San Blas(t) Adventures: Sailing from Colombia to Panama

San Blas

Now that the moving in is all settled, we can get back to the adventures.

San Blas Islands, Panama — August 2014

After leaving Cartagena, we spent just one night in Turbo before leaving for the promised (is)land chain: the San Blas Islands. There are a few ways you can do this three-night, four-day journey—most of which involve large-scale sailboats and lots of time in the open water. Because of my sensitive sea stomach, and because we wanted to spend time on the islands themselves, we decided to go with the group from San Blas Adventures.

At the start of the trip, as we were first sitting down to meet our other group members and get acquainted, our guide, Jessica said that this was going to be the “highlight of our travels.” I’m not usually one for hyperbolic statements, especially about travel, so I sort of laughed and took it to mean that the trip would be a good one and I’d enjoy myself. Little did I know that Jess would be right.

At first glance, this trip could seem very superficial—lots of pretty islands, a ton of rum, coconut trees, crystal blue waters. It’s everything a Caribbean calendar in the supermarket promises. But with San Blas Adventures, we got a whole new layer of experience, interacting with the indigenous Panamanian population: the Kuna Yala. And that quickly became a very special layer to all of us on the trip. San Blas Adventures is the only tourism company currently operating as a 50/50 partnership between Westerners and the Kuna. Due to bad relationships with tourism companies in the past, a lot of the Kuna communities have shuttered their islands to tourists, and the bulk of the islands we visited with San Blas Adventures were completely closed to other groups.


Spending time on the islands meant staying in actual Kuna villages themselves. I think it’s safe to bet that aside from one of our fellow travelers who was Panamanian-American, the rest of us knew absolutely nothing about the Kuna people or the Kuna culture. So I really appreciated the fact that when we arrived in the first island, Caladonia, Jess took us on a detailed tour of the village, which ran to the very edges of the land space. We learned about their history, their way of life, and their traditions—everything from their political structure to their interactions with mainland Panama to the way the celebrate weddings. What I found most fascinating was their matriarchal system. Female Kunas run the show, from families to businesses; in fact, oftentimes we’d see the men out doing the day-to-day work, and the women would be sitting in hammocks, giving directions. Jess also told us what were appropriate interactions with the villagers and what weren’t (for example, we were advised not to take photos of the women unless we specifically asked), and introduced us to different families as we wove our way through the village. I found that whole experience to be really refreshing and respectful—and felt less like an intruding tourist than a welcomed guest.

Our accommodations were also “very Kuna”: sleeping in hammocks, adventurous bathroom set-ups, and more than the usual share of the elements (especially since it was rainy season!). The first night one enterprising family had set up the equivalent of a hostel for us: basically a large hut that extended out over the water. It was absolutely stunning—but the real kicker was the toilet, which “flushed” (and we’re playing fast and loose with that term here) straight into the sea. The second night there was another hostel, but due to an impending storm that closed some of the outdoor sleeping areas, we couldn’t fit everyone in. That meant David, myself, and two others in our group stayed in an actual Kuna home, constructed of coconut fibers with a simple dirt floor. The third night we spent in coconut fiber shelters on the beach on a deserted island, with sand for the floor and fairly open walls.

Our days were spent boating from village to beach to village again, starting our mornings early and maximizing our time in the beautiful Caribbean water. We’d have a simple breakfast of cereal and powdered milk, bread and jam, or fresh fruit, take our ginger pills, and then plop into boats manned by our Kuna captains. Once we got to our “day-trip” islands, we were free to do as we pleased. Sometimes we set up a beach volleyball court, or hiked around as best we could in our flip-flops and bare feet. Sometimes we grouped together for an impromptu yoga session. On our last day, a few of the group swam to a neighboring island. There was lots of snorkeling, tanning, and Frisbee tossing. We shared books and travel stories with our 20 other group mates—who were from Australia, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and America.

Our nights involved claiming our hammocks and hunkering down. The first and second nights we explored the villages and played with the Kuna children, who loved showboating for our clicking cameras. Meals included plenty of fresh seafood, chicken, rice, and D’Elidas hot sauce, served on blue and white Melamine plates as we sat elbow-to-elbow at wooden picnic tables. After we finished our meal, we’d wash the plates in saltwater, using sand as the dish soap. Then we’d gather back around for card games, drinking games, or a rousing round for Werewolf, which involved much shouting and false accusations. Pretty much every person had brought his or her own bottle of rum. Beer, Cokes, and coconuts were all available for purchase in the villages, recorded on an honor tab system.

