A visit to San Blas Islands and the Kuna Indians



A Wonderful Cultural Experience.  Extraordinary Natural Beauty.

We jumped at the chance to go camping on the Caribbean side of Panama and to meet the Kuna Indians. The San Blas Islands form a chain of over 360 islands along the northeastern Caribbean coastline of Panama. The natural beauty is extraordinary with picture-postcard white sandy beaches fringed with tall coconut palm trees surrounded by warm turquoise waters. It is a yachters, divers, and swimmers paradise.

Businessman, entrepreneur and now government official—Jose Goldner–was our host, guide, and interpreter during our April, 2011 trip to Panama. He invited us to join his wife, Mara, and their three adorable sons on an adventurous excursion. He also introduced us to a friend of his, 26-year old Brandon Wahlers, who is a national spear fishing champion from southern California.

Yachter's ParadiseWe packed the camping gear, food and water into the back of a truck and drove from Panama City in two vehicles over the stunning mountain passes to Kuna Yala Comarca or Territory. The Kuna Indians are known for preserving their traditions and accepting some technology like cell phones to do tourism business. The women are famous for embroidering molas and wearing colorful dresses and decorative beaded necklaces, wrist decorations and ankle bracelets.

When Baba (father) and Nana (mother) created the plains and the great rivers, trees, sprinkled the beautiful flowers over the land, when they shook the breeze to refresh the forest, the seas with its fish, when they jeweled the neck of Mother Earth, they looked and felt that someone was missing to love and cultivate her…so they created the first Kunadules. This is the origin of the Kuna Indians.

At a small port on the Gulf of San Blas,  we loaded our gear into a small motorboat operated by a Kuna Indian named Eddy, and we first disembarked at Needle Island about ten minutes away.  Jose made reservations at very rustic palapas or thatched huts with sleeping cots, a plastic chair, a wooden table and the luxury of electricity…one light bulb. The bathrooms and showers were shared with other campers. The Kuna who helped us with our duffel bags displayed his sense of humor when he said “Welcome to your 5 star room!”

I was thrilled to be on an an adventure!   Understanding that the Kuna Indians are quite shy and do not like their pictures taken, it is important to make personal connections over time, respect their privacy, and not take any photo without permission.  Not only was I happy to be in a spectacular place and natural beauty, I was overjoyed to meet and talk with several delightful Kunas.  I met Herronimo, the custodian of  Isla Aguja who spoke Spanish because he was in the Panamian Army along time ago. He showed me how to make twine-like strips of wood to tie palm fronds together for the thatched roofs.   Kuna or Dule Gaya is the native tongue and I learned some Kuna words and phrases like  Igi be nuga?  for What is your name?  and Nuedi  (Thank You).

We ate a fresh fish dinner at the palapa restaurant with fried plantains and beans and rice and french fries. Some rum may have been consumed as well.

After leaving unnecessary clothing & items in our huts for the next part of our excursion, we embarked the next morning on a boat with shade, powered with a 40 horse power engine. It took about one and a half hours to get to our remote destination, one of the furthermost islands out named Waysailadub. On the boat ride, I got acquainted with Mara, Jose’s spouse, and her three sons, Diego, Sebastian and Lucas, before they fell asleep.

We sent up  tents & camp  with hammocks on the leeward side of the island and met the custodians of the island Julio and Natalia Filos. I’m glad I learned a few Kuna words to make a connection with my new Kuna friends.

As the men went spear fishing, the “girls” and younger boys went swimming and had a Kuna nanny, Brittany, to care for them while Mara and I went snorkeling.  We felt like part of the sea life in the underwater aquarium of brain-patterned coral and tropical fish. Snorkeling is a favorite activity of mine, and when the water is bathtub warm, it’s even more inviting.  What a perfect day!

We got an opportunity to get acquainted with Natalia.  We communicated with smiles, a little Kuna, Spanish and sign language.  Natalia’s giggle was delightful.

The sound of the fishing boat let us know the hunter-fisherman were back and yes, Brandon had speared just enough fish for us to share with our family and new found Kuna friends.

Brandon filleted the fish while Natalia and I grated fresh coconut to go with the rice. Before dinner, we were invited to see their homes on the windward side of the island.

Julio showed us the smoking hut for the fish, how he cleaned his machete with a special rock called a “brillo” to keep the knife from rusting. We saw the inside of their living quarters (complete with a radio) and their sleeping hut with hammocks.

The shy children enjoyed the bubbles and tiny cars to play with. I gave Natalia some colorful cloth and thread for molas along with some bracelets. Then she started to dance.

It was starting to get dark so we walked back at camp just in time for dinner. Jose was sauteing the fish with onions and a special curry sauce. Delicious!

We made a larger campfire that night and shared stories about some of the Kuna history and fighting for their rights and territory. The boys roasted marshmallows over the campfire, and we called it a night. 

The next morning, we met the French captain, his wife and son of the sailboat anchored out in the cover. We were invited to come aboard and met the Swiss owner (a businessman who had sold his medical billing company and was looking for a project to do for fun in Latin America) and his wife to share a beer and chat.

It was time to go back to Needle Island. All the tents were taken down and camping gear re-packed. As we waited a long time for our transportation to come, Natalia made Mara a special orange beaded bracelet.

When the boat finally came, we were a little disappointed to see that it did not have any shade and it was powered by a 15 horsepower engine.  So the trip back took twice as long or about 3 hours. The nature of travel is the unknown and you ride with the flow. It was late afternoon and the hottest part of the day was gone. I enjoyed the ride back, the color of the water, the fresh air, the views of the villages, the perfect temperature and the solitude of my thoughts about this adventurous excursion.

As we arrived back to our hut accommodations, there was a beautiful sunset.

San Blas sunset




2 Responses to “A visit to San Blas Islands and the Kuna Indians”

  1. Hi,

    Three hundred and sixty islands! That’s fantastic. It’s a year’s worth of islands. The water sounds great– like it would be perfect for healing. Thanks for the great info.


    • Leith Lende
    • Reply
  2. Visit Madeira island for a different cultural experience nature and beauty


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