Feb
02
2009

The stupendous San Blas Islands

I just got back from four days / three nights in the San Blas Islands.. I am not prone to superlatives, but these islands were a definite highlight of my trip thus far.. in fact, it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life. Travel magazine-worthy white sand beaches, clean, clear water great for snorkeling (although not a ton of fish), relaxed, friendly locals, and cheap living. There are 1-hr flights from Panama City to many of the islands, and according to my guidebook, comfortable hotels to stay at, in case you’re tempted.

Naturally, I took the more adventurous (read: budget) route. I had been given the contact of a guy named Aaron by fellow travelers I met a few weeks ago.. I called Aaron the night before leaving, and he arranged a car to pick me up in Panama City along with other tourists from around town.
The San Blas Islands are autonomously managed by the Kuna Yala Indians, an indigenous group who have occupied the islands for hundreds of years. Although technically part of Panama, they have successfully maintained their administrative independence┬á – Panamanian police, courts, tax laws, etc don’t apply here. As a result, we had to submit our passports to the Panamanian police as we left Panama proper (oddly, we didn’t have to show them upon returning.. you would think they would care who enters the country more than who leaves..)
After stopping for supplies, the road turned to a rough dirt track carved through the jungle. Although we were in a 4×4 LandRover, there were sections I would not have thought would be driveable. We approached a river at one point and I thought oh, this is where we transfer to a boat. Nope, the driver plowed right through it and carried on. Adventure!

Eventually we came to the end of the road, where long wooden dug-out canoes (with outboard motors) were waiting for us. We all piled in and took a 45-minute ride through rivers before reaching the Carribean. We arrived at one of the more populated islands, where Aaron lives with his family. The populated islands like this one are not particularly clean or pretty, since they don’t have beaches and are very built up (as much as can be with thatched roofs and bamboo walls), but they are culturally interesting.

There are 400 islands in the archipelago (only about 50 of which are inhabited), and they are all quite small. Even the ones with airstrips on them are no larger than the size of the runway. This island I arrived at (one of the Carti islands, can’t recall the exact name) was maybe 100 yards x 50 yards, and had 400 people living on it in 40 families. I decided to spend one night here for the cultural experience. I turned out to be the only tourist who stayed that night, which was a treat. I walked the pretty paths and explored the neighborhood (which took all of 10 minutes), paying my respects to the elders, saying “hola” to the kids, playing with the puppies and kittens, and generally observing their life. It’s a very relaxed pace, as you can imagine. People sewing, beading, sweeping, cooking, repairing their huts or boats, or more often than not just hanging out gabbing. The kids and teenagers were really happy and giggly.

The accomodations are quite rustic. I actually had a real bed in my own hut, which is a bit of a luxury. The floors are packed sand. All the locals sleep in hammocks, the entire family in one room. [Which makes sex a bit of an challenge.] During the day the hammocks are strung up to the rafters, and the room now becomes available for other uses.. a great use of space. There is a modicum of electricity on these heavily inhabited islands, but hardly any lights or appliances. Most people have gas cookers and kerosene lamps. A supply boat comes every few days with gas canisters. In the evening people play music on their cell phones since no one owns stereos. Ordinarily every evening there is live traditional dancing and music (for themselves, not for tourists), but the performers had gone to Panama City for some special occassion. I was bummed to miss that.

The “bathrooms” are outhouses built out over the water. You do your business straight into the ocean. Needless to say, I didn’t swim off this island! You bathe by using a bucket of fresh water and taking what I call a “stagehand shower”. There is a pipe from the mainland that supplies fresh water every other day, however a boat’s anchor had broken it when I was there. It was interesting watching them repair it, involving many canoes strung out in the bay pulling up sections, skin divers descending looking for the break, etc. In the meantime, trips were made to a river to get “fresh” water which everyone drank, despite it being as cloudy as lemonade. I was glad to have my kick-ass water purifier with me then.

Aaron dropped me off on another island for a few hours to swim and explore, and that’s where I got my first taste of the real beauty of this place. This island was typical of most of them – about the same size as Aaron’s island, but with only one family living on it. There was another hut built for tourists to rent, and I also met a couple of Canadian guys who were just camping for the week. Day trippers like me would show up to snorkel and sunbathe or just walk around. Incredibly, on this tiny island in the middle of nowhere, I ran into the Swiss guy that I spent New Year’s Eve with in Nicaragua! What a small world.
Life is so easy here – there are no mosquitoes, sand flies, or other buggers that usually annoy you at these sort of tropical paradises. The only animals on the islands are crabs, ants, geckos, and birds, all of which are harmless. The weather is perfect, warm but not too hot, the water is warm and clean (as soon as you get away from the heavily inhabited islands!) There is zero crime or any other sort of human danger, since the Kuna are such a tight-knit community that sort of thing is not tolerated, if it even comes up at all. There is very little outside influence – they don’t have television or movies, and tourists only recently started going there.. perhaps I’m romanticizing things, but it almost feels like they haven’t been corrupted by modern man’s afflictions of greed and envy.

The Kuna seem to take care of their people and don’t ostracize for things beyond an individual’s control, unlike many societies. For example, gays are not shunned, they’re treated equally and openly. Due to inbreeding, the Kuna have the world’s highest incidence of albinism, and again rather than being shunned, albinos are celebrated (they’re called “children of the moon”), even though their lives are severely restricted by not being able to live in the sunlight. The Kuna are also the second-shortest peoples on earth, after Pygmies.

All of the land is communally owned, although coconut trees may belong to individuals (!) You can understand the importance of this when you consider that the Kuna have been trading coconuts with small craft from Colombia for hundreds of years in exchange for other goods. 30 million coconuts are harvested every year. Until the late 1990’s the principal currency among the Kuna was the coconut! Fishing is the other big source of income/barter. They practice protectionist economics – for example, twice a year, the price for coconuts is set that everyone abides to – in this way, everyone earns a living, and no one can undercut anyone else.

