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.
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.
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.