Among my favorite places in the new world tropics is the San Blas Archipelago on the Caribbean coast of Panama. The San Blas is part of the Kuna Yala, a semi-autonomous province of the country under the management of the indigenous Kuna people. The Kuna live primarily in tight communities packed onto tiny, individual islands in the San Blas. Hundreds of people will make their homes on islands of no more than a few acres, commuting out to fish in the surrounding waters or manage small farm plots on the mainland.
The Kuna are remarkable, and I lack the knowledge to dive as deeply into their rich culture as they deserve. Suffice to say, the Kuna are largely traditional, holding to their lifestyles in the face of a modernizing world. But the Kuna live on only a few of the nearly 400 islands in the San Blas. There are hundreds of islands that seem torn from story-books: bright sand beaches, and a cluster of palms surrounded by a warm, clear, ocean.
Tourist infrastructure is extremely limited, with only a few very rustic hotels scattered about in Kuna communities or on isolated islands. The few travelers that make the trip and stay in these hotels are severely limited in their ability to wander off the hotel’s island. But there is one way to escape the limitations, and its the way that I’ve visited the San Blas on both my previous journeys: a chartered sail boat.
There aren’t too many sail boats offering charters, just a handful varying in size from 30 to 60 feet (or 2 to 8 passengers). Some are more comfortable than others, and the price of the charter varies accordingly, but there is no better way to experience the San Blas.
A brief flight in small plane carried us across the isthmus from Panama City to a short airstrip on the Caribbean shore. Scattered islands and blue sea spread out to the north and the rainforest covered mountains of the mainland rise to the south. There, the boat’s captain and owner met my group and I, and shuttled us quickly in a small zodiac inflatable out to the long, blue sailboat.
Within minutes of our arrival, those who wished were yanking on lines to raise the main sail and we were under way, sailing west along the coast. For the next four days we snorkeled over coral reefs, explored rainforest rivers in dugout canoes with local Kuna guides, and watched the great white sails of the boat fill with wind as we raced across the channels between islands.
The boats are not four-star resorts, the quarters are small (even tiny), but the food is good (often locally harvested lobsters and fish, and fresh-baked Kuna bread), and the views are constantly changing and always beautiful.
The term “tropical paradise” has become cliche, but it’s hard not to think of the San Blas as pretty darn close. You need only wander barefoot around the perimeter of a tiny, empty island to believe it. It may not be for everyone, (and for that I’m grateful) but if you’ve got a sense of adventure, and willingness to explore, there are few places in the world like the islands of the San Blas.
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David Shaw is freelance writer, photographer, biologist, and guide living in Fairbanks, Alaska. He is most happy when paddling Alaska’s wilderness rivers in the summer, or wandering tropical rain forests with his binoculars during the northern winter. Visit his website and read his blog here: www.wildimagephoto.com and follow him on Facebook.