It is almost impossible to describe the overwhelming beauty of the San Blas Islands. They are everything a tropical paradise should be: white sand beaches floating in turquoise waters, coconut palms swaying in the Caribbean breeze, rustic cabanas with palm leaf roofs and not a single motor vehicle to disturb the lethargy inducing peace.
Even by Caribbean standards, the San Blas archipelago has to be one of the most blissfully tranquil places to wash up. There is little else to do but swim, snorkel, read and eat. We stayed on Coco Blanco caye, but our daily routine involved heading out on a boat to another island amongst the Cayos Holandeses where we’d be dropped for the afternoon in splendid isolation to swim, snorkel, read and eat some more.
Back on Coco Blanco in time to pour a glass of rum and watch the sun set over the Caribbean, there was little else to do but look at the stars and relax. There are no mosquitos on Coco Blanco, which combined with a cool night breeze and the sound of the lapping waves lulled us to sleep in our little cabana every night. There are nasty biting midges, no-see-ums as they are known, which got us before we applied 100% DEET. Paradise does have a downside apparently.
The 378 islands and cayes that make up the San Blas Islands are dotted along the Caribbean coast of Panama, and although many of them are within sight of the mainland only a handful are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Indians. Traditional industries such as fishing and farming are being overtaken by tourism, but for the time-being tourism is still low key and island accommodations are pretty basic.
Despite the encroachment of the modern world and the increasing pressure of tourism, the Kuna have resisted the temptation to sell out and continue to maintain their traditional way of life. You won’t find a single upscale resort in the San Blas, but you’ll see plenty of dugout canoes with people fishing from them and you’ll sail past dozens of islands with just a couple of wooden huts nestling under the palm trees.
The Comarca de Kuna Yala is a semi-autonomous region of Panama, and the Kuna have a degree of autonomy that few indigenous groups have in Latin America. An autonomy that they have fought hard for and of which they are rightly proud. Kuna society is still organised on traditional grounds. Every four years regional chiefs are appointed who establish the laws that govern the Comarca de Kuna Yala, free of interference from Panama.
The Kuna have passed a number of laws that ensure their island paradise remains theirs and that they retain control over the way the islands are developed for tourism. Foreigners, including Panamanians, aren’t allowed to own property or businesses on the islands which means the exploitation of indigenous communities seen in other parts of the world doesn’t happen here.
It all makes for a fascinating and wonderful experience. There is nothing better than flopping into crystal clear waters first thing in the morning before heading to the hammock for a well deserved rest…and yes, it is still snowing in Britain.