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.