White pristine beaches. Crystal clear waters. Relaxation and perhaps a spot of snorkelling. That’s what I’d been led to expect from Panama’s San Blas Islands, both by what I’d read beforehand and what I’d been told during our visit to Panama City a couple of days earlier.
The reality of the Carti Island couldn’t have been more different.
First of all, Carti has no beach to speak of. Not only is every square inch of ground given over to more practical uses, the island is surrounded by pontoons and jetties, so very little of its shoreline is even visible.
And anyway, while the sea might be crystal clear, the litter floating on its surface would put most people off going for a dip.
So here’s the million dollar question: Can any small place visited by a cruise ship remain ‘real’?
Personally I think that Carti has. At least for the most part.
OK, so it’s impossible to deny that the calling of the occasional cruise ship hasn’t had an impact. The constant call of “One dollar!” from the younger children, while they encourage you to take pictures of their pet monkey/bird/cat is proof of that.
Yet the island hasn’t been sucked into mainstream tourism. There are no shops filled with the regular plastic nonsense on Carti, for example. That doesn’t mean there are no souvenirs or trinkets to be bought, but they’re all sold right out of peoples’ houses and, for the most part, look locally made. My impression was that the locals regard visitors as a welcome additional source of income, rather than central to their daily life and economy.
The sight of so many women wearing the traditional brightly-coloured Kuna Indian dresses was a joy. And from what I understand, this isn’t just show for the tourists.
But that doesn’t mean that Carti is stuck in the past. Clear evidence of a strong belief in education indicates that that the islanders are preparing their children as best they can for a future as part of the modern world.
Most noticeably, there is a fair-sized school for older children from Carti and surrounding islands. It was oddly familiar to see school uniforms in a place so different from where I now live.
We also came across a medical centre, complete with posters providing preventative healthcare advice, not to mention what appeared to be a library.
We even witnessed one young boy being taught to read and write.
When I first stepped off the boat onto Carti, I have to admit I felt a little uncomfortable at the obvious difference in wealth between the locals and my fellow visitors.
But after spending a couple of hours exploring this tiny speck of land on foot, the feeling I took away from the islanders was optimism. They seemed to be a people making the most of what they have, but with a keen eye on the future.
One final thought:
If you’re the sort of person that loves experiencing the local culture on your travels, why not sign up and follow my continuing Journeys here at Jaspa’s Journal (on WordPress or Bloglovin’), or through my website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr?
And if that’s not enough for you, the first three Jaspa’s Journey novels will soon be available to enjoy, both as ebooks and in paperback! Perfect for Kids 8 – 80!