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Friday, April 18, 2014

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Paradise Found in Panama’s San Blas Islands

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Sunbathers enjoy Tuba Senika’s beach. [Sheldon Kirshner photo]

TUBA SENIKA, Panama – The San Blas archipelago of sun-drenched, palm-fringed islands and islets are a traveller’s dream come true.

Consisting of more than 300 islands, 49 of which are inhabited, this 2,360-square-kilometre chain of idyllic islands are the domain of Panama’s indigenous people, the Kuna Indians, who are justly famous for their brightly coloured mola textiles

A paradisiacal retreat in the Caribbean Sea, the San Blas islands are remote yet accessible. Only about 130 kilometres north of Panama City, Panama’s bustling capital, they can be reached by asphalt roads and gravel tracks that cut through spectacularly beautiful virgin rainforests nestled high in rugged mountains.

After a somewhat bumpy ride in an all-terrain vehicle that kicked up clouds of dust and dirt, we arrived at the bank of a quiet river wreathed in lush vegetation.

My daughter and I were helped into a covered motorboat equipped with benches. Our suitcases and knapsacks, as well as our plastic bags jammed with newly bought food, were placed in a cargo hold at the bow. The islanders provide three meals a day, but we were advised by our Canadian tour leader that extras, ranging from bottled water to cookies, might be necessary.

Within 10 minutes, the boat reached open seas, but the crew needed to use long paddles to push us out of the clear, aquamarine/turquoise shallow waters. From a fair distance, the islands looked like container ships. But as we drew closer, passing coral reefs teeming with a profusion of tropical fish, we knew we had reached a special place.

 Our home-away-from home for the next two days, the tiny island of Tuba Senika, met every expectation of a traveller who has seen far too many Hollywood movies portraying picture-perfect Pacific islands. Fine sand beaches and clusters of coconut palm trees rustling gently in the breeze conjured up visions of Paradise Found.

Tuba Senika and its sister islands stretch eastward to the border with Colombia and form the Comarca Kuna Yala, or the Land of the Kuna.

The Kunas, migrating originally from Colombia, were forced onto the San Blas islands by Spanish colonialists. Until then, the islands were largely the preserve of the Spaniards and European pirates.

In 1925, the Kunas, hunters, farmers and fishers, were granted autonomy by the Panamanian government, which had unsuccessfully tried to suppress their culture. Since then, the islands, virtually mosquito-free and bereft of wildlife, have been exclusively owned by the Kunas.

Once dependent on the coconut trade for a livelihood, the Kunas, with a population of about 60,000, now rely mainly on tourism. Agriculture is practised by a minority of Kunas dwelling in mainland villages.

Tuba Senika, a 50-minute boat ride from the coast and administered by a gnarled Kuna elder who goes by the name of Franklin, attracts visitors from every corner of the globe. While on the island, I heard a babel of English, Hebrew, German, Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese.

In terms of amenities, the island, roughly 200 metres long by 100 metres wide, is relatively primitive. Visitors are assigned a simple bamboo-sided, triangular thatch-roofed hut with a sand floor, bed and rudimentary nightstand. Electricity, taken from a generator, is available from only about 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Candles and flashlights are useful when darkness descends.

Toilets are flushed with a pail of water, stored in large barrels. The shower, adjacent to the toilet, is nothing more than a pipe controlled by a lever. You bring your own soap and shampoo.

Meals are served in a communal dining hut, but are supplemented by supplies you purchased in a modern supermarket on the outskirts of Panama City.

Breakfast consists of scrambled eggs, white bread and coffee or tea. Lunch, the biggest meal of the day, is composed of fresh fish, rice and brown lentils and a slice of pineapple. Supper is an amalgam of boiled potatoes, cooked cabbage and a slab of hard beef or chicken.

You can order a lobster dish, if you’re willing to pay $25.

Being savvy entrepreneurs, the Kunas charge a fee for an assortment of services. A coconut costs $1, while a boat ride to another island is $40. If you want to photograph a Kuna woman, you will be asked for $1. It’s strictly forbidden to take photographs without their permission. Some Kunas refuse to pose for pictures, believing their souls will be snatched away by the camera.

Typically, Kuna women wear print skirts, short-sleeved blouses and beads around their legs. Their faces are painted with a black line from their forehead to the tip of their nose. Shy and usually not given to conversation, they are skilled in weaving molas, traditional textiles made by using applique techniques. Molas are sold on the inhabited island, and prices tend to be reasonable.

Kuna men are more westernized, wearing conventional shorts, pants, shirts, jerseys and baseball caps.

When we were not swimming or snorkelling in the warm sea, sunbathing on the beach, searching for seashells or lolling in hammocks and listening to the slapping sound of waves, we were busy with other activities.

One morning, my daughter and I visited a deserted islet with a single scrawny palm tree and several slabs of driftwood. We felt like castaways.

The following afternoon, we were taken to a scruffy mainland village and introduced to a saila, the spiritual and political leader of a Kuna community, who invariably is a wise and learned man. The saila we met, in a large, dim thatched hut, was casually slumped back in a hammock. He was barefoot and clad in blue pants, a pale blue shirt and a cap.

Through an interpreter, he took questions, barely moving and with a stony expression on his brown face. At the end of the session, he requested a $1 “donation” from each of us.

Walking through the village, which seemed poverty-stricken, I spied an albino woman whose short-cut mane of hair was the hue of an apricot. The Kuna people have a high incidence of albinism, which is apparently highly regarded in their society. Albinos, it is said, possesses the power of warding off demons.

But on Tuba Senika, I didn’t run into any demons, only foreigners who were having the times of their lives.]

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