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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?
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I loved the San Blas islands and was there a decade ago. The negative impacts of tourism weren’t quite as visible then except for the main island. I’m sad to hear the states of things today.
Me too, Lola. I was there also a while back and I am afraid things got worse, judging from the reviews on tripadvisor. But maybe some people just expect something else when they go there.
My boyfriend and I sailed from Colombia to Panama and spent a few days visiting the San Blas Islands! This was one of our highlights of our year-long trip around the world. Although we were saddened by the amount of trash we found on the islands as well, which clearly came from afar. I would love to return as a volunteer to help clean up the islands (who wouldn’t want to spend more time in paradise?) but think the problem is likely best solved at the source.
Same here! For me,San Blas was the reason I actually fell in love with Panama in the first place. It is still one of the best places I have visited to this day!
I recently came back from a trip to Colombia and yes, that`s true there as well. Small islands, even when surviving from the foreign money brought in from tourists, still face limited resources and far from what some people may think, even when staying in a luxury hotel on a private little island, locals do not make a ton of money and still live a very simple lifestyle.
I think part of responsible travel would be recognizing this kind of reality and respecting it, but sadly many people don`t see it that way…
Agree. Even when we come with our money, life in Panama isn’t cheap either, so it’s not like there is a big advantage there…
It’s so sad that it’s our fault that they wake up to garbage washing up on their shores every day. Island life is never going to be cheap either, especially when it’s an island as tiny as San Blas. I’m glad that you saw it for what it was on your trip and enjoyed your time there.
I have never heard of these islands…Panama is on my bucket list, what a beautiful place! It is sad that we are’t more responsible tourists, thanks for the eye opening post, and I love your pics!
What an important message! I really appreciate you taking the time to draw travelers’ awareness to these issues. It’s so easy for us to travel somewhere and see it through a limited lens without fully appreciating the complexities. This shines a light on it!
speaking of trash on the beaches, I have visited recently a small island in Indonesia called Gili Meno. Local community of Gili Meno organise cleaning up the beaches every Sunday. I believe, such practice should be implemented all around the Globe.
Wow, this is a great initiative! Good to hear local communities address the issue at least on their scale.
Talk about an eye-opener and realization that I wish more people had. We all have to be more responsible for what we do because everything affects everyone. Thanks for sharing the message!
Enjoyed reading this post – most people automatically assume an island or destination is much better economically due to tourism when it’s not always the case. For example, Punta Cana – many don’t acknowledge or are just not knowledgable on how poor the rest of the country is.
Lovely article Lena! While I haven’t been to San Blas, I can totally understand how easy it is to have so many expectations when we visit islands that promised a ‘tropical paradise’ for guests (may it be from the local tourism alone or from other people who have been there). This is such an eye-opener for us visiting any islands, for that matter, to be more open-minded and contribute (even in little things) to help the locals. I guess it’s high time for everyone to be aware and not just be tourists expecting the most luxurious trip.
I love this article. One of the biggest reasons why we are in the global environmental mess we’re in, is that modern living makes it so easy to get things we want, and hides the consequence from us so well. So those of us in the privileged bracket of humanity grow up horribly entitled and spoiled, and cannot see the hospitality we receive because we measure it by what we receive, not by what it took the host to give it.
I am actually Panamanian! Thanks for writing this. I live in the states now so always love reading up on the country I never lived in, but still has a special place in my heart. I am sad that the people there have to pick up all the trash that comes in from the ocean though. These are things that I honestly never even think about so thanks for bringing it to light.
Panama is so so so beautiful! I enjoyed every bit of it.
I have not heard about things about this islands. Great insight!