Vinni – San Blas – Guna Yala – visiting the Guna indians


Ok – I’ll admit it. I’d never heard of the San Blas Islands until I saw the Danish TV series ”Kurs mod fjerne kyster”, wherein Mikkel visits a Guna family on one of the islands. When I saw it, I said to Carsten – I want to do that when we get to Panama.

Our date for transiting the canal is 14 days from now so we have the opportunity to spend 10 days in the San Blas before we have to be back in Shelter Bay and prepare for the transit May 5th.

After a hard nights sail, Capri carefully makes her way in through the narrow opening in the coral reef leading into the lagoon in the Chichime island group. The San Blas is a group of 340 islands, mostly sand that is surrounded by a large coral reef. Entering and sailing amongst the islands requires excellent navigation and this is one place where we really don’t want our chartplotter to fail. The best time to enter is with the sun at your back, so you can see through the water and spot the coral heads that rise up from the sands. This is the reason we’ve sailed all night – to here by mid-morning and have the sun where it is supposed to be. Our guidebook, from 2015, says that Chichime is 2 small unpopulated islands. Occasionally, some Guna Indians come out from the mainland to fish here. Entering the lagoon – we see 9-10 other boats lying at anchor in the turquoise colored waters.


Chichime Cays seen from above


3 Guna families live here

Apparently, a lot has happened here in the past 4 years. On one of the islands we see 3 Guna families living in there typical bamboo huts with palm leaf roofs. Surprisingly, on the other islands we see a number of “paleface” hotel guests lounging in front of six bamboo huts built on the white sand beach, while Guna Indians sweep the sands and bring them drinks.

Ok – we need to get in on the islands and see what is going on. “Little Capri”, our trusty dinghy, is dropped in the water, the outboard motor mounted, Carsten pulls the starter cord, and pulls the starter cord, and pulls the starter cord until he is exhausted. Carsten is beside himself with rage. We’ve just (for the 4th time) paid a couple of hundred dollars to have that damned motor serviced and fixed. It has been one headache after another on this trip. The engine has difficult to start and has lately developed a bad case of “kicking back”. It almost broke my wrist a couple of times so now I’m afraid to try starting it myself. We’re both almost ready to toss the damned thing in the ocean and buy a new one. But there’s only one thing to do – hoist it back on board Capri and Carsten gets out the tools and goes to work. An hour or so later, we lower it back down onto “Little Capri”, Carsten pulls the starter cord and it roars to life. “I’m so goddamned talented that I almost impress even myself”, Carsten says.

We just barely dragged Capri up on the beach when Grandmother, mother and little daughter (about 3 years old) suddenly appear in front of us and want to sell me “winibeads”, which are the bead arm-and-leg bracelets the all the Guna women wear. The local women wear them from their wrist to their elbows and knees to ankles and they are extremely colorful. The mother explains that she needs to earn money to buy a new tarpaulin for a roof for their kitchen hut. Naturally, I buy an armband for $10 – I mean who wouldn’t? The grandmother immediately wants to sell me a “Mola”, which is an embroidered square of cloth that the Guna women mount of the dresses, both front and back. I‘d decided that I wanted to buy a Mola to use as a tablecloth, but hers are not very pretty so I decide to wait and say “no thank you”.


Vinni is fitted with her new beautiful “winibeads”

Carsten and I walk around discretely on their island and keep a fair distance to their houses. This is their islands and their private property, but the Gunas keep their eye on us and wave and smile every time they catch our eyes. I’ll explain more about their lifestyle and culture when I write about the village we visited.

Afterwards we sailed over to the other islands and find out that the Gunas have given up fishing and made two mini resorts for backpack tourists, who rent a bamboo hut for $60 per day – all-inclusive meaning meals etc. Any booze you have to pay extra for. The Guna families make 3 meals a day in their outdoor restaurant. We decide to eat dinner there one night. The cook blows in a conch shell announcing that dinner is now served. The night we ate there, dinner was a half a freshly caught lobster, grilled white cabbage and deep fried plantains (a type of banana) and we bought cold beer to have with it. The mother spends her time lying in a hammock and supervises the entire operation and (in our case) collecting the money. Our guidebook says the Guna culture is a matriarchy.

As soon as the sun rises, the Gunas are out in their Ulu’s (dugout canoes) and either fishing or harvesting lobster – both of which they are happy to sell to cruising sailors like us. It is against the law for anyone but Gunas to fish in the San Blas.


