Panama and the Guna Yala

Panama and the Guna Yala

By Kieran

We were all pretty excited to come to Panama, a place where none of us had been before, a country we didn’t know much about apart from it having a ruddy big canal, and that the San Blas region covered most the Caribbean coast, east of the canal.

We soon learnt that the San Blas was the Spanish name, the local indigenous name is the Guna Yala – land of the Indigenous Guna people.

Our first port of call was Linton Bay, an anchorage sheltered behind a jungle covered island, a small marina and boatyard and a small village with a shop and a couple of restaurants, half a mile away.

Here we were able to check in with immigration and the ‘port captain’ (all offices being converted containers!) and receive instructions that we were to get to Colon to apply for a cruising permit which could be collected a week later in return for 200 dollars, the US dollar is used when in note form, coins are Panamanian.

Linton Bay itself was a pretty nice place, a family of inquisitive spider monkeys lived on the nearby island and howler monkeys could be heard at dawn and dusk, in the jungle that fell down from the mountains behind, right to the coastal road. The sailing fraternity felt a bit more gruff than in the West Indies where there were lot of catamarans, and white plastic, here there were a few boats in various states of sinking, a couple of masts poking out the water, and a few boats that looked like they hadn’t moved for a while but often still inhabited! It was nice.

Colon was an eye opener – as is everything after much time out getting zen with the sea and the elements. It doesn’t feel right to be too rude about anyone’s home, but it kinda lived up to its name – we later learnt that the government wanted to pretty much rebuild the central part of town and had therefore neglected to give any investment towards its upkeep for what looked like the past 30 years, it was crumbling, the poverty was blatant, rubbish everywhere, and no sign of any rebuilding so far!

Mission accomplished however and pineapples were 50 cents! Plus the buses were a hoot – they’re the old yellow American school buses, brightly repainted and pimped to the max, dripping with chrome and tassels, belching out clouds of black smoke out of the huge twin chrome exhausts which run up the buses back end skyward. And blaring out poppy Salsa-ish djs mixes.

Next on our to do list was to apply for a new passport for Morla. Failing to understand anything concrete over the phone, Nono and I decided that to visit the embassy in Panama city would be prudent. So the two of us headed off for a city break, the girls happy to spend a few days with Nick, Rowena and Jean-Marc. Twas a treat, nice Hostel, complete conversations, cold beers, Halloumi burgers… though no luck with the embassy, we returned to Lilly in a hire car laden with canvas to remake all the sail covers and sun awnings, PVC to make a rain catcher, and merchandise from some of the biggest supermarkets I’ve ever seen! And a cruising permit.

Rowena, Nick and JM, keen to see some more of this diverse and varied country returned the hire car to Panama city, via a couple of nights as close to the jungle as was easily accessible, before we stocked up, fueled and watered and made ready to make the 40 miles West to The Guna Yala.

The Guna Yala we had heard a fair bit about – all good, and it was exciting to clap our eyes on the first palm covered, sandy, tropical island, but we had a smorgasbord from which to choose, an area of about 30 miles West to East and 15 miles North to South of 100’s of tropical islands, coral barrier reef, and an an indigenous culture autonomous from Panama, where to begin?

Coastal navigation on board is done using a chunky old toughbook laptop, on which we have files of the worlds charts in moderate detail – better in well trodden areas, not so good in more remote, we read that these charts were not good at all in the San Blas, similar story with a system called Navionics which Nick has on his phone, uncharted coral heads are a scary prospect! A cruiser, Eric Bauhaus however has devoted a number of years to accurately charting all of Panama, using techy GPS gear and writing a cruising guide, full of drone images of anchorages. With his digital charts on the computer, a GPS connected showing our exact position on said charts and the cruising guide book, navigating around the numerous reefs, islands and shallows becomes relatively easy. But, while on the topic – therein lie negatives too. As it’s easy, anyone can do it and I’m sure the Guna Yala is becoming more and more popular with sailors and charterers. On a more personal level, having such a good cruising guide means one tends to stick to the suggested anchorages, along with everyone else, like having a lonely planet guide, which certainly makes the planet a lot less lonely, but it becomes harder to think of going into the ‘unknown’ which so often can be more rewarding, but a little more challenging. Lastly on the topic is a point about technology on the whole – With the passing of time come more and more gadgets which make, what was once a hazardous and challenging thing to do, relatively easy, Engines on board, GPS, Autohelms, Electric winches which roll sails up around a stay or inside the mast. We spoke to some folk on a palatial Catamaran (complete with watermakers, freezers, washing machine etc.) who described how they would input a route on the computer system (waypoint to waypoint) and press go on the autohelm (electric steering) which would simply take the boat to their destination – like a driverless car without any safety features like sensors for other boats for example. To a far lesser degree, we are also victim to this modernisation, though Lilly is very traditional in her rig and we proudly do without the majority of gadgets, (she’d be an old landrover of the motoring world) we still rely on our motor and GPS which means we wind through tricky reef passages where we wouldn’t otherwise go, and maybe in less than ideal light conditions, (sun high and from behind). So it’s a fine balance – using the tools we have to explore beautiful anchorages but retaining our senses, keeping a keen look-out from up the mast where shallows are most easily seen from.

