Paradise Found in Panama
There is something magical about the Kuna Yala Islands of San Blas. Even before we have ever visited them, we have seen them before in our imagination. Of course it depends on what your past experiences and associations are, but ask someone to conjure up an image of a tropical paradise, and it will probably involve white sand beaches, crystal clear turquoise waters, and palm trees with coconuts. I always figured that places like this exist somewhere on Earth, but I had never actually been to and seen such a place, before I made it out to San Blas.
I’ve walked beautiful white sand beaches before, but the sand had never been this perfectly white. Nor did it have the same soft, powdered sugar texture that softly coats every millimeter of your bare feet. The smooth sand wet with seawater transforms into a thin runny glop that dribbles out of your hand like cake icing squirting out of a frosting bag. If you mix a drier concoction, the tiny granules of sand share enough cohesion to form themselves almost like a ball of clay, perfect for aerial assaults on your friends or target practice on an unsuspecting palm tree.
While the sand is immaculate, and is well accompanied by in most cases virgin, natural vegetation, the most impressive part for me is the picturesque and almost surreal isolation of the tiny dispersed islands. Cruising on our sailboat we would continuously pass by these nearly identical, yet all subtly unique, quiet little islands. While some groups of islands support significant Kuna populations, the majority are too small and remote to support many inhabitants and are instead owned and cared for by individual Kuna families. As we sailed through the Caribbean Sea, we could always see tens of islands out in the distance. And as we moved forward, new islands would constantly emerge from the horizon while those that we had already passed slowly faded away behind us.
There are nearly 400 different islands within the autonomous region formed by the Kuna Yala Comarca of San Blas. The territory is also composed of a significant stretch of terrain on the mainland of Panama bordered by the provinces of Colon to the west, Panama Este and Darien to the south, and by Colombia to the east. While still part of Panama, the Kuna Yala Indians legally formed their own Comarca in 1938, allowing the Kuna Congress to impose its own laws within the autonomous district. One of the major aims of this political structure is to preserve the traditional Kuna culture and way of life by preventing Latino Panamanians and foreigners from purchasing land or engaging in unauthorized economic activities. Special permission must be obtained from Kuna leaders to do any scuba diving, spear fishing, or tourism related business within the limits of Kuna Yala territory.
However, Kunas have evolved into the tourism business slowly on their own over the past generation or two. Traditional subsistence farming and fishing still exist, but Kunas have quickly realized that selling artisanry and charging a dollar for a snapshot by a tourist can be lucrative new enterprises. It is now easy to find multiple small hotels and tour providers operated by Kuna citizens on many of the islands and on the mainland. The creature comforts provided and costs associated with them tend to vary quite a bit within San Blas, but there are now many different tourism options available for people wishing to visit the area.
Some of the more cost-conscious options run you about $30 per day providing lodging, three full meals, and an excursion to visit a different island. Lower prices usually mean spending the night in a hammock, swinging alongside your friends under one large rancho; and you may not be fully impressed with every single meal; but usually you get what you pay for. Spending some extra cash for a nicer cabana with a bed, better food, and a more extravagant boat tour adventure can often be worth the difference in price. But no matter where you stay, a visit to San Blas is surely something you won’t ever forget.
The snorkelling in the transparent waters over the white sand below is exceptional. However, the most fish are usually near the biggest reefs, so get a handle on where exactly your boat tour is taking you so that you have an idea of what to expect. Transportation between Panama City and Kuna Yala is relatively inexpensive and convenient, as there are multiple quick flights and longer, bumpier car rides that can carry you back and forth. Because of the transport costs, prices for supplies out on the islands are significantly steeper than what you would pay in the city, so stock up on whatever you might need to help you pass the time on a deserted tropical island. Beers and fresh drinking water are hot commodities up on the islands, especially if you are looking to keep them cold – so plan ahead. It is also a good idea to bring your own snorkelling gear and plenty of sunscreen just in case, so that your trip is as fun and painless as possible.
The Kuna Yala Islands are truly a world away from modern city living as we know it, yet this total escape is really just a quick fly or ride away. Both the natural environmental beauty and the unique cultural beauty are guaranteed to leave you in awe.
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