Anthropologist James Howe documents in detail the 20th Century history of the Kuna or Guna Indians, inhabitants of Panama’s San Blas Islands (Guna Yala to the locals). Howe describes the Guna’s struggle to maintain their independence in the remote San Blas in the face of missionary and other outside influences. Fellow cruisers’ intriguing descriptions of the Guna’s traditional and simple lives lured us to begin our 2016 cruising season in the San Blas. Equally enticing was the opportunity to explore uninhabited islands, snorkel reefs bursting with colorful fish, and to sail in trade winds in waters protected from the swells by outer reefs. The holiday season would allow our daughters to join us, adding the final element to what promised to be a special time. A month in Guna Yala has allowed us to begin to answer a number of life’s persistent questions, including: is it possible to eat too much lobster, what’s a mola and how many molas are too many molas, how does Elizabeth Jean and her crew fare in more remote locales, and–perhaps most importantly–how are the Guna’s adapting their traditional lives to cruisers and other tourists, as well as cell phones, solar panels and other technology?
The green area locates Guna Yala on Panama’s Isthmus.
Our explorations focused on the area between El Porvenir (upper left) to Nargana/Corazon de Jesus (left of center); areas further to the east are more remote and more traditional than those we visited.
The ulu (dug out canoe) is still a widely used transportation mode; Dog Island in the background provided the scene for adventures with our guests. I wish I knew to whom to attribute this photo. It nicely summarizes Guna Yala’s cultural and environmental characteristics.