Four days ago, a crew of 14 of adventurous travelers departed from Capurgana Colombia for Panamanian island Shangri la, Kuna Yala, more commonly known as the San Blas Islands in Panama with San Blas Adventures. We were a diverse group from around the globe from Canada to New Zealand. There are 376 islands in the San Blas islands and we were about to get the opportunity to explore six of those all inhabited by the indigenous Kuna tribe and learn about their culture.
But first after a 15-minute ride, we arrived at Puerto Obaldia, which is the Panamanian Border Control Centerpoint.
With the threat of spending 10 years in a dingy overpopulated Panamanian jail, every single item in our possession was thoroughly searched for drugs by the Colombian border control. From sniffing random objects to licking painted pictures looking for LSD/Acid to sticking knives deep in jars of peanut butter looking for smuggled cocaine, no item was left untouched. Luckily, we had to leave no man behind as we were cleared free of drug smuggling and allowed to leave for our first destination in the San Blas Islands.
As our eyes landed on the Atidub also known as Isla Atalano where we enjoyed an afternoon of snorkeling, cold beers, baby coconuts and delicious chicken tamales still hot-fresh from Capurgana, we settled into what would become our casual island way of life for the next four days.
No one was ready to leave our first taste of San Blas paradise, but it was getting late in the afternoon and our very fun yet responsible Canadian guide Jonah reported it was time to pack up our beach toys and head off to Caledonia or Goe Dup as they say in Kuna.
The Kuna live in 49 villages across 36 of the San Blas Islands and 13 coastal communities. In Caledonia, Jonah gave us a tour of the village and shared with us a plethora of information about the Kuna culture. I’ve been to many “traditional villages” across the globe and have seen the very clear “dress-up and acting” of some indigenous communities for tourism such as Inle Lake in Myanmar and the floating fishing villages in Halong Bay Vietnam and was pretty prepared for more of the same and disappointment but what I saw here in Caledonia was a pleasant surprise.
900 people live in Caledonia in traditional wood huts, cooking meals over wood fires, sleeping in hammocks and the majority of the woman still wear the traditional Kuna dress. However it was pretty easy to see some 20th century additions to their traditional villages such as solar panels provided to the Kuna communities through a 30 million dollar grant to the Kuna people from the Panamanian government as well as a freshwater plumbing system that runs below the Caribbean from Panama’s coastal mountains that provide the Kuna people with bathing/cooking/drinking water.
The kids were very excited to show us their cartwheels, yell out “hola” and give us high 5s. It seemed having visitors to their village was really an exciting thing and they were clearly energized to show us what they had to offer. We learned from our Kuna guide as Jonah interpreted that 12 years of school is mandatory for Kuna children. The first 4 years they learn subjects in Kuna, the next 4 years in Spanish and the following 4 in English, therefore preparing their children for the future if they someday chose to leave Kuna Yala. This however seems to be an unlikely proposition as the Kuna leaders estimate the population of Kuna Yala to increase from 30000 to 50000 in the next FIVE years.
The three main industries of the Kuna in the San Blas islands is fishing, tourism and coconuts. As a matter of fact, they have so many coconuts they use it as currency. Every coconut is worth x amount (today about $.50 US cents). Merchant ships loaded up with household items and dry goods float through the San Blas islands selling their wares and collecting coconuts in return. For example, if someone wants to buy a chair and it costs $25 USD they could also buy the chair for 50 coconuts. They also grow crops on the mainland including cacao, plantain, yucca, corn and rice as well as hunt. The Kuna also have unlimited fishing rights to the waters in the San Blas islands.
Unfortunately life hasn’t always been this wonderful and peaceful for the Kuna. In 1918 the Panamanian colonial police came into the San Blas and decided that the Kuna needed to become more like mainstream Panama. The Kuna were horribly beaten if they did not speak Spanish or if they did any other non-traditional activities. For seven years, this abuse continued when on Feb 25th 1925 a family of 8 siblings (7 men and 1 woman) led the charge against the colonial police and murdered many of them during a village carnival celebration.
