At Last in the San Blas


San Blas Islands,
Republic of Panama

Liz Tosoni

On a sultry, windless morning under leaden skies, just 12 miles offshore, a grey shape swelled from the grey sea like the hump of a whale preparing to sound. We were squinting through drowsy, sleep deprived eyes observing our first San Blas island, Isla Pinos, or Tupbak in the Kuna language, meaning of course, whale.

After a miserable night accompanied by big rollers on the beam, little wind and both the main autopilot and back-up autopilot on the fritz, that bump on the horizon was a welcome sight indeed.

Feel Free had been stalwart as usual, plodding along albeit somewhat drunkenly, while her crew, spoilt by taking for granted the luxury of self steering systems, were just plain exhausted. We couldn’t recall the last time we had had to employ a ‘one hour on, one hour off’ watch system, hand steering, and it made us realize it wasn’t any fun at all.

Approaching the island, we were expecting clear blue waters but on the contrary, they were a murky grey green, the result of proximity to the Panama mainland and overflow of its rivers, we later learned. There was a band of a lighter shade lining the shore, indicating shallow water, but aside from that the waters seemed pretty uniform in color. Rounding the south end, where there should have been plenty of water according to our chart, we were suddenly seeing 40, then 35, 25, 20, 17 and 15 ft. on the depth sounder! Hearts of both Liz and Tom palpitating at a rapid rate, it was hard to port and in what seemed like minutes but was probably seconds, we were back in the deeper water. Feel Free is not happy with only a couple of feet under her eight foot keel. Eric Bauhaus, in his The Panama Cruising Guide, (4th Edition, the latest), states “there are some 7 to 9 meter banks offshore.” Well, we found one of them but it wasn’t offshore.

Once inside the channel that separates mainland Panama from the 400 ft. high, lushly vegetated little island, we found a good spot to drop the anchor. With no other cruising boats in sight, our own personal San Blas panorama was spread out before our eyes. To the west, like a Japanese sumie painting, multiple layers of Panama hills in tiered tones stretched for miles, to the east just a short distance away, a sandy beach fronting a tropical jungle of coconut trees, their fronds gently swaying with the breeze.

Gazing north, a quintessential palm thatched village appeared so picturesque as to be surreal. This little corner of the planet seemed to this tired pair like a little bit of paradise.

Back in 1998 we bought a copy of The Panama Guide, A Cruising Guide to the Isthmus of Panama by Nancy Schwalbe Zydler and Tom Zydler, thinking we’d be sailing that way the following year. We planned to follow the west coast from Mexico all the way south and through the Panama Canal. Things turned out rather differently however. While in Tenacatita Mexico, we experienced a through-hull failure (Boat US blog “That Sinking Feeling..... a very close call”, March 15, 2009) which delayed our departure from Mexico so much that we decided to sail to Hawaii and westward instead. We’ve carried that precious book onboard all those years, across all those oceans, and now we finally get the chance to use it.

Before our arrival, we had done the requisite research, using both the Zydler and the Bauhaus guides. We studied weather, navigation, routes, safe passages, clearance procedures, availability of shops and supplies, all the usual things. Over the years, we’ve talked to plenty of cruisers who visited the archipelago of about 365 islands, “one for each day of the year” and raved about their experiences, so we’ve known for a very long time that the San Blas Islands are a very special place.

What fascinated me most though, was not the splendid beauty of the island chain with its multitude of traditional villages, white sand beaches and clear blue waters, nor the remoteness, the untouched rainforests, the fishing, not even the diving or snorkelling. It was the people themselves, the indigenous Kuna Indians who effectively control this part of Panama. I was drawn to the fact that they are the only native group/clan/tribe in the Americas that has not been conquered, that they may be the last of the full blooded Carib strain that inhabited the Caribbean before the Spanish conquest and, that they have best preserved their culture and traditions out of all the native groups of the Americas; that they are a matrilineal society, that they are a well proportioned yet diminutive people, second smallest in the world, next to the Pygmies of Africa, and that despite plenty of turmoil in their history, they have managed to develop a socio-political system equal to any of the developed western countries.

We were keen to meet a few of the 55,000 strong, people of Kuna Yala as the San Blas islanders prefer to call their area of islands, islets and a small strip of the mainland, strewn like a necklace from Obaldia in the southeast to Porvenir in the northwest; but, after the anchor was set, it was ‘first things first’- a hearty breakfast and sleep after that long night!

No sooner had we polished off that meal, and were putting dishes away when we heard a quiet male voice, almost a whisper, from outside the boat “Hello, excuse me please.” It was David, secretary of the chief or ‘saila’ of the village. “I am sorry to disturb you. I know you are tired, but I want to welcome you to my island and invite you to visit. Please come any time and I’ll be your guide. And I invite you to my house for food.” Of course he was also there to collect the $10 fee which is a kind of tax that everyone must pay, even the Kunas themselves, when visiting another island. Then he was gone, paddling off in his elegant dugout canoe (‘ulu’) with a big smile.

Over the course of the next few days, we did meet and get to know a few of the gentle Kuna people and we did enjoy David’s hospitality including a delicious meal of rice made with coconut milk, and ham.

Horace Martinez, is also a “guide”, semi-retired now, who keeps a guest book with the names of the boats and people he has met over many years. His English is impressive considering he learned it through correspondence textbooks. Unlike the kids, like kids everywhere, friendly, curious, open and enthusiastic, the women seemed particularly shy and it wasn’t easy to engage them in conversation.

Nowhere have I seen such distinctive clothing that the women of Kuna Yala don daily, looking stately as they go about their daily business, straight backed and graceful. I’d seen lots of pictures of the women and their colourful vestments but had been under the impression that these were for special occasions. Wrong.

A colourful piece of cotton cloth is wrapped around the waist and lower body topped by a ‘mola’ or blouse adorned both front and back by a hand stitched panel. Bracelets made of tiny colourful beads are bound tightly around arms and legs to keep them slim (a sign of beauty). Sometimes you’ll see a black line painted from forehead to nose, red painted cheeks, and a gold nose ring, especially on older women. A red and yellow head dress is often worn, completing the unique attire.

The blouse that the women wear, the mola, sewn by women, is the Kuna’s main handicraft attraction. It is a kind of reverse appliqué in which layers of colourful fabric are basted together in intricate and original designs. The women cut through the layers, creating designs, neatly turning the edges under and sewing them in tiny stitches to lower layers, making visible only the required colors.

Originally, that is, before the arrival of the Spanish, molas were made from natural fibres woven in complicated geometric patterns similar to those of the body painting adorned by many in those days. The art has evolved though and these days, most molas depict motifs of animals, birds, fish and frogs.

Before arriving in Kuna Yala land, we were told that the women were hard sellers and persistent but that wasn’t what we found at all. In fact, we weren’t even approached by one woman about molas.

David came by with some, done by his wife and daughter. I couldn’t resist the white and burgundy one by his young daughter which is now framed and matches our main cabin settees beautifully. Not a bad souvenir at $8. We were told that the really valuable ones with the best designs, number of layers and fine stitching, by master mola makers, go for $80.

Every day had a new surprise during our brief stay at our first Kuna Yala landfall, but there was so much more to see and explore and the time came to move on. As we motored up to depart the anchorage we realized we had barely scratched the surface of this captivating new world we had just entered.