The street was empty when I locked the door at the inn and plopped myself down on the curb. It was 4:30 a.m., the air as still as slack water: a great time to be in Panama City. On the quiet, empty sidewalk I took inventory of everything I would need for the next few days: bug spray, sunscreen, snacks, bathing suit, shorts and lots and lots of water.
A car rattled down the cobblestones toward me in the city's old quarter, but it wasn't my ride. I had already spent a few days in Panama's booming capital, sipping rum in rooftop bars and mingling with the city's artists. It had been great fun, but now I wanted a lonely beach, a reef to snorkel over and a hammock strung between the palms.
The San Blas Islands, or Kuna Yala in the indigenous language, extend along Panama's northern Caribbean coast from the Colombian border in the east for about 150 miles west into the Gulf of San Blas. All told there are more than 360 islands in the archipelago, most of them with nothing but palm trees, a fisherman's hut or two and rings of tropical green water.
About 40,000 Kuna people live in the area and they are one of the most powerful indigenous groups in the Western Hemisphere. The Kuna have near-complete autonomy over their territory, a 924-square-mile quilt of jungles, beaches and islands that they protect and control fiercely. You must show your passport at the border and keep track of a poker chip a guard gives you before you can head out to the islands. You surrender that chip when you return to the mainland, perhaps as a way for the Kuna to track visitors. The society is so insular that even the Kuna themselves may not leave Kuna Yala without signed permission from the chief.
"It's isolated but not as isolated as it was 20 years ago," said Jason Post, the creator of Panama's popular animated series, "Usnavy," which finds comedy in the clashes between urban and traditional Panamanian life. "But it's still one of the most, if not the most, authentic regions in Panama."
All this adds up to no big hotels, and few, if any, restaurants or shops. No outsiders, which includes Panamanians, can run a business there, or even bring in commercial tourist groups. You cannot scuba dive (presumably to limit damage to the reefs, though there are plenty of places to snorkel). What you can do is spend a few relaxing days as a minimally catered Robinson Crusoe: wake up with the sun, emerge from a flimsy hut jammed in the sand and spend the day island-hopping across a colorful culture.
Using a travel agency, I booked a three-night stay at Cabanas Coco Blanco, an island retreat in the Lemon Cays, one of several subsets of the San Blas Islands. I picked it for its location close to the Dutch Cays, which are among the most remote and pristine islands in the archipelago. Typically only private yachts go there, but so do boats from Coco Blanco. I would snorkel, eat whatever the Kuna hauled from the sea and try to gain a respectful peek into their lives.
By 5 a.m. my ride rattled up: a black S.U.V. with a red, yellow and green Kuna flag dangling from the rearview mirror. Soon we were roaring down the Pan-American Highway and by sunrise we were zigzagging north over the misty central highlands toward the coast. Two Spaniards, a German and a young couple from Chicago, Aislinn Froeb and Nick Kaltenbrun, and I had all signed up for some version of a Coco Blanco tour. The Midwesterners had tried to go there the day before but the driver never came. I'd been warned that things like that might happen.
"All we can do is tell the Kuna that you'd like to visit and then it's in their hands," Stuart Cunningham, the owner of the booking company I used, Panama Travel Unlimited, explained. "It all tends to work out but sometimes it seems like no one knows what's going on."
Around 8 a.m. we arrived at a small docking area on the mainland called Barsukum, which sits along the black Cartí River not far from the Gulf of San Blas. A small boat with a blue canopy eventually fetched us and we motored toward Coco Blanco under a magnesium sky. The inshore islands were harsh places of dry scrub. Some had shanty towns of wood and tin huts packed so tightly together that the island seemed to sink under their weight. One not-so-big wave would wash them all away, it seemed. I learned later that the Kuna, like many of the world's low-lying, island-dwelling people, worry that the planet's rising sea levels will consume them. Trash is a real concern, too, and I cringed at the flotsam of plastic bags, cups and even furniture that bobbed in the channel.
"They're so cheek-to-jowl on some of those islands that they have no place to dispose of their garbage," Duane Silverstein, the executive director of Seacology, a Berkeley, Calif.,-based nonprofit organization that works to protect island environments and cultures, including Kuna Yala, told me later. "They don't want to do it, they don't like doing it, but often they have no choice but to dump their trash into the sea."
After an hour we arrived at Coco Blanco, a football-field-size sand patch with palms and a collection of rudimentary shacks with thatched roofs, bamboo poles for walls and nary a right angle to be found. A Kuna named Ligia Sanchez greeted us. She had high cheekbones and caramel skin, but none of the bands of beads that the women traditionally wear on their calves and wrists.
"Welcome," she said in Spanish, her second language. "Breakfast?"
Ms. Sanchez led us to a larger hut with a sandy floor and two long wooden tables inside. The island had been under the family's guard for generations. But she opened Cabanas Coco Blanco in its current form only about three years ago. Colorful wraps called molas that depicted whales, fish and turtles hung on the walls. Two teenage girls in pink tank tops brought out juice, fried bread and scrambled eggs. Everything had been hauled in from the mainland, even the water, which is why bringing your own water and packing out your own trash is so helpful.
"Wow, this is indeed pretty authentic," Ms. Froeb said. "This is so different from Bocas del Toro, which is really built up compared to this."
