The New York Times once said Kuna Yala – also known as San Blas – is one of the few holiday destinations that an anthropologist and a beach bum can agree on. True enough, with ancient tribal culture mixing with translucent Caribbean seas and coral reefs, you can’t really go wrong.
The myth is that the expansive archipelago consists of 365 islands, one for every day of the year. The real number is thought to be greater, about 400, but that depends if you count those consisting of nothing more than a palm tree on a patch of white sand. Seeing as they make the best photos, you probably should.
Meet the locals
One of the reasons development here has been kept to a minimum is because Kuna people rule their own roost having gained semi-autonomous status after uprising against the state in 1925. Proud and protective of their heritage, they now manage their own tourism industry and refuse to sell any land to outsiders.
Although there is a constant threat from creeping westernisation, Kuna traditions remain very much alive. Some of the local outfits that could come straight out of the pages of National Geographic. The women’s traditional dress – brightly coloured and hand embroidered – is simply stunning. Even though they aren’t worn for the benefit of tourists, some Kuna see no harm in making the most of the foreigners’ curiosity by charging one dollar for a photo opportunity. Be sure to ask before you start snapping.
By boat or overland
To arrive at the islands, most visitors take the 30-minute flight from the capital to the island of El Porvenir. Others arrive by boat, from Panamanian mainland or nearby Colombia (see box). A few, like me, take the overland route from the capital, which is the way the Kuna travel. The track has been recently paved meaning it less spine-joltingly bumpy.
There’s also said to be a point on the route when you can see the Caribbean sea on one side and the Pacific on the other; either that’s a myth or I was looking the wrong way.
Wherever you first arrive, your stay will soon become all about island-hopping. Most people head to the uninhabited islands for the true ‘Robinson Crusoe’ getaway (and the most popular area for backpackers is, in fact, called Islas Robinson), yet it’s well worth combining this with a visit to a Kuna village.
The island of Tigre – where Toyo and I attend the wedding – has a good balance of tradition and low-key tourism.
Fascinatingly the island is run on socialist principles. When a school is built, everyone has to take part: the men dig the foundations, the women transport the rubble. If one of them decides they’d prefer to move to the mainland to find a job, they are expected to bring back a share of their earnings. Similarly, although tourists are welcome, they must stay in community-built huts so all the proceeds from their visit can be shared.
Over the next few days I find myself moving from island to island in various dugout canoes. I get lucky when I happen upon the inter-island congress meeting, where all the local chiefs have converged to discuss a range of issues, including the protection of their land and culture. The next day, I catch my ride onwards via boat that delivers the islands’ supply of fizzy drinks.
Travelling to some of the least-visited islands in Kuna Yala involves improvisation and a willingness to adapt to limited infrastructure. You can’t be guaranteed to catch a wedding or a soda-delivery boat, but it’s the unpredictable nature of travelling in these parts that is worth embracing. As I spend my final night in a Kuna family’s hammock, falling asleep to the sound of lapping waves, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Panama City nightlife
When in Panama City, you’ll hear a lot about infamous nightlife strip Calle Uruguay. It’s bright, brash and fun, but for something a little more artsy and familiar, head to the rougher-round-the-edges neighbourhood of Casco Viejo. Here you’ll find La Casona, a great live music venue which makes its home in rundown colonial properties before the developers move in. For this reason, it tends to up sticks from time to time, so be sure to check the current address at enlacasona.com.
Sail to Colombia
One of the hottest tickets among backpackers in Latin America has to be the trip from Kuna Yala to the historic walled port of Caragena, Colombia. Most hostels in Panama City will be able to point you in the right direction. Details have to be arranged with your captain, but a five-day trip typically costs from £240, including all meals, but not soft drinks or alcohol.
Trips are rarely booked in advance, and sometimes demand outweighs supply, so be prepared to be patient and have a fallback plan. Bring your sea legs, because it can get choppy and most passengers feel sickness at some point. For up-to-date advice, contact Casa Viena in Cartagena (casaviena.com) and Luna’s Castle in Panama City (lunascastlehostel.com).
Find a homestay
Not sure where to head for a homestay? William Friar, author of the latest Moon Handbooks Guide to Panama, offers some advice:
“The area that is easiest to get to and best-equipped to deal with visitors is on the western end of the archipelago, which is also the most modern and most exposed to tourism.
“Slightly east of that area is Islas Robinson, which have the cheapest places but are mainly uninhabited except for backpacker huts. The most traditional places are farther east, but backpackers will probably just have to head out there themselves and see about finding a place to stay when they arrive.”
WHEN TO GO: High season (and dry season) in Panama is mid-December to mid-April.
GETTING THERE: Flights to Panama take around 14 hours. There are no direct routes, so fly via Europe or the US with Iberia, KLM, Delta or American Airlines. Fly from Panama City to Kuna Yala with Aeroperlas (+506 315 7500; aeroperlas.com) and Air Panama (+507 316 9000; flyairpanam.com).
GETTING AROUND: Hop between the islands in dug-out canoes.
VISAS: Aussies, Kiwis and Saffas don’t need a visa to visit Panama.
CURRENCY: US dollars. 1 GBP = $1.60.
LANGUAGE: Spanish and Kuna.
GOING OUT: A beer costs US75c to $1.50.
ACCOMMODATION: From £3 for a dorm and £15 for a private room.
GET MORE INFO: visitpanama.com.
» Vicky Baker’s guide Eustorgio ‘Toyo’ Gomez can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.