Temperate, crystal-clear waters to swim in with palm-fringed, white-sand beaches to stroll. An archipelago of more than 300 unspoiled islands to explore. The painted face and bangled arm of a Kuna woman selling the intricate stitched artwork of her ancestors, representing an indigenous community that repelled colonization, banned international development and has held firmly to its traditional roots.
The San Blas Islands are living history, a different world from the remainder of the Caribbean cruising grounds.
Located along the Caribbean coast of northern Panama, the San Blas Islands stretch 100 miles between Colombia and the Gulf of San Blas. The majority are small, uninhabited islets and cays, and the 49 inhabited islands are generally occupied by no more than a family or two, living on land passed down through the generations. Subsistence fishing and coconut cultivation generate the main income, and the sale of uniquely layered fabric panels called molas is also a large part of the economy.
The islands had long been on my bucket list. Having lived there in the mid-1970s as a child, I heard my parents tell stories of crash landings in Kuna territory on a broken biplane, and of semi-permanent face markings painted down my mom’s nose. They’d sailed through long before the San Blas became a cruising destination. They were greeted by men in dugouts who offered fish, lobster and coconuts, and by women who displayed their molas.
I yearned for similar adventures as we laid the anchor down in front of the Swimming Pool, a popular anchorage in the Eastern Hollandes cays. We shared the anchorage with one other boat, which was a level of popularity I could accept. The water was a clear, transparent aqua blue. The tiny islet in front of us had one traditional, palm-built shack under a crowd of palm trees. Out on the water, a man sat in his wooden dugout, fishing off the edge of the reef. Mom, Dad, I thought, I walk in your footsteps.
I strung the hammock on the aft deck and eased myself in, set to soak up every morsel of this paradise. But then, while having a sip of cold rum, I spotted a yacht headed our way. Behind that yacht, another, and another beyond. Within a few hours, the anchorage turned into a crowded parking lot.
Just before sunset, a small dugout with a Kuna family slowly paddled toward us. I smiled, and so did the man. He asked in English for a $5 anchoring fee, shifting my expectations about being able to experience the San Blas as my parents had.
Still, there was plenty to like. Inside the archipelago, there is a concentrated group of islands where most of the cruising happens. Follow The Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus, and you will enjoy a social hub; tread out of that area, and you can experience a more remote San Blas where time continues to stand still.
We were rarely alone as we sailed clockwise. Charter and cruising yachts filled the anchorages throughout the archipelago, and local tour operators ran day trips for tourists to the inshore islands. Panamanians in skiffs offered a range of provisions, from fruits and vegetables to beer and wine.
And yet, while tourism has come to the San Blas, it is still low-key. The Kuna have refused any large-scale development, and the options for overnight accommodations are rustic, some as basic as a hammock strung between palm trees. We had the unique opportunity to spend an afternoon with the former president of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, when his helicopter landed on a small, uninhabited cay near our anchorage in the Eastern Hollandes. Martinelli discussed his campaign to turn the San Blas into “the next Maldives.”
The Kuna, however, hold sovereign independence throughout the islands, and have rejected attempts to develop resorts. While many of the dugouts do have outboards these days, there also are square-rigged wooden canoes that continue to sail throughout the islands. Kuna men still row up with their bilges full of fish and coconuts, often accompanied by wives and children selling molas for $40. The intricate stitch-work made me appreciate how much the Kuna traditions are a part of everyday life, made in between rearing children and household demands. Each piece, about 3 feet square, can take a month or two to complete. And while men have moved toward modern clothing, most women dress traditionally, in a cotton wrap and mola blouse, with a colorful headscarf to deter evil spirits. Their wrists and ankles are wrapped in multicolored beads; married women still wear the traditional gold nose ring and thin black line painted down their nose.
One Kuna family invited us to spend the evening at their home. The head of the household stoked the embers of the fire pit, and we were offered a chance to help cook. Their three huts, all made of palm fronds laid over wooden frames and set on a sand floor, each had hammocks strung up inside for sleeping. The kitchen was inside a lean-to, and the sink was open-air. I didn’t leave with a piercing or painted strip down my nose, as my mother did years ago, but I left generously wrapped in beaded wrist and ankle bracelets. Authenticity is still inherent in the culture, 40 years on.
Nowhere in the Atlantic have I felt so close to an island nation with such a true sense of identity. The Kuna culture is completely different from the rest of the Caribbean, where islands are quite developed. This is more like the Pacific, where cruisers are guests in a community that is largely unchanged.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2022 issue.