2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Isla Taboga, an unforgettable panorama of Panama City

We decided to take a day trip to Isla Taboga – an hour’s boat ride from Panama City – despite the weather looking terrible. It wasn’t raining but the sky was grey and threatening. While we were hoping for blue sky and sunshine to enjoy Isla Taboga’s beaches, the rest of Panama was praying for rain. The rains that normally arrive at the start of May hadn’t materialised, causing major problems.

Much of Panama’s electricity is generated as hydro-electricity. In times of water shortages this has serious impacts on Panama, made worse by the fact that the Panama Canal – the country’s major economic driver – uses huge amounts of fresh water to operate the locks needed to transport ships. For the government the equation is simple: lose money and credibility by restricting the operation of the canal or take emergency measures in other parts of life.

To save electricity the government decided to close all the nation’s schools on the flimsy premise that since they weren’t allowed to use air conditioning during the drought, studying would be dangerous. Despite an extensive media campaign to conserve electricity and water in homes and businesses, we didn’t notice too many places in Panama City turning down the air conditioning…suffer the children, or at least their education.

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Boat to Isla Taboga, Panama

Boat to Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Bridge of the Americas from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Bridge of the Americas from the ocean en route to Isla Taboga, Panama

Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal, Panama

Ships waiting to enter the Panama Canal, Panama

While this played out in the background we jumped onto a passenger ferry to Isla Taboga. We didn’t really know what to expect, but the young Panamanians on the boat loaded down with cool boxes gave us an indication that it might be fun. The boat is worth taking just for the panoramic views you get of Panama City, including the weird and beautiful Frank Gehry building.

Isla Taboga, with sandy beaches, incredible views and good food, is a lovely place to spend some time. The ferry heads through ranks of ships waiting to enter the Panama canal, but when you reach Isla Taboga and climb a nearby hill you get the full impact of what is going on off the coast of Panama. It is a truly impressive sight, dozens of ships lined up reminding me of when all the allied ships appear off the coast of France in the WWII film The Longest Day.

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Most people visit the island for its beaches – although they disappear when the tide comes in – but the island has some history as well. It was settled by the Spanish in 1515 (after they had killed or enslaved the native population) and still boasts the second oldest church in the Americas, which was sadly closed when we were there. The island didn’t always belong to the Spanish though. English pirates made it their home and attacked Spanish shipping from here.

After a steep and hot climb up the Camino del Cruz, which leads you to the top of a hill crowned with a cross and offering panoramic views of the island, ocean and Panama City, we had a tasty lunch overlooking the water and wished we’d decided to stay for a night or two.

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Panama City from Isla Taboga, Panama

Ship arriving at the Panama Canal seen from Isla Taboga, Panama

Ship arriving at the Panama Canal seen from Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Isla Taboga, Panama

Instead, we got on the return ferry and headed back to the mainland just as the sun was setting. Back on terra firma in Panama City, we walked up the causeway towards the Frank Gehry building that will one day become an ecological museum. The causeway offers great views towards the Panama Canal and as we strolled we saw a giant cruise ship emerge from the Panama Canal underneath the Bridge of the Americas.

Frank Gehry building in Panama City, Panama

Frank Gehry building in Panama City, Panama

Bridge of the Americas with a large cruise ship, Panama

Bridge of the Americas with a large cruise ship, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

Large cruise ship, Panama Canal, Panama

The great inter-oceanic railroad, from the Pacific to the Caribbean on the Panama Railway

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama by rail has to be one of the great rail journeys in the Americas – not that there are many of the continent’s once magnificent railways left. Although I’m no train spotter, the journey is worth the $25 one-way ticket for the historic and atmospheric route passing through jungle alongside the Panama Canal.

At only 77km it isn’t a particularly long trip – it takes an hour from Panama City on the Pacific to Colon on the Caribbean – but the route has a history that has defined Central America. The overland route has been used for over three hundred years from colonial times onwards; people and cargo were unloaded on one side and crossed overland to the other. By the nineteenth century the growth in global trade and the arrival of steam trains gave rise to a daring plan to construct an inter-oceanic railroad.

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Panama Canal Railway station, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

The City of Gatun, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Train, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Carriage, Panama Canal Railway, Panama City, Panama

Spurred on by the California Gold Rush, construction of this incredible engineering feat began in 1850 and was completed in 1855 – just as the Gold Rush was coming to an end. During the American Civil War troops and materials travelled along the railway between the coasts of the United States because it was quicker and safer than travelling overland. In the 1880s and 1900s the railway played a pivotal role in the attempts to build a ship canal.

