Whether lazing on picture-perfect beaches or gatecrashing weddings, it’s hats off to Panama’s San Blas Islands, writes Vicky Baker.
I didn’t mean to a crash a wedding on my Caribbean holiday. If I had, I might have honed my technique. The Vince Vaughan movie tells you that the proper way to go about this is to dress like you belong and say you’re a distant relation. Turning up straight from the beach in flip flops and shorts is surely not ideal. Being the only non-indigenous person on the island doesn’t do much for the ‘long lost cousin’ guise either.
It was my tour guide, Toyo, who had heard about the local marriage ceremony and suggested we check it out. “Don’t worry. It’s not formal,” he assured. Toyo hadn’t been wrong yet during our trip around his homeland – the Kuna Yala islands, on Panama’s Caribbean coast – and it seemed
he wasn’t going to start now.
Sure enough, we arrived at the thatched hut to find an exceedingly casual affair. The family’s washing was still hanging from the rafters and the catering involved simply helping yourself to grandma’s bread rolls. The best part, however, had to be the ceremony itself, which involved simply throwing the 16-year-old bride and groom into a hammock four times, then declaring them man and wife.
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.
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 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.
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 opposite). 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’s 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.