San Blas Islands

Shutterstock/50337202/VilantThe Archipiélago de San Blas (or Las Mulatas) is a broad string of 365 islands ranging in size from deserted islets with just a few coconut palms to inhabited islands, about 50 in total and home to hundreds of Kuna people. Lying off the Caribbean coast east of Colón, the archipelago stretches along the coast for over 200 km from the Gulf of San Blas to the Colombian border. The islands' distance from the mainland ranges from 100 m to several kilometres.

Background

The Kuna (Cuna or Tule) are the most sophisticated and politically organized of the country's seven indigenous groups (Kuna, Embera, Waounan, Ngobe, Bugle, Nassau and Terribe). They run the San Blas Territory virtually on their own terms after a rebellion in 1925, with internal autonomy and, uniquely among
Panama's indigenous groups, they send their representative to the National Assembly. Each community is presided over by a
sáhila
(chief). Land is communally owned but coconut trees may belong to individuals. The Kuna have their own language, although Spanish is widely spoken. The women wear gold noserings and earrings, costumes with unique designs and
molas
. They are outside the Panamanian tax zone and have negotiated a treaty perpetuating their long-standing trade with small craft from Colombia.

Wichub-Huala and Nalunega

Just south of Porvenir, Wichub-Huala and Nalunega are heavily inhabited labyrinths of huts and alleys and are culturally fascinating. Both have communal halls where the political decisions of the villages are made, and both have simple accommodation and general stores. The shop on the south side of Wichub-Huala (the island closer to Porvenir) seems to be better stocked; it's a good place for last minute supplies.

Cayos Chichime

Not more than a couple of hours sail to the east lie the idyllic islands of the Cayos Chichime, also known as Wichudup or Wichitupo in the Kuna language. The deep-water channel entering the harbour is only 30 m wide with reefs on both sides, and requires care even from experienced captains. Both islands are beautiful and inhabited by only a handful of Kuna who survive through a combination of fishing, harvesting coconuts and selling
molas
to passing boats. The Kuna are friendly, easy-going people and interesting to talk to. Many of the Kuna who live on the islands only do so for four to five months per year before returning to the more inhabited islands or moving on to another island.

The Kuna will try and sell you
molas
, one of their few methods of obtaining cash income - if you're not interested, it will be sufficient to decline politely.

Cayos Holandés

To the east of Chichime lies a long chain of sparsely inhabited islands known as Cayos Holandés or Dutch Keys. Some of the islands have no permanent residents, but most have at least one family of Kuna harvesting coconuts. These
cayos
are the furthest from the mainland in Kuna Yala and have a rugged, remote feel. Washed by strong Caribbean swells, the Cayos Holandés harbor abundant marine life along the barrier reef and in the deepwater channels at either end of the group - in these areas Caribbean reef sharks, tarpon and rays are often seen. Even on the sheltered southern side there exist some pristine patch reefs only metres from islands themselves. Toward the eastern end of the chain is an excellent protected anchorage known to local yacht types as 'the swimming pool', due to its clear, calm water and location surrounded on all sides by islands. As with Chichime, caution and good navigational charts are required when entering this area.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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