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  • Just Call it Paradise: A Day in Kuna Yala, or San Blas

    A fisherman in a dugout canoe glides past us. The blade of his paddle dips into the water and propels him towards the rainforest on the mainland.

    Our own boat, constructed from wooden planks and outfitted with an outboard motor, carries us towards the Guna Yala village. Guna Yala, formerly known as Kuna Yala and before that San Blas, is a comarca along Panama’s Caribbean coast comprising 378 islands, hundreds of which remain uninhabited since the indigenous tribe resides on only a couple dozen.

    San Blas

    Photo by Rebecca Barria

    Thatched-roof huts line the island where we dock our boat. Our guide, Fernando Hawkins, a Guna Yala native, helps me steady myself as I step onto the sun-drenched land. Evidence of everyday life presents itself: clothes flapping on a line in the breeze, bamboo walls enclosing an outhouse, and a well-used fishing net drying in the sand.

    Fernando leads us through the village where the islanders live in tight quarters. A woman wearing a bright red headscarf leans out of a window and nods her head at us in silent greeting. In the shadow of her sand-floor hut, a hammock hangs from bamboo rafters in an otherwise empty space.

    The maze of huts opens to a clearing on the shore where plastic lawn chairs, the only furniture I saw on the island, encircle a table. As we drink the coffee Fernando offered us, a crowd slowly forms. Children giggle and pose for our cameras, while older women in colorful dresses peer from behind the bamboo fences.

    The sound of panpipes calls us to attention. Girls dressed in vibrant molas and boys in porkpie hats gather in the center of the crowd where they perform traditional dances. The breezy notes from the panpipes and the rhythmic shuffling of feet tell traditional Guna Yala stories, such as the coming-of-age of a young girl and the ritual of bathing a baby in the river.

    Guna Yala dancers

    Photo by Rebecca Barria

    During the performance, I wandered closer to the water’s edge and looked out on the ocean. Fishermen in dugout canoes dotted the horizon, coconut trees leaned in the wind on the island to the north, and down shore from where I stood, a man dove into the surf. He resurfaced, climbed onto the rocky shore, and went about his day.

    Tips for Traveling to Guna Yala:

    • Gas up your vehicle. From Panama City, we drove about two hours on a mostly paved road through rainforest. Once out of the suburbs, we passed little more than a thatched-roof restaurant — and no gas stations.
    • Bring money in small bills. The villagers permit photography, but it is customary to give a one-dollar tip for each photo. The dancers also accepted tips in lieu of charging a set fee. The indigenous artists sell molas, shells, and baskets to visitors, but they probably won’t have change.
    • Bring drinks and snacks. You likely won’t find a store in the village or on the beach, and water is sourced from wells, so consider bringing a packed cooler in case you get hungry or thirsty.
    • Wear sunscreen. You’ll likely spend more than an hour on the open water during the boat rides between the mainland and the islands. That strong tropical sun means you’ll need to reapply sunblock with a high SPF.
    • Relax your schedule. When we were ready to return to the mainland at the end of the day, our boat took a detour to another island to run an errand with us in tow. I have to admit that I didn’t mind the extra time in paradise.
    In her recent travels in Panama, Rebecca and her family visited the San Blas islands in Panama, in addition to enjoying some kid-friendly activities in El Valle de Anton and an exquisite coffee tasting experience in Boquete. Feel free to leave a comment on this post if you have questions for Rebecca about Panama travel, or to share your own stories and tips!
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    Post by Rebecca Barria

    Rebecca Barria is a city girl with a pastoral spirit. Meet Rebecca>>

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    3 Responses

    1. Hi Valerie, thanks for commenting on The Ambler. Until Rebecca comes back to tell us about her culinary adventures in Panama, I thought I’d link you to our Panama food and drink section — we’ve been taste-testing food in Panama for a few years now (of course, just to help out our readers, it’s a VERY difficult job ;)). Here is the link: http://amble.com/ambler/tag/panama-food-drink/

      A wonderful blogger of ours, Jacki, just posted yesterday about testing out some classic Panama dishes in her own kitchen. Delicious!

      Also, it is fairly easy to get along without speaking the native language here in Panama. While English speakers aren’t as prevalent here as in more touristy places in the world, as a basic rule, it seems that Panamanians can speak enough English to help you travel with ease. Meet them half-way with a bit of beginners Spanish to show your gratitude, and it’s very pleasant conversing with the locals.

      Feel free to send along more questions via blog post comment, or email us directly: info@IslaPalenque.com. We’re always happy to talk about life in Panama.

    2. Valerie Kahrs says:

      Gorgeous pictures and captivating descriptions! I never imagined panama as a vacation destination until I read your articles. Was it fairly easy to get along without speaking the native language? Any future articles about the food in panama?

    3. Pattie Baker says:

      Rebecca; I really loved reading this highly-descriptive and captivating story and seeing your beautiful pictures. I hope we get a chance to read more stories about your Panama adventures!

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        [post_content] => A fisherman in a dugout canoe glides past us. The blade of his paddle dips into the water and propels him towards the rainforest on the mainland.
    
    Our own boat, constructed from wooden planks and outfitted with an outboard motor, carries us towards the Guna Yala village. Guna Yala, formerly known as Kuna Yala and before that San Blas, is a comarca along Panama’s Caribbean coast comprising 378 islands, hundreds of which remain uninhabited since the indigenous tribe resides on only a couple dozen.
    
