The Comarca Kuna Yala — or the San Blas Islands as Panamanians call the islands — might not be as well known as other Caribbean destinations, but these 365 islands offer some of Latin America’s most pristine and unspoilt beaches. The water here is crystal clear and multi-colored, and palm trees and white sand beaches only add to the allure. Plus, visitors will have the opportunity to interact with the Kuna, Panama’s most traditional indigenous group, who bravely cling to their customs in an ever-globalizing world. The Kuna Yala Islands may technically be part of Panama, but the Kuna have an autonomous local government and make their own rules with little interference from the national government in Panama City.
Located off Panama’s Atlantic Coast and bordering Colombia, accommodations on the San Blas Islands tend to be rustic, though pickier travelers can head to the Coral Lodge (www.corallodge.com), a high-end eco-resort located just outside the Kuna Yala Comarca. Almost all accommodations include three meals a day, excursions to nearby beaches and islands and snorkeling gear. Travelers can expect to pay between $20 to $150 per person per night, depending on the type of accommodation. However, keep in mind that $20 a night won’t get you much more than a tiny beach-side cabana with a sand floor and shared bathroom. And several dozen guitar-playing, pot-smoking, beer-drinking backpackers.
Camping is an option on most islands and islets, as long as you ask the owner’s permission and pay a $1 tax. Most islands have at least one or two families that serve as care-takers, but aside from talking to other campers and day visitors, travelers should know that they will be confined to an island the size of a football field with no nightlife, restaurants or shop — although your Kuna hosts will probably sell cold beer and rum. And there is also the option of having your meals delivered by boat. However, if lying in hammock watching the sunset is your idea of a good time (and who’s isn’t it?), then this a perfectly acceptable option.
Personally, my favorite hotel on the Comarca is the Kuna-Niskua Lodge (www.kuna-niskua.com). There’s no A/C and you shouldn’t expect 400 count sheets — or even a great mattress for that matter — but rooms and bathrooms are clean and well-maintained. Orlando, the friendly manager, is informative and talkative, and does his best to make sure his guests are comfortable. Plus, his pal Alberto will be more than happy to take you fishing all day long for the price of fuel, as long as he’s not busy with other guests. Orlando and Alberto take guests out to daily excursions like Isla Perro, with it’s impressive coral reefs, colorful schools fish and offshore sunken ship. Diving isn’t allowed anywhere on the Comarca, so visitors will have to make do with snorkeling.
But my favorite thing about the Kuna-Niskua Hotel is that it’s situated on Wishub-Wala, an authentic Kuna Island Village. Many of the Islands’ lodging options are located on sparsely populated islands that allow little interaction with Kuna families, but Isla Wishub-Wala is home to some 50 families living in traditional thatched-roof huts, women who wear colorful, traditional, hand-embroidered clothing andchildren who still speak their native Kuna language, making it one of the most unique lodging experiences you’re likely to experience.
There are two options to get to the Kuna Islands. The first option is to take a 20-minute flight from Panama City, which should cost you $120-$150 round trip. Air Panama (www.flyairpanama.com) and Aeroperlas (www.aeroperlas.com) both offer flights several times a week. If you are somewhat more adventurous traveler, you can hire a driver to take you down for $50 roundtrip in a 4-wheel drive. Your driver will probably drop you off at the Porvenir, where a cayuco (wooden canoe) will most likely be waiting to take you to your hotel. Be forewarned that choosing to drive down means you’ll have to cross a sometimes flooded river and you may have to make half the journey down to the islands in a motorized cayuco. I’ve made the journey both way and prefer going by land — there’s nothing like an impromptu jungle river cruise.