Meeting an indigenous people in Guna Yala

We spent the last two weeks in Guna Yala (previously known as San Blas islands) in the northeast of the isthmus of Panama. The region lived up to its reputation of being beautiful and remote. Many islands are postcard perfect with their white beaches, tall palm trees and a very out of the ordinary local culture.

If you look closely you will quickly notice the small traditional huts of the Guna people hidden between the palm trees on many of the 365 islands. Gunas are a very friendly indigenous people that inhabit the whole region of Guna Yala. Officially part of Panama and following Panamanian laws and regulations, the Guna communities still find it important to keep their local culture and traditions alive. A revolution in 1925, in which the Panamanian government tried to force the Gunas to adapt to the modern Hispanic culture, shows how much this indigenous group sticks to their own values. Families are bound together and managed by the eldest woman in the family. Most families live of fishing and harvesting coconuts. The increasing amount of tourism, especially visiting boats, are for some locals the main source of income by selling fish, coconuts, and their local handcrafted art.

Gunas selling fish in the Holandes Cays

Once we dropped anchor and settled in a new anchorage we were usually approached by locals in their wooden dugout “ulus” to greet us, sell us molas, coconuts or other goods. Sometimes we were asked to charge their smartphones and batteries overnight in exchange for delicious coconuts. Well, I guess even traditional people cannot resist all influences of the modern world.

Local Guna family selling coconuts and molas in the Chichime Cays

The making of “molas“ plays a huge role in the Guna culture. To be honest we were not very excited when we first heard from other sailors that many Gunas will paddle up to the boats and try to sell stuff. Especially in the Grenadines we experienced pushy fishermen and sellers that didn’t always accept a no as answer. Anyway, we were open to make new experiences in a new country and so it happened that in the Chichime Cays we first encountered Venancio and his brother from Maquina island who generously greeted us and welcomed us to the Guna Yala region. After some small talk and asking for permission to tie his boat alongside Porky he started to present the many different and traditional molas he makes himself.

We learned that traditional molas are layers of colorful textile that are cut and stitched into artistic pieces usually showing animal or geometric designs and worn as clothing by Guna women. After Venancio covered his whole boat with molas, we bought the one we liked most. If we had more money to spend, I could have easily bought more as gifts and decoration for the boat. I was impressed by the detailed work on the colorful pieces of fabric.

Traditional mola with fish pattern

Since we knew beforehand that there are not many stores or markets to provision, we filled the boat with enough food for the few weeks we planned to spend in Guna Yala. After a long time without fishing, we also dug the fishing rod and lures out of the cockpit locker and started to trawl behind the boat when moving from one anchorage to the next. We weren’t always successful but with additionally spear fishing some lion fish we were able to add at least some fresh protein to our meals.

Cutting off the venomous spines of a lionfish

Surprisingly we didn’t see many other boats and even the most popular anchorages were not crowded when we where there. We assume that most sailors come back once the rain season will end in November. Many thunderstorms and rain clouds pass by at night at this time of the year, forcing us to close all hatches and to disconnect our batteries if the lightning comes too close for our comfort. We’ve heard from several other crews who have been too close to a lightning strike or even got hit and lost part of their boat’s electronics. Luckily we haven’t been caught in the center of a storm yet and most clouds pass miles away, short rain showers were just enough to catch some extra liters of fresh water and wind gusts rarely exceeded 15 knots.

Motoring between islands

To be honest, that’s one thing we wish we had more: wind. The lack of wind forced us to run the engine whenever we wanted to move the boat. During the night a cool breeze comes from the mainland, but navigating around the many reefs and shallows is only possible in good daylight. With only 4-6 knots of wind during the day we don’t get far with our sails and mostly only hoist them to dry. Supposedly the easterly trade winds will start sometime in November/December and then blow constantly over the Guna Yala islands. Due to the consistent wind during dry season and flat water behind the reefs, the region was previously known as kitesurfing paradise until recently. Unfortunately the General Congress Guna has come up with rules prohibiting some activities like kitesurfing, scuba diving and flying a drone. Respecting the local regulations, we found other ways to entertain ourselves and spent the days.

Our favorite anchorages were Chichime Cays, the west and east of the Holandes Cays, as well as the Cocos Banderos. All of which are beautiful, remote islands only inhabited by a few people and usually offered good snorkeling in clear water. We mostly relied on the Bauhaus guide for charts and had someone on the lookout for reefs. Unfortunately we were not able to visit any of the more populated islands, on which Gunas built towns and trading hubs, as most locals were still waiting for their second COVID shot. Without putting anybody at risk we therefore spent the days mostly isolated in the water, exploring by dinghy or simply relaxing on the boat.

Slightly unsettled by the fact that crocodiles roam around some of the islands, we first hesitantly jumped in the water. After spending many hours snorkeling, we never got to see one crocodile but were frequently observed by large nurse sharks, sting and spotted eagle rays and barracudas. In the Holandes Cays we were visited by a small reef shark circling our boat in the morning hours, probably hunting for breakfast scraps that usually fall off other boats. We enjoyed exploring the many caves and large boulders within the reefs, some covered in various corals, others rather dead.

If you look for a restful experience far away from any bustle and tumult, relaxing in a very secluded part of the world, the Guna Yalas is probably for you. We liked exploring the beautiful region and learning more about the local indigenous culture but we are also looking forward to explore more of Panama.

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