Poorna Shetty, Editor, MSN travel
Updated: 14/10/2011 16:31 | By Poorna Shetty, editor, MSN travel

Empty islands, the importance of hammocks and superb ceviche in Panama

Our author meets the indigenous Kuna Yala and samples the foodie delights of this rapidly growing country


Porvenir Island (© Poorna Shetty)

Porvenir Island in the San Blas archipelago

Beads of saltwater speckle our faces as we carve a foaming path through the Caribbean. Yet while the scenery that unfolds around us - necklaces of tiny, white sandy islands surrounded by coronas of clear, aquamarine water - is similar to other places on the planet, none of Panama's San Blas islands bear any telltale marks of having been pimped out to a hotel investor with deep pockets.

We pass island after island, some newborns barely budding through the water's surface, others tentatively supporting solitary coconut trees and larger, inhabited ones. There are no sea villas perched on stilts here, no clutches of luxury villas snaking along a sandy coastline - the height of development is the thatched huts belonging to the Kuna Yala, the indigenous Indians who own and live in the San Blas area.

Certain laws prevent San Blas from ever becoming an over-developed honeymoon trap - only the Kuna are allowed to build and invest here - but, judging by the increasingly loud murmurs suggesting Panama will be the hot new destination for 2012 onwards, the rest of the country won't escape so lightly. KLM has already increased its number of flights, and a new, ultra-luxurious development called Pearl Island, a 20-minute flight from Panama City, is scheduled for opening in 2013.

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The handy location helps: Panama is the Central American country shaped like a squashed pancreas, the crossroads between North and South America. It is intrinsically Caribbean Spanish, having been conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, and while it bears many similarities to the US-aligned Puerto Rico - ladies with generously sized bottoms, superb ceviche, colourful parades and a steadily improving infrastructure - it is benignly pulling away from dependence on the States. The relationship was forged between the two in the early 20th-century, when America helped Panama gain independence from Colombia and invested in and built the Panama Canal.

You can fly into Panama City for a couple of nights, head out to the islands for a few more, and then either take a sailing boat to Cartagena in Colombia for a few days (they tend to cost between $100 - $250) or head to Costa Rica for a few nights.

An Embera Indian sailing down the Chagres river (© Christer Fredriksson_LP)

An Embera Indian sailing down the Chagres river

If you prefer to stay within the isthmus, the delights it offers come in three very different settings - rainforest, beach and city, which should appeal in one way or another to most travellers. There is also something appealing about a destination that hasn't been done to death - tourism has not had as strong a focus in the past, as it has in some South American countries. Then there is Panama's trump card - its flourishing indigenous communities, from the Embera Indians who sail the river in dugout canoes to the Kuna who live and fish on the islands.

Karen (© Poorna Shetty)

Karen, one of the Kuna children

We first meet the Kuna at the jetty, which is a two-hour drive from Panama City. Some islands in San Blas have tiny airstrips so some people choose to fly (it takes half an hour), and once you accept the fact that your plane will take off and not plunge straight into the sea, it is a breathtaking journey.

As you pull up higher into the sky, the heavy sprawl of the city moves sluggishly below, giving way to thick rainforest spreading out like a leafy carpet that seamlessly blends into the Caribbean, until finally, the scatter of bright sandy dots set in deep blue water heralds the beginning of San Blas.

The Kuna are fiercely protective of their land and more retained control of it. In the 1920s, there was a revolution after police were involved in attempts to suppress Kuna cultural practices - but, unlike some indigenous people who have ended up being subjugated, they weren't standing for it. Today they are even governed by their own laws.

There are several consequences as a result of the ban on foreign investment. The upside is that the islands offer a precious, rare experience for jaded travellers: secluded, virtually undeveloped beaches set in pristine surroundings and the chance to meet and live among a fascinating community. The downside is that because there is no outside investment, most accommodation is basic at best.

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Hotel Porvenir (© Poorna Shetty)

Hotel Porvenir: budget travel only

I have never travelled as a penniless backpacker, but when we clapped eyes on our ramshackle abode - Hotel Porvenir - it conjured up all the familiar downsides of budget travel (such as ratty mosquito nets and being able to hear your neighbour use the loo through paper-thin walls).

A far more preferable option would be to charter a boat (which is surprisingly not that expensive) and spend the day snorkelling around tiny reefs and the night on board, drinking dark Panamanian rum. Alternatively, the Bocas Del Toro archipelago has plenty of luxury hotels set in white sand and clear Caribbean waters.

We meet our guide Gilberto at the 'reception' - essentially a couple of deadbeat sofas and a stone-topped bar selling snacks and cold beer (the local brew is Balboa), manned by a tiny elderly Kuna lady in a flowery dress.

As we sip on rich, dark, local coffee while waiting for our boat, Gilberto tells us about life on the islands. "Kunas don't have a word for bed," he says, "we sleep in hammocks. Everything revolves around the hammock - you're born in it, you get married in it, and when you die, you're buried in it." When we later visit a few of the islands, importance of the hammock becomes more evident to us from the number of times we see men snuggled up in one while indulging in an afternoon nap.

