Join me in Guna Yala (aka San Blas Islands), tropical paradise on the Caribbean side of Panama. This archipelago of 365 islands is one of the most spectacular destinations for a sea kayaking and cultural immersion holiday.
There are many different ways to discover Guna Yala. Most of the trips that I offer are custom-designed to suit the wishes of my guests. I work with you to create your dream holiday. Here is some basic information about Guna Yala, followed by sample itineraries.
What activities await you in Guna Yala:
- Sea kayaking: Hundreds of tropical islands, white sandy beaches, blue lagoons, peaceful rivers, and mangroves. Day paddling, as well as self-supported and boat-supported multi-day trip options (see below). Perfect for both beginners and experienced paddlers.
- Relaxing: Colorful hammocks swaying under palm trees, sipping fresh coconut water from a coconut, taking island strolls at the waterline, a warm tropical breeze, and the gentle sound of waves crashing.
- Snorkeling: Discover an incredible diversity of colorful tropical fish and healthy coral reefs.
- River-walking and land excursions: Explore tropical rain forest. Enjoy the beauty and wildlife (birds, monkeys, lizards, occasional Crocodiles) of rivers large and small. Wash the salt off and soak in refreshing agua dulce.
- Yoga: Unwind, relax, breathe deeply, and find yourself rejuvenated.
- Experience Guna culture: Let me whisk you away from the crowded touristy spots, to uninhabited and less-visited islands and communities, where you will see Guna living their traditional lifestyle. You’ll have the opportunity to witness (and participate in) their beautiful traditional music and dance, savor Guna culinary delights (fresh seafood, coconut rice, yucca and plantains, and fresh fruit), watch women hand-sewing molas, practice speaking in Guna, visit ceremonial spaces, and meet Guna who are excited to share their culture. You also might get lucky and arrive at a community to witness a traditional ceremony.
- Shop for the famous mola: The colorful squares of fabric sewn onto the blouses of Guna women, the mola is the national craft of Panama. Hand-stitched and proudly worn by Guna women, it’s a truly incredible craft to see being made in real life.
- Photography: Besides the natural beauty of tropical Caribbean, Guna are wonderfully colorful people, especially with the vibrant colors worn by the women. It’s a photographer’s dream! Colorful hammocks, Guna flags, and hundreds of molas on display promise to create exceptional photos.
Contact me for prices
Island Appetizer: 3 nights, 4 days
Perfect for the time-strapped traveler who wants to experience the best of Guna Yala. Enjoy a comfortable cabaña on the lovely island of Nurdup (“Almond Island”). This trip includes a tranquil river paddle, visits to neighboring islands and communities, snorkeling, as well as plenty of time to relax in a hammock and soak up the sun.
Island Basecamp: 4 nights, 5 days
Get deeper into your relaxing holiday as we camp on a beautiful tropical island. We’ll explore different islands and communities during the day, snorkel and have plenty of time to sip “coco locos” while swaying in a hammock.
Yoga & Sea Kayak Retreat:
Yoga instructor, Leigh Lubin, joins us for this unique offering that combines yoga and sea kayaking in the beautiful and tranquil setting of both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts. What could be more simultaneously relaxing and rejuvenating? The finer details, dates and cost for this trip can be found here.
Island Explorer: 5 nights, 6 days
Combine the best of both worlds; camping and cabañas. We’ll spend the first 3 nights camping on a beautiful tropical island, exploring different islands and communities with our sea kayaks, then go to Nurdup for the final 2 nights, where there are cabañas (and other creature comforts, such as flush toilets and showers). From Nurdup we’ll explore a tranquil river, experience more Guna culture and visit more islands.
Sea Kayak Entree: 8 nights, 9 days (includes 2 nights in Panama City & The Panama Canal)
An all-inclusive trip-of-a-lifetime and one of my most popular trips! Your first and last nights include a hotel in Panama City, meals at traditional Panamanian restaurants, and a visit to the Panama Canal. The rest of the trip consists of an adventurous sea kayak expedition, paddling from island to island. We’ll camp on different islands, snorkel, and explore tranquil rivers and mainland rain forest. Discover the fascinating culture of the Guna as we are guided around communities, getting a unique glimpse into their daily lives. We will be accompanied by a support boat, so no need to pack your kayaks.
