Kitesurfing in San Blas

Ivo and his kite

Ivo and his kite

Most of the 360 islands of the San Blas Archipelago are near Panama’s mainland and away from the trade winds. But there are a few outer island groups near the barrier reefs to the north still getting the effects of the trades and these are the island you want to visit if you are going to San Blas to kitesurf. The best spot with fields of waist-deep clear water, sandy bottom and sweet east winds is at Cayo Holandes island group, near the anchorage nicknamed by cruisers The Swimming Pool.

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There is a $10 anchoring fee valid for one month and a Kuna man named Viktor will swing by in his ulu (a dugout canoe) to collect it as soon as you drop anchor. No matter how long you are planning to stay you have to pay 10 bucks. Almost everywhere you go in Kuna Yala (San Blas) you will have to pay a few dollars for anchoring near an island or for stepping on it. To Ivo this was very disturbing, especially after we paid the record amount of $430 for 1-year visas for Panama and a cruising permit, plus a separate $60 fee paid to the Kuna Yala Office on the island of Porvenir for anchoring anywhere in Kuna Yala territory. In two years of cruising and visiting over 30 countries we have never been required to pay so much when checking-in in a new country. So Ivo just couldn’t grasp the logic of having to pay again and again and again and again almost every time we drop anchor or we go ashore in San Blas. And Ivo can get very negative when it comes to ‘unfair’. But it’s not just this.

One day we kayak to a small uninhabited island bringing only a photo camera, sunscreen, and a towel. There we see a few huts currently in construction, an ulu and two Kuna men on the beach. One talks politely with us, explaining how much a traditional ulu costs and how it is made up in the mountains on the mainland by masters ulu-makers. I ask if I can take a picture of this canoe and he says sure. But then the other guy approaches and asks for a dollar for photographing his friend’s ulu. Then he says that each one of us has to pay $3 for stepping on the island- a total of $10 for 3 people + 1 picture, he quickly calculates (even though Ivo and Maya remain in the kayak and technically never set foot on land). He gives us as an example he obviously used many times before: “If you go to a restaurant and order food you have to pay for it at the end, and similarly you have to pay for stepping on the island and taking a picture of the ulu.” I try to argue politely that this is totally unexpected for us, that I had permission to take the picture from the ulu’s owner, that we have no intention of stepping on the island, and that we don’t have any money on us right now. The two guys then search very thoroughly my bag, where they find a towel and sunscreen, and when they don’t find any money, they are very disappointed and tell us to leave. But first they explain, that to them “all white people are gringos (rich Americans) and they have to pay.” Ivo is furious; I can see fire coming out of his nostrils. But he manages not to kill anyone. We leave.

I’m including this information, because we have heard that people have been asked to pay up to $100 for permission (or rather for a fine) to kitesurf near some of the islands in Kuna Yala. At Cayo Hollandes you are welcome to kitesurf for as much as you want and with no additional charge, as long as you pay your $10 anchoring fee.

Thus, after Aruba, where Ivo took his first kitesurfing lessons, this was the next spot where he could practice and improve his new skills. At the beach we meet two other guys kitesurfing which always doubles the fun.

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page

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Kuna Yala: Water

Water

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How many times have I written about “the small idyllic islands in San Blas with white sandy beaches and tall coconut palms, surrounded by crystal blue water and corral garden of exceptional beauty; where just a few Kuna families live in small huts near the shore fishing and collecting coconuts and wild mangoes”? How many times have I compared this place with “Paradise on Earth”? I dare anyone to find an article or a story or a blog post written by some other visitor in Kuna Yala who doesn’t think that these are the most beautiful of all Caribbean islands, and who doesn’t compare the place with “heaven”. A difficult task.

But one thing is visiting Paradise and enjoying its natural beauty for a short period of time, another thing is living in it, stuck for eternity with all sorts of problems which don’t exist back in the normal boring civilized world. Like nasty mosquitos and no-see-ums (which torture even the short-term visitors), lack of all sorts of facilities like hospitals, dentists, schools, banks, post offices, stores and shopping malls etc.; lack of electricity which means no TV, no computer, no refrigeration, not even lights in the evening. Can you imagine surviving without internet for a week? For a month? How about a year? Impossible! But even if you get used to this simplistic way of life, there is one thing that is missing and you, as well as the local Kuna Indians, will never learn to live without. Freshwater is not a commodity but a necessity, and it is a major problem in Kuna Yala Paradise.

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But the indigenous people have learned to cope with the situation and the lack of freshwater on the majority of the islands has become something almost normal. Generation after generation they have gone to the mainland rivers with their ulus (dugout canoes) to bring back to their riverless islands freshwater for drinking and washing; precious water which they have learned to appreciate, conserve and use vary carefully.

Washing the dishes

Washing the dishes

Everywhere we go we see plastic containers, jerricans, buckets and bottles piled around houses for water storage.

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All the time women and men are crisscrossing the waters between the islands and the many river deltas on mainland their ulus hauling loads of water supplies for their households.

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One Saturday we jump in the kayak for another river expedition up Rio Diablo near the twin islands of Nargana and Corazon de Jesus, which are heavily populated, hoping to see monkeys and caimans again.

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But instead we encounter lots and lots of Kuna families in their family ulus heading to the place where everyone is collecting water, taking a bath and washing their clothes directly in the river- a place that reminds us faintly of the Varanasi of the Ganges River in India. It is the weekend washing ritual.

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The water situation in Kuna Yala is different from island to island, depending on their location. The large overpopulated island communities are generally within less than a mile from mainland and from a river delta, so that the inhabitants are closer to freshwater and getting it is faster and easier.

