, a bit more windy than the day before, but wind is nice on a hot island! We did more of what we did the day before, plus met more new people visiting our little island. One particular couple stands out, two guys from Spain. And why they stand out is although they were very friendly and quite funny, they complained about everything! They complained about the food, which mind you was not particularly good, but not everything is perfect even on paradise, especially when you are only paying around $25.00 a person for room and board. They definitely were city boys, no double size beds, sand floors, crab pets, or mosquitoes for those two! But they are the ones that pointed out that one of the candidates for president in Panama looks like a drag queen! Catty even in paradise, looooved it! We did have our favorites on Isla Pelikanos, besides Laurel and Hardy our hosts. Frank the loveable Dutch guy, always so positive and always ready to eat whatever you did not! And the older Basque couple, in their 60’s backpacking around Panama for a month! Inspirational! And last but not least, a young American guy who had the best travel stories ever, like traveling in Nicaragua on top of a bus and being handed a machete as he climbed up so he could trim the trees as they drove by them!

On our last day in the San Blas Islands, besides doing the normal things, I decided to do my last walk around the island in waist deep water to see the under water life a bit more close. I saw red coral for the first time ever, colorful fish, sea growth of neon green and bright orange colors and lots of live coral. It took much longer than the normal 5 minutes, but it was worth it. Jim snorkeled the area as well later that day. Although the place was small and so tranquil, there was never a dull moment. Just sitting there looking out over the ocean brought surprises, like jumping fish or a dug out canoe sailing between two islands or people coming in from other islands for an afternoon visit. In all my days I will never forget the San Blas islands; to me they are paradise on Earth.

After our dinner and then some conversation, many of us went to bed early as we had to be up at 6:00am for our journey back to civilization. Of course as island life goes, we were up and ready on time, but there was no boat to take us. I think we finally got on a boat at 8:00am, no one complained. When you have to wait on a beach in the Caribbean, why would you? We had our 2 hour boat ride back and then had a short wait for our 4 hour 4 wheel drive trip back to Panama City. We were back in time to do more city sight seeing, tired, but we hit the bricked streets running!

The next day we were off to Panama Paradise #2! A taxi to the bus terminal and then bus to El Valle, a small village nestled in a huge crater of a large once active volcano. Needless to say, this Paradise in not along the Pacific or Caribbean coasts of Panama, it is right in the center of the isthmus. The town of El Valle itself is nothing to write home about, but the Sunday market is and the wonderful scenery around it is as well. After hitting the market place and buying some fun stuff to take home with us, we decided what our plan would be for the next day, the zoo, a hike, and of course the natural spring and mud baths! We have a love/hate relationship with zoos, we love to see the animals, but hate to see them caged. But our curiosity got the best of us and the zoo claimed also to have some wonderful botanical gardens as well. We only saw a bit of botanicals, but we saw a lot of animals…exotic animals, hundreds of birds, including a huge variety of roosters, and endangered frogs. In cages one could stick their hands in to pet dangerous animals. I, like the child that I am, attempted it once or twice. Jim was afraid the panther was going to make a snack out of my hand, but he laughed when he realized the monkey loved being petted!

For our hike, we wanted to check out the much talked about petroglyphs. We were prepared for a strenuous one-hour hike in, and to our surprise the petroglyphs were within 5 minutes of the entrance. Nice drawings and designs, but Jim did not believe they were the real ones. So we set off to find more. We did not, but found plenty of beautiful waterfalls nestled in a dense jungle. We hiked on until Jim was satisfied those were the real petroglyphs. Then it was time to find a good swimming hole, which was not hard to do because we were walking along a creek. Before getting into my bathing suit, I slipped and fell into the stream getting all wet. Typical for me, but no worries, the clothes would either dry while we waded in the small pool or the wet shorts would just keep me cool on the hike back! We cooled off in the water for a few minutes and then went on our jolly way.

Click the Photo Below for the El Valle Photo Album:

Panama – El Valle – March 2009

After getting back down to the mountain, we headed over to the hot springs, Pozo Termales. The walk brought us down a long street with big homes; it was fun to look at the houses where the rich Panamanians go for weekend get aways! But even better was the little hot spring / mud bath garden spot at the end of the road. We paid $1.00 each to get into the garden of Panamanian eden. We were shown the pools of water and pots of mud, and how to apply it to our skin. The idea was to put the mud on first, rinse it off and then get in the hot spring, but Jim and I had our own idea. We got into the very murky hot spring pool to open our pores, and mind you a hot spring in a tropical climate is not that hot. Once we were completely relaxed, and our pores were wide open we covered our whole bodies in mud. We were going to get the most out of this mud experience, and as budget travelers you do not take care of your skin as well as you should. This was well needed, and we even took a small container of it with us to have yet another mud bath later on in the trip. After being all mudded up, we found out we did it wrong! Who knew there were mud police in Panama? There were two kinds of mud, one dark and one lighter in color. Jim opted for the darker one and covered his face and body; I did the same with the lighter one. After all said and done, we were told the light one was for the face only, specially made for that area of skin, and the dark one was for the body. I felt like I was being reprimanded and apologized profusely, but made sure my skin was not going to fall off from, heavens to Betsey, putting the wrong mud on the wrong body parts! We survived, and our skin was very sauve even though we failed Panama Mud Baths 101! Heck, it is so easy in Calistoga, CA! There is a bath tub full of mud and you just get in, no color choices, no spreading of the mud about your body…no wonder why we failed. Stupid Gringos!

Our last evening in El Valle consisted of roadside food and a fun couple hours talking with a German couple. We talked a lot, he is a civil engineer and she works in social services with children. We had things in common, yes? El Valle is just a small simple town, with nice people, nestled in some damn beautiful country. It was a whole different kind of Paradise and we are happy we got to experience it just as much as the island style paradise.

~ by My Gnome Little World on April 17, 2009.

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