“For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it.” Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Here I am exploring Panama at 5.30 am, on what looks like a day that will become this typical beach adventure in paradise. But for the moment we will meander up a mangrove lined fresh water estuary river to see snakes, sloths and some amazing birds begin to stir. Just another day in Bastimentos, Panama that feels like a moment in "Apocalyse Now" without the guns. Early light , revealing nature in a National Geographic Zen moment of discovery and wonder and then a fellow traveller whispers in my ear. "I hope the San Blas Islands are this amazing?" Ok one adventure so often leads to another and of course she has grabbed my enthusiasm for new discoveries. I will now have to try and find out if the San Blas Islands are this amazing? It`s what we do!
One thing to consider for any travel or life in Panama is that it comes pretty much tropical storm free. It has only been affected by one Atlantic hurricane historically (1969) and seems to be protected by it`s geographic location. This is in vivid contrast to this sad moment in the Phillipines and it`s challenging tropical location. So perhaps I will be travelling to a San Blas shangri-la? Is everything copacetic in this "wonder land"?
The Spanish named the archipelago off Panama`s Carribean coast the San Blas Islands, but to the Kuna, they are part of the Kuna Yala. The land of the Kuna (the indiginous people of Panama). About ten percent of these islands are inhabited and many of the rest are day-trip destinations that visitors on Panama tours consider the most appealing part of the Kuna territory. You can fly to El Porvenier or Playon Chico, where we will begin our venture. From there we take a short boat ride to the Yandup Island Lodge and our private thatched hut. Our slice of shangri-la.
I`m here for the snorkeling, tranquility and island vibe which the Kuna package and sell with snorkel trips daily to pristine "Giliganesque" settings, thatched sleeping huts from a south pacific tribal dream and seafood shared with travellers sharing similiar goals of adventure and escape. The cover of this book is too appealing but our daytrip to the local Kuna village on Playon Chico refocuses the challenges of true life in Kuna land. We see the reality of tribal life that would be considered very poor in most of our lives. Their sewage is openly dumped untreated to their local sea and fisherman struggle to catch enough to sustain their economy
, as evidenced throughout the world. The Kuna People try to manage typical developing world issues of poverty, maintaining their culture and traditions, and sustainably growing an economy of fishing and tourism that works for everyone. This is the story of our times as countries like Panama sell us a piece of paradise for their progress.
These are the mixed blessings of travel as I, fully geared, will snorkel with a very young barefooted, gearless Kuna boy who easily maneuvers the reef ahead of me. We follow a massive Eagle Ray through channels of reef and then encounter a Barracuda as large as my wife in the same moment. Miracles of Gaia and it`s Oceans in the true life fantasy of Dog Island , Cabanas, Tuborgana Island, and many other islands that an adventure pirate would "die for". On land, I circle most of the dreamy white sand islands and find garbage washing up on the windward side of paradise. This seems to be the part of civilization that we, in the developed world share as gifts of our neglect. Plastics and garbage. This is all part of what the Kuna sell for progress. To dance with our crazy civilization for our mighty dollars?
In San Blas I can explore seaworld and come home to wonder at the the commitment of Kuna women of Panama as they carry very heavy weights of life giving drinking water from their docks to their village (drinking water from the mainland). Women seem to bear a lot of weight in this world.
They value their traditions while struggling for economy and I worry about what we can offer besides tourism dollars and island lust. Then I discover the possibilities of an organization called "Seacology". “Seacology is playing a critically needed role in preserving the vitally important yet very threatened terrestrial and marine ecosystems of islands throughout the world.” Dr. Sylvia Earle Now when Sylvia speaks about Ocean ecology and development, I listen. This is a stamp of approval that rings huge credibility. Seacology protects island habitats and assists island communities. If a community agrees to create a forest or marine reserve then Seacology will provide funds for something a village needs like a schoolhouse or health clinic. Since 1991, they’ve worked with over 200 villages on 149 islands in 51 countries. And San Blas has now become one of their waste management projects. This is too cool! Eco-friendly tourism.
This is the kind action that opens the door to potential for a sustainable travel experience. Greedy, needy old me can feed the tourism economy, explore the best of this corner of the planet with an Eagle Ray, try to understand a new culture and it`s traditions and then support an organization trying to "make a positive difference" in the life of the Kuna. I`m still dreaming about, barracuda, coral reefs and the white sands of San Blas and this could become the heart of karmic travel. A win, win in Panama.