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There is even one island where a pipe coming down from the river is supplying fresh river water to the islanders- Isla Rio Azucar (the Sugar River Island). They even sell water to cruisers who don’t have watermakers. You can go and fill up your boat’s tanks for 20$ at the dock.

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But the smaller outer islands are many miles away from mainland and rivers, and for their inhabitants detting freshwater is a bigger problem.

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For washing clothes, dishes and showering, they use the water from small waterholes dug in the sandy ground where seawater filters in and is less salty.

Ivo helping a Kuna women to get water from a waterhole

Ivo helping a Kuna women to get water from a waterhole

They also collect rainwater, even though we haven’t noticed any efficient rainwater collecting system, and regularly have to navigate great distances to collect river water which they boil for drinking back home.

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Because of this situation, the Kuna’s drinking and cooking water is sometimes infested with bacteria and they often suffer from poor hygiene related diseases.

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We become popular around these small island communities with our watermaker, and we give the Kuna Indians a few gallons of potable freshwater every time we have surplus. In exchange they give us mangos, avocados and bananas.

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Modern technology has already made its way into the Kuna Indians’ lives, yet they have managed to preserve to a large extend their traditional ways. We notice solar panels here and there on the smaller islands, and on the bigger ones with hundreds of inhabitants electricity through diesel generators is present since decades. But nothing much has changed regarding water, except that now they are aware of the existence of reverse osmosis machines which can turn seawater into freshwater and they are beginning to inquire more about it. Maybe in the not-so -distant future every Kuna community will have their solar power installation feeding with energy a watermaker producing enough freshwater to satisfy their needs in a completely ecological, self-sufficient way.

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Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:

Paradise at The End of The Sea 

Slums of Paradise

Children of The Moon 

Ulu Men. Cowboys of The Sea

Master Mola Makers

Rivers and Crocodiles

Nightmares in Paradise

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 

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Kuna Yala: Nightmares in Paradise

Nightmares in Paradise

 

The San Blas archipelago of Panama, with its hundreds of small idyllic islands with white sand beaches and tall coconut palms, where the colorful Kuna Indians live in huts made of bamboo sticks and palm leafs, surrounded by crystal blue waters and coral gardens of exceptional beauty, are often portrait by visitors as “paradise on Earth”. That is how we saw them too- the most beautiful place we have ever been to after two years of cruising in the entire Caribbean region, to almost all the Caribbean islands and countries. San Blas is the crown jewel of the Caribbean.

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But unfortunately it is not always bright and blue in San Blas. Sometimes Hell replaces Paradise, when the sun gets lost behind darkness, and the sky descends with terror upon the world bringing thunder and lightning, wind and pouring rain.

We are anchored near one uninhabited island, Isla Moron, famous for the abundance, diversity and beauty of the coral reefs around it, enjoying the exceptional snorkeling. But the anchorage is not very protected from the winds and waves and as the island is isolated, standing alone with no other islands nearby, cruisers rarely visit. For the five days we spend snorkeling in the reefs, we are the only boat.

It’s around 10 in the morning. Clouds begin to gather fast from east heading our way- grey heavy masses charged with electricity, filled with rain, coming to vomit their mess over us. The day turns into night. We start hearing mountains crumbling, buildings falling down like dominoes one after another, bombs exploding all around us. Yet there are no mountains, no cities and no war zone nearby, only sea. Wind howling, carrying sheets of rain, temperatures dropping- the nightmare begins. If a lightning hits the boat, some or all expensive electronics aboard- the GPS, the chart-plotter, the radar, the depth-finder, the AIS, the wind-vane, the computers and TV- everything can go to hell. If a lightning attracted by the tall metal mast sticking alone in the sea next to a low uninhabited island strikes, the boat may suffer structural damage and our trip around the world will come to a long halt… Worst case scenario- we’ll lose the boat.

It’s rainy season here which means lots of rain and thunderstorms between the months of June and November, when is hurricane season in the Caribbean. The San Blas islands have never been hit by hurricanes and are considered a safe cruising ground during the hurricane season, but then many boats get hit by lightning here each year. This year however is exceptional. A very strong El Niño phenomenon is causing an unusual drought- the worst in more than 100 years, and the rainy days are rare, which works perfectly for us. For the one month we spend in Kuna Yala we get only a couple of thunder storms and not more than five days with rain.

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This one is the worst of the two storms with the most rain. We are terrified. We count the intervals between the bright electrical flashes and the loud roar of the thunders. Less and less seconds, until they merge and strike right next to us, thunder and lightning at once. In such moments, even if you don’t believe in God, you prey. Or you just leave it to faith and try not to care- if it happens it happens; fearing and praying will change nothing. But how can you not care? How can you ignore the thunders raging around you and not fear?

And then- a strange apocalyptic vision. Behind curtains of grey rain, thick and heavy, hiding the island and everything within a few meters from the boat emerge a dark ghostly silhouette- an ulu (a dugout canoe) with two soaked men heading our way, like two bugs hanging on to a stick in the water. One is paddling frantically with all his might, the other is scooping rainwater out of the ulu with the same great emergency. Two sorry fugitives from Hell hoping for salvation. And salvation they found in the form of a bright white catamaran, which to them looked, with no doubt, like a mirage or an optical illusion amidst the rain- a dry shelter from the storm, a Fata Morgana.

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They come next to the boat, their heads down, their eyes blind form the rain, and without looking to see if there is anyone aboard, without hesitating and without asking permission, they tie their flooded ulu to the stern on the starboard side, climb aboard one after the other, take their soaked shirts off, and squeeze the water out. They remain on the steps, shivering, their backs turned to us, looking out at the storm. We are watching them from behind the glass door of the boat with amazement. And disbelief.

