Backpacking To the Kuna of San Blas Eight Months On the Road
By David Rice
Date With The Kuna
I had jumped in the water with my clothes on to clean up from my night of
seasickness and with me still drying out we went ashore to get a stamp on
our passports. We radioed for a meeting with the customs inspector and we
waited and waited some more.
Waiting gave us a chance to small talk and I learned a little about my fellow
backpacking passengers. Four of us had started the trip, five including the
captain. We lost one who headed back to Panama via the small airport on
The captain, in his early 60s, had forsaken the life of a business man in Paris
to sail around the world. We also had a German guy, a guy from Holland, and
a Canadian: backpackers in their late 20s who, like many travelers, had an
obsession to roam the world.
One had a wealthy family, another barely scraped by to fund his travels,
another taught English. They were like all backpacking travelers who want to
see the world, some meeting friends along the way, some volunteering, some
learning about the world, some teaching language, others teaching
composting, most doing anything to make expenses while they backpack on
a tour of the world.
I saw myself in their young faces; 40 years ago that was me, lured by exotic
places and the chance to meet new people, seeing new flora and fauna and
trying new foods was an obsession for me then and still is.
Above all else,adventure always tops my list.
Once we had our custom stamp, we sailed on and arrived at an idyllic island
with a reef where we anchored in an azure lagoon. We fished and snorkeled
on the reefs and then I went ashore to pick coconuts. By the time I returned
to the boat the Kunas had come out in dugout canoes and offered their
handmade textiles, fish, fruit, crabs, lobsters and coco loco, a coconut drink
fortified with rum.
A beautiful Kuna woman was among the men and it seemed that sun rays
followed her as she moved. She spoke with authority and, although this it not
a matriarchal society as far as I know, she appeared to control the group of
men and was clearly the leader. She spoke English and invited us ashore for
dinner, instructing us to bring the rum.
By all means when the queen of any island invites you to dinner, you put on
your finest duds, even if it is a sun-bleached silk shirt and khaki shorts, and
you show up on time.
Just before we left for the island the captain opened the locked cabinet. No
weapons locker apparently, just a place to hide the booze from the
The Kuna queen greeted us at her-palm frond castle and bid us sit at a rustic
table. She then served us a seafood stew with fish and crab that would have
made the chef for the Queen of England envious. We stayed talking and
drinking cocoloco until early morning as I
fell for this little slice of paradise.
San Blas Kuna
In the morning we saw no tourists and no other boats in sight. We went
ashore again. No sign of the queen but I had a good look at the Kuna’s palm
houses made of thatch cane walls and palm branch roofs. These people truly
lived for the day, the hour, the minute. If a storm should come and blow the
straw hut away, they would just gather more palm and build their house anew.
In the afternoon, dugout boats come in from the open sea bringing fish and
produce just like sea-born delivery trucks. Each time we met a group of men
they would ask us if we had some rice or beans, coffee, or cigarettes.
Although the sea provided all their needs, they craved foods common to us
but to these island dwellers who harvest the sea, coffee, cigarettes, and
beans were exotic.
Leaving San Blas
I was warming up to this little paradise and although my first day had been
misery, the $250 that the boat cost started to look like a bargain as we toured
the San Blas Island chain. We sailed among the islands for three days
dropping anchor in secluded coves to fish and beach comb. Of the 350 or so
Islands, only 43 are inhabited by the Kuna, most having no water to sustain a
Paradise faded in the sunset as we headed across open water to Cartegena
with me dreading another siege of seasickness.
The winds cooled us and gently pushed us through Eden towards the
unknown. We cleared the islands of San Blas and then the winds slackened
and the heat rose as we slowed.
Soon we felt the heat blowing off the land from Cartegena and it would have
me wishing for the cooling palapas of the Kuna and a repeat dinner with the
|Kuna of San Blas,
Backpacking to the Kuna
Eight Months On the Road
By David Rice