San Blas Islands, Central America
If your idea of paradise is a scattering of islands, many of them uninhabited, covered with coconut palm and ringed with white sand beaches, then perhaps you have found it. Paradise: Running from the Golfo de San Blas to Cape Tiburon on the border of Columbia, the San Blas Islands lie nestled safely in azure waters, protected on one side by a reef holding back the waves of the Atlantic Ocean and guarded on the other side by the towering, tree covered mountains of Panama.
The San Blas archipelago lies outside the direct influence of the Caribbean trade winds, and is south of hurricane threats. Dry season normally runs from December through April, when bright sunshine prevails and the winds can blow 25-20 knots. Safe within the protective reef, the islands are sheltered from the waves and only when a yacht leaves the protected embrace of the area will it feel the force of the wind-driven water. Rainy season has drastically reduced breezes and gray skies punctuated alternately by short squalls and brilliant sunshine.
The islands and coastal forest are inhabited by people of the Comarca de San Blas or Kuna Yala, as they refer to it. They appear to be little changed from the times before the Spanish Conquista, a direct result of the legendary tenacity of the Kuna people. According to their oral tradition, the Kuna’s forefathers lived in the Darien mountains of Panama. It is believed that they numbered between 500,000 and 750,000 at the time of the Spanish arrival. Whether it was pressure from other tribes or from the Spanish invaders, the majority of Kunas moved to the coast and later to the offshore islands. After suffering from inroads from outsiders, the Kunas rebelled in 1925, killing many Panamanian policemen and children of mixed blood living in the islands. Finally, in 1938, the government of Panama granted the Kuna leaders almost autonomous control. Even today, the Kuna Indians pay no taxes to Panama even though they are allowed to vote in all Panamanian elections.
The Carta Organica, the Kuna constitution, sets the governing principals for the three districts of Kuna Yala, each district is headed by an elected cacique, or high chief. The Kuna nation consists of 49 communities which are home to about 50,000 Kuna Indians today. Each community elects their own chief, or sahila (pronounced sigh-la) that presides over the local daily congresso., The daily congresso is held in the afternoon in the large council house located on the island. The chief swings in his hammock while everyone else is seated on wooden benches. A complex system of laws exists, with an equally complex system of punishment existing for ignoring or breaking the laws: from fines to being made to sit on a very tiny chair during the daily congresso, to ostracism or even expulsion. Permits are necessary for seemingly everything, including visiting another village. Of the 49 communities, approximately half are headed by women sahilas. The Kuna society is matrilineal, with new husbands moving into the wife’s compound.
The law dictates that the land belongs to all Kunas. This has the benefit that all of the people perceive themselves as co-owners of the islands and the mainland which is Kuna territory. However, the coconut palms on the islands are all individually owned and the coconuts harvested from the trees provide cash. The Kuna women have their own source of cash…the making and selling of molas. Each mola is an intricately worked reverse appliqué design, measuring from 4” X 4” for small molas to 2’ X 2” for larger ones. Prices depend on the size of the mola, the number of layers and the size of the stitches, anywhere from $1 to several hundred dollars per mola. Traditionally, the women wear them stitched to the front and back of their blouses. They also create strings of tiny beads, which when wrapped on wrist or leg, create intricate patterns and designs. Another source of cash comes from the “one dollah” to take their picture…so when you go to these wonderful islands and want to take pictures of these beautiful people and their children, bring plenty of single dollar bills!Any time a boat anchors near one of the islands, it is sure to be greeted by at least one (usually more) dugout canoe with Kuna women ready to sell you molas, the men with coconuts, fish, lobsters and sometimes vegetables. Often the whole family is in the dugout, including the grandma, children and dog! The canoes are sometimes powered by an outboard engine, but even more often it is paddled with hand-made wooden paddles. The constant use of the canoe produces expert boat handlers and extreme stamina, as the dugouts are neither light nor graceful. Perhaps because of this relentless strength, the Kuna people have maintained their reputation as fierce warriors and even today, squatters fear to intrude on Kuna territory.
