Skip to main content

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.

Editors' Recommendations

Amanda DePerro
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Amanda DePerro is a Midwest-based freelance writer and journalist who loves video games, gardening, and true crime. She is a…
This Cabo San Lucas hotel is perfect for anyone looking for jam-packed adventure
Corazón Cabo Resort & Spa shows you a whole ‘nother wild side to this scenic corner of Baja
A spectacular sunrise at Corazón Cabo Resort & Spa in Cabo San Lucas, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

When I say Cabo, what comes to mind? Let me guess: You’re thinking of spring break revelers, rowdy bar crawls, late-night club dates, and day-long booze cruises, right? Well, what if I told you that Cabo San Lucas offers much more beyond the bars? And what if I told you that there’s a chic boutique hotel right by Cabo’s most swimmable beach that helps you dive right into everything that Cabo has to offer inside and out?

Yes, such a place exists in Los Cabos. It’s called Corazón Cabo Resort & Spa, and we’re about to explore why it offers a different kind of base camp for a different kind of Cabo trip.
The lay of the land (and sea!)

Read more
The pros and cons of TSA PreCheck and other programs that let you skip the line at the airport
There are ways to get through security and to your gate faster, but they will cost you
Airport security barriers with long line in background

Raise your hand if you like waiting in security lines at the airport. What, no one? Well, that’s probably not surprising considering a poll of 2,000 travelers by travel comparison site Cheapflights found waiting in line was Americans’ least favorite part of airport security. That came in ahead of other unpleasantries such as taking off your shoes and coat and being patted down by TSA personnel.

Even though 31% of those surveyed said long lines were at the top of the list of most dreaded airport security experiences, 54% of those who had flown in the last 90 days reported having been caught in a long security line recently, and 7% had even missed a flight because of it.

Read more
One-bag travel: 7 must-know tips to pack everything you need in a carry on
Travel tips for packing light so you can avoid airport stress
About to board a flight.

These days, searching for travel tips to help mitigate travel chaos is the norm (even more so than usual) thanks to a combination of factors that arose largely as a result of COVID. I experienced it firsthand in August when I arrived at the notoriously overwhelmed Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where I found thousands of lost bags stacked all over the place. Then, while flying from there to Istanbul, my own backpack joined the league of lost luggage, though I was able to track it down.

I had a premonition (from the stacks of lost bags, perhaps?) that I should have trimmed my backpack down a bit better, thereby allowing myself to travel carry-on only, but I decided that I couldn’t live without a bunch of stuff that I definitely didn’t need. I’ve traveled for a decade solid, so I definitely should have known better. With that in mind, here are a few travel tips that will help with packing light and packing right so that you can achieve one-bag travel and limit the odds of your stuff going missing on your flight.

Read more