Fishermen are out at sunrise

But other salesmen come by Capri, amongst them Venancio, who presents himself as a “Master Mola Maker”. His Molas are really nice and I immediately buy one, paying $40. Of course, I find later that Venancio has cheated me. When I turn it over, I see a piece of tape on the back that says $30 – oh well – I can afford it and it is beautiful.



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our beautiful Mola

A couple days later, we sail further on to the Eastern Lemmon Islands. On every island we pass we see bamboo huts. Apparently, the San Blas are no longer isolated and the Gunas are on all of them. We drop the hook in a postcard pretty anchorage, far away from an island where we saw a “real house”, built of concrete and obviously a minihotel. There were several “water-taxis” lying at a dock in front. That evening we can hear Guna indian music being played for the guest and it all reminds me of the Charter tourist Sangria and roast pig fests I went to in Spain with my parents when I was a young child. Carsten I said, tomorrow we need to push on and find some “real” Guna islands, with no tourists. We decide to sail to the Robeson group, near the mainland, a group of islands where there are few tourists and where the traditional Guna lifestyle still can be found.

After 15nm, my eye spots the authentic Guna Yala (Gunaland), small islands completely covered with bamboo huts and where the only people are Gunas, not palefaces. Shortly thereafter, Capri lies completely alone in a small lagoon by St. Gertie, only surrounded by Ulus speeding by with their colorful junk type sails. As our anchor rumbles out across the bows, I see an Ulu with 2 Gunas come rowing out to meet us. They are Justino and Kevin, whom we will end up spending the next couple of days with.

Justino presents himself very professionally, including a business card with his picture on it, and speaks excellent English. He explains that he practices his English at home with a dictionary and a DVD. Ok – he’s got my respect for that.

The Panamanian government has set aside a large area of the mainland and all the 340 San Blas islands for the Gunas. It is a self-governing territory and I guess it could be called a reservation. There are approximately 55,000 Gunas today, less than 10% of their population back when the Spaniards invaded in the 1500’s. The Guna government is very decentralized, all the way down to the local village. Each village has 3 Sailas, or chiefs, one of whom is the head chief. Sailas are elected by the “Congresso”, a sort of city council. The members, only men, meet each day in their Congresso house, typically the largest house in the village, to hold council and discuss any issues that need to be dealt with.


The village Congresso house

Justino explains that their Sailas is very old and infirm and Justino helps him by collecting the harbor fee and anything else he needs done. We pay him the $7 and he quickly returns with a receipt which means we can now freely wander around the village.

Justino also offers to guide us a trip up the Mandinga river on the mainland and then a one hour trek through the rainforest to visit the village there, Mandiyala. That is exactly what we want and we agree that he will come get us the next morning at 8 a.m. This is a trip that we had been recommended to do and use a guide named Bredio. So before accepting to use Justino, I asked him if he knew Bredio? No, he said and out of the corner of my eye I see Kevin crack a smile – I wonder why? It turns out that Bredio is Justino neighbor and a cousin of some sort, but Justino wants to earn the money himself. We ended up meeting Bredio later and Justinos English is much better, so we got a good deal.

To our surprise, Justino invites us to his house for dinner so we can try a traditional Guna meal consisting of tuna and plantains and meet his family – at no charge. Our jaws drop and we of course immediately accept. We agree that we’ll come into his island at 5p.m. We asked carefully if we can bring some wine to have with dinner? “Sure”, he says, “my wife is very religious and doesn’t drink but I like beer.” Ok, we’ll bring some wine and some beer and we were both very excited at this prospect of meeting the Gunas on their home “turf”.

The guidebooks use both Kuna and Guna and therefore I ask Justino which is correct?  “In the old days, say 20 years ago, we called ourselves Kuna, but today we use G and call ourselves Guna. We also don’t like the name San Blas, which was what the Spanish called the islands so today we use Guna Yala”.

We want to look more closely at St. Gertie before going to dinner at Justinos. St. Gertie is surrounded by a coral reef so we wind our way around the island in Little Capri, hoping to avoid the coral heads that threaten to tear her vinyl bottom out. If you hear me going “uhh” on the video, it’s because Carsten hit 2 coral heads while I was filming. Fortunately it was the propeller that hit and not our bottom. Since we were going so slowly, there was no damage to the propeller.

