The Guna Yala Archipelago and surrounding sea are the main attractions in Guna Yala—an indigenous comarca (autonomous territory) stretching more than 120 miles along Panama’s northeast coast—but the traditional culture of the Guna is a close second. The comarca is composed of a thin strip of land dominated by a mountain range called the Serranía de San Blas and the 365 San Blas Islands that dot the coastal waters. Although much of the world still refers to this region by its former name, San Blas, you’ll endear yourself to residents by using the name they give to their home, Guna Yala.
This is a lush and stunning region of forest-cloaked mountains, white-sand beaches, vibrant coral reefs, and timeless villages. Your trip here can consequently combine time on heavenly islands, jungle hiking, handicraft shopping, and exposure to a proud and beautiful indigenous people. Since coral reefs surround nearly every island, snorkeling is practically obligatory in the archipelago. Most lodges include the use of snorkeling equipment in their rates, and all of them provide daily trips to beaches with reefs nearby. You don’t need to swim to appreciate the area’s beauty, though, because the scenery topside is just as impressive; coconut groves shade ivory sand, dugout canoes with lateen sails ply turquoise waters, and cane huts with thatch roofs make up island villages.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Though it is technically the provincial capital, this island is practically uninhabited. It has a police station, an office of the Guna congress, a rustic hotel, and an airstrip, which makes it the arrival point for many travelers when flights are available. There are two small islands nearby that hold traditional Guna villages and rustic lodges and are visited by cruise ships: Wichub Wala and Nalunega. These islands are fascinating to explore, but their lack of sewage systems means the sea around them is unsafe for swimming. However, there are several uninhabited, white-sand cays a short boat trip away that are idyllic swimming and snorkeling spots.
This community of about 3,000 people lies just offshore, with a wooden footbridge connecting it to the mainland, where the town’s school and landing strip are located. Most homes in Playón Chico are traditional thatched buildings, with small gardens shaded by breadfruit, mango, or citrus trees. It was an important place in the 1925 revolution that led to Guna autonomy because it held one of the Panama military outposts that were captured by Guna warriors.
Achutupo, or Isla Perro in Spanish, is a medium-sized community on an island near the mainland in the eastern half of Guna Yala. Because this is the most distant area that you can visit in Guna Yala, it’s a good destination if you’re especially interested in Guna culture. The people on Achutupo and nearby Aligandi see few tourists and offer handicrafts of a higher quality than you’ll find on the province’s western end.
La Palma, the capital of the Darién Province, is a perfect illustration of just how undeveloped this province is. At the end of a peninsula where the Tuira River flows into the Golfo de San Miguel, La Palma has just one commercial street with a handful of government offices, basic restaurants, rustic hotels, as well as a bank, hospital, and police station. It has one of Darién’s few airstrips, but commercial flights were suspended in 2012, so the nearby Reserva Natural Punta Patiño and Emberá villages of La Marea and Mogue can only be reached by a combination of road and boat from Panama City, or from a cruise ship.
Nestled in the southwest corner of the Darién province, just north of the Jaqué River, lies remote and beautiful Bahía Piñas, a deep bay with a rocky coastline, where mountains are covered with virgin rain forest and the aquamarine sea teems with an array of marine life. In fact, it’s the marine life that draws most people to Piñas Bay, since the quality of its fishing is legendary, with more than 300 world fishing records set in the surrounding waters. Zane Grey fished in the area in the 1950s, and John Wayne and Lee Marvin hooked plenty of billfish here in the ’60s. Since then, thousands of anglers have followed in their wake, heading out to Zane Grey Reef in search of sailfish and blue, black, and striped marlin. The Tropic Star Lodge, in Bahía Piñas, provides convenient access to some of the best sport fishing in the world.