The San Blas islands – locally called Kuna Yala – are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Indians, who have mostly maintained their traditional lifestyle. The women dress in their colorful attire consisting of hand sewn mola breast pieces, a lively skirt, red headscarves, golden nose ring, long strings of beads wrapped around the calves and other jewelry. Men and kids wear western-style clothes. While there are a few modernized villages with concrete buildings, satellite dishes and a generator producing electricity, most families live in simple thatched-roofed huts without electricity, running water and sewer. Water is obtained from a river, the sky or a well, solar panels or flashlights produce light and outhouses take care of the other business.
Kuna woman cleaning fish for dinner © Liesbet Collaert
Kuna Indians travel in dugout canoes called ulus. They paddle about, use an outboard engine or a sail to get from island to island. They catch fish, crabs, lobster, octopus or conch to survive and tend to plots of land on the mainland or off shore. The impressive string of idyllic islands is chock full with palm trees, containing an abundance of tasty coconuts. These nuts are their livelihood and are sold worldwide or locally or they are traded with the Colombian trading boats passing through the region. Visitors are not allowed to take any.
Kuna women rowing by the sailboats selling molas © Liesbet Collaert
As a cruiser, anchored in the different exotic locations of the San Blas islands, we get in contact with the Kunas daily. They row by Irie to sell fish or molas, they motor by with fresh produce and eggs or they swing by to beg for goods, like flour, magazines, candy or water. We go ashore and greet them in their picturesque compound. Sometimes, we take a look at their molas or bracelets, other times, we order a drink in a makeshift bar or have a chat about their dogs. Even though we are spending a lot of time in Kuna Yala, our interactions with the locals are relatively brief and a stay on shore would prove more interesting and rewarding. Tours are organized from Panama City or you can take a panga from Carti on the mainland.
Local Kuna bar on the biggest of the Chichime Cays © Liesbet Collaert
There are a few islands in the region, where backpackers or other visitors can live with the Kuna Indians and the Chichime Cays are two of them. On Uchutupu Pipigua, you can spend the night with one of the families for $20 per person. You sleep in a hammock and three meals are included. You can get involved as much as you want with the local traditions and are living under the palm trees on a tropical island surrounded by breaking reefs and a massive star-filled sky.
Uchutupu Pipigua, one of the many idyllic islands in Kuna Yala © Liesbet Collaert
On Uchutupu Dummat – the bigger island of the two - $20 per person per night gets you a double bed in a primitive hut with thatched roof, dirt floor and plenty of space. Three basic meals are also included and snacks during the day are made up of fresh coconut meat. With a long stick you can obtain as many coconuts as you desire from high above and there are tools to remove the husk, open the nut and collect the meat. The perfect cocktail: fresh coconut water mixed with Panamanian rum. Beers, water and sodas are available at the bar and so is a massive collection of hand-made molas. You are free to join in or observe the daily chores of the Kuna family.
Retrieving coconuts on Uchutupu Dummat © Liesbet Collaert
The property has a toilet instead of an outhouse and water can be taken out of the well with buckets. A sun shower is filled with fresh water to shower. The daily diet consists of fish and rice, with side dishes depending on what is available or delivered on the island. If you are interested, you can join the fishermen out at sea, help with the cooking or be ready to pull the ulu up the beach after a day’s work or rest.
Local transport to or from the mainland to Chichime © Liesbet Collaert
On this island, a beautiful big beach invites you to chill or walk and turquoise water is present everywhere. There is a kayak to paddle between islands, or you can swim if you need the exercise. Staying a few days on the Chichime Cays is an incredible experience that will teach you a thing or two about survival and that will make you realize what primitive living with Mother Nature entails.
Fresh coconut water: tasty and refreshing! © Liesbet Collaert