Kuna Yala: Islands of tradition, coconuts, and Molas

Caribbean Sea, Kuna Yala Islands, Panama (Jan. 27 - Feb. 5, 2015)

Porvenir is a small island you can walk in five minutes.  The locals have launcha boats that shuttle people to and from the airport, which is a short single runway you walk across to get to the restaurant and hotel.  There, they serve whatever meat was caught that day with a side of coconut rice, lentils, and cabbage.  They also sell wine, but only by the bottle, and Panama's version of watery beer, called Balboa. 

We rowed over to a heavily populated but only slightly larger island today and explored the town of Wichubhuala (Which Ew Boo Olla) with the crew of Triton and found eggs, fresh bakery-made hotdog buns!, beer, wine, and Molas, and we chummed around with the locals.  At “Bakery Scarlet,” the baker asks you “Combien?” and then magically emerges with a tray of warm hot dog buns.  The bakery is actually his home, and these buns are the only bread product he sells.  Your nose tells you where in the village he's located.

We then anchored at BBQ Island in the Eastern Hollandes Keys.  It is a tiny island surrounded by breaking waves, its shallow aquamarine anchorage protected by the reefs.  These photos are prime examples of how photography simply doesn't translate the experience.  This anchorage is breathtaking, and the island its own unique presence.  In photos, all these places seem to look the same, and rather desolate.  However when experienced in person, they are pure magic.  

Today we had a potluck on BBQ Island.  The Chief set up a fire for grilling huge crabs, and supplied us with beers.  The people here are as warm as are their sandy beaches.  There is one hut on the island and that's it. You can see a photo of the Blue Planet Odyssey group on BBQ Island here. 

You really have to pick your way in to the reefs here, partially because the islands are now being covered by rising sea levels.  Our guidebook is already out of date, seeing as some of those islands have since been submerged.  I believe six boats have run up on the reefs in the past few weeks here. The charts are wrong in plenty of places, and we have learned not to trust them.  But once you're in, it's heaven. 

Coco Banderas Keys is owned by one Kuna family, who lives on the islands. The women sit in the shade of the hut on the beach all day and sew Molas or string beads.  Halamera took the time to wrap my wrist and ankle with some beads she had made.  Again, another tiny outer barrier island in the middle of nowhere.  The chief's son has offered to bring us coconuts, beer, and fruit!

Meredith shows off her Kuna jewelery.

We are going on week three of life outside of our typically-known sense of civilization.  Life is just tiny, sparsely populated or uninhabited islands spilling fourth sand and palm trees into azure waters, welcoming and enterprising Kuna locals in dugout canoes, a daily squall or two, constant and 15-20 mph trade winds.

From what we can see on the AIS transceiver, we are sharing this corner of the ocean with about 30 yachts from all over the world.  We hear German, American, Canadian, French, Spanish, and lots of boisterous Italians on the VHF every day. 

We've cherished the camaraderie other sailors in our rally have provided while exploring these remote places.  We've had a blast getting to know everyone and sharing stories and provisions.  Liz aboard Lovesail makes red pepper hummus well-worth bartering for! 

I will always remember with fondness my final Coco Banderas love affair with the last of the goat cheese and sliced boiled beets, drizzled with sea salt and topped with lime-soaked hand-julienned (took forever to chop) green papaya from Martinique, popped into the mouth by happy purple-stained fingertips, and washed down with fresh local Kuna coconut water and coconut meat that was opened by a machete a fifth the size of the person using it.  Perfection.

Everything is either salty or moist, including the cat.  Every time she tries to groom herself, she is struck with the extremely surprising and offensive taste of salt on her fur, which makes her flap her tongue in the air with a priceless amusing look of confusion. I've taken to grooming her with her fine tooth grooming brush, but she doesn't seem to appreciate being rubbed with a moist freshwater towel.

Different boats have different resources and gear, but let me be clear here, resources are scarce.  We left with 160 gallons of water in our tanks which we haven't topped up in over 17 days, and we're out here where nothing but coconuts can grow.  We've got no access to fuel, very limited access to basic provisions, no laundry machines or Wi-Fi, and we're running off of wind and solar power.

Throw that in with hundreds of picturesque barrier islands in the middle of steady trade winds and aquamarine waters, and you start to feel a little bit like a castaway.  Add a dash of imagination to your now waning sense of time, and the experience borders on surreal.  Of all our sailing adventures, this feeling is a first for our little crew. 

The relative solitude from civilization is both humbling and addictive, and is also the reason we didn't post anything until we finally arrived in Colon, Panama and recovered basic Wi-Fi access.

That being said, we've got a few catch-up postings to fill you in on our passage from Martinique to Kuna Yala. 

Every single Island we have seen or visited sits poised on the edge of long barrier reefs which were at one point, islands of their own, as if gasping for its last breath.  In the span of one guidebook edition, about five years, more islands have gone under and many Kuna have been displaced. 


View more photos and video of Kuna Yala below


Porvenir, the official entry point to the Kuna Yala (San Blas) region, has a small airstrip, a government  office, a restaurant, and a hotel. 

Structures, including this bakery, are made mostly of local, traditional materials.

Justin, Gunnar, and Kuna local inspect a flag.

Meredith shows off one of the Molas the purchased from the Kuna.  Molas beaded jewelry, fishing,  and coconuts comprise the majority of the Kuna economy. 

Water is a precious commodity in Kuna Yala, and they mostly rely on solar power.

Justin makes a deal with a local chief for some produce. Much of the commerce in Kuna Yala is done directly between boats.

The coconut palms of the Coco Banderas family island sway in the trade winds.

Posted on February 10, 2015 .