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San Blas Islands (Visiting Panama’s Paradise)

Casco Viejo, Panama is the historic district of Panama City dating back to 1673. Spanish for ‘Old Quarter’, it is also home to European style streets, perfectly situated bars and cozy restaurants. The 365 islands of the San Blas Islands are on the other side of Panama, east of the Panama Canal.

If you would rather listen to our time in Panama, check out our episode Podcast 24: Panama City, Casco Viejo, and San Blas (Sailing Adventure in Panama).

Manolol Carocol

The old, cobblestone streets of Casco Viejo are aligned with colorful buildings containing both Spanish and French influence in their decor.   There are art galleries, ice-cream shops, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and many boutiques throughout the town.

During our stay, we had dinner at Manolol Carocol.  I had no idea what to expect prior to our reservation.  My husband made a reservation based on a TripAdvisor review he had read.  When we entered the restaurant, I gathered we were not at your typical restaurant.  The restaurant itself was set up so that the customers could see the entire cooking line.

You could feel the heat from the kitchen.  All of the dry ingredients (spices, herbs, etc) were visible on a stainless steel wire rack.  You could see fresh tomatoes on a shelf, onions in a bag, garlic gloves hanging in a wire basket.  We arrived on time and the entire restaurant was full, except for our table.

The waitress asked us what we would like to drink and if we had any food allergies or dietary restrictions.  In that very instant I realized we were at a restaurant with a prix fixe menu.  I simply told our waitress I was a vegan and she didn’t skip a beat.  I saw her walk over to the cooks to tell them my dietary restriction, they appeared to be happy.

The next 2.5 hours we had a 10 course meal complete with 2 desserts.  The first dessert that we were severed was part of the planned meal.  The second dessert that came out was 90% cocoa hand cut by the head chef himself, Dany Suaya, a sort of “experiment” he later explained to us that he was contemplating adding to the next menu.

We were one of 2 tables still dining at this point and he walked over to our table and introduced himself to us asked us how our dining experience was and told us a little bit about Manolol Carocol.  We found out that all of the rice and vegetables were  grown locally by local  farmers and the beef and fish used were from local sources as well.  He asked us what we planned to do for the rest of our stay in Panama.  He suggested that we visit San Blas if we had time and told us it was well worth the travel.  In his words he said, “it was a must see”.

Casa Sucre

This coffee shop is a great place to get a latte or cup of coffee and catch up on emails while in Casco Viejo.  The owners Rich and Alyce are very inviting and have a great selection of smoothies, espressos, and breakfast sandwiches.

We visited this coffee shop everyday while in Casco Viejo to get a quick coffee or quick bite to eat before heading out for the day.  The morning after our dinner at Manolol Carocol, my husband Matt, left our house for Casa Sucre to catch up on emails earlier than usual and to grab a coffee.

Little did I know he was also doing research on how we could get to San Blas.  San Blas was not in our original plans and from our conversations with Dany, it became apparent that this was something had to do.

While at Casa Sucre, Matt found a flyer with an advertisement for Sailing Tara, a couple who would take you on their sailboat, private charter, in San Blas, sailing from island to island.  The only thing not included was transportation to and from the boat.  However, Sailing Tara had an amazing website that explained the various transportation options.

Travel Tip: When traveling the world with electronics, its important to remember that all countries do not have the same plug inputs for wall chargers. You may have to use an adapter to get your electronics charged. We use these travel adapters when traveling. Find this and other tips on our Travel Tools page.

At this point, we were unable to book a commercial flight, as they were all booked.   We had two options, we could fly in a privately owned Cessna which would take approximately 45 minutes from Panama City to Carti or we could take a 4×4 from Panama City to Carti which would take approximately 2.5 hours.  At Carti we had to take a lancha (motor boat) to our sailboat.

Matt came home and pulled up the Sailing Tara website and asked me if I was up for sailing around in San Blas for a couple of days.  We booked with Sailing Tara online, packed our day bags and left the next morning at 5AM.  We chose to go the 4×4 route (in my mind it was the safest route as I have a fear of flying on small planes).

San Blas

Catch a 4×4  to the coast.  Cruise out into the Caribbean in a lancha.  Sail through hundreds of tiny little islands.  Swim in the crystal clear waters.  Turn off your cell phones.  Finally step foot on the white, powdered sand and visit one of the many islands and meet the Kuna people.

I believe the whole magic of these islands is due to its authenticity, remote location, and the sense of tranquility that surrounds you in San Blas.  It was definitely not easy to get to and it is also not possible to book a hotel via the Internet;  you can only do it through local sources in Panama City who are already in San Blas.

The islands are tiny, randomly dispersed throughout the crystal clear blue waters of the Caribbean.  Some of the islands have Kuna families living on them in tiny little huts made out of palm trees while other islands are uninhabited with coconut trees stretching straight into the sunny skies.

There are Kuna fishermen in handmade, coconut tree boats fishing for fresh fish with handmade fishing poles in the middle of the Caribbean and there are Kuna men along the shoreline diving into the waters catching fish with their bare hands or spearfishing.  On the islands, the Kuna women are keeping a watchful eye on the children while they play.

While sailing between the islands, our hosts, Jonathan and Myriam, took us diving in a shipwreck, snorkeling, and we had a sunset yoga session on a nearby island.

Traveled December 2014

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