Footprints in the Sand: Guna Yala, Panama

by Rachael Pells  |  Published October 15, 2014

For those who thought there was no place left on earth unspoilt, no sight left untweeted and no community untelevised, perhaps you may not yet have heard of the Guna Yala, Panama.

More than 365 islands make up the Guna Yala archipelago (Photo: Ben Kucinski via Flickr)

More than 365 islands make up the Guna Yala archipelago (Photo: Ben Kucinski via Flickr)

Formerly known as San Blas, this indigenous province lies along the north-east coast of the country. Bordered by hip, Caribbean backpacker hang-outs on the north and the wildly untouched forest-swampland of the Darien to its south, it’s hard to believe that such tranquility can be found so close to the pulsating industry of Panama City.

Initially, I was sceptical – I’d visited places before laden with cliches such as “island bliss”, “getting away from it all” and “back to basics”, only to be greeted by trustafarian boys from Sussex playing Angry Birds and downing dirty pints. But there are no unwanted distractions here; for one thing, there are no hostels to host them. Forget Angry Birds, those willing to make the trip here are much more likely to see gem-coloured Parrots perched in palm trees. The best place to rest your head is on one of the Guna Yala Islands; seemingly forgotten by mankind.

Granted semi-independence in 1925, the Guna Yala is largely autonomous. The region is governed by locally-elected tribal chiefs, who have very little to do with the Panamanian government and see themselves as a separate entity. The indigenous group has a population of approximately 15,500 people, made up of 51 individual communities, who stand by their simple and traditional way of life.

Just a few minutes boat ride from the coast, the island archipelago is made up of more than 365 islands, stretching over 160 kilometres along exquisite Panamanian coastline. But despite having the more than one island for each day of the year, only around 40 are officially inhabited. Most of the Guna people live in cramped communities on the larger islands, or on tiny, privately-owned spits of land handed down through generations. These little pieces of paradise are typically home to just two or three families, several of whom welcome visitors to fuss-free, charming abodes.

Conditions really are basic: dinner is whatever fish has been caught that day, and there is no such thing as Wifi or television. But with Hollywood-white beaches, aquamarine water and a horizon speckled with palm trees, what better place to escape the hustle of city life?

Many hostels in Panama City can arrange transport to pick-up and drop-off visitors to the islands, for instance the popular backpackers’ bolthole Mamallena, whose staff are a fantastic bank of knowledge about how, when and where to stay. It is possible to take a short flight to the coast, but the best way to access the islands is by four-wheel drive from Panama City to the “port”, which is really just a pick-up point for the Gunas’ rowing boats and canoes to meet. My ride collected me in the palest dawn, jolting down rocky tracks in a race against the heat of the day. In line with the petite stature Central American habitants, so too are their cars and buses; long-legged Europeans will have to put up a fight for a front seat. At the port, we were herded onto tiny boats and cast out to sea for the short ride over crested waves. Our crew had attached a motorbike engine to their canoe, which rattled angrily, just as I noticed a crocodile slide beneath the surface a little too close for comfort. As the engine spluttered to life, the captain spotted my expression and laughed. “We’re more of a danger to them then they to us!” This, I did not doubt.

You’ll need your passport and $10USD to pass through the Guna Yala region. There is little to warrant cash once on the islands, but it is advisable to take all the green you might need for additional day-trips and drinks – there are no such things as ATMs, as the Guna people still trade among each other using coconuts and acquired goods. Additionally, not all islands have running water or electricity generators, but those open to tourists have all the necessary bathroom amenities. Popular places to stay include Ima’s Island, which did have a tiny bar with beer and cola cans for sale, despite the island itself being only about the size of your average London pub. Other places for backpackers to rest include Franklin’s and Robinson’s islands both appropriately named after their respective hosts. Each offers a basic range of sleeping options from couples’ cabins to dorm-style rooms from around $25USD per night.

Surely one of the greatest ways to while away an afternoon in such an idyllic island paradise is to recline in a hammock with a coconut in one hand and a weathered page-turner in the other, but for those with itchy feet, there’s plenty to do; warm, shallow water lends itself to snorkelling, fishing and kayaking. The reef is a metropolis of sting-rays, turtles, exotic fish – and all just metres from your bed. Many island hosts offer day trips to nearby islands for an extra fee, some uninhabited, some especially good for fishing and turtle-spotting. A day on Isla Perro, or “Dog Island” is time well spent, home to a wrecked cargo-ship which came into trouble in the 1940s, likely during one of the caribbean’s frequent and dramatic tropical storms. Today, the vessel functions as the perfect playground for marine life and provides hours of adventure with nothing but a mask and snorkel.

For those who wish to experience tropical bliss without giving up everyday comfort, it’s still possible to visit the archipelago with a day’s boat trip, leaving from San Blas on the mainland. More luxurious still, tour company San Blas Sailing offer yacht-driven cruises around the islands spanning anything between three days and three weeks.

But the most raw and soul-uplifting adventure of all was to spend a night in Ima’s hammock beneath the stars. After a dinner of lobster caught that very day, I watched distant glimmers from fishing boats out at sea, sipping a cold beer under the vast night sky. Once the generator retired just past dusk, sucking all light and sound with it, I counted endless shooting stars in a sky I don’t believe I’ll ever see so clear again and imagined myself a real-life castaway. It’s really a blessing that there was no internet access, because no wordsmith could faithfully describe such a place to the outside world, let alone in 140 characters on Twitter.