Hollandes Cays, San Blas- Sailing
For anyone looking for a place to go with beautiful décor, luxurious accommodations, an easy direct flight to your final destination, and good cell service, you’ll have to wait for my post on Harbour Island. For anyone that wants to be completely awed by unspoiled beaches, clear turquoise water and a place that makes you feel like you stepped back in time; San Blas is the place for you.
I used to travel a lot more before kids. It was easier, and less expensive. I always enjoyed traveling with my husband because it meant we were able to get away from everything and everyone, tune out from everyday life, and enjoy a new culture and experience. You come back in a sort of zen-like-state where you have forgotten about work, your boss, the Real Housewives, shopping, material items, and you get an actual break. Then we had kids, and traveling without them was an “ah-ha” moment. As in, “ah-ha, we’re still married and I still like you.” You get a chance to rediscover each other, and remember life before 15 loads of laundry, the constant clean-up duties, bedtime routines, reading, cooking, etc. While none of that is bad—and I wouldn’t trade it for the world—it is always nice to have a break.
And then you go on your first trip to a true destination that lacks all the comforts of home your family is accustomed to, and the “ah-ha” moment changes. This time it was , “Wow, traveling with my family is pretty incredible.” I should mention I don’t often post the #grateful- #thankful- #Ilovemylife quotes anywhere on social media. I feel like the moments I would venture to post something like that are moments that are meant to be enjoyed in the moment. This is one time where I walked away from a family vacation not feeling at all like I needed a vacation after the vacation, and you may just may see that, “#grateful” post in the near future. For my husband and I as parents, for us as a couple, for the kids, and for us a family, this was one of the best vacations we have ever taken.
That said, this is one of those trips where you need to be willing to go with the flow, you can’t expect perfection, you eat what’s served, you don’t complain and your only job is to be a good guest and enjoy one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Having traveled quite a bit, it’s sometimes difficult to rate beauty. There’s often an imperceptible mystique to each new place, but San Blas is in a class of its own. The beauty is clearly evident everywhere you look. It’s the definition of peaceful.
There were not a lot of expectations going into this trip. This was not a planned out Panamanian adventure that our family had been pining over for years. This was a throw-a-dart-on-a-map-kind-of-a-deal where we were trying to figure out the nearest warm destination to get us out of the sub-zero temperatures of the tundra that is a Wisconsin winter. So Panama it was.
Knowing nothing about it, other than it seemingly had some very beautiful beaches, possibly a cool city (Panama City post coming soon with the W Hotel), my only concern was clear, blue water and some time to soak up the sun and recharge. After researching the country, the thought was to head to the west side and have an experience on an island with more mountainous terrain, and golf-cart transportation. Contadora Island was a front-runner. Known for its remote beaches and coral reefs, it was intriguing, but it got to a point where a decision had to be made. Do we rent a house or a boat? The inevitable coin-toss was the only solution. San Blas won out.
San Blas is an absolute foreign destination to most people. It’s still fairly undiscovered. You hear a lot about the Maldives, Mauritius and the Seychelles as the places to go for an ultimate island experience, but San Blas does not often come up in conversation. Typically, when you say Panama in the U.S., most people think Panama City, FL. This is not that.
After a little bit of research, the first thing that comes up: the Microsoft screensaver. You know the one with the beautiful remote island, the bent palm trees and the sailboat; that is San Blas. There are 367 other islands in this beautiful archipelago, just like that one, and each more stunning than the last. Other than that, I had no idea what to expect, how to get to the islands, what it would take, if our kids would be bored, would we walk away regretting this decision—and so forth. Spoiler alert: it was 100% worth it. We loved almost every minute of it. Almost. I will only mention the somewhat rocky situation (pun intended) for those traveling with young kids.
View from Bandedup
Our trip to San Blas was meant to allow for a one day adjustment period in Panama City before heading out onto a sailboat for a few days. We ended up not having that time there because of a few challenges between the Kuna people, who run the territory of San Blas, and the Panamanians. They seem to have a love-hate relationship with tourists and the Panamanian government. Don’t get me wrong, the people are friendly to tourists, but they are protective over their land and culture, and I don’t blame them. The best comparison: it’s like an Indian reservation. They are still a part of Panama, and they want tourism, but they have their own governing body and they still want to maintain their traditional way of life; it’s sacred to them. Though it is technically a part of the country, it’s run autonomously from Panama, and you still need your passport to get to San Blas; strange, but true…
Unfortunately, because there were some issues between the Kuna Congress and Panama, it meant an increased process to get to San Blas. You can fly to San Blas, but it’s not recommended. Most people charter a bus from Panama City to the little port town of Palmira (details below), and then take an hour and half long boat taxi out to meet the boat you have likely chartered.
You have to work through the Kuna people, via your Captain, if you want to shorten your trip from shore to the islands. If there are issues between the Congress and Panama, you may have to alter your plans, which we did. Instead of a 4 hour chartered bus ride from Panama City, we ended up in a taxi, which was not without it’s own interesting dynamic. Thankfully, we only got stopped once, where our driver and his friend had to pay off the police so we could be on our merry way. The joys of a third-world country.
We met our Captain in the little port town of Puerto Lindo. Port town is a generous description. If you are thinking Dubrovnik or Portifino, that would be the wrong vision. This was a dock, and place where old boats go to live our their last days on land, and I believe there may have been port-a-potty, and that’s about it. Needless to say, being dropped off here, I was not 100% confident that we were going to end up on a boat, and slightly concerned we might not make it back to the States. But it all worked out. Our Captain, Captain Michael, picked us up from a nondescript dock via tender, and we landed on his boat, Kailani, a 46′ sailboat, just in time for sunset and a cocktail.
