San Blas Islands 2009

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In early 2009, Neil and Helen joined Dennis and Pam Moonan on Glide, a Sceptre 42 in the San Blas Islands, off the North coast of Panama, just East of the canal.

These are a group of about 100 archetypical tropical islands, with palm trees and sandy beaches within a few miles of the mainland.  The coast is very little developed, with no roads whatsoever on the North side of the mountains.  The region, known as Kunalaya, is a semi-autonomous region of Panama, inhabited only by the Kuna Indians, who have retained much of their pre-European culture.

We flew from Panama City to Mulatupu, on a twin Otter, then spent 10 days sailing West to the Hollandes Cays area, stopping at several islands en route.  The air terminal is rather different from a North American hub.  Helen and I were the only non-Kuna on the flight, but as you can see from the baggage waiting to load on the return flight, there were some backpacker tourists around too.

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The airport is on an uninhabited island, so the local taxis from Mulatupu meet all flights, as you can see here in the airport parking lot.  These are the high tech boats, with motors. 

Most of the local boats are dugouts, called "Ulus" propelled by paddle, and with a sail when the wind is favourable. 

The Kuna farm on the mainland, paddling ashore early every morning, and returning with food, some for sale en route to yachties .  This guy has mostly bananas, but produce varies.

We found it amazing how they happily navigated several miles of fairly open water in these tiny canoes.  The two Kuna below are about 5 miles offshore, in force 5 winds and seem quite happy, although the guy had to stop baling to wave to us.  Presumably the outboard does not work, or else they were saving gas.

The mountain skyline in the shot below-left of two ulus under sail is the crest of the cordillera.  The Pacific Ocean is visible from the top

Diesel and gas are available only by "tanker" delivery.  This tanker had just delivered about 100 litres of diesel to us,  in plastic cans with cracks in the top. 

We filtered all the fuel while pouring it into the tank on Glide.

Houses are primarily thick thatched roofs, with open structure cane walls.  They are well insulted from the sun, and well ventilated.  Of course, at 9 degrees North, they never need heat. 

A wood fire burns constantly inside, for cooking, usually made up of several logs in a star formation, pushed in as the end burns off.

The two guys below are building the wall in a new house, after building the frame and thatching the roof.   Everything is held together by "rope" made by splitting vines.

The Kuna women, and gay men, make beautiful molas, but cutting patterns in layers of cloth of different colours, and and sewing them together with tiny stitches, all manually.

The women all wear traditional dress, with intricate beads on forearms and calves. The young lady insisted on going and putting on her jewellery before posing for us.

The ulus vary in size, but all are pulled out of the water when not in use.  Some are quite simple, while other owners like colour.

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This ulu seems a bit wonky to Denis

This ulu is approaching completion. 

We were told that those made from pine are easy to build, but last only a few years, while some of the local hard woods last "forever" for those willing to take on the extra work.

Most of the uninhabited islands are thick with palms and undergrowth, but Barbecue Island is "gardened" by a cruising sailor who spends most of his time anchored off it. 

Denis and Helen are seen enjoying the lawn.

The Kuna harvest the coconuts and sell them to Columbian trading boats in considerable quantities.   When "gardening" Barbecue Island, the coconuts are carefully stacked for the Kuna, NEVER kept by the yachties.

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