Panama Canal Transit

Panama Canal Transit

Maya Ivo and Mira aboard S/V Fata Morgana transiting Panama Canal

Maya Ivo and Mira aboard S/V Fata Morgana transiting Panama Canal

The distance between the Monkey Island (Linton) to Colon (the city-port at the entrance of Panama Canal on the Atlantic side) is 25 NM. We start at 07:00 a.m. in light north winds 8-10kts together with S/V Anka. Our speed is about 2-3 kts. Anka passes us on engine and soon disappears on the horizon. We keep sailing slowly. At about 10:00 a.m. the wind picks up behind us and we fly our undersized secondhand spinnaker which we bought for 150EU in Martinique a few months ago and until now haven’t had the chance to try out properly. It works like charm!

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We make good speed and progress and the captain is happy. There are these rare moments of bliss while sailing and everything is just perfect: the sea, the wind, the sails, and even the fish cooperates. We pull out a nice big kingfish enough to feed two families.

Ivo with kingfish

Ivo with kingfish

Early in the afternoon we approach Colon- one of the biggest ports in the world, a free trade zone, and the gateway between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is also one of the most dangerous poverty-ridden cities in Panama where walking in the streets even in broad daylight is not advisable.

Colon

Colon

Many big cargo ships are stationed outside the harbor, at anchor, waiting for their turn to transit the canal. It is the largest community of ships we have ever seen. At night, illuminated, they look like a city in the distance floating on the surface of the sea. We enter between two artificial rock walls in a vast bay. This is the last time we sail in the Caribbean Sea aboard S/V Fata Morgana for a very long time. Inside, the bay is calm like a large blue field with more big ships at anchor and green and red buoys indicating the shipping channels leading to the entrance of Panama Canal.

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We are at the point of no return. A new chapter in our voyage is about to begin. Panama Canal is one of the 7 wonders of the industrial world, along with the Hoover Dam and London’s Sewerage system among others. It connects the two biggest oceans on the planet, and crossing it aboard a boat is the ultimate way to experience it.

I think of my father who was a mariner. It is the anniversary of his death 6 years ago. Today, I am occupying a space, occupied by him before and I am looking for his traces in the air. He has been here crossing the canal aboard a ship some years ago, when he used to work as an officer aboard a cargo ship transporting grain. I look at the containerships getting loaded at the docks, the hge boats heading to or exiting the locks and I imagine my dad up there on the bridge smiling and waving at me. In a way, I share this experience with him.

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Our friends are already nice and cozy at Shelter Bay Marina when we drop anchor just outside the marina’s entrance and invite them for dinner. Breaded fish sticks and beer on the menu.

The next day we move to the place indicated as Small Craft Anchorage on the charts but it turns out there is no way we can access shore from there. The only place around Colon where yachts can drop anchor and dinghy to shore is in front of Club Nautico, with space for not more than a few boats and it is not protected at all from weather. It is just downwind from the huge loading facilities of the port, with ships and pilot boats passing close by all the time. There is a 3-dollar fee per person for the use of the dinghy dock at Club Nautico. No way we can go ashore in Colon for free! Everywhere there are commercial ports and loading docks, fences and no adequate facilities for small yachts at all. This made our preparation for the transit very unpleasant.

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The crew of S/V Anka is in a hurry, so we agree to employ the services of an agent together and cross the canal as soon as possible. An agent will deal with all the formalities around the canal transit: schedule boat survey with the measuring office, as the fee for the canal depends on the boat length and tonnage, providing tires as fenders, special ropes, as well as line handlers, required for the transit, and finally- schedule the transit date and hour. All this is extremely simple and straightforward to do without an agent and we could have easily done it ourselves avoiding the extra fee…which makes Ivo super grumpy. Our friends Ruth and Duncan aboard S/V Impetuous Too have published a great article: How to Transit the Panama Canal as Cheaply as Possible. It is worth checking out.

