Three Days with the Kuna Yala in Panama’s San Blas Islands

By Matt Payne

Children of Playon Chico, Ukupseni

Three Kuna women waited for the plane in the rudimentary airport as I arrived to Playon Chico, a small indigenous village in Panama’s San Blas Islands. Each woman was dressed traditionally with a gold ring through their septum and dawning a bright red headscarf, colorful blouse and an explosion of colorful beads on their wrists and legs. The tallest of the three came half way to my torso and they spoke in hushed tones using Kuna and not the Spanish I’d grown used to in my 16 day stay in Central America. Several crabs scurried between their feet and a pair of white ibis flew lazily overhead. A man with a machete walked down the runway towards the three walled airport as children chased a soccer ball in the opposite direction. It was a different world that the frenetic Panama City from whence I’d come.

Local Guna woman in traditional clothing

I pulled out my phone to check in with my wife, but had no reception. The three women boarded the plane which took off over from the mainland over their tiny island connected to the airport by a footbridge. I patted my back pocket realizing quickly that my passport was still on the plane which seconds later, disappeared over the Caribbean Sea. “My passport is on that plane,” I said to Domi, a Kuna gentleman who was there to take me to Yandup Island, a local ecolodge, went minutes away by boat and run entirely by Kuna. I’d hoped to go to Yandup to relax, a goal which was thwarted by my own carelessness.

San Blas Islands

“Come to my village,” said Domi, in broken English. “I help you…”

Three days later, after an incredible trip and thanks to Domi, I got my passport back. Here are some of the beautiful people and incredible places I got to see along the way.  Hope you enjoy!