The Perfect Group.
9th January 2017
What do you get if you cross an Alaskan tour guide, a German engineer, a Dutch salsa dancer, a Mexican pharmacist, and add in an eclectic mix of travellers from Australia, Poland, Switzerland, the U.S and Canada? Well, for me it resulted in the best group trip of my life.
Let me explain. I hate group trips. Really, I’ve been on so many over the years where I have ended up sat next to ‘that guy’ who talks at you for 4 hours on a hot bus journey across Vietnam when you just want to sleep, or found myself stuck next to someone having to make polite conversation for the entirety of dinner in an Indian hostel downing Jaeger bombs to numb the boredom. Been there. Done that. Never again.
Well, never again until a few weeks ago. I needed to get from Panama to Columbia and wanted to go via the San Blas, a collection of around 350 islands, largely uninhabited, where the Kuna people have pushed back any temptation of tourism. The land isn’t available for non-Kuna’s to own or develop and they have managed to maintain a beautiful simplicity to their lives as a result.
There is, however, only one way to visit the islands. One way to island hop for 4 days from the Panama coast to Sapzurro on the Columbian border. One company has negotiated deals with the island chiefs to do stop offs on the way. One company runs a weekly tour for up to 26 people at a time. It was this group tour or miss out.
How was the tour itself? Well, imagine sleeping on hammocks under bamboo canapes on islands that are inhabited by less than 20 people, islands that take 5 minutes to completely walk around, before stopping off for lunch on a picture postcard deserted island with space for your group and no more. I’ve visited other picturesque remote islands over the years, but none quite like these.
The photos here aren’t from Google images, aren’t run through photoshop, they are a click on a phone. Really, I’d implore you to take the trip yourself if you find yourself in either Panama or Columbia.
But that’s not what made it special. What made it a truly magical experience were the people. 26 people from different backgrounds, 26 people from different countries, across 4 different continents. On group tours, especially ones that are a few days long, sub groups break off and they tend to separate into age groups. On this trip that didn’t happen. The range was from 20 to 41 (yes, I was the joint oldest) and everyone spoke to everyone.
No Internet access certainly helped. 4 days with no phones does force more personal interaction, but it was much more than that. Every time I looked up a different group of people were sat in the water talking, planning a snorkelling session, or exchanging stories over beers. Something special happened on the San Blas islands. A group of people that wouldn’t normally mix, bonded and became true friends.
On my Birthday the group played a huge part in making it one of the best Birthdays of my life (sand Birthday cake anyone?), most importantly because they wanted to, not because they were forced into some half-hearted birthday meal; and in the 2 weeks since the end of the tour I’ve already met up with people in 3 different destinations around Columbia including a paint balling day at Pablo Escobar’s house (yes, that’s a thing), and two groups from the US and Germany are already planning their trips to London to visit.
Were there any negatives? Well, in truth I personally had an accident on the second day where I managed to cut open my leg, enough for it need to need several stitches. A problem on a deserted island? No, not really, as we also had a final year Australian medical student in our party who fixed me up in no time.
It was. Quite simply. The perfect group.