The Good Life in Kuna Yala


Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands)

Tom and I didn’t realize we were entering a giant, open air health and fitness spa when we arrived in the San Blas Islands. That’s exactly what this place feels like. It’s an archipelago of more than 300 islands bounded by clean, pure air. You can’t imagine breathing more unpolluted airs. Not an automobile, nor a factory nor development for hundreds of miles in either direction. Our lungs must be pinker than they’ve ever been.

The crystal blue, unadulterated, warm waters surrounding the islands house variegated coral reefs that are alive with an underwater fairyland of endless variety hosting a multitude of impossibly pretty fish. Striped and spotted ones in brilliant and surprising coloration, angel, damsel, convict, parrot fish every which way you look; here a spotted eagle ray, there a somnolent barracuda, as if suspended and further on, a huge school of swarming, silent silver beauties.

Just below the surface you can find what looks like a garden in bloom with daubs of bright alongside muted colours, elegant feathery fronds and lovely, lacy fans bowing and waving with the current, rounds of brain like clumps, tubes, branches and bushes, and throngs of small creatures flitting to and fro amongst them. It’s hard to believe that these plant like coral formations are actually animals with muscles and nerves, very simple living forms, way down near the base of the tree of life.

You can’t help but spend hours in this wonderland, gazing in awe at the miracle of nature, getting exercise you don’t even realize you are getting. At the end of the day, your muscles feel the exertion, your body feels fit.

I have to admit though that I did get a terrible fright during one of my underwater explorations. Tom was out of sight ahead of me with his pole spear, hoping to snag dinner. I was admiring the surroundings with the dinghy tethered to my waist so the ‘great white hunter’ had a place to drop his catch. Literally out of the blue and heading directly for me was a large SHARK! Blinking through quickly fogging mask I confirmed the reality of the shocking vision that YES, it was steering my way, fast, and in an instant, pulled the painter toward me and launched myself gracelessly into the dinghy, like a beached seal, panting, but safe and unscathed.

In retrospect I realize I was probably needlessly alarmed. It was likely a grey nurse shark of which our Guide to Fishes (E.M. Grant) states “The Grey Nurse probably bears a worse reputation than it deserves, for there is no record or evidence linking this species with any unprovoked shark attack.” But the thought of that legendary creature making a beeline directly for little old me still makes me shudder.

And you eat well, very well. We were told to be fully provisioned for our stay in the San Blas, “and be prepared for doing without fruits and vegetables” many who’d visited years before, informed us. That proved to be all wrong. Perhaps it’s a recent phenomenon, but when in the islands these days, the store comes to you!

Regularly, the “Veg Boats” from Nargana or Porvenir, the two main villages, make the rounds in the islands, servicing the boats with not only fresh fruits and vegetables straight from gardens, but also eggs, rice, flour, UHT milk, water, coca cola, snacks, cereal, coffee, and sometimes even boxes of wine and beer.

Fresh fish is a mainstay on the menu, fish you catch yourself or buy from the local Kunas, or lobster, crab or conch, depending on what’s available in the particular locale you find yourself in.

In one area, we came upon a football field of large conch, so couldn’t resist taking one for our evening meal. The meat from that one shell was more than enough to feed the two of us. The tricky part was getting the beast out of that hard shell. With much difficulty, and a little bit of help from The Cruiser’s Handbook of Fishing by Scott and Wendy Bannerot, Tom managed to do it. (See below for recipe.)

Bread is fresh daily too- either Kuna bread delivered to the boat if available or home baked stove top galley bread baked aboard Feel Free. This recently procured recipe from Vely of Lady in Red is a revelation- no kneading, no mess, no long waiting for the rises. It’s very simple, fast and tasty and uses only 3 cups of flour and a minimal amount of propane. The old recipe I used for many years called for 7 cups of flour and was almost an all day procedure with the kneading and risings, and oven baking, so this recipe is a godsend. (See below for stove top bread recipe.)

The distant rumble of ocean waves against the windward side of the islands, the slap slap of water caused by a fish feeding frenzy near the boat, the squawking and singing of birds, the whir of the boat’s wind generator: these are the sounds you hear. The anchorages are protected by the islands and reefs and winds blow consistently from offshore during the winter months. Result: there is little rocking and rolling, a nice breeze flows through the cabin, and all combine to allow you to have long, uninterrupted sleeps at night.

Clean air, lots of exercise, good food, sound sleep, what else does this Kuna Yala ‘health spa’ offer? Well, lots of socializing if you want it. Here, it’s a sunset dinghy-drift, raft-up party in an area dubbed “alligator alley” by the long time San Blas cruisers, next to the anchorage known as the “swimming pool” which is next to another one called the “hot tub”. These are probably the most popular hang-outs for cruisers who enjoy the company of others.

On the other hand, if you prefer, you can have privacy in your very own secluded anchorage, next to your own private uninhabited island, of which there are many. We enjoy both situations. The San Blas Islands have definitely been discovered but not so much so that you can’t get away from the crowd if you want to. You can have the best of both worlds.

Few people live on these small, remote islands but those that do live a quiet, peaceful life. They stay on the small islands mainly for short periods of time, camping while tending the coconut groves and other pursuits away from their main villages where they live the majority of the year.

Each village claims certain areas for coconuts and they take turns tending them. Their law that the land belongs to all Kunas has prevented a division into “haves” and “have nots” and they believe themselves to be “blessed co-owners of their wonderful country” (Zydlers’ The Panama Guide). It certainly sounds like a fine philosophy if it works and it does appear to.

From our vantage point aboard Feel Free, we observe the men and boys heading out in their sailing ulus early in the morning. All day long they fish, chop wood or tend their gardens on nearby islands or the mainland. They return mid afternoon carrying produce, wood, fish, coconuts, lobster.

On shore, the women and girls are busy with domestic chores, laundry, food preparation, mola making.

Their water is obtained from wells for laundry, showers and cooking. Drinking water has to be procured elsewhere or through water catchment. Our laundry was piling up so Eli from High Spirits and I got permission to use the well at one of the islands. Not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

It’s a simple but rich lifestyle here in Kuna Yala. Luckily, we have the luxury of time and we feel so very fortunate to be able to live in its fullness.

Recipe for Conch Patties

First, tenderize the meat to produce ‘bruise conch’, using a small metal mallet with pyramid shaped spikes on the face to beat the meat into a broad thin patty. Then chop it into small bits.

conch meat




vegetable oil

onion, chopped

green or red peppers, chopped

Mix equal amounts of chopped conch and vegetables with enough beaten egg and flour to form an adhesive blend. Add seasonings to taste. Form batter into patties and fry in hot oil until brown. Served here with couscous and papaya, tomatoes and cucumbers.

Stove top bread
(thanks to Vely of Lady in Red)

Put in large bowl and let stand until bubbly (about 10 minutes):

2 cups warm water, 1 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon yeast, 1 tablespoon oil, 1 teaspoon salt

Add 3 cups flour, ½ cup at a time. Stir with wooden spoon and blend until smooth. Oil the inside of pressure cooker or pot very well and dust with corn meal making sure to leave a thick layer on bottom. Now pour the bread dough into pot. Let rise to double in size (about 30-35 minutes), then put lid on cooker (no pressure). Turn burner on low heat and cook 30 to 35 minutes. Take lid off and turn upside down, allowing to stand until bread falls down. The top of the bread may look wet as if not cooked but it will be moist and spongy to the touch. Turn it over and cook top 5 to 10 minutes to brown if you wish. Add flax seed, millet, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds or raisins for variety.