Panama is that irregular shaped peninsula that joins North and South America, like an “S” lying on its back. Directions are confusing here. When you transit the Canal from the Pacific to the Atlantic, you are actually going northwest.
Panama is a small country with a population of only 3 to 4 million, most of whom live along the Canal corridor. There are three areas of interest to boaters: the Pacific with the small islands near Costa Rica of Isla Seca and Parrida; the Pearlas Islands in the Gulf of Panama near Panama City; and on the Atlantic side, there is Bocas Del Torro near Costa Rica and the San Blas Islands that go from about 80 miles from Colon to the Colombia border. Panama has two seasons; the wet season from June until December and the dry season the rest of the year. The trade winds blow during the dry season. The temperature stays in the low 30C range year round.
Our favorite spots are in the San Blas Islands. There are over 360 of these islands. The islands near the mainland are heavily populated with barely enough room to walk between the thatched roofs. On the outer islands the population is more transient, with families visiting during school holiday from December 15 to the end of February, and fishermen and others who guard and gather coconuts while living in temporary shelters of sticks and palm fronds. Many islands are uninhabited. The outer islands lie behind reefs and are up to 15 miles off the mainland. These are where most of the cruisers hang out, as the water is clear and there are coral reefs and sandy beaches to explore.
The San Blas Islands are part of Kuna Yala, that extends from the outer islands to the top of the mountains on the mainland and from Porvenir to the Colombian border. Kuna Yala is a semi -autonomous area of Panama. The Kuna have their own laws and send elected officials to the Panamanian Government. Most of the women dress in traditional style and fishing and farming what grows naturally keeps most of the men busy. They are great seamen and sail their dugout canoes with skill. Their traditional houses are made with reed walls and palm frond roofs. The only furniture being a hammock or a plastic chair. Although they welcome boaters, they impose a fee and set rules of behavior such as no scuba diving, use of spear guns or nudity.
When we first arrived in the islands in 2003, the only way here was by boat or plane. About five years ago, a road was built connecting to Panama City, and there has since been an influx of tourism. Some islands close to the road have set up small, primitive resorts and they no longer welcome boaters there. Progress has come to some villages with electricity and satellite TV, cell phones and internet. On the boat we get internet by raising a Wi-Fi router up the mast. Even the remote villages have solar panels and LED lights in their houses.
Even with all this “progress” there are still lots of quiet places to drop the hook, with palm covered islands around. The only civilization you’ll find here is when a Kuna comes up to barter a cell phone charge up for a coconut.