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Adventures in Guna Yala

Thomas Winkler

The Cat
Catana 381
January 7th, 2016

The Cat has been cruising since 2011 mostly in Mexican waters. In 2014 we sailed from northern Mexico to Panama mostly in light winds. Beginning of Dec 2014 we transited the Panama Canal.

In January 2015 I learned not to try to sail east or north from Cartagena, Colombia, in the winter months. Some boats do it, like Lucky Bitch, a 35ft Van der Stadt  skippered by Sigrid from Belgium who left for Turks and Caicos a few days before us. But for months at this time of the year, a low pressure system typically sits north of Colombia a few hundred miles offshore generating winds from 35 to 45kn day after day. Boats arrive from the ABC Islands with tired crew from battling the highest waves they ever have experienced.

Leaving for Panama

I was very happy that Jackie, an experienced sailor from Salt Spring Island joined me to continue my adventures. Our plan was adjusted to sail back to Guna Yala and north from there to Jamaica (maybe). After a few days wait at Isla Grande (Archipelago Rosario, 20 miles south of Cartagena) we left early for the 180 mile crossing in company of  Sunny Side, a 46 ft Ariel. They motor sailed. We used wind power (15 to 20Kn) and arrived in 27 hrs, over 6kn average, not bad. The entrance to San Blas was doable. The breakers were asleep.

Crossing from Isla Grande (Columbia) to Guna Yala (Panama)

Crossing from Isla Grande (Columbia) to Guna Yala (Panama)

We arrived in perfect weather and, for a few days, the wind dropped. Even though our photos (half of them are taken by Jackie with the panoramic feature on her iPhone… yes, I am jealous) are taken often with blue sky, the clouds are always stacked against the mountains. A typical day starts with low clouds in the morning, maybe burning off early afternoon but towards 1700h big gray clouds appear along the coastal mountains which always block the sunset. Sometimes a local rainfall occurs. However, if the sun is out, the water takes on fantastic colors.

Arriving in San Blas (Guna Yala). Swimming pool anchorage near BBQ Island in the West Holondes.

Arriving in San Blas (Guna Yala). Swimming pool anchorage near BBQ Island in the West Holondes.

We criss-crossed Guna Yala always under sail with a pleasant 20kn breeze, most of the time in flat water. The challenge is where the reef is not continuous 8 to 10ft waves come through from the open ocean and break spectacularly over shallow spots at the end of the reef.

One motivation to sail back to the San Blas was to get the fridge repaired for the fourth time. For the first few days we chased Piero on Dream to get the repairs done. After a vacuum (removing moisture), followed by soldering a leak in the fridge box, the installation of a dryer, changing the oil in the compressor, a few more vacuums and $250 we have a running fridge again. (The 12V backup Engle cooler chest could retire).

Piero working on the fridge compressor.

Piero working on the fridge compressor.

Guna Yala

Guna Yala is, in a way, more connected to Columbia than Panama (remember until 1903 Panama was part of Columbia). There are no coconuts processing plants in Panama. The trading boats bring consumer goods. The Guna’s used to have coconuts as their currency. These days they sell them to Colombian boats for forty cents each; sailors pay anywhere from 40 cents to $2. Terry, who lives on Acukargana (West Holondes) explained his worries: God lets the money (coconuts) fall from the trees, all he has to do is collect it; most likely he gets them by ulu (dugout) to a trading boat. Some Gunas clear the ground so it is easier to spot the coconuts. Most Guna live in villages and paddle or sail in their ulu quite some distance to an island that has coconut trees. It is very unclear how property ownership works. Most islands with the coconut trees are commonly owned.

We shopped in Carti and Nargana a few times although the supply is very basic. Carti is a short boat ride from the only access road that takes you in three hours by car to Panama City. However, the ‘stores’ carry little of fresh vegetables or consumer goods. Often you squeeze in between bamboo walls and buy a chicken from some one’s freezer. The Gunas are mostly self sufficient when it comes to food. Each village has several bakeries, where a person bakes ’bread’ twice a day in a regular oven. The warm tasty bread sticks sell for 10cents each. I would eat three for breakfast.

The changing culture is apparent. Some of the younger generation do not wear the mola dresses. Carti has a fair bit of tourism due to the ferrying tourists in ‘lanchas’ (similar to Mexican pangas) to various islands, mostly visiting for a day. There is hardly any tourist accommodation. I have not seen a car on any of the islands.

Carti: most houses have bamboo stick walls, the thatch roof is supported by a frame.

Carti: most houses have bamboo stick walls, the thatch roof is supported by a frame.

