Welcome to paradise. Cartoonists who draw tropical islands as small discs of soft sand with a coconut palm or two could have gotten the idea from Kuna Yala, otherwise known as the San Blas Islands. That image fits countless idyllic spots in this archipelago of nearly 400 islands off the eastern Caribbean coast of Panama. When the sun hits the sea you’ll think of emeralds and sapphires.
The islands are just part of the Comarca de Kuna Yala, a semiautonomous homeland of the Kuna people. Kuna territory also encompasses a mountainous strip of mostly virgin forest on the mainland, along the Caribbean slope of the Darién. It runs the length of the archipelago, ending at the Colombian border.
Most visitors prefer to hang out on the islands. Nearly all the estimated 40,000 Kuna who live in the comarca (reservation) inhabit just 40 of the islands, none of which is very large. As one might imagine, things get pretty crowded: On many islands, the thatch roofs of the Kunas’ cane huts almost touch, making walking around a bit of a challenge.
Visitors generally spend as much time as possible on the uninhabited islands, but be sure to visit a village. The chance to meet the Kuna, who have one of the most vibrant indigenous cultures in Latin America, is reason enough to visit.
A word of warning: If you’re looking for an island resort, Kuna Yala is emphatically not for you. Even the most “exclusive” accommodations are quite simple, and there’s little to do on the islands except swim, snorkel, laze in hammocks, and visit villages. The food on the islands is generally poor, bland, and basic. Coral Lodge is the only place out here with a first-world infrastructure, and it’s not actually in the archipelago..
More disturbing, any lingering romantic notions one has about indigenous people’s harmonious relationship with nature gets a jolt upon realizing how severely the Kuna are overfishing their own waters, or seeing the garbage and sewage they routinely dump into pristine blue waters.
On the other hand, there are still plenty of lovely, uninhabited islands in the archipelago, more than anyone could possibly see during a visit. A big part of the charm of these islands is their very simplicity: no timeshare condos or tacky T-shirt shops here. Nodding off in a hammock slung between coconut palms, watching a Kuna woman sewing a mola (handcrafted blouse), and showering by the light of a kerosene lantern can soon seem like a pretty good way to spend the day.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition