The San Blas archipelago is one of the top cruising destinations in the Caribbean. Lying only 70 miles east of the entrance to the Panama Canal, these 300+ islands range in size from a spit of sand with 1 perfectly arching palm tree seen by many only in beer ads to village islands with dwellings packing ever inch.
But mainly you see uninhabited islands surrounded by the clear Caribbean sea. They lie off the Panama mainland which is mostly undeveloped.
Travel, other than by boat, into Guna Yala is an arduous dirt road jeep trip + water taxi or by small plane.
The Gunas are the indigenous folks who live in the islands and are proud of their traditional way of life and, though technically Panamanian, they have managed to live autonomously and preserve much of their culture.
The Gunas are the primary residents of these islands and have their own language and refer to the area as Guna Yala (Panamanians call it the San Blas). Charts of the area label the islands with a bunch of hard-to-pronounce letters each ending in “dup” (pronounced doop), the Guna word for island. Doesn’t “Ogoppiriadup” just roll off the tongue?
However, having once been a part of Colombia and now Panama, Spanish words pepper the area as well. And now that the Americans, Europeans and gringos in all shapes and forms have discovered this cruiser’s paradise, they have added names of their own. So the anchorages around Banedup, Quinquindup, Kalugirdup, Miriadup, Tiadup are referenced by clear-water loving cruisers as the ” the swimming pool” “the hot tub” and “the changing room”.
In addition, there is a Dog Island, a Green Island and BBQ Island.
The Gunas are small-statured people, with large skills in fishing and mola making. Molas are multilayered panels of cloth cut away to achieve intricate patterns of abstract shapes or animals. Aappliqué is also used and carefully hand stitched to create the panels.
The molas are used as a front and back panel of women’s blouses, but the craft has become their signature and the panels are seen now by many as folk art. While fishing, lobstering and crabbing are traditionally done by the Guna men, mola making is “women’s work”. However, the two master, and best known, mola makers are transgender women (completely normal and accepted by the Guna), the famous and talented Lisa and Venancio.
We dined several times on local lobster and giant red crabs sold to us by enterprising Guna fisherman working from their dugout canoes. We had the pleasure of our friends Mike and Holly joining us on Neko for a few weeks of sailing these beautiful islands. Fellow boat pals Rob & Rose on “R&R Kedger”, Dave & Melissa on “Apsaras”, Dave & Margaret on “Heart and Soul” and special guest stars Roger & Susan on “Second Wind” made up our fun loving “lobster” fleet. By the way readers, the SS Neko is now open for visitors, so let us know if you want to spend some time with us.
Thanks to R&R, Apsaras and Second Wind for sharing photos. Click on photos to enlarge.