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We go out of the saloon to greet our unexpected visitors and invite them in the cockpit which is completely dry, warm and cozy, protected from wind and rain by the full enclosure. I offer them hot coffee and sandwiches. They are glad. They are shy and very polite and answer all the questions we ask them, but don’t ask us anything in return. The older one is named Ubaldino, 44-years-old, and his wife’s name is Veti. The younger one is Edisio, 30-years-old, and his wife’s name is Seciliana. They are both from Isla Narascantubiti, which is not very far and is a small island with just a few Kuna families living on it. Ubaldino and Edisio were fishing in the reefs when the storm hit. I ask them if sometimes people die in the sea. Of course they do. They die when they dive too deep for fish, when their ulu sinks in the middle of nowhere, and one guy even got struck by a lightning once.

While making the coffee and the sandwiches, while talking to our guests, we forget all about the storm. Only the occasional thunder interrupts our conversation. From time to time Edisio who is sitting quietly in the corner sipping hot coffee, goes out in the pouring rain and into the ulu to scoop the rainwater out, so that the ulu won’t overfill and sink.

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Thus the storm passes, the rain eases off and our guests leave us as quickly and unceremoniously as they have arrived.

-This one was not too bad, I tell Ivo and I mean the storm.

I even don’t remember the terror I just felt a few minutes ago. Only two wet apparitions who appeared and disappeared in time of deluge remain in my memory, Ubaldino and Edisio from Isla Narascantubiti in Kuna Yala.

The sunset that day

The sunset that day

 

Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:

Paradise at The End of The Sea 

Slums of Paradise

Children of The Moon 

Ulu Men. Cowboys of The Sea

Master Mola Makers

Rivers and Crocodiles

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 
 
 

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Kuna Yala: Rivers and Crocodiles

Rivers and Crocodiles

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After a couple of weeks around the small outer islands of the San Blas archipelago we sail to an island near the continent, named Rio Azucar (Sugar River) after a small river that runs down from the Darien Mountains and enters the sea. We drop anchor in the calm shallow waters not far from the river delta. Early the next morning we are ready to visit Panama’s mainland for the first time.

Entrance to Rio Azucar

Entrance to Rio Azucar

With long pants and long sleeves against sunburn and bugs, hats and sunglasses, we pile on the kayak. The wind is hush under a bright sky with a few clouds stuck in the mountain tops. We enter the place where the river’s freshwaters mix with the sea. Nothing moves. Dark blue mountains in the distance covered with thick impassable forest and no sign of civilization for miles and miles in all directions.

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The river is wide and shallow in the beginning, surrounded by mangroves, some so tall they form dark tunnels and we pass under them.

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Further, the waters are still and completely transparent. The world admires itself as if a mirror has been placed at its feet. Our kayak now glides in a shiny sky without bottom, over clouds and upside-down trees.

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The river-water is cool and clear. No industry upriver to pollute it, no human settlement to exploit it, only forest and mountain.

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And animals. Stingrays sleep on the bottom and panic as our kayak approaches, creating small muddy clouds as they make their escape.

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Stingray

Birds fly away as we pass by the shores: herons, cormorants, a dark ibis, jacamars and kingfishers, warblers and woodpeckers, toucans and many more.

heron

heron

A group of dark feathered azure-hooded jays hidden in a bush hanging over the water fill the silence with a cacophony of loud weird chatter, like frogs’ croaking, that goes on for a long time and suddenly stops very abruptly, all at once. Right when the rattle has become part of the silence and we don’t pay it any attention, it stops and it’s strange mystic silence again. A black falcon surveys his kingdom with a most respectful gaze from the highest branch.

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Green Kingfisher

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Flycatcher

Falcon

Falcon

Our favorite river-dwellers are the little brown basilisk lizards, known as Jesus Christ lizards, for they and the son of God share a rare skill- walking on water! And if you ask them, walking on water is piece of cake, they sprint over it! What a spectacle every time they cross before our amazed doubting eyes from one shore to the other speeding as fast as their feet can carry them on the river surface (as fast as 7mph)!

basilisk lizard

basilisk lizard

His divine abilities aside, the basilisk is quite a sight even when sitting still, concealed, pretending to be part of a rotten tree trunk or branch on the shores. Brown, scaly, with a high fin-like crest down his back, head and tail, like miniature dinosaur, and large feet equipped with flaps of skin along the toes allowing the lizard to remain on top of the river when moving quickly, just a bit slower than his land speed.

basilisk (Jesus Christ) lizard

basilisk (Jesus Christ) lizard

Youngsters can run up to 10-20 meters on water, while adult Jesus Christs can cross only a few meters before sinking, not because they move slowly, but because they are heavier and cannot sprint for too long… Once he falls in the water the basilisk continues swimming but only when necessary, when running from predators for example, because some other aquatic animals would eat him too…

basilisk lizard

basilisk lizard

Suddenly we hear a sweet tiny chirping, like a gentle bird’s cry, and it is a monkey! And another one! And another one!

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A family of Geoffroy’s tamarin monkeys (titi monkeys, the smallest Central American monkeys) are in the trees above our heads talking to us! Wonder what are they saying? These are different than the ones we saw in Tayrona (Colombia) with short hairstyles- white Mohawks and bald spots above the ears. We nickname them “punks”

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Yet, the one animal we are here to find is the crocodile, master of the river. It is a strange and scary feeling being in a river full of crocodiles, alone, without a guide, having to get out of the kayak when it gets too shallow or when the current gets too strong to paddle against it, and to step in the water barefoot, in a river home of the Central American caiman.

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And sure enough we find him. Hiding in the shadows ashore, camouflaged like the sand and the rocks, completely still, he is watching us with his cold yellow eyes.

