Return to Home Page
They're usually about 15-20 feet long and hold
the entire family for outings such as visiting
sailing yachts.  They usually paddle, but when
the wind is right, they raise a sail.  We saw
fishermen miles offshore in them.  
"Mola" is the Kuna word for blouse.  Molas are one of the primary
expressions of visual art in the Kuna society. It is the product of hand
stitching layers of cotton cloth in the process known as reverse
applique. Intricate, very fine stitchery completes the artwork.  ll
genuine molas are created by a Kuna woman as the focal point of
her own dress. The designs are always original and are an important
way for a woman to express herself and demonstrate her talent and
industry in this politically active and traditionally matriarchal society.  
Marcie did her share in aiding the Kuna economy by buying lots.
Let me describe a Kuna woman for you.  They all wear lots of jewelry and beads.  The beads are very
tiny and multicolored. They string them themselves on fine string and wrap them in various patterns from
the wrist all the way up to the elbow. They do the same from their ankles up their lower legs and it looks
as if they are wearing leggings.  The designs are intricate and very colorful.  They also wear earrings...
dangly ones...a beautiful gold filigree. Most wear beaded and gold necklaces and have small gold nose
rings as well. Gold rings on the fingers complete the jewelry look.  Most also rouge their cheeks in dark
red cicles about 2" in diameter.  The coloful molas are incorporated into their blouses and they wear long
wraparound type skirts in varying designs and colors.  Many also wear a long scarf around their heads
with the ends hanging down their backs or over their shoulders.  Some use a black dye to paint themselves
with temporary tatoos.  The men and kids look pretty darned ordinary compared to the women!
We eat well here. Fresh fish, crab and lobsters, coconuts, pineapples, mangoes, limes
and very tiny little bananas.
From Kanirdup to Mamitupu, which without
a doubt, was our favorite Kuna village.
There we met Pablo and his wife, Asinta.  
We were lucky that Pablo spoke excellent
English, having lived in England for 7 years,
and he answered lots of questions for us.
The Kunas live in thatched huts with dirt
floors.  There are lots of huts in varying
sizes...some appear to be individual houses
and others are communal in nature.  The huts
are very close together with a path just wide
enough to walk through between them and
arranged in rectangular grids like an urban
neighborhood in the U.S. with wider "streets"
at the front door of each hut.  Wood fires are
used for cooking and the smell of wood
smoke carried in the wind to the boat each
morning.  Since the Kunas are small in stature,
the doorways are almost quite short,  making
it awkward for us gringos to enter.
Coco Banderas Cays - Remember that only about 50 of the 365 islands were
inhabited?  Here's one of the ones that wasn't!  It doesn't get much closer to paradise.
s/y Nine of Cups
San Blas Islands - Kuna Yala
San Blas Facts....
  • San Blas Indians is a general term for four separate
    tribes of Indians that live here.  The largest tribe is the
    Kuna or Cuna with a total population of over 55,000.
  • The San Blas Archipelago is comprised of
    approximately 365 islands and islets, only  50 of which
    are inhabited.
  • Language: Kuna; most of the men and many of the
    children also speak Spanish.
  • Currency: Usually cash…$US…called Balboas.
  • Government: Independent villages headed by “sahilas”
    (sigh-las) or chiefs.
  • The Kunas refer to their homeland as Kuna Yala...Land
    of the Kuna.
  • The San Blas Reservation was declared an
    independent state in 1925 after a successful Indian
    revolution and was legally formed in 1938.
The highest proportion of albino births in the world occurs here ~ 7 out of 1,000 births.
Patches of land are set aside for the spirits
and botanical medicines. Monkeys, parrots,
squirrels, wild pigs, and a variety of other
animals also inhabit the mainland rainforest.
The main economy of the islands consists of  
coconuts, molas, bananas, plantain and root crops.
"Everything is for sale and has a value…from coconuts
to esoteric knowledge”. A cash economy exists
alongside traditional subsistence farming and fishing.
The trip from Colombia to Panama was a
pleasant 135-mile overnight passage. The
winds were light and we motored all the
way running into thunder, lightening and
heavy rains for about the last 6 hours of the
24-hour trip.  Our first port of call was
Punta Perme and the Kuna village of
Anachucuna with a population of about 300.
