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The San Blas Islands of Panama. a Great Adventure Destination

Updated on December 23, 2020
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I spent several years living aboard my small sailboat and sailing in locations such as the San Blas Islands of Panama.

One of the many beautiful islands of the Kuna Yala.
One of the many beautiful islands of the Kuna Yala.

In 1999 I was fortunate enough to go on a sailing adventure that started in Texas and ended several years later in Central America. The best part of the trip was visiting and sailing in the San Blas Islands of Panama, home to the indigenous Kuna people. I've been back several times since then and each time it's been a new and wonderful adventure.

The San Blas Islands, also known to to the Kuna indigenous people who call it home as the Kuna Yala, (also sometimes spelled Guna Yala), are a series of low lying islands numbering around 360 that stretch from near El Porvenir Panama, to the Colombian border. The area is known as the "comarca" and is a semi-autonomous region of Panama and ancestral home to the Kuna people. Only a few of the larger islands are accessible by air travel from Panama City. The Kuna Yala includes not only all of these amazing islands but a narrow band of pristine rain forest that stretches along the Caribbean sea.

If you have the time and can afford it there are some charter operators that offer sailboat tours of the smaller islands. The conditions can be primitive but the rewards of getting to see native culture and unspoiled islands outweigh the hardships of getting there.

If you plan on visiting by air there are regular flights to Nargana and Rio Sidra out of the international airport in Panama City. Flights often depart in the very early hours of the morning so you may need to be at the airport before the sun comes up.

Tours and Lodging In The Kuna Yala

There is some lodging available in the San Blas islands, including everything from huts with hammocks, to modest hotel rooms, yet these may be difficult to locate online. Before you visit, contact a reputable tour company that offers adventure tours of the San Blas. The trip may not be as easy as some other kinds of vacation travel, but will be well worth it.

You might want to take along a little extra cash with which to to buy local crafts. ATM's are far and few between in the comarca. The Kuna women sew beautiful embroidered cloth called molas that are made with a reverse applique process. They are sought out worldwide by collectors for their extraordinary detail and craftsmanship. Some are more well made than others though, and prices are highly negotiable.

Also be advised that the Kuna people don't really like having their photos taken. They, like many other indigenous people, may feel that you are taking a part of them or part of their soul when you take a photograph of them, or simply don't like being treated as a tourist attraction in their own home. I don't blame them, the San Blas is their home, not a theme park, and you're there as a guest.

Consider starting your tour outside the comarca, in the town of El Porveneir, where many adventure tours are based. Coral Lodge is an elegant and highly rated tourist hotel where you can spend a day or two being pampered before boarding a boat or small plane to explore some of the far flung islands of the Kuna Yala.

One of more than 360 islands in the San Blas Archipelago.
One of more than 360 islands in the San Blas Archipelago.

What To Take On A Trip To The San Blas Islands

There are few stores or tourist shops in the smaller islands of the Kuna Yala and not many places to get cash. Don't forget to bring along a hat, sunscreen, insect repellent and cash (Panamanian currency), since there are not that many ATM machines available. Bring your good manners and your respect for the culture of the Kuna people and their amazing home.

Before you embark on your journey, be aware that you're entering a remote region of the earth where dangerous diseases such as malaria and polio are not yet under control. It's not required, yet advisable to get whatever immunizations that your government recommends for travel to Panama, including yellow fever as well as anti-malarial drugs. There are small pharmacies on the larger islands, yet prepare to bring with you whatever medications that you may rely on. Also, make sure to bring chargers for your electronics. There is plenty of sunshine in the San Blas most of the time, which I why i prefer a solar phone charger that has enough power to charge my phone and camera quickly.

There is cell phone service on some of the islands so make sure that you arrange for international roaming with your cell phone provider to avoid unexpected charges.

You'll find the islands of the Kuna Yala to be some of the most unspoiled places left on earth. Remember to take only photographs (when appropriate), and leave only footprints.

© 2008 Nolen Hart


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