Tag Archives: kuna indians

Master Mola Maker, Lisa

Kuna Indians in Guna Yala

The Kuna (or Guna) Indians have struggled for over hundreds of years for their independence.  They originally lived in the Darien Mountains but they slowly immigrated to the San Blas islands in the 1700’s.  They fought the Spaniards, Colombians, Panamanians, and pirates.  Here is a great website on the Kuna Indians.

In 1925 they agreed to be a part of the Republic of Panama if the government agreed to respect their tribal laws, traditions, and culture.  The Kuna received partial autonomy in 1930, and 1938 they were recognized as an official reserve. By 1945 they had a constitution and by 1953 they were granted full administrative and judicial powers.

Each year, the Kuna participate in a reenactment of the revolution.  It is NOT a celebration, but rather a reenactment to remember the struggles their ancestors went through to gain their independence.  It is also used as an educational opportunity for the youth.

The Guna Yala are very proud of their traditions and customs.  A traditional Kuna village is like stepping back centuries, but visitors are very welcome and appreciated.  Most of the small islands do not have running water or electricity beyond solar power or small generators.  But they survive, are happy, and live long lives.  They are a very peaceful, friendly community the sell molas, fish, lobster, octopus, crabs, fruits, veggies and more to tourists and cruisers.

Guna Yala is a matrilineal society where the women control the money.  The women select their spouse when they are mature enough, but not at any specific age.  They are not allowed to marry outside of the tribe which has caused a kind of genetic insulation and there are many albinos and most Kuna are short in stature.  If they marry outside the tribe, they will be shunned and not allowed back.  The husband moves into the woman’s family compound

Kuna woman walking in standard outfit for women

Kuna woman walking in standard outfit for women


The Kuna huts are made from renewable and fast-growing materials.  The roofs are composed of special palm fronts, dried and tied together with each palm costing $0.50 (which is expensive for the Kuna).  The walls are made of bamboo and tied together with twine or fabric.  There are no nails or commercial products and most huts stand for over 15 years against torrential storms.  The interiors are very sparse with dirt floors, hammocks and a few tree trunks for chairs and tables.

Kuna home and twine holding bamboo shoots together

Kuna home and twine holding bamboo shoots together

Most islands do not have running water or restrooms in their huts.  The villagers (and public) use outhouses built like a room, over water.

Floor of the public bathroom

Floor of the public bathroom


The average lifespan for the Guna Yala is well over 100 years.  Lisa, the master mola maker told us that the average person lives to be 115-120!  Her parents both lived to be 97 years old and thought to have died young.  Good clean living is a testament to a long life.


There are many Guna Yala communities within the San Blas Island chain.  Each community consists of several islands and has 3 Sailas (chiefs), with one is superior.  In addition to these Sailas, there are junior Sailas (akin to executives) and Sualipetmar which are their version of police, and a shaman “Nele” medicine woman/man.


The Sailas meet in the “congresso” the biggest hut in the village, where they sit and swing in hammocks situated in the center of the room.  As guardians of the Guna knowledge, the Sailas rarely give direct orders.  They do communicate through “Argars” which are powerful and important personalities that interpret the Sailas’ wisdom.

Seated around the Sailas and Argars are two rings of people.  The inner ring is composed of women and children and the outer ring contains adult males.  Everybody has the opportunity to express complaints or ideas.  This can be a grievance against your brother, spouse, neighbor, or lover.

It is a special occasion when young girls “come of age.”  All of the men in her village with come bearing palm fronds to build her a room within her parents’ hut.  Inside this room, will be a very small canoe or ulu where she will bath and be blessed.  Only her family and girl friends are allowed inside her room.

The village will celebrate this occasion with a celebration where a family member will host a 4-day party providing food, beverages, and entertainment at no cost for the entire village and community.  “Chica” is brewed from sugarcane and other special ingredients, which is the main drink consumed at these festivities.  It takes 10 days to ferment and is stored in large pottery.

