My experience with Kunas in San Blas, Panama
My trip to the archipelagos of San Blas happened very suddenly. A couchsurfing friend of mine wanted to spend New Year’s Eve on the archipelagos. Since I’ve never been in that area of Panama, I told her without thinking twice that I want to go. Celebrating the arrival of 2010 in a place like San Blas without too much planning did sound like a funny crazy thing to do.
We coordinated to leave December 31st and come back on January 4th. We waited in Plaza Cinco de Mayo, in Panama City, for a jeep to pick us up at 2 pm and then we departed. Among the passengers who traveled with us there was a kuna family, who made the trip more interesting. During the trip, this family shared with us bunch of stories about everything related to the kuna culture. Very educative the conversation. We haven’t arrived to the islands yet and we felt like we were in San Blas already.
After two and a half hours we reached the port of Cartí, an area where you take the boats to get to the islands. Once there, we had to wait for quite a while for the boat.
Normally you have to pay the boat transportation to any island you wish to go, but since we befriended this kuna family who travel with us from Panama, we paid nothing. Lucky we 😀
After 45 minutes on the boat, we made it to Nalunega, home to San Blas Hotel, the oldest hotel in the Kuna Yala region. For those who don’t know, almost everybody call the area as San Blas, even though the previous name of the region was Kuna Yala.
Do you think we stayed at the hotel? No! Given the fact we liked this family too much since the beginning, they let us stayed in their house for free (thank you very much!). We were so tired after the trip that we literally received 2010 sleeping, and in my case, I could barely hear the fireworks from the sailboats anchored near Nalunega.
On the morning of January the 1st, my friend and I woke up very early to have some breakfast with the kunas, then we walked around the island a little, and then we took our backpacks to visit the next island: Wichub Huala. This is another island located between Nalunega and El Porvenir, Kuna Yala’s capital. O
n most of the inhabited islands, specially Wichub Huala, we saw families (some of them live with more than ten members) living all cramped in wooden and dirty houses, where the ventilation is almost non-existent and there’s trash and dust in most areas of their places. It’s curious to see how happy and pleasant they look despite their living conditions inside those houses.
After Wichub Huala, we took a boat to El Porvenir. This island, comparing with the others we visited, is a little bigger and cosier. In front of a little hotel (the only one of the island), there is a restaurant, a little museum and a landing strip for light aircrafts. Once there, we got our room, left all our stuff there and we prepared to visit the beach of Isla Perro (or Dog Island), another island kind of far from our location. The trip to that beach is half an hour and it’s so windy, so be prepared to get wet even before you hit the beach.
On that beach you have to pay $1 for swimming. It sounds absurd but most kunas put price to usual free activities on their territories in order to make a living. But guess what? That $1 was more than worth it because the beautiness of Isla Perro beach is almost unique. After several hours of swimming we decided to go back to El Porvenir to have lunch after an exhausting morning at the beach.
At 4 pm we took a boat back to Wichub-Huala to celebrate the first day of the year with the rest of the kunas. These people have a strange way to celebrate New Year. In the middle of the island there’s a big wooden hut where most of the kunas stayed, while they got drunk badly, singing and suddenly screaming for no reason.
I know that kuna people are very intense when it comes to celebrations, so despite how awkward they look it’s a cultural thing that nobody should criticize. We spent the rest of the evening and night inside that gabble of drink and booze, we departed to our hotel to rest for the day. The following two days we divided our time between Nalunega, El Porvenir and we repeated the previous experience on Wichub-Huala, although not too late cause the next day we had to leave early to Panama City.
With my story I hope you get a good glimpse of San Blas and what to expect once you’re there. This place is something very difficult to repeat for most people, so when you visit San Blas try to take maximum advantage of every minute, so you can say then that in the end it was really worth it.
This is a post written by my friend Osvaldo Lezcano, a backpacker from Panama who speaks about his adventures and travel advices on his Spanish blog www.viajesycosasasi.com.