Neotropics

San Blas Islands

Kuna sailboat in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

The Kuna and the
San Blas Islands

Travels in the San Blas Islands, home of the semi-autonomous Kuna Indians.

It’s dark still, out the window of the airplane, and the rain makes it more so.

I am in a converted cargo plane with the pilot, two Kuna indians and a crate of melons. The pilot cuts the engines to a quarter their power, and just beyond reach of the San Blas Islands, the plane makes a steep curve into the jungle .

Out the window, I can barely make out the bright yellow of the flowering guayacan trees, before we land on a runway in the jungle. More melons, some tomatoes, and six Kuna women in their bejeweled dresses and beads get on the plane. An American too. Just out of college, he wears a cap and his shirt is faintly aloha. He is speaking the Kuna language, helping the ladies with their handbags and making them laugh. When I introduce myself and ask why he’s here, the American goes, "Yeah, Peace Corps, heard of it?"

He's been here in the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean coast of Southern Panama doing environmental work. "Just over a year," he says, "I love it. I love the people, I love their culture." He turns to fix their seatbelts, and then answers my question about his work. "Yeah, I go from village to village teaching stuff like you know, you gotta use gravel instead of coral, and if you're gonna use coral, use dead coral."

We take off, we land again, we take off. This time, I can see some of the islands. Gary Larson dots – some sand, a few palm trees. Cartoonish islands like this exist nowhere else in the world.

I stop off at Mamitupo. Romerio is waiting for me at the runway in a motorized dugout cayuco. He’s telling me all this stuff, but I don’t speak Spanish.

Gracias. Cerveza. Baño.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, as loyalists were fleeing America for the Bahamas, a whole different set of people were fleeing the mountains and rivers of their homeland. I wanted to find out about how the Kuna ended up in the San Blas Islands, and how they settled and prospered in one of Earth's most bizarre and beautiful island regions. I will learn as I go - traveling with Romerio along the San Blas coast and visiting their islands and communities.

Pineapple growing in Kuna Mainland

Pineapple growing in shaded areas of the mainland jungle

Home base is an island called Uaguitupo. It's the size of four basketball courts. I ask my hosts if there are any guests on the island. I ask this by waving my hands. Yes, they say, an English teacher.

When you meet a fellow English speaker, you think: will you be my friend? Mary says let's go to Achutupu.

We canoe to Achutupu Island, and Mary says something about forty-nine. "There are forty-nine people living on this island?" I ask in disbelief. Achutupu is the size of two football fields. "No," Mary says, "what I meant is that forty-nine of the islands are inhabited. There are actually 1,800 people living on this island."

How on earth do you fit 1,800 people here? We walk through the narrow streets of Achutupu. Grass shacks made of bamboo and palm thatch. The huts hanging over the water. People have property - they have yards, they own trees, there are family compounds. But everything is small, like the Kuna themselves. An extended family may live in one small compound - the homes, the yard - all the size of a living room.

Mary points to a large bamboo hall and says, "This is the government center. They sit in hammocks and lounge talking politics." I poke my head in the dark room and see a dozen hammocks hanging ten feet in the air.

Any suspicion that life and politics are lazy here probably lies in that old idea that indigenous islands are simple, content and backwards. No - islands are filled with their own prejudices, their jealousies, their wants, their loves and their gossip. And no, Kuna politics have a history of being fierce, swift and strategic. Imagine a dozen chess grandmasters swinging in the sweet air, deciding the fate of their families and their way of life.

I turn around and I catch a glimpse of a Kuna woman holding a white baby, and then she is gone. And I'm thinking, huh?

If the Spanish of five hundred years ago were the orcs, the British and French were the warring human tribes, then the Indians of Central America were the hobbit-like peoples, and the Kuna were certainly the hobbits themselves. As the smallest race of people in the western hemisphere, the Kuna fought and conquered multiple attempts at imperialism and cultural domination.

