Saturday 10 January 2015

Kuna Yala: Part One

I wish you were looking at what I am looking at right now:

Saturday January 10th 2015

From my seat in the cockpit I am looking out towards a pristine island, surrounded by reefs, waves breaking all around, the Island is very green. Coconut trees densely growing, all the way to the very edges, hardly any sand to see, the breeze is blowing fresh, there is no one around. Everywhere around me is lush, green surrounded by aqua blue water. This island is called Guamirguinnitdup. (try saying that three times quickly !) It is one of the many uninhabited islands of the Kuna Yala (or Guna Yala), otherwise known as the San Blas Islands off the coast of Panama, Central America. 

We have been here for a week now. Together with our cruising buddies S/V Perry and S/V Kazaio.....island hopping towards the west in this large Archipelago.

Many of the islands look like the one I’ve just described above,although some islands have villages on them. This is where the Kunas live, much as they have for centuries. When the Spanish came to these islands hundreds of years ago, they named them “San Blas”, but the Kunas prefer Kuna Yala and so that is what I will call them.

The Kuna village called Playon Chico

On our first village visit (at Playon Chico) on the east end of the Archipelago, we got to meet Arqui (who volunteered to be our guide) and his family: his wife and four children. Arqui was an excellent guide, spoke a few words of English and some basic Spanish. The main language here is the Kuna Language but Spanish seems to be an accepted second language for many, as people greeted us with “Buenas” or “Hola” as we walked around the village. 

The Kunas are traditionally a matriarchal society

Our Guide and his family (Many receive clothing as gifts from  Cruisers. We gave Arqui his cap and he received his sunglasses from a fellow Canadian a week before.) 

The village consisted of perhaps 200 huts, the largest one being a communal gathering place called the Congreso, where, many times a week,  the Kunas gather to discuss things with their 3 Sailas (chiefs). The Sailas sit in hammocks, they have an interpreter who speaks on behalf of them. These congreso happen in the evening, after sunset, and can last many hours. This is why, the Kunas select a few people to be designated “alarm clocks” during the meetings, at any given interval these men will let out a loud scream or shriek to wake up the general assembly, you never know when it’s going to happen, and it keeps everyone awake. It made us chuckle to think of the applications this might have in our modern day society  I know I could have used of of those guys in some of my university classes, better than caffeine I’d bet ! We did not attend a Congreso, which was just fine with us, thank you very much, but we did get to enter inside the meeting hut in the second village we visited (Niadup). There we met with the Saila and offered clothing for him to distribute to the people of his village. 

The "congreso" (Notice the solar panels)

We were welcomed by the Kunas. We met many older women dressed in their traditional clothing. They wear many bracelets around their lower arms and calves, where thinness is preferred.  The traditional handicraft (hand stitched designs) are called Molas, and these are worn around the ladies bellies. As for me, I think, I am going to try to make pillow cases out of the two that I bought from Arqui. 

A traditional Kuna making a molas.
A variety of Molas are sold in the village.

We were told that there were no less than seven different churches in the Playon Chico village. We were told that they do celebrate Christmas (we saw a few small Christmas trees and some lights in the village), but that it mainly because of the influence from the mainland in Panama, a  traditional Kuna fiesta happens in February though. We were told by the local priest that the Kuna do not really practice religion in the traditional way , even though they have the buildings, from what we understand, they usually have more ancient (peigan?) practices and beliefs.

Nuchus and other traditions: 

Each Kuna has his or her very own wooden dolll, called “Nuchu” which holds a spirit. If ever they get sick or anything bad happends, these figurines are brought to the local shaman to “heal” them. 

The little Kuna girl is holding the bracelet that Meghan just gave her as a gift

In the second village we walked through,  Niadup village, there was a fiesta happening on the day we visited. We weren’t sure what it was about, but when we saw a group of young girls parading down the street all holding hands, with one girl who had her face painted black, she was the obvious centre of attention. When we asked about it, one of the men told us that the fiesta was all because of this young lady, whose name was Violetta. She had just become a “woman”, he made a gesture with his hands as we understood that she had just started her menstruation and that this was the reason for all the fuss ! Her face had been painted with local fruit, to give her that distinctive appearance. 

The Kunas are said to be a matriarchal society, where women chose their husbands and then he would go and live with her. 

