Our 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.

     On 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 years.


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 called paradise.

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.  

     The 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 clothing.

     The quaint 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 crafts.


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.

                 Charming people                                   Adorable children                                                Colorful Molas


      Grannies and children share something in common ....pipes!

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: Kuna 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 embroidery.

     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 BUILDINGS:   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 water showers.                                                 The Hotel's Bar and Restaurant--no service-- unless you are a guest at the hotel!

     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!


 Landing 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 YouTube!         


     We 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.    

     We 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)                                   Waterfront property?




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!"


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San Blas, Panama