San Blas islands, Panama

When I first started researching for our trip to middle America I was looking for interesting and beautiful places with indigenous cultures and when I heard about the Kuna people I knew I had to go there. So I convinced my dad that we had to go to Panama first on our way to Coasta Rica, which we were heading to for fishing.

It was not as straight forward as I had thought. You can’t go to San Blas yourself, you have to go with a guide, and the guide has to request permission from the tribal Kuna chiefs. It is however easier now than ever before, since the paved road from Panama City to Cartí was completed, but still not an accessible place to get to. After a 3 hour car ride in a rusty 4×4 with our Swiss and Panamanian guides on narrow and winding roads we arrived in Cartí. We were met by Pedro, who was going to be our captain for the next three days.

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Fishing equipment, paddle boards, toilet paper, mosquito spray, water, food, a huge ice block carried on the roof of the 4×4 from Panama City, beer, wine and rum were lifted onboard Pablo’s lancha and we set off on the river to the Gulfo de San Blas and further out to the Caribbean sea. Our first stop after half an hours boat ride was the island of Yangdup for a look around; a walk past the local school, Centro de Salud, the Museo de Kuna Yala and to say hello to Pedro’s family.

I bought a hand sown mola from an old lady. Women make a lot of money from selling molas to tourists; the women control the cash in the se parts.

After an other half hours boat ride we arrived at Chichimei, greeted by Zak and his two children and allocated a bamboo cabana. Chichimei is an island owned by the Kuna community, every three months another family is located here to earn money from the tourists. On the island are 5 “villages”, of in which 3 you can stay in a cabana, the Kuna family residing there will cook for you and look after you. It takes about 20 minutes to walk around Chichemei and not all locals are friendly or will let you take a photograph. Some are outright rude but our hosts were very helpful and friendly. Our guides brought extra food and drink, in case the Kuna would run out, it had happened in the past. On this trip however there was always plenty of food and delicious too. We had snapper, octopus, barracuda and on our last day, lobster.

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We went fishing with the Kuna and our Swiss guide. The waves were three meters tall and I got sea sick. We caught nothing and started to suspect that these waters were a bit out fished, unless using a spear gun like the Kuna. We persevered with the fishing for the following day, and the following, yet – we caught nothing. We made a trip to La Tortuga island, a beautiful tiny atoll a couple of hours boat ride south. Our captain prepared deep fried red snapper and battered plantain with fresh fruit. It was all delicious. We snorkeled, paddleboarded and admired the wale shark bones that had drifted ashore. We chatted to one of Michel’s friends who told us his interesting story.

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Austrian friend of Michel’s that we ran into on Isla de Tortuga had come to San Blas as a tourist 7 years ago and fallen in love with a Kuna girl and never left. For him to be allowd to stay he had to first learn the to speak Tule, Kuna language, and then be interviewed by the Kuna congress several times. Then wait for the decision. He had been granted to stay and marry. A foreigner has to be married with a Kuna woman for 7 years before the couple will be given an island – to prove intent. This is a matriarchal society – property is owned by the females. And now, this Austrian guy and his wife, were finally going to be given a small island where they were going to set up an eco lodge. When this Austrian friend took his wife back to Austria to meet his family for the first time, she wore her traditional Kuna clothes as always and caused much upheaval at the airports with people wanting to take pictures and touch her beautfiful bead clad arms and legs. She had felt imbarrased but I also hope she felt proud. I’m sure she did. There is a Kuna saying that if you loose your culture, you loose your soul.

We spend a beautiful day on La Tortuga and on the way back did a little more fishing before returning to Chicheme for our last sunset meal. The Kuna served up lobster and Michel made us large rum and cokes with ice from his diminishing ice block. We caught some morena eels off shore in the dark.

