Imagine a turquoise tropical archipelago with one island for every day of the year. White sand beaches, waving palms, virgin rainforest and a fascinating indigenous community who fiercely preserve their culture and traditions while warmly welcoming visitors. Still off the beaten track, this narrow, 226km-long strip on the Caribbean coast stretches from the Golfo de San Blás in Panama to the Colombian border. The San Blas Islands and associated mainland territories are called Guna Yala by the autonomous Guna Indians who effectively control this quarter of Panama. Only about 15% of these minute islands are inhabited; some strain to contain whole towns which appear to drop off the edge while others are little more than sandbanks with lone families tending to the coconut palms. Though they have had contact with Europeans since Columbus sailed these waters in 1502, clan identity is paramount, and many make tenacious efforts to preserve a traditional way of life.
We started our visit to this fascinating area in Puerto Obaldia. We weren’t entirely sure we could check into Panama in this remote border town at the far eastern edge of the Guna Yala but we were keen to explore this lesser visited area and decided to take a chance. After our final overnight sail of the year from Cartagena, we arrived in the anchorage with just enough time to go exploring. We got lucky and our very poor Spanish helped us past the rather scary looking police toting AK-47s, to immigration and port control and after quite a bit of confusion (I don’t think cruisers use this port very much!) we were very much poorer but legally checked into Panama.
After a terrifying night of thunderstorms in the very rolly anchorage, we decided it was definitely time to move on and so began our month of motoring – no wind, no sailing, just thunderstorms and rain but thankfully mostly flat seas. It was the rainy season after all.
We didn’t see any other cruisers for our first two weeks in the region. The Eastern part of the Comarca is quite different to the picture postcard version. Villages are very traditional, the water is a bit murky and mostly brown, it’s mountainous and surrounded by pristine lush rainforest. We thought it was stunning and generally found the Guna people to be inquisitive, friendly, warm and welcoming.
Our first stop was a quick hop up the coast to Puerto Perme where the traditional village of Anachucuna is located. There is quite a long list of rules and regulations in our guidebook of things we should and mostly shouldn’t do so we were conscious not to get in the way or impose ourselves onto the locals. We anchored in the stunning bay next to a rather battered Colombian trading boat. However it was soon evident that we were the subject of some curiosity as Blue Zulu become surrounded by various Guna fishermen in their dugout canoes. Everyone greeted us, wanted to know our names and we soon felt at home in our new surroundings.
There was a large football pitch on the beach in front of the mainland part of the village and the temptation was too great for Fin who convinced us all a quick game was a good idea. It turned out the village had a few football fans and our kids were soon swamped by local kids who either joined enthusiastically in the game, did hand stands with Stella or watch shyly from the sidelines. I was invited by a friendly local couple to visit their home in the village where we drank chicha, ate fruit and chatted in elaborate hand gestures while they successfully sold me my first mola – the Gunas are brilliant sales people and their gorgeous molas are very hard to resist!
Molas are colourful panels of intricate embroidery which the Guna woman wear as part of their traditional blouses. They are beautiful and exquisitely crafted with designs ranging from abstract geometric patterns, with traditional maroon, white and black, to modern, adorned with cats, fish, yachts or even Santa. Mola work originated from the transfer of body-painting designs to cloth. When the Panamanian government tried to modernise the Guna by prohibiting traditional dress, the mola emerged as a symbol of independence. Today there is a wonderful sense of pride among Guna women regarding molas. As soon as you are anchored near a village, the Guna woman paddle up in their dugouts to determinedly try to sell you their work especially in the more touristy part of the region. Actually in recent years, the sale of molas has replaced the sale of coconuts as the Guna’s number-one revenue. Until the late 1990s, the district’s principal currency was the coconut.
Our second anchorage was Suledup near the village of Caledonia. We anchored in the shelter of a large hill surrounded by mangroves and immediately wondered about crocodiles. At our previous anchorage I was convinced I had seen a croc swimming in the bay and the villages smiled and nodded when we asked about crocs putting an end to any ideas of swimming! Crocodiles are known to frequent the saltwater mangroves and even sometime the open water between islands in the San Blas. And now here we were in another admittedly beautiful anchorage but surrounded by mangroves and loath to swim! We needed a beach! So we went off scouting.
As we explored our first uninhabited beach island, we had remind ourselves that every coconut in the area belongs to someone. It was vital that we get out of our habit of collecting fallen coconuts on empty beaches. Once back on the boat, we were approached by Antonio, who charged us the customary anchoring tax and invited us to visit the village on Caledonia the next day. At each new island we had to pay an anchoring and visiting tax usually $10.
