The Untouched Tropical Paradise

of the San Blas Islands

The Land of the Kunas consists of approximately 365 stunning little islands scattered off the north coast of Panama. Home to the indigenous Kuna people, the untouched tropical paradise of the San Blas Islands is facing a worrying future.

San Blas, or Guna Yala, became a special place for me, as it will for everyone visiting and experiencing this remarkable place not known to the masses. As there is tons of information to be found about this subject elsewhere on the world wide web, I’m not going to bother you with just another copy of facts. Instead, I’ll show you this fascinating destination seen through the eyes of a sea kayaking guide.

A sad but inevitable truth

The other day my Kuna buddy and fellow guide Nemesio sent me a photo of a group of Kuna teens cleaning the windward side of their island. Dozens of garbage bags were filled with trash, mostly plastic bottles. Trash that floats from the Atlantic Ocean into the Caribbean Sea and finally ending up on the white sand beaches of Guna Yala.

Every other week they gather to clean up this mess, and transport the rubbish to the mainland in their dugout canoes; and this is only one of three-hundred-sixty-five islands dealing with this uncontrollable issue.

san blas guna yala cleaning beach ocean pollution tropical sea kayaking
Diadip Guna Yala San Blas Tropical Sea Kayaking

I love every community and every tiny little island in this Archipelago, in particular ‘Diadup’. This island is run by a local family who clean and rake the beach every single morning at dawn. When I crawl out of my tent to help them clean before my guests wake up, I get greeted by five huge smiles.

Grandpa flags me down to help him, his grandchildren hand me a rake, as mother spoils me with a welcoming cup of tea. Father is out fishing while grandmother is knitting a ‘Mola’. It’s 6 am, best start of the day!

The last couple of years pitching up my tent on this very island had become too risky. It gets flooded due to the rising of the seas, especially at high tide during spring tide. Now we all sleep in hammocks with water running underneath.

As this island is furthest out at sea it will be one of the first to be submerged- it won’t take long for others to follow. A sad but inevitable truth.

hammocks at diadup guna yala san blas tropical sea kayaking
kunas meet westerners san blas tropical sea kayaking

As I paddle from Diadup into the more protected waters of San Blas, I enter a country of beauty beyond words. The shallow, crystal clear waters showing the constant presence of coral reefs and tropical fish as I glide in my sea kayak along and through the mangrove forests to my next destination.

We set up camp, snorkel the surrounding coral reefs, kayak to neighboring islands, and relax in our Panama made hammocks while we effortlessly leave our comfort zone in order to fully grasp the reality of this magical country. I show my people the land of the Kunas as I show my Kuna friends the habits of the Westerners, resulting in mere memorable encounters.

This is my job, a true privilege I get reminded of every single moment

Waking up to the unpolluted air and sounds of nature as I step out of my tent, pitched right on the beach under a palm tree, and into the water with my snorkel & mask to greet the colorful corals & fish. As the sun rises turning red to orange to yellow, I help Nemesio preparing breakfast for our guests. Pancakes, French toast, pineapples, bananas, papaya, a cup of tea or coffee, and off we go.

We paddle towards the mountainous mainland and into the rain forest via a curly Amazon like river for a proper wash up with biodegradable soap. On the way back we salute fishermen who proudly hold up their catch of the day. We surround the 30-year-old dugout canoe with our 16-foot sea kayaks as we exchange a few dollars for a freshly caught dinner. Everyone’s happy!

We continue back to our private little island the size of a tennis court where I hand out ice cold brewskies. After some more snorkeling and hammock surfing we serve dinner as the sun sets: Red Snapper & Barracuda! We celebrate the day with a night cap and a bonfire of fallen palm leafs. Life is good in the Land of the Kunas, but for how long…

camp in san blas guna yala tropical sea kayaking
panga dugout san blas guna yala tropical sea kayaking
cold beers in san blas guna yala tropical sea kayaking panama

Trouble in Paradise

‘The untouched tropical paradise of the San Blas Islands’- it sounds too good to be true. In the last decade this title turned into a real paradox. It’s a tropical paradise alright, but untouched not so much, let alone unspoiled.

Luckily the Kunas keep their land as it has been over the past centuries to the best of their ability. They strongly value their traditions and way of life, and therefore control the amount of visitors by refusing foreign investors. If they wouldn’t have stood their grounds, I’m sure San Blas would have the same outcome as the artificial ‘The World Archipelago’ in Dubai: a catastrophic failure.

the world dubai
island life in san blas panama tropical sea kayaking

The untouched part is what makes the title a paradox. Not due to the amount of visitors, but rather the greater effects of ocean pollution and the rising of the seas. The Kunas can’t do anything but accept this inevitable truth. In the meantime they keep cleaning their islands and make plans to evacuate to higher grounds on the mainland which eventually they’ll call home with a vista on what one day was their land of 365 tiny untouched, unspoiled islands.

When that day will come, nobody knows for sure. Until then I will keep paddling my sea kayak through these waters from island to island, meeting and greeting the wonderful Kuna people together with anyone who likes to join me before the untouched tropical paradise of the San Blas Islands is no more. Who’s in?