Welcome to the he San Blas Islands we start our journey through these beautiful islands about 70 miles south east of Colon, Panama. There are over 300 islands of varying size in the chain that reach down to the boarder of Columbia. Most are small and covered with coconut trees with mangroves and are located five to ten miles off the mainland of Panama along the outer reef. The larger islands are inhabited by Kuna Indians, native hill people of Panama. The culture of the Kuna has seen few changes in the last 20 years. They are a primitive people living in small bamboo huts with palm roofs. The Kuna paddle their dugout canoes out to your boat to offer moles which are hand embroidered pieces of cloth that range in price from ten to eighty dollars. The women sew and the men go out fishing, catching fish, crabs and lobster.
The Kuna’s are a closed tribe. They can only marry Kuna people. If one Maries someone outside the Kuna they are banned from the islands. .A simple life in simple times just trying to maintain tradition.
We have only been in the Islands a short while and have seen many changes to this simple lifestyle. It seems the paddle has been replaced by the Yamaha motor in many cases. The huts still remain simple but have electrical cords running out of the bamboo walls and are connected to the central generator or solar power stations. The wood burning stoves are gone and have been replaced with propane burners. Some huts even have T V sets, stereo systems and computers in them. Most the people wear American clothes (made in China of course) not molas like in the pictures in the cruising guides. The fishermen are throwing synthetic nets and keeping whatever is brought up in them. The reef life has no chance when you kill “ALL” the fish with nets. Fishermen come by and offer immature and small fish, all the big ones must be gone? One thing seems simple even in my world, you kill all the cows and bulls and there will be no more calves!
The islands are eroding at an alarming rate!! There are many huts we have seen that have been abandoned with the foundations sitting under water and the ocean is slowly covering them. Others have only a few coconut trees left standing, their roots are the only thing holding the islands together. The average island is a mere 3 or 4 feet above sea level. We have been on several that are only a foot or so above sea level and have centers that have standing water on them. We have talked to a few people about this and were told the Kuna have a plan, “Go back to the hills”.
Climate change really affects this part of the world; storms are getting stronger which make the waves in the ocean bigger. When these waves pound against the islands they erode sand away and it never returns. You know what the good book says about building your house upon the sand…
The Panama Canal was actually closed for a short time due to heavy rains just before we arrived here. The heavy rains caused landslides which washed out roads and caused rivers to flood. The flooding uprooted massive trees and sent then down river and out to sea making them hazardous obstacles that could damage boats. We have seen many trees still floating around weeks later and others that washed up on reefs that are over 40 feet long! Rain here in Panama is measured in feet not in inches. We are here in the “Dry” season and it still rains several times a day? It will be interesting to see how many islands survive the next ten years.
I have never visited a place that was this primitive or where the people lived so simply. But you have to wonder, how many fish or molas do you have to sell in order to buy an outboard for your dugout canoe? There has to be some other revenue source? All the food and drinking water have to be hauled in. The only natural resource is from the sea and from the look of things that will not last long?
The Kuna people are a people in transition. The kids have cell phones and sit around glued to laptops soaking in what the world has to offer. The island Chiefs are imposing anchorage fees and driving around in their dugout canoe with the Yamaha on the back bumping into your boat while collecting the five bucks. There are boats visiting these islands from all over the world sharing outside ideas and influences with them. It will not be long until the islands erode away taking this simple way of life along with it.
While in the San Blas we welcomed the New Year on Isla Elaephante. The locals put on quite a party with roasted pork, turkey and some nice salads for just ten bucks! There were two wedding the week before and they put on a reenactment of the ceremony. It involves running around dancing carrying the bride and groom to a hammock. Lots of chanting and dancing then the bride and groom are thrown into the hammock. Together in the hammock their life begins. We were fortunate to be able to witness the ceremony.
Life on Downtime was refreshed with the arrival of Daria’s friend Lidia who flew in from Russia. Wow thirty six hours and one day waiting for a lost bag and she was here. We picked her up in Super Dink from the Porvenir Airport, which is a 20 foot wide piece of cracked concrete just long enough for small planes to land on. It is really amazing to see how the system works in third world countries, no terminals or checkpoints here! People haul their belonging in whatever will carry them, cardboard boxes and plastic bags replace luggage.
Lidia was in for a five mile white knuckle ride across the channel in SD. The waves were four to six feet at times and we all had salty faces and wet pants by the time we made it back to Downtime. Once aboard we set off to the East Lemmon Islands.
There were several boats anchored around us and one couple Jeff and Anna from Desdemona came by for drinks that night. At just 24 and 28 years old they told us they started their dream ten months ago selling all they had to buy a boat to sail around the world!! It is fun to meet couples like this; cruisers all have such similar dreams!! Anna taught Yoga on the beach which kept the girls busy the following afternoon while I broke out the kite surfing gear.
The winds were perfect for a little while and I learned how to get some air with the kite!! Well getting air and crashing are very close to the same thing when you are first learning, so some could say I was practicing crashing!! Later the winds calmed and Dwight was up for a lesson. He gave it a go and actually got up on the board for a short time in between getting drug face first getting water rammed up his nose!! Not bad for the first lesson Dwight!
Daria and Lidia had so much to talk about, imagine that!! They did a photo fashion shoot for a few days on their own little islands. They had so much fun talking and taking literally thousands of pictures. Hope we can get them to post a few on Google so we can see how beautiful of a job they done!
It was fun to have Lidia aboard for the week and a half. Daria was glad to be able to actually speak her native tongue again but was sad to see her friend go after a quick ten days.
Then on the tenth of January Dwights girlfriend Karen flew in to Nargina an island just off the mainland 10 miles south. Karen had been traveling three days traveling from Canada to get here, due to changed flights. She spent two days staying in Panama City waiting for the first flight to the San Blas. The seven o’clock flight arrived a little after nine so all was well.
Sorry we have not been able to load pictures on the last few stories we posted. Hopefully we will have better internet connections in Colon.
Peace!! The Captain