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Panama: Pirates, paradise and poverty

“It was because of San Blas that Scotland and England signed a union,” said Gilberto, my Panamanian guide. This was news to me. Years of schooling in Scotland and I’d never heard so much as a squeak about San Blas.

Panama: Pirates, paradise and poverty

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Most Latinos stick to two classic references when my nationality comes up in conversation: whisky and Corazón Valiente (Braveheart). So discovering that Scotland sought Panama’s Caribbean islands as its first colony was, to say the least, something of a surprise.

As Gilberto explained (and Google later confirmed — I had to read up on this one), Scottish explorer William Paterson set sail from Leith in 1698 and crossed the Atlantic. His mission? To colonise, on behalf of Scotland, the palm tree covered islands known today as San Blas. His funding? A mere 25% of Scotland’s GDP.

Following some bold initial moves — such as renaming the peninsula Caledonia, establishing a fort called St Andrews, and beginning the construction of New Edinburgh — disaster and disease gripped the Scots. After a steady decline, the final nail in the coffin was a Spanish siege in 1700; Paterson’s men were decimated, and only a handful made it back to Scotland. Riddled with debt, England bailed Scotland out, and the two nations joined together under the umbrella still known as Great Britain.

Modern-day San Blas is a tropical paradise with two very different faces: on one hand, pristine beaches tempt tourists to explore their coconut-laden shores, while on the other, overcrowded islands paint a picture of poverty.

Most travellers visit the islands by boat, stopping off to snorkel around a fantastic fish-filled sunken ship off the shore of Isla del Perro (Dog Island), take snaps of the island that contains a solitary coconut tree, and swim in La Piscina, a shallow pool where the golden sand is dotted with hundreds of starfish.

These magical spots are well worth seeing and it would be easy to pass through this paradise without experiencing anything more of local life than a few natives selling molas, traditional colourful fabrics woven or sewn by local women.

The islands are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Yala tribe, a semi-autonomous people who speak the Tulekaya language. Of the 370-plus islands that make up the archipelago, less than 50 are populated, but the ones that are lived in are really lived in — ie spilling off the edges — and one of the most crowded, Ustupu, has more than 4,000 inhabitants.

As we stop to explore various islands, the polarized pattern continues: some are pristine and unoccupied, others rundown and congested. The contrast is both eye-opening and intriguing.

On Mulatupo, houses on stilts reach out around the periphery creating flimsy extensions onto the landmass, and Slumdog Millionaire-style loos made from rusting corrugated iron hover precariously over the water. The air resounds with voices as those in power thrash out island issues under the thatched roof of parliament; and as we walk the narrow, dusty streets, women rush out to display handmade goods.

Yet, two faces combined, it could be said that San Blas provides the ultimate desert island experience. After all, when sand and sunbathing grow repetitive, there’s an anthropological minefield waiting to be discovered.