Our helpful Panamanian friends in Tonosi had recommended that the best way to get to the paradise San Blas Islands of Bocas Del Toro on the Caribbean side of Panama, was to take the new highway across the mountains of the Palo Seco Reserve.
Lucky To Be Alive
Little did they, or we, know the disasters that lay ahead. We can adamantly say that we are extremely lucky to be alive!
Boca Brava Island
Before heading over the mountains on the new highway, we took a detour to see the island of Boca Brava, turning off the Pan-American Highway near Boca Del Monte. What a fantastic surprise! It was unbelievably beautiful. Bonito!
It would have been nice to spend some time on Boca Brava Island, but we had to move on and get over the mountain range (Cordillera de Talamanca) before nightfall. We were excited to get to the gorgeous San Blas Islands. As we were driving well into the mountains, zigzagging back and forth and up and down over the lush mountain range, the highway seemed quite good.
It was a new highway, but often guard rails were not installed yet, leaving a plunging valley open to its depths for anyone missing a curve. The views of the mountains and deep valleys were incredible.
Daytime driving was not too bad, but as we realized we were not even close to getting through the mountain range before nightfall, the drive got more and more intense. There were no curve signs yet either. It was difficult to see ahead as night fell. We felt lonely and vulnerable because there was not another single car on the road, and there were no towns, no gas stations, and absolutely nowhere to pull over to the side of the road.
Black Rain, Black Night
Then it started pouring rain as well. You know – that black rain on a black night with no street lights? That would be it. On a winding two-lane mountain highway.
We had heard that the San Blas Islands were flooding because they had just had 4 days of continuous rain. This was in January. There rainy season was well past, falling in November and December.
Someone had told us earlier that the vegetable crops produced on the hillsides at the foothills of the mountains supplied the whole of Panama, plus exports, but this year, they had had so much rain, that the vegetable crops were not good.
Gripping the steering wheel and staring intensely into the black abyss with only a narrow path of gray highway visible, we forged on. We would have been wiser to turn around and go back.
I was starting to get motion sick from all the weaving back and forth and wished we could stop for a break, but there was just nowhere to pull over. There were no shoulders on the sides of the highway. Besides it took 2 sets of eyes just to predict which direction the road would take next. It was that unpredictable.
The Sink Hole
Suddenly the vehicle lurched violently sideways towards the edge of the highway! I screamed as I caught a fleeting glimpse of big black gaping hole covering three-quarters of the highway!
We actually stopped – there were no vehicles ever, either direction – and pulled over under the lip of an overhang at the curve ahead. We walked back towards the hole and could hardly believe our eyes. The road had caved in! The hole was about 6 feet deep and 15 feet wide. It covered most of the inside lane and half of the outside lane.
We could not believe we actually missed falling into it! There were no signs, no warnings, no closed road signs, no markers of any kind.
Looking down into the valley below, we were incredulous at the shocking depth of the valley below and realized only too logically how lucky we were not to have plummeted violently to our deaths into that valley. We would never have been found. Disappeared off the face of the earth, and dead. No one could survive a crash of a mile straight down a steep mountain cliff side. Shaken and scared, we were now over half-way to our destination on the opposite coast, so what choice did we have but to continue on?
I came across this video by accident, which shows just what could have happened, and how lucky this guy is to be alive. The valley in this video looks exactly like the one we gazed into, in horror and shock, after barely missing the sink-hole on the highway.
Slow but sure, we edged along, the rain pouring down, not a light in sight, straining to see every inch of the road, worried that there might be other parts of the highway that had caved in, and with equal anxiety to just get there.
By two o’clock in the morning we were still not there. We were exhausted, drained and frazzled. Eye strain was a problem too.
Trudging on, one curve at a time, the night still blacker than black and pouring rain, we came to a bridge where we could see the lights of a town just beyond. What a relief. It was 4 am.
We slowed as we approached the bridge. In the dim light, we made out a river, far below the bridge. This was the highest bridge either of us had ever seen.
And the longest. It literally disappeared at the other end. It was also the narrowest and oldest wooden bridge either of us had ever seen. The spindly structure looked like it was about to fall down. You could clearly see down between the boards to the murky river far far below.
Again, we didn’t see an alternative. Surely people must use it to get to the town on the other side? Surely it would be closed if it was in a serious state of disrepair? What else could we do? We couldn’t go back. Sleep in the truck and wait for daylight? We had already tried that but it was too hot to sleep. But we could see fairly well with the lights of the town flickering just past the bridge. We just wanted to be there and go to sleep already. It was 4:30 am.
White-knuckled we inched slowly across. The bridge creaked and swayed. OMG. We looked straight down to a raging river.
