San Blas Islands, Kuna Yala, Panama

We left Cartagena a few days before Thanksgiving, loaded up with as much fresh produce and provisions as we could hold. Finally, we had a great passage: perfect sailing with fairly flat seas and wind hovering between just aft and just forward of the beam. It was a fast and fun passage, although unfortunately we didn't catch any fish. As we came within sight of the beautiful, low palm-studded islands of Kuna Yala, however, the weather changed and it began to pour rain. Luckily we made it into our anchorage at Coco Banderos just before visibility got really bad. There we reunited with our friends on on Mandolin and on Macy, who we'd hung out with on the ICW and Bahamas and been trying to catch up with for months. They were about to leave Panama and head north, and we'd been afraid we'd miss them altogether.

Even in the rain, the San Blas were breathtakingly gorgeous. 15 miles away, the high jungled mountains of the mainland rose into the clouds, we were sheltered behind an outlying barrier reef and uninhabited (at Coco Banderos) small sand islands thick with swaying, rustling coconut palms.

The next day we rested and started cooking for Thanksgiving dinner. Many of the cruising boats in the San Blas were meeting at another anchorage for a communal Thanksgiving dinner, and to our delight by midday we were the only boat at Coco Banderos. (To give you some perspective on this beautiful and rightly popular spot, by January there were consistently 15 boats there, often many more!) We'd convinced Macy to stay a few extra days and join us for Thanksgiving and Dave's 50th birthday. Even though it poured rain most of the time, it was a fabulous day. Great food: roast chicken with stuffing and gravy, mango-papaya chutney standing in for cranberry sauce, Dave's crab cakes, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn and beets, pumpkin pie and birthday cake! When asked what he wanted for his 50th , Dave had joked that all he wanted was a lady to jump out of a birthday cake.... so we obliged, using one of Liv's barbies as the "lady"!

The next day Macy left; hopefully we'll meet up with them again on the way north, since they are returning home to Rhode Island around the same time we need to be in Maine.

One thing you often hear about from people who've cruised the San Blas is the sometimes-pushy Kuna indians. Kuna Yala, the region of Panama where the Kuna live, is very remote from the rest of Panama both geographically (no roads to most of it) and politically and culturally. The Kuna are often described as "fiercely independent"; they have their own government separate from Panama's, and make their own laws. They also live a lifestyle that has changed little in the last couple of centuries. Some islands are more modernized than others, with generators for electricity, concrete buildings, a few TVs, and western clothing. Most, however, look nearly as they did in the 1800's, with their palm frond huts, hand-carved wooden dugout canoes ("ulus") and the women wearing traditional outfits. Arms and legs are wrapped with yards and yards of colorful beads, making "sleeves" of beads; skirts are brightly printed cotton wrapped sarong-style; blouses (when worn... in the village they are often topless) are made of the famous "molas", incredibly intricate hand-sewn appliqued designs, front and back, with a contrasting -very bright!- fabric for the billowy sleeves and bodice. The more traditional will have a black line drawn down the face, emphasizing the long, handsome nose of the Kuna, and a gold ring in the septum of the nose, gold earrings, and beaded necklaces. Hairstyles are unified depending on age and marital status, it gets cut shorter with each milestone in a special ceremony in the village; and the head is usually covered with a bright red and yellow head scarf.

Since tourists began to come to the San Blas, the Kuna have been selling their gorgeous molas. They make some especially for the tourists, that are not as intricate, nor do they use the traditional designs and colors, but they also sell "real" molas that have been part of blouses, and even entire blouses. As more and more cruising boats come to Kuna Yala, it's become an imprtant source of income for many families (whose other income comes from harvesting coconuts and lobster.) They paddle or sail their ulus for miles and miles to try to sell you things: molas, seafood, necklaces, seashells. In some communities they can be very overwhelming: as many as 10 ulus all bumping your boat and not taking "no" for an answer, and demanding candy and "gifts". I don't like saying "no" but we don't have unlimited funds to buy from every ulu, so I was pretty nervous about what it was going to be like. Our first ulu experience, though, in Coco Banderos, was very pleasant. A husband and wife paddled from some far-away island and came alongside Zora. She was shy and only spoke Kuna; he had a little Spanish and translated for us. We ended up buying several nice molas and Liv got a traditional bead cuff, which the woman tied on in the Kuna manner:

Next: more San Blas!