They say the early bird gets the worm, but on the morning that I visited the San Blas Islands, I think I was awake even before the early birds. We were on the road before dawn was even cracking.
Winding our way through quiet city streets and still air, as the sun rose.
I was riding shotgun in an SUV with Max, a driver for The Real Panama Tours, who spoke no English but had a friendly, energetic demeanor despite the early hour.
He was to drive me and four others 2.5 hours east to the San Blas islands for an all-day excursion into the glassy blue ocean.
I was beyond excited that I was able to book this trip, given that (as I told you yesterday) I'd made no plans prior to my arrival in Panama. But Sorai cheerfully fit me into the tour, and sent me on my way with Max. We picked up two Argentinian men and two Panamanian women, and then we were off, Max and I chatting happily the whole time.
With a short pit stop at a local spot for breakfast.
Which afforded me an excellent opportunity to see one of Panama's city buses up close, because it was parked in the lot.
These marvels are indeed school buses from the United States. They are shipped to Panama where they are then sold, retrofitted, painted, and then used as public transportation. Since they're privately owned, the buses have a lot of unique flavor.
This is taking street art to a whole new level, bringing it mobile!
Filled up with café con leche, we hit the road again, this time through the mountains.
Climbing higher until the view looked like this:
According to Wikipedia, "the San Blas Islands are an archipelago comprising approximately 365 islands and cays, of which only 49 are inhabited. They lie off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, east of the Panama Canal. A part of the comarca (district) Kuna Yala along the Caribbean coast of Panama is home to the Kuna Indians."
So yes, we had to pay a toll to enter into the islands. I felt very fortunate that the Kuna people allow visitors to experience their land.
Once we'd entered, Max handed us off to Alberto, our boat guide. Boats floated serenely at the docks, ready to putter away at a moment's notice.
Lucas, Franco, and I scrambled onto Alberto's boat and set off into the Caribbean Sea.
We stopped at a floating village first so Alberto could pick up something, and I got a chance to see a bit of where some Kuna people live.
I only took that one picture because the people were nearby, and they (and their way of life) aren't museum pieces, to be gawked at. But I thought the system of stilts upon which their buildings are situated was interesting.
Alberto kicked the motor in high gear and we headed off...
...into rain clouds.
Our first island was a bit of a bust due to the weather, but it cleared up after an hour and our second island was perfection. As usual, all of these photos are untouched.
Press PLAY ► to approach it with me:
We hopped off the boat, ate a quick, light lunch, and then planted ourselves on the beach.
All around us, people lazed in the sun and splashed in the warm surf. I roamed around a bit, peacefully taking it all in:
Any tiny, lingering iotas of stress or tension melted away as my feet dipped in and out of the water, silty sand tickling my toes.
Inland, there was a cantina, several little huts, and a small marketplace.
Selling woven Panamanian goods made by the Kuna.
A pick-up game of volleyball got started.
And, of course, the island was packed wall-to-wall (beach-to-beach??) with palm trees.
My Argentinian guys were super sweet, and I (mostly) spoke to them in Spanish and they spoke to me in English the whole time.
After a couple of hours, we moved on to the final stop, a sandbar out to sea.
I didn't know that was what we were going to do, so when the boat slowed to a stop with no land nearby, I was definitely puzzled.
But I soon understood: it was time to hop out and experience standing in the middle of the sea.
This area is known for starfish, and we happened upon one, which made our day.
As I strolled around in the warm, waist-deep water, I couldn't help feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude that I chose to come on this excursion, gratitude to be sharing this experience with good people, and that I have good people waiting for me at home. Gratitude that my first trip outside the U.S. in a thousand years was as lovely as this. Gratitude to be alive and free.
The sun warmed my skin as I stared as far as I could across the sea. Waves of contentedness washed over me like the water I was standing in, lifting me up like a buoy. I leaned back, stretched across the surface of the water, and began counting my blessings. There are many of them, and they are all things that money can't buy. :-)