There is no way to write a single blog about the Guna Yala land and waters, and the Guna (aka Kuna) people, and do them justice. So we will break this up into three parts. This is the second part: the land.
Along the Caribbean coast of Panama lies an area called the Guna Yala, which translates to “Republic of the Guna.” Although it has been called the San Blas for many years and the term is still used today, the local inhabitants dislike it because it was given by the Spanish despite the native terms that already existed for the region. This land is a combination of rain forest, thick jungle, and hundreds of small, flat islands.
Despite its proximity to the bustling metropolis of Panama City, this area is remarkably isolated. The forbidding mountain range between the Guna Yala and the rest of the country have allowed this region to remain pristine. In addition, the Guna that govern this land semi-autonomously prohibit land ownership and development by outsiders. This has created a perfect slice of paradise without the modern distractions of cars, tall buildings, condos, malls, etc.
Until about ten years ago, when the first road into the territory was built, arriving by charter plane or by boat were the only ways to reach the Guna Yala. The road now allows for a quick, three-hour trip between the Guna port of Carti and Panama City. From Carti, one can take a water taxi to other villages or islands. There are still some obstacles, however. The border between the Guna Yala and the rest of Panama looks and feels like an international frontier with heavily armed border police on the Panamanian side and Guna officials on the other. Passing through the border requires a passport or Panamanian identification, and a payment of Guna visiting taxes. Only officially sanctioned vehicles are allowed to enter the Guna Yala, so a handful of 4×4 taxies run locals and tourists back and forth a couple of times a day.
While tourism is an active industry in the Guna Yala, it is limited and restricted. Only tourists that are part of an organized Guna tour are allowed through. These include overnight camping trips to one of the many islands, kayaking tours that visit several islands, or a stay at one of the few “hotels”. For cruisers, only those officially on the boat manifest are allowed. While this makes it difficult—sometimes impossible—to have guests visit us, we have heard that the Guna are considering easing requirements to allow family and friends to enter the territory. Paying guests for charter boats are strictly prohibited to limit the number of unlicensed, illegal charters in the area, but they still manage to get through.
The mainland coast of the Guna Yala quickly rises into a nearly impenetrable mountain range covered by thick jungle. Several rivers that form high in the hills make their way to the coast, creating some navigable avenues into the interior. Aside from the rivers and the Carti Road, all Guna travel is done on foot.
Dotting the coast and outward up to a dozen miles are hundreds of islands, most uninhabited. A few of the inhabited islands have sizable villages, but most are only occupied by small families or seasonal caretakers. A few boast “hotels” and “resorts.” Most of these are one or two story thatch or wooden structures with hammocks for guests. Life is simple in the Guna Yala, even for visitors.
While the lush mountains are fertile for growing fruits and vegetables, the only crops that grow on the coastal islands are coconuts. But this is one of the most profitable natural resources for the Guna, and all producing islands belong to local families. When anchored nearby, we can see young men rowing from one island to another, filling their dugout canoes, called “ulus”, with coconuts to take to market at the large villages.
Despite the mountainous terrain on the mainland, all the islands are flat. This makes them extremely vulnerable to sea level rise. Erosion is readily evident, and we wonder how long this paradise has before it succumbs to the sea.
Guna villages are especially fun to visit. They range from very traditional to more modern. The traditional villages tend to be smaller, have no electricity, and the main structures are thatch huts. The more modern ones have running water, electrical services, and a few concrete buildings. The most modern village, Nargana, even has a decent size clinic with a proper pharmacy and medical staff.
While we have spent most of our time anchored in the outlying islands, we have occasionally visited the mainland, and even took our dinghy up the Rio Diablo. The contrast in vegetation is remarkable as soon as one gets a few hundred yards from the coast. Palms yield some space to massive trees that tower towards the sun, and the underbrush is so thick you need a machete to venture in. Along the river banks we could see what appeared to be small trails leading into the jungle, probably routes for locals to reach their farms in the hills.
Few places we have visited are as remote and verdant as the Guna Yala. Its huge area and small population make it easy to feel like you can “disappear” from the outside world. We sometimes find ourselves pretending as if we are the first to see this majestic land.