8 mins

Panama: Paradise found on the San Blas Islands

Panama’s Kuna islanders are among the most contented people on Earth. Wanderlust discovers their secret in this award-winning article from Nick Boulos

Women on the San Blas archipelago let their clothes express their mood (kmacelwee)

Why? Indigenous culture and pristine beaches on an idyllic Caribbean archipelago

Route: A 15-hour indirect flight from the UK; island-hopping by boat and kayak

When? Go Dec-April, the dry season

Christina couldn’t help but brag. “I have absolutely no stress in my life,” she boasted, flashing her toothless grin, then collapsing in a fit of giggles.

“I don’t even know how old I am but I know the island was very different back then. We have a few concrete buildings and a church now. But deep down we’re the same,” she added wistfully, looking out at the bamboo houses and breadfruit trees.

Living on a remote island on Panama’s untouched Caribbean coast it was easy to see why Christina and her fellow Kuna people remain so satisfied. Most of us can only dream of waking up every day to the sound of a sea breeze gently rustling the palms, feeling nothing but soft sand under our feet.

The majority of this indigenous tribe live on 49 of the almost 400 tropical San Blas Islands, which stretch for 226km towards the Colombian border. Known locally as the Kuna Yala, this slither of heaven is largely unaffected by the modern world and free of government influence having been granted independence in 1925. Here, the Kuna call the shots.

As a result, life is firmly in the slow lane. Unhindered by notions of wealth and materialism, the Kuna rank tradition, nature and community above all else. Their lives are rich in purpose and direction: there are houses to build, crabs to catch, baseball tournaments to play, card tricks to perform.

Panama is, officially, one of the happiest places on Earth. It scored highly on the New Economics Foundation’s Happy Planet Index, which measures human well-being. But I suspected that the Kuna, with their emphasis on kinship and culture, might be even more content than their countrymen. Only one way to find out...

Idyll banter

Flying low over tiny coral islands sprinkled far and wide across a brilliantly turquoise sea, I descended from Panama City into paradise.

Through the plane window I spied specks of land ringed with butter-yellow shores and bursting with wild green interiors. There were several that you could stroll around in half a minute at a leisurely pace. Then there was the heart-shaped isle so flawless it would bring a tear to Girl Friday’s eye and have Richard Branson reaching for his chequebook.

But no amount of zeroes would be enough to stake a claim here.

The Kuna, who have protected their culture to the death, have stringent policies in place to ensure its survival, one being that non-Indians cannot live or own land in the Kuna Yala. As a result many Kuna live much as they have done since the 16th century, when it’s thought they first settled here.

My plane landed at the developed island of Corazón de Jesús, and my Kuna guides, Nemesio and Igua, hurried me onto a boat bound for Isla Tigre. Home to just 900 people, Isla Tigre is one of the most traditional spots in the archipelago. It would be my base for the next few days.

Unlike on some islands, tourists are well catered for here. There are six basic beachside cabañas built from bamboo and palm leaves, replicating Kuna homes, and an open-sided restaurant serving traditional cuisine. With no mobile phone signal and no internet connection for miles, the woes of modern life soon drained away.

Nemesio and Igua were keen to show me around. The two wide, sandy, ruler-straight streets on Isla Tigre were lined with tall houses, and life behind the bamboo walls filtered out; I heard accordion music playing on a crackling radio and maracas being shaken to soothe a restless baby.

Across the street a woman stood in the shadows. She was dressed in full Kuna regalia: a bold skirt with an intricately patterned blouse known as a mola, a scarlet headscarf and small beads wrapped around her calves and forearms. Our eyes met and her curious glance evaporated into a broad smile. Nearby, a young boy sat on the dusty ground, a lime-green iguana resting in the palm of his hand.

Nobody was in a rush. In fact, nobody seemed to be doing much at all. It was all very leisurely. “We don’t pay taxes and we don’t have electricity bills to worry about, so there’s no real need for money here. The small amount that people do earn from tourism and selling coconuts to the Colombians goes towards buying sugar, clothes and material to make molas,” explained Igua.

Beside each house stood lean pillars that gleamed in the sunshine. “The government installed these solar panels last year, so we could have lights and watch television,” Igua added. The Kuna Yala may be semi-autonomous, but the national government is still involved in some matters such as health and education.

Things haven’t always been so civil. Relations turned sour in 1925 when the government tried to outlaw Kuna culture by banning the native language and dress. Uproar ensued, resulting in the deaths of 22 policemen. The government backed down, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that this area was officially recognised as Indian territory.

Those in power had big plans for the San Blas Islands. They intended to capitalise on the stunning coastline and bountiful waters by building large-scale hotels and introducing scuba diving, but they were swiftly overruled by Kuna sailas, chiefs who oversee every community. 

Aurelio Meza, revered saila of Isla Tigre, wasn’t working on official business when we stopped by, nor was he expecting visitors. Sat in a grubby vest with a collection of his grandson’s action figures at his bare feet, Aurelio welcomed me warmly into his home, rising to retrieve a shirt.

Columns of sunlight filtered through the gaps in the bamboo walls creating a soft glow inside the spacious one-room house, where hammocks and saucepans hung from the rafters and a cauldron bubbled in the corner.

Sailas are often tasked with sorting out domestic disputes (a local man’s scandalous extra-martial escapades were the current talk of the island) but their main role is preserving the culture and keeping the community together. “It’s a happy little island. There’s not much for me to do,” he said, rather honestly for a man in office.

Magical encounters

Back at my cabaña I sought refuge from the high sun in a shady hammock and savoured the quintessential Caribbean scene before me. Even the wildlife here took it easy. Pelicans circled lethargically above the waves in search of sardines.