Today, the railway still carries large quantities of cargo from shore to shore. The huge container ships that won’t fit into the 100 year-old Panama Canal locks unload their cargo on one side of the canal, the railway carries it to the other side, where they are loaded onto waiting ships. Nothing has really changed in four hundred years, but now new locks, big enough to carry the super-sized cargo ships, are being constructed and the railway’s day may be numbered.

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Global trade in a box, the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

The day we went, the rainy season seemed to have arrived, just without the rain. The sky was a battleship-grey and it looked like it was going to pour with rain at any minute. The journey began at 7.15am and we soon passed the Miraflores Locks close to Panama City. Soon though, we were travelling through dense forest with views of the canal and ships heading towards the Gatun Locks and the Caribbean.

I’ve read some accounts where people have felt cheated by the journey. While its no Trans-Siberian, I thought it was great. Tourists get put into a panoramic carriage with air conditioning and, while the complimentary coffee was welcome, the snack box was very underwhelming. Customer care aside, we saw lots of boats from the outside viewing platforms and the dark, brooding sky seemed to add an extra dimension to the journey.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

If there is one down-side to the whole trip it is arriving in Colon. There isn’t a train station at Colon and passengers are just disgorged onto a platform in the middle of nowhere, where a number of touts and taxi drivers try to sell vastly inflated trips to the Gatun Locks, an old Spanish fort or to the beaches on the coast. We were planning to do a trip but on arrival in Colon it started to rain and we decided a hasty retreat was probably wiser.

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Ship on the Panama Canal from the Panama Canal Railway, Panama

Being stuck in Colon isn’t a great experience, it is Panama’s most crime ridden city and the idea of spending more time in it than necessary is not appealing. The train back doesn’t leave until 5.15pm, giving you nine hours to fritter in a city with nothing to fritter it on. In the end we negotiated a taxi to the bus station and took one of the regular buses back to Panama City – an eye-opening experience, as it passed through very poor and run down neighbourhoods that you’re unlikely to see on any tourist borochures.

A walk through coffee country

After my disaster climbing Vulcan Baru the previous day, we decided a leisurely stroll through the wooded hills surrounding Boquete would be much more sensible. Although the day was hot, there was a mountain breeze and the countryside was absolutely beautiful: forested hills, coffee plantations, small suspension bridges, rushing rivers and a somewhat disappointing waterfall.

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

The ultimate goal of our walk was a waterfall that several people had told us was ‘spectacular’. It was a disappointment, but thanks to the fabulous countryside the journey really was better than the arriving. I wish we’d had a few more days so we could have explored a little more of the area, its such a beautiful place.

Waterfall in countryside around Boquete, Panama

Waterfall in countryside around Boquete, Panama

Coffee finca near Boquete, Panama

Coffee finca near Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Coffee beans in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Coffee beans in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Countryside around Boquete, Panama

Mother and daughter walk in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Mother and daughter walk in the countryside around Boquete, Panama

Boquete, wake up and smell the coffee

After our epic hop, skip and jump through three countries in 36 hours we decided to spend the night in David, Panama. We were heading for Boquete, a small town in the wooded hills east of David, and the centre of Panama’s coffee industry. We were quite excited at the prospect of having decent coffee for once, but not enough to board another bus.

As an aside, Central America is famous for producing some of the world’s finest coffee. Yet ask for coffee in most restaurants or cafes and chances are you’ll get powdered rather than ground coffee…all the best stuff is on sale at inflated prices in North America and Europe.

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

David is a busy commercial centre and Panama’s second city. As a tourist there is precious little to detain you beyond breakfast, so after a cup of awful coffee we headed back to the bus station for the one-hour journey into coffee country. Boquete sits at an altitude of 1200m and has a cool, refreshing climate – after the tropical heat of the last few weeks it was glorious.

The climate is one reason Boquete is a retirement destination for North Americans, well that and the low cost of living and high quality of life. Panama goes out of its way to encourage people to move here and gives tax breaks and other incentives to retirees. For us, the up-side of Boquete having so many expats was the number of good restaurants offering cuisines we hadn’t seen for two months.

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

Our main reason for coming to Boquete was to do some walking in the hills surrounding the town. The nearby national Parque Nacional Volcan Baru contains a wide variety of wildlife and is home to Panama’s highest mountain, Volcan Baru, which rises 3475m above Boquete. Despite two months in the Caribbean with very little exercise, I decided it would be a good idea to climb to the summit.

