San Blas Islands – Kuna Yala
The San Blas Islands, an archipelago of around 365 coral atolls, are located in the Caribbean Sea just off the coast of Panama. Only 36 of the islands, also known as Kuna Yala, are inhabited, and they are home to the Kuna people, an indigenous Native American people for whom life has changed little in the last centuries. Visitors must seek permission from the local chieftain to spend the night in the Islands.
The Kuna Culture
The Kuna people who inhabit the San Blas Islands are a Native American people believed to be descended from the Caribs, who originally peopled most of the Caribbean islands. They are a largely self-sufficient culture and have limited interactive with the “modern” world. The Kuna economy is based on agriculture and fishing, and they export and trade a large amount of their production with the mainland for food. The San Blas lobsters and coconuts are particularly prized. Coconuts are also used as a form of currency on the island, with one coconut equaling about 10 cents.
The Kuna society is a matriarchal one, with the women inheriting property and wealth as well as leading the household units. The traditional dress of the Kuna women is spectacular and consists of intricately embroidered “molas” or woven dresses and skirts as well as gold armbands and colorful strings of beads and seashells. The Kuna are politically independent, having won their freedom from Panama in 1925, an event the islanders celebrate each February with a large feast.
Visiting the San Blas Islands
Tourism is strictly limited to the Islands. Cruise ships bound for the Panama Canal periodically stop at San Bias where visitors can tour a typical Kuna village and where Kuna women sell their embroidered “molas” and other handcrafted items. Travel to the other islands requires permission of the local chieftain and facilities are limited.
Land-based tourists can get to the Island by taking one of the daily flights from Panama City to San Bias airport. Periodic air taxi service connects San Bias to the outer islands, as do dugout canoes that move continuously among the islands. A few of the islands have simple hotels and guests houses and overnight visits with native families can also be arranged. Accommodations generally include traditional meals, prepared by the Kuna people.
Activities on the San Blas Islands
The coral reefs that surround many of the uninhabited San Blas Islands make for spectacular snorkeling and visitors can take a boat tour to these sites where they can snorkel all by themselves. Scuba diving is not permitted in the islands, as it conflicts with the Kuna tradition of using no mechanical means for fishing and hunting. Treks into the lush tropical rain forests are another popular attraction. Wildlife and birds abound in these dense jungles, including many species unique to the area.
The San Blas Islands are unique, relaxed, and naturally beautiful. Don’t depart Panama without taking the opportunity to visit their unspoiled beauty and primitive, yet friendly people. The islands are sure to enchant you and leave you with lasting memories of a land that time forgot.