Pirates and Paradise in the Caribbean, San Blas, Panama

Pelicano Island, San Blas

Pelicano Island, San Blas

The San Blas Islands must be the Hollywood shoot location for every pirate movie ever made. More than 400 islands with white sandy beaches and coconut trees dot these stunning Caribbean waters. Our tour took us to uninhabited islands where we ate lobster and fish and broke open coconuts to drink. Our beds were hammocks, the entertainment – a bonfire and guitar on the beach.

But the San Blas is more than a tropical paradise and is home to the semi-autonomous Kuna (Guna) people. With wooden shacks for homes these people live a largely traditional life. There are only two telephone booths in each village, toilets open over the water, but every home has solar electricity after a $30 million government initiative to bring power to the islands. Here, you won’t find any resorts; accommodation is simple and most tour companies offer sailing tours with on-board accommodation. Our tour group stayed on the islands, sleeping in hammocks.

Kuna woman in traditional dress, San Blas, PanamaEach and every island is owned by the people with coconuts the main source of income. Islands are passed through the female line and the birth and several birthdays of the girls are large festive occasions. The Kuna people have a high rate of albinism and albino children are celebrated and seen as protectors of the moon. While conservative in their traditions, LGBT people are welcome here and transgender people are visible and accepted within the community. With the majority of villages at sea level on small islands, climae change will have a significant impact on the Kuna.

Children playing in a Canoe, San Blas

Guna people, San Blas

Selecting an ethical travel operator is a challenge in these parts, although the Kuna people must be partners in the ventures, the significant negative impact our tour had on the people and environment was shocking. San Blas Adventures served us a meal of 200 small juvenile lobsters, used hundreds of plastic bin bags to keep our backpacks dry and required us to bring large plastic bottles to supply our own water. Simple changes would turn this operation from unsustainable to sustainable for little cost.

Stunning island sunset on the San Blas

Stunning island sunset on the San Blas

Dangers and annoyances: Our group’s accommodation in Capurganá across the border in Colombia, and the group after us were targeted in two separate burglaries.

Tours start from $250 for a two night return trip from Panama City. 3-5 day tours between Panama City and Capurganá or Cartagena are $425-$550. Check if the quoted price includes park entrance fees and transfer to/from Panama City.

Coconuts are the livelihood of the San Blas people

Breaking open coconuts San Blas Panama