Planning Your Time
The Comarca de Kuna Yala consists of a strip of mountainous coast and a nearby archipelago that stretch 226 kilometers down the eastern Caribbean side of the isthmus to the Colombian border.
Nearly all the islands are within five kilometers of the mainland. Only a handful of the inhabited ones have much in the way of visitor facilities. Few tourists visit the coast, which is home primarily to Kuna farms and dense tropical forest.
The islands most popular with and accessible to visitors are organized into five clusters in this chapter. It’s possible to visit more than one of these island clusters during a visit. However, distances are too great and the sea sometimes too rough to make a day trip from one cluster to another practical by the chief means of transportation: small wooden boats powered by outboard motors.
Unless you have access to a large power boat or yacht, choose just one area to explore. If your schedule allows, you can also fly to a second area and spend one or more nights there, but that will increase the logistical hassles significantly; interisland flights are tricky to arrange.
Visitors will get the most out of their visit if they take time both to explore Kuna villages and to escape to one of the uninhabited islands for snorkeling or sunbathing. Most island groups offer an attractive combination of both.
Those who stay around the busy hubs of El Porvenir and Cartí, for instance, have easy access to the uninhabited island of Achutupu and other pristine spots. Those who stay on the tranquil hotel islands around Río Sidra, on the other hand, can take a day trip to explore the nearby village islands, including traditional and picturesque Isla Maquina.
Try to stay a bare minimum of two nights on the islands. That allows enough time to explore a Kuna village, go snorkeling, shop for molas (handcrafted blouses), and lounge in a hammock. A three-night or longer stay gives visitors a better sense of the rhythms and beauty of life on the islands. Time will go much faster than you expect.
When to Go
Late in the dry season, late February–March, is generally reckoned to be the best time to visit the islands. The winds are calmer, improving snorkeling visibility. This calmer weather can last until mid-April. There are strong trade winds December–February, which creates lots of chop in the sea. It also tends to be cloudy then, which drops snorkeling visibility even more.
There’s less wind in the rainy season, which begins around mid-April and lasts until the end of the year. This calms the water, but underwater visibility near land can be poor because of runoff from the rivers. The lack of wind can also make it quite hot and humid. On the other hand, the seas are calm enough to go exploring by boat outside the reef that protects the western half of the archipelago from the open ocean. The fishing is also better then, and there are fewer tourists. The high season for tourists is December–March. According to experienced sailors, if there are hurricanes out in the Caribbean (Panama is beyond the hurricane belt), the weather in the Kuna Yala tends to be good.
Holidays in Kuna Yala include the anniversary of the Revolución Tule (the Kuna war against Panama in 1925) on February 21, which is celebrated throughout the archipelago, and a celebration in honor of Charles Robinson, an important figure in the revolution, which is celebrated only on his native island of Narganá.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition