The Guna of the San Blas islands

We set sail from Santa Marta, Colombia at 12 noon on Wednesday, 23 January with a route heading for the San Blas islands, in front of Panama. Passing the Cape of Barranquilla was not easy, during the night the wind dropped and we were reduced to a speed of 2 knots, worsened by the current running against us which slowed our pace even more. We kept quite far from the Cape, following the recommendations of the locals who had warned us of the current generated by the mouth of the Magdalena River, one of the most polluted in Colombia. For hours the water took on a disturbing brown colour, and it seemed as if we were sailing in a swamp, and we were constantly fearful of hitting some object that had poured out from the river into the sea.

The sight of the San Blas was like seeing the stars again, because from the first appearance we realised that we were entering a corner of paradise. The archipelago is made up of more than 340 islands located in front of the Panamanian coast; atolls of fine white sand on which coconut palms grow. Seeing them from a distance, they looked like heads emerging from the sea with brush-cut hair, but as soon as you got closer they revealed themselves as islands almost perfect in their beauty. We crossed in front of the atolls of Coco Bandero, the most south eastern islands, and went ashore to swim and explore the closest one, less than 200 meters away. The water was turquoise around the beach and the green of the palms stood out in the blue sky. At sunset, the sea and sky took on the colour of coral, it is difficult to describe this beauty, no photography can capture it, perhaps only a painting could interpret the density of the colours we had in front of us.

The entire archipelago is inhabited by the indigenous Guna Ayala, a people who moved there centuries ago from the mountains to the coast. Here, they found a more advantageous defence position from the incursions to which they were subjected to on the mainland. The Gunas are very attached to their traditions and guard these islands according to their ancient way of life. Over the past three centuries, every day, they reach the coast with their canoes (ulus) to collect firewood and provisions, the rest of the day is dedicated to fishing or other daily life activities; in the evening they meet in the “congreso”, a sort of parliament where decisions are made for the community.

Today life has changed a little, but not much. The usual activities continue, but they also earn income from the tourists and the many boats that visit the islands every year in the summer, and from December to March. They sell molas (cloths woven with decorations of various kinds, often abstract, according to the typical style of the people of these parts of South America, but also with images of the animal world; turtles, fish and birds), bracelets in bright colours (the ones that the women wear on their arms and calves are beautiful) and colourful bandages with various designs, plus fresh fish and lobsters. The Guna are a matriarchal society, women have power and decide on their communities. The largest island is El Porvenir, where there is a disused concrete landing strip, some administrative buildings – including a museum of Guna culture under renovation – and a kind of hotel. For the rest, each community is divided into families who live in huts made of wood and palm leaves. Each one owns an island where it carries out its own activities, maintains its care and supervises the area. Women choose their husbands and it is forbidden for the Gunas to mix with other peoples on pain of expulsion from the community. This rigid rule is seen as indispensable for the survival of the breed, even if the greatest consequences are found in a genetic stagnation (there are many albinos among the Guna), which jeopardises the natural evolution of this people.

We found more information from Eric Bauhaus’ Panama Cruising Guide, the main reference text for those sailing in these waters. But as always happens, reality seems different to what we imagined. We have been to Holandes Cays, where there is an anchor point called swimming pool named for the visibility of the water in a vast sand bank in the middle of the islands, here we have looked for a more isolated anchorage than those indicated by the pilot books. The possibilities are infinite if you have the courage to enter the numerous archipelagos avoiding reefs that can sometimes be insidious and not well marked by maps. We reached a small island swimming through a strip of sand with turquoise water, where we encountered a manta ray and several coloured fish; a young Guna came to meet us, together with others they are building a hut: “It will serve to bring together the inhabitants of this area,” he said. In front of the sea they have planted a stick with the national flag: two crossed forearms armed with a bow and arrow under a crown of eight green stars on a yellow field. “Our national flag”, he was keen to point out. He explained that their role is that of guardians of the islands and they think that today, without their protection, they would have been devastated by holiday villages and real estate investments of all kinds. The other flag that you see flying is the one with the swastika – nothing to do with the Nazi one – it was adopted in 1925 when the Gunas rebelled against the interference of Panama and declared themselves an autonomous Republic, while agreeing to continue to be part of the Republic of Panama. So if today we can see this archipelago still almost completely unspoiled, we also owe it to their struggles for national independence.

The next day we went to Lemmon Cays, where we were met by pouring rain in the middle of a vast bay surrounded by islands: the low pressure accompanied us until the next day. “It feels like we are in the Solent!” exclaimed Valerio. We decided to approach an island that we had seen from the boat with the small inflatable kayak that we have on board: it seemed the perfect island with a vast beach and sparser palm trees in the centre where you can see some huts. Upon landing Benny met us, with whom we made friends, he just had drinks for sale, nothing else, and lived there with his family. Around the central hut many women in traditional clothes were engaged in various activities, Benny instead seemed not to care and had a beer with us. He introduced us to his daughter who seemed very smart and translated when her father did not understand, “She is very intelligent” he told us; then came Señora, the older woman who commands and oversees the island. Dressed in traditional clothes, she wore a large gold ring on her nose and it was clear from the posture and the way she did things, that she was in charge there. “Can we take a picture of her?” “It’s three dollars.” “Okay, get together, we would like to take a family photo with the girl too.” “So that’s six dollars, three dollars a person.” Yes, she definitely commands there.

Returning to the boat a canoe reached us, a man and a woman, perhaps husband and wife, offered us handmade products: molas, bracelets, bands decorated with vivid and bright colours. Here too it is the woman who made the negotiations, while the man seemed to be only support and assistance.

A matriarchal society with ancient origins that has kept its culture intact over time, preserving the environment of these islands through the centuries. Certainly there are many contradictions, not all of them speak well of the Gunas, but our impression was that of a peaceful people, attached to their origins, very proud and heedless of how the world goes around their small Republic.

We set sail in an unusual rain, considering the season, to head towards Colón in preparation to cross the Panama canal. And while we leave the San Blas behind in the wake of our stern, I think that probably, due to the rising oceans, in a few years these islands will no longer exist (some have already been abandoned having been submerged by the waters), and perhaps the native Guna, after many centuries, will return to live in the mountains of the coast they had abandoned.

Coco Bandero
Sunset on Coco Bandero
A beach on an atoll
The national flag of the Guna people
The border office on the island of El Porvenir
Typical embroidery of the Guna
Valerio and I with our friend Benny
The Señora of the island with her granddaughters
Lemmon Cays