The closer we get to the island the more we can see that the island is completely covered with bamboo huts, built in one huge hodgepodge of houses. We sailed completely around the island and can see their “toilets” which is a Guna version of an outhouse. These are little huts built out over the water, so everything just goes straight down into the ocean and floats away. On the surface, very hygienic, if it weren’t for the fact that the kids and adults swim in the same places. The toilet itself is merely a hole in the floor so going to the toilet is great for building the leg muscles, since you have to squat the whole time. Forget toilet paper, here you use the left hand and eat with your right hand. There is a bucket filled with water by each toilet for rinsing you hand, but then I saw a small child drink from that bucket and well – there goes that theory. The Gunas must have self-vaccinated themselves going up against colibacteria since we didn’t see anyone with diarrhea.

So the question now is – where can we land our dinghy? The island is surrounded by a stone breakwater. We can’t set the dinghy in there – it will puncture. There are only small wooden docks that all look very private. Finally we see a dock by the islands small store and tie Little Capri up here. We wander around the island down the very narrow paths that are the streets here.  As we pass the school, the students are outside and I ask the girls if I can take a picture of them in their pretty school uniforms – they giggle and are very shy, some turn around and a couple hide behind the columns. I wonder if I’m allowed to take their picture when one of the boys comes running up, grabs a couple of the girls and poses with them.


The schoolgirls were shy – note the one hiding behind the column

The huts are built right on top of each other – no privacy here. The Gunas are just as curious as we are and they all smile and say “hola”. Gunas are very short – only pigmies are shorter. Our guidebook tells us that it can sometimes be difficult to determine if you are standing in front of a woman or a man, since some of the men like to wear women’s cloths and surround themselves with children. They are very feminine. We only saw a couple where the adam’s apple and the deep voice betrayed the fact that they were men dressed as women. Guna Indians are known for being extremely tolerant of transvestites, homosexuality and the fact that they are generally very promiscuous.

The women seem to reach a very old age in good health, although no one seems to be able to explain why. We don’t see many old men, but lots of old women. The men are all dressed in western fashion, pants and shirts, but the women are almost all dressed in traditional clothing, a blouse with Molas front and back and a sarong type of skirt. They are all relatively short haired under their red kerchiefs. Their arms and legs are covered in “winibeads” and most have either a gold earring or a nosering.


Great pic!


Very typically dressed Guna woman – note the beads on the arms and legs

I’m discreet with my camera and always ask if I can take a picture. It is very tempting to just fire away at these colorful Guna women. Generally the women do not want their picture taken, feeling that they will some part of themselves if their picture is taken. The first one I asked was this little Molas selling woman and her reaction was surprising – she raised 1 finger and said “1 Dollar”. I couldn’t refuse an offer like that. The woman with the parrot took the initiative herself, calling me over and saying “uno dollar”, again an offer I couldn’t refuse. The pictures I got are absolutely worth 2 dollars. The price is not random. Some years ago some Gunas were in Panama City and saw postcards being sold with picture of Gunas on them for 1 dollar. So they  decided if people would pay 1 dollar for a postcard, then they had to pay 1 dollar for a picture. Very fair in my opinion.

A man came up to us and presented himself as Bredio. We apologize and say that we already have an agreement with Justino. That’s ok with him, but he explains, he has a friend who has just gotten a new battery to run his TV on (most houses have a solarpanel and a small inverter to run radios and TVs), but he doesn’t know how to hook it up – Can Carsten help? Carsten says maybe and we walk across the little island to see his friend.

Bredio speaks a little English and Carsten has difficulty explaining the difference between hooking batteries up in series or parallel and not least the danger of hooking an old battery together with a new battery. Carsten promises to help find a solution, but he needs to go back to Capri to get his tools and some wires. The Gunas light up when they see Carsten’s tools and wiring. He makes up a set of wires and connects the new battery around the old battery, explaining once again, that they shouldn’t connect a new battery and an old battery together. Bredio immediately asks if Carsten can make a set of wires for him also – of course, and we’re happy to help if we can.

It’s now 5 p.m. and Justino is waiting on the dock on his small island for us. The whole island knows that he has a couple of gringos visiting. There are kids flocking everywhere to get a look a the gringos and virtually everyone comes out of their huts to say hi as we walk past on our way to Justinos hut. WOW – it is really dark in there.

