Updated: Mar 12, 2018
Capturing the journey from the urban capital of Panama to the remote swaths of paradise of San Blas and ending in the harrowing tale of the longest border crossing.
December 19, 2015
Geysers of salt spray were erupting 40-60' into the air. It was a cool sight. When we came around the point the Colombian lady started yelling with her fist in the air, 'Colombia! Colombia!'
And so after coming from the highlands of Santa Fe to the Panamanian capital (and back to Santa Fe again as I left three pieces of ropa at Papa Goyo's), I departed at 6AM via 4x4 on a transport through the dense Darien jungle region headed for the islands of San Blas. San Blas is repeatedly referred to as Paraiso. An island dreamscape. And it was, visually, however it was arranged as a 'tour experience' and just missed the mark on being a unique one. The islands are a separate entity to Panama made up of indigenous people called, Kuna Indians. The only way on or through is with them. They seemed disinterested in making your encounter impactful and simply relied on the fact that it was beautiful islands and foreigners would pay big bucks to come out.
The Kuna people inhabit a huge part of Panama. Almost every undeveloped lush mountainside I asked about was designated indigenous lands. They encompassed a huge portion of the lands and seemingly had no resistance to owning such amount. There is talk of a stretch of highway to go down the Atlantic coast, but it's still a well established drug trafficking route, so I think we all can imagine what minds, money and power that is up against.
December 20, 2015 - 2nd Day, San Blas
Each day here I am so eager to float into the surrounding waters. I am on a remote island, with other like-minded travelers, encircled by healthy, vibrant corals. The waters is a tranquil green at first and deepens to a blue the deeper you go. I tried a new spot for snorkeling directly in front of my tent today. It was amazing. The colors are so vivid. Many fish species I'd seen countless times before are coming alive in a brand new spectrum. The bright red undersides to the female Stoplight Parrot fish, a High Hat the size of the Rock-Hind Groupers and Parros (what they call snappers) of many different kinds and of great sizes. Spiny lobsters too! Mostly 'cat' sharks for what can be seen snorkeling, but also lemons, hammers and tigers are within these waters. And for the first time that I've ever seen, a culture that self-governs itself on limits and seasons for all their catchable marine life.
The giant coral heads would split apart and create sandy channels with cavernous undersides. I would freedive down beneath the surging waves and watch as four snappers come bolting out of their hiding. I submerge myself and look upward at the crashing waves as they roll overtop the nearly exposed coral heads. They'd keep growing right out of the water if they could, I thought.
After lunch , I was eager to swim some more. I got a special trip out to the barrier reef that was along the trail of the archipelago islands. There was 7-10ft of swells breaking along the formations. I could hear it from the island I was staying on, which was 20 minutes boat ride away. Today we charged right up to the brink of it. The crew threw out the anchor and gave the instruction to not to swim out into the breaks. The waves would pile up on top of each other crashing from four different angles. The current was pumping, but I was able to break on into it. Even in fifteen feet of water the residual force of these waves would cause white outs underwater. I didn't see much, but it was fun to check out a new spot.
We made a second stop at the more casual and usual swim zone. It's a shallow, sandy lagoon with mostly sea grass along the bottom. There's little bits of corals growing, but the cool attractions were a few washed in enormous trees. The fish were loving it!
Back at camp, it was quick to some tent cleanup from the morning sprinkle and after a long shower, was fast to lay down for a nap. My body was screaming from exhaustion. Around sunset I wanted to walk around the island. I got as far as I could one way by land and decided I wouldn't be getting back in the water to continue. I'd had enough swimming for one day and wasn't going to test my feet on the rocks either. So I decided to circle back the opposite direction. I walked back and down the cleanly cut grass path and past the cocina area. Past the thatched straw and bamboo cabiñas and over onto the indigenous side. I was halfway down the path when a young feller with his shower soap came up and told me to follow him. He took me down the similar path to the other side and told me about the iguanas. We did a little how do you say in this and that language and then he walked me back. I sat on a log and watched the pelicans fight the harsh NE winds. The pelicans, in dense numbers, would spend most the day gliding above and then dive bombing into the waters. The three quarter moon was glowing good and a few crabs sat on the wetter logs getting their nibbles on. Stretching out before me was vast Caribbean water and interspersed were the lightly Kuna-inhabited islands. This was nice, but still not 'my' paraiso.
