The Kuna Yala Experience

The Kuna Yala Experience
Shoreline as we approached Mamitupu in the San Blas Islands, Panama

Okay, so I thought we were being adventuresome in our previous travels, but the past month takes the cake.  We left Colombia about three weeks ago, and sailed into an ancient time and place among the Kuna Yala people of the San Blas Islands right off the Caribbean coast of Panama.  I’m not even sure where to begin, and Mark is working on a video that will tell a more vivid story than I ever could, but I just wanted to give you a few glimpses of our surroundings.  

We decided to land in one of the eastern islands, Mamitupu, that is away from the more common cruising grounds, and we’re so glad we did.  That first morning, once we were anchored, I shared with Mark how excited, but terrified I was to be in such a remote place.  We were the only boat in the area, and I wasn’t sure how they would respond to us being there.  But within moments, those fears were put to rest when a Kuna man came paddling by in his ulu (dugout canoe) with a huge, warm smile and a friendly welcome.  He spoke Spanish, so we were able to communicate well.  Kuna is still their native language, and I would continue to be amazed at how these people had so carefully protected and preserved their cultural heritage for so many years. 

Michael running through palm trees

After a long conversation, the man humbly asked for reading glasses.  He said he loved to read, but that his eyes were not good anymore.  Mark eagerly ran inside and found a pair of his own readers to give to him.  Another bright smile beamed from the man’s face, and just like that, we were friends.  Turns out, word traveled fast in the small village, so we had a procession of canoes come to visit us, asking politely for various novelties like books or magazines.  We were thrilled that we could meet each request and the grateful smiles were payment enough.  

When they found out we had kids on board, the families started paddling out to introduce us to their kids.  I’m sure it wasn’t a common occurrence to have young ones come to visit!  We brought our dinghy up to the beach along with some coloring books, markers, and bocce ball.  Soon, kids of all ages were gathering around to play with us.  Elizabeth used the Spanish she has picked up to help them learn the rules and keep score, while Michael helped retrieve balls and practiced his colors in Spanish.  Eventually, the fathers and mothers came to see what all the fuss was about, too.  They eyed us curiously, checking us out carefully.

Such a difference of culture, but kids are kids, no matter!

Some local boys enjoying our paddle board

Michael watched a young man working on making his ulu, intrigued by the way he used simple tools to carve a boat from a whole tree!  In his journal, he drew and wrote about what he had seen.
Strolling from the beach through the paths of the village, I felt like I was in the pages of National Geographic.  Huts were built with thin branches for walls and thickly stacked palm roofs.  Smoke from cooking fires filled the air.  Naked wide-eyed children peeked out from the doorways to see the strange newcomers.  We stopped to say hello to each family we saw, introducing ourselves and trying to imprint their foreign names to memory somehow. 

Sitting in a bed/chair hammock in a traditional Kuna home

Kids in an ULU

The Kuna people are all very small in stature, many less than 5 feet tall.  The women were especially surprised when we told them that Elizabeth was 8 years old.  To them, she seemed so much bigger!  In at least three homes, the mothers wanted to keep Elizabeth with them!  They just loved her!  Shy Michael got his fair share of attention, too.  His blonde hair was new to them, and he hid behind us when the women cooed over him.

Each of the older women had short hair (it is tradition to cut a woman’s hair short when she gets married), covered with a bright red and yellow patterned cloth.  The shirts they wear are called molas, made with intricately layered and sewn pieces of fabric.  These molas are found only in the Kuna Yala culture, and have become a treasured souvenir for people passing through.  I loved looking at these amazing pieces of craftsmanship.  Kuna girls begin learning to sew at age 7, only a few reaching ‘master mola maker’ status. 

