San Blas Islands, Panama (2019)
We arrived at our anchorage in the San Blas archipelago around noon on January 8. There are some 375 islands, give or take a few depending on your source, fewer than 50 of which are inhabited by the Kuna people. They are an indigenous tribe who apparently originated in the mountains near Santa Marta, fled from there when the Spanish arrived and settled on these islands in the mid 19th century. Today rising seas are threatening to submerge these very low islands and some of the Kuna have already begun preparing to escape to the nearby mainland. The large mountains you can see in some of these pictures are on the coast of Panama.
The night before we arrived here was Tropical Night in the dining room. The large stuffed penguins who had been lined up to greet us as we boarded the ship were stylishly outfitted for the occasion. These pictures were taken in the morning; by the end of dinner one penguin was missing from each tableaux, presumably kidnapped to someone’s stateroom. We hope they will be recovered soon.
There are something over 60,000 Kuna, about half of whom live on the islands or the nearby coast. They have been recognized as an autonomous region within Panama since 1938, after an attempt by Panama to subdue the Kuna was fought off in 1925. The Kuna celebrate this defeat of the Panamanians every year, although we have read that the Americans helped end the conflict because of their concern for stability in the area of the Panama Canal. The Kuna are traditionally a matriarchal society, with inheritance passing through mothers and men moving to their brides’ houses when they marry, but this is apparently fading in recent years.
Early in the afternoon we tendered to one of the larger inhabited islands in the Carti group in the western part of the archipelago. The Kuna were unreceptive to visitors until 10 or 15 years ago, but now permit them, including many from cruise ships. We disembarked onto a small wooden pier and walked into the small town. The island appears to be very crowded with small wooden houses & we saw no expansive open places. The narrow pedestrian streets end at the water & you can see other islands the appear very close, but these few open spaces are very trashy if you step back a few paces. One tree we walked under was hosting a green parrot & another very noisy bird.
The main street was completely lined with women selling molas. If you don’t know what that is, a mola is a picture made of a stack of different colored cloth, which are cut down to different levels to form pictures or designs. The edges are sown down & there is often applique and/or embroidery added to complete the picture. They often depict birds, animals, fish or insects worked into extremely colorful designs. Sometimes more modern items find their way into a mola; we have one at home depicting teeth being extracted with pliers that was given to Rick’s father, a dentist. While the buildings were small and basic, with metal or palm leaf roofs, the island has electricity and solar panels and satellite dishes were plentiful.
The traditional dress of the Kuna women involves a lot of molas, with head scarves & arm and leg covers usually made of molas or beads.
We tendered back to the ship, where we had lunch and took a last look at the islands, much brighter in the afternoon sun. We aren’t sure which of these pictures are of the island we visited, as there were several that could be seen fairly close together. This was an interesting place to visit, but it looks like a challenging place to live.