Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Aboard MS Expedition: A sand blast on San Blas

#Expeditioncruising

From on board G Adventures MS Expedition in Panama
San Blas Islands, Panama
25 April 2016

G Adventures Zodiacs and local traffic mix in the waters off Carti Sugdub
Kuna lady displays her handmade embroidery, called 'mola'.

Kuna women in traditional costume.
I guess what makes the San Blas Islands so fascinating, is twofold. Firstly, their location in a quieter, yet very beautiful corner of the Caribbean and secondly, their curious autonomous status within the nation of Panama. The native Kuna people withdrew to these islands decades ago after pressure from landowners to either get with their program or ship out. The Kuna shipped out and stuck to their guns, declaring the San Blas Islands their own.

We came ashore on one of the lesser populated islands with a name like some Outer Rim planet: Carti Sugdub. We then relocated briefly to tiny Isla Perlo Chico for some frolicking in the water. Finally we ended up at not-much-larger Wylie Island for lunch of fried fish and chicken in a cute overwater restaurant/bar.

You'd be hard-placed to fit a soccer pitch on either of these last two 'islands' but each contain a bar, backpacker-style lodge, Kuna women's pop-up handicraft stalls and a tiny marina of sorts. Even though the area is apparently free of destructive storms, there must be some hazards, as two wrecks are nearby, one very recent, the other very old.

Away from the populated islands, the water is crystal clear, the white sand warm and the coconut trees sway ever so slightly in the gentle breeze. The visitors, I'm told come from all over, but mostly from Panama City for a genuine tropical island escape from the concrete and glass canyons of the burgeoning capital.

On Carti Sugdub, the scene is not so idyllic. The 1000 or so residents live cheek-by-jowl in cement and thatch shacks that extend right to the water's edge with no room for wheeled transport anywhere in the narrow alleys. Much of the available space is taken up by optimistic Kuna ladies displaying their very lovely embroidery, called 'mola'.

Again, the debris of modern consumerism in the form of discarded plastic bottles and non-biodegradable trash is everywhere. Communal latrines simply hang over the low concrete seawall where the bottom is lined with all manner of sunken stuff. A few lonely solar panels fill in for street lights and every second roof sports a bright red satellite dish.

Okay, this is not the shiny or contrived tourism offering, this is the real, everyday deal for these people and, for better or worse, this is what expedition cruising is all about. If you want air-conditioned shopping malls with 'Made in China' trinkets lining the shelves and burger restaurants, then get on one of the big ships with 2000 others and snuff out what's left of any genuine culture. You can't have it both ways.

While there were some frowns and sideways glances, G Adventures and their guests actively promote conservation and recycling efforts in many of the destinations they visit through their Planeterra Foundation. The San Blas Islands will have to go on next year's list for now.


All words and images (c) Roderick Eime


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