October 3, 2005

San Blas Islands

¨It looks just like the screen saver!¨

I am a bit embarrassed to admit that this was my first thought when we approached the islands by boat after getting off the plane. But it really was perfect, with clear turqouise waters, islands with swaying coconut trees and pristine white sand beaches. I blame whatever Windows version was running on my laptop at work, as I had stared at it longingly every day during the depressing, bitter, icy, winter last December/January/February/March/April…

The Archipelego of San Blas in Panama contains almost 400 islands, and is independently ruled by the Kuna Indians. The Kuna like to say that they have an island for every day of the year. They range in size from 5 square feet to the size of a basketball court to the largest at two football fields. Some of the islands are uninhabited, or have only one family, while others have larger communities -the island that we stayed on, Wichub-Wala, had 39 families.

We got a personal tour of some of the islands with our Kuna guide, using a large canoe with a motor. Each Kuna family has a dugout canoe to get around, like we would have a car. The Kuna live simply. Each family has a large thatched hut, basically one large room, with some hammocks strung up inside. Other than the hammocks, there was no other furniture. No chairs, no tables, no beds. The floor of the hut is sand, and the Kuna go barefoot. Rainwater is collected for drinking, cooking, and washing, and they trade for everything else. We heard that until the mid 90´s, coconuts were used for currency, although it is now US dollars like the rest of Panama. Each island has a school, and ensures that children are educated and can speak Spanish. The older children leave the islands to go to Panama to study, and it seems accepted that some will not continue living in the traditional ways.

Tourism is the biggest money maker. The women sell molas, these beautiful handcrafted fabric designs of different animals, which they wear around their torsos. Anytime a tourist wants to take a picture, they demand $1. It sounds that with the construction of a new road from Panama City to the area, this will only steadily increase.

Our hotel, which was made of wood with a thatch hut, was smack in the middle of the Kuna (the islands are so small it´s hard NOT to be in the middle of the village). There was a solar panel for electricity (for use only after 6pm) to power the two fluorescent bulbs. We didn´t realize what a luxury we had with running though unheated water – the Kuna have to collect water, and share a single outhouse on the outskirts of the island, which empties directly into the surrounding water. The walls were made of something that resembled bamboo, with a thatch grass roof and some wooden slat windows. Very basic, and we would find, very very hot at night (90F, by Jonathan´s trusty keychain thermometer). Also, despite our traveler´s silk sleep sheets, my first experience with bedbugs.

It felt strange – on the one hand, we were clearly walking dollar signs and they wanted us to buy things, yet at the same time, I felt like I was intruding and only barely tolerated. I think I too would be pretty unhappy to have strangers show up, gawk at me, peer into my house and keep taking pictures every two seconds. More unbelievable is that they unload cruise ships here – thousands of people at once covering every square inch of the island.

For islands which export literally tons of coconuts, there was not a single one to be found for drinking, for sale, or in the food. In fact, there are no restaurants, bars, or anywhere to buy food except for the hotel, which provided 3 meals a day. Rice/potato, fish with some canned vegetables, and either a canned pineapple ring or fresh pineapple was provided, depending on the day. The Kuna also seem to very much like ketchup, which was always a condiment on the table.

Even while we visited beaches and snorkeled and admired the lovely surroundings, my overall impression is that life is hard on these islands. I had always thought that tropical islands would be great places to live, with good weather, coconuts and fish. But there is no soil for farming (coconuts grow in sand), there is no room for livestock, no drinkable water except for rainwater, no plants to make textiles, construction materials, etc.

I can guarantee you I never thought about this stuff staying in a Sandals resort in Jamaica. Tropical paradise is only such when you have all the amenties of home. Plus lots of fruity rum drinks.


  1. Panama: San Blas Archipelego

    Soyan Says takes a look around Panama’s San Blas Islands and their native Kuna Indians.

    Trackback by Global Voices Online — October 5, 2005 @ 1:55 am

  2. Panama: San Blas Archipelego

    Soyan Says takes a look around Panama’s San Blas Islands and their native Kuna Indians.

    Trackback by Global Voices Online — October 5, 2005 @ 1:56 am

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