Happy Children, Terrifying Boats And Fawlty Towers

During our travels, we have been on quite a few trips to see the local indigenous people. Sadly, we have become quite jaded by some of these encounters, having found that many of the people see the tourists as wandering cash dispensers and concentrate much more on fleecing them than welcoming them and talking to them. It often feels as though you’ve come to gawp at their lack of civilisation and they try and capitalise on the presence of the rich Westerners.

The Kuna people, however, are quite different. We were shown around their village by a local girl who, it turned out, was returning home for the holidays from her degree which she was studying in South Korea.

The first word that sprang to mind when we started walking down the main street was ‘children’. Wow, do these people have children. Seven or eight each apparently. There were children everywhere – playing games, throwing balls, chattering, standing staring, walking on their hands whilst trying to kick each other with bare feet – the place was like an enormous crèche. Apparently, 60% of the 3,000 people in the community are children. It gave the whole place a feeling of fun rather than the distrust, shifty looks and hard selling we’d experienced in similar villages around the world. Cheerful, high-pitched shouts of ‘Hola!’ were regularly heard as we wandered around, often from unseen faces, hidden behind bamboo walls of local houses. Yes, we were sold some local crafts but weren’t pushed into it and we both felt more than happy to contribute to the local community when the time came for an appeal at the end of the trip.

A slight dampener was put on the trip by the two travel journalists we were with though, who struggled to see why the locals might not like to have their photos taken without asking permission and who, as soon as they discovered that the community had free, open wifi in the village (provided by the government), immediately checked their iPhones for emails.

Still, the whole two days in the San Blas islands was thoroughly enjoyable and we wished we could have stayed longer. However, we had a flight to catch, so the next morning we were ferried across to the ‘airport’ and boarded the tiny plane back to Panama City. After helping one of the local ladies to fasten her seatbelt (I had to intervene when I noticed she was trying to insert the material part of it into the metal buckle) and a quick stop on another, even smaller airstrip, we were back in Panama City.

And didn’t we know it. The glum faces, the monosyllabic staff, the refusal to accept a $20 note for something that cost $13, we were back alright. But not for long, luckily.

We took a cramped bus to Las Tablas and from there, on to Pedasi on the coast. Unfortunately, I had consumed something that didn’t agree with me so the journey was painful – and the next 3 days were quite slow and uneventful due to my lack of energy.

We were under the impression that Pedasi was quite a funky little place by the sea but there wasn’t much there apart from retirement villages being built for rich Americans. We were woken at 5am the first morning by the regular beeps of dumper trucks reversing as the incessant obsession with construction in this country continues. As it turned out they were laying the road outside, which Annika discovered to her cost (and fury) when she popped to town to get me some pills, only to return covered in tar which took a long time and a lot of effort to remove.

After a couple of days doing very little, we decided to venture out to a nearby island for the day. The boats to Isla Iguanas leave from Playa Arenal – a good hour long walk away. As we walked down the beach into the gale force wind, I couldn’t help but notice the enormous waves topped by frothy white horses. I’m not the world’s greatest fan of boats as it is, so I was secretly pleased that it was looking less and less likely that we would be spending any time on one, especially when we got close enough to see the life-jacketed fools who’d been convinced to travel as they were thrown around on the way out.

We sat in a bar and had some food. It was a shame we wouldn’t see the uninhabited island but such was life. At least we wouldn’t drown.

Then, Annika changed her mind. Someone had told her that the sea was ‘tranquillo’ and we’d be fine so, after a swift negotiation with a boat owner, we were off.

I clung on for dear life and tried to focus on one part of the boat but what followed was terrifying . The approach to each wave was preceded by what became a portentous reduction of the engine speed, the driver trying to minimise the impact as we flew into the air at ridiculous angles and slammed back into the water. It was like sitting in a motorised bathtub that was being driven into a brick wall at 20 miles an hour every 5 seconds for half an hour. When we eventually arrived, it took me a while before I could uncurl my fingers properly, I’d been hanging on so tightly. We’d been taken to a stunning island in the Pacific Ocean with white sandy beaches and azure sea but all I could think about was the fact that at some point, I had to go through that again.

The island is named after the iguanas that roam the place, fairy oblivious to the 20 or so tourists that had invaded their world but there are also millions of tiny land crabs (I think) which scuttle around in the undergrowth making a combined chattering sound. It was all very nice but we had that return journey to do. Luckily, the opposite direction proved to be the ‘right’ way to travel and the trip was quite nice really. The odd feeling of surfing the enormous waves was much more fun than attacking them, I must say.

Next morning, we left on what was the longest day of travelling on this trip – from Pedasi to Isla Boca Brava – which would involve a taxi to Chitre, a bus from there to Santiago, another bus to Horconcitos, a taxi to Boca Chica and a boat to the island.

Now that is how long days of travelling in foreign countries should be. If that was how it usually was, I’d never had spent so much time complaining when we went around the world. All the connections worked out perfectly, the buses were all quite comfortable and we weren’t ripped off by anyone. I even bought one of the bus tickets myself, using one of the 14 words of Spanish I know!

Our hotel here has apparently just changed management and it really shows. We’ve been here for 4 days and we still don’t really know how it all works round here. The hyper-active French lady who appears to manage the place seems to spend half of her time looking after the local children and the other half barking instructions in French to the Spanish-speaking staff who must be nostalgic for their previous boss. It’s a lovely place, but it has a touch of the Fawlty Towers about it.

We’ve done precisely nothing while we’ve been here. It’s incredibly hot, even at night, and there are only certain times of the day when there is any breeze so it’s hard to motivate yourself to do anything. However, we are about to go on a walk to see if we can catch sight of the noisy howler monkeys nearby that give the impression of evil horrors taking place in the jungle.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Boquete, in the high mountains, where we should get some relief from the heat and do some more walking.