What else ? Oh, I think that it’s interesting to note that the Kunas do not allow inter racial marriages. They only marry within the different tribes to keep the blood lines pure Since there are about 55 000 Kunas in existence today, this means that their blood line is limited and we saw quite a few albino individuals in the two villages we visited. Also, we were told that Kunas are the second smallest (in stature) community in the world, after the Pygmies of Africa. When we met and spoke with Arqui’s family. The kids asked Meg how old she was....they could not believe she was only twelve !  Here she is standing next to a fifteen year old and another with a more elderly lady.

Meg (12) and her Kuna friend (15)

Nuchu Dolls

When the kids (from the three boats S/V Perry, Sv Kazaio and Sv Amelie) played hide and seek. I could not help but notice that most kids were openly gawking at our kids, especially at Matthew. As first I thought it was because if his unique mannerisms, but them I realized that it was most likely the colour of his hair that got them staring, and maybe his height too.

Kunas in their dugout canoe

Panama mainland. Untouched Kuna Territory

Kuna still make their own dug out Canoes, and harvest wood and fruit on the mainland of Panama, near their islands, which they have rights to. Coconuts are an important part of their economy and we are not allowed to take any, they even used coconuts to give us our "change"one day after a purchase. 

Two of these beauties provided us with 4 full meals !

Kunas seems to be very good seafarers, from their dugouts they hoist hand made sails called 

“Congreja” to sail downwind. We have seen them quite far out to sea in their little canoes. On our way into Kuna Yala, still a ways away from the first set of islands, we were surprised to see one of these little dug out canoes.  The two Kunas on board greeted us with smiles , waving a freshly caught lobster, which we could not stop to buy unfortunately ! But we did catch our own dinner that day (two Mahi Mahis!) on the 30 hour crossing from Islas Rosario !

We were told that occasionally, a cayman will come out of the mainland rivers and make it to the islands closest to shore, so swimming has not been as carefree as it usually is, especially not after reading that and a 3 meter specimen was supposedly spotted by some cruiser a few weeks ago, but the Kunas told us they are rarely seen in the day time and not a concern, hm, I still keep a more vigilant eye out for them ! 

View of the Village as seen from the Kuna cemetery on the mainland

We visit a Kuna cemetary.

On December 19th, Arqui, took us on a visit of a traditional Kuna cemetery where we saw the grass huts covering the grave sites. Inside the shelter one could see some items which might have belonged to the deceased such as the hammock they used when they were living, and also some clay pots which I think I remember Arqui saying that they put some herbs or spices which kept evil spirits away. 

The Kuna cemetery

There was one particular grave where we found many animal skulls, or parts of skulls. Arqui told us that these were left there as warnings to some animals (such as mountain lions) to keep away from the graves.

The carnivore skulls are at the back, on the grave itself.

On he walk over to the cemetary (which is found on the mainland of Panama, near the island where they live, we caught a glimpse of a monkey in a tree !  He did not seem interested in getting his picture taken as he took off shortly after being spotted. He was small, white and black,I think that  perhaps it was a Cappuchin monkey. I will have to get to know my monkeys better as we head towards Panama next month ! We also saw many armies of leaf cutting ants on our walk!

The sails are called congreja, used to sail downwind

An army of ants cross here 

Christmas at the Coco Banderos; Together with SV Perry, SV Kazaio we found a beautiful spot to settle down and celebrate Christmas. The Coco Banderos Islands are picture perfect tiny little islands which are mostly deserted. There are a few Kuna who have a little house and shop set up on the one which was directly in front of us. These pristine and beautiful islands are further from the mainland and so are mostly the ideal, untouched white sand, palm tree oasis that people dream of. It takes all of 10 minutes to circumnavigate the island, and everywhere you look, the views are simply idyllic !

Captain Mark enjoys a dip with the SV Perry Crew at Coco. B.

Matt from SV Perry enjoys burying his boys

The anchorage at Coco Banderos. From left to right: Amelie IV (us), SV Perry, SV Kazaio and SV Mandala V

Coco Banderos

Coco Banderos, Kuna Yala

Leaf cutting ants

Meg and the kids from SV Perry and SV Kazaio


Still, on occasion, we have seen the ugly sign of “civilisation”, even here in Kuna Yala, on some islands as we walked around, we saw plenty of bottles, croc shoes, plastic bags washed up on shore. Cruisers are asked to burn their garbage (plastics, cardboard etc...) themselves on the beaches to stop the problem. We were happy to oblige and do our part to keep this part of the world beautiful. We had a beautiful (although blustery) Christmas Day , the kids each received a boogie board and we ate some yummy food. We watched Christmas Movies and decorated as best we could, we even had christmas lights outside ! We met another cruising family (SV Mandala, from Quebec), with three kids on board !  More kids, more fun !  

