15 11 2011

A twenty minute twelve dollar ride from Panama City lay Isla Taboga, a destination for locals to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and a quick way to get back to nature, get a tan on the beach or even enjoy a quiet walk in the small town of San Pedro. In the middle of this quaint town, like any Spanish colonized town, was the Iglesia de San Pedro dubbed as the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere.

The exterior of the church itself was less impressive. For a church that is apparently the second oldest in the Americas it was a little boring on the outside. No frescos, no intricate carvings nor gargoyles that stick out. It was just white. Plain. Dull. However, serving as its purpose the church has served as the house of god to the people of Taboga. I quietly walked inside to a couple of women having a discreet conversation and a few children running amock only to be sent outside by the women. Another woman knelt nearby the altar and another lady walked towards a stairwell at the corner.

I asked her “Que es?

Por la campana” she said, for the church bell.

Ah. Up she walked the stairwell and I asked her if I could come up and see, I felt privileged that she even said yes. Halfway upon walking up the claustrophobic winding stairwell a booming of sound surrounded me almost knocking me to the ground. I grabbed ahold of the handles and waited until the booming ceased.

I scrambled up the stairwell, I didn’t want to wait for a second booming of the bells I needed to get out of this trap. As I reached the top my eyes were blinded by the sun and waited for them to adjust. Seconds later the silhouette of the bell ringer came into formation, and then the bell, and then the window, but what stunned me the most was the view that was presented in front of me. The small houses, the boats, and the ocean all in a breathtaking view. The church of San Pedro may not be the prettiest church anyone would ever see, but the iglesia itself is lucky to have a view that it has admired for centuries.


A Blast in San Blas

2 02 2010

“Sometimes, you do believe in things happen for a reason and whatever reason the inhabitants of this minuscule island had to just pack up their belongings and desert the island gave us the opportunity to have it all to ourselves”

‘Solo yo?’ I asked.
I turned around to the other backpackers waiting for their canoe. I had the impression that several people would be on the canoe with me, but as soon as I walked away to chat for a bit with the other (backpackers) I was called by my driver. I hopped on aboard on the canoe that said Cabaña Iron painted on it whilst he turned on the motor and the canoe shifted away from the soil and slowly moved along with the swamp. Sitting alone I was accompanied by a driver and a helper; they spoke for a bit and I spoke back in my rusty Spanish until we reached the mouth of the river to the open Carribean sea then did the conversation cease.

It might as well, I needed the time to absorb what the sea behold. It didn’t take long and far until the rough sea gave its wrath. Splashes of salty water were thrown at my direction and even with my sunglasses on the water stung. No pain no gain I guess. About 2 hours east of Panama city is the autonomous province of Kuna Yala. Here, the Kuna Indians ran the province and have maintained their customs, language and culture that dates back to hundreds of years even before Columbus discovered the Americas. If the history of Panama city pleased you, anticipate more in the Kuna Yala province where at this moment, they are still paving roads for easy access to visitors which means the influence of the Western world is still a rare find and that being said, tourism is just picking up. The province is well known to travelers for absolutely one thing The San Blas archipelago. From a distance islands dotted the Caribbean water and my excitement grew as every time the boat made a curve directly to the island, my hopes that I had found my destination escalate only to be disappointed that they were just used as shields from the rough currents. However, it gave me a preview of what to come. On most of the islands tiny cabanas lined the anterior to the beach and heads looked up to see us go by. On some islands they were deserted and only inhabited by birds.

Suddenly, the driver pointed out to one of the islands and curved his hand which from my understanding he was telling me we were using the islands as another shield. I looked firmly at the distance, at the tip of the island was a tiny peninsula blessed with a white sandy beach and I thought, whoever resides there is so lucky. A big splash of salt water aimed at my face when I choked and rubbed my eye from the sting until the motor stopped running, all of a sudden the water was not as rough anymore and the boat drifted closer to the shore. With my eyes wide open I started to process what was going on. The scenery was almost too dramatic and surreal – calm waters and blue sky, white sandy beach lined with coconut trees that had hammocks hung in between, a few cabanas laid out by the shore, and only a few people to be seen walking around. My jaw dropped and thought, this can’t be where I’m going?

Cabaña Iron. A simple hostel gobsmacked on a beautiful island off the coast of Panamá. The island itself I reckon was no bigger than two neighbourhood blocks. It was small, quaint, barely inhabited by the Kuna people and almost isolated from tourists. Ah, this could be heaven. I was greeted by Ali, a young and beautiful girl from New York City whom I met at the hostel back in Panama (city), while swinging in a hammock with a book in her hand. A bit cliché? I think not! The only thing missing was a freshly cracked coconut. Six other cabana hostels took over the island. About thirty Kuna people, and the influx of travelers seeking paradise changes everyday. That day, it might have been forty. In Cabaña Iron there were 4 other visitors along with me and Ali – a couple from Paris named Boris and Martine, and another couple from Toronto named Littal and Jon – with a family of Kuna including Iron (pronounced E-Ron) himself.

Iron greeted me with great hospitality wrapping his warm welcome with the typical ‘Mi casa es su casa‘ speech that you hear ever so often whenever you step into somebody else’s home. Lunch was served three times a day: breakfast is served when I’m up, lunch is at noon and dinner by sundown. I arrived just in time for lunch but Iron had encouraged me to unpack, relax and scout the beach and I will be called when lunch is served. I opted to go sunbathing at the sandy peninsula I’ve seen earlier.