Getting ready for the canal

Getting ready for the canal

After a few days the time is set and we are all ready to go. Aboard with us are one transit advisor and three local kids whom the agent, Tito, brought as line-handlers. According to regulation, each boat is required to have a transit advisor who will advise the captain what to do in the canal and locks, and four line-handlers besides the captain. Aboard S/V Anka there are another advisor, a pilot, the agent Tito with his wife and daughter and one or two line-handlers. Because Maya and Alex are only 11 and 10-years-old, they cannot be line-handlers, the minimum age is 14. But one of the kids Tito brought doesn’t look much older than Maya and I highly doubt it he is 14 and knows what to do. Plus, the two boats (Fata Morgana and Anka) will be tied side by side inside the locks, a procedure called “nesting” and this means that each boat will only need half the ropes, half the tires and two line-handlers. All the other people who came are just there for the ride and the food. We felt pretty screwed by Tito, even though everything was done according to procedure… The good think about all this is, that Tito runs an organization to take kids off the streets and keep them away from the gangs; he helps them, takes care of them and gives them a chance at decent life. These kids call themselves: Tito’s Sons, and they are many. Three of them are aboard S/V Fata Morgana having a blast transiting the Panama Canal (two of them for a first time), enjoying the ride, helping with the ropes and earning some cash.

Our line-handlers

Our line-handlers

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In the late afternoon we enter the first set of locks, the Gatun locks, behind a huge ship which barely fits in the space. Next to him we seem like a joke. (Small yachts always go together with big ships inside the locks.) The Panama Canal is a three-part journey. At the Atlantic and the Pacific ends are the locks- three sets of huge doors and chambers, and in the middle, some 26 meters above sea level, is the artificial lake Gatun and the many winding artificial channels.

Inside the Gatun locks

Inside the Gatun locks

The massive medieval-looking 2-meter thick steel doors close behind us. The two yachts are together in the center, the ropes are secured on both sides. We feel super excited and happy to share this unique experience together with our friends aboard Anka. Our two boats together represent Bulgaria, Romania, Canada and Australia. Pretty awesome.

Ivo and Adrian- the two captains

Ivo and Adrian- the two captains

Krisha and Mira

Krisha and Mira

The two boats raft together; they are "nesting"

The two boats raft together; they are “nesting”

Water starts rushing in, swirling and bubbling like a boiling lake taking us higher and higher. 52 million gallons of fresh water for each set of locks. The chamber fills. We enter the second one. The water-elevator takes us a level higher to the third and last chamber and we go up and up again.

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As the last doors open, we are 26 meters higher and inside a freshwater lake. Gatun Lake covering about 470 square kilometers (180 sq mi) is an artificial lake, result from the building of the Gatun Dam and the summit of Panama Canal. It provides the millions of gallons of water necessary to operate the Panama Canal locks each time a ship passes through.

It is already late. The advisor tells us to motor to a big red buoy near the lake shores away from the shipping channel where we spend the night. We feed our young line-handlers hamburgers for dinner and let them find the most comfortable spots to sleep in the cockpit or outside on the trampolines. The next morning the journey continues. Another advisor boards Fata Morgana and we slowly start motoring through the marked channels inside the lake of yellow waters towards the Pacific. A few slow hours to pass the next 25-30 miles. No, sailing is strictly prohibited; no matter how much Ivo tries to convince the advisor that the wind and sails will speed up the boat considerably. We keep to the side of the channels as big ships constantly pass us in both directions. Approximately 40 ships transit the canal every day.

lake Gatun

lake Gatun

The nature here is stunningly beautiful and wild. I imagined something industrial, channels made of concrete and iron all the way, but aside from the locks, the Gatun Lake stretch is wild, green and completely uninhabited for miles and miles. The shores are covered in tropical trees home of monkeys and birds undisturbed in their natural habitat, and in the waters of the lake hides the mighty crocodile. This stretch of the journey is tranquil and slow and one has time to relax and ponder. I think about the people who came up with the idea to build a canal linking the oceans; and of the people who dug up all this dirt one hundred years ago to make it possible. It is all very fascinating.

