Islands, beaches and an indigenous culture that no other destination in the world has
The semi-autonomous region inhabited by the Guna indigenous ethnic group was called San Blas until 1998 when it was named Kuna Yala until 2010. Currently is called Guna Yala, which means “Guna Land” or “Guna Mountain” (the G still sounds like the K).
Each inhabitant has been well aware of the tourism potential of their islands for a long time, which is why they welcome nearly 100,000 tourists a year and have developed their own regulations to carry out a sustainable tourism model that protects the identity of the local population.
It is important for you to know that when you visit this natural paradise you must pay a fee, and show required documents such as identification card (locals), valid passport if you are a foreigner and the tourist Visa if it is needed.
Dutch Keys (Cayos Holandeses)
O “Gaimau”, a guna name that comes from the term Gaya (cane), is considered the best place to visit virgin islands and watch corals full of life and color. It is located on the north side of El Porvenir, and at one hour – boat trip – from the port. In this part of the archipelago the turquoise color and the sky seem to join on the horizon. Starfish, fish and marine life abound in its waters.
The Dutch Keys are made up of a dozen white sand islands and numerous palm trees that are recommended for swimming, diving and snorkeling. These are the furthest islands in the entire archipelago, so there are no hotels. Another activity is taking a tour on a panga (local type of boat), especially to the natural pool of the Keys.
As it is a 100% natural remote place, it is require for you to bring everything needed to spend the night under the stars. In this sector, the sighting of dolphins in the surrounding waters is very frequent, and you will also be able to watch impressive corals in that area.
An island for every day of the year, that is the Guna Yala Archipelago, a unique set of small islands located off the north coast of the isthmus, east of the Panama Canal. However, only about 80 % are inhabited by the Gunas, the rest live on mainland.
The most inhabited island is called Gardi Sugdub whose name means “Crab Island” and is at one kilometer from the coast. Between 1,500 and 2,000 thousand people live there. The town has a series of paths that seem to be part of a labyrinth, where you will find an elementary school, a medical clinic and some commercial stores where you can buy basic necessities. The houses are made with palm leaves and others even have concrete blocks.
This aquatic world captivates you with the very different way of living, away from modern society. They recently inaugurated the pedestrian bridge that connects Mulatupu Island (with more than a thousand inhabitants) with mainland. They also connected San Ignacio de Tupile Island with Miria through this same type of infrastructure.
Worldwide, it has been recorded how the level of the seas has been rising due to global warming. The Guna Yala archipelago located offshore in the Atlantic, is an area where some islands are being progressively threatened by this change. Experts forecast that in about fifty years from now, it is possible that some of the islands will be more affected by the large amount of rain, increased the number of hurricanes and high tides, making some Gunas move to the mainland.
One of the physical vulnerabilities of Guna Yala is in the low relief of the islands and islets of coral origin, which makes flooding due to the rise in sea level every year. Gunas try to correct this damage by making fillers with rock, earth and coral.
For this reason, the message of this indigenous group to all tourists is to conserve natural resources and fauna in order to preserve the natural resources and beauty of it that exists around the world as much as possible.
Simple and Relaxed Life
Gunas have a simple way of living in a community of families that support each other. In this way they preserve their beliefs, culture, customs and identity. They meet at the House of Congress at night where they gather around with the highest authority, the Saila, to talk about how to solve a difference or if they have to do community work collectively.
The Gunas celebrate some parties that do not have exact dates such as “La Chicha Fuerte”, or when the girl develops and a day is chosen for the party, as well as the celebration of the moment in which it is announced that the girl is ready to dress up. The Guna Revolution is also celebrated, but only in the places where the events took place.
For the moment, their lifestyle has remained the same despite the pandemic. Only the tourist activity has changed a bit. Now more women are looking to work as assistants or waitresses in the cabins, changes that come with the new times. Of course, young people are now more interested in working in tourism. Before, they were more dedicated to working in agriculture. Children are encouraged to play outside their homes, especially in the sea so that they do not cling to technology.
How to get there?
By air, you have to contact the Albrook Airport for internal flights to the region. Flights are daytime only. If you opt for the land route, there are several operators that will take you in 4 x 4 cars to the region through the 40 kilometers road to Llano Gardi.
Upon reaching Nusagandi, you have to pay a fee for the Nargana Protected Area. There are three ports on the coast: Puerto Barsuggun, Puerto Niga Kantule and Puerto Dibin, where there are parking spaces. From the ports you will take a boat to move to the island or places you want to visit and stay.
Things to Do
Go on a “tour” to explore the tropical jungle, rivers, mangroves, waterfalls and the community of Ukupseni (Playon Chico), at the Yandup family lodge. Information: www.gunayala.com
Take a walk through “The Route of the Paper House” (a very famous spanish tv streaming program) through Pelican Island. This was the venue where two characters from the series travel to Guna Yala for a romantic escape. You will be able to swim and snorkel in the same aquatic location of the filming. IG: @gunayalaexplorer
Learn that is better to visit Guna Yala between May and November, which is the best time with the best weather. You can go during other months of the year, but the right weather cannot be guaranteed to enjoy it to the fullest and sometimes to be able to cross by boat to the islands.
Visit three islands in three days and sleep on a different island each day. This tour is recommended if you like to vary the experience in this paradisiacal archipelago. You can visit Ina Island to meet locals, walk in the jungle and reach a waterfall on Aroma Island, even kayak in Perro Chico and Perro Grande where there is a sunken ship. Information: www.panamasanblastours.com
Relax on a sailboat tour. You can choose a package to ride a sailboat for 3 or 4 days, to later return to the port of Carti. Information: www.sanblasadventure.com