san-blas-boats

With more than one island for every day of the year, Panama’s San Blas Islands are blessed with total remoteness; many of the 378 islets have no inhabitants at all and their isolation has kept them off the well-trodden tourist track.

Scattered around Panama’s Caribbean coast, San Blas’ credentials are obvious upon first sight: deserted beaches, an abundance of palm trees and a pace of life that epitomises bare-foot living.

Many of the larger islands, locally referred to as “Kuna Yala”, are inhabited by native Kuna people; politically autonomous, they maintain many of their indigenous traditions, making a living by fishing or selling coconuts and supplementing their income with tourism. But they’re not hawking you tat. More likely they’ll sell you a beer for two dollars – a bargain when you think about how far it’s travelled (and how thirsty you are).

Here’s our guide to the best of Panama’s secret slice of paradise.

Chichimei

The moment you spy Chichimei between the sailing boats and catamarans stationed just off its shore, the journey out – a two-hour jeep ride from Panama City followed by an hour’s wet water taxi from Carti – is instantly forgotten. One of the larger islands in the archipelago, Chichimei is a popular launchpad for exploring the San Blas. While it’s relatively crowded at sea – in San Blas terms that means it’s more than just you and your shipmates – a beach dreamscape awaits you on land. While the captain and his crew present your papers and passports at immigration in the capital of El Porvenir, there’s a shipwreck to snorkel and ice-cold Balboa beer to share with locals under the shade of a palm.

Akuadargana

A couple of hours’ sail from Chichimei, just one family lives on this entire island which measures less than a kilometre in circumference. Drop anchor just off the beach and leisurely snorkel towards the shore. With jellyfish replacing tourists as your island companions, you can ignore the harmless white creatures, but steer clear of the pink and purple ones. When the sun goes down, a beach bonfire of fallen palm leaves offers the perfect spot to toast a marshmallow and stargaze.

Ogopuki

Translating from the Kuna tongue of Guna to mean “coconut island,” Ogopuki is also home to just one family and their dogs, as well as a mammoth female stingray which patrols the shallows. Even the captains who spend their lives sailing this remote corner of the world know only a handful of the San Blas Islands by name, which are often derived from their surroundings and sound like something out of Treasure Island – iguana island is another favourite.

It’s on Ogopuki that the Kuna show off their “molas”; squares of hand-woven material that form part of the women’s attire. The early patterns were geometric in design, but they’ve evolved into more recognisable human and animal forms. Sadly, the remote beauty of Ogopuki has not completely sheltered it from outside influence; a constant tide of plastic washes up on its beaches, though the locals are resourceful in their attitude towards it, repurposing a fridge-freezer to furnish a house they were building on stilts made of palm.

At sea

After three days of floating between the San Blas Islands, the 36-hour sail to Cartagena can feel surprisingly rough. Take Dramamine to combat the seasickness – and what a reward awaits if you can stomach it: a pod of dolphins swim and dive alongside as you make headway through the waves. After days of feeling alone on the open sea, their company was as welcome as the sight was impressive.

Practical information

Many of the local tourist offices on the ground in Panama City and Cartagena can arrange tours of varying lengths to the San Blas Islands in both directions. Two of the best companies for a five-day trip are Blue Sailing and Sail Colombia Panama.

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