“This is it… This is What I Have Been Waiting For”
Years and years of longing and dreaming about going to Panama in our own boat and anchoring at the San Blas Islands, where the natives row up in their canoes and trade or sell stuff.
I know, you are asking WHY was this my dream.
Well a little history. Back in 2011-ish, don’t even really remember the year for sure, Dan and I were in San Diego. We enjoy boat shopping while we were in areas with yachts. We had stopped at a couple yacht brokers and asked to see motor yachts with the particular features that we were looking for. During one of these stops we had a fairly young broker that showed us a few boats for sale. After the tour the broker invited us back to his office, he was going to do some type of research for the questions we had asked. During this point I asked this young 20-something broker “how did you get into this business”. He told me something about his family always had boats…. Blah, blah, blah…. But then he said, “he and his wife spent a year in Panama, San Blas Islands on his sailboat living off fish, swimming and trading fresh water with the locals for fruits & other local items” That was it, I was hooked! I told Dan, that is what I want to do! I think it just sounded so romantic and alluring being anchored off islands and the local come up asking for stuff, just for basic survival.
~And so, our dream began~
Let’s walk through a bit about these beautiful Islands, San Blas.
- Over 340 Islands
- A lot of islands are unoccupied
- The locals are Gunas Indians
- The local Gunas call their Islands “Guna Yala”
- Approximately 55,000+ Gunas across the islands
- The Islands are officially part of Panama as a country
- The Gunas have their own laws and are not governed by Panama
- The law is set by chiefs on each island, some have multiple levels of chiefs
- No Guna is allowed to inter-marry a non-Guna, unless with approval from chiefs
- You can not be on these Islands after dark, unless approved or staying in a hut
- The islands all have huge reefs around them
- The Guna people speak a combination of Spanish and Guna (the local language)
- Almost no crime on these islands and they are non-aggressive people
- Most recently the islands near the Colombian border have had some crime
- Fresh water and electricity are in short supply
- The economy runs on selling coconuts. The coconut trees are all owned by someone that collects them and gets income from them. You are not allowed to take any coconuts
- The husband moves into the wife’s compound and she controls the money
- The Guna Flag has a swastika on it. The flag was created before German Nazi took the symbol as their own.
- Barely touched by the modern world
- Some Guna’s will not let you take photo of them, some will charge you $1 and some are okay with the photos being taken of them.
After dreaming about this for so long, I didn’t really know what it would feel like or even look like. But with all dreams our minds/brains attach some type of image to how “we” think it might look or feel like. That is, until it becomes real. Then you are able to replace it with the “real” pictures.
“Your dreams MUST be put into action, otherwise it is something you do while you sleep”
The Islands felt like time had just gone by them. The kids had the run of the island and everyone knows whose kids they were. I’m guessing like a small town might be, but this is a very small town that you can’t leave unless it is a boat. Everyone takes care of each other. They are all in the same boat together, no pun intended. The rules and laws set by the Chief of their island or islands. (usually an older, very respected man) Time is mostly governed by the sun, they depend on the sea for food and sell coconuts and other hand made items which generates some income. Some have jobs on the islands and some go away to work. They are such a helpful, friendly group of people. I cannot ever remember meeting such warm welcoming group of people.
Our main goal was to see as many islands as we could, but also keep out of the swells and stay safe while anchored. When we arrived at a new island the canoes are all in force, coming at us from all directions as we are trying to anchor. They want to be the first one in and against our swim step as we turn off engines and go to greet them. I can’t understand them, they speak a mix of Spanish and guna (their own language) but I’m assuming that they are in a bit of a friendly competition, it is money for their family. The first couple canoes in against our swim step get the honor of stepping out on to our boat and showing off all their goods. The others hang back a bit and hold them up for me to see. The canoes are mostly full of ladies with their beaded bracelets/anklets, head bands, etc. and their molas.
