Current location: Hook Island, San Blas Islands, Panama
Price of beer in a bar: most places are charging US$1.50 for a 12 ounce can
Song currently stuck in my head: Waters of March (David Byrne and Marisa Monte)
Here are my tips for visiting San Blas (aka Kuna Yala), Panama:
Do it: It’s gorgeous, cheap and genuinely special
Know what you’re getting into: Does the island you’ll be staying on have a shower? with fresh water? a toilet? with a roof? power (I recommend against power, the night skies are amazing when clear, but make your own decision)? Hammocks (there are surprisingly few in the area)? Beds? Ask multiple people, don’t trust any on persons answer and make sure you both agree on the defintions of words like “shower” and “bed”.
Pack heavy based on what you learn: If your toilet doesn’t have a roof, take an umbrella. I hate them but would have killed for one on Hook in the middle of the night when torrents of rain made the urgency of my bladder unignorable. You don’t want to have to climb back into bed soaking wet. Take snacks, preferably individually wrapped to keep the bugs out. Mealtimes will be unpredictable. Coldish beer was generally available (Needle Island had it ice cold) for US$1.50 or US$2 a can, Abuelo rum (which gives me headaches) costs US$15 for a liter and that seems to be the only liquor and size available: bring your own. You can lighten your load by paying exorbitant prices (relative to the mainland), but only so much. The combination of unavailability and Kuna inability to make good on promises mean that your money only does you so much good. I was offered wine the first day and could not find anyone on any island that could sell it to me afterwards. Consider bringing your own hammock. Some may be inclined to pack as if trekking, bring a small camp stove and similar; on the more remote islands this is probably a solid idea, especially if you’d enjoy an afternoon tea. You’d be well advised to bring something for motion sickness; the last hour of the car ride twists even strong stomachs. Bring some for the way home too. Also, bring plenty of cash. I never saw an ATM.
Never trust a time estimate or depend on anything to get done: Most of the time everything will work out. We never missed a meal. We did, however, give up asking for fresh sheets (ours were left over from the previous guests) even though we were assured repeatedly that they were coming. They may still be en route.
Now, in my limited experience…
The “tours” are a simple shell game of moving people between islands and like any good shell game the ultimate goal is to separate someone from their money. You’ll usually leave your home island and set up on some incredibly similar island for the day, paying an entrance fee of US$2 or US$5 per person and beaching, swimming and sitting just like you would if you hadn’t left in the first place. Meanwhile, people from another island are doing the same on yours. The major variance amongst the islands is the quality of the bathrooms and showers. Out on hook, we were about as rustic as it gets; we had a flush toilet, 1, but you had to bring your own bucket of water to flush it. Buckets featured prominently when “showering” as well. So we seized the opportunity to shower on other islands like Needle, where they had the magic combination of fresh water and a pipe that terminated above your head.
On Hook Island we had two slightly leaky bamboo huts without doors on an island without power for US$35 per person per night. Not a bad rate, if you can get it. Other people paid US$50 for the same accommodations. The price is largely based on who you book through; the Kuna know they can get more money from people staying at high end hotels and have to really compete on price when trying to lure backpackers from hostels like Mamallena. They were pretty upfront about this and asked us not to mention what we were paying when better heeled travelers came around. Make no mistake, we weren’t getting a deal; we were paying an advertised rate. That rate included accommodations, transportation between the islands (which some arrangements charge for) and 3 meals a day. On the last night we moved to town (Carti), not because we didn’t like Hook but because we had grown suspicious of the Kuna’s ability to get us to the dock on time for our departure the next day and in town we’d have more options for transport. This had been advertised for US$25 per person per night and that price had been quoted to us personally by Eulogio when we first arrived. Our replacements on Hook arrived before we left, so they had no trouble filling the vacancy. In town, they refused to give us the advertised rate, chanting aggressively “same price, same price, same price, same price, same price” when I pointed out the inconsistency in what we were told. They meant town would cost the same as Hook.
The best deal we heard about was a handful of girls who were staying on Iguana Island, which looked like a good place with good facilities (though salt water showers) for US$25 per person having booked through “Hostel Casco Viejo”, which I assume is http://www.hospedajecascoviejo.com/hotel.html. Happy coincidence, Ricardo, who runs that hostel, is a friend of an acquaintance and we spoke to him about an apartment when we first arrived in Panama. We’ve only heard good things about him and his operation. I know they girls had meals included, but I don’t know if inter-island transportation was covered. Really, who cares… most people only stay a couple of days, so find a hammock and ride it in paradise; skip the boats.
In our experience the Kuna were regularly a couple of hours late for appointments that they had set up; this includes meals, departures for tours… just about anything. I don’t mind this, though. I don’t expect Caribbean Indians to be time obsessed. I do wish they would stop saying they’ll be somewhere at some time and instead just say “We’ll be by later with dinner. We can’t say when, we haven’t caught it yet, but it will happen”. But that’s neither here nor there. What I did find highly annoying was their behavior when they arrived; you’ve been sitting around waiting for hours and when they arrive it’s “Hurry, hurry, let’s go, come on…” This approach wasn’t specific to us; we watched it employed on plenty of people over our 3 days.
The Gringo pricing is extraordinary. All alcohol is marked up at least 100% with beer being closer to 300%. Cokes were generally cheaper than beer, which is opposite of a mainland grocery store and indicates that predatory pricing was in effect. I’ve come to expect this approach at arenas and amusement parks and it degrades my desert island experience when I’m reminded of either. There’s actually an unenforced rule posted at Eulogio’s hostel that says you’re forbidden to bring anything to the island that can be purchased there. They are not shy about this kind of thing. Locals want to charge you to take their photos and suggest prices that make the other Kuna laugh out loud. You’ll be corralled to watch local children perform a dance as a prelude to passing the hat. The locals drink local (probably well) water, but forbid you to. That’s understandable; they’re living on the edge of their available resources and they don’t need some invading gringo horde bottoming out their wells. But when you’re selling those gringos their drinking water at inflated prices it creates a serious conflict of interests. Or, as Eulogio seems to view it, a perfect alignment of interest.
In summation, the money grubbing is at odds with the image that they’re using to draw people in, that of an all-inclusive rustic tropical paradise where you can dwell on simple pleasures, and ultimately undermines much of the experience. Though the website doesn’t include it, Mamallena’s information binder sums up many of the concerns expressed here with comments about the Kuna being undependable and unpredictable.
It’s still awesome.