They ended up with a gorgeous Shire, and a sweet deal, and an almost impossible ability to live exactly as they always did. Their land includes both these 400 San Blas Islands stretching for 160 miles along the coast of present-day Panama, and the nearby Panama mainland with all of its mountains and jungles and fresh rivers. Their land is called the Comarca da Kuna Yala, and the Kuna live as if this is their country. Few Panamanian laws affect them.

San Blas Islands Photo

About 350 of the 400 San Blas Islands are uninhabited. Their coconuts are the primary economic output for the Kuna Indians.

In fact, Kuna Yala is essentially split off from the rest of Panama by the sea of jungle called the Darién. Largest unspoiled jungle in Central America, and some say all of the Western Hemisphere. It’s also considered the most dangerous. Disease. Roads just stop. Beyond the roads, Colombian rebels and drug runners. A few years ago, Robert Pelton - the same guy who interviewed Johnny Walker Lindh in Afghanistan, decided to cross the Darién by backpack with two young Americans. They were swiftly picked up by Colombian rebels and held hostage for two weeks.

We take the cayuco to the mainland, where a swath has been cut from the jungle. Kuna women are carrying buckets of sand. Parrots and painters’ palettes have nothing on these women, their dresses and scarves are so brilliant in scarlet, turquoise, black and orange, that even bent over in the dirt they seem royal. I ask Mary what they are up to.

“Building a runway,” she says. They switch off - one day the men spend all day here, then the next day the women. Each carries a bucket of sand or gravel from Achutupu to the runway, and they dump the sand on the runway, which is marked by sticks. One bucket of sand at a time this runway will be built. No machinery, no shovels, no motors.

“There's already a runway nearby?” I ask.

Mary: "If they build this runway, it is theirs. They can decide which airlines can land here and they will have more control.”

Control and autonomy are important to the Kuna. At times, foreigners have been allowed to host hotels here. But slowly, each community has voted them out. Just kicked off the islands. Even the Smithsonian Institution, which did environmental research here, was given the boot.

Booting the outsiders has historical merit. For five hundred years, the Kuna were subjects of colonialism, expansion, warring tribes and the genocide of the Spanish. Their modern history began in 1514, when the explorer Balboa was killed by a jealous adversary and replaced by a brutal territorial leader. Pedrarias Davila wanted gold so bad, that he went to war with everybody in the region, killing thousands.

Mary has been teaching English at the school on Achutupu. She has been doing it for free, and Geronimo, the Island patriarch, feels deeply indebted to her. He admits to me that he doesn't know how to repay her. I am sitting here assembled in the island’s dinner hall with the entire island present. Geronimo gives a speech about Mary, and a feast ensues. The women each bring Mary a homemade, hand-sewn Kuna textile - a Mola. In Kuna Yala, every woman makes mola quilts. I try to imagine what it would be like if every woman in America had the same hobby. Imagine a hundred million knitting needles.

Scene of the San Blas Islands at Sunset

Everybody is giving Mary shells and basket-woven fans, and I think about how people told me maybe I should dye my hair black when I travel in Central America. Maybe I should sew a maple leaf on my backpack. And I think about the Peace Corps guy dedicating his early twenties to service – no, I don’t need black hair, these two remind me that it’s cool to travel American.

When Geronimo leaves, the young Kuna go for the wine and rum, and everybody is given rations. The men drink, but the women sniff at the alcohol and give sour faces. One Kuna lady, she is perhaps four-foot-seven, smiles at me while I watch her sniffing at her wine. She says something which the chef translates as, “she wants to have your babies,” and which Mary translates as “She wants to dance with you.”

I thought - all those guys that read Maxim Magazine for the advice - wouldn’t this be their dream? But the forwardness gives me the courage to ask the questions I didn’t read about in the ethnologues. “Which island,” I tell Mary to translate, “has the hottest women?” The men all have different opinions, and I ask, “Do they ever get the hots for tourists?”

Yes, of course they say. It’s just that it’s not likely that the tourists will like us.