“A mola is an elaborate handmade embroidered panel”
The Molas are beautiful and range in price from $5 to $40 depending on the size. I am doing my part with keeping their families fed by purchasing as many as I can. This process is overwhelming, viewing and picking out what I like. They start pulling out their goods and laying them out one over top another. I cannot see them all, there are just too many and many different ladies. At some point I start to pick the ones that I have no interest in and hand them back so I can narrow down my choice. When I am done buying or picking out the ones I like, then I ask how much for the ones I picked out. This is usually a miming exercise with me holding up fingers and pointing to the molas that I have picked out… uno, doce, trace…. $5, 10, 15 fingers go up or whatever the price and quantity happen to be. A very limited group can speak english or know the amount in english. I can see the ladies happy and sad faces. Some I bought something from, some I didn’t. It is really hard for me. I wish I could buy something from everyone, but it is just not possible. This happens at every island we pulled into. Once in a while we got someone selling something unique or different, a small wood carved items & a bone/gord type rattle.
Later we might have boats that come with fish, lobster, crab, bananas, limes, mangos. Sometimes the Gunas are looking for fresh water. We like to trade with these guys as much as possible.
Our first english speaking Guna was “Nester”. Nester was a nice man that helped us learn more about the islands, he took me over to the island by his dugout canoe to check into the San Blas Islands. Nester cleaned a couple fish for us that we had purchased from a boat. We took them on a cruise in our boat when we moved from one island to another. We gave them some of our food and drinks to try out and visited with their family. We were invited back to his home, served coconut water with a straw in the actual coconut. This is an honor, because they sell their coconuts. Dan tried to help him with his solar unit that wasn’t working well.
Dan helped a couple Gunas with their outboard motor. (very few had motors). He was surprised that they didn’t really understand much about their outboard motor. He helped fix the spark plug and off they went.
We heard that different local man had homemade bread daily. So we went on shore early one morning to find Alfredo and his bread business. Alfredo also spoke pretty good english and we later learned that he is the second level Chief over all the islands and had just come back from a trip to Panama City to discuss schooling. The small rolls we got were $0.15 a piece. We bought $2.00 worth. We ate a couple and froze the rest. While we were on shore we stopped by the local market that had only a few items, Rice, some type of wheat, bottles of juice. That is it, period.
Another Guna with english skills was “Justino”. He came and asked us for help with his solar unit on his house. He said that his wife would have handmade jewelry for me. Dan did some of the same type of diagnosis but this time he was more prepared with what to bring with him. Dan wrote down what he needs to buy in town. We then took them over to a neighboring Island to accomplish a few things that their island didn’t have. We were just his taxi service. In trade the next day Justino gave us a river tour and took us to where the trees are cut down to make the canoes they use. Dan was also excited to get the bottom of our boat scraped by a local, Ronaldo who was Jusitino brother-in-law. Ronaldo did the whole boat in 3 hours with snorkel only. These people are amazing.
Some islands now have water pipes leading to their island. (not exactly sure how, but they do) Some Islands are close to mainland and family members with 5-gallon jugs haul 8-10+ containers in their hollowed-out canoe to collect fresh water from a river and back. They do this every day. Pictures of “nesters family getting fresh water from us. They do have schools on some islands that kids attend until 9th grade & a town hall where grievances are brought forward and worked out with chief.
We also visited an island where you could rent a hut. It isn’t as crowded with homes and such as the other islands were. Dan chatted with a couple ladies that said they were from Canada and had nothing to do, they were board stiff. Not much to do on the islands, that’s for sure.
Pictures of mushroom, bark with sharp needles sticking out & used for pain medicine, mangroves we floated underneath & some type of tree with red petals.
Islands we visited in our 11 days at San Blas
- Isla Povenir
- Chichime Cays, Uchutupu Dummat
- Bahia Nalia on Punta San Blas
- Islas Robeson, Tupsuit Dummaat (aka Gerti)
We wanted to visit more islands and stay longer but the weather was not cooperating. Just too much wind/waves & swells to keep us there.
So here we are living the dream and seeing what the real images look like. Replacing our dreams with real memories. Not just made up in our brains. We are “Living Life to the Fullest Extent!”
If you are busy dreaming up something of your own and you are not putting action items in place to help you achieve it. Remember it will remain only a dream unless you work towards it.
Cheers to those that dreamers that are working towards living those dreams!