As a result of their fierce reputation, in a world of shrinking rain forests, the land of Kuna Yala is a notable exception. Kuna huts consist of reeds or canes to form their sides and palm fronds thatching the roof, so no hardwoods are needed for their construction. A small number of trees are used for the making of the dugouts, but the hills remain densely wooded. Farming is subsistence level and cattle are not raised, so the forests will stand for years to come, safe in the care of the Kunas.
The Kuna Indians are a friendly people inhabiting beautiful, fascinating islands and coastal lands that beckon you to explore them.
How many islands make up the San Blas archipelago? Depends on who is telling you, but the numbers run anywhere from 243 to the oh-so-very convenient number of 365, one for each day of the year. Obviously, you won’t have time to visit them all, plus some interesting places on the mainland territory of Kuna Yala, so we will introduce you to a few delectable choices here.
The north part of the San Blas Islands are defined by Punto San Blas, an arm of land reaching out from the mainland, as if striving to touch the islands so close to it, wrapping the Golfo de San Blas in its protective embrace. The island of Porvenier lies a short distance from the end of the Punta San Blas and features a small airstrip, which is an excellent place for guest and charter yacht to rendezvous. While Porvenier has no village, immediately to the south lie Wichubhuala and Nalunega. The huts are so close together and so near the waters edge, that viewed from the sea, they appear to be holding onto each other to keep from spilling into the ocean. Plenty of molas and other crafts for sale, with bright-eyed children everywhere, some shy and curious, others wanting you to take their picture for the inevitable “one dollah”.
The Chichime Cays lie about 4 miles to the northeast of Porvenier and have become so popular with visiting yachts that the Kunas sometimes call them Puerto Yate. They have no village, merely a few huts scattered in the thick groves of coconut palms. There is a deep pool between the islands, protected by a shallow reef that extends toward the ocean. Excellent snorkeling is to be found on the lee side of this reef.
A bit further to the north and east of the Chichime Cays lie the Holandes Cays, Kaimon in Kuna. There are sixteen palm clad islands, wrapped by sugary white sand beaches, drifting in the clear protected water of a seven mile long area of fringing reef. Divers and snorkelers might never be enticed back out of the water, once they have experienced this enchanting area. However, divers should note: fishing is strictly prohibited while on scuba. Beyond the Holandes Cays lies the Coco Bandero Cays. They continue the “perfect island” phenomenon of small islands, azure waters providing the perfect setting for these jewels, each more stunning than the last. The biggest problem is deciding which one to visit next.
Tearing yourself away from the outlying islands, you will surely want to return to the Punta San Blas and explore the inner islands, plus some of the delights to be found on the mainland territory of Kuna Yala.
Sheltered under the arm of Punta San Blas is Tadarguanet Island, Kuna for “where the sun sets”. Tupsuit Dumat (also called Alitupu) is a good base for exploring the nearby rivers on the mainland, there are two that are worth exploring. The first is Rio Torti, with a cemetery on the right, almost as soon as you enter. Kuna cemeteriea are usually close to the rivers. Thatched roofs on poles shade the deep clay graves where the deceased are buried in hammocks, accompanied by everyday utensils for the afterlife. The other river is Rio Mandinga, noteworthy because of its vast number and variety of birdlife.
Nurdupu lies to the east of the Tadarguanet islands and almost directly south of Porvenier. Nurdupu has all the aspects of the perfect tropical island. Huts are in shady spots under breadfruit trees and coconut palms. Many of the coconut palms have been pierced to take the levers of sugar can presses to make the juice for chichi. Chicha is a mild alcoholic drink from fermented sugar cane juice. Collecting the cane, pressing the juice and then several days of tasting the fermenting concoction terminates in two or three days of celebration, such as the Kuna Independence Revolution Day.
Rio Sidra, though sounding like a river, is actually an island consisting of two villages, Mamartupu and Urgandu. Both villages have their own chiefs. Also of interest is that Rio Sidra is heavily populated and has an airstrip which receives several flights a day, making it an excellent place to start or end your charter. Rio Diablo lies further east and is home to not one, but two airstrips. The name of Rio Diablo is found on the charts, however, the two villages comprising the bridged community. One is known as Naragana in Panamanian and Yandup in Kuna, the other is Corazon de Jesus in Panamanian and Akuanusatupu in Kuna. Just a bit confusing! Extensive outer reefs smooth the inshore waters from Punta Brava to Achutupu. Within these protected waters is Airligandi, a heavily populated island with several restaurants, a hotel and a clinic. The nearby river of Rio Nasadi is a nice excursion, with its large stands of bamboo and mango trees to wander through.
