DESPITE BEING ONE OF the smallest countries in Latin America, Panama has set aside more land for its indigenous people than anywhere else in the Americas. The Kuna Yala, one of its five reservations or comarca, consists of more than 365 islands - one for every day of the year, the resident Kuna Indians like to say. Some are uninhabited idylls barely big enough to accommodate a dozen palm trees, others are occupied by ramshackle villages that overflow on to jetties built over the aquamarine sea.
Our plan was to fly in and catch a motorised dugout (a panga) to our base on Tigre, one of the inhabited islands, where our kayaks were waiting for us. Then we'd spend a week paddling through part of the archipelago, experiencing nature and culture in equal doses: camping on postcard-perfect islands we'd have all to ourselves and visiting remote, relatively untouched Kuna communities.
This part of the Caribbean is ideal for open-water paddling. It's well south of the hurricane belt, the water is as warm as the equatorial climate (with cooling trade winds to take the edge off the tropical heat), the islands are perfectly spaced for camping-kayaking trips like ours, and protective reefs keep swells to a minimum.
Travelling by kayak also feels like an authentic way to experience the islands, because it's similar to how the Kuna travel themselves - albeit in dugout canoes and hand-hewn sailboats. It's a chance to see the land (and sea) through the eyes of the people who have lived there for hundreds of years.
From forests to freedom
The Kuna haven't always been an island people. Originally from the Darien forests of eastern Panama, a zone of impenetrable jungle now popular with armed rebels on the Columbian side and brave birdwatchers, they fled their forest homeland in the 16th century to escape Spanish domination. When they reached the coast, most of them kept going - away from the mosquito-infested mainland (malaria is still endemic to this region).
Their separation from mainland Panama was complete when, after revolting against Panamanian police stationed on two of the islands in 1925, they were granted autonomy and adopted the swastika design as their national flag (in Kuna culture, the ancient swastika symbol represents the octopus they believe created the world). Today they remain fiercely independent, routinely expelling tourism operators, government bodies, even aid organisations that don't respect Kuna values.
There's also a permission protocol. Every island, no matter how small, has a community responsible for it (there are 49 communities in the Kuna Yala). If you want to land anywhere, even just for a swim or to go snorkelling, you have to get permission from the relevant community, and pay a small fee, usually a couple of US dollars per person per day. That's one of the reasons only about 30 outsiders get to paddle the Kuna Yala each year. It's also how we came to have our first Kuna cultural encounter, with Tigre's community chief or sahila, on our very first day.
Meeting the locals
It was a take-me-to-your-leader moment when we filed silently into Tigre's 'town hall' (a thatched hut larger than all the others in the village) and sat down on a long wooden bench in front of the sahila - an elderly gent, wearing Western clothes and a trilby hat, reclining in a hammock. As instructed, we took turns politely introducing ourselves in stumbling Spanish.
Meanwhile, he said nothing, didn't even smile, and I started to wonder - what would we do if he actually said "no", that we couldn't paddle here? Then it came, the nod that told us (via one of the sahila's assistants, who spoke perfect English) the community was more than happy for us to paddle through and camp on Tigre's islands. Permission granted.
Formalities over, we spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Tigre's dusty streets, escorted by our Kuna kayaking guides. Everyone we met seemed friendly but shy - especially the women, who are the caretakers of Kuna culture. Unlike other Latin American indigenous cultures, Kuna society is matrilineal. It's traditional for the women to propose marriage, for instance.
It's the women, too, who still dress traditionally, in blouses on to which they have sewn hand-embroidered molas, appliqué panels featuring local animals such as toucans and turtles. They also wear strings of beads wrapped around their forearms and calves, paint their cheeks with rouge made from achiote seeds, pencil a black line from their forehead to the end of their nose, and adorn themselves with gold and silver jewellery, including gold nose rings.
That night we were treated to a dance performance, a kind of slow square dance accompanied by pan flute music. The women wore neck-to-knee outfits as usual, the men wore white long-sleeved shirts and straw hats, and with darkness all around it felt as if we'd been transported back to an ancient forest.
The next morning, waved off by a few Kuna girls standing on Tigre's rickety wharf, we paddled away, bound for our first uninhabited island. Setting the tone for the rest of the trip, we paddled for most of the day, negotiating the ragged edges of shallow reefs, sometimes against a stiff headwind. Other islands en route were ideal stopovers for a watermelon break, lunch, and snorkelling expeditions. At dusk we reached our campsite, where we set up tents and strung hammocks between suitably spaced palm trees, watching for loose coconuts overhead.