It was as if some huge hand has pushed the reset button on all of us: despite being unshaven, unshowered, and woken every morning by huge thunderstorms, we were simply and raucously happy. Jess was right—it was the highlight of our travels: the perfect combination of good people and good times. If you ever find yourself passing through Panama and are in the mood for an adventure, you’ve got to do this.

If you’re going on a San Blas Adventure definitely bring:

  • Frisbee, blow-up beach ball, soccer ball
  • Sunscreen is obvious, but also make sure you’ve got bug spray and calamine lotion
  • GoPro, watertight camera case or underwater camera
  • Ziploc bags and trashbags for extra water-proofing (passports, docs, phones, etc)
  • Your favorite drinking game to share
  • A hat or cap to keep the sun at bay (and aloe lotion in case of sunburn)
  • A bottle of hand sanitizer and/or pack of Wet Ones
  • TOILET PAPER

Pro tips:

  • This trip isn’t for the squeamish—if you’re finnicky about showering every day or peeing outdoors, you’ll have to check that at the door.
  • SBA has snorkels, but there aren’t technically enough for everyone to have one if the whole group wanted to snorkel at the same time. We brought our own snorkels (and flippers) and were glad to have them.
  • Bring ginger pills, even if you don’t think you’ll get seasick. If nothing else, they’ll be good for settling your rum hangover.
  • It’s probably worth it to invest in some dry bags before embarking—that’s the one thing I would redo, just for peace of mind.
  • Be advised that Panamanian Immigration is serious business: they completely empty your bag and pick through everything you’ve got in there. So be careful if you’ve got your stuff packed to the gills, because it will be a pain to jam it all back in there on a tight schedule. And if you’ve got the chance to do laundry before embarking…do it. Nothing worse than the immigration lady poking through your dirty undies in front of the whole group.

Other than that, what’s left to say but have a great time!

“The Ridge” Showcases the Scottish Mountains

On movie night this past weekend, David and I grabbed a copy of the Scottish indie film, The Angel’s Share, and spent two hours a) trying to decipher Scottish slang and b) lusting for a whisky-tasting tour of the beautiful country. In that fine tradition of film-inspired travel, here’s another awesomely inspirational video to visit Scotland…especially if you’re the daredevil type.

In “The Ridge”, Danny MacAskill proves himself to be an intrepid explorer of theCuillin Ridge in his homeland of the Isle of Skye. We follow him along the ridge (3,255 feet up!), a fog-bound, craggy stretch of mountains, watching via a range of views, from birds-eye to a camera strapped to MacAskill’s own helmet. It’s terrifying, jaw-dropping, and with Martin Bennet’s ethereal voice in the background, heart-wrenchingly haunting—in other words, a must watch.

Though it’s not a brand video in the sense of a corporate brand, it’s a fantastic promotion of athleticism, endurance, and sheer courage, and MacAskill has several corporate sponsors for whom that will resonate well (including Five Ten, Enve Composites, Red Bull and Santa Cruz Bikes). It’s also a great way to showcase the Scottish topography and promote a sort of adventure-tourism that the average crowd (or at least, me) might not associate with Scotland. While I doubt I’ll be attempting that sort of literal on-the-edge cycling, it looks like it’d be an incredible hike!

For those interested, by the way, be sure to check out the Visit Scotland website, they have a ton of information and ideas.

