Unplugged Paradise: Panama’s San Blas Islands

25/11/2020

 

small tropical island with palm trees - summer vacation paradisehanohiki

 

Panama of course has no shortage of islands, ravishing beaches, and secluded paradises. But this archipelago of around 365 islands and cays (barely 50 of them inhabited) spread over some 300 square kilometres (100 sq. miles) off the country’s Caribbean coast, is a particular standout for its pristine environment.

That’s in large part because they’re part of the province of Guna Yala, autonomously ruled by the Guna people who predate the invasion of this region by the Spanish in 1513 – meaning that the locals control the pace, keeping out overdevelopment and mass tourism, with what tourism there is kept sustainable and eco-friendly (all electricity, for example, being solar-powered). That, the lack of hurricanes, and the opportunity to experience the singular culture of the Guna, makes the San Blas Islands – a half-hour flight from Panama City and three to four hours by road and ferry – a truly extraordinary destination that more than a few seasoned travellers declare is their favourite in Central America.

 

Relaxing on calm islandSimon Dannhauer

 

Most visitors enter the archipelago via El Porvenir, its capital (and eponymous main island, in the west of the archipelago, home to a hotel, a number of beaches, and water-taxi/sailing-ship connections to other islands such as Cayos los Grillos, Cayos Holandeses, Cayos Limones, Isla Perro, Nalunega, Sindup, Ukuptupu, and Wichubwala.

 

Hotel sign on a tropical island with simple bamboo huts covered with palm leaves.FrankvandenBergh

 

Some visitors come on day trips from Panama City, but those interested in overnighting should be aware that the often palm-thatched cabins and guesthouses on these islands (many available for less than 50 USD per night, including meals) are reasonably comfortable but also fairly basic – for example, lacking air conditioning, electricity, perhaps even hot water, and of course Internet; there is, however, some handheld-device charging as well as mobile phone coverage if you absolutely must.

 

On nice sunny day, Senior woman enjoying sea water on shipwreck close to Island Isla de Perro on San Blas archipelagos in Caribbean See, Panama. In background is blue sky, turquoise water and another island.DavorLovincic

 

Now, for many this is part of the allure – to truly “unplug” from their hyperconnected, perhaps hectic daily lives and indulge in a slower, more simple life for a short while. Kick back in a hammock under the rustling palms, sipping from a fresh coconut – tot of local rum optional – then going out into the vibrant turquoise waters of the Caribbean to soak, swim, sail, kayak, and snorkel (scuba diving is prohibited). Maybe sunbathe, collect shells, or play volleyball on the powdery white sands. In short, the simple pleasures of a castaway island. Candlelit evenings can be spend enjoying rum drinks at a local bar and chatting to like-minded visitors from all over the world.

 

Panama City, Panama - February 12, 2017: Kuna Yala woman in very traditionally colorful clothes selling souvenirs from her kiosks, mostly for tourists. The kiosk is in Casco Viejo an old part of Panama City. Kuna Yala tribe belongs to indigenous people living on san Blas islands and their handcraft is most famous in Panama.

DavorLovincic

 

Speaking of things social, it’s not just the breathtaking tropical beauty of these islands, but a chance to experience the singular culture and lifestyle of the Guna (aka Kuna) people, estimated to number around 50,000 on these islands (thousands more live on the nearby mainland coast) and notable for their extremely short stature – 1.5 metres (4’9″) would not be an usual height for them.

 

San Blas Islands, Panama - June 3, 2005: Kuna indian sitting in his canoe on the sea tries to sell his fish on a weekday.robivamos

 

Though a good number of them work in the tourism industry, many still engaging in age-old pursuits of their traditional matriarchal society, with men fishing and lobster diving from palm-tree canoes and women creating colourful and intricate beaded jewellery and cotton molas, brightly hued, embroidered blankets, wall hangings, and accessories that are a Guna hallmark – which of course they are happy to sell, and certainly make fantastic souvenirs.

 

Este plato de langosta con patacones y arroz después de un día de playa, a un bajo costo es de las mejores cosas que te puede pasar en San BlasSergio Espino

 

As for eating, if you love seafood, you’ll be delighted with the freshness and quality of the grilled or fried fish (especially red snapper) and lobster, served in generous portions and usually accompanied by coconut-flavoured rice, and/or perhaps some fried plantains and salad.

 

Senior man sunbathing in hammock tied on palm tree on the sandy beach. Sun Blash islands, Panama.helovi

 

By the way, those who’ve traveled here recommend you bring along some of your own supplies, such as snacks, insect repellent, flashlights, soap, shampoo, toilet paper, and maybe even bedsheets and towels (those supplied here may be of dubious quality) – all of which can be bought inexpensively in Panama City, if you like. Then of course there’s entertainment – no electronics, obviously, but on the order of books and perhaps a musical instrument such as a guitar, if you play one. Keep in mind, too, that the locals are extremely laid back and unrushed, so don’t expect service to be “hop-to” – for many of us, in fact, that’s precisely part of the charm of a holiday here.

 

Tropical fish and coral on shallow seabed with an eagle ray close to sea surfaceDamocean

 

The best time of year to visit the San Blas is during Central America‘s dry season,  December through April – meaning of course you’re far less likely to be rained out as you enjoy your idyll in paradise. Because this truly still is a kind of paradise, where you can leave the stresses of the modern developed world behind for a spell and reconnect with nature, yourself, your loved ones, and a simpler life – sure to be a tonic you’ll cherish for the rest of your days.

More info: SanBlas-Islands.com, PanamaSanBlasTours.com.

 

And check out Iberia’s amazing fares – at the moment from just 465 euros!!