As you might be able to discern on the video, there is a lack of furniture here, which is quite normal for a Guna house, since they sleep and relax in hammocks. Girls sleep with their mother and boys sleep with their fathers until they are 6 years old, then they get their own hammock. Justinos house is very luxurious. His is the only house on the islands with a gas oven and stove. He bakes a lot of bread and sells it to the other Gunas (and passing tourists like us – 50 cents per loaf). On this little islands, the population is about 100 – 11 families in total.

Besides his stove and oven, his is one of the few houses with a TV. He tells us that he needs to earn more money so he can buy a new satellite dish for his TV and upgrade his subscription with the cable company, preferably before july because Panama, for the first time ever, has qualified for the World Cup in soccer to be held in Russia. You can be sure that everything in the entire country will be closed when Panama plays. Justino (and every other Panamanian we met) is mega proud. Unfortunately, Denmark beat Panama 1-0 in the qualification round. Justino says he won’t hold that against us – especially if we promise to root for Panama in the World Cup. Justino has movie night once a week in his house and the entire island comes. He buys films in a flash drive. Carsten suggests that he start charging admission and then he quickly will be able to afford a new dish and a better subscription – not to mention charging for seeing all the games Panama plays in.

We say hello to his 3 children, ages 3 to 14. No  more kids he says, laughing – I can’t afford them. Gunas typically have 7-8 children, but they all need 2 new school uniforms each year, books, paper and pencils. Justino groans and tells us that now he also has to invest in a smartphone so his oldest can get internet. The 14 year old wants to get on Facebook just like everyone else and on top of that, the teachers at school encourage the kids to use Google – so now there is no escape for Justino. A new phone costs $40, Justino only has $20 – so we quickly donate $5 to the phone fund.

His wife sits or rather lies in her hammock when we come in and says hi. Justino notes that they have been married 20 years and she is his 3rd wife. He got married the first time when he was 16, she was 14 – but it only lasted 4 months and they didn’t have any children. He married again when he was 18 and that lasted 8 months (things were picking up – the second marriage lasted twice as long as the first). The guidebooks tell us that the Gunas are very matriarchs and the woman decides who she wants to marry and the man moves in with her and her family. Carefully, I broach the subject with Justino.

He’s convinced he found Daylina – but of course she had to accept his courting. Once she accepted, her mother had to accept him. Then the Sailas of Daylinas village had to accept him and when he had, he wrote to the Sailas of Justinos village and asked if that Sailas also could approve. When everyone had approved – they got married, Justino moved in with Daylina’s family. They do have their own hut – but live right next door to her parents and other family.

Until recently, the Gunas could not marry outside the tribe, but that has changed and now some Panamanians and Colombians have married into the tribe. Considering this ban, it is easy to understand how the Gunas were able to isolate themselves for so many generations. They managed to preserve their culture but one of the consequences was that the Guna Indians have the highest rate of albinism (albinos) in the world. It is not unusual to see a red-haired or blond albino amongst the black haired and dark skinned children. The first one we saw was Bredio’s daughter, 4 years old.


Bredio’s albino daughter

In the middle of the room they have set up a small table with 2 chairs and Justino invites us to have a seat. We feel a bit like we are on a stage with everyone lying around us in their hammocks watching us. Several of the neighbors come in just to look at us eat.  We’re not completely alone, Justino’s two youngest also get a seat at the table.


Carsten eating at the “children’s table”


Dinner was not a fresh tuna steak, but rather some type of flat fish that had been fried (very dry). Uhhh – I look around – knife and fork? This will be the first time I eat fish with my fingers and I’m hysterical about fish bones – I simply can’t abide eating one so I sit and try to be discrete while I crumble the fish to get the bones out. I wonder what the children are thinking about my table manners. The kids are told that they can only eat some of the plantain (food bananas), that are deep fried and take the place for French fries. But as with children everywhere, once in a while a little hand swoops into the fish plate and snags a bit of the fish – no matter, there is plenty for all. Justino shows us how the Guna eat Plantain. They dip the fried plantain in coconut water and pour salt on it – yummy. I eat mostly the plantains and some of Justinos excellent bread and only a little fish.

