Underwater visibility in these crystalline waters can be better than 30 meters on a good day. The best snorkeling is found among the sparsely inhabited outer cays at the western end of the archipelago, where the coral is extensive and indescribably beautiful. The most popular of these are the Cayos Holandéses.
The hotels typically have snorkeling equipment to rent or borrow, but it’s usually not in good shape. Bring your own if possible. The Kunas have banned scuba diving in their waters.
Several groups now offer kayak adventures, which can be a great way to explore the islands. When conditions are right, you can see many meters down, and if you’re lucky dolphins will swim along the kayak. Groups to consider include Aventuras Panama (tel. 260-0044, info [at] aventuraspanama [dot] com, www.aventuraspanama.com), Mountain Travel Sobek (U.S. toll-free tel. 888-831-7526, info [at] mtsobek [dot] com, www.mtsobek.com), and Expediciones Tropicales (tel. 317-1279, info [at] xtrop [dot] com, www.xtrop.com).
Don’t swim around inhabited islands, as human and animal waste is allowed to flow out to sea; try even to avoid sea-spray during boat rides near them.
It’s tempting to take photos of the Kuna, especially the colorfully dressed women. But always ask first, and expect to pay for the privilege. If the Kuna are going to be treated as curiosities, they figure the least tourists can do is compensate them for it. Note that the going rate is US$1 per subject, not per photo, as some try to claim. A Kuna woman you’ve just bought something from is more likely to let you snap her photo, and she may not even charge you. Photos of village scenes that don’t focus on an individual are free.
No formal tour operators are based on the islands. Visitors usually arrange tours and boat trips through their hotels, which offer a daily excursion in their standard packages. It’s also easy to hire Kuna boatmen and guides, but almost none of them speak English, and some don’t even speak much Spanish. Agree on a price and itinerary ahead of time.
Note that the prices listed here may rise, as the cost of tours is mainly driven by the cost of boat fuel. That also goes for lodging packages that include daily boat tours, which most do.
You may find it simpler to arrange a trip to the islands through a tour operator in Panama City, who will book the flights or land transport, make room reservations, and make sure a boatman’s there to meet the plane.
Some hotels now offer tours of the rainforest near the coast for an extra fee. These usually go to a waterfall or Kuna cemetery. The more ambitious of these can be hikes through true jungle. Come prepared, and do not attempt to explore the forests without a Kuna guide.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition