You don’t always need suitcases full of cash to enjoy the Caribbean Sea. Cradled in its western corner lie a number of idyllic island groups that are surprisingly easy on the pocket. Scattered off the remote southeastern coast of Panama, the refreshingly undeveloped San Blas Islands are the ultimate castaway fantasy. The stunning archipelago is technically part of Panama, yet indigenous Kuna Indians have had autonomous control since 1920s and day-to-day life here is gloriously uncomplicated.
The local people, the Kuna, are a wonderful example of and how an indigenous people continue to flourish and practice their age old customs surrounded by the modern world. They are friendly and welcoming to the few tourists who venture this part of the Caribbean. Although the San Blas Islands is their ancestral home, you will also find them selling their wares in Panama City.
Tulekaya remains the first language of the indigenous people of San Blas. However, this is becoming less prevalent with the younger generations, who are for the most part being schooled in Spanish in Panamanian-run public schools in the region. Tule, what the Kuna call themselves and their language, is a spoken language. It is written only phonetically; they do not have their own alphabet or written language. Spanish is widely spoken in Kuna Yala. So brush up on yours to get around.
When I was last there in 2010 the best way I got around in the San Blas area was by boat, you can visit different islands within the hour and enjoy the calm clear sea. The food the locals sell isn’t that fantastic but you can get a cheap lobster or local fish like redsnapper for a decent meal. One thing I noticed right away is that the islands are mostly visited by backpackers that travel by sailboat from Panama to Colombia or visa versa. Tourism is growing and if you want to taste the unspoiled culture before concrete takes over you should visit San Blas within a few years. Electric power is limited, so it is not uncommon for the hotels and homes to operate generators for only a few hours per day. After dark, the moon and stars provide the only light.
· Get there: Most visitors access the islands on a budget yacht tour from Panama t Colombia (or vice versa) as a scenic alternative to flying (there’s no road linking the two nations), but it’s also possible to organize a round trip to the San Blas departing from Panama City.
· Stay: The bulk of visitors lodge on yachts, but there are a smattering of rustic guesthouses across the 365 islands, many of which can be booked through Luna’s Castle Hostel in Panama City.
· Do: Wander around the palm-fringed islands and bask on their white-sand beaches – just don’t help yourself to coconuts: they are basically a form of Kuna currency and command a fee of $1. There’s good snorkelling if you are into that, especially at a shallow wreck off Dog Island, but diving is prohibited in the San Blas Indian Reservation.
Happy San Blas-ting!