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Another one! As we approach a small rocky beach just where the river makes a sharp turn, another croc tanning ashore hurriedly drags himself to the water edge and slides in with a spectacular silent motion. He swims away and disappears.

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It seems that the caimans are more afraid of us than we of them, yet Maya, like most 11-year-old girls, is terrified and almost cries, but as soon as the third one (and they are all small) runs away from us panicking, she is convinced that they have nothing to do with the horrifying monsters depicted in films. And the river safari continues.

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There is even a baby caiman sitting on a tree trunk and we all (even Maya) find him cute.

baby caiman

baby caiman

We keep going. At places the river is shallow, wide and calm-too shallow even for the kayak- and we have to walk and pull it behind.

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Other places are narrow and deep and the river runs fast. It is hard to paddle against it. Going back downriver, we pass these rapids quickly, and it is exciting and fun.

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We would love to go further and further until the river ends, but it doesn’t. It only becomes more and more difficult to paddle, the mountain begins to rise, rapids appear, and so we turn back. We pass again under fallen trees which the leafcutter ants and other forest creatures use as bridges over the river.

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We paddle by the big ceiba tree adorned with the hanging nests of weaver birds. It is much faster going back downriver, and easier.

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Fata Morgana is waiting for us, and a few more wild rivers to explore in Kuna Yala, full of elusive jungle creatures, the sweet-and-sour smell of wild rotting mangoes fallen near the shores, and the sounds of birds and monkeys.

River Photos

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Sponsored by www.kayakshopbg.com

 

Find previous stories from the blog about Kuna Yala:

Paradise at The End of The Sea 

Slums of Paradise

Children of The Moon 

Ulu Men. Cowboys of The Sea

Master Mola Makers

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 
 

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

 

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Kuna Yala People: Ulu Men. Cowboys of the Sea

Ulu Men. Cowboys of the Sea

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In the morning, very early, before the first rays of sunlight gently touch the top of the tall palm trees with pale pink light, they crawl out of their hammocks, of their little huts, and disappear into the sea. We watch them every day passing near our boat, returning in the afternoon, their dugout canoes filled with coconuts, a few mangoes, fishes and conchs.

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Here comes Victor again. Victor is the skinny guy, about 60-years-old, who came to collect a $10.00 anchoring fee (valid for 1 month and only for one island group) the very first day we drop anchor near one of the islands in Cayos Holandes. His main occupation is harvesting coconuts from the nearby islands, and he paddles his dugout ulu slowly from island to island for a few hours every morning collecting coconuts. He brings us a pile of mangoes, avocados and bananas. In exchange, we charge his cellphone and all the cellphones of all the rest of the men living on his island (because they have no electricity, not even a generator, and we produce more electricity than we need sometimes with our solar panels). We also give him a couple of bottles with drinking water.

Viktor

Viktor

“I’ll bring more empty bottles for water” he says, but we have to explain that we can only produce a certain amount of freshwater per day with our watermaker (desalinating machine) and only if there are no clouds and the solar panels work full-power to make the electricity needed for the watermaker.

“When it’s cloudy and rainy we can’t make freshwater and we can’t charge your phones.” We tell him. He seems to understand and slowly paddles away from the boat.

We have become the local “Water&Power Station”. And we really love the fact that we can help the Kuna Indians of the small islands and we gladly charge their phones and give them water everywhere we go.

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The wind has picked up a bit and suddenly our friend in his narrow long twenty-years-old ulu made from one single piece of hard wood, is rigging a sail! First the mast is up and then a piece of whitish cloth, like an old bed sheet, flaps for a few seconds. Victor fiddles with the “mast” and the “boom” and soon the “sail” catches the wind. The ulu slides faster now, like a snake on the surface of the water. Our friend uses his paddle as a rudder to steer in the right direction. Glorious sight: this slender dark canoe a foot over the sea, suddenly sailing! It turned out that the Kuna Indians are excellent sailors.

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The next day I ask Victor about his sailing ulu.

“We have always sailed these waters, ever since we came down from the mountains and moved to live on the islands, many years ago, before you white people showed up with your big boats. Only, in the old times, the sails of our ulus were different shape and made with different materials. Now, we met you, the cruisers, and since we have learned, we make better sails now. Some cruisers have old broken sails which they don’t need any more and they give them to us. For us an old sail is a treasure, we need just a piece. And we make better shape for our sails now. Everyone has learned how to make better shape and now we all have good sailing ulus.”

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An ulu is a dugout canoe made of one single piece of hardwood tree up in the mountains, on the mainland. The islanders usually buy their ulus, which are extremely expensive for them ($100-$500, depending on size and quality) from ulu makers. It is their most treasured possession- an investment that lasts twenty-thirty years, even more.

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Like the cowboys in the Wild Wild West who were dependent on their horses and defined themselves with them, the Kuna Indians, who live on the small isolated islands in the San Blas archipelago are extremely dependent on their ulus. They use them for transportation between the islands, when they go to visit their relatives on other islands or to buy provisions, to go fishing, to bring freshwater from the rivers on the mainland, and to harvest coconuts, plantains, mangoes and avocados. When there is no wind and the sea is clam, they paddle their canoes, but as soon as the wind picks up, they shoist the sails, which are often made of found and recycled materials, some more elegant than others.

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The Kunas’ main food is fish, coconuts and plantains. Typically, the men and boys from each family wake up very early and go out spearfishing in the shallow reefs until the early afternoon, when they return to their islands and relax for the rest of the day. On the way back, they may stop on some of the uninhabited islands or on mainland, to collect coconuts and fruits. They sell the coconuts, as well as all exotic catch such as octopus, lobster, and crabs to Colombian boats for export.

