Someone unfamiliar with Panama may be surprised to learn the unusual history and status of the province known as Guna Yala. It was once known as San Blas and Kuna Yala but was officially renamed Guna Yala to reflect a more accurate pronunciation of the native population's language.
Set in northeast Panama, south of the already remote Darien Province, and bordered on the east by Colombia, Guna Yala is "...a narrow, 226km-long strip on the Caribbean coast that includes the Archipiélago de San Blás...The islands are home to the Kuna, who run San Blás as a comarca (autonomous region) with minimal interference from the national government." (Lonely Planet, 2014)
This does not mean that they are independent of the Republic of Panama. Instead, it was in 1925 that they were given permission to operate under their own economic and governmental systems. The indigenous people use their own language, but have full voting rights in Panama's legislature. This was all done by the Kuna people in order to uphold and protect their heritage, way of life, and even their language.
The People Over Time
It is necessary to prevent yourself from viewing the Guna Yala as a group that is out of touch with the modern world. Though they have a tremendous amount of autonomy from the Panamanian government, they have been interacting with Europeans for hundreds of years. They were among the first to deal with the first European arrivals during the era of Columbus (around the early 1500s) and yet they have fought to preserve their culture throughout this entire time.
Today, they retain many of their customs. The women tend to wear their traditional garments, jewelry, and makeup even though men are donning Western looks. They are also allowing visitors to come to the region, though there are a lot of limitations and restrictions on access to certain areas.
Planning a Visit
To enjoy some time in Guna Yala means encountering some of the most impressive beaches and settings possible. The islands that make up the archipelago are "picture postcard" islands with white sands, turquoise waters, and pristine conditions.
This does mean that it is a bit off the beaten path, but not so much so that it is too difficult to make a visit. The islands open to visitors include Aguja, Coco Blanco, Sapibenega, and Yandup. There is also Isla Diabla. None of them are developed accorrding to standard tourism expectations, however. There are no "resorts", very few options for air-conditioning, Internet access, television or even hot water. There are no "distractions" such as parasailing or jet skis in any of the islands of Guna Yala either.
Instead, it is all about the beautiful beaches, the snorkeling in clear waters, and the traveling to the different local villages open to the public. It is most definitely an adventurer’s destination.
As a guest in the region your accommodations will range from basic to simple - and most include all of your meals. There has not been any development designed to meet tourist demands and so there are no restaurants or other similar facilities, apart from what is found at the hotels or accommodations providers.
Many of the tourist centers will have local Kuna people vending their handicrafts, and many offer their services for those looking to explore the many islands of the archipelago. Some of the people say that there is one island for every day of the year, and so "island hopping" is a popular activity for some travelers.
What to Expect
If you do decide to visit any part of Guna Yala you should be respectful of the culture. The people have all dedicated themselves to retaining their culture, and have managed to do so for hundreds of years. As such, you will have to remember that activities such as photography must be restricted. Asking for permission is a "must", and even then some locals will request a fee.
There are a lot of small fees associated with a visit to this alluring destination - such as small fees for boat rides between islands, fees for photos, etc. But all will be well worth it in order to experience as much of the scenery as possible, or to capture some memories from your journey to the location.
To access Guna Yala you will have to take the four-hour trip by car, and then another trip via a boat or canoe to the island of your choice. Yes, this is one of the remaining adventurer’s destinations in the modern world, and it is well worth the effort to make a visit.
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