It was a 2 day motor sail all the way to Linton Bay in Panama which was frustrating but we arrived in time to call into the marina office, pick up some parcels we had waiting for us and check into the country – all before dinner. We were spending a day or two in the marina while we waiting for Darryl to come in from the San Blas islands.
He duly arrived the next day with a large mackerel caught en route which we all had for dinner. We hadn’t caught up with Darryl since Grenada so it was a good evening.
A few days later SV Sava, SV Medea and us all headed off to explore the San Blas Islands. We were going to spend a few weeks in one of the truly self governed group of islands left in the world. The Panamanian government have allowed the Guna Indian people to completely self-govern themselves without any interference whatsoever. This means they have their own laws, traditions, education, justice system and even language. They do not allow intermarriage (although we did hear of a Frenchman who had married a Guna) and no-one outside of their own people can live and settle in San Blas. Most of the Guna live on the mainland but some live on the islands. The islands that are inhabited are so overcrowded the huts literally lap the waters edge and there’s no space for any food to be grown, although they have small squares which double up as basketball/football courts. The nearly all wear the traditional clothing but on one island they were western clothes, encourage their young folk to go to Panama and have electricity. The jungle behind the coast is very sparsely inhabited and the guide book says there are many places there that humans have never been to. Out of the 340 odd islands of the San Blas only a few are inhabited leaving hundreds of small islands for us to explore. They charge a small sum as a cruising permit which goes to the chief. All the islands have 3 ‘Sailas’ (chiefs) who hold the highest authority – they are not just political but spiritual leaders as well. They hold a general meeting every night in the ‘Congresa’ where the Sailas swing in hammocks with the villagers sitting on wooden benches around them. Everything is sorted out at these meetings from disputes to marital issues.
The Guna enjoy people visiting their islands and trade lobsters, fish and vegs with the cruisers. They have mobile phones but often no way of charging them so we will charge their phones for them! The ladies make ‘molas’ to sell. They are intricate hand sewn colourful layers of cloth forming different patterns. I bought some to make into cushions. They are highly sought after in New York and Paris where they fetch high prices. The men sell their seafood to Colombian traders who trade tinned food, powdered milk and various other foodstuffs in return. There’s gold in the San Blas but they won’t allow any gold panning as they say wealth will ruin their lifestyle and destroy their culture. There is no crime – we saw tiny toddlers wandering around alone, everybody watches out for everyone. I think they have got something very precious and I admired them very much.
After 7 hours we sailed into the first small group of islands and jumped straight into the crystal clear water. We hadn’t been in water that clean since Union island in the Grenadines. I set about cleaning the hull as it was still stained from the tannin in the Suriname river 3 months ago! It was stubborn and took a few days but eventually we had a shining white boat again. It was lovely to just wake up and jump off the boat for a quick dip before breakfast. One evening we asked the Guna on one of the islands if we could have a bonfire and they were happy for us to do so but they wanted to show us where to have it. They were quite right as it rained that evening and if we made it where we wanted to it would have been washed out!
There are so many islands to see its hard to really decide where to go so we just spent the weeks drifting from one group to another, walking along the beaches, swimming, snorkelling and socialising. One of the islands, Dog island, had a wreck just off the beach and we could not only snorkel on it but stand at the bridge! It was deliberately sunk there for the visitors to be able to walk out to it, though we saw many wrecks that were not deliberate including a few yachts – the reefs were very close to the shore.
The Guna would come around everday and visit. Sometimes they wanted us to buy, other times they just wanted to say hello. Often they wanted fresh water or to have their phones charged. Sometimes the whole family would come….
Darryl had to return to Colombia so SV Sava with Brian and Melinda and us went to visit the island of Carazon de Jesus. This is the most modern of all the San Blas islands where the people don’t wear traditional clothing and they have electricty- even television. We bought a few veg and had a beer in the only bar. It was Saturday evening and everyone seemed to be in the village square with the music blaring and the young guys playing basketball. No different from any other town the world over!
Just off the island was the Rio Diablo river so the next morning we set off in the dinghys to see how far up we could go. There were quite a few Guna in their dug outs up the river and we realised they were tending their ‘Gardens’ As land is so scarce on the islands they have cultivated some of the river bank land and there are bananas, coconuts and papaya trees in small clearing all along the river. We also came across a few clearings which were graveyards – with only a few graves so we think each clearing was for one family only. Each grave had a bowl, plate and cup in it for the after world. They are predominantly Catholic which is a legacy of the Spanish.
The river was not too wide but there were monkeys screaming down and we even saw these amazing lizards that literally ran on the water – then to our amazement we saw a Toucan. He was so majestic just sitting there and we got very close before he flew away.
We sailed back to another group of islands to await the arrival of our friends Ian and Diane who were coming down from Colombia. Amazing we all arrived within an hour of each other and after checking our anchors we all dinghied off to a tiny 10sqm island which was a bar – just a bar. We had been here before and loved it because it only really had room for one group. Basic and beautiful.
The next few days were spent enjoying the islands – paddleboarding, snorkelling and swimming in the unbelievably warm water. We visited a few different islands – some with bad sand erosion. The San Blas are shrinking with islands disappearing due to global warming. We saw how the trees are literally falling into the water. So sad.
We visited the Carti Islands which are more traditional islands. They are so overcrowded that there is no room left for any building at all. It’s the most visited of all the inhabited islands as cruise ships even used to call in here. They keep their pigs in self cleaning cages – large gapped slatted floors sticking out over the water so that their waste goes straight into the sea and also keeps the smell at bay. Their little outhouses off the back of their Gunas huts were also over the water and though we never went inside them we assume they have the same idea! These islands are much more traditional with women wearing their traditional clothes and few houses with electricity. We were invited into the Congresa where they were having a meeting with all the women at the front but we were asked not to take photos. They were brewing a sugarcane alcoholic concoction – all ready to drink when the meeting ended. Men only and only to be drink in the Congresa.
Back in the islands we had a few very relaxed days – one of the famous residents of the San Blas came by selling her molas. Lisa – also known as The Mola Lisa has the most gorgeous molas. She’s a transvestite as are many Gunas and she’s been plying her mola trade for at least 20 years. I had heard of Lisa and was really happy to get my molas from her.
All too soon we had to head back to Panama. We left early in the morning leaving behind one of the most peaceful beautiful places we had ever visited. No wonder some cruisers spend 6 months here every year…