Monday, January 25, 2010

Kuna Yala

The passage across the Caribbean sea is considered to be one of the
roughest in the world. Starting in St. Lucia we set a course for Kuna
Yala (formerly San Blas islands), a passage of 1100 miles that would
take 8 nights. This was my first blue water and overnight passage.
Off the coast of Colombia we encountered heavy weather with 45 knot
winds and 10-15 foot seas. Sailing in these conditions can be
considered uncomfortable at best. We fared far better than most boats
in the fleet however. Some boats arrived in Kuna Yala with damaged
masts, torn sails, and malfunctioning radio equipment.
Piracy is also alive and well in these waters, mostly along the
Venezuelan and Colombian coasts. Only a month ago a yacht was boarded
by armed pirates outside Cartagena's harbour and all their electronic
equipment was stollen.
At 1:00 am on the 14th (my birthday) we finally reached our
destination. Being a moonless night in an area known for multiple
reefs made our decision to drop our anchor a very dangerous one. This
was not made any better by all available charts of Kuna Yala being
extremely inaccurate. Some of our electronic charts even placed us
directly on land while our sounding instruments indicated 70 feet of
We attempted to approach a cluster of islands at the western end of
Coco Bandero Cays, with my uncle and myself at the bow to watch for
reefs. I happened to look up to see a white sand beach about 100 feet
in front of us. Our depth had suddenly dropped from 60 feet to 20
feet, so we swung around and made our way back our into deeper water,
fearing running aground on jagged reefs that had already claimed large
cargo ships and fishing boats. Our only choice was to wait for the
sun and make our way east to a better anchorage.

Kuna Yala is unlike anywhere in the world. Pure white sands and tall
coconut palm trees with hundreds of small, uninhabited (and inhabited)
islands. Coconuts are off limits to non-Kuna however as every island
belongs to a family, meaning that taking some would equate stealing
veggies from the neighbors garden (and yes, this is taken seriously).
Coconuts are also one of their primary exports and their main sources
of income.
The populated islands are inhabited by the Kuna people. They are
considered to be one of the most intact indigenous cultures in the
world, and function independantly while observing Panamanian laws in
conjunction with their own laws. They subsist on cultivating fruit
and vegetables, and hunting in the mainland portion of Kuna Yala,
which lies within Panama.

They live in traditional houses built with
hardwood frames and thatched with palm leaf. Typically these last up
to 15 years and are very effective at keeping out rain. The general
layout is simple, a dirt floor with hammocks for sleeping. Belongings
and clothing hang from the rafters, so the floor is generally free of
clutter. Houses vary from family to family of course, so we saw some
very clean houses and some that were not, just as you would in any

They are probably best known for their Molas, a traditional art they
make by sewing layers of fabric together to produce a variety of
patterns and images. Animal motifs are common, but we prefer the
geometric designs which are more traditional. They traditonally used
fabric made from natural materials, but with the introduction of
cotton fabric, and brightly coloured fabric available in Panama City,
this skill appears to have all but died out.

To move about their nation of islands they use finely made dugout
canoes propelled by either sail, outboard motor, or paddle. They are
remarkably fast and agile craft, regardless of how they are powered.
Even the children have small, but very functional, versions of their
parents canoes that are accurate down to the last detail. These
watercraft are roughed out in the mainland jungles, then finished in
their village. Some villages are known for exceptionaly high quality

Canoes in Acuadup, facing the Panama coast

We have found it impossible to trade goods with them, because American
dollars are all they will accept for Molas, seafood, or fruit.
Transactions are conducted in broken Spanish, English, and Kuna. We
try to learn as many Kuna words as we can, such as nuedi (thank you),
teki malo (goodbye), and jagi (dolphin, pronounced ou-ah-gee). They
seen pleasantly surprised to hear a few white folks saying thank you
in their native tongue.
They are also accustomed to asking for a dollar for photographs, a
practice that stems from seeing pictures of Kuna selling for a dollar
in Panama City.