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

House, Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

Boquete, Panama

To get there you either walk 22km from Boquete or take a taxi to the park entrance and walk the last 14km up a steep dirt track. The going is hard, so hard that at the 9km point and at 3047m on the mountain I decided to turn back. The altitude was affecting me but worse was a massive blister that turned into a weeping sore on my right heel.

I’ve seen women in London walking home in their bare feet after a night out, high heels in hand, but never had much sympathy until now. I was in agony. So much so I had to walk down a rock-strewn track in my stocking feet…sisters, I feel your pain. Making painfully slow progress, but unwilling to put my boots back on, I spotted a discarded plastic bag. I’ve never been so happy that someone had taken the time to litter in an area of outstanding natural beauty.

En route to Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

En route to Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

The plastic bag had once contained something wet and sticky and was now home to a variety of insects. In one of the less dignified moments of my life, I evicted the insects, turned the bag inside out and put my foot in it; then I put my sock on. Gingerly putting my boot on I found I could walk almost pain free. My homemade ‘second skin’ worked, although the plastic bag was like a foot sauna…once again it contained something wet and sticky.

I finally reached the park entrance and the paved road. Since no one lives here and hardly anyone visits, and it was a Sunday, there were no cars or buses to flag down and I had the prospect of another 8km walk back to Boquete. After walking for 5km I got lucky, a taxi came round a corner and the driver, spotting someone who was definitely willing to pay over the odds for a ride back to town, screeched  to a halt and drove me the rest of the way.

Trail on Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

Trail on Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

Vulcan Beru, Boquete, Panama

After seven hours and 23km of walking, a cold shower and a cold beer have never been so welcome.

Barack Obama owes me breakfast…from Nicaragua to Panama

OK, so the President of the United States isn’t entirely responsible for my missing breakfast, but if he hadn’t been arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica, for meetings with Central American leaders I would almost certainly have been able to take advantage of the breakfast included in the price of my room…it would have looked something like this, but this is for illustrative purposes only since I didn’t actually get to eat it.

Typical Nicaraguan Breakfast

Typical Costa Rican Breakfast

After spending so much time in Nicaragua without internet access we didn’t know President Obama was visiting Costa Rica the same day we’d be arriving. This is the sort of thing that happens when you’re travelling. It could have been worse, we met someone on our bus to Panama who’d had his flight cancelled so Air Force One could land…makes missing breakfast seem small fry.

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

President of the United States and breakfast thief?

As it was, the entire centre of San Jose was to be placed in virtual lockdown from 6am in the morning until 4pm in the afternoon. Getting to the bus station in time for the 7.30am bus to David in Panama would require leaving the hotel no later than 5.30am. Breakfast started at 6am, lockdown-time.

I didn’t really mind about the missed breakfast, but losing an extra hour of sleep following a long day of travel the previous day was pretty galling. We’d arrived in San Jose at 9pm after setting off in a boat down the Rio San Juan in Nicaragua at 9.30am. After a delay of three hours in the transport hub of San Carlos, we got another boat to the Costa Rica border at Los Chiles.

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

San Carlos sits at the confluence of the Rio San Juan and Lago Nicaragua, Nicaragua

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

En route to the Los Chiles boarder crossing between Nicaragua and Costa Rica

Immigration formalities complete we had to walk 2km to the bus station in Los Chiles. Why, oh why, couldn’t the bus station be near the port? Failing that, surely some enterprising taxi driver might consider it worth his or her time to hang around the port when a boat from Nicaragua arrives? Apparently not. So in the baking sun we walked.

Dripping with sweat, we made it just in time to catch the last bus to San Jose. Its not far from anywhere to anywhere else in Costa Rica, but buses pick people up along the road and drop people off outside their front door, making Costa Rican buses one of the least efficient forms of transport on the planet. It took five and a half hours of squashed bus travel before we reached San Jose.

It wasn’t all bad. As we crawled up the zig-zag road through the mountains we witnessed a truly stunning sunset over the ocean to the west. Although this was ruined by a passenger two rows in front being violently sick over himself. Actually, it was pretty bad.

After only a few hours sleep we got cab at 5.30am to the bus station in San Jose, narrowly missing the city centre lockdown. We got our tickets and prepared to wait an hour and a half for the bus to leave. It would be a nine hour journey if everything went well at the border crossing between Costa Rica and Panama, and after the previous day’s travel we weren’t looking forward to another long bus journey.

