Photo by Tarina Rodríguez
A visit to the incredible 365-island archipelago (also called the San Blas Islands) within the communal lands of the Guna Yala indigenous nation provides some extraordinary seaside experiences. The islands making up the outer archipelago are unspoiled and feature gorgeous white-sand beaches, turquoise seas, and a one-of-a-kind encounter with Guna culture. Visitors lodge in natural-material huts (cane walls and interwoven palm-frond roofs) or—if you’re in the mood—sleep under the stars in palm-strung hammocks. Local women sport colorful dress made in the style known as mola, a traditional Gula artisanal weaving technique. A highway was built several years back that lets you travel from Panama City to Puerto de Cartí in as few as two hours.
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About a 45 minute boatride from Panama City, you can spend the day at the beach in San Blas. I loved how quiet and laid back the town was. There were a ton of sea shells on this beach as well. I had fun collecting along the beach and then tossing back. I could see myself living here one day.
By christina p
The women of the Kuna (native islanders) wear bright and colorful outfits that seem to match their tropical surroundings perfectly. The Kuna inhabit a stretch of islands located off the Caribbean coast of Panama, near Colombia. The islands are most accessible by plane from Panama City. There are several hundred islands to explore, so it's best to charter a sailboat for a week to visit a handful of them and visit many of the island villages of these remarkable people. We chartered our boat from San Blas Sailing at the following: www.sanblassailing.com
When he learned we were on our honeymoon, a knowing smile stretched across Charlie’s face. Gazing pensively across the sea in the direction of a distant palm-tree skyline, the old Kuna man slowly muttered, “Ah, luna de miel en Kuna Yala…” On our third trip to Central America, my new bride and I were no longer backpacking. No hostels during this trip. Though they do exist in Panama’s Kuna Yala, or San Blas Islands, we had aimed to stay in Caribbean luxury this time. And the Coral Lodge did not disappoint. After departing from Charlie in El Porvenir, where we had awaited transportation, we took a choppy boat ride eight miles west of the Kuna Yala boundary. Along the way, we passed deserted islands so iconic that Hawaiian Tropic and Playboy shoot there. And the perfection above-ground was matched below the surface offshore. I’ve since snorkeled in oceans around the world, but never seen coral so magnificent. During our days at the Coral Lodge we stayed in one of six thatch-roofed villas that jut out from the mainland over the turquoise waters of a small bay filled with its own coral reefs. From our back, private balcony we could while away the days in a chaise lounge or hammock, or dive in for a swim or snorkel around the bay. We also spied howler monkeys during rainforest walks, went sea kayaking, and relished the ecolodge’s gourmet food. It was a brief, indulgent taste of how the other half lives, and I can still picture Charlie’s nod of approval.
By Rob Hodges
Dugout canoes are the mode of local transportation in Panama’s Kuna Yala (aka Guna Yala and San Blas Islands). They also become floating markets to sell wares to foreigners sailing in the area. My new bride and I were on one such chartered sailboat, which led to a special encounter. Throughout our honeymoon, we were visited by merchants known by the boat’s owners, Swedish couple Christina and Ulf. Items for sale included lobsters (a local specialty), the catch of the day, mangoes, coconuts, and molas, which are embroidered works of art traditionally worn as vibrant panels on a Kuna woman’s blouse. Most Kuna don’t have electricity, so Ulf often charged cell phones overnight. One transaction led to an invitation by Kuna couple Pricilliano and Adelaida to visit their family island. Known as Gunboat Island, the entire speck of Caribbean paradise was roughly the diameter of a quarter-mile track. Three generations (more than 10 family members) live in two huts with thatched roofs and sand floors. During the day, clothes hang from the ceiling where hammocks drape at night. Meals are prepared over an open flame. An outhouse sits on a pier. But cultural differences only run so deep. Over several hours, we bonded with two young girls, Elaida and A., who played in the water and sand and climbed palm trees with us. I let them shoot photos and see them in my viewfinder, and they squealed with delight. It was the perfect encounter for a young couple with dreams of starting a family.
By Rob Hodges
Living simply in San Blas
I am lazing in our cabin's hammocks, hypnotized by the shifting colors of the sky as the sun sets over the Carribean Sea. The long, trumpeting noise from a conch shell brings me out of my stupor and alerts me that it's time to eat dinner. Life on the Yandup Island Lodge is simple. My day revolves around three things – eating, tours and relaxing. Mornings involve beach tours to one of the small, surrounding deserted islands of the San Blas archipelago. Afternoon tours consist of cultural excursions learning about the Kuna Yala indian community in nearby Playon Chico. The rest of my time is spent on the wrap-around terrace of my over-water bungalow or snorkeling off the lodge's small white sand beach. No roads lead to this remote area — the Kuna Yala Nation is semi-autonomous , meaning there is little involvement by the federal government and infrastructure in the area. The only way to get here is by a 5-hour boat road or the one flight a day on a 20-passenger plane that leaves at 6 in the morning from Panama City. Getting here may be difficult, staying here is easy.
By Lara Dalinsky, AFAR Local Expert
Private Island in the Sea
A visit to the San Blas Archipelago in Panama should be a must-see on every traveler's list. This stunning region in the Caribbean boasts some 1000 plus islands which are home to the native Kuna Yala Indians. Accommodations run the gamut from small shack to luxury. My private cabin was of the latter style and absolutely sublime. Warm water, balmy breezes and abundant seafood were a few of the many attributes. But, the most interesting part of this island chain is the Kuna Yala themselves. While most of the islands are barren, some house villages and the colorful indigenous communities that now thrive on the tourist trade. Thankfully the Kuna have also kept alive their many customs, traditions and handicrafts. My favorite art form by far is the beaded jewelry worn by many of the women, some of which completely covers arms and legs. So mesmerized was I by the intricacy of the beading work and the vibrancy of the colors that I had one of the local women make a forearm bracelet personally for me. I managed to keep it on for almost three years before it finally unraveled.
San Blas Archipelago (Guna Yala)
After a few nights of dancing and partying in Casco Viejo, we decided that 2 days of relaxing was needed. The San Blas islands, just a 45 minute flight north of the city, was the perfect fit. Once on land, we were greeted by two exceptionally welcoming Guna Yala natives and quickly transported by boat to our lodge. The small cabin was exactly what I was expecting; bare bones, clean and simple. Each morning, along with a prepared breakfast, we were given the option of 2 tours. Of course we chose the vacant, white sand beaches every time. After soaking up the sun all day, a fresh seafood dinner was served. Each night was a surprise since they serve whatever the daily catch is. We also, toured the Guna community with a local guide where you can buy handmade Molas, and given a chance to chat with some of the people living on the islands. Overall, other than swatting away a few mosquitos, my experience was great. I booked my accommodations and flights through Panama Travel Unlimited and the process was exceptionally smooth. There is a range of lodges you can select from and transferring payment was secure and easy. My only advice, bring mosquito repellent, sunscreen, and plenty of bottled water. Otherwise, enjoy the simplicity and sun.
By Jason Seldon, AFAR Staff