After tidying up the boat, we slept for a
couple of hours. The Kunas politely waited
until they saw signs of life aboard and
paddled out in their ulus (dugout canoes) to
collect the “impuesto” or anchoring tax of
$10. One of the little girls on the ulu also
showed me a mola and David ended up
purchasing a hand of bananas from a man
on yet another ulu who also had plantains,
coconuts and langostas.
We anchored a little west of the Anachucuna and
can see the thatched roofs of the village huts.
Several ulus have paddled by just out of curiosity.
An excerpt from a letter home regarding
our visit by the Kuna family:

“As we sat, sometimes in silence just looking
at each other, Andres’ wife (we couldn’t
figure out her name), took some red and
yellow beads from her arm and began to tie
them on my right wrist. She did about 7
strands around, working each strand around
carefully and tying it off nicely. I swear that
during those moments as she touched me and
slowly wrapped her gift of beads around my
wrist, we bonded in the universal way of
women. I felt only our mutual womanhood,
not the differences in our culture or
language…it was a most wonderful gift! (A
girl thing for sure!).
After two days in Anachucuna, we managed a 20-
mile motor trip to our next designated anchorage off
the island of Coetupu near the village of Caledonia
or in Kuna, Kanirdup. Unlike Anachucuna, which is
on mainland Panama, Kanirdup is an island
community and all the huts are built along the water’
s edge. The tiny separate enclosures over the water
are the toilet facilities. Fresh water is pumped in via
PVC pipe from the mainland.
A Kuna family came aboard for a visit and
brought  limes and pifas as gifts.
The village of Kanirdup…the red flags flying
are political in nature and represent the Liberal
party of Panama.
As always, the kids are the best for they are
themselves with no hidden agendas (other
than candy maybe).They were timid at first…
probably because of our color and size. But
once it was determined we didn’t bite (if they
only knew!), they clamored to hold hands as
we walked. We felt like Pied Pipers! Marcie
told stories and sang songs with them (in
Spanish no less) and David did magic tricks
and handed out candy.
Caledonia, the Spanish name for Kanirdup, has
a population of about 3,000 with lots of kids.
They have a school with 5 classrooms, 5
teachers and a principal. We were asked to take
a school picture and send it to them from
Panama City, which, of course, we did.
No one wanted their pictures taken until
we printed a couple and brought them
back to the village then they lined up for a
photo. Kunas are little people. At 5’8”,
Marcie towered above these Kuna
women dressed in traditional garb. The
tallest woman we saw was about 4’8” and
the men weren’t much taller.
Ulus (dugout canoes) are the main mode
of transportation and are carved from a
single tree. Usually each village has a
craftsman who builds the ulus.
We like to try new things and in Anachucuna,
we were introduced to pifas. They are the fruit
of certain palm trees and taste like artichoke
hearts. We ate them for snacks, we ate them in
salads, we ate them till we could eat  no more.
The idyllic photo above is "Pablo's Beach", the
place we would meet with them and sit and chat.
Pablo was writing a book about Kuna culture
and customs which he shared with us and which
we documented below.
Asinta hands were never idle. As we chatted,
she sewed molas or held babies. She and
Pablo had two huts, one on the beach and one
in “town”. We visited both. The hut on the
beach was more for tourists. The “town” hut
was traditional with dirt floors, bamboo stake
walls and a thatch roof. Hammocks are used
for sitting and sleeping as well as part of
several cultural ceremonies. Above, Asinta
with her 2-month old grandson. When I held
the baby boy, I noticed that his fingernails and
toenails were painted black. Traditionally, the
use of the black dye from the saptur tree keeps
evil spirits away. Sometimes the women use
the same dye to paint designs on their faces.
Kuna Wedding Ceremony
The Kunas are a matrilineal society. All property passes down on the female side of the
family. The bride picks her mate, informs her parents and the arrangements are made.
Men friends “kidnap” the prospective groom and bring him to the bride’s hut where he
must sit next to her on her hammock. If he escapes, they go after him and return him to
her hammock once again. If he escapes a third time, the marriage is off.  They must
keep each other awake all night talking without touching. If either falls asleep, it’s a bad
omen. In the morning, they are considered married. They are then allowed to slip away
to a secluded spot to consummate the marriage. They live with the bride’s family.

Divorce is simple. If he moves his stuff out, they’re divorced. If she throws his stuff
outside the hut, they are divorced.