It didn't take long to get into the rhythm of balmy days like this and nights by the sea. Each morning at dawn - which is pretty much 6.30 a.m. every day of the year this close to the equator - the aroma of freshly brewed coffee and, if we were lucky, banana pancakes, roused us from sleep. By 9 a.m., after breaking camp and loading all the gear and supplies into the kayaks and our panga, we'd be paddling again across glassy blues and greens.
Despite our tropical location, the scenery was surprisingly varied. Some days our backdrop was the mountainous mainland - the Continental Divide, which extends all the way from Alaska to the tip of Argentina. Sometimes we'd cruise close to the coast through a maze of mangroves, watching long-tailed tamarind monkeys in the trees overhead and listening for birds (Panama has about 970 bird species, about 10 per cent of all bird species in the world); or we'd explore upriver, keeping an eye out for crocodiles (we did see one at close range, until it saw us and plunged off the high riverbank into the water).
But this trip was really about the two kinds of islands that make up the Kuna Yala. We'd set our sights on a cluster of palm trees that seemed to grow straight out of the sea, until we paddled closer and saw the low-lying sandy island they really grew on. Or we'd paddle alongside villages where children waved from stilt jetties and half-clothed women with babies on their hips stood silently watching, while men glided past us in 100-year-old dugout canoes.
On some of these islands every inch of land has been occupied, all of it barely a metre above the sea. In a few decades, they'll probably be underwater, their inhabitants forced back to the mainland - sea levels in this part of the Caribbean have risen 15 cm in the past 50 years.
My favourite island was Sirchirdupu. We hung out with the locals more there than anywhere else and one of the men even took us for a sail in his cayuco, a heavy wooden boat with a hand-made sail. The snorkelling was the best we'd had too. I found a conch shell as big as my head a few metres offshore and there were more tropical fish and colourful corals than at any of the other islands we camped on - for good reason.
Sirchirdupu is a textbook example of sustainable tourism. The camping fee we paid effectively compensates the family who lives there for not fishing or collecting coral on the surrounding reefs, except for food. In the 10 or so years since visitors have been dropping by, the fish life has increased and the coral has regenerated. It's good to see tourism having a positive effect on a natural place.
The last day of our trip came too soon. There was no paddling, just an early morning panga ride to the mainland where we waited on the edge of a concrete airstrip for the daily flight back to Panama City. The plane landed half an hour early, stopping just in time to avoid running off the end of the bumpy runway into the ocean, but we were ready. We showed our passports, the pilot ticked our names off his handwritten list, we climbed aboard.
After six days of living close to the sea, paddling, camping in traditional Kuna villages and sleeping in hammocks on pocket-sized Caribbean islets, it felt strange to be airborne. And looking down, with sand in my ears and salt still on my skin, I already missed what now looked like a map below, the cluster of islands that had been our entire world.
The Kuna Yala (formerly the San Blas Archipelago) is an indigenous territory of more than 365 islands and 373 km of coastline on the Caribbean side of Panama, Central America.
Getting there: There are no direct flights from Australia to Panama; the best way to get there is to fly via Los Angeles. United Airlines flies daily to LA; Panama's national carrier Copa Airlines has daily direct flights from LA to Panama City, for about US$375 one-way.
How to do it: Southern Sea Ventures runs nine-day kayaking trips through the Kuna Yala, with six paddling days, between January and April. The cost per person, ex Panama City, is US$2250 and includes domestic flights to and from the Kuna Yala, sea kayaking instruction and equipment, experienced guides, meals, accommodation (six nights camping, two nights in hotels) and a motorised support boat. For more information call (02) 8901 3287 or visit www.southernseaventures.com.
Visas, money, lingo: Australian citizens don't require a visa to enter Panama but you'll need to buy a 30-day Tourist Card (US$5) at Los Angeles airport en route to Panama City. The unit of currency in Panama is the US dollar. Spanish is the official language.
Health matters: According to the World Health Organisation, there is yellow fever in Panama, and malaria in the Kuna Yala/San Blas region; for immunisation and health advice visit www.traveldoctor.com.au.
Louise Southerden paddled Panama with assistance from Southern Sea Ventures and United Airlines.
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