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Soon we get used to seeing the sailing ulus crisscrossing the watery ways of the Kuna Yala territory. Sometimes they create traffic between the bigger island communities early in the morning (going to “work”) and in the afternoon (returning from “work”), a regatta of small wooden ulus with sails, like one-winged moths. When sailing between the islands, we ourselves are very vigilant not to run over a silent little one-winged moth.

The Kuna Indians we meet in the Kuna Yala world also get used to seeing us and demonstrate a great respect for us as well, maybe because we too are paddling around in a “ulu” between the boat and shore- a plastic orange kayak- a precious gift from our sponsors www.KayakShop.bg.

 

Kuna Yala Sailing Ulus

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Find previous stories about Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea , Slums of Paradise and Children of The Moon

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 
 

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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Kuna Yala People: Children of The Moon

Children of The Moon

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2-years-old Pilar, Kuna Yala

Some nights are darker than black, when the Dragon of Death swallows the Moon. And extinguishes the murky silver light from the surface of the sleeping sea.

The world stands still. Time suspended.

These are the nights when the pale children emerge in the dark to defend the Moon.

Their skin- the sad glow of the Moon, their hair- the sad glow of the Moon.

Their eyes- the sad glow of the Moon.

These are the Moon Children.

Albinos are people (and animals) who have a genetically inherited disorder -their skin lacks melanin and they appear white, with yellow hair and light-blue eyes. They are more susceptible to skin cancer and sunlight bothers their eyes, so they need to protect themselves from the sun at all times.

There are a few places in the world with very high instances of albinism, where albinos hold a special place in society. Most of the time, they are victims of superstition, persecuted and segregated, seen as “diseased” or “ghosts”, “punished by god”. In East Africa’s popular culture, particularly in Tanzania, albinos are seen as bad omen, persecuted and even dismembered and killed for body parts, used by witchdoctors to make potions for rituals. Potions and amulets containing albino limbs and hair, especially from albino babies and children, are considered magical and believed to bring prosperity to those who consume or own them.

Kuna Yala (Panama) where the Kuna Indians live in small isolated island communities, has the world’s highest rate of albinism. Here 1 in approximately every 160 Kunas is albino.

2-years-old Pilar with her family

Pilar with her family

But the pale Kuna islanders called “sipus” are not being persecuted and segregated. On the contrary, they are regarded as superior, more beautiful people, as “reyes” (kings), and are very much estimated by all.

 

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According to local beliefs, they have the duty of defending the Moon from the moon-eating dragon, and during lunar eclipse are the only ones allowed to go outside of their homes and shoot down the dragon with special bows and arrows. Only they can kill the dragon.

Albino cat, in Kuna Yala

Albino cat, in Kuna Yala

 

Find previous stories about Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea and Slums of Paradise.

 

About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 

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Kuna Yala: Slums of Paradise

Slums of Paradise

by Mira Nencheva

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The first time we go to the island of Porvenir to check-in in Panama and Kuna Yala a few days after arriving in the San Blas islands, we find ourselves in yet another different world. Surrounded by pristine sea, isolated in one of the wildest corners of our planet, standing on top of slowly sinking foundations of sand and coral are the large urban settlements of Kuna Yala.

Based on the density of inhabitants per square kilometer, these are some of Earth’s most heavily populated urban areas, where according to modern standards housing, sanitation and the most basic services are substandard, the supply of clean water is a huge problem, and the reliability of electricity is questionable. On a micro scale, some of the big Kuna settlements reflect the global population expansion and pollution of the planet.

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If we thought that the small isolated fine-sand islands with tiny huts among tall coconut palms floating in a sea of crystal teal waters were “paradise on Earth”, the big overpopulated Kuna Yala islands surrounded by smelly garbage reminded us of slums.

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In the San Blas islands most of the Kuna population lives in big organized communities on the larger islands. The difference between the smaller idyllic islands where 2-3 traditional Kuna families live in peace and serenity among coconut palms and coral reefs, and the bigger island-communities, crowded and polluted, is like the difference between a small village in the countryside and a big congested megalopolis within the same country.

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Clusters of houses of bamboo sticks and wooden planks with leaning walls and corrugated patched-up tin roofs, surrounded by plastic buckets and jerry cans filled with stagnant water, makeshift toilets on sticks over the sea, the ruins of a concrete dock. No trees and everything is grey. But mostly- garbage. Stuck between the rocks near the shores, between empty bleached shells of dead corals and conchs- pieces of plastic and foam. Piles of garbage. Things floating in the sea.

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Here the Kunas have gas generators and the expensive electricity is used mainly to watch television and charge cell phones. Television has brought the new generations of indigenous kids a different perspective on life and different “needs”. Now little Kuna girls watch Latino soap-operas, learning the ways of seduction and deception. As we pass by an open door of a home, we witness a group of school girls watching very intensely on a triple-X TV channel an instruction video for pole-dancing in a striptease club. Groups of teenage boys wearing jeans with sleek hairs gather in corners doing nothing; like in the music videos, they are “cool”. Alcohol and drug use have become a big issue.

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But even though globalization and westernization has affected in various degrees life in the big settlements in Kuna Yala, and even though there is lack of proper sanitation, safe water supply, reliable electricity, garbage disposal, hygienic housing and common areas, or other basic human necessities; even though the islanders are mostly poor and unemployed (which are all characteristics of a slum), these communities are organized with well-established traditional social and political order with a strict hierarchy of tribal chiefs and leaders. On each island there is a “saila”, who is the equivalent of a village mayor and the highest authority on the island. But from our personal observation and from what we have heard from others, unfortunately most of the sailas, like most politicians or rulers, have become increasingly corrupt. Indigenous or no indigenous, money is the main interest of these people today and the ways they are trying to get them is not always respectable.

