Friday, March 19, 2010

Crossing the Camarca Kuna Yala

So started our long crossing of the San Blas Archipelago, home of the Kuna Indians. For better or worse, they are fully autonomous from Panama, they come up and try to enforce laws of their own, prohibit foreign investment, maintain their traditions and way of life.
Our first stop was a small island of Carti, a typical Kuna village build on a very small island, the windowless bamboo huts crowded on it without any apparent planning. The small structures on the sides of the photo are toilets. Some of them are built more solidly than the others. On the village dock we met Chessi from BC, who was travelling on a motorcycle from Costa Rica to Bolivia. When we met, Chessi has already spent two days on the island, waiting for a cargo boat ¨Lya del Mar¨, that was supposed to arrive yesterday, but was delayed. He already knew quite a bit about the surrounding islands, ways of getting to them and pros and cons of different modes of transportation in the region (dug out canoes, powerboats and cargo ships).
There was a military supply vessel docked at Carti when we arrived, bound for Puerto Obaldia. We chatted with the crew for a bit (in Russian!), the first mate and another passenger having both studied in Russia. Amazed by the encounter, the first mate agreed to take us all (and the motorcycle) to the next island, Nargana, the capital of the Kuna Yala. Why they couldn´t take us all the way, remained a mystery.
That is where we spent the next six days waiting for ¨Lya del Mar¨. Many other boats came and went, but they were all going other direction, to Colon. Everybody we spoke to told us that ¨Lya del Mar¨ is in Colon and is coming to Nargana tomorrow. It seemed to be a sort of a joke, this sentence was repeated by everybody for ten consecutive days. Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow for sure. If not, the day after it´ll be here.
There was a condemned school on the island, in the process of demolition, which was a joke in itself. It appeared to be a Saturday project for the male population of the village. Thirty men, armed with one sledge hammer and one shovel, were breaking the two storey concrete building by hand, carrying off the rubble to the near-by shore, expanding the island. The second storey was already gone when we showed up, but the lower level classrooms remained intact. We asked the local chief if we could camp in one of them, and he gave us his permission. We cleaned one of the rooms up, found some buckets and crates to sit on, positioned ourselves in the porch and started waiting.
Our activities on the island included: looking around, sitting, looking on the horizon, shopping for bread and eggs (which were sometimes out of stock, in the shops that were open for business only now and then), sowing, talking to locals who came up to us to chat and tell us that Lya del Mar is coming ¨tomorrow¨... We even picked up some Kuna words!
There was a basketball court in front of the school, and we attended every match that was played there.
As the days went by, more travellers came, and at one point, six people slept in our classroom. Two Israelis, Ofri and Tom, joined us for the rest of the journey to Puerto Obaldia. So, there were more of us waiting.
Finally, a cargo ship ¨Yeya¨ sailed in. It was bound for Ustupo, another, bigger, island half way to where we needed to go. Needless to say, we were excited for the opportunity to get closer to our destionation, and to finally change the place of waiting.
Ustupo was much more traditional than Nargana, with more bamboo huts, narrow paths, dugout canoes and with more women wearing traditional dresses.
Ironically, ¨Lya del Mar¨ was supposed to show up on this island tomorrow, too!
The food was much more scarce on this island than on the previous one: no greens at all, no eggs (but lots of chickens running around), bread without salt... The main dish was rice and fried platanos, known as ¨patacones¨, they taste just like potatoes.
This island was much bigger than the others, and there was even some unoccupied land near the beach, where we decided to camp for the first night.The spot was beautiful and serene, but it was infested with swarms of sandflies, which are so small that they can get THROUGH the tent mesh and suck happily on your blood all night long. In the morning we were all covered in little red bumps, like some contagious disease.
The second and third nights we chose to sleep on the concrete village dock, with the gentle breeze keeping the bugs at bay.
On the third day, ¨Lya del Mar¨ finally cought up with us and we leaped onboard.There were 15 more travellers on the boat, and one of them, Alex, we have met on the road back in Mexico!!! As it was a trading vessel, it stopped in every major village on the way, selling sugar, flour, canned goods and beer. It took us two long days before we finally reached Puerto Obaldia.
Here, we waved good-bye to Chessi, Ofri and Tom and teamed up with three other couples from Switzerland, Basque country and Argentina. With them we got a good price on the lancha (a small motorboat) going to Capurgana. Once on Colombian soil, we got our passports stamped and the Swiss cooked up a fiest with freshly cought salmon, fresh greens and a strong marakuya punsh, what a sweet delight it was!
In the morning we got onto another lancha that took us to Turbo, where the pan-american highway began once again.
So, we are in South America!


  1. congratulations!
    more adventures to come :)

  2. This story “Lya del Mar will be here tomorrow” reminds me similar one about “5 Georgian’s kilometers”. It took us only 4 days to pace :))