The San Blas Islands
12 November 2017 | San Blas
We came into Linton in the middle of a downpour and anchored amidst many boats there. I suppose they were all staging for the San Blas or maybe this was their summer hangout. We let the rain fall and the next morning we went into the marina and asked about checking out. The port captain's office was on the marina grounds and we determined that we needed to get our zarpe there and then clear immigration at Porvenir in the San Blas. The zarpe is a clearance document issued by the port captain and is very important to have in the Latin American countries for entry into the next port. It is still kind of unclear but at any rate we got our zarpe for Cartagena and headed out the next day for the San Blas.
Our first stop was Chichime in the islands, one of the western most in the group. The San Blas are an archipelago on the eastern coast of Panama and are the home of the Kuna Indians, an indigenous group who have been very successful in preserving their heritage and autonomy. They for the most part live on the islands and fish the reefs and harvest and collect coconuts to manufacture oil. They are also farmers and many have small farms they work on the mainland every day. They travel back and forth in dugout canoes called ulus. Many have sails and they are very skilled at sailing them around.
The Kuna culture is one of cooperative living and no land is personally owned but every coconut has an owner. Foreigners are also not supposed to take lobster or conch or spearfish. It is a matriarchal society where the women control the wealth of the family, usually wearing most of it in the form of silver and gold jewelry. Generally when a couple is wed they live on the wife's family island.
The small communities are built very close together so there is little room between the huts. A family unit will have several huts made of bamboo and thatched roofs for cooking, eating and sleeping. The huts usually last about 15 years and then need to be replaced. Generally in the middle is a large hut where the congresso meets every night. It is a town meeting where issues and complaints are presented to the chiefs or sailas and discussed. Most communities have a concrete block school where kids go up to the sixth grade. If they want to go further they must go to Panama City and live there and finish school. We got the impression not many do.
The islands are generally small and covered with coconut palms and surrounded by extensive reefs. Looking at the charts is confusing because at first glance it looks as though the islands are large but closer inspection reveals the large areas are reefs and the islands are very small. The water in the outer islands is very clear and the reefs are very pretty with many types of coral and many colorful tropical fish. The area is pretty fished out by the locals and they unfortunately harvest under sized lobster and fish and then try to sell them to the cruisers. The water closer to the mainland is not as clear due to the rivers that flow into the area. Most of the communities are on islands close to the mainland, but some families live on the outer islands as well.
In the traditional villages the women wear colorful mola blouses and skirts and scarfs on their heads. Molas are the colorful fabric creations done by layering different colors of cloth and cutting and stitching intricate patterns. They also have very intricate beaded leggings on their calves which are very colorful. The men are plainly dressed in pants and tshirts. The kids all are running around as you would expect in all manner of clothing. When a girl reaches maturity, she starts wearing the mola shirt and garb following a ceremony.They are very shy about having their photo taken.
The area we've been cruising is the Gulf of San Blas, which is the primary area where most boats stay. There are groups of islands, all with colorful and almost unpronounceable names. Some have Spanish names and Kuna names for the same island. We started at Chichime, then the Lemmons, and then over to the Holandes, down to Coco Banderas, Green Island, the Naguargandup Cays and then to Isla Maquina, also known as Mormake Tupu (mola maker island). We had bought some molas from Vernacio Restropo, a master mola maker, who lives there with his family. We got a tour of the island from his brother, Idelfonso. We also bought some molas from Lisa, the infamous transvestite mola maker from Rio Sidra, an adjacent island. To give you a flavor of the island names, I'll list a few of the ones at which we anchored. Yansaledup, Tiadup, Naguarchirdup, Ukupsuit, Guarladup, Olosicuidup and on and on.
We have found the people to be very friendly and kind to all the strangers around in their midst, but as with all places there are a few bad apples. Frequently the Kunas come to the boat in their ulus to sell lobster, octopus , crabs, fruit , veggies, and molas. In our experience most have been very friendly and honest and we let our guard down when one guy, Apio, offered to bring us some fruit and veggies if we gave him money. We were in the Coco Banderas anchorage and he was supposed to be back the next day with our stuff. Well, we never saw him again and have subsequently discovered that he is famous for that. So if you come here and Apio shows up, tell him he is "un mentiroso y un ledron" (a liar and a thief) and don't give him any money.
This has been a place of contrasts in our experience. It is a pretty place and the people are generally very nice, but the water is frequently filled with trash and we can't get past the locals harvesting immature lobster, conch and fish. They don't seem to be able to understand the concept of sustainable fishing. They certainly have embraced the concept of tourists and dollars. Tourism has become a big deal here and the locals see them as cash cows. There is a charge for everything, even anchoring beside an island. We also brought things to give away to the kids, but we believe in trading with adults. Many times though they approach us looking for us to give them things. We don't mind parting with a few fish hooks or charging a cell phone, but when they start asking for gas or diesel fuel we draw the line. We are hopeful that as we go further east and away from the prime tourist areas, things will improve.
Our plans now are to spend another week or so here and then clear immigration in Provenir and head east along the coast to see some of the more traditional communities. Then we'll jump off for an overnight sail to Columbia and try to be in Cartagena by the first of December. New pictures are in the gallery.