An Island in the Sun: Pelican Island, San Blas Islands, Panama

It has only been two years since they’ve paved the road from Panama City to the ramshackle port where it is possible to hop a small, motorized boat to any number of the San Blas Islands. It’s a rustic start, yes—but consider that you’re entering a remote and tranquil, yet vibrant tropical paradise patiently resting on the waxing side of a tourism bubble that has yet to pop. And really, to fully form.

The two hour journey from starkly modern Panama City to this archipelago of 365 islands extending over 100 miles of Panama’s Caribbean coast (and of which only 20% are inhabited) belies just how separated from the modern world you are out here. No cars. No stores. Nothing but sand, all shades of blue water & sky, and the native Kuna Indians. Actually, the islands are politically autonomous—run by said community who are the only people allowed to live there.

On a recent journey, I spent some time on Pelican Island—about the size of one city block and home to exactly one Kuna family. The tiny island looked so precarious in its clear-water isolation that too much of our breathing might have the ill effect of washing it away. The family, accustomed to visits from city folk but not yet bored, caught us fresh lobster, crab and conch, preparing a meal in their wooden hut that should be pictured under the definition of sea to table dining.

Meanwhile, we chilled on both sides of the island—one facing the mountainous backdrop of the mainland, the other, open sea—and in the few hammocks that are scattered amongst the palm trees. It was so quiet I decided not to ruin it with my iPod. So magical, I didn’t make it a few sentences in my book before it became apparent that this is a place to just be. And also, snorkel. You don’t have to go more than five feet off shore to be doused in a subaquatic wonderland of brightly colored schools of fish.

I bought, for just $2, a reverse-appliqué “mola” panel, the colorful textiles that Kuna women traditionally (and still) wear, that was handmade by the matriarch of the family (later, her son sewed it onto my pants, for a tip of $1). The children giggled at my questions, a fact I thought was sparked by their curiosity, but later revealed that they didn’t understand Spanish. They only speak Duleigaiya, the native Kuna language.

By late afternoon, we made the return trip and were back in the city by night fall. Pelican island is not open for overnight stays, though it is possible to find (mostly rustic) cabins on some of the other islands

Back in Panama City, I was staying in a decidedly modern room (with balcony, contemporary paintings and rain shower) at the Tantalo—a handsome art-inspired hotel in the city’s up and coming old quarter. Called Casco Viejo, it’s a district made of handsome colonial builds in the early throws of being redeveloped from it’s recent forlorn past, which is, in and of itself, also an escape from just about all things modern, with islands of it’s own.

Neighboring—and gringo saturated—Costa Rica is quite cool…but between the innocence of San Blas and the newness of the Casco, this trip was something completely unique.