Photos and text by Meghan Stone
Las Islas de San Blas (The San Blas Islands) are situated in the Caribbean Sea off the east coast of Panama. Although their beauty rivals some of the most popular islands in the Caribbean, they aren’t your typical island paradise. There are about 378 islands in total, but only 49 of those are inhabited. You won’t find big resort hotels and piña coladas being sipped out of pineapples at San Blas. The islands are inhabited by the indigenous people of the region, a people called the Kuna.
I visited the islands in November of 2009. I was traveling from Panama to Colombia and wanted the best possible route. Driving or taking a bus was out of the question, since there is no easy way to travel by land through the Darien Gap (the swampy, undeveloped land that connects South America to Central America). Flying was a reasonable, but boring option. Then, while traveling through Colombia, I heard about small sail boats that made the trip and stopped along the way in the San Blas Islands. The journey lasted 7 days – 2 days of straight sailing, 4 days visiting the Islands, and 1 more day to finish the trip to Panama City. I knew this was the option for me.
As romantic as it sounds to be out on the open sea, the first two days of sailing left a little something to be desired. Looking out across the ocean and seeing nothing but the deep blue water made me feel a little bit like freaking out. But instead, I focused on not barfing off the side of the boat. When we arrived at the islands early the third morning, it was a welcomed site.
Only two or three families lived on the first small group of islands we visited. We anchored the boat and spent the day diving into the warm green water and swimming over to explore the islands. At night we feasted on fish and lobster caught by the people who live on the main island.
Next we headed to one of the principal islands where many families lived and the general store was located. The Kuna people own and govern the San Blas Islands. Although the islands are technically a part of Panama, the Panamanian government currently allows them to make their own laws and govern their land as they see fit. Each community has it’s own leader, called a Saila, but community decisions and problems are dealt with and voted on by all the members of the pueblo. It just so happened that there was a community meeting being held while we were there. We weren’t able to attend, of course, but it was fascinating to see how everyone came together to reach a decision on how to tackle a recent problem they were having.
The women of the island also sew and sell molas, colorful reverse appliqué fabric pieces that are sewn by hand. If you look closely at the photos of the women, you can see that two mola panels are sewn together to be worn around the waist over a blouse and skirt. You can read more about molas here and see more detailed photos. Women play a very important role in Kuna society. When they marry, men move in with the woman’s family and take the woman’s family name.
The staples of the Kuna diet is based mainly on seafood, plantains, and coconuts, with some imported foods, wild game, and domestic animals mixed in.
Looking back on these photos, I can hardly believe I was here. Beyond the white sand, aqua water, deliciously fresh seafood, and amazing sunsets there lives a tradition, a people, and a culture that is unique and special. I felt so welcomed by the community there and lucky to be able to get a small taste of life on the San Blas Islands. It was an amazing experience that I’ll never forget.
If you’re interested in sailing through the San Blas Islands I highly recommend Sailing Koala, which is the boat that I used. Ask for Fabian!