Romerio lifts the rum bottle and takes a seat next to me, pouring the two of us a double shot. Tomorrow, he says, everyone will be away at the runway or fishing. It’s just you and me, he says. I say, let’s go far. Lets go up the river and into the jungle. Show me your corn, show me your crops. The cemetery and your hunting outposts.

Next morning, Romerio and I motor along the ocean, and then slowly upriver, our bow brimming past the sail cayucos and the paddling cayucos. Our boat sticks occasionally on a rock, and we have to get out and push the heavy log-hull free.

We approach the part of the river where the water is no longer brackish. Kuna are washing their clothes, scrubbing them against their cayuco. Others are fishing or filling their boats with today’s crop of bananas and corn. This is where you cut the motor and tie the cayuco to a tree.

Orchid in San Blas Islands

We wade upriver. We cross through the jungle, where the mud is so thick that it suctions my sandals in a way that makes them dig into my skin. We trudge on until we meet up with the river again. Here, the water is fast running, and fresh enough to drink.

We cross into the jungle again. Now I can finally spot their agriculture - corn is intercropped in the jungle; in small spaces. Enough for one family. Pineapple heads grow here and there. There are trails interconnecting every family plot of land, and tributaries connecting more and more.

We continue up for the mountains. The sandals have cut bleeding wounds into my skin now, so I remove them and walk barefoot through the mud. An old man, an old woman and a young boy are all carrying plantain bunches on their backs.

So this is how they do it. Although the Kuna live on tiny islands with small properties, they own land on the mainland. They have bounteous harvests.

This treasure drew Dutch, English and French pirates to the coastal areas of the Darién. At a safe enough distance from the trading points, the Pirates could hide in the sandy atolls and feed off sea turtles, waiting for the Spanish bounty.

Pirates needed both guides and mercenaries. The Kuna filled those roles because of their hatred for the Spanish. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Kuna would be launching attacks on Panama, in cahoots with the Pirates.

Spain now had a new enemy in the new world. But with their empire stretching out thin all across the Americas, they couldn't possibly strike the jungle people with military might. They needed a better weapon - missionaries.

By the middle of the seventeenth century, Dominican missionaries had made in-roads with the Kuna. Still, they refused to convert, which frustrated the Crown. The Spanish decided to replace the missionaries with soldiers and colonists. This continued to drive the Kuna against the Spanish. More rebel attacks staged from the jungles, more alliances with pirates like Henry Morgan. It served their own purposes at keeping the Spanish at bay.

Missionaries kept trying to ply their way into Kuna society. The Kuna would eventually accept some French missionaries, but once again the outside world struck, this time in the form of European diseases. Once again, the Kuna expelled the settlers, creating strict customs against marrying outsiders, and even going so far as launching raids against Panama City.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the Kuna allied themselves again. This time with the British of Jamaica, who were still warring and pirateering against the Spanish. More bloodshed, and the Kuna kept moving toward the coast, both to gain access to trade with outsiders, and as a safety buffer from the outside world. They were slowly becoming acquainted with trade; they were becoming worldly and market-oriented. They began trading turtle shells and coconuts, often with the Colombians.

By moving towards the coast, and eventually fleeing to the islands that would provide their economic advantage – the coconut palms islands - the Kuna were isolated enough from the wars and fights for independence that would beleaguer the rest of the Isthmus. The Kuna were creating a coconut kingdom, but their ultimate struggle and victory would not arrive until the twentieth century. A struggle that would involve a swashbuckling American, guns and the Panamanian military.

Four guests are arriving at the Island today. I am doing my best to wash my shirt and appear presentable for their arrival. Vera is from New York, she says. Would the Colombian guy and the two ladies from Chile care to join us at the puberty celebration on Achutupu?

I ask Vera how many people she thinks live here. She says fifty, maybe. Vera works for Pfizer. She goes around the world giving speeches on Viagra safety.

I'm trying to tell Viagra about how the flags on all these huts correspond to different political affiliations, but she is already trying to barter with the locals for some of their hand-sewn molas.

