San Blas Islands
The San Blas Islands is a group of islands which are located just off the Caribbean coast of Panama. The indigenous Kuna Yala tribe have self governing authority over the islands and a part of the mainland.
The local people, the Kuna Yala, are a wonderful example of an how an indigenous people continue to flourish and practice their age old customs surrounded by the modern world. They are friendly and welcoming of tourists. Although the San Blas Islands is their ancestral home, you will also find them selling their wares in Panama City.
Electric power is limited, so it is not uncommon for the hotels and homes to operate generators for only a few hours per day. After dark, the moon and stars provide the only light.
Kuna remains the first language of the indigenous people of San Blas. However, this is becoming less prevalent with the younger generations, who are for the most part being schooled in Spanish in Panamanian-run public schools in the region. Tule, what the Kuna call themselves and their language, is a spoken language. It is written only phonetically; they do not have their own alphabet or written language. Spanish is widely spoken in Kuna Yala, with only older generation Kuna, and a lesser percentage of women speaking only the Kuna language.
There are currently daily flights from Panama City to El Porvenir via Air Panama. Air Panama also services Achutupu, Corazon de Jesus (Rio Diablo/Nargana), and Playon Chico. As of Sept. 2009, Aeroperlas provides service to Corazon de Jesus and Playon Chico. Currently both airlines fly from Panama City daily at approximately 6:30 AM.
Cargo boats leave to/from Carti Island and Porvenir Island (San Blas Island/Kuna Yala) to Puerto Obaldia for crossing into Colombia. taking 4 to 8 days (price depending on food and number of days, eg., 60 dollar for 4 days and food included). The same can be done with small motorized boats taking only 5 to 6 hours, often but not necessarily on fridays (price about 50-80 dollar). For both cargo and public (motor) boats no regular time schedules exist and may result in waiting around for a number of days. Sailing boats to/from Colombia/Cartagena or Capurgana (price 250-600 dollar for 3 to 5 days). Ask Mr. Eulogio Perez, Carti Islands: cellphone: (507) 65179850 /61134117
The road into San Blas Kuna Yala is vastly improving, accessible all year round. A 4x4 is now only needed to cross a river (Feb. 2010) where a bridge is being built. Currently there are a number of Kuna run tour operators that will pick you up from your hotel or hostel (5 US for the hostel) in Panama City and drive you to Carti which is part of the San Blas Islands (20 US for transportation).
The San Blas offers a large array of sights. Starting with the fascinating people, incredible seascapes, colorful reefs and islands, to the abundant sea life in its waters and wildlife on the mainland. There are continuous festivals and gatherings occurring at villages that visitors can witness to get a glimpse of the culture. Numerous Kuna villages offer visitors multiple opportunities for various glimpses at the daily lives of the Kuna.
If you snorkel, you will find a great variety of tropical fish in the shallow warm waters. This is not the case for the main villages that have their latrines where land and water meet, eg., Carti, such that boat transport often is required.
Many of the tiny islands with beautiful beaches have one member of the Kuna tribe on the island who collects $1 per person for use of the island for sunbathing or swimming. Be sure to bring small change with you and be prepared to be in the middle of nothing.
The native people wear very colorful traditional clothing and make and sell beaded jewelry and molas, which are creatively stitched squares and articles of multilayered cloth that can be very elaborate and take weeks to make. They also incorporate the mola craft into clothing, shirts and other various articles which can be purchased.
The larger villages in San Blas have small restaurants with limited menus. Villages also have small grocery stores that sell basic food items and beverages. Ice is very hard to come by in San Blas.
Kuna hotels and lodges typically include meals as part of the stay. Meals usually include locally caught fish, crab and lobster. Available vegetables are typically the basics, tomatoes, carrots, yucca, onions and potatoes. Do not expect a wide variety of foods as the kuna diet is very basic and exposure to western-style foods is highly limited.
Some of the islands have one small bar that caters to the locals and tourists alike. Ice is in short supply. Drinks, including beer and sodas, can be purchased at small stores on some islands.
Water in most villiages is piped directly (unfiltered) from streams on the mainland, and is therefore unsafe as drinking water for tourists. As a non-native, beware of any locally-prepared beverages including: hot chocolate, chicha (fruit or vegitable-flavored drinks), chicha fuerte (alcoholic chicha), water, and ice. Follow sanitary practices with all eating utensils and plates/bowls, as they are likely washed using non-potable water.
Tourists are advised to bring their own drinking water and drinking recepticles.
There are small and very rustic hotels on some of the islands, and due to the lack of restaurants, they offer all-inclusive meal packages. Also most hotels will include day trips to some of the smaller islands, where they will leave you alone for several hours to snorkel, sunbathe or swim. These Islands offer pristine white sand and crystal clear water, and coconut trees that offer natural shade from the hot sun.
Be aware that all the accommodations are very basic, often simple huts made of sticks as rooms - which is also what the locals live in. You hear your neighbours, you might see them as the walls are a little see-through at night if the lights are on inside, and you share a bathrooms with toilet and shower look alike.
The Kuna are usually timid, though friendly and welcoming of tourists. There is drug trafficking in this region, but it occurs without incident in almost all cases, using small fast boats that deliver drugs to the mainland from Colombia mainly late at night. There are almost NEVER any incidents involving these drug runners locally. There are rumors that they "camp out" on vacant islands. This is patently false. The drug runners are typically interested in getting in and out as quickly as possible to dodge surveillance.
The San Blas Islands is also a haven for cruising yachts and sportfishing boats. Most of these yachts keep to themselves and rarely venture onto the village islands. For the most part, the San Blas Archipielago is extremely safe and tourist-friendly.