Well, fear of flying or not, I just booked my flights to the San Blas Islands in Panama!
If you haven’t heard of them, the Autonomous Region of the Kuna Yala and the San Blas Archipelago is a small portion of mainland and a group of over 400 islands situated on the Caribbean Coast of Panama. The region is owed by the Kuna Indians (Kuna Yala means “land of the Kuna People”) who have declared autonomy over their homeland ever since a civil war with Panama which took place in February 1925. The Kuna Indians who run the islands under their own government system of chiefdoms, have lived in this region for a relatively short couple of centuries, but there is evidence that they go right back. Reports tell that they were first in contact with Europeans as early as the 1500s when Colombus himself came into contact with them in their native Colombia.
The Kuna are still very traditional today, they speak their own language and many still dress in the garb of their ancestors. As ever though, westernisation is creeping in and some of the younger generations are turning their backs on the Kuna customs. The southern islands around Corazon de Jesus Island are the worst affected by this, and the tribal chiefs are adamant that the Kuna must do their upmost if they wish to retain what makes them unique to the world.
For me the appeal of the islands is seeing such an unusual and rapidly declining culture in action, although in visiting myself I am increasing the tourist trade which is what is destroying these islands! I have heard many people planning to visit who don’t seem to get that this isn’t a island retreat, this is ecotourism. You go tentatively, trying not to make a mark, to set foot, but not to change in any way. One man I spoke to was only interested in renting an island from an Indian, so he could say he had done so, and another woman demanded that their accomodation be “western enough and clean.” If these are the things you want, going to the Kuna Yala is not right for you, most of the islands have no electricity or hot water, but that is their appeal! If they were more westernised it would be like going to any other Caribbean Island, those two people would be far better going to Barbados if they cannot grasp the importance of where they are going and have no interest in treading softly. I find this very sad indeed.
Anyway, I am getting off my soapbox now, as I so often have to do!
With my tickets booked I am beyond excited, I personally cannot wait to find myself on an island in the middle of nowhere, with no western amenities, where the electricity is switched off at night! Better still, I might be able to sleep on a totally uninhabited island! Whichever it sounds like a totally amazing experience. Unfortunately for me I will only have one full day and night there as that is all time will afford me before I have to rejoin my tour before it heads north to Guatemala without me!
My trip to the Kuna Yala will commence with a very early morning flight (there is only one there and back each day) to the main island of El Porvenir, in a tiny 10 person rotor plane of which I am terrified as I have heard they are usually very bumpy! I will then hopefully be catching a local’s boat to the less spoilt islands nearby of Nalunega (Red Snapper Island!), Ukuptupu and the wonderfully named Wichub-Walá. Whilst I am there I hope to get the chance to talk to some of the Kuna about their lives, traditions and their thoughts on western influences affecting their community. Then, after a night spent under the stars I will catch an early morning flight back to Panama City. Although it will only be fleeting I have no more time to spare, and I just HAVE to go!
My trip is still over 2 months away so I have plenty of time to brush up on my Kuna, and so without further ado, for now I would like to say, “degi malo” (goodbye) and “an banedse be dakoe” (see you again)!