Costa Rican bus

Costa Rican bus

In the end everything was fine, although the border crossing at Paso Canoas between Costa Rica and Panama was one of the most chaotic I’ve ever come across. We arrived in David, Panama in the late afternoon, tired but relieved that we’d managed to cross from Nicaragua to Costa Rica to Panama in a day and a half using only two boats, two buses and three taxis.

We’d decided we wanted to see a bit more of Panama before we headed back to Colombia and then to Bolivia via Peru, so skipped through Costa Rica as quickly as possible. Next up, Boquete, Panama…

The several faces of Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a magnet for tourists from all over the world, their popularity is obvious: beautiful palm fringed beaches, an easy-going vibe that is part-Caribbean, part-Central America and delicious sea food. We arrived just before Semana Santa, which is a huge holiday for Panamanians, and the crowds were packing into the archipelago for the long weekend.

We’d been told that all the islands have different personalities, attracting different crowds, so after spending three days lounging on Isla de San Cristobal we decided to go and explore a little more of the archipelago. First up was the transport hub (i.e. water taxis) of Bocas Town on the largest island, Isla Colon. Bocas Town is backpacking party central in this part of Panama, with rapid and barely controlled development taking its toll on the area.

Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town from the water, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town from the water, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main street, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main street, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

After a little shopping and arranging onward travel to Costa Rica we decided Bocas Town had little to offer and took a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos. We had two very good reasons for visiting Isla Bastimentos: it has a couple of excellent beaches and the Firefly, a lovely three-bedroom B&B on the island run by friends-of-a-friend, Lauren and Ryan. The Firefly has a great waterfront location and serves delicious food – we arrived just in time for lunch!

Water taxi, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Water taxi, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Isla Bastimentos is also home to a large Afro-Caribbean population, mostly from Jamaica, and it has a much more Caribbean feel than the other islands. In Bastimentos’s only ‘town’, Old Bank, people greet you in English rather than Spanish. Its a very different experience to Bocas Town.

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

After a couple of cold beers and some excellent home-cooking at the Firefly we took a water taxi to Red Frog Beach. Red Frog is a pristine stretch of sand that has been turned into a high-end but low-key resort and you have to pay US$3 for the privilage of using the beach. It was Easter and the beach was packed, but we’d been giving some local advice and walked the short distance to Turtle Beach, which we had to ourselves.

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

This was our last day in Bocas del Toro and as we arrived back on Isla de San Cristobal we were treated to a beautiful and dramatic sunset.

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Not all snakes are poisonous. If you see a snake tell us, don’t touch it.

So read the the section headed Critters in the welcome pack at the fabulous and remote cabana we were staying in amongst virgin tropical forest on Isla de San Cristobal in Panama’s beautiful Bocas del Toro archipelago.

It begs the question, “Who’s first response upon seeing a snake in the middle of a tropical island is to try to befriend the slithery little reptile?” Not mine, not ever, but people do crazy things when they leave their normal lives behind it seems. Seriously, this is a part of the world where the deadly Fer-de-lance, a snake known for being “irritable and fast moving” and “excitable and unpredictable”, makes its home. Do not touch the snakes!

Sailing toward Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sailing toward Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The Bocas del Toro archipelago is famous in these parts, and with good reason. A series of tropical islands fringed by mangroves and white sand beaches floating in the Caribbean Sea; found at the northern tip of Panama, close to the border with Costa Rica, they are a major draw for international and local tourists.

We thought the islands might be over-developed after our stay on the San Blas Islands, so we based ourselves on the relatively obscure Isla de San Cristobal. The moment we saw our cabana on stilts with panoramic views of the ocean and the forest we knew we’d made the right decision. This really was getting away from it all, although having just come from San Blas our need to do so could be disputed.

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

View from the cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

View from the cabana, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Within a few hours of being at the Casa Selva del Mar, we’d swung in hammocks, snorkelled out to the reef, spotted a tree snake (not dangerous apparently, but resisted the urge to touch it), watched humming birds flitting between flowers and seen a very relaxed sloth dangling in a tree. Although the owners will cook for you in the evenings, the cabana has a good kitchen so we brought food including fresh fish and prawns – a luxury when you’re travelling.

We saw several sloths during our stay, twice so low down in the tree that I could have reached out and touched them.

Hummingbird, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Hummingbird, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sloth, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

The heat and the humidity in Panama are pretty overwhelming and, while Bocas del Toro is less humid and there’s a breeze, it is hard to find the motivation to put the book down and get out of the hammock. Pretty much the only thing to do is a little snorkelling out to the reef. If you’re feeling energetic you could kayak around the island or make the long journey to the fridge for cold cerveza.