Across the grassland a steady stream of locals stopped at the restaurant – the only place on the island to buy a chilled can of the local beer, Balboa. It was clearly the place to be. Huddled in a corner, a group of men were deep in conversation. On the next rickety wooden table others sat engrossed in a newspaper somebody had brought from Panama City several days ago.

I wandered over and it wasn’t long before I’d made friends. Deme, a twenty-something chap with a passion for dominoes and action movies, pulled up a chair. We chatted about life on the island. “I lived in Panama City for ten years, but I didn’t like it. So many cars and so much noise,” he said as Jorge, the Kuna’s answer to Paul Daniels, joined us.

Rummaging in his pockets Jorge retrieved a pack of withered cards and shuffled them vigorously. He took great delight in performing his magic tricks, but looked thoroughly baffled when they didn’t quite work out as planned. 

“You must come to my house for dinner,” interrupted Deme enthusiastically. “We’ll have tule masi – real Kuna food.”

However, before I could even think about dinner, I had an afternoon free to explore further afield. The mainland, home to other Kuna settlements, lay just 2km away, and Nemesio gestured towards a kayak. Soon we were gliding away from Isla Tigre across the clear jade sea. The seabed was a carpet of plants waving in the current, punctuated by bright-orange starfish. I lowered my paddle and dipped my fingers in the tepid water.

Then I took them out again: there, just a few metres ahead, lazing happily in the sunshine, was the unmistakable silhouette of a giant croc. “About 3m long, I’d say. Maybe four,” said Nemesio as we, for a reason unbeknown to me, drifted closer.

With a swoosh of its tail, the creature suddenly meandered back towards the mangroves and vanished behind the mesh of tangled vines and twisting roots.

We traced the lush shoreline before delving into a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it estuary that snaked deep into the untamed surroundings. No crocs, thankfully, but a lone blue egret kept a close eye on us. The waterway grew increasingly narrow; our paddles began to hit palms the size of ironing boards. Nemesio scanned the treetops for toucans but the exotic birds proved elusive.

Pulling ashore, it was time to stretch our legs. Nemesio led the way along the track, which was bordered by impenetrable bush. Eventually several thatched roofs appeared between the trees. I assumed this was one of the mainland Kuna communities, but the silence was pure and there wasn’t a soul to be seen. This was no village.

Mounds of ochre earth sat under the erected canopies of this burial ground. Beside each grave was an eclectic collection of objects – bowls, toys, miniature dugout canoes – left by loved ones to help aid the deceased’s passage to the afterlife.

In line with Kuna beliefs the dead are laid to rest wrapped in a hammock. Igua explained, “To us, hammocks represent the umbilical cord and a deep connection to our Godmother, who is the earth. That’s why you’ll always find hammocks in our houses.”

Keeping it together

We returned to Isla Tigre that evening, but more discoveries awaited the next morning. Nemesio loaded his ramshackle fishing boat, and we motored east into the rising sun, heading for other Kuna communities.

The sea surged and swelled for much of our two-hour journey. The scene shifted to black and white, angry clouds turning the sea slate and draining away the vivid greens that made the hillsides so captivating. As we arrived on the island of Playón Chico, the heavens opened. Thick raindrops somersaulted from the sky. The sleepy streets came alive with euphoric children jumping in puddles and dancing in the rain.

Playón Chico was significantly larger and more developed than Isla Tigre – there were shops selling everything from chickens to crayons, plus a police station and even a telephone box. Women laden with toddlers and bananas rushed from the downpour, dashing past concrete buildings where the faded red paint continued to peel.

Next, backtracking west, was the mainland community of Aidirgandí where men painted their boats on the beach and the aroma of roasting corn hung in the air. Every door in the village was wide open revealing large families swinging in their hammocks laughing and talking.

That afternoon, we kayaked to Niadup, an hour away from Isla Tigre. Men brandishing machetes were repairing the pier. Elsewhere a volleyball game was in full swing attracting a modest number of spectators who huddled together in the shade of a mango tree. 

One person who wasn’t there was saila Gabriel Perez. He was at home pondering the future. “The young need to understand our traditions. That’s very important. There’s too much emphasis on money now and many are leaving for big cities, but people there don’t even know who’s living next door.”

Happy feet

Back on Isla Tigre, Deme fulfilled his promise of dinner, proudly leading me into his spacious home. Family photos took pride of place but there wasn’t a sofa or coffee table to be seen in the living room.

Instead, guests were entertained in the seven hammocks that hung from the high ceiling. Behind the bamboo divide was the family’s bedroom and even more hammocks. After marriage, it’s traditional for the man to move in with his wife’s family, though more couples now set up shop independently.

Across the road was the kitchen where an intoxicating medley of smells lingered: smoking fish wrapped in plantain leaves, evocative spices, freshly burned charcoal.

Deme’s mother-in-law sat quietly in the corner, working meticulously on new beadwork for her legs. “Women like to wear them because it makes their legs look thinner,” whispered Igua. Perhaps the Kuna aren’t so different after all.

That evening the village came out in force – Isla Tigre is known for its shindigs and locals get together several times a week. Illuminated by two lanterns and a thousand shimmering stars, the dancers took their positions on the grassland by the cabañas. Men with bamboo windpipes faced women with maracas and began hopping from one foot to the other before skipping with speed in wide circles.

The crowd cheered wildly and the dancemaster, a little out of breath, beamed with pride. He cleared his throat: “The next dance is Weliguale – the Happy Dance.”

But, of course – what else would you expect?


Nick Boulos won AITO Young Travel Writer of the Year 2011 with this article

Nick travelled with Journey Latin America

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