As you step off the cruise ship tender onto a small island in the San Blas archipelago of Panama, located to the East of the Darien Peninsula, the clean swept cement pier seems incongruous to the rest of the visual shock of crowded, yellowish-brown bamboo and grass-roofed shacks with the occasional TV aerial. After a gentle stroll along a narrow corridor, where men sell small, carved, wooden replicas of your cruise ship, painted in bright white, blue and red, you arrive at one of the two parallel, main, sand-covered streets and are surprised by the multi-coloured sight of Kuna women in red and yellow head coverings, their legs and arms wrapped in yellow, black and orange bands made of beads. Meanwhile, children sit naked in plastic baths with blue and green parakeets perched on their heads, and older kids play with their pet lizards at the end of a piece of string. This is a photographer's paradise where willing models will pose patiently for only a dollar a click!
And when you move away from the dusty, mola embroidery-strewn stretch and out toward the water, small piles of rotting garbage assail the eyes, beyond which you can see wooden-plank and rusted corrugated roofed constructions - toilet shacks hanging out over the sea. Despite the inviting warm turquoise of its depths, you wouldn't want to swim in this part of the Caribbean.
Back to the tender pier after a couple of hours exploring and clicking, perhaps even shopping, after slaking your thirst with a cup or two of cool fresh water brought from the ship, you are finally ready to leave this unusual dreamlike world, filled with the visions of friendly tattooed women, happy children and carved wooden boats, the sound of kids playing, parakeets chirping and tiny, pet monkeys hissing, the feel under your flip-flops of the soft sand-covered paths between the shacks and the occasional, slight whiff of raw sewage. Unforgettable, yet undoubtedly a haven of sorts.