A big cargo ship passing under the Bridge of the Americas

A big cargo ship passing under the Bridge of the Americas

With the increase of maritime trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, more and more ships began crisscrossing the watery ways of the world and the idea to join the two greatest oceans at the narrowest place of the American continent- the Isthmus of Panama became a project.

It has been done before. The Suez Canal was excavated at sea level and in 1869 it allowed ships to travel between Europe and South Asia. It took 10 years to build and it was a great success for the Suez Canal Company, generating huge profits. Ten years later, in 1881, the same French company signed another contract for the construction of the Panama Canal. But the task proved much harder than the French had estimated. Tropical jungle filled with venomous snakes, spiders and mosquitoes carrying yellow fever and malaria, torrential rains and floods killed 20 thousand workers and made it doubtful that a sea-level canal here is at all possible. Ten years and nearly 300 million dollars later, the corrupted inefficient Suez Canal Company went bankrupt and left the job unfinished.

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Four days after the independence of Panama, which was part of Colombia until 1903, USA received (in exchange for the military supported granted to the new nation) the rights to build and indefinitely administer the Panama Canal Zone. The construction of the abandoned French project restarted in 1904 under the new American owners.

The Americans replaced the old inadequate French equipment with a hundred new large, railroad-mounted steam shovels, enormous steam-powered cranes, giant hydraulic rock crushers, cement mixers, dredges, and pneumatic power drills, nearly all of which manufactured by new and extensive machine-building technology developed and built in the United States for the largest American engineering project to date- an investment that cost the Unites States the equivalent of about 8.5 billion dollars.

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In 1914, just over a hundred years ago, the 50 mile (77km) Panama Canal consisting of several artificial channels and lakes, and three sets of locks, joined the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and begun operations with the first transit of the cargo ship SS Ancon. The canal created a shortcut for ships that no longer had to make the long and treacherous passage around Cape Horn- the southernmost point of South America considered the most dangerous area for navigation in the world.

For the next nearly one century, the United States of America had control of the Canal Zone and of course, generate huge profits. On December 31st , 1999- the last day of the old millennium- Panama officially became the new owner of the Canal, which remains to this day the chief revenue source for the country. The canal is also officially politically and permanently neutral, providing service to ships of all nations.

Containership in Panama Canal. The little thing next to it is S/V Anka

Containership in Panama Canal. The little thing next to it is S/V Anka

After a few hours we approach the next locks on the Pacific side. First is the Pedro Miguel chamber- a single set of locks and only a few miles from the Miraflores double chamber. This time we are first in the chambers and our giant companion is looming behind us. There is a big multi-story building on the east side of the locks with balconies filled with spectators here to watch the show.

Maya in Miraflores

Maya in Miraflores

 

There are also satellite cameras broadcasting live from the locks 24/7. People everywhere on the planet can watch the operations in Miraflores live at all times.

Fata Morgana, Anka at Miraflores. View from the webcam

Fata Morgana, Anka at Miraflores. View from the webcam

We feel kind of popular right now with all the public watching us and we are super excited. We are also a bit nervous.

Miraflores locks

Miraflores locks

So far everything has been easy with no problems, but the descent is supposed to be scarier and more dangerous than the ascent, as the draining water creates nasty rapids and currents and the yachts may lose control at the exit and smash to the walls. It also looks super strange being up here, and no water ahead. It is like coming to the edge of a waterfall. I imagine the doors of the last lock will open and we will fall down vertically!

Securing the ropes

Securing the ropes

But it all goes smooth again; the water elevator gently takes us down under the focused gaze of herons and pelicans scavenging the chambers for dead fish caught in the whirlpools.