A boat was leaving for an island-hopping tour so I deposited my things in my room, which was essentially one-third of a rectangular three-room, thatch-roof hut. It had a bunk bed, a car battery to help power a solar light and bamboo-stick walls that allowed me to see into the other rooms pretty easily. We would share a gravity-fed flush toilet and shower at the far end of the hut that also offered minimal privacy. "People sometimes say, 'There is no air-conditioning' or 'The lights don't work,' but we are an island," said Roberto Martinez, Ms. Sanchez's partner, who handles the boat tours, fills Coco Blanco's cisterns with untreated Cartí River water (another reason to bring your own water) and makes sure the refrigerator stays cool. "You go to Panama City for urban things. We are natural out here."
Mr. Martinez steered the boat toward a nearby island called Dog Island, where we paid $2 each for the visit. The Kuna, I would learn, charge a fee to land on each island. Even Mr. Martinez said he must pay a fee when he returns to his home island, Cartí, "because I am not there working to help that island survive," he said. Either way, Dog Island seemed like a ripoff. It was bigger than Coco Blanco, maybe two football fields, and jammed with hundreds of people. It looked as if all of Panama had gone there that week, a holiday week. There were barbecues and soccer balls. Children splashed around in the sea in such thick numbers you could hardly see the water between their heads. This was not what I had come for.
Things soon improved. I ate well that night at Coco Blanco (fresh fish, plantains and cabbage salad) and then drank Abuelo rum under the stars with two Romanians staying two doors down. Coco Blanco could hold at most maybe 20 people and being one of them did feel special. I slept hard on the top bunk with my limbs outstretched like a starfish, listening to the breeze pull mercifully through the bamboo walls like hair through a comb.
Over the next few days island life began to take on form. I would wake up early, swim out to a sandbar inhabited by a lone conch, eat fried bread, eggs and jam and then do some island hopping with fresh pineapple or watermelon to munch along the way. We visited Dog Island II, a clutch of lightly trammeled sand with tiger-stripe shadows cast from the palms overhead, which was far more relaxed than Dog Island I, and Pelican Island, where I snorkeled over brain coral. We would come back for lunch, which was always a whole fish, and then island hop until dinner: fish again, though I could have ordered a lobster for $15 more. Nights typically ended with everyone sitting outside watching the ships and satellites drift by, often from a hammock, which is perhaps the greatest aspect of Kuna life.
"We are born in a hammock, we sleep in a hammock and we die in a hammock," Ms. Sanchez said. "It is who we are."
On my last day we finally motored out to the Dutch Cays. It was no easy journey. We pounded through the waves for about two hours to get there, passing yachts from Germany, the Netherlands and California. A sunken ship sat in the surf like a ghost on the horizon. Sometimes fishermen find bags of cocaine jettisoned or lost from drug-trafficking vessels and they will make a small fortune selling them back to the dealers. The Kuna recently ruled that any money from such deals would go toward improving their communities.
Out there the islands needed no improving. They were perfect caricatures of themselves, with oversize palms that drooped languidly over lagoons with chunky cuticles of paper-white sand. There were no shacks, no fees, no beach parties. A spotted eagle ray drifted under the boat and I snorkeled with trumpetfish.
That night I sat talking with Mr. Martinez about the place. Despite the Kuna's fiercely independent nature and their strict rules on cultural preservation, I had a hard time believing that any place can really be an island for long these days. My Spanish failed me, though, and Mr. Martinez just looked confused. After a lull he hollered something in the Kuna language to a kitchen girl, who hollered back in Spanish. He sighed.
"They like speaking Spanish more than our language," he said, shrugging. "All the young people do."
For now, out under the stars, the isolation felt solid and complete. So I did what the Kuna do and stared at the sky, content to let time tick through the metronomic sway of a hammock.
IF YOU GO
It is possible to arrange your own trip to the San Blas Islands by calling various island properties directly (you may find some at sanblaspanamavacations.com), but you must be fluent in Spanish, organize your own transportation and be prepared for miscommunication and headaches.
A more straightforward option (though not guaranteed to be headache free) is to book a tour that starts and ends in Panama City through a third-party agency. Panama Travel Unlimited specializes in San Blas trips and can act as a middleman. Packages range from quite rustic huts to more upscale options. (panamatravelunlimited.com; 507-395-5014).
Panama uses U.S. dollars but sometimes people call them balboas.
All-inclusive packages to Coco Blanco, a very rustic setting, start at $170 per person for one night or $390 per person for three nights. An all-inclusive three-night Dutch Cays camping option ($280) is also available. I signed up for this but was unexpectedly given a hut on Coco Blanco instead. I suspect it was for logistical reasons since no one else was camping.
The Coral Lodge offers a far less rustic experience with Tahitian-style bungalows built over the water. This is outside Kuna Yala, but very close to it. Rooms range from $150 to $385 per person per night. Transfers from Panama City are an additional $240 per person.
Expect to pay $10 for crossing into a protected area of Kuna Yala en route and about $2 for each island you visit. You will get a poker chip ($2) when embarking for the islands. Don't lose it or you will have to pay a small fine ($2) upon your return.
You will need a passport to enter and leave Kuna Yala.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.