Vera has these boxes of glo-pens with the Viagra logo on them, and she's trying to trade them for the molas. Nobody wants to trade. I'm embarrassed for Viagra. I say what they want is money. I'm trying to tell her nobody wants her glo-pens. The girl with the monkey flinches at the pens. The boy with the iguana runs the other way. “The reason all you see is kids here,” I say, “is because the women are out fishing, and the men are building a runway.”

Viagra has traveled extensively. She has no idea how many countries she's been to, but she has a particular interest in the migration of the monarch butterflies. In most of Africa, she could barter her way with a handful of Viagra pens. In Asia, they could afford her a good meal. I tell her we've arrived at the puberty celebration.

It's being held at the gathering hall, which is like a Kuna home, only bigger.

If a boy is hitting puberty, he gets to wear his first pair of long pants. But when a girl reaches maturity, a big celebration ensues which takes the father years to pay for. In most cases, it's three days of continuous drinking and smoking. By now, the women are completely wasted. Spinning and stumbling about the gathering hall. A horde of them bump into the Chileans, urging them to join and sending them running in fright. So I ask if I can have some of what they were having.

It takes them some time to get the coming-of-age girl to serve a coconut bowl of the liquid for me. Although it’s her celebration, she does more serving than celebrating. When the bowl does get to me, I notice they've offered me quite a serving. There are twigs and stuff floating around, but I take a good hard swig and find it’s delicious. Like a light, sugary rum.

I hand it to Viagra, and out of the corner of my eye I see a white man, the size of a Kuna, and I think, huh?

Later, I sit down to a crab dinner with the Chilean ladies, the Colombian and Viagra. The Colombian is - as he has been all day - extremely happy to be here. His demeanor to Viagra and the Chileans is that of gentleman. Gustavo's dream is to start a bonfire on the island, and for everyone to join in and drink rum and sing Beatles songs.

The subject turns to the pill. "Are you on it?" I ask around the table. No, say the Chileans. No, says the Colombian. "Yes," says Viagra. I tell Viagra that the problem with chloroquine is that this part of the San Blas Islands is known for a strain of malaria immune to the more common drug. The best thing, I say, is a constant supply of 95% deet. Can't you smell it on me? I say.

Viagra says smiling, "I believe in pills."

The Chilean ladies are coworkers at a Santiago firm. Every year, Pilar and Eliana pool their vacation-time and hit the road. You wouldn’t guess it by the way they look like your best friend’s Aunt. By the way they preen their hair and come to dinner with makeup. But the ladies are travelers - partners-in-crime at the far side of the Americas. Pilar likes fine hotels, Eliana likes adventure. Their differing tastes keeps them interested in challenging each other.

I say that I keep seeing these white Indians. And what’s up with that? It turns out that the Kuna’s relative evolutionary isolation has given them a number of genetic peculiarities. Their short stature, for example, was an evolutionary trait common to any isolated jungle tribe. Like jungle Indonesians, Filipinos or the African Pygmies, the jungle necessitates their smaller size. Their isolated gene pool also helped spur their rate of albinism. The Kuna, who have the highest rate of albinos in the world, saw these pale moon children as special, as natural leaders. Because of this, the albinos have risen to their ascribed stature, often becoming political leaders or the leaders of hunting parties.

Reports kept surfacing in other parts of the world about a mysterious tribe of white Indians. At the same time as adventurers wanted to set out to find these Indians for the sake of science, the Panamanian government wanted to bring the San Blas islands into ‘civilized’ Panamanian society. They wanted to exterminate the old Kuna customs. They wanted to end their drinking binges (a part of their puberty celebrations), and eradicate the ‘ridiculous’ dress wear of the Kuna women. They wanted to set up modern-style dance halls and schools. They wanted to pacify the Kuna, who were still rebelling at outside attempts to inhabit their land.

Panama was also attempting to expand the economic development of the region. They allowed non-Kuna the rights to fish for turtle – a prime economic mainstay for the enterprising Indians, and began taking over islands and replacing Kuna stores with their own.