Sumo in San Francisco

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Sunday was a pretty epic day for Asian culture in San Francisco. Not only was it free day at the Asian Art Museum (which, according to their Instagram bio is “the largest museum in the western world devoted to Asian art”), but it was also the 2014 Sumo Wrestling Festival & Expo in Japantown. The Asian Art Museum was full of gorgeous exhibits, beautiful architecture, and—since it was Filipino Day (holla!)—lots of active programming and performances. Here’s a few shots to give you a taste:

After the programming wrapped up, we headed to Japantown to catch the last of the sumo demonstrations. We met four Sumo wrestlers:

Yama, 6’4″, 600 lbs, Heaviest Japanese human being ever
Byamba, 6’1″, 370 lbs, Mongolian, three-time World Sumo Champion
Batar (for whom I don’t have stats)
Kelly, 6’0″, 430 lbs, American, three-time US Sumo Champion and Guinness World Record holder as the heaviest human ever to run a marathon (he completed in the Los Angeles Marathon in 2008 and 2011)

It was awesome to see an American in the ring—especially one from Idaho Falls. We chatted with Kelly after the demo and I asked him how he’d gotten into sumo. He said he had started in wrestling, but after high school, put on too much weight to wrestle in any of the weight classes. He tried losing weight, but after that failed, turned to sumo because it allowed him to continue to wrestle without having to comply with a weight class. Now, he said, he’s excited to be sharing the sport as a cultural experience with a wider audience here in the States.

Here’s a few videos of the demonstrations:

After the demos, they pulled kids from the audience and had them “match up” against the wrestler of their choice. Absolute hilarity ensued as the five, six, and seven-years olds attempted to push, shove, and slam their opponents out of the ring.

The whole thing was pretty incredible, and best of all, it was completely FREE! What a great way to get the public excited and talking about sumo—which is certainly what we did after the event over a plate of piping hot tonkatsu and a Kirin beer.

San Francisco: A Fun and Cheap (Staycation) Itinerary

SF Staycation

Finally breaking the radio silence here to announce that we’ve finally moved into our place in San Francisco! The last few weeks have been a pandemonium of apartment searches, prepping for the move, getting things ready here, and settling in. And of course we had to complicate things for ourselves by hosting two dinners, overnight guests, and scheduling a house party all within the first two and a half weeks. Luckily, one of those overnight guests was David’s lovely mother, in for the weekend from Tennesee, and we got to spend some time playing the tourist with her—enjoying our new city and taking in the sights. Here’s a rundown on what we did in the three days she was here visiting:

Powell Street Cable Car Ride

Or, well, we attempted a cable car ride. The bad news was the cable cars were all down that day due to maintenance. The good news is, the shuttle they were running to and from Fisherman’s Wharf was FREE! So we didn’t feel bad at all jumping off at Lombard Street for a quick look and a few photos.

*Pro tip: We bought the 3-Day Visitor MUNI Pass, $23 for unlimited rides on the cable car, bus, and MUNI train lines. Considering that the cable cars alone cost $6 per ride, it’s worth the money!

Escape from the Rock: Bay Cruise


David’s mom had really wanted to do a tour of Alcatraz. We scouted the booking sites for a few days while we finalized our itinerary for the weekend, but when it came to reserve, they were all booked up! Luckily we found a great alternative—the Blue and Gold Fleet offers a bay cruise that takes you around the island of Alcatraz, underneath both bridges (Golden Gate and Bay) and along the city shoreline. Normally it’s $44, but we found a deal through Goldstar for tickets that were only $18! And the views were incredible!

*Pro tip: Want to do Alcatraz? Pick your day and put down your money. All it took was one day for the seats we wanted to vanish, so be ready to act fast!

deYoung Museum


Many of San Francisco’s museums will offer free or discounted days throughout the year (and sometimes once a month!). We lucked out in that two of the museums we were interested in visiting, the deYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park, and the (newly redone) Exploratorium on the Embarcadero were offerings free days during that weekend. We hit up the deYoung for some modern and indigenous art, as well as the spectacular view from the 9th floor observatory deck. Definitely worth the long bus ride from Nob Hill!

*Pro tip: Check out this list of free SF museums to see if any free days fall during your staycation (or vacation!)

Golden Gate Park


The other benefit of being at the deYoung is that you can double-whammy Golden Gate Park right after. After wandering through the museum exhibits, we popped over to the Rose Gardens, which still had full beds of roses even this late in the year. To save our feet, we hopped aboard the free shuttle and rode it out to the far end of the park to see the Dutch windmill, then crossed the street to enjoy some of the ocean air.

There’s a ton to see and do in San Francisco—despite it only being 7 x 7—and we definitely didn’t do it all! (Gotta save some stuff for next time, right?)