So it was that we spent the next 7 weeks hopping from bays to islands, winding through clusters of jewel like islands, perched in turquoise lagoons, sheltered behind expansive fringing coral reefs.

Snorkeling, dinghy sailing, beachtime, reading, spearfishing, pottering on boat jobs was the order of the day. The coral here was in great condition which was nice to see after previous experiences in the Pacific and Indian Oceans which even 10 years ago was seriously suffering, with bleaching and mass dieback; and so it was that snorkeling was fantastic especially with the girls, seeing sharks, rays, and every kind of reef fish… For the rest of us it was usually with a speargun, which more often than not put fish on the menu. Most common would be the Jacks – classic silver fish that would cruise the reefs to feed on the shoals of sardines, similar were rainbow runners or spanish mackerel, your best chance with these was to dive down and hang on to a rock in the hope they’d pass, Horse eye jacks seemed more territorial and favoured the deeper patches at 10 to 20 metres, 10 is comfortable, 20 is pushing the limits… Hunting snapper is different, they have a definite territory and a cave system and are shy, you get to know where they live then try and creep up on the cave entrance or dive down hiding behind a coral head and wait for them to emerge… you can spend an hour stalking one of these… Nick, JM and Rowena would sail off in Plumbob and be gone for 7 hours sometimes… you can get utterly immersed in this underwater wonderland.

Plumbob must of done hundreds of sea miles by now – sometimes Lilly would go on to the next anchorage and a couple of folk would do the trip in Plumbob… other times we’d go off and explore neighboring islands with a picnic, she’s become a much loved runabout!

There are blemishes to this paradise – on any visit to the beach one was confronted by a mass of rubbish; plastic bottles, shoes, nappies etc. The winds and currents carry the vast majority of this detritus from anywhere East – Colombia, the West Indies, Europe… it was obviously hard to ignore, so a beach walk was mixed with emotions of anger, frustration and helplessness, ‘When are we gonna stop producing all this sh*te?’ and what are the locals supposed to do with it?

Another more subtle worry was that of sea level rise, these islands are barely above sea level. One Island we anchored behind was shown in the cruising guide (and on the front cover in fact) to be covered in a forest of coconut palms but now had only 5 trees left, when we asked the fisherman, they spoke of a particularly big tide…. its not just the literal rise in sea level but also the waves – with slightly deeper water over the protective fringing reefs, the destructive waves are carving away the sandy islands – a lot of the windward shores were a tangle of fallen palm trees and water lapped over the beach to form pools on the island… Plans are now afoot for a couple of the village islands to relocate back to the mainland. Its interesting to note that climate change is not a clearcut phenomenon to the Guna – some that we spoke to saw it as a western fabricated notion… they wouldn’t or couldn’t believe that their mother nature would fail them!

It really felt like the front line of sea level rise, and results of our wasteful culture, and seeing the victims of that being amongst some of the least deserving… grrrrrr!!! I did some wee videos to document these points, not sure if I’ll publish them here or on faceache or something…

We were regularly visited by the locals in their ‘Ulu’s’ – dugout canoes – either to sell fish or lobsters, or Mola’s: these are their local handicraft – incredibly intricately sewn designs which the women sew onto their blouses, the traditional designs originate from bodypaints when they were forest people and needed less clothing. Its only in the last few hundred years that they moved out to the islands where they found life to be better – less insects, snakes, predators. I’m sure there are other reasons, like the fresh air, fishing, flat land, coconuts which is one of their biggest exports even today. Their permanent homes are on densely populated village islands closer to the mainland, the men will then spend the mornings tending to crops on the mainland, sometimes hours of walking from the coast or up beautiful rivers, others may go out fishing. Out on the tropical islands where our favoured anchorages were, there would often be families who would be staying days or weeks to harvest the coconuts – collecting and de-husking them ready to travel… or to be used at home of course, as they are a staple part of their diet (and ours!) Some of these island huts under the palm trees, simple palm thatched shelters with space for a fireplace and room to hang a few hammocks, were eye-wateringly idyllic.

