From the beginning of April until the end of June we spent nearly three months in the beautiful islands of Kuna Yala (different spelling Guna Yala), called San Blas before. Since about 200 years the last natives of the Caribbean called Kuna or Guna are living here. Initially from Columbia, it took them many years to cross through the almost impenetrable and still not explored jungle of the Darien area towards the northeast coast of what today is Panama and settle on the islands and main land next to the rivers. The area measures 180 km from the border to Columbia to the island of El Porvenir in the west and includes about 356 coral islands. On approximately 50 of them Kuna are living, sometimes the islands are densely populated.
If you are interested in the history and customs of the Kuna you should visit the Museum on the island of Carti. There we learned that the Kuna had four important revolutions or fights against other tribes or people. The fourth and most important revolution was only in 1925 against Panama. At the instigation and help of the USA the Kuna made a declaration of independence. After one week of violence in this so called Dele-revolution the Kuna were able to sign a "contract for the future" with Panama, which assures them administration rights in the area of Kuna Yala. From this time they still have a flag showing something which is similar to a Swastika (Indian symbol of luck) but actually represents an octopus. For us Austrians it looks almost like a "Hakenkreuz", but where the arms are directed towards the right and not the left. Since we wanted a Kuna flag for our boat we decided to get the newer Kuna flag, which also has some strange parts like one hand holding a weapon and the other making a fist.
Although the Kuna are represented in the Parliament of Panama since 1983 there are still arguments and disputes with the Panamanian government. For example until a short time ago it was possible to get a cruising permit as well as a marinero-visa in El Porvenir, Kuna Yala, without complications. A day after we checked in the authorities were withdrawn by the government in Panama and so all sailors now have to go to Puerto Lindo (boat clearance), Portobello (immigration) or Colon to check in.
The Kuna mostly still live in accordance with their old customs, like the Chicha-ritual where young girls go over to being a woman. For this ritual they make a special fermented drink made out of bananas and other fruits and the girls cut their hair. From this day on the girls are women and always have short hair. You can also still find women wearing the typical traditional Kuna costume with the famous embroidered pictures, so called Molas, and their bracelets on arms and feet on special occasions or with the older generation. Younger people tend to dress like we do and we have seen many who probably do not want to live according to old rituals. You can see satellite dishes, TVs as well as mobile phones and tablets everywhere. And a lot of the young women do not cut their hair anymore. Something we especially noticed was the height. The Kuna are next to the pygmy one of the smallest people in the world. But you can see that the young Kuna are being much taller than their parents. Maybe it has to do with their new way of life and the better supplying with foodstuff. In former times it was not easy and only possible in the dry season to get from Kuna Yala to Panama City and back. Now they have an asphalt road and you can drive all year round. So the Kuna do not live from their traditional trade with Columbia and are not self-caterer with their gardens and fishing anymore, but import a lot of things from Panama City. This is also a problem since the garbage is getting more and more and is just thrown into the ocean or the mangroves. You can also see this on the beaches were a lot of plastic is washed ashore. Since there are lots of sailors around they usually clean some of the beaches and burn the plastic. We also cleaned our favorite spots and left a clean beach behind, at least for a short period of time. Of course it would be better to recycle the garbage - but for that we would need a big freighter ship. You should leave your own garbage on board and transport it to Panama to dispose of it. The Kuna will take your garbage for a few dollars but the bags will mostly end up in the mangroves or the ocean. We hope they will realize that it is a problem and find a solution in the future because the garbage mountains will get bigger and bigger.
The Kuna are very friendly and proud of their culture and islands. Most of them come with their small dugout canoes with sails – the so called Ulus – and sell Molas, necklaces made out of small plastic pearls or fish, crabs and spiny lobsters. And if you do not want to buy anything they accept it and go to the next boat to sell their stuff. They nowadays also have a lot of bigger boats with motors, which come with fresh vegetables, fruits and other things to the anchorages. If you are lucky there is avocado or mango season, when you get lots of them for a cheap price. It is also very interesting that they have matriarchy. This means that the right of inheritance is with the females and the husbands have to move into their wives houses. You can also see this in the amount of children the women have. We have met a lot of women with “only” two children. Even if a woman has no children she still rules in her house and over the finances of the family. This is certainly one of the reasons why you feel comfortable and safe in Kuna Yala, especially as a woman.
Still there are some rules one should follow to respect Kuna. You can not just take coconuts wherever you want. Each one belongs to a Kuna family. But if you ask and pay them you are welcome to take some. Also fishing with lines is allowed but spear fishing (although some Kuna will go with you) and especially scuba diving are forbidden. We had a lot of very nice encounters with Kuna, especially with Venancio and Lisa, two Master Mola Maker who speak good English and know how to make beautiful Molas. Venancio is specialized in making fantastic Molas, which he embroiders and stitches together in a long and hard detail work. He told us a lot about his life and showed up just to bring us some fresh mangoes. Lisa on the other hand sells next to Molas also wine coolers, pillow cases or can coolers with Mola embroideries.
In the meantime Keanu is known all over Kuna Yala and every Kuna on a boat which is passing by shouts his name to say hello or to give him a present. We also got to know Rosalind from Coco Banderos, who has opened a shop and sleeping quarters for tourists on one of our favorite islands. She visited us a few times with her family and we showed here Toms underwater movie about the nurse sharks. She was very astonished and could not understand why we would go into the water. On our first visit to Carti Island we met John and his son Germaine. They helped us organize the travels to and from Kuna Yala for some of our friends.
These island are exceptionally beautiful and we hope the Kuna Congreso, which makes all the decisions regarding Kuna Yala, will prevent the building of big hotel complexes. The only negative thing n Kuna Yala were the myriads of sandflies - those tiny seemenots- monsters which need mammal blood when they want to lay their eggs. So they just love to bite humans and it really itches! So we could not stay at some beautiful anchorages. Especially once the rainy season started and the wind stopped they come out to the boats. They are so small that mosquito nets can not stop them. And the last few weeks were quite exciting with many and strong thunderstorms and some lighting very close to our boat. Compared to other sailing boats we met we were lucky not to get hit by lightning so far...