Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Kuna Yala

Sailing Ulu by Achutupu
Kuna Yala is the land of Native Kuna Indians, also known as San Blas. This area stretches around 150 miles along the South Eastern side of Panama. Kunas live very original, the most primitive I ever witnessed.  Their homes are made with bamboos from the jungle, majority don't have electricity or running water, and bathrooms are outhouses over water. The men paddle "Ulus" (Dugout canoes) toward the rivers on the main land early in the mornings and return with supplies throughout the day. They get their water from the rivers, vegetables and fruits from the main land in the Darien forest, and meat from the sea. The only signs of modern world are radio antennas, a few outboards, and mobile phones, which is more evident in the northern villages than southern. The first language is kuna and Spanish is widely practiced. There are around 360 islands in San Blas and most are not occupied. Villages are usually located close to the main land and well populated.
Supplies from the forest
Women paddling to the river to get water
Isla Tigre
Typical view of a village with Darien Jungle in the background
A school's bathroom in Ustupu
Homes out of bamboo
Kuna Yala is a woman dominant society. Women make most important decisions, they choose their husbands and manage financials. In Hollandes Cays, a gentleman came over to greet us. First thing he asked was if there was a woman aboard? Yes, and Katherine came out on deck. Thereafter, he talked to Katherine about anchorage fee and handed her a note in english. I'm standing there and watching and this guy doesn't even look at me till he got his $10 and gives a receipt, only then he turned around and started chatting with me.
Women dress in tradition clothing called Mola, which is the primary art Kunas offer.
They are sewn patterns of nature on different colors and layers of fabric. Molas are a famous hand craft of Panama. Some molas are definitely a piece of art and great souvenir and gift for friends and family. Usually Kuna women row up on their ulu to the cruising boats and offer the handcrafted molas for sale.
Estelfina invited us to her house to see her molas
Mola stand
Kunas like to give visitors gifts (Regalo). We have got seafood, fruits, molas as gifts from various locals. However, one experience has been making me a little cautious with taking gifts. In Ustupu, a happy person, Ricardo rowed on his ulu up to Earthling and sold us bananas & mangos. The following day he came by & offered fruits again but we already had some and were not interested. But Ricardo insisted to take some as Regalo because we were amigos. Ok, gracias amigo as I took four mangos. Ricardo said; De nada, Un Balboa($1)! I wasn't going to get into the definition of Regalo with Ricardo with my broken Spanish, so No problema, A dollar for you amigo :-)
Kind giving locals in Isla Tigre
Lobster or Lancoste
Ricardo brought fruits by every day
Kunas are peaceful and in harmony with nature and they would never hurt anyone. They don't lie, cheat, or steal. They are trusting and we never felt it was necessary to lock the boat. The Kunas in the southern islands have had little interaction with outsiders and seldom might not come across as friendly as others. Some individuals from previous generations might not really be excited to directly interact with visitors. And it makes sense, since Kuna Yala has been threaten by outsiders several times in the history. Originally the Spanish tried to rule it and then the Panamanians. Furthermore, people dug for gold in their rivers and the drug trafficking of rootless people have not left a good impression in Kuna's mind. Fortunately the only people that left better imprints are the sailors and cruisers and once they hear you are on a sailboat they soften up. They have been violent twice throughout the history, stood up for their land and fought first with the Spanish a few hundred years ago and second with Panamanians in the mid 1920's. Where they even massacred the interracial Kunas. Their new flag symbolizes both of the fights.

 Some villages are like a labrynth, we got lost in Achutupu, Earthling's mast is visible in the middle of the pic, but how do we get there
Ustupu, largest Kuna island
Kunas are known to take care of the nature and maintain it clean. Nowadays one can't go by without noticing plastic, metal cans, and glass floating on the water around villages and stacked up along the shores, a sad scene in paradise. The other day we payed attention to a person that walked up to the sea and threw all the trash in the water (it's common). Many of the trash was food rest and degradable, in addition there were plastic soda bottles and thin cans. It's not really the person's fault, she has been throwing rubbish into the sea for 70 years and it always disappeared but today it doesn't just go away and it could be because of the evil spirit. Could the evil spirit be the corporations that mass produce & export cheap products around the world? That is a political discussion for itself. In a perfect world if we are producing materials that would not disappear in nature, then it's our responsibility to educate our peer. I think most if not all packaging materials should be degradable.
There are many deserted islands in Kuna Yala. Before getting back on the more common cruising route north of Rio Diablo, Katherine and I got to spend an amazing evening totally secluded on Farewell Island. This little island was resided by 100s of palm trees of different sizes. The hammock was set up in between two of the trees on the beach with a Bonfire next to it under the full moon. Every time we set up a fire, our trash gets burned, in addition we try to clean up the surrounding of all plastic materials and burn them as well. In the Farewell island we burned tons of plastic bottles that were floating on the beach and in the water.
Since the first bonfire in Chub Cay, Bahamas, I learned from Ali to have a clean bonfire without leaving any evidence. First dig a deep hole in the sand on the beach, create the fire and when it's over, put it out with water, and then cover it totally with sand without leaving any kind of foot print. That way the nature is back to its original shape and beauty!

Farewell Island

Trash collected on the beach
If you are depended on Internet and planning to cruise the remote islands of Kuna Yala, plan a head for some other solution since it is more or less impossible to find Internet. I must add that all the schools in the populated islands have Internet but it might be difficult to access it at all times. We have gone to schools and tried to use the Internet, sometimes the weather has been cloudy and the solar panels couldn't put out enough energy to turn the modem on, other times there are so many kids with their small laptops that the speed can be slower than dial up, another time we had to go to school director's house and see if he could let us use the Internet, he said in half hour, after half hour we were informed that Internet wasn't working that day.
In Ustupu, you can find wireless Internet by the the airport at the power plant, additionally there is a wireless Panamanian network that occasionally works on a very low speed in some islands like Nargana by Rio Diablo. In other islands like Achitupu there should be Internet at the Hostels but the hostel was closed. The only reliable wifi is on Elephant island in West Lemmon Cays.
This is the path to the electricity plant by the airport in Ustupu, in search for wifi
One rewarding adventure has been rowing up and down the rivers. There are tons of rivers in Kuna Yala. The mouth to most of the rivers is shallow since debris, and tree logs get stock there, making it difficult for dinghies with outboards to enter. Once up the rivers you can find mango trees and load up with mangos. furthermore, the Kunas have their cemeteries on land by the rivers.
Cooling down and towing the dinghy in Rio Diablo
 Local teenagers we met on the river
Kuna graves
Large tree trunks in the water, always keep an outlook to avoid them
Earthling cruised in San Blas for five weeks and anchored in seventeen different places from Isla Pinot on the South to Provenir on the North. 

Love from Kuna Yala

View more pictures on fb page


  1. Excellent and informative read. Thank you for sharing A**2, SV Magnolia