After we all clamber into the boat and set off, it's easy to see why tourists brave the rustic surroundings: the lack of people, well, of anything really, is unbelievably peaceful. We pass empty islands as we motor past, naming them after ourselves. Finally, we settle on one named after me. Poorna island is a humble, sandy spot, with a convenient driftwood bench, a few perky crabs and a coconut tree.

We launch ourselves into the warm waters, and snorkel around the reefs, floating over coral of wonderful shapes and sizes: feathery white ridges, bulbous purple mounds and squat orange pumpkins. Unlike other snorkelling spots, there are no other boats in sight - barring a rickety fishing boat we passed a while back - and the prospect of not having a stranger's flipper in my face is delicious.

I wash the salt from my hair, and we whizz off to another island which is just about big enough to support one restaurant. Underneath a bright blue sky, we park ourselves on roughly hewn wooden benches and tuck into plates of fresh lobster and rice studded with lentils - a mere snip at $8. Cans of cold Balboa beer go down a treat.

Panama City awaits us the next morning, after a tiny plane collects us from the Porvenir airstrip. A lot of American companies are setting up offices here; Donald Trump opened a hotel here this year - Trump Ocean Club - a giant metal wedge that overlooks the Pacific.

All of this might be very off-putting to the average traveller - especially the sight of so many skyscrapers shored up together like shiny dominoes - but every city has a financial district, and every one of them is soulless. There are plenty of sights worth visiting but sadly, one sight that will be disappearing soon is that of the Panamanian Red Devils - the public buses daubed in colourful graffiti, boasting exhaust pipes that roar and rattle like the lungs of a proud chainsmoker.

Red Devils (© Poorna Shetty)

A Red Devil ferrying school kids

They careen around the city at impossibly high speeds - which probably explains why they are responsible for about 80% of road accidents - and due to a keen sense of self-preservation, the Panamanians are replacing them with shiny, new buses.

A young lady in Casco Viejo (© Poorna Shetty)

A young lady on her way to a festival in Casco Viejo

We start our day in the old town, or the Casco Viejo, which is the best example of old Panama. It's a pleasure to spend an afternoon walking around the old buildings, which are a blend of Spanish and French 16th- and 17th-century colonial architecture, some dilapidated, others with pastel-hued fronts and iron railings, and a few with mysterious thick wooden doors giving nothing away.

There is also a thriving boutique hotel scene - we peer into Canal House, where Daniel Craig stayed while shooting Casino Royale, to find that it is decked out in dark wood and beautiful furnishings, with a wooden fan spinning lazily overhead.

While meandering around the broad, leafy main square - Plaza Parque Bolivar - I spy a lady selling raw mango. For a dollar, she hands me a bag after pouring a mix of salt, pepper and a sharp, vinegar sauce over it. As crunchy appetisers go, it's ideal for whetting the palate before lunching at the El Mercado de Mariscos - the fish market.

Food in Panama is a big deal - it has just hosted a gastronomy festival - and in particular, the ceviche is excellent. It will cost around $6 in most restaurants, but at the fish market, you can get a generous serving in a cup for $2. Most ceviches often feature seabass or corvina (it has a more subtle taste than North Sea seabass but has firmer texture), which is mixed with peppers and lemon juice, but if you head to the restaurant that overlooks the market, order the Peruvian special.

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Ceviche (© Brent Winebrenner_LP)

A pot of fresh ceviche

After we fill our bags with bottles of extremely good (and pleasingly violent-looking) $2 hot sauce, purchased from a lady selling ceviche, we head to the jewel in Panama's crown - the canal.

Panama is desperately trying to promote its other attractions in a bid to be known for more than the canal, but even to non-shipping nerds, it is a fascinating piece of work. It is 77 kilometres long, and it connects the Atlantic to the Pacific, allowing ships to make the journey in half the time (eight hours) they would otherwise have to take. The French attempted to build it at sea-level - and failed - in the late 19th century, and thousands died in the attempt, mostly from disease.

Then the Americans took on the project, and developed a lock system that worked. You can watch a video about it at the Miraflores lock (which also houses a fine restaurant) that explains the whole process - it is far less tedious than it sounds, I promise.

During our visit, a giant freighter called the Black Negra is about to pass through. We stand huddled under a canopy in the pouring rain waving madly at the ship's crew, watching as the gates creak slowly open on massive ball-bearings. It is an incredibly slow process, but worth witnessing.

As we peer down the length of the ship, Gilberto tells us about the new locks being built, which will most likely provide a massive boost to Panama's economy - currently, he tells us, the locks make around $6 million a day because on average, a ship will pay around $250,000 to pass through. It's a figure that makes us whistle in disbelief.

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With so much money pouring in, the landscape may not remain the same for long, particularly if it continues to attract outside investment and if flights increase. One of Panama's most endearing qualities is that you can walk around, and almost never knowingly bump into another tourist. Even at the Miraflores lock, the number of Panamanians heavily outweighed the foreigners. My advice: go next year before all that changes.

Poorna Shetty travelled with the help of the Panama Tourist Board. Follow the tourist board on Facebook or Twitter, or for more information, visit their website. A superb local tour operator is Panama Travel Group.

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