    [caption id="attachment_16565" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Photo by Rebecca Barria"]San Blas[/caption]
    
    Thatched-roof huts line the island where we dock our boat. Our guide, Fernando Hawkins, a Guna Yala native, helps me steady myself as I step onto the sun-drenched land. Evidence of everyday life presents itself: clothes flapping on a line in the breeze, bamboo walls enclosing an outhouse, and a well-used fishing net drying in the sand.
    
    Fernando leads us through the village where the islanders live in tight quarters. A woman wearing a bright red headscarf leans out of a window and nods her head at us in silent greeting. In the shadow of her sand-floor hut, a hammock hangs from bamboo rafters in an otherwise empty space.
    
    The maze of huts opens to a clearing on the shore where plastic lawn chairs, the only furniture I saw on the island, encircle a table. As we drink the coffee Fernando offered us, a crowd slowly forms. Children giggle and pose for our cameras, while older women in colorful dresses peer from behind the bamboo fences.
    
    The sound of panpipes calls us to attention. Girls dressed in vibrant molas and boys in porkpie hats gather in the center of the crowd where they perform traditional dances. The breezy notes from the panpipes and the rhythmic shuffling of feet tell traditional Guna Yala stories, such as the coming-of-age of a young girl and the ritual of bathing a baby in the river.
    
    [caption id="attachment_16564" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Photo by Rebecca Barria"]Guna Yala dancers[/caption]
    
    During the performance, I wandered closer to the water’s edge and looked out on the ocean. Fishermen in dugout canoes dotted the horizon, coconut trees leaned in the wind on the island to the north, and down shore from where I stood, a man dove into the surf. He resurfaced, climbed onto the rocky shore, and went about his day.
    
    Tips for Traveling to Guna Yala:
    
    • Gas up your vehicle. From Panama City, we drove about two hours on a mostly paved road through rainforest. Once out of the suburbs, we passed little more than a thatched-roof restaurant -- and no gas stations.
    • Bring money in small bills. The villagers permit photography, but it is customary to give a one-dollar tip for each photo. The dancers also accepted tips in lieu of charging a set fee. The indigenous artists sell molas, shells, and baskets to visitors, but they probably won’t have change.
    • Bring drinks and snacks. You likely won’t find a store in the village or on the beach, and water is sourced from wells, so consider bringing a packed cooler in case you get hungry or thirsty.
    • Wear sunscreen. You’ll likely spend more than an hour on the open water during the boat rides between the mainland and the islands. That strong tropical sun means you’ll need to reapply sunblock with a high SPF.
    • Relax your schedule. When we were ready to return to the mainland at the end of the day, our boat took a detour to another island to run an errand with us in tow. I have to admit that I didn’t mind the extra time in paradise.
    In her recent travels in Panama, Rebecca and her family visited the San Blas islands in Panama, in addition to enjoying some kid-friendly activities in El Valle de Anton and an exquisite coffee tasting experience in Boquete. Feel free to leave a comment on this post if you have questions for Rebecca about Panama travel, or to share your own stories and tips!
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    [post_content] => A fisherman in a dugout canoe glides past us. The blade of his paddle dips into the water and propels him towards the rainforest on the mainland.

Our own boat, constructed from wooden planks and outfitted with an outboard motor, carries us towards the Guna Yala village. Guna Yala, formerly known as Kuna Yala and before that San Blas, is a comarca along Panama’s Caribbean coast comprising 378 islands, hundreds of which remain uninhabited since the indigenous tribe resides on only a couple dozen.

[caption id="attachment_16565" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Photo by Rebecca Barria"]San Blas[/caption]

Thatched-roof huts line the island where we dock our boat. Our guide, Fernando Hawkins, a Guna Yala native, helps me steady myself as I step onto the sun-drenched land. Evidence of everyday life presents itself: clothes flapping on a line in the breeze, bamboo walls enclosing an outhouse, and a well-used fishing net drying in the sand.

Fernando leads us through the village where the islanders live in tight quarters. A woman wearing a bright red headscarf leans out of a window and nods her head at us in silent greeting. In the shadow of her sand-floor hut, a hammock hangs from bamboo rafters in an otherwise empty space.

The maze of huts opens to a clearing on the shore where plastic lawn chairs, the only furniture I saw on the island, encircle a table. As we drink the coffee Fernando offered us, a crowd slowly forms. Children giggle and pose for our cameras, while older women in colorful dresses peer from behind the bamboo fences.

The sound of panpipes calls us to attention. Girls dressed in vibrant molas and boys in porkpie hats gather in the center of the crowd where they perform traditional dances. The breezy notes from the panpipes and the rhythmic shuffling of feet tell traditional Guna Yala stories, such as the coming-of-age of a young girl and the ritual of bathing a baby in the river.

[caption id="attachment_16564" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="Photo by Rebecca Barria"]Guna Yala dancers[/caption]

During the performance, I wandered closer to the water’s edge and looked out on the ocean. Fishermen in dugout canoes dotted the horizon, coconut trees leaned in the wind on the island to the north, and down shore from where I stood, a man dove into the surf. He resurfaced, climbed onto the rocky shore, and went about his day.

Tips for Traveling to Guna Yala:

In her recent travels in Panama, Rebecca and her family visited the San Blas islands in Panama, in addition to enjoying some kid-friendly activities in El Valle de Anton and an exquisite coffee tasting experience in Boquete. Feel free to leave a comment on this post if you have questions for Rebecca about Panama travel, or to share your own stories and tips!
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