San Blas Islands - Photography Blog

San Blas Islands

San Blas Islands

SAN BLAS ISLANDS PHOTOGRAPHY AND TRAVEL

Island hopping in Kuna Yala.

In January my friend Tomek was visiting Central America. I picked him up from San Jose Airport and then we travelled across Costa Rica, Panama and of course Nicaragua. One of the destinations, I haven’t visited yet, that I considered interesting was located in the Northwestern part of the Panama archipelago of islands called San Blas. The archipelago is comprised of more than 360 islands that are scattered around, 49 of which are inhabited. As you can imagine when thinking of the Caribbean Islands, they have it all: blue skies, pristine white sands, clear turquoise water, and coconut palm trees. However, what really drew my attention is that San Blas is an autonomous territory (also called Kuna Yala) ruled by the indigenous tribe of KUNA (also referred to as Guna) people. They preserve their unique cultural heritage, have their own laws and customs, and they control tourism on their own terms. They also speak their own language called Tulekaya which, what is interesting, is only written phonetically; they do not have their own alphabet or written language.

To get to San Blas we left Panama City early in the morning in a 4x4 jeep. The ride is around 3 hours long including one hour of crossing the jungle. The views on the way are spectacular - lush vegetation, huge trees, hills and valleys, a real glimpse of what the jungle looks like. The road is super curvy, going up and down all the time, and even though it has been recently paved, it is still a challenge to get across. Arriving at Porvenir we had to cross the border, pass passport control and pay the Kuna entrance fee (20 dollars). Then we took lancha (motor boat), which was our main mode of transportation from then on. This is where the real fun began. You could see the water changing its color from yellowish to deep blue and finally reaching clear turquoise.  There are basically two rules while using lancha which I’ve learned them from my previous travels: (1) if you sit in the front it is going to be a bumpy ride and (2) if you sit in the back or on the side you might get wet. So I chose the bumpy version, mainly because I wanted to have a better view for taking photos and I didn’t want my photo equipment to get wet. After one hour we reached a small island, inhabited by two Kuna families, which was our destination and home for next few days.

Kuna people are quite timid, generally friendly, but sensitive to having their pictures taken. Kuna women wear their colorful traditional clothes (hand-stitched molas, scarves, beadwork worn on their arms and legs) while most of the men tend to wear regular shorts, T-shirts and baseball caps. They live mostly off of fishing, tourism and trade. I was told that taking photos of Kuna women is not permitted, unless they agree. Kunas, especially those in areas frequented by tourists, will often ask for $1 to have their photo taken, which feels a bit awkward. It’s also prohibited to pick up coconuts on your own. This is understandable considering the amount of tourists passing through. At the end of the day these islands are in fact home to the Kunas. San Blas is also a popular stop for travelers sailing from Panama to Columbia, and vice versa, that want to avoid Darién’s Gap on their way to South America.

All the time we spent in San Blas we were completely disconnected from the mainland - no internet, no cellphone signal, just us on the tiny Island surrounded by clear seas. Every day we were island hopping and visiting new destinations. In general, San Blas offers a stunning diversity of cays, from small tiny oases that are completely uninhabited to relatively big ones inhabited by large communities. Also, I sailed through the Caribbean Sea during a pitch black night for the very first time on this trip. Reaching the shore you could see marine creatures emitting light (bioluminescence) when agitated - magical to say the least. In fact, you can find coral reef surrounding almost every island, so snorkeling is quite an experience as well.

If you want to go to San Blas you can contact MAMALLENA hostel that will help you organize your trip, and put you in contact with the Kuna host.

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My friend Tomek covered in warm, morning, sun. We left Panama City at 4 am.. 

My friend Tomek covered in warm, morning, sun. We left Panama City at 4 am.. 

Well, that's me, my camera bag and my first morning coffee. 

Well, that's me, my camera bag and my first morning coffee. 

 Glimpse of the jungle on the way to San Blas

 Glimpse of the jungle on the way to San Blas

Carti Port, Kuna Yala.

Carti Port, Kuna Yala.

Lancha ride.

Lancha ride.

That was our home for a few nights. San Blas

That was our home for a few nights. San Blas

Kuna Kids san blas
Boats that sail from Panama to Colombia (and vice versa) on their stop in San Blas.

Boats that sail from Panama to Colombia (and vice versa) on their stop in San Blas.

San Blas paradise cay island
Kuna's people laundry. 

Kuna's people laundry. 

kuna woman photography clothes
Kuna fabric and tropical island on San Blas
Famous Molas - Hand sewn panels that make up the front and back of a Kuna woman’s traditional blouse.A traditional Mola is made of several layers of cotton fabric.

Famous Molas - Hand sewn panels that make up the front and back of a Kuna woman’s traditional blouse.A traditional Mola is made of several layers of cotton fabric.

Kuna people on San Blas
Kuna woman snorking with kid on her back. San Blas
Starfish in the swimming pool on San Blas
Kuna woman splitting a Coconut 
Coconut for 2$. San Blas
Coconuts in Kuna Yala Island
Kuna Captain and paradise islands. San Blas.
Colors of San Blas islands.

Colors of San Blas islands.

Kuna people fishing from Kanoo
Coco Blanco. San Blas
San Blas beach chill
Menu is quite similar to other Central American regions. Variation of rice, fish or other sea food and plantains. 

Menu is quite similar to other Central American regions. Variation of rice, fish or other sea food and plantains. 

tomek reading in Coco Blanco Island
San Blas paradise sunrise photography
Cooperation - Navigate, repel, pump out the water and row.

Cooperation - Navigate, repel, pump out the water and row.

Kuna girl playing with a doll on San Blas Island
Playing games at night accompanied by a big bottle of panamanian rum - "Abuelo" - which I personally find delicious.

Playing games at night accompanied by a big bottle of panamanian rum - "Abuelo" - which I personally find delicious.

San Blas island night photography. Stars tents and palm trees
San Blas camprife at night