December 22, 2015 - Leaving San Blas
From San Blas, I was on the far side of things along that impenetrable piece of land known as the Darien Gap and the only way through was by lancha (small boat ferry) or back through the jungle to the capital to book a flight. Which, during the holidays was impossible. So, since I was there already, thought I'd go for the 'adventurous' boat ride option to make my way to Colombia. It required a stop in Puerto Obaldia to get stamped out of the country first and then on to Capurgana.
As a lancha came towards the dock I was dropped off at, I was hoping it wouldn't be the boat to take me to Obaldia. It was full already and had no cover. Most the boats did. I asked if it was the boat going to Obaldia and I got the nod that it was. I was paying $125 to get to Capurgana by way of boat. It was expected to take 6-8 hours, but as I am laying in a bed generously offered to me out by the kindness of a Kuna island inhabitant from a town I cannot pronounce, two things should get addressed, (1) that things did not go according to plan and (2) that I am alive to write this.
The lancha, which was an uncovered 20-24' fiberglass passenger boat with bench seating had in it two Austrian cyclists with their bikes and were dressed in full biking regalia, two Canadian backpackers who I witnessed reached their wits end, two Americans (myself included), two Colombians and three Kuna family members. This group of paying passengers plus three crew and one guy we were giving a ride to, made for 15 souls in this boat. And yes, all fifteen are accounted for as I write this. Well, they've been dispersed amongst the small, strange island we're holding up at, but they're here someplace.
We stowed our bags at the bow in garbage bags and wrapped over it all a big, dense tarp. It was an all Kuna crew which consisted of the captain, who operated the two hand steered outboard motors, a younger spotter who stood, yes STOOD at the bow holding ropes like they were the reigns to a chariot and a much younger boy who couldn't tie a buoy on and mostly slept on the laps and shoulders of whomever he was sitting next to.
The issue we had, was pushing too hard on our the little 60/75HP horsepower motors, rough seas and engine failures. For some time it was quite nice 1-2 footers with the archipelago to our left and the misty, shrouded mountainous shores of the Darien region of Panama to our right. The sun was beating us pretty good, but I had water and protection for that. Looking out ahead and seeing the reoccurring sight of monstrous waves breaking over the coral reef, I had the thought of how lucky we were to have that literal effectiveness of the barrier islands there protecting us from those enormous swells. I knew that the islands weren't seamless, and soon enough we would lose its cover and begin to feel what those breaking waves felt like uninhibited.
We jumped quickly to pounding our way through 3's and 4's with jarring, slapping landings that gave me a literal understanding of what having the day lights shook from you felt like. As a seasoned boater, I knew I wanted to avoid the forward and leeward side of the boat for spray, but forgot that the front hits the hardest in choppy waters. I used a teeny, loosely strong together life jacket to shield my face from the spray and sat on another to protect my butt from the intense, day-long pounding.
Of course running on these simple engines for great hours meant that at some point there would be the untimely fuel swaps during the large swells. The captain would swing bow first into the looming giants to cut engines entirely before hand attempting a few unsuccessful hand cranks then revving up and be back going again.
After awhile along we started having motor troubles. One of the engines cut out and we were down to one 60HP motor. We made it to a Kuna village, which had been interspersed along the way, to attempt to rectify the unknown engine issue. They islands are completely encircled by thatched straw and tin roofed huts, with rustic structures leaning and sticking out over the water. There was a man reluctantly helping us troubleshoot the engine problems, but it didn't seem very effective.
I took the chance to go explore the island a little and found an albino with a restaurant. I ate rice and lentils with a tomato that suited me well enough and cost $2. The Canadians were trying to barter the cost of the chicken from four down to three and one ended up going for the fish at $3. I noticed the fish were about 5-6" long and came from a teeny pot that was just sitting on the floor. Might should have spent the extra dollar or went for the $2 rice and beans. Anyways, we were hailed back to the boat hearing, 'Listo, Listo, Listo.' Our detour took a little over an hour, but engines running and fed is worth the wait. We swoop back out and the engine dies in a moments notice. Back to the island. Another some amount of time later we were back going. After the extra stops to pick up and drop off a few Kunas, plus the repair time it was already late in the afternoon. It would be nearly impossible to make Obaldia before the office closed. So, we already knew this was going to be a two day affair.
the sun has gone down, we're operating in moonlight, the boat has no running lights and we are in 6-9' swells still encountering momentarily loss of our last engine.