Each island is led by a Saila (chief), who applies its own regulations concerning their island or village. The Saila is the political, cultural and spiritual leader of the community and he is in charge of preserving and transmitting the cultural wealth of the Guna people to the members of his community. The cornerstone of the Guna political organisation is the Ibeorkun or Congresso (community gathering house). Here, men gather weekly (or sometimes even nightly) for heated discussions about local events, to make decisions about important problems and to listen to the advice of chiefs who swing in hammocks in the centre of the house. Generally, each island has at least three chiefs and their authority is officially recognised by the Panamanian government. Every year, there are two general assemblies for the representatives from all of the islands in the Comarca at which major issues affecting the Guna are discussed.
Antonio gave us a tour of Caledonia which was fascinating. From the water, the island looked crammed and chaotic but as we walked around the village, we found it to be a calm, well organised and neat space. The traditional palm frond huts were well spaced with wide sand paths between them. Toilet and pig huts are positioned over water. There were half a dozen little stores, a couple of public phones, a school and basketball court. Antonio also proudly showed us his backpackers hostel which hung over the water will a stunning view of the islands around. We bought our first batch of delicious Guna bread and with lots of smiles and waves headed back to our boat.
Next stop was Isla Pinos which the Guna call Tupbak meaning whale as from far out at the sea the rather high island does indeed resemble a whale. We anchored off a Guna restaurant and had our first experience with the backpackers that are so prevalent in this part of the world. It is very difficult to get between Panama and Colombia as you have to go through the notorious and inaccessible Darien Jungle so the choices for travellers are to fly or go by boat through the San Blas. We saw many backpacker boats during our time in the area – some travel by yacht, others by organised tours or local speedboats. We even saw some impressive looking motorbikes on the front of a busy backpacker sailing boat in one anchorage!
Blue Zulu went back to being the only boat in the bay at our next anchorage off Mamitupu Island. We had read in our cruising guide that there was a Guna man living on the island who used to live in England for many years and we were keen to find someone who could answer our many questions about the area. Pablo hosts guests in this traditional compound and also makes organic cold pressed coconut oil at his small coconut press. Pablo was a friendly and gracious host immediately insisting we stay for coffee, showing us his press and telling us stories of the island. In fact all the villagers on Mamitupu were very welcoming and friendly – we were invited into many family compounds by the woman and children who especially loved our kids. Everyone wanted to know their names and ages and often exclaimed loudly and shook their heads at the answers. It seemed to fascinate them.
One of the bits of advice from our cruising guide is that the Guna’s don’t like having their picture taken and we respected this by leaving our cameras on Blue Zulu. But it was difficult. The villages are so interesting, the kids gorgeous and the woman so beautiful in their traditional dress that you sometimes feel like you are in the pages of National Geographic. And although we don’t have any good photos, I think we ended up with something far more valuable as we were warmly welcomed almost everywhere we went and people really made an effort to engage with us. So many times I wished my very basic Spanish was better.
While anchored off Mamitupu we watched with interest as the villages left very early in the morning to paddle over to the mainland in their ulus (wooden boats carved out of a single trunk, skilfully propelled with paddles and a rudimentary sail) to tend to their crops. Island communities often have fincas (farms) on the mainland where they harvest bananas, plantain, yuca, firewood, building materials and sugarcane. We then watched them paddle back around lunchtime with their ulus full. The remainder of the day is apparently spent resting, fishing or taking a sail in their ulu. With no electricity nights are early.
Our final anchorage in the eastern area was Snug Harbour which got its name from the English schooners that used to stop there to load coconuts in the days of sailing merchant ships. A lovely well protected spot near the island of Playon Chico. This was also our first proper and thankfully only crocodile sighting in the San Blas – rather disconcerting as we had just been swimming! Ironically it was also the first time that the locals told us it was fine to swim!! We were befriended by a lovely Guna man called Arguin who visited our boat all three days we were anchored in the area, caught lobster for our lunch, sold us his wife’s lovely molas and joined us for a sail to nearby Aridup Island. He also bought his neighbour’s boys along for the visits. Stella and Fin who had been rather starved of child company for a few weeks really enjoyed playing with Yoji and Kenchi. I must say it was the first time in 18 months that the ‘universal language’ of Lego wasn’t understood and so with very little common language the kids instead played by swapping kayaks and ulus – much more fun!
With our food and gas stores running low, we headed west in search of the more populated and therefore better resourced part of the archipelago. Most yachts stay in the triangle of Porvenir – Holandes Cays – Rio Diablo area because the charts are better and the water is clearer. We briefly visited Nargana in the Rio Diablo area to buy food and a Panamanian SIM card (our first connection to the outside world in over two weeks!) but didn’t succeed in getting any more money or gas. The next few weeks were going to be interesting…
Nargana residents have decided to give up the traditional way of life so there is electricity, street lights and plenty of satellite dishes adorning the mostly concrete houses. In direct contrast, traditionally community islands are acre-sized cays packed with bamboo huts, livestock and people. Villages are often picturesque and blend into the surrounding landscape. The traditional huts are made from renewable, fast growing materials; the floor is slightly elevated with compacted sand, while the walls are made of cane and the rooves fabricated from a special palm leaf found in the jungle. There are no nails or commercial fastenings – everything is held together by jungle creepers. Multiple generations appear to live in one compound with a few huts.