The Panamanian government was not happy about this and sent in two navy ships to go back to the San Blas to truly punish the Kuna for this intolerable behavior however word of the Kuna’s plight had made it to the US and the US Navy came in and blockaded the San Blas Islands off from Panama with 3-4 huge Naval vessels and there they remained through negotiations between the Kuna and Panamanian government, which then led to Kuna Yala becoming a self-governing semi-autonomous region of Panama.
The next morning after a great night sleeping in our over water Kuna hut, we headed off to Isla Iguana, where we had another relaxing afternoon on the beach playing cards, snorkeling, reading and enjoying the beautiful blue water.
That evening we went to another village in the area, Tupile. Tupile is slightly closer to Panama City and you could see more of a mix of the old and new in this village as many of the older children had mp3 players and I saw a few laptops floating around the village, however there were still woman wearing the traditional dress, with the nose rings and arms and legs covered in Uen or the beautiful beaded bracelets that they wear.
We were free to roam the city as we now had an understanding of the culture and we set off to explore. Someone unfamiliar with the Kuna culture upon arrival to an island may think that the Kuna are Nazi’s as there are swastikas everywhere, painted on houses and on their tribal flag however it has nothing to do with the Nazis but is a symbol of peace.
It was here that I also spotted a very young baby that was completely covered head to toe in blue ink. I was baffled to say the least and had my Colombian friend Marian who spoke fluent Spanish ask why the baby was blue. The woman told us not only was it used to block the UV rays from the sun to prevent the child from getting sunburn but also it was “medicine” to give the baby strength and keep evil spirits away. Unfortunately, they didn’t like my proposition of photographing the blue baby… so you’ll just have to use your imagination.
In Tupile we were staying in a concrete brick two-story dorm and at night our guides made us Chicken burritos and we washed it down with beers and rum.
While we drank, the Kuna looked on as they reserve their drinking only for traditional celebrations of which they have two and both celebrate women. When a female baby is born and when a girl has her first menstrual cycle, the entire village gathers in the huge village huts and start drinking Chicha, a drink concocted of fermented sugarcane, corn and coco at the crack of dawn and then drink all day until 11pm-midnight all food and Chicha paid for by the girl’s family. The celebration of the menstrual cycle signifies that the girl is now a woman and allowed to be married. As many girls are still in school at this time, it can happen that a girl will get married while still continuing her Kuna education. If a Kuna marries a person outside of the Kuna tribe, they unfortunately are not allowed to stay in the village and have to live elsewhere which is interesting because the Kuna are very open-minded with the ideas of homosexuality or transvestite and any sexual orientation is allowed and welcome in the villages.
Next stop on our San Blas tour was a private island with only one Kuna family living on it, Coco Bandera where we spent about 24 hours enjoying our own island paradise, getting our own uen bracelets sewn on….
….more snorkeling and swimming to other palm spotted islands in the vicinity, having rum punch at sunset, and an all you can eat lobster feast with no less than 27 POUNDS of lobster for 14 people (along with potato salad, coconut rice, garlic butter and fresh conch ceviche), a giant beach bonfire, lots of rum and smores over the campfire.
We were in heaven and kept joking that the boats were broken so we probably couldn’t ever leave from there.
I kept pressing Jonah for more information about the beautiful and friendly Kuna people and you could tell he has a definite passion for his job as well as the Kuna, and if he didn’t know the answer to my questions, he would ask them for me. The Kuna’s main religion is Iberogun however there are some Kuna Catholics that were converted by visiting missionaries in the past.
Our last stop on our beautiful San Blas island trip was Isla Pelicano where we had fresh fish caught and cooked by the Kuna, white rice, lentils and stewed onions. We did our last snorkeling and white sand beach lounging, warmly thanked the Kuna and headed off towards the sunset towards Panama City, Panama.
Spending time in the beautiful San Blas islands with the amazing Kuna people was a remarkable experience. To see them strive to achieve the intricate balance of old tradition meets 21st century while preserving their traditions yet welcoming a few guests into their own homes gives me hope, that this is one of the very few indigenous cultures that will remember who they are and keep their traditions alive for years to come.