Scattered along the Caribbean coast of Panama, the 365 tiny coconut islands of the San Blas archipelago make up one of Central America's most intriguing destinations. This is paradise as most of us imagine it, with coral reefs, sunken shipwrecks and tropical beaches found in every direction. Throw some thatched dwellings and powdery white sand in the mix, and what’s not to love?
The region is also home to the Guna, the first indigenous group in Latin America to gain political autonomy. While they have embraced outboard motors and mobile phones, much about this culture remains traditional; unlike in more commercial parts of the Caribbean, visiting the Comarca de Guna Yala will give you a chance to embrace local customs. Planning a trip might require a bit more preparation, but luckily we've come up with a handy guide to help you navigate this fascinating place.
The quirks of island living
The San Blas archipelago consists of community islands and outer islands or resorts. The community islands, closer to the mainland, are densely packed with bamboo huts, livestock and people; they are more likely to have budget lodgings, but the hustle and bustle may not live up to your expectations of a remote tropical paradise. The outer islands are only inhabited by caretakers who stay to watch over coconut groves on a rotating basis, and while the latter make for a more appealing vacation setting, there may be little opportunity to interact with locals or get a handle on the culture.
As you might imagine, the culinary scene in the region is fresh and local, with a heavy slant toward seafood. Meals usually consist of fish and rice, with lobster or octopus occasionally available for a few more dollars. Fruit is imported from the mainland and may be in scarce supply, so it’s alright to bring your own.
Learn about Guna traditions
The Guna people make up one of the largest indigenous groups in the country, and they work hard to protect the Comarca from unwanted westernization. Be mindful of this as you move through the region – take the time to learn about the Guna way of life and interact with the locals. Knowing even a basic greeting (na is hello, thank you is dot nuet) can be helpful in establishing goodwill. The Guna also throw a good party: check out the Nogagope, a traditional dance celebration that takes place on Isla Tigre, or the February 25 celebration of the Guna Revolution of 1925. Admire the colorful molas, decorative panels women sew onto their blouses, for sale at the local markets; in the Guna culture, having an elaborate one – with tiny stitching, many layers of fabrics and good designs – is a point of pride. As molas have become popular with travelers, they are now often used as decor, framed to put on the wall or sewn onto throw pillows.
Interesting fact: until the late 1990s, coconuts functioned as the the principal currency of the region. Even now, millions of coconuts are exported annually to Colombia in exchange for food staples, batteries and other goods. So, taking a coconut is akin to pick-pocketing – don’t do it. Instead, you can ask if there are coconuts for sale and have one swiftly parted by the stroke of a machete.
As a note, visitors should always ask permission before taking photos or video. Many Guna prefer not to be photographed while others may put a price on it, and women in traditional dress can be particularly averse. It helps always to get a feel for a situation, spend time with the locals and develop a rapport before asking to snap a photo.
Make it happen
First, leave your mainland expectations behind – lodging in the Comarca is unique. Most common accommodations are thatched huts with a sand or cement floor and a bathroom (in room or shared) without heated water. Package deals are the norm, with accommodation, meals (but not drinks) and one tour per day included in the price, and they range between US$70-120 per day; these normally are booked through the lodging properties or local travel agencies, as communication with the former can be a bit unreliable. Visitors looking for a little bit of romance and relaxation will enjoy the secluded waterfront property of Akwadup Lodge or the octagonal thatch-roof cabins at the Yandup Lodge, while those on a budget will feel right at home at De Mar Achu.
Those who plan to camp have a variety of options, as several islands (Salardup, Isla Tortuga/Morodup, Isla Banedup) have campgrounds available; visitors can save quite a bit by bringing their own camping gear, so consider a hammock, a rain tarp and a mosquito net – ideal for these climes. Most camping areas can provide cots or cushions, sheets and tents at a price similar to lodging in the huts.
Carefully selecting your lodging is key, as their remoteness makes it difficult to change your mind. When planning your visit, check to see if there’s shade, privacy (some huts are spaced closely together) and areas for swimming where you lodge. Also inquire about the day trips, which might include a visit to a community island, snorkeling or hiking on the mainland. Very few lodgings will not include a tour that usually lasts from a few hours to a whole day, depending on the activity; do keep in mind that remote islands can involve a more expensive transfer, if it’s not included, and a seaworthy boat equipped with a good motor. Some providers also lead snorkeling trips to specific reefs and visits to the mainland for hikes to a waterfall or a cemetery. Ask ahead if they have snorkeling gear, but if you want a good fit, it's always wise to bring your own.
When booking, keep in mind that internet access is not the norm in the archipelago, so website queries may not get a quick response. Also, mobile phones tend to fall in the water, making contact numbers quickly obsolete. It may be useful to go through an agency, like Panama Travel Unlimited, that can show you the range of options.
In recent years, trash has become a problem for the archipelago. With no formal removal system or designated depository, it usually ends up occupying a discreet – or not so discreet – corner of the island. As visitors, the best we can do is to be conscious of generating as little trash as possible and pack it out. Before even visiting the islands, it’s helpful to minimize the packaging of food items, batteries and toiletries.
Adventurous travelers yearning to explore the Caribbean seas, you've found your chance: here you can sail the archipelago, explore remote islands and escape any possibility of crowds. Sailboats usually require a three to four day minimum and are best for small parties, given their high operating costs. Small boats usually work with private organizations to offer custom itineraries to small groups, while larger boats may be geared to backpackers and mixed groups. The latter option is prone to crowding, so it helps to get the lowdown on a boat from former passengers (or an agency) and ask ahead about the accommodations, whether you will get a bed or a floor space, what the food is like and the number of people on the boat. Useful resources include booking agencies San Blas Sailing for private charters and Cacique Cruisers for bargain trips.
Many endeavor to reach Colombia via Guna Yala, but this four to five-day trip is not for the faint of heart. It’s a rough passage through open seas beyond San Blas, but if your inner swashbuckler can't resist taking the voyage, San Blas Adventures uses speedboats that stay close to the coast and groups camp along the way.
Take your time
You can visit in a day, but why rush? Traveling to an island requires about four hours of round-trip travel from Panama City. While some agencies will do it for US$150, consider that packages for an overnight stay start at US$80. Unless you have a flight to catch, give it an extra day or two – once you get a glimpse of these clear waters and palm-fringed beaches, you will thank us.
Pay your way
Almost every island charges a non-negotiable set landing fee for visitors (US$2-7). Visitors tend to balk at these small cash payouts, but think of them as a tax. There’s also a fee to enter the Comarca (US$20) and use the port in Carti (US$2).