From their allegiance to the British of recent history, and the way that English-speakers generally treated them the best, the Kuna forged a trust with English speakers. The Kuna turned to outside help, trying to forge action from the international community’s awareness of their plight.

Beautiful landscape of San Blas Islands

A coconut-laden Islet in the San Blas archipelago, inhabited by the Kuna Indians, whose economy is based on selling coconuts from their 378 islands.

An American, Richard Marsh, wanted to find a region suitable for planting rubber trees. In his jungle forays, he noticed a group of white Indians, and later formed an expeditionary party to find them near the San Blas islands.

With the Smithsonian Institution by his side, he entered Panama’s jungles. Along the way, he kept noticing white Indians – but they were never the real white Indians he so stubbornly believed in. His party of scientists and local blacks eventually motored up a river that local Indians had warned them to avoid. They brought guns and dynamite, and a Victrola record player – for the purpose of wowing the Indians with music. They placed the locals on the bow of their canoes, so that if the so-called Kuna did attack, at least their first victims would be their guides.

When Marsh found the Kuna to be a pleasant and reserved people, he also found that the white Indians were just albino Kuna – not the lost ancestors of European heritage he so wanted to prove existed. Quickly, however, he was also learning about the Panama Government’s cultural attacks. He brought a legion of the Kuna on a foray across North America, generating attention both in the United States and Canada. Although Marsh began his jungle journeys looking for wealth, he became a spokesman for the Kuna, and returned to Panama.

By 1925, he was helping to organize a rebellion against Panama’s Government, and assisting in writing a declaration of independence for a new independent Kuna Republic. He worked with Kuna rebel leaders, and they formed attack forces across the islands.

One morning, the sun rose and the Kuna slaughtered twenty-two Panamanian police. The war for the San Blas began, but the Panamanian police were already running for their lives. Richard Marsh wanted U.S. support after his proclamation of independence, and was stationed with a band of Kuna, awaiting the military response from Panama.

The Government in Panama wanted U.S. support as well – Panama, after all, was a young Republic itself, broken from Colombia by a U.S. government with a canal in mind. Nobody knew exactly what to do, but the Americans were alarmed that one of their own was instigating a revolution. The Americans sent a warship to the Gulf of San Blas, where Panamanians and Kuna were invited on board to dispute the situation and try to end things peacefully.

The U.S. warship happened to carry a fellow named William Markham. Markham had been petitioning for the Kuna for years, and was friendly with Marsh’s quest. He swiftly helped broker a peace that would allow Marsh to leave Panama without incident. If hostilities would end, the Kuna would be allowed to live exactly as they always did. By the end of World War II, the area now known as Kuna Yala would be entirely under Kuna control.

The next day, I wake to two young boys fishing outside my hut. I wonder what they are fishing for, stabbing into the sea with spears. This is what they will do for the rest of their lives - a life that rich people all over the world spend fortunes trying to re-create. Gustavo and I motor out with Romerio to the barrier reef to take a look around. We plunge into the water and swim for a mile along the barrier. Corals like you wouldn’t imagine, and green anemone carpets, dancing to the pulse of the current. What’s absent is clear – you don’t need peace corps boys to tell you that something is very wrong with this place: where are all the fish?

When we return six hours later, the boys are still out by my hut. I ask them what they caught. They don't understand, so I wade out to their cayuco to take a look. One boy holds up their sole catch. It's a four-inch lobster, squirming in his hands.

The Kuna have conquered every human onslaught against them. Now they are facing the same problem as industrialized worlds, as Asia and Africa and Europe and America. They are overtaxing their own resources. They are destroying the sea upon which they feed. Their simple fishing practices are mostly quite ecologically minded. But overpopulation negates even the good of good practices.

I reread the notes in my journal:

Peace Corp Boy: “…the lobster problem is drawing a lot of international attention right now…the problem is they see the ocean as this big hole from which everything crawls out.” I tell the American about how in Bahamas, the lobster regulations are harsh. You can only spear a lobster without Scuba equipment. You can only take a lobster of certain sizes. You can only take a lobster during a certain season. You can only take lobsters in certain geographical locations. The law is strictly enforced and the penalties include jail time. Peace Corps boy familiar with Bahamian laws. Says, “Belize is attempting to duplicate those laws. Kuna has a long way to go.”

