San Blas Islands Review


Ah, the beautiful San Blas islands, the stuff dreams are made of, white sand beaches, palm trees, rustic cabins by the sea, this is where you come to get away from it all. Can you imagine a few days at San Blas? This is a pristine habitat that is inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Indians that should be included in any visit to Panama.

The San Blas islands, or Kuna Yala, comprise of 365(one for everyday of the year they say) islands located along the Caribbean coats of Panama. Granted semi independence in 1925, the Kuna Yala is run by an elected Congresso.

Some 40 islands are inhabited and run by a chief who is a representative to the Congresso. The Kunas have managed to fiercely retain their culture for over 500 years, despite repression by first the colonial Spanish and then Panamanian governments. They have their own customs and laws and in many cases Panamanian law doesn’t apply in Kuna Yala.

Life in the islands is still very traditional, many live as their families have done for generations.  As a native people they have fought hard to maintain their dignity and culture and must be one of the most successful indigenous groups in the world for having done so. 

The advantages Of San Blas Island

The Kunas guard their San Blas islands by only allowing Kunas to own property within their areas. Foreign, or Panamanian , owned businesses are not allowed. Only some communities have running water and cooking is still often done over open fires.

Most people still sleep in hammocks in communal areas inside their huts. The women still wear brightly coloured clothing, wide skirts and multi-coloured beaded bracelets wrapped the whole length of their lower legs and arms. It`s not uncommon to see Kuna women dressed like this in all parts of Panama.

Tourism is allowed in San Blas only at their discretion and at times they maintain strict controls over it.   It’s very difficult for a non Kuna to live within the boundaries of San Blas and practically impossible for a Kuna and non Kuna to marry and remain in San Blas.  It’s also forbidden for outsiders to operate businesses within Kuna Yala.

Tradition And Legacy

Cayuko is a relic that the inhabitants excavated before the arrival of the Europeans to the island. The Guna tribe only wears a few clothes and adorns their bodies with some plants and leaves and adorns their bodies with various colors that really attract human attention.

When pushed and ordered to wear clothing by the minority, they copy this design into their mola which they wore before.

The Guna family with their traditions and their traditional dress, they also worship a god named Erragon, who they believe came and died only for the people and inhabitants of the island.

The settlers were driven out of Panama during the Spanish invasion, then Guna fled to another island some 378 kilometers away. But now their chieftain lives on an island called Acuadup which means stone island.

Most of the Guna tribe work as hunters and fishermen, many families living near the mainland in the village with their families will rotate the time they live on the island.

However on some islands children can also attend school and most men now speak Spanish although women will retain older traditions.

From 1679 to 1681, William Dampier began and ended his first voyages with privateers and pirates on these islands which he called “The Samballoes”, a meeting place for pirates, convenient for hiding and privacy.

San Blas Adventures The Bewitching

Sadly, the San Blas islands are also said to be the first in the world to disappear due to global warming, and it’s not hard to see why. Most are barely large enough to fit a shack and consist of nothing more than sand – on one island we could visibly see the effects of a recent storm which had moved the sand from one side of the island to the other and a great many palm trees were now stuck out at sea.

On islands where the Guna live, it is even more pronounced, and sea-walls have been constructed on mass to try and protect their homes. However, these can only be a temporary measure. It’s sad to think about; that an entire people will eventually be forced to move to the mainland – surrounded by the dense and impenetrable Darien Gap – and a way of life lost.

If anyone goes and sees this again, please let us know in the comments below, because in this case, I honestly could not at all recommend them. I still have my doubts about the villagers that ‘found’ a baby spider monkey on the mainland abandoned, which was about to die who then decided to bring it to their islands for tourists….

But besides some questionable approaches to wildlife, these islands are just perfect. Your day will be spent sunbathing, swimming in an ocean as warm as a bath, lying in hammocks, playing volleyball, reading, and just generally zoning out and getting back to nature.

Overall Recommendation San Blas Island Adventures

Whether you take San Blas Adventures from Colombia to Panama or Panama to Colombia, you are guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime. Exploring the Kuna Yala archipelago’s on a tiny boat, against raging sea, interacting with an unfamiliar indigenous culture, and sleeping in hammocks on palm-tree lined islands.

There is absolutely nothing mundane about exploring the San Blas islands from Colombia and its certainly not an experience you could have on a simple San Blas day tour from Panama City (And if you don’t need to make a round trip then this would be perfect for getting to the San Blas islands from Panama City).

From the price point, USD 450 + mandatory USD 30 jeep + water/drinks – let’s say USD 520 for a 3-night adventure – it’s a tough pill to swallow and could easily be made a bit better!

All San Blas Adventures would need to do in little things like including water, including the pre-night in Sapzurro, and make it a 4-day adventure (since you have no choice but to arrive a day earlier). They could also be considering offering an additional night on the island for USD 30, as we were told would be the case there was a weather delay.

The islands are likely nothing you are likely to have seen before and truly are as amazing as you would hope, if not better. San Blas Adventures currently offer’s the best way to experience the San Blas archipelago in all its glory. It is one of the most exciting ways you can cross from Colombia to Panama.