Our first major village we entered was on the island of Acuadup.
Located west of the Carti Islands, it is not nearly as crowded as the
Carti Islands, and has quite a lot of vegetation (mangos, bananas,
Noni fruit, and almonds on expanses of grass). The houses are also
spaced apart, compared to the cramped quarters of the more populated
islands. This island also doesn't seem to be as heavily visited, so
as we walked through the village we were greeted more with people
simply going about their business than selling molas. Apart from the
school, all the houses are traditional as well.
A good book for information on the Kuna is Eric Bauhaus' guide The
Panama Cruising Guide, which has also been an invaluable source of
information during our travels in Kuna Yala.

Subsistance fishing and Marine life

Cruisers live a unique life off the grid, sailing from country to
country, often crossing large expanses of ocean to arrive at remote
locations that are far off most tourist maps. Living aboard an ocean
going vessel demands a certain amount of survival skills, since many
of the places they visit are far beyond even basic search and rescue.
Even in the Caribbean islands I have witnessed first hand how being in
a well populated area does not guarantee safety, when two fishermen
perished 16 miles from two well populated islands that are also very
popular tourist destinations.
Fishing is an excelent way to add to provisions taken on at port as
well as providing food when provisions run dry. Generally yachts take
on enough provisions for their journey or until the next port of call
they expect to be able to replenish at, which in some cases could be a
few months.
During our passage we were able to hook two good sized fish. In these
deep waters there are a lot of very large pelagic species that are
both abundant and generally Ciguatera free, such as Mahi-Mahi, Wahoo,
and Yellowfin Tuna. They are however very powerful so good tackle is
necessary or you will loose your gear. Even on 100 pound line we lost
2 lures and bent a hook. There are obviously some fish in the sea
that you would just as rather let get away then bring onboard.

This Wahoo was the biggest of the two fish, weighing in at
approximately 30 pounds. We use rum to kill fish we catch, this one
took quite a bit. You do have to be careful bringing big fish on
board. I've heard stories of people being hit in the head by tails,
and even a man who earned 30 stitches from a Spanish Marckarel that
sliced his leg with it's teeth.
It is prohibited for foreigners to collect sealife from the reefs
around the islands. Lobsters, crab, and even octopus are available
from the Kuna fishermen however. We avoid buying the lobsters now,
after seeing undersized ones being brought to us, but the Channel
Cling Crab is excelent eating that provides more meat than the
lobsters. Just like Blue Crabs in Maryland, the males are far better
eating, which fits in nicely with our prefured practic of leaving the
females alone.
They seem to be more available closer to the mainland though, since we
didn't see any until reaching the Carti Islands. They are found in
relatively shallow water, about 10 feet or so, and can be caught with
the help of a spear.

Snorkeling in Kuna Yala is quite good. Large fish can be hard to find
and are skittish. The reefs we explored had a number of brittle coral
that we have not seen elsewhere. Some interesting species we have
seen are Parrotfish with a Cleaner Wrasse and a Nurse Shark.
The Dog island wreck is an excelent snorkeling site. It was
intentially run aground in the 1950's while transporting rum. For it's
age it is in exceptional condition, with much of the weck's parts
easily recognizable. It's forward winches are above the water and are
the only parts visible from the surface. The stern lies in 15 feet of
water with her twin rudders visible at the bottom. Her aft hold is
easily accessible, sheltering a variety of species including a very
large snapper. Amidships you can find one of her two engines as well
as some tanks. Her forward hold is very open with the port side of
the hull missing.

Our travels will take us next to Las Perlas islands, the origin of
Queen Mary Tudor's "peregrina" pearl and site of the TV show Survivor.

All photographs credited to Trish Budd, reef photographs credited to
Elliot Budd


Yarg said...

Owen that is so awesome!!! eat some yummy fish for me please. that wahoo looked mighty tastee, i am rather fond of wahoo...and tuna is super delicious too. best just to mow it down right off the fish though, none of this cooking bs.

my thoughts are with you! take care good sir and great share!!

Yarg said...

er this is jrad btw.