Guna Yala (a.k.a. San Blas)
by Rangle on February 23, 2012
As I laid sprawled out on the white sand beach listening to the waves gently crash on the shoreline, I was having trouble believing that this tropical island paradise I’d arrived at could truly exist in the same world I’d grown to know. Was it a dream? A self-induced hallucination of some sort (not completely implausible)? No, this was Guna Yala, one of the many gems that Panama has to offer and certainly one of the most remote.
Our journey started at 5am at Hostel by Luis in Panama City. It was through this hostel that we were able to plan our travel and accommodations to the islands. Of course you can’t expect your ride to pick you up on time; however, any frustrations are quickly dismissed by accepting the fact that you’re in Central America and by realizing it is far too early to care. Don’t be expecting much of a sleep on the ride either. This is a bumpy roller coaster of a ride, with certain areas of road completely washed out. We even passed by a small village and witnessed riot police firing flares at a small group, the nature of the conflict was never learned. It is also important to have your passport ready as there are a couple of military checkpoints you will need to pass through. After a few hours of travel you are in the Guna Yala region and the road will come to an end at a river. From here the Guna natives will take you to your selected Caribbean Island by motor boat. We had selected to stay at the island with Ina and Robinson cabins (islands are more commonly referred to by the cabin owners rather than the actual names) and the ride took about an hour; just enough time to get completely soaked depending on what side of the boat you’re on.
Now the description so far may not sound ideal to many people. To the true hearted backpacker, however, it is a journey that continuously builds on the guarantee that you are escaping for a unique experience, to an area void of 5-star hotel chains, fast food restaurants and other cultural pollution. No matter your thoughts of the journey, your arrival to the islands will no doubt make your jaw drop. Pristine beaches, palm tree backdrops, crystal blue waters, authentic wood cabins and a native people that will welcome you as their own. Cabins are all built out of natural wood and palm leaves. Your floor is the sand of the beach and the breeze will pass right through the walls. There are several cabins for travellers to rent along with many inhabited by the local Guna natives. The children are always fun to watch, the men are welcoming and the women catch your eye with their beautiful native dress of colourful beads, garments and Molas. I was able to walk the entire perimeter of the island in under twenty minutes, and despite the other people on the island, you can’t help but be in awe of the remoteness.
Day trips are available to various other islands, one of which we were able to swim through a nearby shipwreck. Another took us to one of the ‘hub islands’ where the Guna have settled in higher density, built a school and even begun to employ solar panels for electricity. This is a truly remarkable experience which will give an amazing insight into a completely unique and refreshing way of life. Just be aware that pictures are typically frowned upon and you will likely be asked for money if you can’t resist taking the shot. Also be mindful of the fact that you are here to take in and experience their culture, not to proliferate yours.
All in all, a visit to Guna Yala is an amazing life experience. That being said, it is not always for the faint of heart. Though all of your meals will be provided, don’t expect to order from a menu or to have a predictable eating schedule. Most islands will serve what was caught from the ocean that day and you will wait until enough has been caught. This may result in a delicious lobster or crab. It may also result in a pan-fried tuna head that leaves you wishing you had at least brought some seasoning. During one meal, I actually feasted on delicious crab legs while a travel buddy had to choke down a brown fish slurry. We could only deduce that this was the leftover from lunch fed into a grinder. Electricity is limited to temporary dinner lights, which are powered by a generator. Toilets are perched on concrete pads and require you to pour buckets of water into the bowl to send your waste to sea. All this being said; if all of the creature comforts of home were available, this place would quickly begin losing its charm and authenticity. If you have wanderlust, a desire for adventure and a little bit of a rugged edge, Guna Yala is definitely worth the trek.