ship anchored in the Archipelago near El Porvenir and we tendered ashore.
The reason the ships don't stop there anymore is the massive size of the
ships today. Can you imagine a mega ship unloading 3000+ people on that
island? The islands with the warm clear blue water and beautiful coral reefs
are mostly visited by yachters, however, a few of the smaller cruise ships
do "stop-overs" on their 18-36 days sailings.
Holland America several years back we were very fortunate to visit one of
the most memorable islands ever-- the tiny island of San Blas called Porvenir.
Actually it is one of the larger islands for cruise ships near the entrance
to the Canal at Colon that allowed passengers to shop for the marvelous
molas embroidered by the Kuna women. Our ship anchored at a distance from the island and tendered us
to a rickety wharf past dugout canoes floating with natives quietly waiting
in the beautiful the turquoise waters. When we docked there, it was like a
scene out of the movie.. white sand beaches, palm trees, clear blue
waters, thatched-roof huts, bamboo homes, hammock beds and an herbal
medicinal garden. I thought I was in paradise! We couldn't help but marvel
that this civilization was only an hour by air from the metropolis of Panama
City, yet still looked much like it must have for the last several hundred
GEOGRAPHY: The islands of the San Blas
Archipelago are strung out along the Caribbean coast of Panama from the Golfo
de San Blas nearly all the way to the Colombian border. Home to the Kuna (Cuna) Indians, the
San Blas Archipelago is comprised of hundreds of islands and islets
found just off the coast of the Comarca de Kuna Yala. This Comarca,
or autonomous territory, is a thin strip of land that stretches across
Panama's northeastern coast. While some of the San Blas Panama islands are
inhabited, others remain isolated, showing no signs of life at all. There
aren't too many destinations in the Caribbean quite like the San Blas
Islands Panama archipelago. Here, you can witness the Kuna living much like
they did centuries ago, in a part of the world that truly deserves to be
THE PEOPLE: The Kuna Indians
were driven off Panama during the Spanish invasion and they fled in their
boats to the 378 islands around. The chief of all the islands lives on an
island called Acuadup, which means rock island. What a fascinating
people they are. They have their own system of governance, consultation and
decision making while maintaining their own economic system, language,
customs and culture.
The village had a medicine man who uses
plants and herbs to heal the sick and injured.
San Blas Islands accepts dollars universally and participates in barter as
well. Spanish is spoken widely, but the Kuna Indians have their own
dialect known as Kuna.
The dark-skinned Kuna (Cuna) Indian men are about five feet or less! Short
in stature and just slightly taller on average than the pygmies of Africa.
The inhabitants used to wear few clothes and decorated their bodies with
colorful designs. When encouraged to wear clothes by the missionaries, they
followed their body painting designs in their Molas, which they wore as
village is breathtaking and its culture even more
interesting. We wandered the entire island soaking up
its treasures of culture and hospitality. Men fish
and take care of the plantations and women cook, take care of children and
sew the colorful Molas which are pieces of fabric finely cut and sewn
together that resembles images of their culture, nature, animals, etc.
Fishing is rustic and they do not use any mechanical methods to catch the
fish. And they still run up the coconut palm trees for something fresh
and cool to drink each morning, just as they have for untold centuries.
Our view of the island as we tendered ashore
The gorgeous shallow reefs and clear blue water
The culture of the people
stunned me - their politeness, the cleanliness, the hospitality. And they do
not pester you with their goods. If you are
one of the lucky ones, your ship will stop for a day on
this secluded island. It was one the best ports that we have
ever visited and probably the most primitive place we have ever visited. Getting the chance to interact with the Kuna
people is a treat for any
traveler. We were told, if you want to help, do not to give money
to the natives as they come out to meet us in their dugout canoes--instead,
wait until you get on the island and buy some of their fantastic arts and
The Kunas patiently waiting in their canoes for their guests
to come ashore. One mother was actually nursing her baby.
...but who could resist these sweet,
polite faces as we began to roll out the gangplank?
Our rickety entry pier.
Small children swarmed around us as we walked around the
island - and they looked so happy and content! We visited some of the huts
and marveled that all cooking was still done over an open fire in a
smoky hut dedicated to cooking. The young girls start very early
making the beautiful embroidery.
Grannies and children share something in common
We were treated to a Kuna folk dance!
The Kuna Yala Tribe has rainbow fabrics, compelling legends,
engaging music and dance, and delightful art. In the villages, locals
take pride in the wonderful festivals and enjoyable celebrations throughout
the year that include customary dances, games, dress, and speeches. On this
day.. the folk dance was just for us.
