Re-visiting the San Blas Islands – 2010 Déjà vu

Peregrina's Journey
Peter and Margie Benziger
Mon 15 Jun 2015 16:23

Having reached our goal of circumnavigating the world aboard Peregrina, you might have thought that our passage updates would have stopped.  (Some of you might have said, “Hallelujah!”)

But, there’s still one more week until we put Peregrina to bed for some well deserved “R & R” and Peter and I head back to the USA.  So, we thought we’d send off a story of our time in the San Blas Archipelago, home to the Kuna Indians and known locally as the Republic of Kuna Yala.

It was here that we “tied the knot” officially on our circumnavigation – having set down the anchor in the same Lat/Long position as we had done 5 ½ years ago. 

The San Blas Islands/Kuna Yala was one of our favorite places and, while there have been some changes here, we still found plenty to like the second time around.

Some background…

Kuna Yala is officially part of Panama but is ruled autonomously by the Kuna General “Congreso” with its’ own constitution and full administrative and judicial powers.  The population is about 50,000 spread over 340 islands.  It is a matrilineal society with women controlling the money and husbands moving in to live with the wife’s family upon marriage.


Kuna are not allowed to intermarry with non-Kuna and this has perpetuated an indigenous people who, through inter-breeding, are quite small in height, second only to the pygmies in South America.  They also have a much higher percentage of albinos here and I’m sure there is a scientific explanation for that.  Any scientists out there want to help me out???

The principal source of income for the Kuna is from coconut trade – mainly with Colombia.  Every coconut on every island in Kuna Yala is owned by someone and it is considered very bad form for tourists or cruisers to pilfer even one! 

What you CAN buy from the many Kuna fishermen who ply these waters is fantastic fish, lobsters and crab!  We were visited by locals selling all sorts of bounty from the sea every single day!  Sometimes they would bring the whole family along!

 Here’s Margie with what would soon be our delicious dinner.

Another popular items that tourists and cruisers collect in Kuna Yala are the beautiful “molas” that have made these industrious people famous around the world. 

 In most islands you will find the women busy sewing molas. Here is Alisia and Victor who invited us to have lunch at their thatched house. While we talked (in Spanish) she sewed her mola.  This mola has a very complex story of a cultural event from Kuna history.

We bought a number of molas on several islands. We were also visited by one of the master mola makers, Venecio, who showed us dozens of his patterns and designs.

In the above instances, we found life in Kuna Yala much the same as when we were here in 2010.  However, we did notice far fewer Kuna living on the outer islands than before.  Such primitive conditions are not for everyone!


For the most part, there is no plumbing

​ or​
electricity on the majority of the islands and most families rely on canoes to provide transportation to/from the mainland.

Cellphones are increasing but there is no way to charge them.  We were surprised by how often we were asked by the Kuna, who paddled up to Peregrina in their canoe

​to ​
ask if we would charge up their phones.  We did this with pleasure, of course, since visiting yachts are just about the only source of power available for this purpose but also with a degree of angst considering the affect technology has on unique, primitive societies. Once we charged a phone, it was grabbed by everyone, including the children.

The fact is that the Kuna towns on the mainland have grown considerably as young people and the elderly find they do not want to cope with life on the remote islands.  As this exodus continues, in one sense Kuna traditions are dying and existing communities are diluted with the advances of modern society. 

Children from the out islands, ages 6-18, are offered free room, board and education in mainland schools. They leave the islands on Sunday night and return on Friday.   But, after graduation, few return permanently to the remote islands of Kuna Yala.  One family we met had a son attending medical school in Panama City.  We asked if he would come back to Kuna Yala and they just laughed and shook their heads.  “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, after they’ve seen PC?”

Could we be only one or two generations away from the extinction of traditional Kuna way of life?  I think so!

Regardless, our time in Kuna Yala was magical.  The Kuna keep their islands clean and the anchorages are beautiful with white sand beaches and excellent snorkeling.  Often, Peregrina would have its own private island.

This is a remote island we went to by dingy.  If you look closely you will see Margie posing in between the only two palm trees on the island.

We had to be very careful navigating. There are many dangerous reefs. We saw numerous wrecks of sailboats.

But at the end of the day, what we remember most about Kuna Yala are the smiles from the kids.

Well, that’s all from Kuna Yala in Panama.  Right now, we’re heading to the marina where we’ll get Peregrina decommissioned for her summer break.  We look forward to seeing many of you in Florida, New York and California in the next three or four months.  And, who knows where else we might pop up? 

Please keep in touch!

And, BTW, for those of you who are still wondering, “Is THIS our last update?”  Heck no!!!  The circumnavigation may be over but the adventure continues….Stay tuned!

​Margie & Peter

[We love hearing from you but please send us a new email at margiebenziger {CHANGE TO AT} gmail {DOT} com.  If you hit "reply" all the pictures will be sent back to us. Thanks]


Peter Benziger

Peter Benziger