Living with the Kuna: Carti Tupile, San Blas Islands, Panama
Some of the steepest roads I have ever ridden on wind through the jungle leading to the Panamanian port of Carti. It was a gorgeous ride, on good paved roads, with just a few sections of gravel at the bottom of some of the hills.
Our destination? The San Blas Islands, called Kuna Yala by the local indigenous Kuna Indians.
The Kuna are a remarkable population. They are the only indigenous people I know of who have managed to maintain their sovereignty. Panama certainly has tried to take them over, but failed and they reached a treaty in 1925.
The Kuna charge $10 a person to drive through their land to Carti plus $3 a bike. That was a pretty big hit for us, but not a lot more than other national parks have charged.
We arrived in Carti without much of a plan. Max in Nicaragua had told us that it was very beautiful and we would want to spend time there, and that we should be able to get boats between the various islands fairly easily. That’s all we knew.
Carti is a very primitive port, with a few concrete docks, a rough parking lot and a couple of ramshackle buildings. We eventually established that there are in fact two parking lots, and that it is much cheaper to park and the people are much friendlier in the one a few hundred meters further along the potholed dirt track. The closer one has been “ruined” by tourism, as it is where all tourists wanting to visit the islands are dropped off.
After talking to most of the Kunas and some Panamanian border police filling a large boat filled with barrels with a truckload of gasoline, we negotiated parking the bikes under a shelter, and a ride to a local island for $20. We didn’t know which island we were going to – but that didn’t seem important.
The Kunas suddenly decided it was time to go, so we had to quickly finish packing our duffle bags with whatever we might need, cover the bikes and jump in the boat, which had suddenly filled with a combination of Kuna ladies in traditional dress, Kuna men in western dress, and tourists.
We pulled up to a beautiful, posh looking island. It was small, covered in white sand and palm trees, and had an archway at the end of the dock stating that it was “private property”. Phil and I immediately were weary of what staying on this kind of an island was going to cost us.
Especially when a family of tourists started unloading their baby pushchair onto a sand island… Needless to say they didn’t get far before they had to pick the whole lot up.
We didn’t have to worry, because the Kunas told us to stay in the boat, this wasn’t our island – we were going home with them.
Our new home was an island called “Carti Tupile”, one of four heavily populated islands in close proximity, each called Carti with another word afterwards to distinguish them from each other.
The man we had negotiated our passage with told us we could put up our tent in front of his house, which happened to be beside the dock, the school, one of the only water taps and somewhat of a main gathering place on the island.
As we put the tent up a crowd of fascinated children gathered around us. Their faces lit up when I invited them all to crawl inside. I tried to tell them a story about Canada, but my Spanish was lacking. They found the concept of snow very exciting.
Darkness was falling as a son of the man who let us camp outside his house took us on a walk around the island. It takes about 2 minutes to walk from one side of the island to the other, where there is a basketball court.
As soon as we stepped onto the basketball court I was nearly bowled over by a gaggle of children running up and grabbing hold of my legs. I was led to a circle of more children, where I was promptly pulled into a game of “Pato Pato Ganso” which I quickly discovered is “Duck Duck Goose” in Spanish. They also kept giving me spoonfuls of a sweet, molasses-like goo, which they had in the bottom half of a sawn off coca-cola bottle. They called it “miel” which means honey – but it definitely wasn’t from bees!
In all our travels I have not met such friendly, generous, loving, joyful children as those we met in Kuna Yala. Unlike many children we come across, they never once asked us for money, or anything else.
They just wanted us to play with them, which we were very happy to do. They are also all bilingual, they learn both Spanish and the Kuna language at school. They speak Kuna at home, and Spanish with outsiders like us.
That evening we also met the group of men constructing a building over the water beside the basketball court. We soon found out that it is to be a Mormon church. I found this surprising, and asked if there were many Mormons on the island, which they told me there were.
The next day we spent playing with the children and Phil’s new friend Ahmed organised a canoe so that he and his two friends could paddle us over to see the other islands.
When Phil first met Ahmed another of the locals took me aside and warned me that Ahmed wasn’t trustworthy, so we should be careful around him. The next day a different man told us the same thing.
We found this confusing, as Ahmed was extremely friendly and helpful and we never found any indication of him being untrustworthy. He made bread for the community and gave us some for free when I expressed an interest in tasting it.
The reticence may be a reflection of the racism we had been told is rife in Kuna culture. Ahmed was only half Kuna, and the Kuna do not approve of marriages outside of Kuna culture.
It rained very heavily during the day while Phil was playing an epic soccer game with the kids. The construction workers had offered that we could move our tent under the cover of the church roof, we decided to take them up on that offer to avoid having to pack the tent up wet.
Moving the tent became a community activity. Everyone wanted to help.
Once we moved to the construction site, I solved the “miel mystery”. All the children were running around with various containers of the sugary molasses they had been feeding me the night before. I couldn’t believe that all the mothers on the island approved of their children gorging on pure sugar, but that seemed to be the case, until I spotted a line of children with the construction workers spooning it out of a five gallon container. It was unrefined cane sugar, and the island’s children had manged to gobble five gallons of it in just under a week!
Island living comes with its challenges. Aside from the need to have a generator if you want electricity (many homes did not have one). All the toilets are outhouses on stilts with holes that lead directly into the sea. Carti Tupile had a supply of fresh water gained by laying pipes from the mainland through the sea, but we were to learn that most of the islands did not have this luxury. There was a constant flow of boats with an assortment of containers being filled up at the communal tap, and then floating off to other islands.
The sea around the islands was filled with garbage. I am becoming more and more against plastic packaging the more I travel. It blights landscapes in every country, and here in an island paradise, it was the worst. Glass and aluminum sink and degrade. Plastic does not.
Having spent two nights living with the Kuna, it was time to go further out and explore some more of the 365 islands in the chain. We packed up our tent and said goodbye to our construction worker friends. At the dock, we asked around for a boat going to El Porvenir.
El Porvenir is the only island on the San Blas that has immigration and customs offices. It has a small airstrip, and every yacht that enters and leaves the San Blas islands is supposed to check in and out there.
We had two reasons for wanting to go there. Firstly, our bike import papers expired on the 22 August, which was “only” two weeks away. We wanted to ask the customs man about how to extend our permits. Secondly Max had told us that El Porvenir was a great place to hang out and talk to the boat captains that came in.
We knew that we needed to get to Colombia eventually, that we’d need to take a boat of some description, and that if we took an organised “backpacker” boat, it was going to cost us $1000. Each!
We were determined to find another way and get a better price. Other than putting a post on the Couchsurfing “Boat hitchhikers” group, El Porvenir was to be our first research into other options.
The best price we could negotiate was for an elderly man to take us for $20. When he pulled up to the dock paddling a large dugout canoe, I was worried. It would take a very long time to paddle to El Porvenir! As usual, I shouldn’t have worried, for a few minutes later he struggled over to the boat carrying a large outboard motor.
After about a 30 minute boat ride, we pulled up to El Porvenir.
We didn’t know what it would be, but it was time to wait for our next boat to come in.