San Blas: A Taste of the Pacific

Link to published article: An Authentic Experience

Temperate, crystal clear waters to swim in. Palm-fringed, white sand beaches to stroll. An archipelago of over 300 unspoiled islands to explore. The painted face and bangled-arm of a tribeswoman selling the intricate stitched artwork of her ancestors and an indigenous community that repelled colonisation, banned international development and restricted mass tourism, people who hold firmly to their traditional roots. The San Blas islands are a living history, a preserved native culture, a protected archipelago; they are a different world from the remainder of the Caribbean cruising grounds and are as close as you can get to experiencing the Pacific islands without leaving the Atlantic Ocean.

Laying along the Caribbean coast of northern Panama, the San Blas islands stretch 100 miles along the southern Caribbean Sea between the border of Colombian and the Gulf of San Blas. Officially renamed Guna Yala by the Panamanian government in 2011, the majority of islands are small uninhabited islets and cays, and the 49 islands that are inhabited are generally occupied by no more than a family or two living on land passed down to them through the generations. Traditions runs deep within the Kuna Yala culture, and it would be fair to say it is the best preserved indigenous South American culture to this day. Subsistence fishing and coconut cultivation is the generate the main income, and sale of the unique layered fabric panels made by the Kuna women, the Mola, is also a large part of the economy.

The San Blas islands had long been on my A-list of destinations. Having lived there in the mid-seventies, I was far too young at the time to hold onto my childhood experiences of Panama, but my parents remembered our time there with great fondness. Stories of crash landings in Kuna territory on a broken bi-wing and semi-permanent face markings painted down my mom’s nose were two of my parents many stories. They’d sailed through the remote San Blas islands long before it became a popular cruising destination, where they were greeted by men in dugouts who offered fish, lobster and coconuts and woman who displayed their intricately woven Molas. They retold the stories with such vivid detail, making me yearn to seek out similar adventures. When Panama finally lay in front of us, I knew exactly where I’d be spending my time. The question was, what remained? Had the authenticity of the islands been wiped into the past, or had the Kuna truly succeeded in holding onto their tribal heritage? Would I walk in my parents footsteps, or would the adventure only live through their stories?

My turn was up the morning we sailed into the San Blas Islands and laid the anchor down in front of the Swimming Pool, a popular anchorage in the Eastern Holandes. Given the name, I knew I wouldn’t be experiencing the San Blas of my parent’s day. We shared the anchorage with one other boat, however, and that was a popularity I could accept. The water was still a clear, transparent aqua blue. The tiny islet in front of us had one traditional palm-built shack sitting under a crowd of palm trees. Out on the water a man sat in his wooden dugout fishing off the edge of the reef. “Mom, Dad,” I thought, “I walk in your footsteps!

I strung the hammock on the aft deck and eased myself in, set to soak up every morsel of my quiet, idyllic paradise. Tilting my head back to top it off with a sip of cold rum, I spotted a yacht headed our way. Behind that yacht, another, and another beyond that. My paren’t footprints were disappearing with every sail that popped up on the horizon. Within a few hours the anchorage turned into a crowded parking lot, my beautiful sandy island barely visible through the bimini of the boat that dropped anchor on top of us. Just before sunset a small dugout with a Kuna family slowly paddled towards us. Salvation. My dream had been altered but was still intact. I knew that the Kuna Indians held firmly to their traditional ways and had refused assimilation into the Panamanian culture. As the dugout pulled alongside I smiled broadly knowing my Spanish wouldn’t help but searching for a fish in the hold as our common goal. My smile was returned by an equally enthusiastic grin and, in clear and concise unbroken English, he asked for a $5 anchoring fee. Between my English-speaking Kuna host, my island view through the backend of another yacht and the keel-hung traffic jam around us, my hopes of experiencing my parent’s version of the San Blas were dashed. I would have to set my own footprints in the sand.

Shifting expectations didn’t take long, however, as there was plenty on offer within the San Blas regardless of its increased popularity. While there are many islands within the archipelago, there is a concentrated group of islands where most of the cruising happens. Follow the popular cruising guide, the Bowhouse Guide, and you will enjoy a social hub within a defined cruising circuit; tread out of that area and you have can experience a far more remote San Blas. There are still areas throughout the archipelago where time continues to stand still.