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Every evening the population of each community gathers at “el congreso” at the main square in the center of the island or in the biggest hut of the village where everyone is welcome to express opinions, ideas, or complains. In an event of a crime, like theft or domestic violence, the congreso decides the fate of the criminal, which is usually a monetary fine or a punishment in the form of community work. During the congreso obligatory community work done by all women and men on each islands is organized.

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In oa couple of settlements where we spend a week- the twin islands of Narganá (or Yandup) and Corazón de Jesús (or Akuanasutupu) which are connected by a wooden bridge and are two of the most westernized of all Kuna islands, we meet and talk to a few locals, who tell us more about the specifics and the organization on their islands.

“Every Tuesday all women have to get out to swipe and clean the village at 8:00 a.m. If a woman doesn’t come to clean, she has to pay a fine of $1.” Explains Odalis Brown, who prefers to sleep late and pay the fine instead of cleaning the streets at 8 in the morning. “Every Thursday and Saturday all men have to do community work from 8:00 to 11:00 a.m.- to bring sand and fill the holes in the ground, or to cut wood on the mainland, or to farm.”

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With global warming and the level of oceans rising, some islands have already been eaten by the sea and disappeared. Bringing sand and piling dead corals and rubble at the bases of islands is one of the usual community jobs for men. Contributing food and cooking it together for a community event is the women’s job. And always there is a fine of a few dollars if someone doesn’t do their job. There is fine of $5 even for children who disobeyed and didn’t go to bed at 8:00 p.m. when a man working for the saila blows a sort of a curfew whistle.

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We are impressed by the organization in the communities, but disappointed with the way globalization, westernization, and television has influenced these indigenous people, them too…

But then it is all a matter of perspective. The bamboo houses we- the “civilized first-world citizens”- classify as “substandard” are in fact traditional huts (in most cases) made of renewable materials with the same methods the Kunas used for many centuries before the “civilized” Europeans showed up. The “fresh water problem” is a problem from our point of view- the people who are used to turning on the faucet at home and let the water flow hard for ten minutes while we are brushing our teeth. Paddling to the nearest river with a canoe, bringing river-water in bottles and jerry cans, and boiling it to make it safe for drinking is something the Kunas are used to doing generation after generation and for them it is not “a problem” as much as it is a part of daily life. Being “poor and unemployed” is how we, the wealthy visitors see these people who have always lived without cars, washing machines and big shopping malls, and who spend their time fishing and hunting for food, farming small plots and collecting fruits and coconuts.

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Still, the arrival of modern tools and materials, of electricity and television, has altered the Kunas ways. Can we blame them for using plastic buckets and bottles to make their life easier with all the freshwater hustle? Can we blame them for wanting the same things we want- packaged foods, ready-made clothing, tools and things that make life “easier” and more “comfortable”? With all this comes pollution, and for the islanders and the fragile environment they live in on such a limited territory this new consumerist tendencies spell disaster. The garbage and pollution issue in San Blas needs to be addressed urgently.

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And similarly urgent is the issue of culture loss in the big Kuna settlements due to globalization and the introduction of television. To a big extend, the Kunas have preserved their ways and beliefs, language and rituals. Yet, they are now part of a bigger world and have welcomed civilization and change. Will the young Kunas be willing to preserve the ways of their ancestors, after watching so much glamour and luxury not too far away? Will they see their own lives as tradition or struggle? How will they perceive their own world- as a paradise or a slum?

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea

Kuna Yala: Paradise at The End of The Sea

by Mira Nencheva

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It’s a beautiful sunny day in Kuna Yala. A few white clouds slowly sailing in the sky, the sea calm, transparent and sparkling in the sun. A wet blue landscape in every direction. Small islands of fine white-and-pink sand covered in tall coconut palms are scattered in the distance.

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Rodencio Garcia is paddling slowly in his old dugout “ulu”, after spending all morning diving in the sea spearfishing in the reefs, and collecting coconuts on one of the few uninhabited islands in the Cayos Holandes island group. He proudly shows us his harvest and his catch: a few coconuts, avocados and mangos, few conchs, and a few small fishes of all colors.

Kuna Yala

Kuna Yala

He takes two fishes from the sea each day for his wife and two for himself. He has no children, so all he needs is four fishes per day and a couple of avocados, coconuts, and plantains. Four fishes per day, that’s all, because he has no fridge to keep any extra fish. Rodencio Garcia has no fridge, because there is no electricity on his island. No one of the three families living on his island has a fridge, or a washing machine, or a television set.

Rodencio Garia

Rodencio Garia

Rodencio Garcia's catch

Rodencio Garcia’s catch

Kuna Yala, officially known as the San Blas Islands, is a vast archipelago in the Caribbean Sea stretching over 2,300 square kilometers and consisting of over 360 mostly small flat islands scattered among coral reefs off the eastern coast of Panama, of which only about 40 are inhabited, home of the indigenous Kuna people. The bigger inhabited islands are densely populated by organized communities, and on some of the smaller ones only two or three families reside.

A small island where only one Kuna family lives

A small island where only one Kuna family lives

This autonomous Kuna Yala territory within Panama has its own independent administrative, political, and social order kept very much unchanged for centuries, where the indigenous people have preserved, to a large extend, their way of life outside of the rest of modern civilization, and where foreigner are forbidden to own property, to settle, or to marry to Kunas and remain in the communities, and only recently (since about twenty years) outsiders are allowed to visit.

