Google Earth can zoom you down from outer space to a thousand dream destinations. But you will only see a smudged bunch of isolated dots along the Caribbean coast of Panama. This area has always been hidden—A 100 mile-long string of offshore islands, one of the last holdouts of human dignity.
The San Blas Islands still have unique features that other archipelagos had to abandon. They enjoy national rule by indigenous families that became the only native American people ‘left standing’ from the Spanish inquisition, European diseases, torture, and forced labor.
What makes this small island nation work? Women control the money. The man moves into the woman’s family compound. While the men sail their Ulu’s through the islands, catch a few fish, collect a few coconuts, and spend the rest of the day drinking "Chicha"(a local alcoholic concoction that will never pass USDA), the women spend their time producing native art work that is indigenous to the Kuna Nation. These hand crafted "Molas" (Intricate hand sewn colorful aboriginal designs cut out of layers of cloth) have become an international form of art. No trick why the women rule the money–they make most of it!
In the early 1950s another ‘tribe’ of people began infiltrating into the Kuna Yala nation. Surviving all prior attempts of genocide, the Kunas, for economic reasons, slowly opened their ritualistic doors to another race that fitted semi-compatibly with their own. They came in small numbers and didn’t stay long, adhered to local customs, didn’t push change, were non-political, spent their money–then departed. But most important, they were interested in the locals and learned from them. The Kuna men at first ‘tolerated’ the newcomers, while the women realized a viable commerce. The cruising yachtsmen had arrived. They became known as the Sandblasters.
Today, cruising yachts pay a small fee to each district ‘Sahila’ or Chief for the privilege of cruising, island exploring, and burning their garbage ashore (cans and bottles must be dumped in over 40 fathoms of water). Yacht cruisers, hopeless romantics, fall helplessly in love with the San Blas Islands. It is true that every anchorage is a Hollywood set: a perfect white sandy island covered with tall, swaying, palm trees, set in crystal clear warm water, inside a barrier reef teaming with colorful coral and fish.
The Sandblasters are a mix of cruising people from all over the world. There are good reasons to stick around these islands with amiable peaceful natives, post card surroundings, and NO HURRICANES! The San Blas Islands are below 10 degrees North, well below Hurricane Ally.
Reggie and Debbie, long time sailing cruisers on the 48′ ketch Runner, are from New York and Australia. They are creators of boxed wine tasting pageants on island beaches in the full moon. Reggie swoops upon a deserted island and sweeps up the dead coconut fronds into a jumbo pile. The anchorage is instantly known as ‘The Swimming Pool’ or ‘Reggport’. The Sandblasters arrive with their garbage in hand to burn on the weekly bonfire.
Some Sandblasters prove you can live in paradise and be on this side of the pearly gates…Mike and Gloria aboard their sailing cutter, Wind Free, are cruising experts. Mike is the underwater big game hunter of the islands. His spearfishing exploits have become legend. Gloria, besides working as a net controller on the local radio marine net, can fix anything including sewing up ripped sails to nasty coral cuts.
Long time Sandblasters Jake, Susan and Matey (The friendliest foot-long attack-guard dog ever) sail aboard the Sipapo. Jake won’t admit being the Sandblasters mentor. He takes his turn as Net Controller on
8107.00 MHz radio at 08:30 that keeps the fleet alerted on safety, social and local events in the islands.
A few years ago, Jake helped implement the idea of having cell phone coverage in the San Blas Islands. It took a while but finally the Panama phone companies realized there may be some business in giving coverage to the Kuna Yala Nation. The relay towers went up and everyone, including the Sandblasters, was looking forward to making calls home for Christmas. Everything worked fine until the day before the holidays when the cellular service went dead. Everyone had hundreds of usable minutes stuffed into their little cell phones but they couldn’t talk to anyone. Jake sent off some well positioned letters to the cellular company in Panama City. The day after Christmas the service began to work again sporadically . . . like a boombox underwater. Just before New Years Day all went silent again. Jake pursued.
The cellular company reimbursed their customer’s minute credits and with the help of a few inquisitive Sandblasters the problem was solved. They discovered the relay towers were powered with solar panels. Solar panels are one of the three possessions coveted by third world people trying to survive on the fringes of high tech decadence: motor bikes, outboard motors, and solar panels, wireless wonders that work in the jungle. Solar panels don’t hang around relay towers very long. Security was the missing component.
Motor bikes, outboard motors and now cell phones work in the jungles of the San Blas Islands. Will the Sandblasters and the Kuna Yala people survive? Will the islands ever be seen on Google Earth? Moving civilization around comes in jerks and starts.
Dave Ferneding is a retired charter captain who, along with First Mate, Martha Trefethren-Clark, cruises and writes in the Caribbean aboard 35′ 1965 Alberg sloop, Cielo, in the winter. They live ashore and cruise Penobscot Bay, Maine aboard their ISLANDER 30 and Herrishoff Golden Eye, Sunrise, in the summer. Books by Dave: The End of A1A, Blood Stream and published Key West and Beyond.