After lunch I was introduced to Julio, a friend of Iron’s from Costa Rica who comes a few times a year to help out Iron and his family, essentially he was the translator since he spoke English well. “Would you like to come snorkeling?” he asked. Now, I usually would pass on such occasion because I didn’t know how to swim but I was convinced by Martine, “I don’t know how to swim either but I’m going,” she said. I thought why not? Even if I didn’t swim I’d settle for a walk on the beach. Julio promised to take us to another island and the idea of island hopping intrigued me. I ran back to my cabana to grab a few things: some money, sunglasses, suntan lotion, my camera and a towel all wrapped in a plastic bag. I was told that we would see a lot of starfish on this island we were about to visit. It took around half an hour until we docked on a deserted island. I sized it up to about the size of two neighbourhood blocks. After scouting the beach for a while Julio had to tell us that the water was too rough and that we should go and see another island where the water would be calmer. It seemed it was for the best when I noticed a dark cloud hovering above us; I wanted the sun! In soon time we came across a smaller island the size of one neighbourhood block. It looked pretty abandoned and empty as we realized that the cabanas were left unmaintained.

There will be always a few places than we can exhale and say ‘This place is breathtaking’ and no doubt it was. A postcard perfect view, nobody would ever believe that this place existed but only in somebody’s computer screensaver. In every corner unfolded a beautiful snapshot from the heavens to the sea

“This island used to be a hostel too,” said Julio. My memory of why the island was left abandoned is a bit mushed and I blamed it partially on my attention span and partially that Julio couldn’t put the story straight as to whether a tourist went swimming and died? But no, nobody died though two boys went missing. Hold on, nobody went missing but somebody did drown one way or another. We reckoned the tourists got drunk. Wait a second, it wasn’t a tourist but a local kid who drowned. Oh goodness, whatever happened here people left and this island is now occupied by the six of us.

That’s correct, just the six of us. Me, Ali, Julio, Martine and Boris, and Reagan the driver.

Though the island was remote it was not withdrawn at all with aviary inhabitants. Standing between the trees, the birds chirped amidst the crashing of the waves and the gusts of the wind. Blessed with warm weather and temperate sun it was so hard to believe that people used to live here and abandoned the place when it was the epitome of paradise. The archipelago consisted of about hundreds of islets but only a few were inhabited. The islets range in sizes and I’ve seen an dwarf island populated only with seven coconut trees.

Sometimes, you do believe in things happen for a reason and whatever reason the inhabitants of this minuscule island had to just pack up their belongings and desert the island gave us the opportunity to had it all to ourselves; and then you wonder why? This island was stunning! The circumference of the island was blessed with aqua green water and a light breeze. If I were ever to be stuck in a small island this would be it.
“What’s the name of this island?” I asked Julio.
“This island’s name is Isla Pelicano”

Reagan and Julio

The routine was done all over again the next day though this time it was John and Littal who joined me. As promised the previous day, Reagan was taking us to Isla de las Estrellas where it’s best to snorkel for starfish. From what I experienced the previous day I have come to conclusion that tropical storms are a norm in San Blas. Clouds may hover a while but expect it to be gone soon leaving only traces of rain. It was exactly what had happened to us upon reaching Isla de las Estrellas; hard rain poured on us and the water instantaneously got rougher. The ride was rocky and almost frightening that I just wanted to get to any land as soon as possible. In no time we had reach the isla welcomed by a few yachts that were already docked on the shore. When the rain ceased and the heaven opened up and the water glistened like gold in a mine when lo and behold like Robinson Crusoe paradise was found. We wasted no time flashing the camera in every angle and corner possible.

Snorkeling in the water I failed to find at least one starfish. It frustrated me for a while until John called out my name and yelled out “Ash, they’re here! They’re everywhere”. I quickly swam to his direction only to be told by him that I should be careful not to disturb the sand. I looked in the water and saw one starfish, swam up and gleed with joy. I returned my face in the water to find another starfish nearby. And then another. Oh look two of them! And then another nearby. Wait, there’s another one. Six. Eight. Nine. Ten. I quickly realized I was surrounded by stars; it finally made sense why they called it Isla de las Estrellas. Like Isla Pelican, this too was abandoned but haven for yacht owners. The feeling of isolation was almost surreal and I was waiting to find myself waking up in the hammock…back in Panama city. The inner children within us surfaced as Littal and I ran around between trees and on to the next shore. There will be always a few places than we can exhale and say ‘This place is breathtaking’ and no doubt it was. A postcard perfect view, nobody would ever believe that this place existed but only in somebody’s computer screensaver. In every corner unfolded a beautiful snapshot from the heavens to the sea.

San Blas was overall pretty impressive and will definitely take the breath away. I definitely feel having sinned sharing the experience for San Blas was heaven itself. Swinging in the hammock, there were times when I found myself overcome with boredom. I should have brought a book, I thought. However, the more I think about it the more I appreciated that doing absolutely nothing was a blessing. Once I get back on the plane home it will be rare for me to find to get absolutely bored and be okay with doing nothing. City people never get breaks like this and a rarity experience is considered lucky. Tossing the unruly guilt feeling, I swung the hammock once again and watched the distance and in a few minutes I dozed off. Being unproductive had its worth of being in a relaxing state – soon enough I will be back in the hustle and bustle of the city and this was definitely an opportunity be relaxed. I swung the hammock one more time and with the roar of the sea as my lullaby I closed my eyes and dozed off to a not so far away paradise.

The lone island

All photos taken by me.