Second Chances

If you’ve never heard of the San Blas Islands, I’m not surprised. If we weren’t cruising, chances are Eric and I wouldn’t know about them either. In fact, we first learned about this string of islands off the Panama coast on our previous voyage 40 years ago. “Oh, it’s beautiful!” other sailors raved. “You must go!” But our route at that time, sailing southwest from Puerto Rico, would have shot us past the Canal by 70 miles, after which we’d have to double back. Having already spent three months cruising the Caribbean islands, why detour to see a few more?

Well, it isn’t often life gives you second chances, but when it does, you’d be a fool not to accept. And this time, departing from Colombia, we could stop at the San Blas en route to the Canal. The archipelago stretches for 26 miles along Panama’s Caribbean coast east of the Canal and comprises 378 islands. The majority are uninhabited, and some are mere patches of sand bearing only a few palm trees. Think of those cartoons of a lone shipwreck survivor stranded on a tropical islet and that’s about it. Others hold a single thatch-roofed house or perhaps a cluster of family dwellings.

The larger islands are home to full-fledged communities of the native Kuna (also: Guna) people. Overall, the Kuna number about 300,000 in Panama, Costa Rica and Colombia. Some 50,000 of them live in the San Blas, where they maintain their own laws and culture and govern the islands as an autonomous territory. Friendly and welcoming, they are especially famous for their molas, beautiful handmade textile panels that are part of the women’s traditional clothing. Among sailors, the San Blas are renowned for their idyllic anchorages, the peace and quiet, the escape to a simpler world.

And so we found it, for a few rare days, anchored at the western end of the archipelago in an area called East Lemon Cay. Three small islands crowned with swaying coconut palms. A handful of assorted dwellings. No noise but the wind and the lap of the waves. No traffic but the occasional water taxi, canoe, or the arrival or departure of a yacht in transit. We counted some 40 of the latter spaced around us, yet it didn’t feel crowded. The anchorage is large, open to the horizon, and well protected by reefs. Throughout the San Blas, careful navigation is required.

We bought two molas from vendors in a boat who came alongside our first morning there. Usually, it is the Kuna women who create the molas, but this textile artist was a man, Venancio. His brother, at the helm, spoke with us in English, while Venancio opened barrel after barrel to display his wares. So many colorful designs, it was hard to choose. Yet not hard—our eyes kept returning to Venancio’s intricate animal motifs—and we settled on two, toucans and turtles. Other Kuna vendors sell fish, coconuts, plantains and handmade seashell jewelry.

Mostly, we sat in the cockpit drinking in the scene. The morning we arrived it was raining, and even after it dried, the sky was somewhat overcast the rest of our time there. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be a picture postcard. It is nothing like any of the other Caribbean islands we have seen, and when the late afternoon sun strikes the palm trees, it is magical.

At the same time, the San Blas is not without mod-cons and technology. The vendors present business cards with their cell phone numbers. A water taxi had its website address painted on the side of the boat. One dwelling sported a satellite dish on the roof. When we dinghied ashore on the nearest island, a Kuna girl was ear-plugged into her smart phone, as absorbed as any American teenager. Elsewhere in the island chain, the Kuna operate a tourist hostel, and a half dozen of the islands have airstrips that can handle planes of about 20 passengers.

Many yachts spend weeks and months in the San Blas, and I’m sorry our time there was so short. Knowing that, we made no attempt during our stay to try to connect with the outside world. No phone, no Internet, no news on the radio. We didn’t discuss the major boat projects and paperwork awaiting us once we reached the Canal. We didn’t leap ahead to our next, momentous passage, the 4,000-mile Pacific crossing from Panama to the Marquesas. We just sat and breathed deeply, watched the boats, the water, the stars. We ate, read, played gin rummy and slept well. We haven’t had many interludes like this on our voyage so far.

Most of all, we appreciated how successfully the Kuna people have preserved their culture, their environment, and their tribal government while interacting with so many foreigners. They decide what to accept and reject. They know who they are. As in any society, individuals and families probably have their differences, which a longer stay might reveal. Likewise, there might be economic pressures and/or hardships of which we, as casual visitors, are unaware.

But at a short glance, it’s easy to imagine the San Blas as a paradise or utopia, where the inhabitants live in tune with nature and in harmony with one another. It’s wishful, because don’t we all wish such a place existed so we could copy it for ourselves? Which makes the San Blas all the more beautiful and fragile. Because as the photos show, most of the islands are mere feet above sea level. If global warning continues, if the sea level rises, the San Blas, like Atlantis, will drown.

Will there be a second chance for these remarkable people, this serene archipelago?