January 2009

“Hola! Hola!” we hear the call beside the boat.  As we climb up into the cockpit of the boat, we see a small dugout canoe or “ulu” beside the boat with three small Kuna Indian boys from the San Blas Islands of Panama .  They are selling beautiful shells.  We ask their names and ages in Spanish and they respond with giggles. In fact, they giggle so much that John asks if they are ninas (girls).  The response of course is even more giggles.



At the end of December we left the hustle and bustle of Cartagena behind and sailed 25 miles to the pristine Rosario Islands .  The Rosario Islands are a tourist destination for Cartagena .  Tourists and cruise ship passengers make a day-trip to visit the Aquarium and Cartagena residents travel on their boats for a week-end getaway.  Electricity is provided by generator and there are only a few hundred permanent residents.





Flamingos at Rosario aviary 

Nursesharks at aquariumIn the Rosarios , we visited a large aviary supported by a wealthy Columbian where admission is free.  There are hundreds of birds and dozens of species in the aviary.  A lot of effort was put into the collection of the birds and of course there is a lot of work each day to feed and care for the birds. We also braved the large tourist crowds and visited the Aquarium with several hundred others.   We joined a tour group of English speaking cruise ship passengers and were lucky to get an English translation of the presentation and commentary provided by the Aquarium guides.  The collection includes turtles, rays, large tarpon and look -down jacks. There were also entertainment shows with dolphins and nurse sharks.  We had never seen trained nurse sharks before.

Nurse sharks at aquarium show

Kuna Yala village of Isla Pinos 

Isla Pinos villageThe weather provided a good opportunity to travel to the San Blas Islands of Panama and we made the 170 mile trip in about 23 hours.  The San Blas Islands include more than 300 islands and the associated mainland of the Eastern coast of Panama and are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Indians.  The official name of this area is Kuna Yala, and even though it is owned by Panama, it is locally controlled and governed by the Kuna Indians.  Many of the small villages and islands have maintained their traditional culture.   Non-Kunas cannot permanently settle, own land, or inter-marry a Kuna.  Each village has 3 chiefs or Sailas who hold authority for the village.  The village Secretary maintains records and collects fees.  A large Congresso hut is used for village meetings run by the Saila.

Gathering coconuts


Huts are made from cane reeds held together with vines with a palm leaf roof and a hard-packed sand floor.   Most cooking is done over a wood fire, but there are a few propane ovens in each village used to make the delicious Kuna bread.    Outhouses are built over the water and pigs are kept in small cages built over the water in “self-cleaning pens”.  Coconuts are a large export crop and many Kuna men are “assigned” an island or small area where they raise and gather coconuts to sell to Columbian trading boats for $0.20 each.   Men also fish to feed their families or to sell lobsters, fish and octopus to Panama City restaurants via small airplanes that land at small airstrips.


Kuna Indians gathering coconuts

handmade mola

Women make money selling beautiful artistic designs called “molas”, which are hand-made from cloth.   Molas include very detailed and intricate designs made from layering and cutting different layers of cloth in a type of “reverse appliqué” (from the bottom up).   Molas are sold to tourists and to Columbian trading boats.   Most molas are about a 15-inch square and sell for $15 - $40.  We have met several cruisers who have purchased over 50 molas, but Ann has limited her buying to only three. 



Beautiful handmade mola

another mola Our first landfall in Kuna Yala was the island of Isla Pinos.   After we anchored, a small handmade dugout canoe paddled out to collect an anchoring fee.  The following day, we visited the village where we obtained permission from the Saila to hike to the top of the hill and walk around the village.   The village secretary asked if anyone had a photocopier on board.  He wanted about 50 copies of a handwritten receipt.   Ann asked if she could type the handwritten form on the computer and print out the copies.  Someone in the village appeared with over 50 pieces of musty smelling legal-sized copy paper.  We returned to the boat, typed up and printed the forms and returned them to the village.


Is this Jonah being eaten by the whale?  Notice that Jonah is a Gringo!

As we anchor in many villages, we are surrounded by small dugout canoes.  Fishermen are selling fish, lobsters, and octopus; and women are selling molas or bead jewelry.   Children stop by selling shells or asking for candy or a gift.    Another pleasant surprise is that enterprising entrepreneurs have established floating stores, the equivalent of a “rolling store” afloat.  The boats visit anchorages populated by a large number of cruising boats and they sell eggs, fresh produce and some canned drinks.  In a few anchorages we have been lucky enough to purchase bread so fresh that it is still warm from the oven.

John received a new spear gun for Christmas and he has been supplementing our food supply with fresh fish and lobster from the reefs.  It is not easy though as the Kuna have already shot all the stupid fish and the smart ones that remain run for their favorite holes in the reef when they see John coming with his gun.

Kuna Yala volleyball tournament

Kuna volleyball tournamentVolleyball and basketball are popular sports with the Kuna.  Almost every village has a basketball or volleyball court.  We found a four-day Kuna volleyball tournament when we visited the village of Nargana.  The tournament featured girl- and boy-teams under the age of 18 from 11 different islands.  Most activity on the island stopped during the tournament, since the entire village gathered around the cement volleyball court to cheer for the teams.  Teams were dressed in the same type of uniforms you would see on players in the U.S., but most played with their bare feet on the cement court.  The games followed all the official indoor volleyball rules and there were all the appropriate referees and line judges.  Each team carried their own “village flag” displayed on the sidelines as they played and proudly flown in the large dugout canoes as they left the tournament and headed to their home island village.  Trophies and medals were awarded to the winning teams.

cruiser/Kuna volleyball

John finally had an opportunity to play (not watch) volleyball with some cruisers and local Kuna Indian young men on one of the islands.  The Kuna were much better volleyball players than the cruisers even though they were a foot shorter.

 In February, we have the opportunity to share the San Blas Islands with our daughter Lindsay, her son Adam (10), and daughter Amaya (8) when they visit us for a few days.   We are excited about their visit and are planning lots of fun and interesting times.


Cruisers and Kuna Indians play volleyball