However more and more brick and corrugated iron building materials are creeping into the villages especially in the Western part of the area. It is understandable as our friend, Arguin, told us a story of loosing his hut along with another 40 after a faulty solar panel started a fire. Although the women on Nargana dressed in a more Western way, most Guna women continue to dress as their ancestors did. Older women may be adorned with a black line painted from the forehead to the tip of the nose, with a gold ring worn through the septum. Colourful fabric is wrapped around the waist as a skirt, topped by a short-sleeved blouse covered in brilliantly coloured molas. The women wrap their legs, from ankle to knee, in long strands of tiny beads, forming colourful geometric patterns. A printed headscarf and many necklaces, rings and bracelets complete the wardrobe. In sharp contrast to the elaborate women’s wear, Guna men have adopted Western dress, such as shorts and sleeveless shirt.
Rubbish, particularly plastic is a problem on the islands, and there is no effective plan for its management. For the Guna, the cost of removal to the mainland is too high, and there is no designated site or ‘culture’ of waste management, since all refuse was relatively innocuous until outside influence prevailed. We saw rubbish on almost every beach and on most of the community islands. We saw locals throw bags of rubbish into the mangroves and we smelt burning piles of plastics. It is incredibly sobering to be confronted by the obvious problem of plastic and a good education for the kids. Unfortunately we don’t know what the solution is and can only try in our own way to reduce, reuse and recycle which is not always easy when there aren’t first world systems in place. The kids though are embracing the challenge by refusing straws, picking up rubbish off beaches they visit and spreading the word where they can.
Although not quite as culturally rich as our first two weeks, our last two weeks in Guna Yala was magical, full of stunning anchorages, clear blue water, swimming, less rain and more sunshine! We didn’t have much of a plan and that was ideal. As we explored the Coco Banderas and Holandes Cays, we fell into a routine of school in the mornings, followed by boat chores, then lunch and DEAR time (down everything and read – thanks Lalamanzi!), beach and swimming in the afternoon, sundowners and dinner. It was a lazy time with lots of games played, clothes washed by hand, early nights and not much socialising. Then we met the lovely people from the 140ft super yacht, Dione Star and we had a wonderful totally spoiling taste of the how the other half live! We were invited for a 4 course dinner onboard followed the next day by an exciting day of exploring the islands on their fast speedboat (with onboard shower and cocktails!!) and a lovely lunch back onboard. It was such a treat and I was incredibly proud of our kids who not only made it all possible by charming the owner’s friends on the beach but who behaved immaculately throughout.
We anchored in the gorgeous West Naguargandup Cays off Salardup Island to be near our new friends. It felt a bit like you’re anchored in the middle of the sea as you are tucked behind reef just looking out to sea. Although the kind hospitality of Dione Star had delayed our inevitable running out of everything onboard – we were down to our last few dollars, last bit of food and last bottle of gas – it was time to go in serious search of replenishment. We tried the Lemmon Cays where there is supposed to be a cruiser spot for gas and provisions but there was little sign of life and then we tried Wichubhuala and Nalunega off entry point Isla Porvenir with a little more luck – fairly decent food provisions but still no gas or money. So with crossed fingers we would be able to cook it, we took our last few groceries to the Eastern Lemmon Cays and settled in for our last few days in Guna Yala. And what a great decision that turned out to be! We bumped into our lovely friends Mehdi and Iman on SY. Katoussa and had a great social couple of days with them in this perfect stunning anchorage.
All too soon it was time for the 60 mile motor sail to Linton Bay to reprovision but most importantly to get Blue Zulu ready for the marina – it was time to leave her for a few weeks of air and land travel back to see family and friends in the UK and SA. As we left Panama and as we talked about our experiences with people during our time off BZ, it was our time in the San Blas I kept referring back to and which left some of the strongest impressions – a fascinating place with such a rich culture, traditions and way of life. And the skies, those vast ever-chaging stunning skies. We had a such a good unifying time together as a family without outside influences to distract us. Although we had been cruising for almost a year and a half, Guna Yala taught us how to stop, slow down and appreciate everything around us. I think we can all learn a little bit about what’s essentially important in life – slowing down, spending quality time with people and keeping things simple – from the wonderful Guna people. Dot Nuet – Gracias – Thank you.