Special Considerations in the San Blas
All islands here are owned by Kuna families, no matter how isolated or even if they're totally uninhabited. It is not, therefore, permitted to camp overnight on an uninhabited island without an owner's permission. Though you will not receive anything as serious as jail time or a fine, it is considered by the Kuna to be a tremendous breach of respect. The cost to visit an island is $1 (£0.50) per person; you'll be expected to pay for every island you visit, no matter how close they are to each other. Of course, if an island is uninhabited, the owner might or might not show up to charge you.
Unfortunately, scuba diving is prohibited within the Comarca Kuna Yala. However, snorkeling is not. Snorkeling is better in the eastern part of the region, not near El Porvenir. If you are interested in diving just outside the San Blas, you'll need to stay at the nearby Coral Lodge in the Colón Province, or contact Panama Divers.
Kuna people are extremely sensitive to having their pictures taken. Always ask permission before taking a photo of a Kuna Indian, especially if it is a Kuna chief (recognizable by a felt hat and short jacket). Most Kunas, especially those in areas frequented by tourists, will charge $1 (£0.50) to have their photo taken.
At press time, Movistar cellular phones do not have coverage in the comarca, but Cable & Wireless does, though there is only service in the Carti-Rio Sidra sector. There are public telephones on the islands of El Porvenir, Wichubwala, and Gardi Sugdup, and there are telephones at the Sapibenega Kuna Lodge. Most hostels and lodges on islands have cellphones for emergencies. There are also satellite phones in areas where there's no cell phone coverage. There are basic medical facilities in Gardi Sugdup and Río Sidra; for more serious medical issues you'll need to fly to Panama City.
There is only one bank in the entire region, in the Nargana community, so come with enough cash plus a little extra just in case. Also, bring enough small bills for purchases.
The food served in the Comarca is almost always fish and shellfish -- usually cooked the same way every day. If you are allergic to fish, are a vegetarian, or simply do not fancy dining on seafood day in and day out, advise your hosts well ahead of time so that they can be prepared when you arrive. Bring snacks and sunscreen because there are no stores.
Getting There & Departing
By Plane -- Both Aeroperlas (tel. 351-7500; www.aeroperlas.com) and Air Panama (tel. 316-9000; www.flyairpanama.com) have daily flights to El Porvenir, with less frequent routes to other islands and destinations on the comarca (call or check their websites for schedule information). Because of the new road from Los Llanos to Carti, many previously regularly scheduled flights must now be chartered. The 20-minute flight to El Porvenir from Panama City costs about $130 (£65) on either airline, taxes included. The worst aspect of traveling to the comarca is that flights leave at the crack of dawn (6am), although large groups may charter a flight at a later hour. Return flights leave at 7am. Tip: If you do not have a return ticket or are unsure of your departure date, Mrs. Oti at the Hotel El Porvenir sells plane tickets for Air Panama. If there is space on Aeroperlas flights, you may simply pay when you arrive at the Albrook Airport. For charter flights, contact Air Panama (tel. 315-0439; firstname.lastname@example.org).
By Road & Boat -- There is no public ground transportation to the comarca, meaning almost all travelers arrive by boat or plane. Boat transportation to the island of Carti from the Port of Carti costs $1.50 (75p) each way; if you're heading out to other islands, expect to pay at least $10 (£5).
The road to the Comarca Kuna Yala is paved until El Llano, but from there it's a rough dirt road all the way to Carti. The government has plans to pave the entire road, but how long that will take is anyone's guess. From Cartí, cayucos, which are large dugout canoes with outboard motors, transport travelers to the islands in the insular region. Do not attempt this road with a regular car -- you will get stuck if you try, as this road is as rough as they get. Also, note that you'll have to cross a small river, so road travel to the comarca during rainy season is complicated at best and out of the question at worst, depending on rainfall. That said, the Llanos-Carti road offers great mountain and rainforest scenery that, in my opinion, makes the bumpy ride worth it. However, it's important to note that this road is best for adventurous types who aren't daunted by an extremely bumpy ride, the possibility of getting stuck in mudholes, and crossing a (possibly) high river. Note that a flight from Panama City to El Porvenir takes about 20 minutes, while the last 45km (72 miles) of the El Llano-Carti road alone can take upwards of 3 hours.
If you'd like to go by road but find driving a bit overwhelming, the following drivers can drop you off and pick you up at the Port of Carti: Felix tel. 6668-6099; Carlos tel. 6737-2103; Sr. Ramos tel. 6695-3229; Rigoberto tel. 6527-3367. Though not bilingual, these drivers have experience driving the Llanos-Carti road. Call to negotiate price, but expect to pay about $50 to $100 (£25-£50) each way depending on road conditions and number of passengers.
By Cruise Ship -- The Comarca Kuna Yala is a popular cruise-ship destination for its shimmering white-sand beaches. Ships dock and tender guests usually to Ikodue, which has bathrooms. Depending on the circumstances, it can, unfortunately, be an uncomfortable experience as some cruises are approached by poor Kuna women in cayucos begging for coins. Kuna women also cart over their handicrafts to sell.
Transportation around the islands is by motorboat (sometimes called a panga), or a cayuco. All lodging options listed in this chapter provide boat transportation as part of their all-inclusive price; day excursions by boat are included except for faraway destinations such as the Cayos Holandéses. Travel to and from the western Comarca's gulf to the east (to the Dolphin Lodge or the Sapibenega Lodge) by boat is nearly impossible, due to choppy sea conditions, time (up to 4 hr.), and reluctance by boat owners to undergo the distance. The only air service between the two regions is a thrice-weekly flight from El Porvenir to Corazón de Jesús. You can also hire a cayuco to get you around the different islands if you're camping or you want to see the region on your own. Because gas is expensive on the Kuna Islands, boat transportation can get expensive fast. However, island hopping and searching for the perfect, secluded beach among 350+ islands is part of the fun, and if you have a big enough group and can split the cost, this option is well worth it.