Justino enjoys the one beer we had on board and brought with us, but both our white and red wine disappear quickly. The 4 Guna men that have invited themselves into the house certainly like their wine – especially the one, whose glass is in constant need of refilling. Justino says that many Gunas have an alcohol problem and when they can afford it they drink until they drop. Personally he doesn’t and can have a couple of drinks and then stop. Suddenly his mother-in-law comes storming in and stands in the middle of the room. We don’t understand  a word of what she is saying, but there is no doubt that she is reading the riot act to all the men. After explaining (probably in detail) exactly what she thinks, she storms back out. All the men and even Daylina are smiling. There is no doubt who wears the pants in this family.  Even in Justino’s house, the mother-in-law is the boss – did I mention that the Gunas are a matriarch society? I ask Justino if she I mad that we are drinking alcohol? Justino did tell us his family is very religious. He shrugs his shoulders, thinks for a minute and says, “She accepts that I have a drink now and then, but she doesn’t want all the other men sitting here and drinking”. As she was leaving she sent a long hard look at the fellow who was drinking a lot, so perhaps her ire wasn’t entirely misplaced.

Suddenly we hear a weak crying from a cardboard box in the corner. “That’s our kitten, the mother died as she was born and we don’t know what to do. We don’t have any powdered milk and we want it to survive because we have lots of mice that live in our roof, but with no refrigeration I can only buy cans of evaporated milk and they go bad after a day in this heat”. It is horrible to listen to the poor kitten crying with hunger. I remember that we bought a bag of powdered milk to make yoghurt of and Carsten takes the dinghy out to Capri and gets it. Success!  The little kitten greedily gobbles the milk mixture from a spoon and after several spoonful’s, she burps contently and goes to sleep. So that makes 3 times today we have helped the Gunas.


The kitten has dinner – note the beads on Daylina and one of their sons in the background – also in her hammock

We thank Daylina and Justino profusely for the dinner and afterwards Justino gives us the grand tour of his island. Personal hygiene is at a much lower standard than we are used to, but our real impression is that the Gunas are “pigs” when it comes to garbage. Overall the garbage lies outside the huts and in the pathways. Cans, plastic bottles, plastic wrap, you name it – it is just tossed aside. Justino explains that on every island the garbage is burned regularly – but from looking around it is easy to see that they only burn a small portion. Some of the Gunas have found out that they can sell used aluminum cans to the Colombians and they do collect these – but it is far from all. They can earn more from selling cans than they can from selling coconuts and fish like they used to. But, not all the Gunas are into recycling.

The stone breakwater around the islands, which we thought were set to stop the ocean from encroaching on the sand of the islands, turn out to an entirely different purpose. They are actually for land development. When someone needs a new hut or a new family is established, the Gunas get rocks from the mainland, build a stone breakwater the size of the new lot they need and after a few months, the ocean has deposited enough sand behind the breakwater that they now have a building lot. Voila’. We’re learning a lot about this culture and their way of living – Justino is very open and willing to explain everything to us. One thing is certain – no Guna has ever died of stress – something the rest of us could learn from.


A new building lot under development

Another project is building a Ulu. First a Guna goes to the mainland and finds a tree whose size and shape he likes and cuts it down. Then 30-40 men from his village help him haul it down to the river, tie it to several Ulu’s and the tree is towed out to the island and hauled up on the shore. Then the shaping and hollowing out starts.


A new Ulu being hollowed out and shaped

Once again we thank Justino for a wonderful evening and as we’re leaving he says – wait one minute – and disappears into his house. He comes back out saying I have a gift for you and gives us a small model of an Ulu he’s made. Thank you very much Justino!


model Ulu

Completely filled with impressions and experiences we dinghy back to Capri and collapse into our bunk. After all, we have an early morning date with Justino for the guided tour.


Kevin left – Justino right – note his gold teeth

I’m impressed with how seaworthy these Ulus are. I feel quite safe even though are out in 2 foot high waves as we speed along. This Ulu has a big 15 hp engine on the back – not sails. It is a good 1 ½ hour across the water and up the river before we will get out and start trekking. But every Eden has it’s snake. I realize I’m sitting in water to my ankles – the boat apparently isn’t completely watertight. Carsten is given a small bucket and told to bail – which he does.


Vinni enjoys the ride

After about an hour, we enter the river and start up through the tropical rain forest. This is simply wildly exotic.

A half hour later the river becomes very narrow and dries out so we leave the Ulu here and start walking the rest of the way to the Mandiyala village. It is a good hour’s walk through the humid rainforest and the sweat pours off Carsten and me. But there isn’t a drop to be seen on Justino and Kevin. Justino tells us that when he goes to Panama City, the bus costs $12. Sometimes he doesn’t have any money, so he walks. The trip takes him 9 hours but for gringos like us, it takes two days (he did have the grace to smile as he said this). Justino is 40 years old and in much better shape than us.