The Kuna have a unique language, although Spanish is widely spoken as well. The men and kids wear western style clothes, but the middle-aged and older women wear the traditional striking outfits. Skirts with bold designs, molas (applique textiles worn as blouses) based on local themes, geometric patterns, stylized flora and fauna, pictorial representations of current events or political propoganda. The women also wear wonderful beaded leggings, bracelets and anklets that never come off. They also wear their hair short, which is unique amongst indigenous people in Latin America. They also wear striking gold ear and nose rings.

Kuna girls are not given proper names until their first menstrual period, at which point a big party is thrown, her hair is cut, and her parents and a medicine man select a name. The Kuna are a semi-matriarchal society, although the gender roles are traditional – the men do the fishing, building and repairing, while the women cook, tend house and raise the children. Every morning at 6am the village leaders/elders, along with heads of each family, hold a meeting in the community house to discuss the issues of the day – what needs to be done, whether it involve repairs, education, health care, etc. They have the power to call upon all citizens for volunteer labor that may be required for a project, such as the pouring of concrete for a new dock this past November when 300 workers completed the hand placement of its 2,000 sq. ft. deck in one massive, communal effort. Seems like a great way to run a society.

The community leaders are called Sahilas (the head one having the official title of “Sahila Number One”). To become a Sahila, you of course have to be in good standing in the community, be knowledgable about Kuna history and culture, and be of good singing voice, because you’re required to perform (often for several hours) the traditional songs and chants which make up their oral history. As in any legislative forum, office holders are seated according to rank, the first three Sahilas having places of honor in their assigned hammocks. [I am not making this up.] Others are in chairs and the audience in benches.

I heard mixed reports on how welcoming the Kuna are to incorporating non-Kuna into their communities. On the one hand, our driver (who was not Kuna) said that if you’re seen flirting with or overtly touching a local girl, you can be fined. On the other hand, Aaron’s girlfriend/mother of his children (this is quite common in Panama, couples often have children without marrying) is a non-Kuna from Panama City who chose to move out here and has been welcomed into the family.

After spending the night with Aaron’s family, he took me out to his grandfather’s island (Diablo). This was beautiful, but didn’t have any room to stay as there were already a handful of tourists there. I liked the idea of having my own island (they bring you meals 3x a day but otherwise leave you alone), but the only one he could put me on was called One Tree Island. Apparently there are actually two trees and a bush, but even so it sounded pretty desolate, hardly room to move around. It reminded me of one island we passed that at first I thought was a ship in the sea, but turned out to be only just big enough for a hut. An entire family lives on this island that isn’t any larger than a NYC apartment. I would shoot myself.

Next to grandpa’s island is Dog Island, which I fell in love with immediately. Just the right size, about 50-odd coconut trees, one family living at one end, one hut for tourists, gorgeous beaches, and even a shipwreck sunk in only 15′ of water, perfect for exploring via snorkel. Beautiful how the coral takes over and breaks down all parts of the ship. Like I said, there isn’t the range or quantity of fish here as you get in real coral reefs like Australia, Belize or Honduras.

I made friends with an Australian couple that was already there and offered to sleep out in the trees so as to give them privacy. They welcomed the gesture, although it got pretty breezy at night so I ended up coming into the hut after all. The Aussies (Mikey and Kim) and I got along well and partied for the next two nights. One of the reasons I liked this island is there is virtually no underbrush, so you can run around in bare feet in the black of night without worrying about stepping or tripping on anything. The moon was a crescent and angelic. We even saw shooting stars. Like I said, easy living. Aaron or someone else would bring us meals consisting of a simple omelet and coffee for breakfast, chicken, salad, and rice for lunch, and fresh-caught seafood for dinner. King crab, lobster, and different kinds of fish. I paid $35/night which included meals, accomodation, and boat rides. According to other travelers, I could have gotten it down to $25 or even $20, but I thought $35 was fair.

The “toilet” on this island was a small hut (just three walls for privacy) built right on the edge of the water at the far end of the island. I’m bummed I forgot to take a photo of it, it looked straight out of Gilligan’s island. I imagine there was originally a hole dug into the sand, but now it was a mound of sand with you know what underneath. It was a trick to crap without it rolling down the mound into your feet. The Aussies hadn’t discovered this outhouse (hard to imagine on such a tiny island) until I got there, so they had been crapping in the ocean and swimming away quickly, which was a new one on me.

The family that lives on the island is pretty chill, as you can imagine. There is no electricity or generator, but they do have a gas stove and a propane fridge stocked with cold beer for the tourists. The grandparents collect fallen palms each morning and burn them in the evenings. They also harvest coconuts, which we bought for a dollar and after drinking the water, ate the flesh. They had a 12-year old boy named Kevin who had a ton of energy and was fun to play ball with. I can’t imagine growing up in such an isolated environment. I wonder what kind of education he receives.

I was tempted to stay longer on this idyllic paradise, but oddly found myself missing creature comforts like showers. I also grew antsy being off the grid – what if there was a family emergency and no one could get a hold of me? One cell company had service out there, but of course not the one I had.

As I was waiting for my boat back to the mainland, who should pull up but Alex and Dom, the English couple who I bonded with back in Guatemala when we swam through dark caves together. We next ran into each other exactly a month later in Nicaragua, where Marissa got to meet them. How wonderful to run into them again, and my what a small world it is. We’re roughly following the same route and timeline, so I’m sure I’ll see more of them in the future.

Here is a video of Kevin playing ball and hamming it up.

Here is a video of birds (pelicans?) dive-bombing for fish.

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