Garbage frequently washes up on the beaches.

Boat ride up Rio Diablo on December 27th:We took ‘Recess’ (the dinghy) up the rio Diablo with 3 other cruising families, and, WOW, what a great idea that was ! It was so great to meander down the river with rain forest all around us. Occasionally we would see a Kuna dug out canoe on shore.We heard many more birds than we saw, but we did get to see some vultures, many herons (blue and white), a kingfisher, a giant woodpecker, some sand pipers, some other unidentified species and IBIS all gathered in a tree, a few hours before sunset. 


Another exciting thing was catching a glimpse of an elusive cayman, as he snapped his jaws on to unsuspecting fish which were trying to get away from a heron. When we got to a place where the river got very shallow, and where many Kunas go to fetch fresh water for their village (which does not have fresh water) it is a place where many gather to do wash clothe or bathe. We tied the dinghies together and went for a hike in the forest. We followed an old abandoned water pipe  in the hopes that we would find a waterfall at the end of it. We never did get to the water fall but we saw lots of leaf cutting ants (who used the water pipe as a kind of Super Highway), some spiders, a snake (non poisonous), no monkeys this time round, but a great day hike!


Meghan On Amelie (Written in early January 2015)

San Blast Islands, Panama (Central America)

After Colombia, we sailed over to the beautiful, native islands known as San Blast the natives prefer it being called the Kuna Yala Islands.

My mom had read all about the Kuna people (the only people who live on these islands which happen to be the natives) and had told us about how amazing these people were. First of all, they are all 100% Kuna. It is illegal to cross-marry or date with other cultures unless you leave. Since they are that way, they are the second shortest population in the world (Pygmies in Africa are the shortest) and they also have some albinos (people with no colour pigment in their eyes, skin or hair making them look almost caucasian). They have also made it illegal to all tourists (including us cruisers) to pick up any coconuts they see on beaches, in towns or even in the water since up until just recently, the Kunas used coconuts as their currency and they find it disrespectful for people to keep any. Most Kunas (especially the women) still wear the traditional clothing, most villages’ houses are almost all made of wood and palm tree leaves and almost everyone sleeps in hammocks. Also, the traditional villages have a main hut where they have their daily Congreso which is where they sit and discuss any events or decisions that are important and just to make sure there are no sleepers in the crowd, one person is in charge of screaming every 10 minutes or so! When Kunas die, they bury them under little huts and put all their belongings with them next to their grave which I think is the smartest and most respectful thing to do. 

I was immediately fascinated by these people and I was thinking, “Wow! It would be a miracle to meet these people,” thinking it was rare to meet them but apparently not because we have met them about 10 times by now! 

When we got to the first island, one of the Kuna men said he would take us to his village and show us around so us and a couple of our other cruising friends agreed. I had had no idea what kind of an experience it would be even getting out of our dinghy into Kuna land. Normally, when we get to islands, we get onto the dinghy dock and walk past people as they walk past us but this time, when we got out of the dinghy, to the Kunas, it was as if they were watching unicorns get out of the dinghy. They were so fascinated by us as we were of them. As we would walk through the streets (which had no cars for once), kids would peer out of their windows or sometimes “sneakily” follow us in groups pointing, whispering and giggling when we waved or said “Hola!”.

I think my favourite village was the first one we went to and my favourite part of that village was meeting our “tour guide’s” family. His wife and four daughters were all so welcoming and wanted to know all about us. I had taken some of my Rainbow Loom bracelets I had made that I didn’t want to the village just in case some kids in the village wanted them and turns out I was right because the daughters wouldn’t stop talking about them afterwards! Here are some pictures of these amazing people who taught me a whole different perspective of life. 

Buddy Boat Life; In cruising, sometimes boats enjoy cruising to the same destinations together and the scientific name for that is Buddy Boating! At first, I thought that buddy boating sounded tiring, always having to wait for the other boats if they had to turn back or something but then when we started it, I found it really fun hailing each other on the radio and saying for example, “Hey! Put a fishing line out because we just caught two mahi-mahis!,” or, “Pack of 30 dolphins coming your way!”. What made it even better is that all 4 of us are kid boats! SV Perry and us have buddy boated together since Bonaire (late November). Then, we met SV Kazaio in Colombia and we recently met SV Mandala V in San Blast a few weeks ago. We have all basically hung out together everyday whether it’s at the beach, on one of our boats or on a walk around town. 


Rio Diablo


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