The question really hit home in the San Blas Archipelago, consisting of approximately 400 islands (one for every day of the year) scattered over a huge area along the north east Caribbean coast of Panama. They are picture perfect remote atolls with an abundance of coconut trees and white sand, set amongst a maze of reefs. If you were looking for the ultimate deserted island picture postcard this would be it.
Added to the spectacular scenery is a very interesting cultural history. The islands are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna, who arrived here from Colombia in the mid-nineteenth century having been driven out by the Spanish. The Kuna way of life remains largely unchanged to this day (though we did charge a number of islanders’ mobile phones on the boat!). The men paddle amongst the islands in hollowed out canoes, fishing and harvesting fruit (apparently some 3 million coconuts are picked annually) which is then bartered with trading boats that come from the mainland and Colombia. Meanwhile the women make the world-renown molas, colourfully embroidered textiles usually depicting wildlife or abstract images. These from part of their traditional dress and are sold to tourists as souvenirs. Interestingly Kuna society is traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal.
Mola from Cayos Holandeses, San Blas Islands
As an interesting sideline the Kuna also get the odd windfall when boats become wrecked on the outlying reefs which still happens with alarming regularity. The sands in this area shift with such regularity that modern GPS navigation systems are at best unreliable. As a result the Kuna scramble to salvage cargo and then strip any unfortunate boat of fixtures and fittings. We saw at least half a dozen yachts lying prostate on a reef, stripped to the bare bones.
So the islands are both visually attractive and have an interesting human story. Yet having anchored amongst this ‘paradise’ for 5 days I felt ready to move on. We had visited three different islands, talked to the Kuna, bought molas and fish from them, provided them with things they were short of (cooking oil and spectacles), swum in the turquoise water and skin dived wrecks. It felt like to stay longer would have just seen these activities repeated with diminishing novelty.
In contrast our time in Colombia left me craving for more, something which points towards a greater feeling of ‘depth’ associated with the place. Depth of scenery (mountains, beaches, rainforest, dilapidated colonial architecture) and character (diverse and multi-cultural society).
Undoubtedly the question of what does paradise really mean asks more questions than it answers. To a large extent it exists in the eye of the beholder, but to my mind the ideal of the remote island paradise that has been sold to us by countless advertising executives is not the paradise for me. But then is paradise ever truly achievable?