Panama's Barefoot Paradise, Where the Original Natives Still Run the Show

Vacation getaways that are both appealing and off-the-grid are an endangered species to begin with. But even in this rarefied company, the San Blas Archipelago, stretching across the lower half of Panama Caribbean coast, is in a class by itself. Eighty-percent uninhabited, these more than 350 islands, reachable by puddle-jumper flights from Panama City, are as pristine a paradise as you'll find anywhere in the world these days, with occasional lodges, inns, and villages of thatched huts.

What makes the place truly unique, though, is who lives here. The Kuna are a diminutive people perhaps most famous throughout the hemisphere for their molas -- not the moles of Mexican cuisine, but rather colorful cotton fabrics. But they've achieved something no other indigenous people in the Americas have: real control over their own territory of Kuna Yala and their government, officially recognized since 1938, as well as a distinctive way of life, despite welcoming some cruise ships and overnight tourism.

As you might expect, most San Blas lodgings are ecologically friendly, and while many are basic and inexpensive, others are slightly more elaborate eco-lodges such as nine-cabin Dolphin Lodge (from US$170 per night) on Uaguitupo Island; Sapibenega (from US$160) with 13 cabins on a tiny private islet off Playón Chico; and Coral Lodge on the main island, El Porvenir, with pool, restaurant, and a half-dozen thatch-roofed, air-conditioned, over-the-water bungalows (from US$240, including three meals daily). Some companies also run excursions from one day to one week or more (a three-nighter with Barefoot Panama, for example, runs $360, including meals, lodging, and transportation, and Panama Travel Group can get you there from around $375, all inclusive).

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Comment by David Paul Appell on August 14, 2010 at 4:41pm
It's my understanding that those who see the San Blas as cruise daytrippers have a somewhat different experience than those who go as independent travelers, or using a local travel agency or tour operator. As in much of Central America, Panama's national government has historically not distinguished itself in its treatment of the Kuna and other indigenous peoples. But at least, from what I've heard, they have more control over their own destiny than they would in neighboring countries. I would love to go down and see for myself.
Comment by Mary E Gallagher on August 13, 2010 at 4:22pm
We stopped at the San Blas Islands on a Panama Canal cruise some years back. I can't say which island but it was so tiny I know there weren't lodgings. A lot of the passengers who had visited the San Blas previously wouldn't even disembark and I was very sad after seeing the living conditions, shacks, raw sewage running into the ocean. I also felt like we were robbing these people of any dignity they might have had...sitting there making the molas, children running around near naked, everyone posing for photos for a dollar. It was not an uplifting experience and I hope that their government and the tourism industry can offer them some other benefits like education and opportunities for more than sewing molas.
I know, I know, I want the perfect world, no wars, no starving, no bad people, no child abuse, no foreclosures and so on.

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