San Blas home of the Kunas
15 February 2018
San Blas Islands are know by the locals as Kuna Yala (land of the Kuna). This 100 mile stretch of the Panama Caribbean coast starts at the Colombia border and encompasses the coast line and outlying islands. Panama has given up trying to assimilate the Kuna into Panama and allows them to self-rule. They are still Panama citizens and can vote in Panama elections but make their own laws. Each village has three Sailas or chiefs. The traditional villages have council every night where the chiefs lay in hammocks and discuss matters of the village. These councils can become boring so one member is appointed to scream out at times to wake up those who are bored. We did not attend council but visited one of their meeting buildings.
Kunas are the second smallest race on earth. Only the African Pigmys are smaller. Their main source of income is selling coconuts. We were warned not to take a coconut, even from uninhabited islands. They also hunt and farm off the rivers that spill into the Caribbean. Fishing and lobstering are other sources of food and income. Their society is matriarchal. Men take on their wife's name and move into her family. Women control the money and business. Women have an elaborate, traditional dress with strings of beads covering much of their calves and forearms. They wear headscarfs and blouse with front and back pieces of artistic needlework called molas. These molas are truly art and any cruiser has many opportunities to buy them. We bought six.
Enough about the Kunas, google if you want to learn more. I will have a difficult time describing our journey through their land. As mentioned in our last blog, we were “billed” for just anchoring in their waters. This seemed inappropriate after we paid $400 clearance fees into Panama. I politely declined to pay more. Seems the Kunas know there are dollars on yachts and want some for themselves. We gladly traded with the ulus (dugout canoes)that came by offering fruits, vegetables and lobsters. We did pay the chief of one island when we were presented to him after touring his village. I'm sure the $5 we paid went to good use.
But when anchored in a remote island with no inhabitants, we were approached by a boat trying to collect $60! I calmly discussed that we already paid to enter Panama, showed them our papers but they still insisted that that was “different.” I used my negotiating tactic that has worked well in the past. I just sang Bob Marley “Redemption Song” until they were sure I was crazy and left! I had to repeat this performance at a few more islands with similar results. Good that they left us with smiles. Who doesn't like Bob Marley?
The eastern San Blas consists of islands just off the mainland that contain villages. Uproar traveled with Skabenga and Mana Kai throughout. Not many cruisers venture into this area. Anchorages are between the mainland and islands. The water is murky and is reported to contain crocodiles. After anchoring at Mona island, I went for a swim. Shortly after, Skabenga called on the radio and said they saw a 10 foot crocodile right next to their boat.
Further west we encountered reefs and offshore islands. Kunas live only on islands close to land where they can paddle up the rivers for their farming and hunting. Offshore islands are heavily planted with coconut palms. These islands are idyllic, sandy beaches with towering palms. They are postcard beautiful! Anchorages are calm and water clear.
Our flotilla of Uproar, Skabenga, and Mana Kai (Skupman) cruised these delightful islands in perfect weather. We visited Naragama, one of the more advanced islands for some groceries and a nice, local lunch. Coco Bandero, Green Island and East Lemon Cays were some of our favorites.
We cut our San Blas visit to a short two weeks because we needed to go to Colon to get registered and documented for the Panama Canal transit. But we would soon return....