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A Panama must: the San Blas Islands, all 360+ of them if you can

Posted by on February 23, 2012
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With only a week in Panama, we had enough time to only hit up the City and one island destination. If you’re unfamiliar, Panama actually has tons of island destinations, including San Blas, Bocas del Toro, Coiba National Park and the Pearl Islands among others. It’s these gorgeous beaches that make me certain that Panama will be a top destination in the next few years. Oh, this helps, too.

After rummaging through message boards and asking our friends, we decided to visit the San Blas Islands for a few reasons: 1.) The islands — and there are more than 360 of them — are governed by the Kuna tribes people, not Panamanians, making a visit to the island a wonderful combination of Caribbean and culture. And 2.) It looks like this:


To be fair, I think all of Panama’s beaches are supposed to be this stunning, but I’m not sure all offer the same amount of serenity. Thanks in part to the rustic island living conditions that some people probably don’t want to put up with — fair enough! — the San Blas Islands are much less touristy than Bocas del Toro, which actually has hotels and restaurants.

For $22/person/night, we stayed in bamboo huts at Ina’s Cabins, ate three very simple meals a day (hot dog and bread roll for breakfast, anyone?) and used a toilet that didn’t flush but required a bucket of water to wash stuff down. To be honest, I expected worse — like a whole in the ground. An actual commode was quite the luxury. Beyond that, this is basically a deserted island, people! There are cockroaches, ants and pesky sand flies. Just roll with it! (FYI, when we got to the island, they said they didn’t have our reservation, which was booked from the Panama City hostel Luna’s Castle. It wasn’t the hostel’s fault; owner Ina seemed to not have most people’s confirmations, then mysteriously found rooms for all of us. I knew we weren’t all that far from South America and its erratic reservation systems.)

Our dormitory/hut:


And beds:


The most magical part of our three-night stay involved more than just the white sand beaches, translucent water, snorkeling adventures and island-hopping; it was the feeling of truly living with the Kuna people. We saw the kids, often disrobed, climbing coconut trees. We watched women weaving their traditional mola cloths — a type of embroidered cloth that we bought ourselves. We made friends with the crazy chef who got drunk with everyone on the beach one night. It felt special, and I’d like to add, not at all kitschy or made-for-tourists. It was natural. They live in paradise, and we happened to be there with them.

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.


Eaman, trying to knock down a coconut:


It worked!


And it was delicious.


Kuna kids:


Made lifelong friends:


Ina, the owner of the cabanas, with a recently caught iguana, which is a traditional Kuna food:


Furry crab legs, one of the many meals I politely ate around and passed on to someone else:


Eaman, washing up post-sand burial. Also a good way to show you how close some of these islands are to each other. Boat rides between the islands go for $1-10 depending on number of people going and how far the island is. We went to one island with a nearby sunken ship and plenty of colorful fish in its nooks and crannies, as well as the island across from us as seen in this picture. Its only inhabitants are a Kuna man, his mother and his very adorable puppy:

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