That night, Gustavo the Colombian tells Geronimo that we must have a great celebration, and a bonfire under the stars. He says we must have rum. The Kuna oblige, and the next evening they bring cracked dry coconuts and some cayuco gas.

Chef says, lobster for everybody. Chef says, lobster for everybody but Erik. He says Erik refuses to eat our lobster. He doesn’t understand why. Chef, who loves to give speeches about his people, explains the marriage ceremonies. Kuna Society – which is matriarchal in the sense that the man must indebt his life to his wife’s family’s well being, can only marry after being approved by the father. You have to be a strong worker. If you work for the good of your family and the Kuna, only then can you get married.

Gustavo translates this to the English speakers, saying, “When the man and woman are married, they are placed on top of each other to copulate, but it doesn’t end there!”

He takes a burning stick out of the fire and walks around with it, the stick lighting up his face. “But nothing is happening as they are just laying there on top of each other. So the fathers of the bride and groom then take a burning stick and prods them until they start going at it!”

He pokes the stick at the crowd and says, “Just kidding!” and translates this back into Spanish. There is an uproar of laughter from the elder Kuna women, who are sewing molas by the light of the fire.

The next morning, I fly south with Gustavo and Viagra. Circumstance leads us to make a stop on the Panamanian-Colombian border. When you land in the town of Puerto Obaldia – part Kuna, part Creole – you are landing on the main street. You are upsetting the chickens. The plane landing here causes enough of a stir to get people to poke their heads out their doorways.

I step out the plane and decide to take a walk around. After all, it’s over a hundred degrees in the plane, and I need a cold drink. The farther I walk, the more I see that Puerto Obaldia is ripe with military bunkers. There are military guys everywhere, hidden half underground, staring at the jungle.

The jungle beyond is Colombia, and Panama is armed against the drug runners. Two days ago, a Brazilian and Colombian backpacker duo decided to cross from Brazil, through Colombia to Panama, illegally through the jungle. When they got to the Panama border, they didn't realize that it was hotwired with grenades. The backpackers escaped the grenades uninjured, but now they’re awaiting expulsion, which is why we’re here to pick them up.

The pilot says, “that’s FARC territory over there in the jungle.” FARC – the left wing peasant guerilla movement that has kept Colombia on the world’s radar for years. It makes this place feel haunted, even in the blistering sun. The co-pilot, though, says the area is actually stable. “Landing this plane is a whole other story. This is one of the most dangerous runways in the world,” he says proudly. He’s right. The runway actually curves up a hill, and lands just before the border. To even land here, you need special engines and gigantic low-pressure tires.

Gustavo says there are four groups in Colombia. There are the narcotics people. There are the left-wing terrorist guerillas. There's the government, which he pronounces 'gove-urn-ment', and there are the ultra right-wing paramilitary groups. He says that it’s complicated, because Colombia is such a hard country to govern. It’s the terrain. You have to understand the relationships between the narcotics people and the FARC, he says. The kidnappings and the drug money - being a FARC leader is a way of life. You can get rich off kidnappings. They have a sweet deal, he says.

He explains how the government is officially against its own ally – the equally shady right-wing paramilitary, which tries to make up for the government’s inability to stop the FARC by forming brutal vigilante groups across the country. “It’s a mess,” he says.

The co-pilot says, “I get to practice the take-off on this runway.” He’s grinning with excitement at the challenge. He hands the pilot a glo-pen. When you push here, he shows the pilot, it lights up. The pilot is amazed, and thankful, clicking at the pen. We begin racing down the slope of the mainstreet runway, and take off a few feet before the water. We see a brilliant view of the aqua sea and the deep green Darién. Viagra pokes her nose at the window and says, “Isn’t it a wonderful world we live in?”