The Panama Canal is one of the most popular cruise destinations in the world, and the Canal is certainly an engineering marvel. The Panama Canal was completed in 1914, and the digging and dredging equipment needed to dig the "Big Ditch" was certainly not what we have today! In addition, tropical diseases were rampant, and many workers died during the construction. Numerous cruise ships transit the Canal, but most cruisers do not have the opportunity to explore the fascinating country outside of the Canal. I was fortunate to work in Panama for a few weeks each year from 1993 to 1998. During that time my colleagues and I spent most of our time working, but we did manage to experience as much of the country, its history, people and culture as we could during our free time.
One memorable weekend shore excursion was a visit to one of the San Blas Islands in the Caribbean, where we stayed with a Kuna family in a grass hut. (and some people complain about windowless inside cabins!)
The San Blas are a group of 365-378 islands (depending on who you ask) located in the Caribbean off the coast of Panama. Many of the San Blas are inhabited by their indigenous Indian tribe, the Kuna (or Cuna or Guna). The Kuna have been resisting changes to their culture since the Spanish first arrived over 500 years ago. They have actually done a good job of maintaining their way of life. The San Blas province has its own government, and each island is run by a chief. Tourism is limited to only a few of the islands, and you must get permission from the chief before visiting any of the islands. Electricity and running water are not found in the outer islands. Even with these barriers, some of the Kuna have decided to share their world with outsiders and have set up small lodges for a few visitors at a time.
When you visit the San Blas, you will see why they could become a popular destination. These pristine islands are picture-perfect tropical islands covered with white sand and coconut trees. Cruise ships transiting the Canal often stop at one of the larger northern San Blas islands near the entrance to the Canal at Colon to allow passengers to shop for the marvelous molas that are embroidered by the Kuna women. Other than cruise passengers visiting that island, travel to the other San Blas is limited to only a few visitors at a time.
Being somewhat adventurous, one of my colleagues and I opted to fly to the island of Uaguitupo (also spelled Uaguitupu), one of the more southern of the San Blas. We booked a one-night "eco-tour" to Dolphin Island through a travel agent in Panama City. The trip was advertised as a 50-minute flight from the capital city to a small air strip on the coast followed by a dugout canoe ride to Uaguitupo (also spelled Uaguitupu and pronounced something close to Watch-u-i-tu-poe, the word means "dolphin" in Kuna). We would spend the day snorkeling and visiting with our host family, sleep in a grass hut, and return back to Panama City the next day. Doesn't sound TOO adventurous, does it?
There is only one flight a day to Uaguitupo, so we arrived at the small Paitilla Airport in downtown Panama City very early for our 6 a.m. flight. A representative from the travel agency met us at the airport. We were a little skeptical when we saw the name of the airline was Aero-Taxi, but we climbed on board the 6-passenger plane for our adventure to the San Blas. We were the only English-speaking passengers. Suzanne and I were a little concerned when we saw the exterior and interior of the plane and thought about the fact that this plane had not been checked by the FAA since it was not subject to U.S. regulations. However, we soon took off and started our short trip over some of the thickest jungle in the world--the Darien of Panama. Not long after take off, Suzanne nudged me and pointed at something under the pilot's seat--a huge machete sticking out between the seats! Were we being hijacked by banditos, or was the machete protection from banditos?
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