The last doors open. In front of us is the Pacific Ocean.

The Doors to the Pacific Ocean

The Doors to the Pacific Ocean

Panama Canal Facts

• The size of the locks determines the maximum size of a ship that can pass through them. The locks are 110 feet wide and 1050 feet long. Ships that are wider or longer than this cannot use the Panama Canal. Most ships worldwide are built to the maximum size allowed in Panama Canal. These are known as Panamax vessels.

• Tolls for the canal are set by the Panama Canal Authority and are based on vessel type, size, the type of cargo carried, weight and water displacement. The most expensive regular toll for canal passage to date was charged on April 14, 2010 to the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl, which paid US$375,600.

• In 1928 American adventurer Richard Halliburton swam the length of the Panama Canal. Halliburton had to pay a toll based on his weight and water displacement too. His rate? A whopping 36 cents.

• There was approximately about 60 million pounds of explosives used to help clear the way for the canal.

• The canal is 50 miles (80km) long. If a ship had to travel down and around the southern tip of South America they would have to travel 20,000km.

• The United States uses the canal the most, followed by China, Japan, Chile and North Korea.

• An expansion to double the waterway’s capacity is set to be completed in 2016 with bigger locks for bigger ships.

• It takes between 8 and 10 hours to transit the canal. The fastest transit was completed in 2 hours 41 minutes by the U.S. Navy’s Hydrofoil Pegasus in 1979.

• In 1963 florescent lighting was installed, allowing the canal to begin operating 24 hours a day. It never closes.

• Nearly 20,000 French and 6,000 American workers died during the completion of the Panama Canal.

• Between 12,000 and 15,000 ships cross the Panama Canal every year – about 40 a day. Each pays a toll of a few hundred thousand dollars to Panama.

S/V Fata Morgana and S/V Anka crews

S/V Fata Morgana and S/V Anka crews

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Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

Spider Monkeys on Linton Island

A month after we arrived in San Blas Archipelago of Panama we are ready to continue our journey. Together with our new boat-friends on S/V Anka we sail to Colon where all ships and boats have to stop for a few days and get ready to cross the Panama Canal.

On the way to Colon we decide to stop overnight at Isla Linton. It’s over 50 nautical miles from Cayos Holandes in San Blas to Linton and in favorable weather conditions it can be a pleasant day sail. We start at 06:00h in the morning on June 27th with 6-10 knot north winds on a beam reach and 2-3 meter waves. The wind picks up a bit to 10-14 knots around 09:00h, and with the current in our direction we are doing steady 6 knots. Anka is within sight slightly behind us at all times. The two boats are sailing with the same speed which makes it ideal for buddy-boating. We keep contact on the VHF radio and Adrian announces that this stretch of sea between San Blas and Linton is his favorite sail since ages: ideal wind strength and angle, the waves not too big and nervous, a beautiful sunny day at sea.

We love it too. We catch two tunies. The first one is small and we decide to release it and give it a chance to grow up, but the second one we keep for lunch that day.

Ivo got a fish

Ivo got a fish

At 16:00h in the afternoon we round the small cape, tall and rocky, at the entrance of a big calm hidden bay and we drop anchor among a population of about thirty other boats in a large pool of deep murky water protected by wind and swell from all directions.

Cape at the entrance of the bay to Isla Linton

Cape at the entrance of the bay to Isla Linton

We kayak to the small beach on Isla Linton- an uninhabited island with hills covered in thick green vegetation. There is an abandoned building ashore reclaimed by nature that was once a research station of some sort but today is an empty ruin invaded by spiders and a family of spider monkeys. Linton is The Monkey’s Island, their home and their prison.

Isla Linton, Spider Monkey

Isla Linton, Spider Monkey

We spot a couple of spider monkeys up in the palm trees as we approach the shore and surely they have spotted us too. One is hanging from a palm leaf in a rather bizzare position, holding on with arms and tail, its legs dangling in the air.

