I was carrying these thoughts around for more than three years and I still don’t have an answer why I didn’t write about this sooner. San Blas islands trip in Kuna Yala territory in Panama actually inspired me to start this blog. If it wasn’t for my trip to San Blas islands, I might have never discovered this side of me.
There were a few reasons why San Blas islands trip inspired me to start the blog. One of them is that there was very little information online about Kuna Yala and San Blas islands, so I felt like writing about it would fill the demand. And it very much did, as I got a ton of questions from readers as soon as I published the post. On the other hand, there were a few very important things I witnessed on San Blas islands that made me re-evaluate the tropical island travel and think about not only the responsible tourism but environmental issues of small islands in general.
The true lesson is: what we do on our end of the planet can have an effect on people who live on a totally opposite side without us even noticing that.
The very unluxurious side of San Blas Islands trip
Today I was reshaping my very old article about San Blas Islands tour that I wrote back in 2015 (it was like the second article I have even written) and in the middle of my research, I came across a few rather bad reviews for the island I was staying in.
Re-reading my article and going through memories in my head I was once again sure that I had a great time in San Blas islands, but clearly, other people who visited San Blas afterwards didn’t feel the same way.
A few rather negative reviews referred to it as overpriced for the service received. In particular, they were angry that the island was too dirty and that meals were all repetitive (rice, chicken, pancakes, and seafood).
All of this made me doubt my initial memories of how magical and paradise-like San Blas Islands were back in 2014, but then I remembered that even then trash was still there and meals were no more diverse than these reviews say. Maybe the issue was that I went there with no expectations whatsoever, and that being the reason I enjoyed my stay at San Blas Islands?
But that wasn’t it.
Let’s face it, tourism doesn’t solve small islands’ issues
The reason I loved my visit to San Blas Islands is that it was authentic, it was true and helped me realize a few very important things.
Tropical islands’ trash issues
Let me tell you about the trash. And I think it is important people read about this stuff.
The island is not big at all, you can walk it in under 10 minutes and see all the settlement in the process. There are a few families living on Isla Ina.
It is true that I’ve also seen the island as being trashy. My first thought was “How can these people live here and trash their own land? This is the only home they have, the mainland is 3 hours away and they still trash their own island?”
It was so easy to blame the local people and paint a negative review towards Kuna’s in my head. I think a few people who came to visit the islands with me had the same thought, but they decided to clean up a little bit (they were German, so of course they cleaned:)) They went through the shore, picked up all the floating plastic bottles and other trash and proudly collected it into the trash can. They were my heroes of the day and I thought: “if only Germans lived here, it would always be clean.”
That day, we went to bed proud of ourselves and thinking that the planet was saved. All this only to wake up the next morning to even more trash floating in the perfect turquoise tropical water. There were plastic toothbrushes, Mentos wraps, Coca-Cola bottles and what not! I was so shocked! Who put it there?
It wasn’t local people who shamelessly trashed the island while we were asleep. I don’t think they even buy the stuff that was floating in there.
And then it hit me. All this trash comes to the islands with currents from the ocean.
We turned to our local host with questions (I just came along to participate, but my Spanish was so bad I had to ask for translations later). He told us that trash comes from the ocean and stays at their shores. They have to collect it and bring it back to the mainland on a boat every day. It is extremely expensive for them because it costs a lot to fill up the tank of the only few boats which they use for transportation, buying supplies, food, getting around…
Trash is a really big problem for these people. Learning this was an eye-opening experience for me. After our stay at Isle Ina, we took our trash with us on a way back. After this experience, I started hating plastic even more than I did before.
How Kuna get their food supply
Yes, the food you’ll get here won’t be your typical buffet brunch at a luxurious hotel. Far from it.
But if you stay here long enough to see how Kuna people get the supply of food, you won’t be complaining. Yes, we also sometimes had to eat the same stuff few times a day, like rice and chicken might be served twice on the same day, and you might get fried bananas two mornings in a row.
But if you care to communicate to the host, they’d tell you that they can’t serve as much seafood as they want to, because fishing isn’t going great anymore as the waters have been over-fished for years. They have to go to nearby islands to buy chicken and eggs and get rest of the supplies all the way from Panama City, which is 5-6 hours away.
We were lucky (or rather unlucky because it took way too much time from our tropical island holiday) to join our host on his shopping trail before he dropped us off the island. We spend a few hours sitting in the boat while he was island-hopping picking us local produce so that we, the tourists, had something good to eat. And it wasn’t a one-shop-stop like a Walmart or another supermarket!
The chicken meat came from one island, seafood from another, potatoes – from the third. Once you experience on your own skin the effort it takes to just get some variety of products, you start appreciating that you have at least something on your plate that isn’t coconuts.
And to be honest, the portions were huge and I always had more food to eat than my body needed.
Colombia drug trade problem
Kuna people have very limited ways of earning a living. That is the primary reason why tourism is picking up in the area, as it is seen as one of the best options to feed the families. Since coconut trade, which used to be a good source of income back in the day, is in decline and farmlands that could offer work are hours away from the islands, many turn to drug trade with Colombia as an option.
In fact, one of the islands where we went for snorkeling was used as a drug trafficking location, according to our host. Sometimes Colombians would leave drugs on some of the uninhabited islands and local people would later pick them up and pass them on (not sure about the details of how the supply chain works).
The problem is that sometimes local people find these drugs and start using them, ending up in deep dependency with no prospects for treatment.
Uncomfortable tourism is needed to get the full picture
If we only stay at luxurious hotels with high-class service we might miss the fact that life of the local people might be different from what we see.
I am glad I went on this trip and saw it exactly as it was, electricity-free, long, unluxurious, sleeping with no closed doors and no floors kind of trip. It made me appreciate so many things in life and feel for the people who don’t have access to the same luxury we have, like supermarket or schools, or a trash can that gets emptied by someone else on a regular basis.
We shouldn’t be leaving the islands complaining about bad service. Dare I say it, these experiences are actually the ones that should be teaching us something.
If you wish to know more about Kuna Yala and issues they are facing, I recommend these articles:
- The indigenous people behind Panama’s tourist paradise
- The dream and the reality: tourism in Kuna Yala
Do you think it is part of the experience to get authentic treatment or would you rather just rest and treat yourself to some luxury on your vacation?