I am always excited to arrive in a new country and the San Blas islands or Guna Yala territory in Panama, certainly feels like a different country and way of life. We had read and heard much about the Guna Indians and how they live in their autonomous area of Panama and were excited about developing our own impressions of these people.
Our arrival anchorage was at the island of Los Pinos and this is where we had our first experience of meeting the locals and visiting a typical village. Being a little vertically challenged myself, I was interested to see that the Guna are indeed as short as I had been told. We were welcomed ashore and into the village and struck by the ordered nature of the settlement. The unique tribal dress worn by the ladies was amazingly colourful and I remained fascinated by these outfits throughout our time in Guna Yala.
The apparently simple way of life soon forced us to slow down after the buzz of Colombia and relax back into island hopping. As we moved up the chain of islands the sea became clearer and full of starfish and we started to notice subtle differences in the Guna lifestyle. Some of the island villages had small shops and concrete buildings, some had just a few palm huts amongst the coconut plantations, many islands were uninhabited. How lovely to be back in an area where there are no vehicles and everyone either walks, canoes or swims to get around. We were never going to be able to visit every island (there are over 340), but were pleased to be able visit a number of different cays including The Holandes Cays, Lemon Cays and Naguargandup Cays.
We found the Guna Indians to be friendly and quietly reserved. The locals who visited us in the dugout canoes to sell lobster or molas (appliqué) or fruit, were not pushy and sometimes interested to have a look around the yacht or have a drink on board. Sometimes they preferred to swap coconuts and bananas for sunglasses or rice – exchanges we enjoyed. We had the occasional visitor collecting anchoring fees, but generally felt that the locals were happily carrying on with their own lives with just a friendly wave to the yachties anchored in their waters.
We had some fun times with other rally cruisers when we met up for meals and beach bbqs and were lucky to be able to catch up with other friends before they sailed off to Colon in readiness for their Panama Canal transit. Whilst everyone seemed to be enjoying their time in Guna Yala, we all remarked on the dreadful amount of plastic waste that was being washed up on the islands. It seemed a constant stream of plastic was washing in from other countries and we really felt for the islanders as options for waste removal were limited. One of the village chiefs suggested that 7 tonnes of plastic is washed into their territory each year. Terrible.
Valentine's Day was set to be another fun packed day which sadly ended in complete tragedy. One of our lovely rally friends suffered a massive heart attack and, despite the fantastic efforts of many fellow cruisers and doctor, could not be saved. We had only know each other for a few months, but sailing creates quick and strong friendships and our whole community mourned his passing. His wife was and continues to be incredibly brave as she faces a different future. She takes some comfort from knowing that he was loving his retirement on board their yacht and that they had spent the day laughing and exploring this beautiful area together.
Inevitably our memories of our time in the Guna Yala islands are tinged with sadness, but we also look back at our photographs and remember the fun times we shared with our friends as we sailed through this unique area. How lucky we feel to be able to continue our sailing adventures through fascinating countries, meeting wonderful people.