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The other is sitting comfortably in his throne of green with a tragic expression on his face.

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We are super scared to approach them, especially after our friends aboard S/V Amelie-4 had such an awful misadventure here only a few months ago. Meagan, 12-years old, was bringing fruits to feed the monkeys and was on the island with her mom when one of the monkeys grabbed her hand and viciously bit it to the bone. She had to go to a hospital for stitches and treatment, as there was no telling if the monkey was rabid or not. The family’s sailing trip was in jeopardy, as Meagan’s life was at stake. But fortunately, the girl didn’t get infected by any disease, the wound healed well, and they continued their journey at sea crossing the Panama Canal, visiting Mach Picchu in Peru, sailing to Galapagos, crossing the Pacific Ocean, spending a few unforgettable months in French Polynesia, heading to Fiji right now.

Maya and a Spider Monkey, Isla Linton

Maya and a Spider Monkey, Isla Linton

Knowing what happened to Meagan, we are keeping our distance and moving very slowly keeping an eye on the monkeys at all times once we step on the beach. The monkeys get excited, barking and screaming and swinging from branch to branch, but as soon as they spot the mango and banana pieces we have brought they descend down from the palms and approach us to get their treats.

Spider Monkey walking like a man

Spider Monkey walking like a man

Walking upright towards us like a little man dragging his very long arms almost touching the ground beside him, the spider monkey is a surreal looking creature.

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With disproportionately long and thin arms and legs, equipped with a tail that is almost like a fifth arm, covered in black fur, and with a human expression on their faces, these are the descendants of the third unsuccessful attempt of the Mayan Gods to create people, according to Popol Vuh. The next “successful” attempt is us, the humans of today.

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The spider monkeys are one of the largest New World monkeys, the most intelligent New World monkeys, and one of the critically endangered species in the world.

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They live in bands and families occupying large areas of evergreen tropical forests from Mexico to Brazil. Their habitat continues to diminish due to deforestation, and their number continues to dwindle, as they are considered a tasty meal by local communities, hunted, killed and barbecued.

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Soon we get used to the creatures and they get used to us.

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The darker one with the warrior’s look on his face is nervous moving up and down the coconut palms, emitting his ungodly screams showing the dark interior of his mouth with big yellow teeth. He is the protector.

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The other one looks younger and has lighter brownish fur. He is very gentle and has the most melancholic heartbreaking expression, as if suffering from devastating nostalgia for the forests and freedom beyond this island.

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He sits motionless most of the time and accepts handouts with slow feminine gestures from Ivo’s hands.

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As we are getting ready to leave, a third monkey rushes towards the beach from the shadows of the forest. This one would be the Father or the Chief. His fur is grey at places and full of scars, his face is fierce, his look is provocative. Don’t mess with me! We immediately sentence him as The One Who Bit Meagan and leave his kingdom in a hurry.

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The spider monkeys of Linton Island have become the local tourist attraction. Cruisers passing through dinghy to shore to bring them fruit and take their picture, which doesn’t bother them much, but in the afternoon organized excursions from the nearby town of Portobello bring hordes of tourists who scream at them from the small crowded motorboats like paranoid savages until the animals become very irritated and start jumping up and down the trees, swinging from the palm leafs, and screaming back at the tourists, which is what they are paying for and amuses them a lot. Seeing this most perverse situation was disturbing and disgusting: humans acting worse than the animals, no respect whatsoever, stressing and torturing the monkey-prisoners of the island for money and for fun.

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Motorboats bring tourists to see and irritate the monkeys on Isla Lonton

I imagined someone saving them and releasing them on Panama’s mainland to be free, but then they would be in danger of being captured and eaten… Who are we “the successful people, created in the image of the Mayan Gods”; what have we become ?

Tourists

Tourists

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: 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:

 

Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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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:

 
 
 

 Facebook/TheLifeNomadik

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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: 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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