We are standing on the deck of a 52-ft. yacht, surrounded by warm blue-green seas studded with white-sand islets as far as the horizon, their palm fronds stretching into the sky where the tropical sun beats down on us.
On the edges of the islands, thatched huts waver behind the open fires of the natives busy cooking meals of fresh-caught fish, while others wash laundry by hand or cruise over the water in wooden canoes.
This is not some remote Polynesian island chain in the mighty South Pacific (although one would be forgiven for thinking so). Only three hours ago, we were boarding a 4X4 in Panama City to come here – yet it feels as if we’ve reached the oasis at the ends of the earth.
This is the stunning San Blas Islands of Panama, one of the world’s best-kept tropical secrets.
We had never heard of this Caribbean archipelago before our move to Panama last August. But, once here, whispers of its isolated beauty, crystal-clear water, and fascinating Kuna Indians kept cropping up in conversations with our new local friends.
A series of more than 350 islands strung out along the Caribbean coast of Panama from the Golfo de San Blas nearly to the Colombian border, the San Blas archipelago stretches over 160 kilometres.
Most people familiar with the region continue to call it Kuna Yala or the still more outdated San Blas. But, in 2011, at the request of the indigenous population, it became officially known by the Government of Panama as Guna Yala – because, in fact, there is no equivalent to the letter “K” in the Kuna language. The people are most often referred to as the Kuna, however – perhaps to avoid confusion with another ethnic group across the world in India.
Guna Yala operates as an autonomous province, as do the four other indigenous comarcas recognized in Panama. Guna Yala was the first, and model, comarca established in Panama, and the legal outlines for it represent some of the more advanced attitudes towards indigenous land tenure in existence today.
However, the autonomy of native groups in Panama crashes against the letter of Panamanian law with respect to natural resources rights, and this has been causing upset in Panama for several years now, most notably among the Ngöbe–Buglé.
There has been comparatively little government interference in the lives of the Kuna. Like the Ngöbe–Buglé and Emberá, Panama’s Kuna people continue to live highly traditional lives, preserving their own (endangered) language and maintaining a trade-based economic system.
Get close and you’ll notice the women sparkling and jangling with beads and precious metal bracelets, anklets, earrings, and often a nosering – but even from a distance you can tell them by their bright clothing paneled with intricate molas, the art form synonymous with Kuna and known throughout Panama.
While they survive by subsistence farming and fishing, they take advantage of opportunities among visiting tourists by offering some of the best snorkeling in Panama, as well as fishing from their traditional canoes, called ulus.
Tourism affords a source of income for the Kuna, although larger tourism initiatives within the country often neglect the development of sustainable and eco-friendly options among Panama’s indigenous people.
A visit to the San Blas Islands opens a window onto one of Panama’s unique indigenous cultures, its pristine natural beauty, and the issues that confront its future.
There are several ways to explore Guna Yala:
Tent or rent
Whether pitching a tent at what are inarguably some of the best waterfront campsites on the planet or renting a casita (mostly rustic cabins with a few eco-luxury options) right on the beach, staying a night on the San Blas Islands probably means you’ll be roughing it – be advised that facilities and provisions are few and far between; full-time residents in the area often rely on their Kuna friends for the purchase of fresh produce and, during the dry season, fresh water.
Boating, snorkeling, and sport fishing
Choose from the many sailboats moored throughout the islands to base your adventure at sea, as we did on the Blue Sky, a 52-ft. cutter-rigged pilothouse ketch. Captained by the Filinas – Ken “Breeze” Filina and his wife Debbie – we cruised the area, visited with the local Kuna and snorkeled just a few of the hundreds of coral reefs that line the white sandy bottom of the Caribbean ocean.
I was saddened to learn that roughly 80% of Guna Yala’s peripheral coral has disappeared over the last 40 years, largely due to the Kuna’s practice of mining the coral to help fortify their island homes against rising ocean levels.
But I must say, having never witnessed its previous state, I’d never guess that such destruction had occurred. The reefs are beautiful. With its clear, calm water, sunshine bouncing off the bright reds and oranges of the coral, and all variety of shapes, sizes, and color of sea life, San Blas is everything a great snorkeling destination should be. We spotted checkered parrot fish, lizard fish, spotted groupers – as well as rays and even a lobster. If you’re lucky, you’ll also spot dolphins in these warm Caribbean waters.
Of interest to the anglers who visit the San Blas Islands for their great sport fishing: blue and white marlin are available at certain times of the year, along with Atlantic sailfish just about any time of year, as well as wahoo, yellowfin, blackfin, good-sized grouper and barracuda.
Depending where you’re based in Panama, getting to the islands can be an adventure in itself. From our home in Gorgona, Panama, we drove an hour to the Albrook Mall in Panama City, where our Kuna driver, Tito, arrived to pick us up in his 4X4. From there, we spent the next three hours traversing curvy elevated roads through the San Blas mountains before arriving at Carti on the Gulf of San Blas, a simple stretch of beach with a cantina and a few docks. The launchas – elongated covered aluminum or wooden motor boats captained by the Kuna – pick you up from the “port” to take you to your island (or, in our case, boat) destination.
- By air: Air Panama offers daily 35-minute flights (about $150 roundtrip) from its regional airport in Panama City to Corazón de Jesús airstrip in the San Blas region.
- By land: The Carti port is a three-hour drive from Panama City over the San Blas mountains. You can rent a car and leave it parked for free at the Carti port, or hire a driver to pick you up in Panama City for about $25 per person, one way.
- By water: At Carti port, the Kuna launchas are always coming and going – you just tell them where you want to go; cost is between $15 and $20 per person.
Photos by Jacki Gillcash.