Kuna Puberty Ceremony for Girls
The girl’s parents tell the chief it is time. Married men construct a special room within her
hut of bamboo and she lives there alone for 4 days with ritual washing and bathing. A
small trench is dug so that all the ritual bath water leaves the hut. Four married men are
chosen to go to the mainland to get four fruits from a saptur tree. One man climbs the tree
and chooses one fruit from the north, south, east and west, representing the four winds of
the girl’s spirit. The fruits are returned from which a black dye is extracted and the girl is
painted with the dye, which protects the virgin from evil spirits. The entire village is invited
to the celebration. Much “chica” is drunk (alcoholic sugar cane drink) by the men and
there’s lots of music (pan flutes and maracas). The girl’s hair is ritually cut by a special
female person and her parents announce that she is now ready for marriage. This is the
most important ceremony of a woman’s life. It is taboo to copy speeches or record
anything said or done during the ceremony. This ceremony is never the subject of  mola
artwork.  We were told subsequently that this is also when the girl get her nose pierced.
Kuna Death Ceremony
When a Kuna dies, the body is washed and placed in a “gatchee” (hammock). Men are
dressed in a white shirt and blue or black trouser, a black hat and shoes if they own them.
Women are dressed in their best traditional mola costumes and all their jewelry. The body
is wrapped in a white sheet with a cotton string dyed blue tied around it in the shape of a
cross. This is used for directing the soul when crossing the sacred river Obigundiwal. Small
ulus are placed with the body to help cross the river and a small bow and arrow are
enclosed to help the soul defend itself against evil spirits on its journey.  The body is
usually kept in the home for 1-1/2 days…important people for 2 days. The body is moved
to the cemetery where a deep hole is dug and the hammock is lowered into it and then
covered with logs. The relatives and friends mourn and tell stories about the good things
the person did in his/her life. Incense is burned throughout the ceremony. Prayers and
chants are said daily for a year to insure safe passage across the river.
Our next stop was Snug Harbor, so named by
New England schooners that stopped here for
coconuts. It is indeed snug, tucked in between the
mainland and several small islands. No villages
here on the island of Marmaraga…we enjoyed
the peace and quiet and explored on our own.
The flowers were the most impressive. Red hibiscus blossoms the size of dinner plates
peeked out from the dense green foliage. Pink morning glories lined the beach. The
beautiful white spider lily  was a new one for us, delicate looking and definitely exotic.
This little island has a long name: Orduptarboat. It
made for excellent beachcombing. The snorkeling
among the reefs surrounding the islands was superb
and David found huge sea biscuits ( below) for our
growing shell collection.
From CocoBanderas to the Eastern Hollandes Cays...a small group of islands popular
with cruisers. They are well protected by barrier reefs and the favorite anchor hole is a
place called “The Swimming Pool”. After having been the only boat for nearly a month,
having 6-8 boats around seemed odd. We even socialized a little! We went for drinks
one night aboard "Pogo",  went to a trash-burning/pot luck hors d’oeuvres get together
another night and had the German folks from “Samana” (we met them back in
Cartagena) for drinks aboard Cups.

Our last anchorage in Kuna Yala was Chichime. Not unlike the others, it was nestled
between two small islands and a large barrier reef. The natives were friendly and
Marcie had her last opportunity to buy authentic molas and Kuna crafts. She took
advantage and the Kunas loved it.  They arrived in two full ulus and had molas ready to
spread on the boat deck before the anchor was set. We kindly asked them to return
later which they did. Our collection grew by several molas,  molitas, a fish bolsa, a
bracelet and a small, stylized “dragon fly” mola. Quite the haul!
Thoughts on  Kuna Yala…

  • Exotic, yet simple, nature of these indigenous people.
  • Colorful, flamboyant dress of the women and the craftsmanship of
    their  “molas” and handiwork.
  • Absolute control of the “sahila” over the clan; marriage outside the
    Kunas is still forbidden.
  • The long-term success of a communistic (sharing commune) society
  • Fierce independence from Panama…even Panamanians are
    considered “waga”…outsiders; these people are one of the few
    indigenous groups that survived the Spanish and “civilization”.
  • Though we had a month, there was too much to see and too little time
From the San Blas, we head to Colon, Panama to prepare for
our Panama Canal Transit. Come with us as we
visit Panama,
the crosswords of the world.
Return to Home Page