The sweat pours off us – nary a drop on Kevin or Justino

After hiking a couple of miles, the terrain suddenly opens up completely and is flat. Under the low vegetation, we can see asphalt. What’s this? It seems that it was an airstrip and when the Americans gave the canal back to Panama, this airstrip was abandoned by them. The Guna village promptly burned it off to keep it from being used again. Mandiyala, the village we are going to, forbade strangers from visiting for many years. Burning the airstrip was one way to keep everyone away. We have our thoughts about visiting a place that so obviously doesn’t like strangers, but Justino says that he has called them and asked if we can come and the Sailas has said it is OK. We will have to pay $5 each for the privilege though. Apparently the village has become more tolerant the last few years. But it is also a sing of the times. They have gotten new and different needs and therefore need more money.

Beside the trail, we see a sign saying that the Panamanian government is building a solar farm to supply the village with stable electricity. More electricity will mean more television sets, radios etc – so the village will need more money.

The last stretch to the village is up a steep hill and we are sweating and huffing and puffing when we get into the village. First order of business  is seeing the Sailas and paying our money. We’re told that taking pictures of persons is completely forbidden, ok to take pictures of buildings and the landscape but no people. We pack our cameras away. The mood here is very different than is Justinos village and on the islands. On the islands, everyone was friendly and smiling – here they looked at us with suspicion.


One last hill climb and we are in Mandiyala

On the surface the village here reminds us of the islands, one difference being that here they sleep on beds and not in hammocks.  And why is that Justino? He doesn’t know but says he’d rather live down on the islands where there is always a breeze. Here it is very hot and humid. On the islands we fish and get water from the river and harvest some plantains. I’d rather sleep in a hammock that on a bed. We may have mice in our roofs, but here they have snakes and lots of other nasty things that come into the huts. We walk around and see the village has plantain, bananas, coconut, mango, avocado, cacao etc. planted. But each tree and bush belongs to one family – not common plantations here. They only eat the plantains – the rest is sold. They do fish in the river. Justino takes us to one family living outside the village. They are very rich , he explains, because they own a large plantation and fish with nets, meaning they catch a lot of fish to sell. And, he says, you can see just how rich they are. They have 2 15hp outboard motors, 3 chain saws and a pig (raised to be slaughtered).


The Guna women use this flower to make the red make-up they use

It is more than hot and humid and all of us need some type of freshening up. Justino takes us to the river and now it is time for swimming. The river is used for bathing and washing clothes and the village has forbidden emptying toilets in here, because all the drinking water for the village comes from this river and is hauled up in plastic bottles.


The “shitter” nice view

This part of the Gunas life is hard – they haul their washing and water up the steep hill all day long.


The river was wildly refreshing




The kids managed to play before they hauled their water cans back up to the hill to the village

Carsten and I brought a sandwich and we split it with Justino and Kevin. By the time we have climbed all the way back up the hill to the village, the sweat is pouring off us again. We collapse in front of the little village store and buy some cold cokes. Sailas lives just across from the store and calls Justino and Kevin over and invites them inside for a little lunch. Despite the fact the we buy cokes for everyone, including Sailas, we’re not invited, which is OK. We cool down by sitting on a bench in front of the store.

A woman comes by and tries to sell me some “winibeads”. When I explain that I already have some and show her the one I have on my arm, she tells me that I have two legs and another arm so I have room enough for lots more. I say no thank you again and suddenly she throws a torrent of words at me. I don’t speak Guna, but the meaning was clear, she thought I was an ass for not buying from her.

As we’re leaving the village, we walk past a family and hut and there is a parrot sitting in the tree. I take a picture and the immediately the family demands 2 dollars – highway robbery. I don’t want any trouble and pay the 2 bucks – but not willingly.

The same woman who scolded me for not buying her “winibeads” comes by, this time followed by an albino girl who looks to be about 16 years old. Almost transparent white skin, light grey eyes and hair that is almost pearl colored. We can easily see just how hard it is for an albino to live in this very sunny area. Despite it being overcast, she walks with her eyes tightly clenched together and on her mother’s arm. They sit down across from us. The poor girl is almost unable to open her eyes due to the light – she must spend most of her life indoors in the dark. Being an albino here means truly being handicapped.