Once the sun set, we embarked on a 14 hr. overnight, adventure-of-a-boat-ride to San Blas. Our kids have been on boats since they were 2 weeks old, but never a sailboat, and not on the open water. Parents, rule no. 1: Don’t forget the Dramamine. We had not anticipated this journey. The only “rocky” part to this entire adventure was the overnight sail. Both our kids got seasick, but as kids do, as soon as the boat stopped, they recovered immediately and the boat become their own personal playground. Overall, the ride worked out. When you awake in paradise, it makes it all worth it.
Worth mentioning: you do not have to stay on a boat. You can also stay in one of the few “hotels” on the islands, or rent a home, but I would not recommend that. By hotel, I should clarify many do not have electricity, and it’s essentially an upgraded form of camping. There is nothing wrong with that, but you are still paying the same cost per day to stay in a hut that you would to charter a boat. You typically get a hut with thatched roof and a price tag rivaling that of the Ritz. I would discourage this because I think San Blas is meant to be explored, and each little island has its own personality. You’ll want a boat to see more of it.
We chartered a boat through San Blas Tours. It’s definitely a little bit daunting to think you have never met the captain in person, have barely spoken to them because there is little cell service, and you really have no clue what they will be like. You are also trusting a perfect stranger in the vast ocean with your entire family. Thankfully, we had an incredible experience and we all lived to tell about it.
We were lucky to have such an exceptional Captain. Captain Michael grew up in Germany, but resides in California when he’s not on his boat. He’s been sailing for 20 years and started chartering a few years ago. He was patient and interesting, and has a clear love for sailing and the sea. When you meet someone that truly loves what they do, it makes for a tremendous experience. He does this because of the peaceful nature of it, the freedom, and the independence. I have a newfound respect for boat captains; especially, him. His co-captain, and girlfriend Paola, was also absolutely wonderful. We were so lucky to be on a boat with them.
Our incredbe Captain, Captain Michael, and his wonderful co-captain, Paola
While this boat met all of our needs, depending on how much you choose to spend, you could certainly be in the 1% of the top of luxurious boat accommodations. But, if you can live without a few small, and I would say inconsequential comforts, think of it as adventure, a little like camping, but with a bed and a pseudo-shower, this is a trip of a lifetime and with a relatively affordable price tag ($540/night + tip for four people with food & alcohol included). If you choose a boat with a few more luxuries, it works out to be about $750+/night. Let’s be clear, it’s still not “cheap,” but it’s certainly more affordable than a week-long stay at Disney resort, and far better according to our kids, 4 and 6, that just went.
In the end, it really does not matter what you stay on or in, it’s about enjoying the experience. You’ll spend a few hours sailing each day, or you may sail one day and then spend the rest of the time in one area exploring. But other than dinner, you are likely going to be off the boat swimming, paddle boarding and snorkeling.
We spent our first day exploring a few islands around Hollandes Cays. Most of the islands are uninhabited, but for the few that are inhabited, you are welcome to go on their island and spend time there, though you will want to make sure your Captain introduces you to the locals. You will also need to have cash with you. They do expect a small payment for use of their islands. A few dollars will do, and if you want a coconut or if you want fresh fish, they will take care of that for a small fee as well.
You essentially get any of the islands to yourself. There may be a few other people around, but no one is hurrying to interrupt anyone else.
Local preparing fresh coconut
Local Kuna House
We spent our first night enjoying one of the most breathtaking sunsets I’ve ever seen, sipping on rum and forgetting about the rest of the world. I could not have asked for a better end to the day.
Fiery souls and fire skies
We left Hollandes Cays the following morning, and sailed for a few hours to the area around Island Bandedup and it could not have been more perfect. Sunshine and bliss. Smooth sailing, as they say.
This should be everyday
There are several islands here, and a bit more traffic- about 10 sail boats, spaced out appropriately, along with one lunch spot that had incredible food, cold beer and a fantastic hammock over the water. No complaints.
This should be everyday
Island Bandedup-Lunch Spot
The next few days were spent around Island Bandedup, and there was no reason to leave. It was breathtaking, peaceful and everything anyone could ever want. You spend the days swimming and the nights relaxing in nature.
Fresh crepes as only the French can make
The lovely Paola teaching our kids how to feed the fish
The local grocer
Our last day, we headed towards Smuggler’s Bay and spent the night near a local Kuna village to watch the sunset and meet some of the locals. Walking through a local village, and having all of the children come out to say hello and talk to us and our kids was incredible. They were so sweet and it was something you don’t forget.
Waiting for the dolphins
Our last morning was a little bit of an adventure. We sailed into the bay to meet our local water taxi in a little known bay, Nalia. Had we been able to stick to our original plan to get to San Blas, we would have used this same company to get us from Palmira to meet our boat. They picked us up at our boat, and then we spent about 1.5 hours boating through the open sea to get back to land. If you choose to make this trip, bring a poncho. This is definitely not a ferry ride to the Statue of Liberty. This is quite the bumpy ride, but does take far less time than a 14 hour sailboat experience though if I had to do it over again, I probably would have sailed back during the day versus the water taxi and bus charter. If you are on the boat, you’re still on the water and enjoying the last of your vacation. But regardless you are going to be exhausted and all the travel tips in the world won’t help that much.
The last look at Kailani
Once you land, you do have to go through passport control, but it’s a fairly painless process. To get back to Panama City, you’ll take a 4 hr. chartered bus. Make sure you had a good breakfast because the water taxi plus the chartered bus is really about an 8 hr. process.
Water Taxi to Land