Where is the sovereign nation called Kuna Yala? It’s a tropical island paradise off the coast of Panama, forever known as the San Blas Islands and the only place an indigenous people survived every attempt by foreign influences to exterminate them. The Spanish conquistadors failed to conquer and the Republic of Panama failed, too. Even the islands’ own corrupted politicians failed. Gee, who can beat that survival rate?
Juan Garcia is not a Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor, famous baseball player or a Wal-Mart janitor. Juan Garcia is a 70 year-old, five foot high, bowlegged Kuna Indian with dancing eyes and a beguiling smile that captures everyone. His demeanor and handshake says, “Take me.”
For 25 years Juan was employed by the Panama Canal Zone as a cook for the Americans. He mastered Spanish and fluent American English. In the early 1960s, he was persuaded to lease his small island and its palm trees to the Smithsonian Institution for a research station.
Things change. When the Canal Zone was transferred to the Republic of Panama, Juan lost his job. The Smithsonian contract expired. That left him with his little island, minus palm trees that had been replaced with cement pilings and old research buildings. Juan converted them into his own Kuna-style hotel and restaurant. It became an island paradise for those who are more into paradise than plastic.
So, why extol about an old Kuna native in the San Blas islands? Things change. Sun seekers today want more out of a holiday than a non-stop ticket to a “rated” hotel, a sandy beach and a complimentary pink gin floating a paper umbrella, all provided with the simple swipe of a credit card. Done that.
Evolution is cloaked in many forms. Juan and his Kuna wife Albertina (traditionally dressed in Kuna Yala habiliments) have found themselves thrown into this new era by a bruised global economy and the simple change of tourist taste. Since the Kuna Indians have repelled all past attempts to recast their Arcadian way of life, even modern tourism is under their cautious eye of intervention.
The only “free wheelers” are visiting cruising yachts—as long as they play and pay by Kuna Yala rules. Yachts are popular because they come, they spend, they leave. Sun, sand, palm trees, clear warm waters, coral reefs and friendly natives are a given. Very little infrastructure is required.
Members of the cruising community are fondly known as the Sandblasters. They possess that innate brotherhood of the sea with the Kuna Indian. Both tribes are rooted to the life of sailing small vessels and subsisting among tropical islands. It’s a good fit. Sandblasters are welcome to the hundreds of paradisiacal islands and harbors—the perfect tourist trade!
Juan Garcia’s resort is one of about ten strewn about the San Blas Islands. Guests enjoy shopping for the native molas (Kuna women’s artwork) and daily treks to the traditional native villages. The cruising yachts often frequent the hotels for a change from boat cuisine and the chance to meet with the hotel guests from all over the World.
Juan’s hotel is called, UKUTUPU. In the Kuna Yala tongue it simply means Sand Island (Uku=sand/Tupu=island). Experiencing Kuna Yala will leave you with a different concept of the term Native Americans. The Kuna Yala nation has been bisected thoroughly by every anthropological institution in the world. The conclusion is that if our Native Americans had been left alone, they may have survived in peace and retained their aboriginal culture.
See that spark in Kuna Juan’s old eyes? In his American accent, "You guys like fish and French fries or chicken and rice tonight? We got rum too, man."
David R. Ferneding is a retired charter boat captain who spends summers in Penobscot Bay, Maine and winters aboard his Alberg35, Cielo, with First Mate Martha in the San Blas Islands. He has written three fiction novels and collections of short stories available on Amazon.com and is working on his fourth book, “Plundering the Caribbean with a smile.”