Rated among the top two cruising destinations in the world—according to Cruising World and Le Monde Voyage magazines—are the entrancing San Blas Islands.
Located in the Northeast of Panama and facing the Caribbean Sea, the San Blas Islands is an archipelago consisting of approximately 365 islands and cays spread over 100 square miles and of which only 49 are inhabited.
Named after the Kuna Indians—known as the Guna Yala or Kuna Yala—the area is protected against mass tourism by the natives who retain full control of their lands. The Islands are mostly undiscovered and will remain that way due to the natives’ extensive and continued efforts to keep their islands healthy and beautiful. In fact, Guna Law prohibits any foreigner or tourist from scuba diving or sport fishing!
Not to worry, though. Tourists still have a multitude of recreational options in San Blas including cruising, beaching, snorkeling, kayaking, and exploring the wild rainforests.
The Kuna have maintained their traditional way of life for centuries, with one of the few changes being related to apparel. Before the discovery of the archipelago by the Europeans, the natives wore few clothes, preferring instead to decorate their bodies with colorful and unique designs. Once missionaries encouraged the wearing of clothing, the Kuna copied their body designs into molas —the Kuna word for “shirt” or “clothing”—referring to the two piece blouses worn by the women. Today’s molas are produced using modern methods, but if you’re lucky, you may see some of the original molas, many of which are more than 150 years old!
These peoples’ legends, colorful dress, folk music, and dances all have a distinct flavor about them. One of the more charming celebrations is the traditional Kuna wedding, which, if your timing is just right, you’ll have the privilege to attend. The ceremony itself lasts no more than five minutes during which the bride and groom are thrown into a hammock four times.The wedding ends with the grandmother passing bread rolls to each of the guests.
The Kuna also have a high incidence of albinism. According to Kuna mythology, albinos—also known as sipus—are given a special place in society. It’s because of this as well as their mostly untouched way of life that the San Blas Islands are frequently covered in National Geographic.
The one nod to modern civilization, though, is that the reality TV show, Survivor, chose one of the idyllic islands as the locale for a reward party for their competitors!
Like the archipelago and its people, you’ll find the food and accommodations at San Blas to be simple. Traditional huts created with thatched palm leaves for the walls and roof, very much like the dwellings of the Kuna themselves, provide one of the closest-to-the-earth experiences available in travel today.
Going back to the natives’ prohibition against fishing for a moment, just because you can’t catch your own fresh fish, you will not be disappointed. You’ll love the traditional Kuna meal of fresh caught red snapper—fresh, as in caught that very same day—that’s served with coconut-flavored rice. And don’t miss the experience of a Coco Loco. Order this drink, and you’ll soon find a native scrambling up a palm tree in search of a ready to drink coconut. Then he’ll come down, slice the coconut open, fill it with cheap (but delicious!) brown rum, and hand you a straw with which to enjoy your native delight. You can also order a coconut drink and add the rum yourself, but do not—repeat do not—take a coconut home with you, or even cut one open yourself. (Unless, that is, you’re willing to risk a fine and possible deportation to the Panamanian mainland!)
With all this in mind, it’s more than obvious that if you long to visit a truly exclusive destination that’s both untouched by tourism and also rich with unrivaled traditional color and flavor, there’s no more perfect choice than the San Blas Islands of Panama!