Traditional Kuna dress fashion for women - mola around waist and bands of bright beads

Tortuga (turtle) designed mola
One morning, we were invited to attend church on the island.  We dressed in our Sunday’s best, and landed the dinghy on shore at eight in the morning.  The village seemed deserted, no one popping out of their doorways to say hello or spy on the foreigners.  We guessed they were all at church, but would soon realize just how wrong we were.  Traditional flute music could be heard wafting through the empty pathways, and incense permeated the air.  Two men, not quite in their right minds, told us that they would lead us to the pastor.  The sounds and smells intensified as we stepped through the darkened doorway of a large, communal hut.  It seemed the entire village was gathered inside.  The women, in traditional dress, stood around the outskirts as the men sat on low log benches and took turns drinking from dried cups made from gourd or coconut shells.  Some of the men were dancing while others played the reed flutes.  Pots of incense burned orange on the floor, and bowls of smoked fish was passed around the crowd.  This was not church at all, but a very traditional ceremony called the chicha, a ritual to honor the arrival of menses for one of the villages young women.  As we entered, three flute-playing men welcomed us jovially and let Mark have a try at playing the traditional music.  The kids and I couldn’t help but giggle as he gave it his all and the men cheered him on!  Then they invited Mark and I to have a taste of the chicha drink.  Big bowls were sitting in holes dug in the floor and covered with banana leaves.  A man who had been deemed bartender dipped a small cup into the liquid and handed it to Mark.  We each took sips, leery of what made up this concoction.  Later we learned that it was basically coconut water and fermented sugar cane.  The men around us laughed, telling us it had to be drunk in one swallow - the Kuna version of a shot, I guess.  The sugar cane moonshine had obviously been passed around since the night before, causing a drunken stupor throughout the male Kuna population.  We decided that we’d had enough excitement for one morning, and wandered, light-headed, back to the beach.  Not exactly the church morning we’d planned on, but a spiritual experience, nonetheless.

Jacinta with the kids in her home

Elizabeth visiting with a Kuna woman who presented her a handmade headband

The people of Mamitupu were beautiful and warm.  We were invited into their homes and treated like esteemed guests, never leaving empty-handed.  The ladies always gave us bananas or mangoes or plantains as a gift before we left.  It was a surreal experience, and the hardest goodbye yet.

Fresh catch of the day!
Along the more trodden areas of the Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands), modern culture has begun to take over.  Satellite dishes dot the villages and radios blare Latino stations.  The congresso, or ruling entity of the Kuna people, is desperately trying to protect its people from modernization, but seem to be losing the fight.  Cell phones, televisions, and computers are becoming a commonplace.  We felt so privileged to experience the Kuna culture before the inevitable modernization, knowing that if we come back in a matter of only a few years it would be an entirely different place.  

Glorious Sunset

Fishermen along the river at sunset

Fresh croc tracks

Our Crocodile Hunters
Our Kuna Warrior
Here is a sneak peak at a Kuna Video.  We made this video for our friends on Mamitupu.  It is going to go on his website so he can advertise for his place on this small island.  The larger video of Kuna Yala is still WIP.  We have a TON of footage we are going over, including jungle waterfalls, rivers, and of course, the Panama Canal!!  


  1. We are new followers of your blog and just want to thank you for sharing the story of your journey. Your blog is both informative and inspiring as we are working towards doing the same thing! Have a wonderful journey to the Galapagos and beyond - we'll watch from here and hope to be out there ourselves in a couple of years!

  2. Your travels are so incredible and an absolute dream. I'm so happy to see that you are doing well. It has been so long since I was one of your students at Indian Lake Elementary... but I keep up with all of your posts! Your children must be some of the most well-traveled, culturally aware and interesting children I've ever seen. :)

  3. It has been so long since I was in your 4th and 5th grade classes at Indian Lake... but I keep up with all of your posts. Your travels seem like an absolute dream. Your children must be the most well-traveled and culturally aware children I've ever seen. What an amazing way to grow up! I'm glad you are doing well. As a person who obsessively dreams about traveling to remote locations and soaking up the beautiful cultures and scenery... I can say that your stories and photographs help to not only keep the dream alive, but also to provide inspiration to act on these dreams. :)


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