We’ve had enough of this almost unfriendly village and when Justino and Kevin return we are ready to leave. Jesus we are tired when we get back to the Ulu. One of Justinos friends from the village needs a lift to an island so that means an extra hour on the water. The lift is to the island that Justino was born on and where his sister lives. Everyone wants to get home as fast as possible and Justino asks if we mind getting a little wet? We say no and he opens the throttle up on the outboard and the Ulu flies across the waves. It gets on a plane and is running at 15-20 knots. Both of us get drenched by the spray and we look like a couple of drowned mice when  we get back to Capri. We give Justino and Kevin $40 for the guided tour and they seem quite happy with that. Now Justino can buy his son the smartphone.

I have nothing but good things to say about the culture and atmosphere in the villages on the islands. Everyone we met were very relaxed and friendly. It seems as if everyone helps each other so it almost is like a commune. Everyone walks into everyone houses like they belong there, the children are raised by everyone in the village, the children all play together and the schoolchildren do their homework together. It seems like a paradise – but is it?

Well – yes and no. Every paradise has its own snake. Justino tells us that the Gunas are divided into 2 groups: the traditionalists and the moderns. Justino, obviously, is a member of the latter. This group has gotten more and more materialistic and desires more and more modern goods from western civilization. TVs, radios, smartphones, solar panels, generators, batteries, modern clothing and modern medicine. Justino has an eye problem that he has been operated on for twice, costing $475 each time and now he needs another operation. Where will he get the $475 from?

The Gunas have always paid each other with coconuts and fish – wealth was determined by how many coconut palms you had and how many fish you caught. But that type of economy doesn’t work in the western world. The phone company and the cable company don’t accept a pile of coconuts or a bag of fresh fish as payment of the bill each month. So more and more, the Gunas are forced to find ways to get hard cash.

In the “Congresso” one topic is frequently the need to attract more tourists (and their money), but there is violent disagreement on this, because many Guna really don’t want their culture to change. To earn money for eye operation, Justino goes to Shelter Bay and works for several months at a time. Either that or he goes to visit his mother who owns and runs a restaurant on one of the miniresort islands. Everyone on his islands wants him to become Sailas (a real honor), but his wife has forbidden it. A Sailas just lies around in his hammock and dispenses advice and makes decisions. He doesn’t have a job and that means no money coming in.

What we’ve seen here is the seduction of a culture – western goods and values are forcing a rapid change in Guna lifestyle and we are fortunate to have visited here before the old ways are completely gone. So much has changed here in the past 5 years that we feel that in another 5 years this will be a mini-caribbean with large hotel resorts and the bamboo huts will be replaced with concrete buildings and air-conditioning. The backpack tourist will be gone and the moneyed crowd of tourists will have conquered the islands.

But before we leave Guna Yala, we have to go to Holandes Cays, a group of islands that is protected by a 7 mile long coral reef. The snorkeling here is supposed to be exquisite (if you can swim between the crocodiles that live here). Scuba diving is not allowed in the San Blas – I’m not sure why, but that will probably also change as tourism encroaches on the islands.


Mind the Crocs! Everyone tells us that the crocs aren’t out on the reef but live on the  islands. Hmmm. But we jump in just like the others snorkelers. The water is completely clear – we can easily see 15 meters. We dinghy out to the reef and drop our little dinghy anchor. We’ve bought a small flexible dinghy ladder so we can get back up into the dinghy from the water. We decide to test it first with one of us still in the dinghy.

Shit!! The ladder keeps sliding in under the dinghy. No way to get up using that. Carsten can get up the side of the boat, although it isn’t pretty. Now it is my turn. I also give up on the ladder, but worse, I can’t haul myself up over the side of the dinghy. Then I try using the outboard as a ladder, but that doesn’t work either. Carsten has to haul me up like a dead fish – not a pretty sight. If Carsten wants to get my life insurance, all he has to do is drop me in the water by the dinghy when there are sharks – I can’t get up by myself (although I will find a way).

The weather is against us unfortunately. When you snorkel it is best if it is sunny- otherwise most things look gray. But we do have a couple of hours of sunshine so we jump in. The tide is going in and running at about 2 knots so the swim out through the reef is tough going. Coming back is a breeze though and we’re pushed right back to the dinghy. We saw enough and to get a real taste of the wonderful snorkeling here. It’s like snorkeling in an aquarium.

The next day we sail back to Chichime and prepare for a long days sail up the coast to Porto Bello where we will spend a night or two before returning to Shelter Bay and preparing for our canal transit May 5th.


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