 

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Rodencio Garcia invites us on his island. We arrive there paddling in our plastic orange kayak and are greeted by everyone, about a dozen of men, women and children. The women are dressed in traditional skirts and colorful blouses called molas with bright red scarfs loosely hanging over their short black hairs, long strings of colorful beads coiled around their ankles and wrists, and a gold ring under the nose. They immediately start taking out and showing us their molas for sale. Only one of about five women knows Spanish. The rest speak their native tongue- Dulegaya.

A Kuna woman

A Kuna woman

Molas are made of brightly colored fabrics collaged layer over layer, forming intricate abstract patterns. They are the most important part of the Kuna women’s traditional clothing, and since cruisers and tourists started visiting the islands, molas became an important source of income too.

A Kuna woman showing us her molas for sale

A Kuna woman showing us her molas for sale

We choose a few molas and beaded bracelets for which we give them rice, flower, beads, and other food products and things we have brought to exchange. This is one of the most isolated islands, and getting cooking oil, coffee, rice, even fresh drinkable water means a long journey by small improvised sailing “ulu” or a small motorboat to some of the bigger islands, where Colombian trading boats loaded with various goods like gas, clothes, plastic bins, food products, beer and coca-cola, as well as all sorts of other “indispensables”, arrive regularly to sell stuff and buy coconuts, the Kunas main source of income, which they export back to Colombia.

Trading with Kuna women

Trading with Kuna women

On most of the larger islands electricity has made appearance a few decades ago, providing the islanders with refrigeration and television through generators running on gas, or solar panels. Here there are local tiendas (small stores), panaderias (bakeries), small schools and clinics. It’s almost like any other town, only there are no paved roads and cars, and most of the houses are tiny, made of thin bamboo sticks or cane, with palm-leaf roofs and no running water.

 

Kuna women near the island of Porvenir- Kuna Yala's capital

Kuna women near the island of Porvenir- Kuna Yala’s capital

But on the smaller islands where only a few Kuna families reside in huts on the beach made of renewable materials among tall palms, there is not even electricity or grocery store. The only light in the evening is from the small fires of coconut peals, over which the Kuna women boil fish-and-plantain soup. Life here is still completely self-contained and off the grid.

 

A Kuna women boiling conch over slow fire

A Kuna women boiling conch over slow fire

After we choose our molas we walk around the island for a bit. Near the huts, between piles of coconuts for export, dogs and young children are running around, men are resting in hammocks strung between palm trees after a day of fishing and collecting coconuts, and women are busy boiling conchs.

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Inside, the huts are dark. Typically, one family has two huts. A smaller hut serves as the kitchen, where fish is being smoked in one corner over a slow fire. The bigger hut is where the entire extended family, sometimes 10-12 people, sleeps in rows of small hammocks; there is no other furniture. We constantly have to bend our heads and be careful not to bump on doors and beams, as we are considerably taller than all the Kuna Indians. Most barely reach to our shoulders.

Smoking fish in the "kitchen" hut.

Smoking fish in the “kitchen” hut.

A Kuna man is having lunch- fish sop- on the compacted sand floor of the kitchen hut.

A Kuna man is having lunch- fish soup- on the compacted sand floor of the kitchen hut.

The "bedroom" hut

The “bedroom” hut

The Kuna Indians are the second shortest people on earth after the pigmies.

Mira (176 cm tall) with a Kuna woman

Mira (176 cm tall) with a Kuna woman

They also have a long tradition of matriarchy, where women rule. The Kunas total about 50-60 thousand and are one of the most peaceful nations on earth, where crime is extremely rare, homosexuality is accepted as something perfectly normal, and albinism has one of the planet’s highest rate. The only two times the Kunas fought in a war was, first when they rose against the Spanish after numerous invasions in 1750 and slaughtered the invaders. This led to a treaty between Kuna Yala and Gran Colombia and the Kunas were left alone. The second time was in 1925 when they organized a successful full-scale revolution against the Panamanian authorities on the islands who were oppressing them and threatening their culture, and consequently, the Kunas were granted autonomy within Panama. Centuries later, the Kunas are still resisting Hispanic assimilation and are still very much concerned with preserving their indigenous rights and ways, even though they are aware of the rapidly changing civilized world beyond their isolated scattered islands.

The Kuna Yala flag. It was created during the Revolution in 1925 and has nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazi swastika.

The Kuna Yala flag. It was created during the Revolution in 1925 and has nothing to do with Hitler and the Nazi swastika.

“Do you like it, living here, so far away from the cities?” I ask Rodencio Garcia.

“This is my island and I like living here. I have been in Panama City a few times. I wouldn’t live there. I like this place, the sea, and my island. My family lives here. I fish for a few hours in the morning and I spend the rest of the day with my family. Sometimes I catch lobster and octopus, but we don’t eat them, we sell them to tourists. We only eat fish and conch, which we cook with plantains and grated coconut. First, you boil the plantains for 20-30 minutes with the coconut. Then you add the fish but you don’t boil it too much; when the eyes pop out, it’s ready.” He says.

Kuna Yala Image Gallery

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About the author: Mira Nencheva, her husband Ivo and 11-years-old daughter Maya are sailing around the world and living off-the-grid full-time aboard their 38 feet Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana since July 2013. Their journey is documented in a travel-adventure blog www.thelifenomadik.com and in theirFacebook page:

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

Maya, Ivo and Mira

Maya, Ivo and Mira

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From Colombia to Kuna Yala

Last time we took you from Santa Marta to Cartagena. Fasten your lifejackets and get ready to sail to our next destination: The San Blas Islands (or Kuna Yala) in Panama!

A beach in Kuna Yala

A beach in Kuna Yala

It was one of our strangest passages so far. One of our “longest” passages too. After over a year island-hopping in the Eastern Caribbean, where the average distance between islands is 20-30 NM, and you can almost see your next destination before you lift anchor, 200 NM is “a long passage”…. It should take us 2 days to get to the San Blas Islands in Panama.