Continuing down the coast, one comes upon Ustupu, the largest village in San Blas. Home to about 8,000 people, not counting children, with a bridge connecting it to Ogopsukum, home to an additional 2,000 inhabitants. Several flight a day land on the two airstrips, one located on the island and the other on the mainland. Sugandi Tiwar is a nearby river that should bwe explored. Its estuary is marked by the hulks of giant trees washed down during the flood of 1925 which forced the village to move from the mainland to Ustupu. There are large cemeteries on both sides of the river and in the afternoon hours, the bird activity is positively raucous. The Kunas call Isla Pinos: Tupbak, or “whale”, for its resemblance to a giant beached whale. For centuries the 400’ high island has served as a landmark and landfall for mariners. This protected yet easily entered and exited anchorage made a perfect base for buccaneers working the Spanish Main, especially the gold transport shipments. Later, new England schooners would come to purchase coconuts. Today, yachts continue to enjoy it and visit the two villages located there.
Sukunya is the Kuna word for the small penisula that the Spanish called Punta Escoses. Escoses is the Spanish word for “Scottish”. In 1698 the Scotts attempted to establish a colony there, starting with an expedition of 1200 people. Defeated by starvation and disease, they returned home, passing two ships carrying reinforcements from Scotland. They too, gave up and returned to Scotland in 1702. Of the 2,800 people involved, over 2,000 perished. Only a boat channel hacked out of the coral limestone and a length of moat remains of what was once Fort Andrews.
Today, the San Blas Islands wait to be discovered and explored. Perfect tropical islands, winding, shaded rivers, protected azure waters, history, dense rainforests, friendly people…the San Blas Islands and the territory of Kuna Yala. Paradise Found.
Arrive in Panama, then a quick flight on a small plane to Porvenier. You will be greeted by your San Blas Islands yacht charter crew and brought back to your charter yacht via the tender. Enjoy a leisurely lunch onboard, then visit enchanting Nalunega. A short trip over to the Chichime Cays allows plenty of time to watch the sunset over the mountains of Panama.
Spend the morning snorkeling the crystal clear waters, reluctantly returning to the yacht for lunch. As you dine al fresco on the shaded deck, your captain will move the boat to the next anchorage: Holandes Cays. You can hardly wait to plunge back into the water, or perhaps take a stroll on the white sand beach and relax beneath a coconut palm.
Greet the day with a cup of fresh-brewed coffee, watching the sun rise from behind a perfect tropical island. Following breakfast, leave for the Coco Bandero Cays. Lunch will be a beach barbeque, followed by a nap on a hammock strung between two palm trees. Then maybe a swim or kayaking before cocktails at sunset.
You awake to the quiet hum of engines as you head toward Alitupu, close to the mainland. Explore the nearby rivers and enjoy the thick shade of the rainforest and the songs of the vast number of birds that live there.
Leave Alitupu in the morning to spend the day at Nurdupu. Yet another example of a perfect tropical island, Nurdupu is dotted with coconut palms and breadfruit trees, ringed by white sand beaches and surrounded by clear azure waters. Dinner is perhaps lobster that the chef has purchased from a local fisherman.
Leave the serene perfection of Nurdupu for the more populated island of Rio Diablo. Lunch in town to try out the local cuisine and enjoy the hospitality of the friendly Kuna Indians. The afternoon will be spent leisurely exploring the Rio Nasadi with its large stands of bamboo and mango trees.
An early start for Ustupu, home to the largest village in San Blas, population 8,000! But there is still time to stop for one last quick swim in the gin-clear waters before showering and a short trip to the airstrip where you meet your plane to take you back to civilization. You know you have return, you still have several hundred islands yet to explore. The adventure will continue…..