Well, after more pounding and climbing huge waves we lost the engine again and we dropped back to half speed, but the Captain decided to keep going. Apparently, the Kuna family on board lived at one of the islands along the way and were getting us to their island for the night. I had no idea, though. It's a different dialect they speak.
So, now the sun has gone down, we're operating in moonlight, the boat has no running lights and we are in 6-9' swells still encountering momentarily loss of our last engine. Facing these huge rollers I had my boots and passports in a trash bag beneath my feet and figured that'd be good enough to take to shore with me. We held on and the captain did his best to carve his way through the timing and breaks of the swells.
We finally started to turn in towards an island and from the Kuna mans phone texting and conversations I deduced this would be where we would be staying for the night. With whom or how was completely unknown. We made the timing through the swells well enough and landed at their seaside docks. There were a group of people there to help us with the process. We unloaded our stuff and a person from the island told us they were looking for a house big enough for everyone. After awhile they came back and took us to a room next to a tienda to drop our gear. They went back out and said they were still finding places to sleep.
The Colombians jumped on the offer of a bed plus a hammock. They were large. I know this because for half of the trip today the male was leaning near all his body weight onto me and almost broke my wrist when on one of the landings his elbow came down right onto the joint. And for the entirety of the trip they ate pork, chicken, beef and corn from tupperware and the lady literally consumed 18 beers herself.
Next, I was offered a bed with a hammock in the room I dropped my gear in initially. It was cozy considering I thought I'd be sleeping on a dock or in a boat. The town was all out in full force as I'm sure this was their excitement for some time. After a bucket shower to rinse the dense coating of salt spray off, they set up a table and handed out plates of rice with a chicken drumstick. Most these cultures were asleep by 9-10pm at the latest and here they were cooking and accommodating for us at no charge.
It was incredible the amount of generosity. The plan was to leave town at 6am. Sure enough they were up at 5:30 working on the engine. We were on the water shortly after 7:30 when they finally had it going. It went for awhile, but died again. With another late start and still hours from Obaldia we were facing the same obstacles.
The guy from the docks told him to keep the engine running and to go straight there no stops, but he felt the need to stop for more fuel along the way and the engine cut off while idling as they were getting fuel. After a few moments into the repair, the pull cord broke from being ripped on so many times over the past 24 hours. So, we got into some shade and stretched out a little as this would be awhile. It was here with fresh gas they finally discovered the culprit was water in the gas clogging the carburetor.
They filtered the gas using a funnel and a microfiber-like towel from one canister to the other. The Colombian lady, now two days drunk sat on the boat shouting, "Vamos Vamos," while the Canadians disappeared onto the island to which I ended up going searching for while the Austrians went zipping back and forth attempting to locate a bank to exchange currencies. I was merely hoping we could all keep our cools and stick to the plan. The captain was doing his job and we all needed to do the same.
The engine ran fine there after and eventually we made it to the frontera to have our books stamped. The officer was a real pickle, but we all got through no issues.
There was a giant banner behind the bag search for entering that displayed seven wanted members of the FARC and offered rewards for their capture. It hit home that this was an ongoing battle for them and perhaps the frontera wasn't such a nice place.
Back on the boat we took a nice scenic ride along the Darien coastline to Capurgana. The dense mountainous jungle stretched right down to the waters edge where those huge swells were smashing into the dark, sheared rocks. Geysers of salt spray were erupting 40-60' into the air. It was a cool sight. When we came around the point the Colombian lady started yelling with her fist in the air, 'Colombia! Colombia!' And I think we all felt the same. There at the mouth of Capurgana's is a tall, rocky outcropping with a faded Colombian flag whipping proudly in its winds. If you've ever made this sea crossing, I imagine it's a very momentous sight for all those that have done the voyage. It was certainly a well received and highly anticipated marker.
I got stamped in Capurgana and the Colombian lady helped set up a speed boat to go to Necocli, another coastal city. I was very apprehensive of getting onto another boat so soon, but it was the only way. Necocli was filled with loud bikes and music, but the character of this place was a crazy good and alive vibe that I can appreciate. The people are so respectful and with a deep down happiness. The kilometers traveled will continue. The experiences are growing. The learning is going. And I think my happiness is coming into fruition.