Kuna require that you ask permission before you take a photo as they do not like to be photographed and be prepared to be turned down.  I think I asked over a dozen Kuna for permission and only received a few affirmations.

Kuna Indians in San Blas:

Sweet Kuna man carving wood

Sweet Kuna man carving wood

Master Mola Maker, Lisa

Master Mola Maker, Lisa


Dinghy Dock at Linton Bay

Sailing to Linton Bay

We had been “off the grid” for 12 days. It doesn’t sound that long, but try not watching TV, listening to the radio, or being online (no chats, texts, emails, news updates, Instagram, Facebook, nothing). As romantic as it might sound, it was really hard. There are a few options to get some wifi, but they all included leaving the San Blas islands. We could do a downwind run to Carti, broad reach to El Provenir, or beam reach to Linton Bay.  Linton Bay won out. But first we had to say farewell to Wayne who was being picked up from Carti.

We were all up early awaiting Wayne’s panga ride which was scheduled to arrive at 730am. They arrived promptly and carried our Wayne away.

Wayne leaving in a panga...heading home.

Wayne leaving in a panga…heading home.

We took this opportunity to do laundry, clean up the port side of the boat, and catch up on some laziness. We wasted the day away, but we did make a plan to head to Linton Bay to get fuel, provision, and find a sim card. Always good to have a plan.

The next morning we got up early, checked out the weather report, and discovered that 2 other sailboats that we knew were heading to Linton Bay as well. We deflated and stowed the SUPs, put the bean bags below, and readied the boat for her 45 mile day.

The winds were blowing pretty strong at 25-30 knots and a squall was predicted so we double reefed the main and the jib. The first few hours were great as we sailed along at 8-9 knots, beam reach, and 2-3 meter waves. As the winds slowed we shook the jib out completely and surfed the odd rogue waves that periodically gave us a bit of a push. The waves stayed big with some cresting at 4 meters, rocking the boat in an odd pattern, but the wind stayed strong enough for us to sail.

It was not the best ride with the funky winds, but it was good to have the sails up and the boat moving with canvas. We were escorted by a rather large pod of exceptionally big dolphins. They were a frisky bunch, showing off their best lords of leaping skills. Kept us entertained for well over a half an hour.

We arrived into Linton Bay around 1600 with the sun low in the sky and reefs all around us. We carefully motored into the bay and found a spot to drop the hook in 10 meters of water. Pretty deep water for us as we like to have 7 to 1 scope on our chain. We have 100 meters of chain, so it is doable, just a little out of our comfort zone. As we were anchoring, our friends Dave and Mary from “Wandering Rose” welcomed us with a frenzied wave.

Linton Bay Marina with haul out equipment in background with orange straps.

Linton Bay Marina with haul out equipment in background with orange straps.

We were finally able to get a signal off the GoogleFi phone so I checked emails, attended to some business and answered a few urgent requests. We decided it would be best to go ashore to get some intel so we dropped Sweetie in the water and headed ashore.

A quick stop at “Wandering Rose” provided some good information on the local pub, internet access, trash, and bus schedule. We headed up to the “bar” which is not much more than a floating barge with some chairs, tables, grill, and cooler. None the less, it had wifi.

Linton Bay Bar in front and marina office that ran out of money mid-construction.

Linton Bay Bar in front and marina office that ran out of money mid-construction.

Dinghy dock or panga dock.

Dinghy dock or panga dock.

We saddled up to the bar, ordered Matt a $1 beer and clicked away. Some other friends from “La Vie” arrived and gave us more information on local towns, provisioning, and safety. Not long after, Barry from “White Shadow and “Adventures of an Old Sea Dog” joined us.  Evidently, the bar was low on beer, had no food, and little ice.  So the bartender shut up shop, told us to lock up and left.  A party in Panama for sure.

This funny painting was in a lovely gallery.

This funny painting was in a lovely gallery.

This cracked me up - branding at its best

This cracked me up – branding at its best


Love that the local stores carry some American brands.  And of course cheaper brands of the same cereal…wonder about the taste and quality?

