The Kuna People
More than 300 islands constitute the archipelago, but only 36 of them are inhabited. In each island, the only people who live there are the members of the local family. For the days you will stay there, you will share the island with them, and they will fish your food and prepare it for you. They will also take you by boat wherever you want to. At the first sight they are a bit serious and introverts, but in my theory, it is just a facade shyness, with day and time to end. After they get used to you, it is possible to get a smile from one or two of them, and after a few days, get ready to listen to many stories. The Kuna Yala have resisted Spanish assimilation and have maintained their native language, but it is still possible to communicate with them in Spanish and among the younger ones there are English-speaking individuals. Curious thing: you can see a very controversial symbol in the Kuna flags: the swastika. This was adopted in 1925 as the flag of the Kuna revolution when a peace agreement was signed with Panama, and, being a very old symbol, has no relation with the Nazis.
Choosing the Island
For my 3 days stay, I chose Isla Franklin, or, to use its indigenous name, Tuba Senika. Choosing the island is the first important step in your planning. It must be understood that, for the most part, the islands are tiny and seem to have been designed by some kid cartoonist, with only a heap of white sand and a solitary palm tree. Despite its small size, many of them are shared among 2 or 3 families. This means that the facilities can become somewhat confusing and restricted. I would recommend you search first and ask for directions at your hotel in Panama City. Although Tuba Senika was shared by 2 families, I found the best references about them and, in fact, I was extremely happy with the choice.
The price is modest, ideal for backpackers who travel on a tight budget. It costs around $ 25 per person for the night in a four-bed dormitory or $ 75 for a private double cabana. The accommodation is in thatched huts with a wooden structure. The floor is an extension of the beach: white and soft sand. You need to shower yourself with the sea water (which comes from a pipe over your head, but it is still sea water) and there is no electricity available to guests, except for the illumination. Meals are served in the morning, afternoon and evening, and are announced with the call of a shell turned into a bugle. Some of the islands have electricity already, although limited, and sell cold drinks and snacks, including Isla Franklin. However, it is extremely advisable to bring your own water and snacks.
How to Get There
Like any well-preserved paradise, access is not simple at all. Leaving Panama City, it takes almost three hours by 4×4 amidst hills, woods, and streams. It looks nice, but, at some point, you get aware of the presence of carnivorous insects and get more than eager to arrive at the islands as soon as possible. It´s not a pleasure anymore. Be ready for getting a bit sick when crossing the hills, because it´s just like you were on a roller coaster. The torture session lasts for a short time, and, as soon as you get into the boat, the magic starts to happen. The color and texture of the water are incredible, going through transparent, white, blue, green and purple colors.
The arrival to the island itself is also special. The boat ride takes about 45 minutes and the water balance is mesmerizing. After a while, it is impossible to distinguish the sky from the sea, and what appeared to be a shapeless speck on the horizon, as it approaches, turns into a gleaming island in shades of green, yellow, and white. The real Caribbean experience, bare and raw. No resorts, no clubs, no pubs. Just people walking in the sand, relaxing under the cool shades of palm trees and diving in crystal clear water.
To get to San Blas, the most common way is from Panama City, with a transfer that your hotel will surely be able to organize. The journey begins very early, around 7 am, with a quick stop at the supermarket before hitting the road. It costs $ 60 to go to the port where the boats leave from and get back to Panama City (when you want to return to Panama City, you must tell the owner of your island one day in advance). It’s also necessary to pay $ 20 to enter in the Kuna Yala territory, $ 2 for port usage fee and $ 20 for the boat that takes you to the island (and back). An important tip is: leave your luggage in the hotel and take only the essential things for the life on the island. You will need almost nothing there.
The money used there (and throughout Panama) is the US dollar, even though the country has its own currency, called Balboa. You will receive change in Balboa coins, but never in notes. As the Balboa is tied and equal to the US dollar, the Panamanian government stopped producing Balboa banknotes.
The best time to visit San Blas is between October and March when the region is less rainy. I visited the archipelago in June, theoretically one of the worst months, and got only sunny days. In terms of temperature, there is nothing to worry about: it is hot all year round and the water temperature is between 27 and 28 ° C.
Time passes in a different way when you are there. Even the phenomena of nature seem altered. When least expected, a storm passes by forming mini cyclones and a thousand rainbows, without disturbing your sunbathing.
Lying in the sand, reading a book, floating on the warm waters, and watching the comings and goings of goldfish may seem more than one could wish for. Anyway, in one of those moments you can still climb on a wooden boat, and in the company of the Kunas, navigate to other islands, discover shipwrecks that are now dwelling in abundance of marine life and explore sandbanks that house dozens of starfish. Then just return and relax at sunset, listening to the sound of Kuna children’s laughter.