THE EVER POPULAR MOLA SOUVENIR:
Indians are popular for their molas; multi-purpose colored fabrics
commonly used by Kuna women as blouses. These fabrics are made by sewing
multiple layers of cloth (appliqué) to produce beautiful and geometric patterns. The
fabric’s intricate designs make it unique and most visitors use them as wall
hangings. Besides the women wearing molas, they wear headdresses, and long skirts when they leave their island
home and travel to other islands or to the mainland to sell their mola
Most of the younger
people are dressed as Americans dress; the men and boys wear baseball caps
and western clothes. The older women or mothers wear the traditional
dress, which consists of a red and yellow bandana or scarf
on the head, a floral print shirt on the top and a "Mola" sewn in to the
middle with a long colorful printed sarong. The tradition of wearing
beads (Chaquiras in Spanish) or gold bangles may have started with
visitors from the Orient. Each adult woman wraps yards of small beads strung
on thread around her arms and legs every day. These beads may completely
cover the arm to the elbow and the leg to the knee! According to their
beliefs, chaquiras protect them from bad spirits. Women generally have their
nose and ears pierced with golden rings, and have a blue vertical line
painted on their foreheads made out of Jagua fruit.
Be sure to purchase a souvenir! Mola designs vary
from the abstract and geometric to representations of birds,
fish and innumerable other subjects, all different, but all
distinctly Kuna. These works of art are one of Panama's
best-known native crafts and can be purchased in every town
of San Blas. Molas with simple patterns will cost you around
$10 while those with complicated patterns can go up to $100.
Also available are necklaces of sea shells, and chaquiras,
the bead bracelets used to adorn women's arms and legs.
The island was very primitive for the most part, with the majority of the
houses and buildings being bamboo huts. When cruise
ships pull into Porvenir,
many locals had tables set up for vending. At every table
there were molas, bracelets, jewelry, purses, pot holders, shells, and small
flutes made from a local seed. We weaved through the huts and craft
tables and came to a small store where they did have one kind of rum, Ron Abuelo Anejo,
which we tasted before buying.
Hotel Porvenir - The
hotel was very primitive - no locks on the doors, bamboo walls, and salt
The Hotel's Bar and Restaurant--no service-- unless you are a guest at the
The island was built in a very
traditional way - bamboo huts were used for almost every home and also for
the "congreso," the large gathering place for the nightly tribal meetings. There
were only a few buildings that weren't made from bamboo and thatch, and
those were the school and the clinic. The Kunas generally lived in
sand-floored thatched huts without plumbing or electricity. They go to
bed at sundown.
The Meeting Hall (congreso) The Market
Towns on San Blas are exceptionally
tidy. Public buildings include schools, health centers and the town hall, a
long building with thatched roof which is the heart of each community where
citizens meet daily, except Saturdays and Sundays, to discuss community
affairs, as well as issues involving neighboring communities and Kuna
culture in general.
I peeked in the classroom, the only
building that is not a thatched hut... outdoors they also have classrooms.
The children are adorable!
of small airplane at El Porvenir, Panama - YouTube
The airstrip is very
close to the little hotels--and very narrow. I think I would prefer
arriving by cruise ship to flying here. Watch the
OUR DUGOUT CANOE EXCURSION:
took an island "excursion" for $10 and climbed into a "Cayucos" (dugout canoe)
while our Captain took us around the larger neighboring islands. We
paddled past the traditional burial grounds and took a
tour to the adjoining jungle waterfalls.
were told how men traveled to the mountains on an expedition to find a huge
tree to make their boats. It would take many men a very long time to find
the right tree and even longer to get it back down to the island from the
mountains. The boats were incredible and colorfully decorated - each crafted (dug out) from a single gargantuan tree with
carved paddles to transport themselves between islands and to fish.
Our Cayucos Captain
....and lst mate (his son)
The burial Island
Our ship, tendered out from the island
Among other featured destinations for cruises to Panama, the San Blas
Islands are a cultural Caribbean gem.
The Kuna have tried to preserve their culture and their simple ways,
while still venturing out to trade their unusual crafts with
travelers from around the world. Let's hope they can continue to
walk this line between the present and the past successfully. We
bid farewell to these wonderful people and tendered back to our
cruise ship. I so want to come back to this island some day--
it certainly is on my "bucket list!"