Many islands have only solar power. A solar panel was provided to every hut by the Panamanian Government about four years ago. A few larger islands have generator plants and electricity distribution that provides power to freezers to keep the frozen chickens. I asked a few Gunas about fires. All that dry construction material could catch fire easily. No one was concerned. I think most cooking is done with propane.

The first day of school was important. The school fees are only a few dollars but I heard that the family has to buy the uniform that needs to be worn three days a week. Many Gunas walk barefoot; seeing these young people in black shiny shoes with socks was a little foreign. One girl pulled a friend on her ‘new’ backpack with wheels on the dirt path. It was a heavy load and the ‘carrier’ got stuck. Off came the shoes and socks, I guess to get a better grip and on the way they are again.

Isla Tigre

Every morning there is a net on SSB radio 8107Hz. Contrary to what I was taught, there are numerous commercial activities taking place through the radio, but also information of general interest. We heard about the 90year anniversary celebration of the Guna Revolution to be held at Isla Tigre on January 24th and 25th.

Tigre offered an unusual friendly welcome by Ferdinando the 24 year old, Panama City educated, English speaking tourist guide giving us a tour of the village. The Lighthouse Foundation has been providing funding and advice to this village and six others since 2005.  On this island the houses were spaced more apart and the locals were encouraged to have a small vegetable garden – the foundation great success.

The Panamanian Government tried to assimilate the Guna people by taking away their culture and language. In 1925, after ten years of oppression, the Gunas stood up which resulted in a treaty that eventually ended up in self government. To celebrate the Guna Revolution, the day started with a parade through the village led by the Saila followed by the elders, performers of the day and women in traditional dress as well as a group in stylish modern clothes.

A parade through the village.

A parade through the village.

On the first day of the celebration the children re-enacted the abuse given by the Panamanian police because of their language, clothing, habits, crafts and music. Basically, the ‘police’ beat up the men while the women tried to protect them and then dragged them across the plaza. It was no laughing matter; the Gunas took it very seriously. The watching community was deeply emotionally engaged and some girls had to be consoled. It ended in a celebratory mood with the Guna flag waved and a declaration read.

Re-enactment of the abuse suffered by the Gunas.

Re-enactment of the abuse suffered by the Gunas.

Although Ferdinando mentioned that Isla Tigre is a traditional village, taking photos was allowed; some women did not like it. Some Gunas also had camera phones. A friend of Ferdinando used the anniversary to declare that she chose the traditional life style; cutting her hair, wearing the head scarf, the mola dress with beads on her legs and arms. Her friend on the other hand, embraced a more non traditional look.

One woman chooses a traditional look, the other chooses a less traditional look.

One woman chooses a traditional look, the other chooses a less traditional look.

Foreigners are not allowed in a village after dark, but we were invited for the evening celebration that consisted of simple traditional dancing and music (Maracas and pan flute). The music was quiet and repetitive to match the simple dance steps. After the adult celebration Chicha, an alcoholic brew with a coffee after taste, was consumed in the congress (community hut). I did not like it much. Unfortunately the alcohol had a sad effect on many women. The celebratory mood at the plaza faded and some women became volatile, others morose. The men’s side of the hut was rather somber.

The re-enactment was very emotional. The Gunas witness this every year from when they are small. What relation will this kinder with Panamanian police or Panamanians? We do the same with Christmas plays and other celebrations. Would it be more helpful to discuss the state of Guna Yala (present) and the future instead of focusing on the past? I would like to thank Ferdinando and the community for opening their doors to us.

Guna Yala is a fantastic cruising ground: Breathtaking islands, turquoise water but challenging navigation. The Bauhaus Cruising Guide is essential as it includes accurate charts showing all the reefs and dangers. At least three boats wrecked recently, the last one was a Beneteau 2007, 53 ft long, which hit the reef with a British single handler asleep on board. I hope I am never one of them. The cruising season here is relatively short: December to April unless you like to experience incredible thunder storms. Last year, three boats got lighting strikes in one anchorage in one storm. In Shelter Bay Marina (Colon, north entry to Canal) three boats got hit during the summer (one was shipped to Florida for repairs paid by the insurance).

Wrecked boat on the reef

Wrecked boat on the reef

As we got to the middle of March, for the first time since mid December the weather started to change making it possible to sail north towards Jamaica (maybe).

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  1. Jane Poulston says:

    Enjoyed your article; especially as we are returning there next week for a month before we head across the Pacific. Only spent two weeks there last year so are keen to return. Maybe we will see you, watch out for s/v Ta-b a Fontaine Pajot 46

  2. GAEL says:

    Hello , great voyage.
    I’m interest about the catana 381 , at sea, refit, checkpoints before bying , quality construction.
    >Thanks for all your informations.