KLM Flies High with High Fives

Whenever we’re traveling and we encounter children, I love to watch David dole out high fives. There’s something so heartwarmingly simple about the gesture, and the childlike enthusiasm with which people respond. Kids especially seem to relish the action, laughing with glee as they try again and again to connect hands. So it was awesome to see an international brand recognize some of that magic and employ it in an ad campaign.

In their new interactive campaign, “Live High Five,” airline KLM uses two interactive, HD video and audio installations set up in New York City (New Amsterdam) and Amsterdam (er…Old Amsterdam?) to give citizens of both cities the chance to win 2 roundtrip tickets to the opposite city. All they have to do is step up, make a new friend, and palm up their best high-five. It’s a the same idea as both Coca-Cola’s “It’s a Small World” soda dispensary and SNCF’s virtual doors—engaging cultures using technology—but for me, what really works for this execution is the use of the high-five, a physical embodiment of success, excitement, and celebration. Being able to capture the essence of those emotions and translate them into positivity towards the brand deserves, well…a high-five.

The Adventure Begins: Turbo, Colombia

Turbo

If you hate sleeping in hammocks, the San Blas islands are probably not for you. If you hate traveling by boat, the islands are probably not your jam. If you hate drinking games, meeting new people, bonfires, snorkeling, or fine white sand, you are likely going to hate the San Blas islands.

Luckily for you, there’s a destination that is the perfect antithesis of San Blas, and its name is Turbo.

For those going on the San Blas Adventure trip from Colombia to Panama, Turbo will be your first overnight as a group. For those adventuring in reverse, from Panama to Colombia, it will perhaps be your woeful last night. (This applies strictly to those coming from or proceeding on to Cartagena–those taking the bus to or from Medellin will be spared the bleakness of this less than jovial port city). Turbo’s gnarliness cannot be blamed on San Blas Adventures. Though it would be awesome to stay somewhere else that night, no matter how we figured, there was no getting around it. Turbo is literally the last land-stop before we embarked on the boats to the island.

What to expect when traveling through Turbo:

We left Cartagena in the morning, and after a ten-hour van ride that included fording a river (which was actually pretty badass), we arrived at what our guidebook called a “lawless border town.” It was late in the day and raining. San Blas Adventures had provided for our transport and arranged a hostel stay for us, which was good, because at the hour we arrived, no one wanted to go poking around the city. Honestly, it was the only place in Colombia that I felt less than safe.

The hostel we stayed in was Residencia Florida. It was a bleak little place directly across from the waterfront. Luckily, we’d been able to preview the place via this Youtube video on our ride over.

We were expecting moldy walls and bare bulbs, and it delivered! Our group was shown to a series of double bed rooms and bunk bed rooms, each with what could euphemistically be called a semi-private bath. If we’re truth-talking, though, the only thing separating the toilet from the bed was the addition of a slightly translucent and very flimsy shower curtain. If you’re traveling with a loved one or close friend, expect to become closer. If you wound up rooming with a stranger…well, best make friends quickly. The beds were about as comfortable as a stack of flattened cardboard—indeed, we’re pretty sure that’s what composed the mattresses.


There weren’t rooms for all of us at the inn, and we watched with a bit of envy as four of our number got upgraded to the hotel next door. That is…until we learned that the sinks and showers next door spouted dirty brown water when opened. So, to be fair to Residencia Florida, it could have been much worse. (Also in fairness, I didn’t see a single bug in the room, neither cockroach nor bedbug).

Food options were scarce in Turbo, especially for those among us who were vegetarians, who resorted to cheese and tomato crackers from the local mercado. The rest of us attempted different variations of street food: skewers, chorizo and papas fritas, or Hawaiian pizza. Expecting the worst, we were pleasantly surprised at the decency in both price and taste, and by no ill effects after.

It was around dinnertime that our mood took an upswing. Sitting on colorful plastic stools along the sidewalk, we cracked open cheap beers, unleashed our tirade of complaints, and found the laughter in the situation. Over ice-cold Aguilas, we traded stories of horrible drives, less-than-clean hostels, and awkward bathroom experiences. So Turbo, if nothing else, provided a fine bonding experience. And the irony of staying in the armpit of the country before departing for paradise escaped no one. The adventure had begun, and lucky for us, it could only get better from there.