We were rarely alone as we sailed a clockwise course through the San Blas, as the islands are now an extension of the Atlantic cruising circuit. Charter and cruising yachts fill the anchorages throughout the archipelago and local tour operators run day trips for tourists out to the inshore islands. Panamanians have adjusted to the increase in tourism by running skiffs to many of the popular islands, offering a range of provisions from fruit and veg to beer and wine. Many of the Kuna have integrated with mainland Panama and now speak Spanish, and English to a lesser degree, allowing us to share a language and bridge the linguistic barrier. While forty years has brought many changes to the San Blas, some of those have made cruising the islands a more convenient and comfortable experience.

That said, while tourism has come to the San Blas, it is still very low-key. The Kuna have refused any large-scale development and the options for over-night accommodation are rustic, some as basic a hammock strung between palm trees. In addition, the handful of islands that offer this option are close to the mainland, restricting tourism to the majority of the islands. We had the unique opportunity to spend an afternoon with the ex-President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli, when his helicopter landed on a small uninhabited cay near where our anchorage in the Eastern Holandes, providing us insight to some of the politics of the recent past. The ex-president discussed his campaign to turn the San Blas into “the next Maldives.” The Kuna, however, hold sovereign independence throughout the islands and have rejected attempts to develop resorts throughout the islands. It was not progress the Kuna wanted, and I realised then what a privilege it was for us to be able to travel throughout an area that had fundamentally remained so unaltered by outside influence. It may not be exactly what my parents had experienced, but it wasn’t far off it.

That afternoon showed me that my first assessment of a lost culture hadn’t been entirely on the mark. Clearly there were changes, but this two-hundred year old culture still had firm roots. Many of the dugouts had outboards, but square-rigged wooden canoes still sail throughout the islands. Kuna men still row up with their bilges filled with fish and coconuts, often accompanied by their wife and child selling molas for $40 a pane. To sit with these woman and look through the intricate stitch-work made me appreciate how much of the Kuna traditions were still very much a part of everyday life; molas are hand-stitched exclusively by women in their spare time between rearing children and household demands, and each meter-square piece can take up to a month or two to complete. While men have moved towards modern clothing, most women dress traditionally in a cotton wrap and mola blouse, a colourful headscarf worn to deter evil spirits. Their wrists and ankles are wrapped in multi-coloured beads and married women still wore the traditional gold nose ring and thin black line painted down their nose. Huts ashore we still very much replicas of the housing of their forefathers, and families still live on land that has been passed down to them through the generations. Some islands are no longer inhabited, but many are still run exactly as they have been for centuries.

We’d been warmly welcomed by all the Kuna we’d met, and a few of them allowed us a closer insight into their daily lives. One particular interaction stands out as we were invited to spend the evening with a Kuna family in their home. When we arrived, the head of house stoked the embers of the fire-pit and we were invited to cook with them. Their lodging was built as three separate huts, all made of palm fronds laid over a wooden frame and set on a sand floor. Hammocks were strung up inside the huts for sleeping, the kitchen was set up inside a lean-to and the sink was open air. Their companionship was relaxed and casual, and the evening thoroughly enjoyable. I didn’t leave with a piercing or painted strip down my nose as my mother had during her time with the Kuna, but I generously wrapped in beaded wrist and ankle bracelets which made me feel that I could experience an authenticity that is still inherent in the culture forty years on.

Nowhere in the Atlantic had I felt so close to an island nation with such a true sense of cultural identity; slightly modified but inherently intact. The key factors that made us draw the comparison to the Pacific is that the Kuna culture is completely different from that of the rest of the Caribbean, where islands have become either first world nations or are trying to become one. That development has been wholly rejected by the Kuna. As in the Pacific, you are guests to their island, and you come into a community that is largely unchanged for hundreds of years. They are both a substance culture, with strong family ties, adhere to tribal ways and obey the rules laid down by the chief. In comparison to the Caribbean, there are fewer boats, fewer charters and fewer tourists. For Atlantic cruisers who want a slice of the Pacific Islands, the San Blas offers the very experience on a small scale in the southwestern corner of the Caribbean.

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