Welcome to Hotel Porvenir! (Gula Yala, Panama)
It never occurred to me that electricity is a first-world luxury before coming to El Porvenir. El Porvenir is the capital of the San Blas islands or Guna Yala. One of the 5 Panamanian indigenous territories (or comarcas in Spanish), Guna Yala is a territory governed by the Guna peoples. The Guna are one of the many indigenous tribes in Panama. Many Guna are bilingual, speaking Spanish and the Kuna language. An estimated 50,000 Guna live in Guna Yala.
During my week-long stay in San Blas, I met local Gunas and learned about their unique culture.
You can reach El Porvenir by boat or plane. We took a very wet boat ride through the Caribbean to reach our destination. Luggage and backpacks were hauled into giant trash bags to protect our belongings from the sea!
This is one of our super friendly Guna guides. Catching fish, cooking food, and creating intricate molas - the artistic tapestries and clothing pieces that are signature of Guna culture - are regular parts of his day.
Beautiful molas designed and hand-stitched by our Guna friend. Each mola takes a month to a month-and-a-half to make. They sell for 20$ a piece.
You can find Guna Yala 3 hours to the east of Panama City by car and a 45-minute boat ride across the Caribbean Sea. There, 300+ islands dot the bottle green sea. Only around 44 of these islands are inhabited by the Guna, who make profits off ecotourism and exporting local goods, such as seafood and coconuts. (Fun fact: Until the 90s, the Guna used coconuts as a form of money to trade with Colombia and Panama for food and other goods!).
Other than Guna and a few tourists, you most likely won’t see anyone else on these beautiful remote islands. But if you’ve come from abroad to study marine biodiversity in Panama’s coral reefs... then it’s a different story. For 5 nights and 6 days, my classmates and our professors, Dr. Dagang and Dr. Diaz-Ferguson, will live in bungalows on El Porvenir to collect data on marine species. (We're also here for the amazing view).
To give you an idea of how small El Porvenir is, the entire island can be walked around in about 20 minutes.
It has a hotel (which is a scattering of bungalows), restaurant, one TV, a Congress building where a base of Panamanian narcopolice live and an airstrip for charter planes. Part of the airstrip is shattered into pieces where the Caribbean Sea has eroded it. You can see it below:
While checking out the airstrip, I noticed something strange at the edge... It kind of looked like a deserted spaceship from Star Wars. I took the chance to get closer while the tide was still low.
I climbed inside to find sand and broken wires... but no signs of Chewbacca. :'(
There is one generator on the island which is turned on from 6-10pm. My advice is to bring a portable charger and go easy on Snapchat. At 10:00PM sharp, the lights on the island turn off and the buzz of news on our only TV fizzles into silence. If you're caught in the bathroom at this time, it's not so fun.
This is my room one second before blackout.
This is my room one second later.
(But you can still see my trusty mosquito net!)
With nothing but my flashlight and the fuzzy moon above me, I go to the beach at night. Sand crabs dart into holes at the sight of me. They are scared off by the swooping beam of my flashlight, but they don’t move until I take my eyes off them. Grackles – the small black birds that populate this region and look distantly related to a pterodactyl – screech in the trees. Geckos, hermit crabs and fallen coconuts join me on my moonlight stroll.
The song of waves and thunder is constant in the Caribbean. Always there is a storm coming or going here. Last night at 2AM, I woke up to monsoon-like rain and lightning outside my window. We sleep with the doors wide open to catch the sea breeze (the perks of no electricity means... no A/C either!) So there is no buffer to soften the hours of booming thunder. The storm didn’t let up until 7AM when it was time to eat breakfast and get ready for Marine Biology class.
Without 24/7 electricity or any complimentary WiFi, I am certainly out of my element in Guna Yala. But I have found that existing in this disconnected paradise is full of pleasant surprises, like the gorgeous sunset and snorkeling in coral reefs, which I'll talk more about in my next post.
Thanks for reading! Check out the MC Study Abroad Instagram story today on 7/15 to experience a day in El Porvenir with me. I will be taking over the MC Instagram for a day to share my amazing study abroad experience.