Panama’s Lost Tribe

I was closing in on the San Blas Islands; a paradise archipelago scattered off Panama’s Caribbean coast. It was early morning and I was traveling from the mainland via motorized dugout canoe to Cartí, one of the largest of the 378 islands. We pulled up next to a wooden jetty…and stepped into another world.

San Blas, known locally as the Kuna Yala Reserve, is home to the indigenous, self-governing Kuna Yala tribe. These welcoming people still live as they have done for centuries despite the fact that their homeland is located just off the coast of glistening, modern Panama City.

With their own language and communities governed by the laws of the local chief, it’s like stepping into a National Geographic special.

Accommodation is more homestay than hotel—a plus in my books. I was billeted in a rustic bamboo-and-thatch hut with an upper level for guests and mattresses on the floor divided by curtains. The shower facilities consist of a large bucket of cold water outside.

I decided to go for a wander around the tiny island, stopping to take in the smoke, song, and the scent of incense which drifted from a nearby hut. One of the locals explained that the village shaman was tending to a sick neighbor.

We spent the afternoon on one of the deserted islands nearby, with its impossibly colorful reefs, abundant sea life, and infinite shades of blue. Our boatman and his son speared fish and lobster and brought their catch to be cooked over the fire. We ate lunch in the shade of the coconut trees. A gentle breeze shifted the grasses—it was a glimpse into paradise.

That night, having lingered at the stalls where local women sold colorful jewelry and other crafts, we drifted off to sleep with the stars twinkling through gaps in the thatched roof.

Suddenly, I woke to feel the ground swaying. People were calling out and the whole building was shaking. Our guide came upstairs with a glowing lamp—was everyone ok? It was nothing to worry about, he explained, just an earthquake. So, we took our cue from the locals, rearranged ourselves under the mosquito nets, and fell back to sleep.

The next morning, life on San Blas was as calm as the cloudless blue sky. Men swayed languidly in hammocks while women busied themselves cooking rice and chopping tomatoes for breakfast. Later that afternoon we piled reluctantly into a boat headed back to the mainland—even a midnight earthquake couldn’t deter us from this untouched island paradise.

I’m a travel writer, so I often get to spend time in the world’s beauty spots. I thought my article on the San Blas would simply be an account of white sand, swaying coconut trees and friendly locals. But as I often tell other travel writers who are starting out—each destination has a story, and the story could be hiding where you least expect it. Sometimes though, the story wakes you up in the middle of the night…and that’s what everyone will want to read about.

Travel is an adventure—and travel writers have the privilege of being able to capture the moment. It’s a wonderful responsibility and one I hope to exercise everywhere I go.

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