The festive season was mildly ceremonious but barely Christmassy, the girls were heartwarmingly delighted and excited and appreciative of our efforts however, confirming our beliefs that we don’t need ‘stuff’ to have a special time.

After a lot of boring phone calls, scanned letters, a few tears, Morlas passport was sent to the Embassy in Panama early January. So it was that we made our way to Carti, which lay at the end of the only road into the Guna Yala; here was where all the supplies came through – gas, petrol, and tourists. Everything by 4WD, as was necessary for the windy broken, once paved, road to Panama. It was in a slight state of bewilderment at all the activity and vehicles, that we family jumped into the back of a 4WD, early one morning and made the 3 hour drive to Panama City once more. The jungle drive, being with Seren and Morla as they viewed their first massive skyscrapers and experienced a large city for the first time, with all its modernity, noise, traffic, variety of people, from desperately poor to overly rich, shopping malls bigger than the villages we had recently visited in Guna Yala, was a privilege and of course striking in its contrast. It was also enough distraction to barely give a thought that Lilly was off navigating for one of a very few times without me – Nick, JM and Rowena took charge, I imagine 3 days peace felt too short for them!

That was then, this is now – as I write we have left the area most trodden and the 30 mile stretch previously mentioned, and started down the coast of the Darien peninsular, still Guna Yala, towards the border with Colombia, due to the lay of the land and the predominant winds, it is not so suited to Island ambling, so there are no yachts here – The Island village we have been at the past days said we were the 3rd sailing boat this season. It makes for a whole different feeling – rewarding exploration, welcoming locals, a deeper immersion in the country. Having said that, the nature of this travel – being so self contained in our comfortable cocoon means our immersion is limited, days might pass without going ashore and our focus is life onboard. A few islands have waved us away – or asked us to stay in the dinghy while they shop for our provisions – that’s about the extent that Covid has affected us so far.

The past days anchored off the village island of Mamitupu have been a highlight, here we were warmly welcomed. A dugout was being built or rather sculpted under the palms, a gaggle of children for Seren and Morla to play with, a coconut press setup making coconut oil run by a gent who spoke English and we were able to quiz on some of the Guna customs. It is a matrilineal society, the women control the money and the husbands move into the women’s family compound. Its been noticeable as visitors that the women have a healthy degree of authority in the household and a general confidence. Its also noticeable that the men seem very humble, respectful, smiley, and there isn’t that chin up, chest thumping, bravado so prevalent in our society, or sexual attention towards the women which became nauseating, intimidating and rude for the women amongst us in the West Indies, but of course exists in varying degrees in so much of the world. Whether that’s due to the matriarchal nature of the Guna society or just the lack of exposure to the patriarchal and male dominated, sexualized nature of so much of our media, I can’t say but its refreshing and warming to be around.

Each Island seems pretty autonomous and unique, with their own ‘Saila’ or Chiefs making up the Congresso, who meet at least weekly to discuss the communities affairs, often attendance from the whole village is compulsory, It seems that it will be dependant on these Chiefs as to the degree of tradition that is adhered to, some ban television for example. Other villages are more westernised – more tin and concrete, and denim and leggings replace the traditional beaded legs, sarongs, molas and red headscarfs Then villages are grouped into six and the chiefs from each village will meet monthly. Once a year all Sailas from the 49 communities meet to discuss more national affairs. Alternatives to our top heavy, financially driven, self benefiting, egotistical, political systems are out there, if we were only interested to look and demand!

These photos are from a mothers day celebration we were invited to, generally the Guna aren’t keen on being photographed but were very happy on this occasion, so they are the only few we have of the people. The day was hilarious – sack races, climb the greasy pole to win the pigs head at the top, Ulu races, thread the needle races etc.

Though part of Panama, the lovely Guna Yala is a world away, I hope it stays that way – they have so much to show us, to inspire and teach; as seeing their beautiful way of life, its minimal consumption, its connection to the natural world around them, their clear healthiness both physical and mental, makes the lunacy and destruction of so much of our ‘developed’ consumer world, all the more glaringly obvious.

5 thoughts on “Panama and the Guna Yala

  1. Such a joy to see your travels as always. Stunning, amazing and deeply concerning. Seeing the impact of plastics and climate change so starkly must be sobering.


  2. Jane Carlisle sent me a link to your blog. Jason and I are enjoying reading about your travels and seeing your pictures. Amazing.
    I’m Joan’s sister, Camilla, we spent a lovely day with you a few years ago. Sending love to you all.


  3. Such a joy to get your blogs, the great the sad and the journey! Thank you for sharing,
    With love and admiration to you all, xxx


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