About the San Blas islands and Comarca Guna Yala
- TOURISM IS RELATIVELY NEW IN THE ISLANDS AND LUXURY CANNOT BE EXPECTED. Most accommodations are rustic, meals are basic and timing often not exact.
- Guna Yala is a semi-autonomous indigenous Comarca (territory). The comarca, it's residents and approved agencies such as ourselves are under the authority of the Guna Congreso (government) when operating within the territory. As guides and an agency for Guna Yala law requires us to work within a network of approved Guna contractors for island accommodation and staff and within a similar network for approved regulated transportation services. Non Guna staff members are prohibited in the islands, as are non Guna owned assets being used for commercial purposes. We are required to prepay our contract partners for accommodations and transportation. As such, In the event of a service error we cannot guarantee refunds will be given.
- Guna Yala is simple and away from civilization, therefore no running water, no internet and only limited electricity. Most accommodations are built on sand, the quality of the matrassess is mediocre. The food is very basic, the portions usually small. We do not not have much influence on the quality of this.
- Please understand that Guna Yala is unlike anywhere most people have been. It is remote, rustic, and primitive. The behaviors and practices of the locals that conduct operations is not always in line with the level of professionalism that many expect in international tourism. Guna Yala is a beautiful and fascinating place, but it is more of an adventure travel destination than a traditional service oriented tourism destination.
- The lack of infrastructure and closeness with nature is intentional. Guna Yala has refused many large hotel and development investment offers in the Islands because they pride their autonomy and way of life. Do not expect the trappings and conveniences of normal tourist destinations. If a very rustic environment is not for you then please consider either just a day trip or another destination such as Bocas Del Toro.
- Boat rides may be wet and bumpy, sometimes very wet (this is part of the adventure). Make sure to protect all your valuable items such as phone, camera etc. There is not always a dock to help guests in and out of the boat. Guests must be in good enough physical condition to board the boats from the beach.
- You will have the pleasure of being away from everything, experience a unique culture and just relax and enjoy the moment.
History and background of the Guna and the islands
- The Guna people live in three separate “comarcas” or reservations in Panama. The largest population of Guna Yala inhabits the San Blas Islands. This archipelago on the northern Caribbean coast of Panama is made up of more than 360 islands. They are a matrilineal society, meaning when they marry the couple will then live with the bride’s family and the groom will take her name.
- The name San Blas was given to the islands by it first hispanic visitors, and carried on as the official name for the province (now a semi autonomous province of Panama) to the outside world until 1998 when it was changed to Kuna Yala, a name given to the area by it's indigenous residents. Kuna meaning "people" and Yala meaning "land," put together it simply means Kuna land .In 2010 a change was made to the spelling and Kuna was changed to Guna. Guna National Congress decided to remove the letters P, T and K from their alphabet, the latter being replaced by the letter G.
- The islands of Guna Yala (formerly known as San Blas Islands) are approximately 365 tiny islands (most of which take less than 10 minutes to walk around entirely) along the coast of Panama, home to the fiercely independent Guna people.
- The Gunas are an indigenous tribe whom have their origin near Cartagena, Colombia. The Guna migrated into the Darien jungle and the islands they now occupy starting in the late 1400's. The Guna are now a semi-autonomous indigenous nation but their people are also citizens of Panama.The semi-autonomous status allows the Guna to have their own government, which has full authority to make policy decisions and laws within the territory. When entering the Guna Yala Comarca you are subject to the Guna law.
- 49 of the islands are communities, the heart of the the Gunas fascinating culture, and the rest are private or community owned beach islands (some of which have accommodations for visitors), most of which are only occupied by a small family of caretakers.
- Their economy subsists mainly on agriculture and fishing as well as international trade and tourism. A large part of their economy was and still is based on their sale of coconuts. While in the islands, please do not remove any coconuts from the ground or trees, they are available for purchase. Sale of artisan goods such as bracelets and “molas” also provide additional income. Molas are lovely bright pieces of fabric with beautiful and intricate designs covering them. Though they may seem a little expensive to some backpackers, they are all hand stitched and extremely time consuming to make. A large mola averages around 15 to 20 USD and is available throughout the trip for purchase from the locals
- The Guna are strong minded people who hold dear their traditions and autonomy. Over the course of history there have been many negative interactions with outside cultures trying to colonize the people or steal the natural resources of the Guna. Because of this many of the leaders of the community are resistant to influence by outsiders and resit some of the practices that have become norms in the western world. They are very progressive in their views of homosexuality and transgender but still maintain their traditional values. The can be quite conservative and we ask that you please respect this and refrain from any risqué behavior or dress (no nudity). We understand that there are bound to be cultural differences and though you may feel free to express your opinion we ask that you not be disrespectful. The younger Guna tend to be more open to change and interaction with visitors. They maintain their local dialect of Dulegaya but many also speak Spanish and some English.
- Feel free to bring gifts for the kids on the islands; we encourage giving school supplies and small toys instead of sweets and candies.So get ready to experience one of the most beautiful and interesting cultures in the world on our San Blas tours!
Government & Laws
- Guna Yala is a semi-autonomous indigenous Comarca (territory). The comarca, it's residents and approved agencies such as ourselves are under the authority of the Guna Congreso (government) when operating within the territory.
- No foreigner are allowed to own any assets or work in the islands and all agencies operating there are subject to the Guna governments rules.
- As guides and an agency Guna Yala law requires us to work within a network of approved Guna contractors for island accommodation, staff and within a similar network for approved regulated transportation services. Non Guna staff members are prohibited in the islands, as are non Guna owned assets being used for commercial purposes. We are required to prepay our contract partners for accommodations and transportation. As such, In the event of a service error we cannot guarantee refunds will be given.
- Ultimately only the Guna government has the authority to dictate and enforce standards. However, the Guna government does not provide any support for guests or tour agencies in resolving complaints. Sometimes the Government decides to close the territory or send all visitors out of the territory with little or no notice. Generally this is done due to concerns with weather or closure of the only road in and out. When this happens we must comply. If additional costs are incurred by visitors due to evacuations or closures the Guna government considers those costs the responsibility of the visitors.
- At Cacique Cruiser we are guides and an experience curator that provides the most consistently excellent Guna Yala tourism experiences available. We have staff members in the islands and Panama City working everyday to provide the best experiences available. We have demonstrated excellence in our 5 years of leading guests through these islands.
- With each of the trips we offer we request in our agreements that all local contractors abide by internationally recognized standards or safety and professionalism. We also have daily processes on our side to monitor and attempt to influence our local contractor conduct. Our staff works very hard 7 days a week in an attempt to manage excellent outcomes for visitors from beginning to end.
- We will always make ourselves available to communicate with guests and help them resolve issues in a fair manner. We will investigate each issue, advocate for the guests and encourage our partners to resolve these things in a fair manner. If a partner fails to resolve an issue in a manner we think is fair we will make that known, encourage change and consider other options within the limited network if problems are not resolved well or are repeated regularly.
Prohibited Items and Activities
- Filming for any public use purpose without a permit
- Kite Surfing
- Sport fishing, non-artisanal fishing
- Scuba Diving
- As noted above use of Drones are prohibited in Guna Yala, and filming that is used for any public purpose (even if not monetized) requires a permit from the Guna government. These permits are difficult to get and take a long time.
- As a visitor you are welcome to take photos of the nature and public areas. If you would like to take pictures of the Guna people please ask for their permission first. Some Gunas will charge you $1 per photo, some might completely refuse because they don't want their picture online. So please respect this.
- The Guna kids love to be in pictures but please also ask them first too. If their parents are around ask them for permission.