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San Blas Islands,
Located just off the coast of Panama, the San Blas Islands are one of the most unique stops for cruise ships passing by. Visiting the San Blas Islands is like stepping into a time machine and finding yourself transported back to the days of explorers like Columbus.
The San Blas Islands are 378 beautiful islands and cays on the Caribbean coast of Panama. Less than 50 are inhabited. In the 1600s, the islands were used as hiding places for pirates! The Kuna natives still inhabit the islands as they did for hundreds of years. Legend says they fled to the San Blas Islands from Panama when Spanish conquerers drove them out of their ancestral homes.
We stopped at the San Blas Islands on a cruise through the Panama Canal. Our cruise ship dropped anchor a short distance from one of the islands and we rode tender boats to shore. Once we arrived, we found ourselves greeted by Kunas dressed in brightly colored clothing and selling their colorful molas. Molas are hand-sewn cloth panels that can be stitched together to form Kuna clothing. Tourists purchase molas as souvenirs.
Even though the Kuna people dress in native clothing, they are well aware of the earning potential from visiting tourists. Sad faced children stand in the sand pathways between huts holding puppies and kittens. They charge tourists $1.00 to take their photo. As a matter of fact, if you take a photo of any Kuna, they will approach you and demand a dollar for the photo you took of them.
Even though the Kuna people still wear their mola clothing and try to appear "native," they are just as modern as the tourists they entertain. It became an ongoing game among our group. As soon as we passed by a group of native Kunas and they thought we couldn't see them, we would turn around and catch them talking on the cell phones they had hidden in their molas! One of the Kuna huts had a large screen LCD television hidden inside!
One of our funniest moments happened when a tourist near us asked for directions to a toilet. He was directed to an outhouse on a dock that emptied straight down into the water below! Later when a Kuna tried to sell us a crab harvested from those waters, we all laughed and declined his offer absolutely!
The Kuna people can also be found selling their wares on the mainland in Panama. We had another funny experience when our tour guide promised we would see native Kuna children dancing on the shores of Panama "as they have for hundreds of years." Our bus arrived earlier than they expected and we found young children dressed in modern school clothes and carrying backpacks emerging from a taxi cab. The children jumped out of the cab, ran ahead of our group, changed into their Kuna mola clothing and then began to dance. We laughed at the thought of "hundreds of years" ago children wearing t-shitrs, tennis shoes and riding in taxi cabs.
Several of the San Blas Islands house hotels or resorts such as the Yandup Island Lodge and the Sapibenega Kuna Lodge.
The San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama are beautiful. They are well-worth visiting if you have the chance. The Kuna people have a distinctive look and offer some excellent opportunities for unique photos. The Kuna molas are unique and inexpensive souvenirs that give you a great story to share with your friends back home.
Watch our video of the San Blas Islands -