Self-Supported Sea Kayak Expedition: 5 nights, 6 days
For the intrepid traveler, those wishing to gain sea kayaking experience, and who want the adventure-of-a-lifetime. A true exploratory expedition, we’ll pack our kayaks and paddle from island to island and experience all that Guna Yala has to offer. This is not your average “packaged” trip. I can’t tell you exactly what will happen on this trip. That’s the beauty of it. . . that’s the fun part! Let’s create an unforgettable adventure together.
Learn about the Guna:
- They are one of the most prominent indigenous groups in Panama.
- They faught the Panamanian police in a 1925 Revolution and won, gaining semi-autonomy from the Panamanian government. Pretty amazing.
- They are a colorful and strong-minded people, striving to maintain their fascinating traditional way of life, customs and language. Much of their culture and beliefs are deeply rooted in respect for and living in harmony with nature.
- Upon visiting Guna Yala for the first time in 2010, I felt welcomed by them, and now they consider me an honorary Guna. I’m slowly learning their language and traditional dance. You can too!
- Always quick to laugh, tell jokes, and share stories, the Guna are some of the most friendly, open-hearted people I’ve ever met. I have learned an incredible amount from them and when you join me on an unforgettable trip to Guna Yala you will too!
Learn about Guna Yala:
- In their language (called Dulegaya) Guna Yala means “land of the Guna.” It is their semi-autonomous territory located on the Caribbean side of Panama, which stretches about 122 miles (230 km) in length and borders with Colombia, as well as including 25 miles of mainland tropical rainforest.
- Guna Yala includes all of the tropical islands in what used to be called the San Blas archipelago, numbering more than 350 coral islands, each one as beautiful as the next, rising scarcely above sea level, often surrounded by a turquoise blue lagoon. The smallest may be shaded by a single coconut palm tree, while the largest is covered by hundreds.
- The Congreso General (the governing body), consisting of Sahilas (chiefs, pronounced “sai-lah”), governs the three regions of the Comarca (district, or territory) Guna Yala, which is why the Guna have managed to preserve a large part of their traditions and culture. In simple words, they run the show there! Each community may have slightly different rules and customs, as well as dialects.
- Forty-nine of the hundreds of islands have communities on them, as well as a few on the mainland, consisting of a few families to thousands of inhabitants. At any given time about half the Guna population, which totals about 50,000, lives in Panama City, which is only 84 miles (134 km) from Guna Yala.
So. . Why do the Guna matter and why should you go there?
Guna culture in a changing world:
The Guna matter because they are truly inspiring and amazing people. In this ever-changing world, indigenous groups are losing their traditional way of life, customs and language. The Guna is one group fiercely striving to maintain these. Their semi-autonomous standing provides them with a unique opportunity to create a world for themselves. Currently, the Congreso General Guna is creating educational programs for Guna to teach Guna about their own culture. Many of them realize just how important it is to maintain their way of life, and not just to show tourists, but to continue living in harmony with nature, as they always have.
By working very closely with the Guna the past few years, I have found that one of the most successful and joyful ways the Guna are able to maintain their culture is by educating themselves, as well as visitors (like you and me). Each trip to Guna Yala offers a once-in-a-lifetime chance to actively participate in this ongoing education. The trips are full of opportunities to learn about and share Guna culture, as well as share your own culture.
When to visit:
The best time to visit Guna Yala is December through March, as this is the windy and dry season. A cool tropical breeze keeps the bugs away, as well as lulls you to sleep as it rustles the palm fronds above your hut, tent or swaying hammock. Also, it’s when I’m there!
Meet Nemesio, Guna kayak guide extraordinaire:
Nemesio Alfaro, born and raised on an island called Gardi Sugdub in Guna Yala, has been leading kayak trips since 1993. He knows his stuff and is a beast when it comes to paddling! He grew up exploring the rivers and ocean around him. He is extremely passionate and knowledgeable regarding Guna culture, especially when it comes to Guna stories and legends. On most trips, guests become completely engrossed in his stories. He is also an extremely talented artist and is currently working on drawing illustrations for a book telling the most exciting Guna legends. Click here to view his drawings.
I have assisted Nemesio on countless trips in Guna Yala. Each trip he teaches me more and I am honored to call him one of my best friends. Also, don’t let him tell you that he can’t speak English. He pretends to be more shy than he actually is!
Guna love to paddle!
Everywhere we go the Guna are eager to try out the kayaks. There’s a lot of future kayak guides out there!
Thank you for your visit!