The San Blas Islands and the Kuna Indians

Fri 6 Feb 2015 12:00
09:33.4N 078:56.9W 
5 Feb 2015
We arrived in Porvenir on 27 January and spent the next 9 days cruising the San Blas Islands.  They comprise an archipelago of mostly small to very small islets a few miles off the mainland coast and protected by a substantial barrier reef, leaving the waters sheltered and offering a multitude of cruising possibilities.  The only drawback is the equal multitude of coral reefs that surround the islands, presenting some pretty hazardous conditions for the unwary.  We were somewhat unnerved to notice three wrecked yachts on the reefs on our initial approach to Porvenir.  As we cruised the other inlands it became obvious that these dangers are not confined to Porvenir, since there were wrecks dotted around just about everywhere we went – some of them of very recent origin.  So we proceeded with due care and attention using every available guide to help us negotiate safe passages around the islands.
The islands themselves are divided into those that are inhabited and others which are not.  The inhabited islands have little thatched huts densely clustered together, while the uninhabited ones have been mostly planted with coconut palms.  There is sometimes a resident with his family on these islands with the job of tending the coconuts but I reckon they make more money these days by charging tourists to set foot on his island. The combination of azure waters, white beaches, rich coral reefs and coconut trees make for picture perfect tropical idyll.
The islands and the adjoining mainland coastal area constitute the Kuna region of Panama.  This has the distinction of being semi-autonomous and is governed and populated very largely by the Kuna indians themselves in their traditional manner.  In fact we only met with people of pure indian blood in the islands, with the possible exception of the immigration officers.  The people subsist on fishing, coconuts and handicrafts – besides baskets and bead adornments, they make a unique garment called a mola which is a form of applique worked in either traditional patterns or, these days, modern motifs for the tourists.  Their main form of transport is the dugout canoe, either by paddle or sail and these are to be seen at all times crossing from one island to another.  A daily task is to fetch water from rivers on the mainland, since the islands themselves have very limited supplies, if at all.  This they do in their canoes.  Of course there are boats with outboards too, some of which are used to ferry goods around as well as tourists from the mainland.  And speaking of tourists, we were amazed to discover just how many yachts were present in the islands.  For our first few anchorages there were seldom less than 20 yachts around, although that began to thin out as we travelled further away from Porvenir.  And even cruise ships of various sizes.  Water taxis would transport groups of tourists from the ships to one or two favoured picnic spots for the day.  We went to one such barbecue island, which was tiny, and were shocked to find over 100 pale skinned folk on the beach who had arrived before us for a day trip. The San Blas have clearly been “discovered” and yet it is amazing to find how little impact that this has yet had on the local people.  While they bring money into the economy, there are the usual unfortunate side effects: dilution of the traditional culture, garbage and pollution and pressure on the marine resources.
We had plenty of contact with the local people since their canoes would visit us at anchor in order to trade their handicrafts or lobsters and crabs, but few fish.  They wouldn’t hesitate to tie up their canoe alongside and then leap aboard with their goods, which they would then unpack and spread all over the place.  This would then be followed by an extended period of banter in broken english/spanish. We also went ashore in a couple of the inhabited islands where we were quickly adopted by a guide and conducted on a little tour.
We were sad to leave the San Blas.  The more we saw, the more we realised that there was much more to discover if we had the time.
Some wrecks!