The island clusters of the comarca (reservation) are covered in geographical order in this travel guide, starting with the westernmost one and heading southeast down the archipelago. This is followed by a description of the most popular of the lovely, remote, and sparsely inhabited outer cays.
Farther down the archipelago, east of Corazón de Jesús , the reef ends and the islands are subject to higher seas. This area sees few tourists.
Island names are confusing. Some have both Spanish and Kuna names, and there is rarely agreement on how to spell them in either language. Different islands sometimes have the same name. The most common names and their alternatives are used in this travel guide.
The islands’ isolation is what help keeps them relatively unspoiled and the Kuna culture more or less intact. Most visitors arrive by small plane from Panama City . The affluent or adventurous arrive by boat. And a newly paved road means that increasing numbers of intrepid travelers are coming by land.
By Sea: The best way to explore the islands is by yacht. I have found San Blas Sailing (tel. 314-1800 or 314-1288, www.sanblassailing.com ) to be a good way to go for those who can afford it. It charters a range of yachts with competent, experienced captains. However, some captains speak no English.
Rates depend on the yacht chosen, the length of trip and the number of clients. The company can do quick trips, it recommends at least a four-day cruise, which in my opinion is the minimum to truly unwind and enjoy all that the islands have to offer when visited by boat. You’d be amazed how quickly a week slips by out here.
The second best way to explore the islands is by small, adventure-type cruise ship. These cruises can be very pricey, but they often feature academic and naturalist guides who can deepen the experience of visiting the islands. And they’re certainly a comfortable way to go.
Among the outfits that regularly include Kuna Yala in their itineraries are Tauck World Discovery (U.S. toll-free tel. 800/788-7885, www.tauck.com ), Cruise West (U.S. toll-free tel. 888/851-8133, www.cruisewest.com ), and Star Clippers (U.S. toll-free tel. 800/442-0551, www.starclippers.com ).
By Air: Most visitors come by small plane from Panama City . Flying on these tiny, sometimes aged-looking contraptions can be an adventure in itself, especially while crossing the coastal range. But on a clear day the views are breathtaking, and the flights are mercifully short.
Panama’s two domestic airlines, Aeroperlas (tel. 315-7500, www.aeroperlas.com ) and Air Panama (tel. 316-9000, www.flyairpanama.com ), fly from Panama City to islands and coastal airstrips in the comarca (reservation). Each generally offers one daily, early-morning flight to and from the major island groups. The planes usually make several stops, so be careful to get off at the right place. Nonstop flights to most destinations are around 30–45 minutes, but with stops they can last longer than an hour, not including delays.
For those staying at one of the island hotels, transportation by small boat between the closest airstrip and the hotel is included with a stay. Airfare is the same on both airlines and is quite reasonable. However, rising fuel prices are making airfares go up faster than in the past. As this travel guide went to press, the longest and most expensive flight cost about US$80 one way and took an hour of nonstop flying.
By Land: Shortly before Lago Bayano  is the El Llano–Cartí Road, which heads north over the Continental Divide and down into the Comarca de Kuna Yala . It is the only land access to the islands, and most of its 30 kilometer length was recently paved. However, as one approaches the Caribbean coast, vehicles must still ford a river and there can be washouts, particularly during the rainy season. There are also hairpin turns with sheer drops. Do not attempt this trip without a good four-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance and, preferably, a winch.
I do not advise travelers to drive themselves. It is far better, and probably cheaper, to go with a Kuna transport service. These are informal affairs—usually just a guy with a four-wheel drive and a mobile phone—but they have experience on this road, will know its condition, and will be able to help with the logistics of getting into and around Kuna territory. They all charge US$25 per person each way from Panama City, which is a good deal.
I recommend booking transport through one of the Kuna hotels, a reputable hostel, or tour operator, as they send clients out all the time and will have the latest information on road conditions and reliable drivers. But travelers can also book directly with the Kuna family that does the lion’s share of these trips. For information, call Alexis (cell 6528-5862) or Judy (cell 6706-2810).
Once you arrive at the shore, the Kuna “taxes” begin. Expect to pay at least US$6 “tourist tax” and US$2 “port tax” (the rate fluctuates), plus boat fare to whichever island you’re going to if you’re not being met by a boat from your hotel. Boat transport to the Islas Robinson, the most common backpacker destinations, is US$7.50 each way. In other words, total round-trip transportation costs per person from Panama City to the islands will cost at least US$75 per person; still cheaper than flying, but not as much as many initially think.
One advantage of going by road is you’re not limited by the strict baggage-weight allowance of the small planes. Consider bringing a medium-sized cooler stocked with ice, food, snacks, and drinks—though concentrate on things that are safe and pleasant to consume at room temperature, because you won’t find any ice on the islands. (The last real stores you’re likely to encounter on the road are at 24 de Diciembre, on the eastern outskirts of Panama City, and they may not be open by the time you pass through in the morning.) Also, bring large jugs of water to limit having to buy bottled water on the islands.
For those who want—or need—to break their land journey, there is an appealing eco-lodge, Burbayar Lodge (tel. 393-7340, cell 6674-2964, www.burbayar.com ), up in the mountains along the El Llano–Cartí Road.