Panama – a family holiday with a difference

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November 5, 2012 by talkaboutyork

Swimming at twilight

Squeezed into a tiny eight seater plane, our luggage straining behind a flimsy net behind us, we bounced and swayed down the runway, splashing through deep puddles, before lifting off causing out tummies to end up in our shoes. Looking out of the windows, we could see the unexpected throng of skyscrapers that make up the Panama skyline, the tops of which were lost in the thick black clouds.

Our view quickly became cloud, with rain drops whizzing in through the ventilation holes in the windows. We dropped and bounced and shuddered our way through the towering cumulonimbus, causing the man facing me to cross himself repeatedly with his eyes squeezed shut.

At last we flew out into sunshine, over a vast expanse of green rain forest. A single snakelike road twisted its way through the matted greenery, with no other sign of development. It was exactly the same forbidding terrain that those first engineers for the Panama Canal would have had to face armed with with nothing more than inappropriate clothes and handlebar mustaches.

The Caribbean Sea appeared out of the window to the right with the first of the San Blas islands coming into view. The deep blue water graduated to green then pale blue and then yellow sand before being topped with jaunty green palm trees. This was to be our home for the next eleven days.

The San Blas archipelago has over 400 islands scattered along the north Eastern coastline of Panama. It is the territory of the Kuna Indians, a native people who still live in huts made of bamboo and palm tree fronds, who travel by dug out canoe up crocodile infested rivers to get fresh water but who seemingly all have mobile phones, Facebook accounts and satellite dishes atop their huts.

Landing on an unfeasibly tiny airstrip, we arrived at Corazon de Jesus ‘airport’, a fallen down shack featuring a Kuna Indian with a money bag, lazily scratching out receipts for the $3 per person landing tax.

“Melissa?” a Kuna Indian asked tentatively, approaching my husband, two airsick children and I.

“Yes,” I said.

And with no further words uttered, we followed him to a dinghy and set off towards a yacht.

I’d like to pause here to explain how to get to Panama from the UK, specifically York. First you travel West to Manchester airport by train. Then you travel East to Amsterdam by plane. Then you get onto KLM, one of the few European airlines that fly direct to Panama City, and travel West again (for somewhere between 10 and 11 hours). Then you travel East for an hour by road to get to the local airport, longer if you happen to catch Panama City rush hour. This is a city with traffic issues that make York’s traffic problems pale into insignificance. Then you fly East one more time to get to San Blas. Last leg is the dinghy to the yacht. 36 hours door to door although that included 7 brief hours in a hotel.

So feeling a little tired, we hoped for a rousing reception and a warm welcome aboard by our French skipper JC. What we found was a man who was obviously recovering from a hangover. A stale smell of alcohol leaked out of him in gag-inducing wafts. What we later learned was that this wasn’t the result of a one off binge night, but rather a sustained alcohol habit which saw him starting off his day with a beer the same way most people might enjoy coffee, followed by a steady consumption of wine from midday to midnight. Despite his ability to drink copious amount, he was still fully functioning and capable of sailing a boat. Admittedly, his approach to safety and customer service were interesting, but we remained afloat and he could cook a mean pepper steak and garlic mash.

And thus commenced our holiday. The first three days were a blur of blinding white beaches, bendy palm trees straight out of a 1970s coconut oil suntan advertisement, swimming in 27C sea, kayaking, snorkelling and sailing.

There were some unusual sights – like GoldenAss (as he is known by the locals – a new Bond character perhaps?), an aging skipper from one of the other boats who wore nothing but a yellow thong which covered absolutely none of his backside and only just covered his ‘member’ while his wrinkly crown jewels popped out for a few rays every now and then, particularly when he bent down to chop up the freshly cooked lobster.

And the Love Palm, a tree which I found and christened on one of the uninhabited islands, which had two trunks curved towards each other bearing a heart shaped coconut between them.

Or the morning I sat on deck at 5am watching the sunrise that comes all at once in the tropics, only to hear the distinctive puff of a dolphin. A lone creature popped its head out of the water as if it was examining me as much as I was examining it. For a few moments, I watched as it arched and swam around the boat before diving away.

And the day we visited a Kuna Island and learned how to crack open coconuts, which coconuts provided milk vs water, how to smoke fish and how molos (brightly coloured panels of cloth) were made. We even met Prado, one of the many ‘woman men’ (boys who are raised as women) who make the finest molos.

As we made our way north and west, the weather got feisty. Towering black clouds would gather on the horizon. Rolls of thunder, flashes of lightening and on one occasion, two tornadoes spiralling out of the clouds and down to the sea, let us know that all was not quite right. Turns out, it was the tail end of Hurricane Sandy. After one particularly bumpy night, we found shelter behind one of the few islands that gave shelter from the southerly winds. For three days we stayed in this idyll, blissfully protected from the raging storm on the far side of the island.

Sadly, it meant that we could no longer follow our planned itinerary of sailing up to Colon, transiting the Panama Canal and sailing around the Pearl Islands in the Pacific. It wasn’t just the angry sea state that stopped us. As luck would have it, the government decided that it was going to change the law about the Free Trade Zone in Colon, which annoyed the locals and resulted in a week of riots throughout Colon and Panama City.

So we stayed put, smelling the wood smoke from huts on the few inhabited islands, watching incredible sunsets, exploring shipwrecks and drinking a lot of wine.

On one day we set off with two Kuna Indians, neither of whom could speak a word of English and I’m ashamed to say that my Spanish (and Kuna) aren’t great, to explore the mainland. The Kuna people own all the land 20km deep along the San Blas coastline. It is absolutely native. There is no development here. The only man made things we saw on our hour long hike through the rain forest to a waterfall, was a waterpump and three Kuna cemeteries which are palm frond covered open sided shacks, covering the grave mounds which are decorated with plates, knives and forks. Apparently this signifies that the deceased’s place at the table will never be taken.

Swimming in the surprisingly cold fresh water was a treat, washing off all the salty stickiness of the previous 10 days. However, rolling growls of thunder announced the heavens opening again while we walked back. When it rains in the tropics, it RAINS. It was like someone turned a fire hose on and forgot about it. While I was disappointed not to see more wildlife other than huge blue butterflies, by the time we got back to the beach wading through knee high mud I was rather pleased about the lack of wildlife that might otherwise be swimming around our ankles.

Then it was time for us to leave San Blas to spend a few days exploring Panama City and the Canal. There are few, if any, places in the world still in such a natural undeveloped state and it was an honour and privilege to see it. Experts forecast that in sixty years, the islands will be covered by the sea thanks to global warming, melting icebergs and all that. The evidence of this is already obvious where entire islands are visible under the water. So if you want to go and see a place that is still exactly as it once was, go to San Blas before it disappears.

To leave San Blas we had three choices: tiny plane through even bigger clouds, sailing across stormy seas to rioting Colon or driving three hours on the twisty snakelike road we saw from the air which had been partially washed away in the storms. We chose the latter. Let’s just say thank God for travel sickness pills.

We spent two and a half days in Panama City. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail here as we didn’t really get a chance to get to grips with the city, other than it is very American, but rougher round the edges. A bit like Alabama but with more skyscrapers and significantly more money. And lots of brightly painted buses.

The highlight for me though was visiting the Miraflores and Gatun locks of the Panama Canal, travelling on the historic Panama Railway that runs alongside the canal and doing a partial transit of the canal. I’m afraid I’m going to be a terrible bore at dinner parties for a while. I now know just about all there is to know about the building of the canal, including the diabolical attempts made by the French, the loss of life and the quite frankly astounding engineering involved.

It is called the eight wonder of the world and it is easy to see why. With huge ships moving across the continental divide, where once there was just jungle, mud and rocks, it is pretty spectacular. Well done those chaps who made it. Also spectacular is the amount of money it generates per day – $7 million. Tolls for container ships range between $200k – $300k and the biggest toll levied so far has been $480k for a cruise liner. They are now expanding the canal to take even bigger ships, expected to be completed for the centenary in 2014. (If you’re interested in finding out about the canal, which I’m sure you are….read a book called Path Between the Seas by David McCullough.)

In short, Panama is an amazing place and definitely worth travelling to. Where else in the world does the sun appear to rise in the Pacific and set over the Atlantic? Look at a map to see why.

If you’re interested in doing a similar trip, we used www.sanblassailing.com. www.trulypanama.com was another company that did a few transfers for us and they were terrific – really full of information and super friendly. Flights on KLM from the UK set up back about £2.5k. The trip cost us about £6k (it would have been more if we’d managed to transit the canal). And that included most of our meals and given there is nothing in San Blas, there is nothing to spend money on other than the odd Molo or beaded bracelet.

I would recommend taking hardy children from the age of six on a family holiday like this. There were people on another boat with a toddler and babe in arms but I like to classify them as insane.

THIS IS NOT A SPONSORED POST. We paid for this trip ourselves.

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One thought on “Panama – a family holiday with a difference

  1. Iota says:

    I feel exhausted just reading about it, but WHAT an experience. The idyllic mixed in with the adventurous, mixed in with the bizarre (GoldenAss…)

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