The San Blas Islands, Our Winter Home

This morning, we’ll make our way toward the San Blas Islands, where we plan to stay until early April. As usual, we expected to be settled there already, but Mother Nature again intervened.

After Otto passed by, the Christmas winds that regularly build in the Eastern Caribbean began to blow. While we don’t get the wind speed down here, it does drive large swells our way. As a result, our 8-10 hour ride should be interesting.

We expect swells of eight feet or so, which won’t be so bad if they are timed well and winds stay light and variable, as forecasted; the big word here is IF. Either way, the seas won’t get any better this time of  year, so it’s off we go.

As I mentioned previously, the San Blas Islands are a remote area is located on the northwest coast of Panama, in the Caribbean Sea.

Image result for map of the san blas islands

There are conflicting numbers, but between 365 and 400 islands make up the archipelago, only 49 or so of which are inhabited (not the best detailed map, but the best I could find online).

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The 100 square mile area is home to an indigenous group known as the Gunas, and the islands are also referred to as the Guna Yala region. Internet will be sparse for us this winter, so I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far, about the Guna people..

The approximate 50,000 Gunas in the San Blas have their own language, but also speak Spanish, and more recently, English.

They have a matriarchal society, in which inheritance passes down to the women. A young man, after marriage, must move in with his in-laws, and work for several years under the apprenticeship of his father-in-law. Daughters of the Guna are prized, because they will eventually bring additional manpower to the family.

Divorce is rare, although all that is required is for the husband, should it happen, is to gather his clothes and move out of the house (too bad it doesn’t usually work out this nicely elsewhere).

There is a division of labor within families. The husband gathers coconuts, cultivates food, provides firewood, repairs the house, makes his and his son’s clothes, weaves baskets and carves wooden utensils. The wife prepares the food, collects fresh water from the mainland rivers, unloads the boats, sews female garments, washes clothes and cleans the house.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Guna wore few clothes, and decorated their bodies with colorful designs. When encouraged to wear clothes by the missionaries, they copied these designs in molas, which were then worn as clothing.

The Gunas are now famous for their molas, which are handmade using a reverse applique technique. Several layers (usually two to seven) of different color cloth (usually cotton) are sewn together; the design is then formed by cutting away parts of each layer.

The edges of the layers are then turned under and sewn down. Often, the stitches are nearly invisible. The finest molas have extremely fine stitching, made using tiny needles. (I borrowed this description from Wikipedia, where there is much more interesting mola information).

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Mola means “clothing” in the Guna language, and the panels are used to make blouses, worn daily by most Guna women (men wear western dress). We’re told that looks like this are the norm on the islands of the Guna Yala region, and it seems the women also enjoy pipe smoking.

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Image result for kuna yala

The economy of the Guna Yala is based on agriculture and fishing. Plantains, coconuts and fish is their core diet, supplemented by simple imported foods, a few domestic animals and wild game. Coconuts and lobsters are widely exported products, and migrant labor and the sale of molas provide other sources of income.

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In 1925, there was a revolution between the Guna Indians and the ruling Panamanian authorities, who attempted to force the Guna to adopt Hispanic culture by military action. During this revolution, the Guna Yala territory seceded, and operated as the short-lived Republic of Tule.

Following mediation with the United States, the Guna re-united with Panama. With the support of the Panamanian government, the Gunas created a self-governing territory, named the Guna Yala district, where they would rule themselves.

Relations are still strained between mainland Panama and the Guna Yala region. Most recently, both customs and immigration have moved out of the area, and cruisers now have to clear in and out of the country on the mainland. Going to one town for customs, and another for immigration; frustrating!

We’re looking forward to visiting this area for the winter months, and will look for a window of weather in late March, to travel to Cartagena, Colombia, before continuing on to the Eastern Caribbean.

As usual, you can track us on the Where Are We Now page, where you can also send an email through our Delorme satellite tracker.  We look forward to a winter of views like this!

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“Shells Sink, Dreams Float. Life’s Good On Our Boat!”







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