Dog Island Ship Wreck

Ship wreck in the Lemon Cays

A stunning morning at the beautiful anchorage of Eastern Lemon Cays. Even though there are a lot of other boats here, it is still a gorgeous anchorage. We are surrounded by little islands that are covered in palm trees. The water easily laps against the boat and the shore lulls you into a transe. Its so peaceful and serene and such a simple way of life here. We enjoyed a blissful morning and decided to do a boat chore before exploring.

There was an icky smell permeating from the freezer so Matt decided to defrost it. We stocked the freezer in Aruba. However, we didn’t cook for a month as we were so close to a million amazing and cheap places to eat in Santa Marta. We did not think much of the food that was in vacu-seal bags in the freezer until a week ago. We noticed a funky smell and slowly started finding effected food. A rack of ribs, the tuna we caught a month ago, and some pepperoni. The fish was sad, but we can catch another one, the pepperoni was a bummer but we can make pizza with other toppings. The rack of ribs was heart breaking. Matt makes delicious marinated ribs and finding more ribs in Panama is unlikely.

We had made plans with our friends on “Sweet Chariot” to swim on a wreck at Dog Island, which is a mile away from Banedup. This wreck is a sunken cargo ship that was beached in the late 1950s and now lays in 3-6 meters of water. The ship evidently had a leak while passing the San Blas Islands that was too big to fix or pump against. The captain beached the ship while under full power to salvage the cargo. Some of the cargo, which included rum, reached Colon.  But the remaining part of the cargo disappeared.

It was a perfect place to snorkel with lots of fish, an enormous Barracuda and Queen Angel Fish, too many jelly fish for my liking, and beautiful soft coral. The sea life sure has taken a liking to this site.

Ship wreck near dog island. Photo courtesy of Go2SanBlas.

Ship wreck near dog island. Photo courtesy of Go2SanBlas.

After our snorkel, we spied another huge wreck above the water and decided to go investigate. It is another mile further out toward the Chichime Cays. Even in the dinghy we have to be vigilant about avoiding the reefs and shallow spots. So, we carefully navigated back toward Banedup and made a sharp left toward Sand Bank and Yansaladup.  The Lemon Cays have to be carefully navigated in a big boat or a dinghy.

As we were coming across the sandy spit, we noticed a monohull listing to one side. Oh dear, she ran aground. We diverted to go assist. 3 other dinghies and a panga were already trying to help, but those dinghies only had 9 hp engines and the panga only had oars. Since we have a 25hp engine, we knew could help.

We tried a number of different ways to get this 40-45’ wooden boat named “Wooden Shoe” off the sandy bottom, but nothing was working. More dinghies and two more pangas came to help. We had a few dinghies at the starboard bow and a few at the port stern trying to rock her back and forth – nothing. The two pangas anchored using a small line tied to a 10’ stick that was stuck in the ground (ingenious) and all 4 Kuna Indians jumped in the water. Two had snorkels and could see where she was wedged in the sand. In concert with the dinghies, the Kuna were pulling down on the bow sprit and rocking her up and down. Slowly she started moving, inch by inch until she was off the sand bar.

It was such a relief to see this boat afloat again, but even more spectacular was the jubilant faces of the 4 Kuna who had successfully manhandled this wooden boat. Job well done! The owner, a woman who has been single handing the boat since 1999!  But even for the most experienced, the Lemon Cays can be dangerous.

After that, we resumed our trip toward Chichime Cays where we saw the other wreck. We had not been to this anchorage yet so we were surprised to see a host of other boats all congregated between Uchutupu Pipigua and Uchutupu Dummat. Just past this anchorage was a large ferry that had run aground and was visible to well below her water line. In addition, there was another sail boat aground with no mast or sails visible from where we were. A big reminder to stay alert in both the big ship and the dink!

Back to the boat for a light snack and a swim to enjoy the Lemon Cays.

Lemon Cay Islands we visited or went past on this trip:

  • Chichime Cays
  • Sand Ban
  • Yansaladup
  • Uchutupu Pipigua
  • Uchutupu Dummat