If you’re looking for an unforgettable travel experience in Panama, a visit to the San Blas islands is a must. These beautiful islands are located in the Caribbean Sea and offer visitors a chance to explore pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and lush jungles. What’s more, the Kuna Yala people who inhabit the San Blas islands are tremendously warm and welcoming, and their culture is fascinating to learn about, and a part of Panamanian cultural heritage. If you’re wondering how to visit San Blas as a tourist or a new resident of Panama, we’ll go over the details below. We’ll also let you know what you can do, see, and experience while there.
How to Visit San Blas, Panama
To visit San Blas, Panama you have a few options, but all of them need careful planning ahead of time. Most people visit San Blas via shuttle or private car service from Panama City, then by boat throughout the various islands. You can also fly from Panama City via Air Panama, which has flights that go directly to the San Blas islands. Keep in mind that San Blas is not as developed as other parts of Panama because of its remote location, so there are no ATM machines or banks on the island. You’ll need to bring enough cash with you to last your entire stay.
The main port of entrance to San Blas is the town of Porvenir. This town is on mainland Panama and can be reached by car, but it also has an airstrip for flights too. From there, it’s common to take chartered local boats to any of the inhabited islands within the archipelago. There are many great islands you can explore when you visit San Blas, but it is highly important that you plan your accommodations ahead of time, and do so with a reputable tour guide, planner, or business.
When planning your visit, it’s also important to be respectful of the Kuna people and their culture. The Kunas have lived on these islands for centuries and they consider their sacred land. As such, there are some things you should avoid doing while on the islands. For example, don’t wear revealing clothing or swimwear outside of designated areas, don’t take photos of people without permission, and don’t touch or disturb local wildlife, even for a fun picture.
The Indigenous Kuna People of San Blas
The San Blas islands are an indigenous, semi-autonomous island chain inhabited near-exclusively by the Kuna people. The Kuna have their own language, religion, and customs that they practice and maintain to this day. They are also one of the few indigenous peoples in Latin America who have managed to retain a high degree of political and cultural autonomy from the countries they live in. Their islands are free from commercial development, and therefore provide one of the most culturally authentic experiences for travelers anywhere on earth.
The Kuna Yala (or Guna Yala), as their territory is called, has been inhabited by the Kuna people for millennia. In fact, some estimates put the first arrival of the Kuna on these islands at around 3000 BC. The Kunas were originally nomadic people who traveled between various islands in canoes. However, over time they began to settle down on certain islands and establish villages. The Kuna village life revolves around the family unit and the concept of communal living.
While the Kuna people have always been peaceful, friendly people, they have had to fight for their autonomy and independence throughout history. In 1925, the Kuna revolted against Panamanian authorities in what is now known as the Cuna Revolution. This was in response to heavy taxation and forced labor that the Panamanian government was imposing on the Kunas. After a long and hard-fought battle, the Kunas finally won their independence, and today they maintain a high degree of self-governance within Panama.
San Blas Islands: A Cultural Treasure Trove
The San Blas islands are not only a beautiful natural paradise but also a cultural treasure trove. You will see traditional indigenous housing on every inhabited island and most likely stay in lodging built in that style. Local clothing is also very colorful and traditional, with women wearing brightly-colored dresses, and men wearing loincloths. There is very little variance in how people dress, particularly with females, so you can more or less expect to see all women wearing the same clothing, however with small design details that may set them apart.
The Kuna people are also great artisans, and their handiwork is on display everywhere you go on the islands. Molas are a type of textile art that the Kunas are particularly famous for. They are made by layering colorful fabrics and then sewing them together in intricate designs. You can find molas being sold all over San Blas, so be sure to pick up a few as souvenirs! Kunas are also master boat builders, particularly when it comes to canoes. Canoes are an essential part of the transportation between islands, as well as the primary source for fishing, which is a mainstay of the Kuna diet.
What to Do in San Blas
If you love beaches, crystal-clear and blue-hued water, tropical forestry, and a life without modern worries, San Blas is a paradise waiting to be discovered. In this sense, there is a lot to do and see while you visit San Blas. Go on a hike through the jungle, visit a Kuna village, go snorkeling or diving in the Coral Gardens, or just relax on one of the many pristine beaches. Food typically consists of fish, rice, and plantains, and it is often cooked outdoors, and served al fresco, providing an amazing island dining experience for guests.
One of the best things to do while you’re visiting San Blas is to learn about and experience the traditional Kuna lifestyle. This includes learning about their unique form of democracy, called a Consejo. The Consejo is made up of male elders from each village who make decisions based on consensus. Another interesting aspect of Kuna culture is their religion, which revolves around animism (the belief that everything has a spirit). Many tour companies offer cultural tours with local guides, as well as interactive lectures and visits to Kuna cultural heritage sites.
Whether you’re living in Panama or visiting Panama, the San Blas islands are a must-see destination that you should put on your list. To learn more about all of the wonderful cultures and places to relocate to Panama or visit Panama, contact us here now. We’d be glad to answer any questions you may have.