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

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.