San Blas Islands, Panama – The land of the Guna Yala…..

January 14th, 2016     (-5 on UTC)

Dear Friends & Family,

We last left you in Isla Providencia, Columbia as we were about to set sail for the San Blas Islands of Panama.

No matter how we timed our departure, it would be a two day, two night sail to Isla Povenier in San Blas. The first 6 hours were a bit too close to the wind, but finally, the wind backed and we sailed pretty much the rest of the way. One of the things we would have to watch out for, was the possibility of heavy ship traffic heading into and out of the Panama Canal. We were surprised at how little we actually saw.

We arrived at first light and anchored off the small airstrip, which could handle nothing bigger than a large Cessna. We watched the local flight use every bit of the runway to land and most of it to take off!

Our first discovery was that there was no way to get any cash in the San Blas and as such we couldn’t check in with Customs and Immigration at the airfield. Panama is quite pricey at $365.00 USD for two people, the boat and the small local Guna Yala Council fee.  Given our water shortage due to both water makers being out of service, we would have to make our stay in the San Blas shorter than we would have liked. Many cruisers spend weeks or even months in this 40 mile by 15 mile area with hundreds of small islands.

A local \”Ula\”. The Guna Yala\’s main method of inter-island transportation. Note the colorful \”Mola\” blouses worn by the locals..

The people of the San Blas are known as the Guna Yala (also: Kuna Yala). They are truly an anachronism to the modern world. They are one of the few peoples of Central America who staunchly refused Christianity. They have a very interesting language. Their society is based on a matriarchal structure. The Guna Yala\’s religious beliefs include village Shamans and they are known for being very superstitious. There are three male chiefs of various geographical areas and one Big Chief for the entire people, but home life is ruled by the women.

Few speak English and few even speak Spanish. There are about 50,000 Guna Yalan people in Eastern Panama. Their Grandparents fought against the Panamanian government and were declared an independent autonomous region in 1925. They seem to have a high natural resistance to disease and are known for extremely long lives. In the jungles of Panama, which were heavily subject to Malaria and Yellow Fever – killing tens of thousands of Westerners – the Guna Yala have evolved to stand up to much of what the ancient tropical jungles could throw at them.

To see more on the Guna Yalan People, click this link:

When the Christian Missionary’s arrived, they taught the Guna Yala the art of applique. The Guna didn’t adapt to Christianity but really adapted to the art of making Mola cloth. See the following link:

In the boating crowd, it’s an absolute must to buy some Mola Cloth from the Guna Yala. Two of the most famous Mola artists are “Lisa” who is a transvestite and Venancio who is a “Master Mola Maker”.

We didn’t meet Lisa, but she is not unusual amongst the Guna Yala. In many cultures (Tonga comes to mind), if there are too many male children, one is chosen to help in traditional female roles. Amongst the Guna Yala, a matriarchal society, there is no stigma to sexual orientation.

It\’s actually unusual for men to make Mola cloth, but Venancio has been doing so for 35 years.

\"Nikki Nikki and I chose this one after looking at several dozen. It\’s quite intricate and has several layers of hand stitched appliqué

As we were low on cash, we opted to buy an expensive Mola, but were limited to one!

The Islands of the San Blas are very much like the Tuamotus of the South Pacific. Everything here is owned by someone. This includes all the land and ocean surrounding the islands. This includes the fish, the lobster, the conch and the coconuts. As such, technically we need permission to go ashore, but we actually saw few people to on shore to ask. The one small island we did go ashore at was called “Otub” and it’s tiny little neighbor “Little Otub”. There was a sign welcoming visitors in English and French. Quite interestingly, not in Spanish.

Welcome to Ortub Island. There was no one here till the evening when we saw lights from the locals.
Nikki taking in the Palm Tree seat. We\’re on the northeast side of Ortub Island. Little Ortub is on the left.
Here we are on \”Ortub Island\” in the San Blas. Beach House is anchored just in the lee of \”Little Ortub\”


We took some photos, investigated what were clearly transient huts (not permanent homes) where we imagine the owners come to tend their coconuts and perhaps fish. Lobster and Conch abound in the region. At night, we did see what appeared to be Guna Yala ashore. Interestingly, it is not allowed for non Guna Yalan’s to be ashore at night. As well, they strongly discourage intermarriage and any outside influence on their culture.

There were two different huts on the island. Both in great disrepair. Despite this, they seemed to both be used at night.
\”Little Ortub\” Island. You could walk across this little piece of heaven in about 10 seconds in one direction and 15 seconds in the other. A classic little oasis in the San Blas Islands of Panama

Water was getting low and knowing we had lots of boat projects to work on, we headed toward our next destination – Portbelo and on to the Panama Canal.

That will be our next update…..stand by!

Scott and Nikki