Happily for us, after a very peaceful first night where the only noise was the wind rustling the leaves of the palm trees, the owner, Izzy, took us out on his boat and we sailed for three hours around the islands near to Isla de San Cristobal. A lovely and relaxing experience, especially with a cold beer in hand.

Sailboat, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sailboat, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

You won’t find any white sand beaches on Isla de San Cristobal, but since there are only six other people staying within the thirty acres of tropical forest that is the Casa Selva del Mar, the peace and quiet is pretty absolute. After seeing the town of Bocas del Toro on the main island of Colon, I was relieved not to be staying there, especially after reports of regular club nights blasting music that could be heard all over town until 4am.

To top off our second day on Isla de San Cristobal we were treated to a spectacular sunset over the water from the elevated deck of our cabana.

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Boat to paradise, the San Blas Islands

We spent four days in the San Blas Islands, although after the first few hours it felt like we’d been away from civilisation for several months. After an arduous morning of relaxing on Coco Blanco caye where we were staying, we’d hop in a boat and sail towards another island somewhere in the distance where we would be left for the afternoon.

Each day we’d thread our way past inhabited and uninhabited islands, skirting around coral reefs and passing dugout canoes paddled by local Kuna people. The physical beauty of the islands is extraordinary, they are picture-postcard perfect dots of sand in the ocean, yet the Kuna tend to inhabit only a few islands and these can be densely populated creating a stark contrast with the uninhabited islands.

There are reefs throughout the islands and a few sunken boats offering good snorkelling, particularly near the Isla del Perro. Other than that the only things to do are eat fresh fish and acquaint yourself with Panamanian rum. I could have stayed in the San Blas Islands for a long time, I hope these photos explain why…

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Starfish, San Blas Islands, Panama

Starfish, San Blas Islands, Panama

Fishing boat, San Blas Islands, Panama

Fishing boat, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe with sail, San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe with sail, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Paradise found, the spellbinding San Blas Islands

It is almost impossible to describe the overwhelming beauty of the San Blas Islands. They are everything a tropical paradise should be: white sand beaches floating in turquoise waters, coconut palms swaying in the Caribbean breeze, rustic cabanas with palm leaf roofs and not a single motor vehicle to disturb the lethargy inducing peace.

Even by Caribbean standards, the San Blas archipelago has to be one of the most blissfully tranquil places to wash up. There is little else to do but swim, snorkel, read and eat. We stayed on Coco Blanco caye, but our daily routine involved heading out on a boat to another island amongst the Cayos Holandeses where we’d be dropped for the afternoon in splendid isolation to swim, snorkel, read and eat some more.

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Back on Coco Blanco in time to pour a glass of rum and watch the sun set over the Caribbean, there was little else to do but look at the stars and relax. There are no mosquitos on Coco Blanco, which combined with a cool night breeze and the sound of the lapping waves lulled us to sleep in our little cabana every night. There are nasty biting midges, no-see-ums as they are known, which got us before we applied 100% DEET. Paradise does have a downside apparently.

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

The 378 islands and cayes that make up the San Blas Islands are dotted along the Caribbean coast of Panama, and although many of them are within sight of the mainland only a handful are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Indians. Traditional industries such as fishing and farming are being overtaken by tourism, but for the time-being tourism is still low key and island accommodations are pretty basic.

Despite the encroachment of the modern world and the increasing pressure of tourism, the Kuna have resisted the temptation to sell out and continue to maintain their traditional way of life. You won’t find a single upscale resort in the San Blas, but you’ll see plenty of dugout canoes with people fishing from them and you’ll sail past dozens of islands with just a couple of wooden huts nestling under the palm trees.

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

The Comarca de Kuna Yala is a semi-autonomous region of Panama, and the Kuna have a degree of autonomy that few indigenous groups have in Latin America. An autonomy that they have fought hard for and of which they are rightly proud. Kuna society is still organised on traditional grounds. Every four years regional chiefs are appointed who establish the laws that govern the Comarca de Kuna Yala, free of interference from Panama.

The Kuna have passed a number of laws that ensure their island paradise remains theirs and that they retain control over the way the islands are developed for tourism. Foreigners, including Panamanians, aren’t allowed to own property or businesses on the islands which means the exploitation of indigenous communities seen in other parts of the world doesn’t happen here.

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

It all makes for a fascinating and wonderful experience. There is nothing better than flopping into crystal clear waters first thing in the morning before heading to the hammock for a well deserved rest…and yes, it is still snowing in Britain.