Suddenly there were missing boards in the bridge – big gaps! Sharply catching our breath is unison, we stopped. We carefully got out to examine the situation. We could get around the gap OK, but the boards were rotting and weak in many spots. Could we make it across?
Holding our breaths in unison, we drove a little faster, hoping not to give the weight of the vehicle a chance to break through the weak disintegrating wood. We had visions of the bridge falling away and into the raging river behind us as we drove quickly across. My heart was pounding in my throat! It was a painfully long crossing. Would we ever get across this long rickety bridge? Trying to go slow enough to see any gaping holes to steer around, and yet fast enough to get across before falling through the decrepit bridge and plunging to our deaths, was a tricky business. To escape death twice in one night was unlikely.
We made it! Relieved, weak, shaky and worn out, we drove into the little town. Of course no one was around. It was dead quiet. It was dirty; there was garbage everywhere. We just wanted to find the first hotel and crash into bed! We drove around and around and around again, but there was no obvious hotel anywhere.
Frustrated and exhausted, we asked a guy walking down the street and he belligerently pointed out a building down the street. We knocked on an old dirty door and after a long wait, a man came to the door. We asked if he had a room for the night. Mumbling, he beckoned us in and slowly climbed an old set of stair to a tiny room with a bed that filled the entire room. Fine. The sheets were dirty, the covers were dirty. We were disgusted, but too tired to care. We slept in our clothes on top of the bed. It likely had bed bugs, but really, that was the least of worries after the night we had experienced.
The town was Almirante, a sleepy fishing village with the only ferry access to the San Blas Islands. The next morning, we got out of that dingy hotel as fast as we could, and quickly found something to eat. We didn’t have a lot of time, we only had today to get across to the islands, spend a few days there, and now allow enough time for the grueling 7-8 hour trip back through the mountains – in daylight – and get back to Panama City in time to catch our flight home.
We drove up towards the pier where a young man flagged us down and showed us the tourism card hanging around his neck. He was saying something about a water taxi and car parking in Spanish. Somehow he did not look trustworthy in this seedy place. We suspected that it was not safe to leave our vehicle with him. He was pushy and at one point even opened the back door of our jeep. We reacted negatively, and he backed off.
The young man finally advised that the ferry only leaves on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays at 9 am, returning at 6 pm, and that the crossing takes about one hour. He kept telling us that we can park our vehicle with him and it would be “safe and secure”.
Since this was Monday, we would have to wait two days to get to the San Blas Islands, but there was not enough time. Our flight was leaving from Panama City on Thursday, and we still had to drive back across that evil mountain range with its dilapidated bridges and sink holes. If we could have gotten to the islands today, Monday, we would have been able to spend two days on the islands before heading back to Panama City.
It was so disappointing to leave.
After all the hassle of getting there, the trauma of getting there, the exasperation and fear and life-risking effort we were forced to make to get there – only to turn around and go back?! It was deflating. But that’s exactly what we did.
We had no choice.
The San Blas Islands
That was several years ago. Nowadays, you can take an hour flight from Panama City on Air Panama and it takes you right into Bocas Town. Or you can take a bus that takes 10-12 hours with only one rest stop halfway, but you then get to see the gorgeous cloud forests, lush valleys and fields of vegetables and banana trees. You can also take a night bus and sleep all the way, getting into Almirante around 8 am, or arrange a 3-day tour from Panama City. Expect to leave around 5 am when a 4×4 driver will pick you and other up, drive 4-5 hours to a port, where a water taxi will take you to the island where you’re staying. Accommodation is in tents or cabañas.
In Almirante, there are two big companies that transport people the 25 minute crossing to the islands leaving by boat at least every hour. Along the way you will see some of the uninhabited islands and keep your eyes open for a dolphin or two as well. There is a supply ferry that goes to Bocas and you can take your car on the ferry, should you be brave enough to make the drive yourself. We understand the highway is totally completed and the bridge has been repaired.
Why did we try so hard to get to The 360 San Blas Islands? Because they are unique and pristine. They are home to the indigenous Kuna people who have established political autonomy from the mainland since 1925. They operate the tourism to their islands themselves and most of the tourism profits goes back to education, health and research.
But let’s be clear. Although they are not easy to get to, the San Blas Islands are genuine unspoiled tropical islands with coconut palm trees, clear water, a tent or a cabana to stay in and very few other people. The Kuna people will provide you with food and take you to other islands, but mostly you will be alone on a tropical island left to listen to the ocean, swim in the warm clear water, do a little snorkeling and relax.
*If you ever get there, let us know if the San Blas Islands (supposedly some of the most beautiful islands in the world), are as fantastic as we expected them to be, since we never got to see them.
I can assure you though – next time we’ll be flying.
AND we will be staying in these over the water bungalows.