The Kuna’s are a community of proud people that have their own laws, norms and values that go with their culture, very different than the traditional Panamanian culture. Kuna’s livelihood depends on coconut harvesting, fishing, and subsistence farming and tourism. San Blas is also a known drug trafficking area. Historically, the coconut trees have always been individually owned and the nuts provided bartering power and until recently, the coconut was used as cash. One coconut, one dollar.

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The San Blas Islands is an archipelago and primitive region of 378 islands, picture-postcard islands and islets ringed by powdery white sand, a coral reef, and crystal clear turquoise water. Most islands are populated with no more than a cluster of coconut palms. Only 49 islands are inhabited. They lie off the north coast of the Isthmus of Panama, east of the Panama Canal. The area is popular for sailing and the area does not suffer from hurricanes.

As a semiautonomous province, the Kuna have maintained their cultural identity and integrity, and have complete control of economic matters such as tourism. Since the colonial period, the Kuna have successfully resisted invasions by pirates, colonists, missionaries, and big international travel companies.

 The Kun originally lived in Colombia and were driven by invaders to the Darien and eventually out to the San Blas region escaping pursuit from invaders and other tibes. Before the arrival of Europeans, the Kuna wore very little clothes and decorated their bodies with colorful designs. When encouraged to wear clothes by the missionaries, they copied these designs in their molas, which they wear as clothing still today. The men wear western clothes but the women, the martriarchs, still wear traditional clothing; skirts and mola-appliquéd shirts in yellows and reds, head scarves, a gold ring in their septum, and usually a single black line drawn down the crest of their nose; their arms and legs are bound with intricate bead work patterns.

There were many advantages to living on these idyllic islands, there are no insects, wild animals or snakes, there is plenty of food and water, and the isolation gave them better protection from other tribes.There are an estimated 50,000 Kuna spread across the 49 communities in the San Blas region, and scattered in areas as far away as Panama City and farther east in the Darién.

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The Kuna people have an albino gene. I learned that there is a mountain Kuna tribe living in the Darien, in wich the gene does not exist. The story goes that in 1278 a Swedish scientist travelled in the jungle and saw and albino Kuna indian. Not knowing that what he saw was an albino – he travelled home to Sweden and claimed that there were white Indians living in the Panamanian jungle. The university of Gothernbough founded an expedition to the area which resolted in the foundings and studies of the Kuna Indians, albino and non alino and when returning to Sweden the only Kuna museum in the world was established. 1 in every 145 people born will be albino, this is the highest rate of albinism in the world, the global average is 1 in every 20 000. Because local mythology these children are called the moon children, destined to pretend the moon from dragons.

When a man marries a Kuna woman he comes to live with and work for her family. Children do not “belong” to their parents, they are members of a clan. If they aren’t getting along with their parents they can stay with other relatives on their island. This is a matriarchal society – property is owned by the females.

There is no corporal punishment of children. If a child continually misbehaves he or she is shunned.

The Kuna Nation has a participatory democracy. Every evening, everyone on each island gets together to discuss the days happenings, any issues that have come up. Every few months the residents of four or five islands get together to discuss larger issues that me have come up. Twice a year there are regional meetings (everyone from the norther islands come to one place and everyone from the southern island come to another place). Regional issues are discussed and actions are voted on. Once a year there is a nationwide gathering where larger issues are discussed and courses of action voted on.

Many of the islands of San Blas have their own fresh water sources, these are called a fresh water lens. I had to google this and Wikipedia says:

“In hydrology a lens is a convex layer of fresh groundwater that floats on top of denser saltwater. It arises when rainwater seeps down through a soil surface and then gathers over a layer of seawater at or down to about five feet below sealevel. Freshwater lenses are often found on small coral or limestone islands and atolls, where wells dug into them may be the only natural source of potable water”. Below is a photo of a fresh water well on La Tortuga island.

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I loved every minute in San Blas and the insight we gained into the Kuna lifestyle and culture. I would love to go back! We travelled with Secrets Panama, and would genuinely recommend anyone travelling with Michel and Pati.

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