We start on sail at 7 in the morning from the sleepy anchorage in Cartagena and very slowly head for Boca Chica, the southern exit channel from Cartagena. The current inside the bay is strong against us, and the wind (2-3 knots from northeast) is not helping us much. After 4 hours we are only 3 NM closer to destination, barely out of the channel, it’s almost noon, but Ivo is proud that we didn’t have to use the engines at all.

We first head for Isla del Rosario, a small uninhabited island archipelago in Colombia only 17 NM southwest of Cartagena, where we plan to spend a day or two, but when we get there at around 4 p.m. after a very pleasant slow sail with the wind 12-16 kts on a beam reach, we cannot find a good place to drop anchor. The island is low, covered in tangled bushes and trees, with a small sandy beach on the south side. It looks like rocks and coral heads everywhere all around it though, and as there is no cruising guide information about this place, no detail depths and coral head areas, we decide not to risk getting closer to shore and wreck the boat, so we just keep going- 180 NM more to San Blas.

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

Small private island near Isla del Rosario

The wind picks up at night- 18 to 24 kts from northeast and the swell is 2 to 3 meters. The sky is covered with clouds and in the distance orange heat lightings illuminate the southern horizon. Then the wind drops to 10 kts and shifts from southeast, the swell still 2-3m from northeast and the ride gets bumpy. I feel seasick, which doesn’t happen normally. But the next day it gets worse. We are 100 NM from destination and 100 NM from the closest land, north of Golfo de Uraba in Colombia. The swell is still big and utterly uncomfortable, the wind dies and not only our speed drops to 0, but a 1 -1.5 kt current starts pushing us back to where we came from. Normal people turn on the engines in this sort of a situation and keep going to destination. That’s NORMAL people… Ivo, who is not part of that group, drops all sails and starts hand-steering trying to keep the boat into the current so our drift back would be as slow as possible. Thus we drift for almost 6 hours, from noon to 6 p.m., very slowly going backwards. Before the wind picks up, and not much but just enough for the boat to start moving forward again, we have lost 2 NM going backwards, and half the day.

The second night we are rewarded with a very pleasant 12-18 kt wind from northeast and just about 1 m swell and Fata Morgana is back in business doing 6 kts. By sunrise we have only 30 NM left to San Blas, two tunas in the freezer and everyone is feeling great.

It’s noon, the sky grey-and-blue with scattered clouds, the wind still about 20 kts and the sea 1-2 m when we spot the first of about 340 islands covered with coconut palms, home of the Indigenous Kuna people. We clear the reefs where the waves crash with violent roar and beyond them begins paradise- serene, blue, enchanted world of sea-stars and little dark people in small dugout Cayucos.

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

A Kuna sailing a dugout cayuco

We arrive in San Blas without ever turning on the engines, we tack between the reefs in a shallow channel and around 2 p.m. we finally drop anchor (on sail) next to Banedup, an island part of the Cayos Holandes island chain, in a place popular among cruisers as The Swimming Pool, for its waters are as shallow and clear and as deliciously blue as the waters of the most luxurious swimming pool on earth.

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

Maya aboard Fata Morgana at The Swimming Pool, San Blas

San Blas is the official name given by the Spanish of this vast archipelago stretching near the eastern largely uninhabited and partly unexplored shores of Panama. But for centuries, the local Kuna people have used a different name for their islands which are today an autonomous territory within Panama- Kuna Yala. And so, we decided to respect and use the indigenous name.

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Kuna Yala is mind-blowing, really. Nothing could have prepared us for the beauty of the place. Fenced behind a long barrier reef which breaks and calms the waves of the Caribbean Sea creating a vast lake of flat crystal blue water- an absolute pleasure for cruising, lie hundreds of small flat islands of fine white sand and tall coconut palms. Some of the islands are uninhabited, others are home to not more than one or two Kuna families living in huts with roofs of palm leaves near the beach, without electricity and running water, very much the way their ancestors used to live for centuries before the first European ever set foot in this part of the world. Others yet are heavily populated by dense communities of hundreds of Kuna people, who have lost to some extend their traditional ways, enjoying much of the advancements of modern civilization. And beyond the many islands rise the jungle-covered mountains of Panama’s mainland cut through by rivers providing much of the potable freshwater to the islanders.

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

A small inhabited island in Kuna Yala. Panama mainland in the background

We spent a month in Kuna Yala completely removed form modern civilization (no internet…), sailing between islands, enjoying the absolute tranquility of the most remote anchorages near uninhabited islands, the exceptional snorkeling in pristine waters and stunning coral gardens, a number of wild kayak expeditions to neighboring islands and rivers of clear waters full of crocodiles and stingrays; we met and befriended a few of the Kuna families in some of the smaller islands and we visited some of the bigger Kuna communities, learning about their history and culture.

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

Kuna women in traditional costumes, Kuna Yala

It was not all 100% pink and positive, though. We became also very much disenchanted, especially Ivo, with the way the locals, especially on the bigger islands, have become greedy for money and are treating us visitors- tourists and cruisers- as “gringos”, trying to squeeze another dollar out of our pockets, like everywhere.

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade... All in one- Kuna Yala

Ivo in his state of perfection: perfect temperature, perfect water, perfect beach, perfect island, perfect palm tree shade… All in one- Kuna Yala

Yet, of all the Caribbean destinations we sailed to, Kuna Yala is by far the most beautiful, authentic, and interesting one. No wonder some cruisers spend here many years, others return again and again. No wonder, I have so many, many stories to tell from the land of the Kuna Yala, and I can’t wait to share them with you!

Mira in San Blas

Mira in San Blas

 

To be continued….

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