Renting a private island at Kuna Yala


Our border crossing adventure starts at four in the morning when Ricardo, also Kuna, picks us up at the hostel.  He is the person that will take us for 25$ in Kuna Yala (which means ‘Kuna territory’ in the local language) as no foreigner can enter the district without the transport provided by one of the locals.  After driving through the jungle we arrive at the district border where several cars with Kunas, tourists and merchandises are waiting the opening at 7 o’clock.  Each tourist pays 10$ as entrance of the natural reserve of unexplored jungle and 365 white-sand-coco-islands protected by the second biggest coral reef of the world.  So after a brief passport check we get permission to enter, another hour of jungle passing by and finally we can see the seashore of Cartí.  Cartí, which existence is based on a small harbour and a tollhouse, is another invention to ask money and to pay a 2$ fee for accessing the islands and where a 5min boat trip to one of the three Cartí islands costs 5$.  On this island we have the family of Angel (see post A man, a plan…) waiting for us to spend at least one night.  Arriving at the island is a true shock for us. There where we expected natural sublimity we find human destructivity.  The Cartí islets are islands made from coral rocks with not one square millimetre unused.  It is overpopulated, noisy and dirty,… very dirty!  It really messes with our minds to see trash everywhere on the small dusty streets, in the houses and floating around the island.  They, as the matter in fact, empty their bin directly in the sea just next to their houses, right there where kids are swimming and playing in the already polluted water and by doing that enough time the community gains some terrain to build on… on garbage!

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San Blas, the north part of Kuna Yala has about 5 of those community super crowded islands near the main land.  The rest of the islands are further from land and less populated till even the farest unhabituated smaller dream islands.  We wander astonished around and by every corner we cross, every barbarity we see and every Kuna we speak with, it becomes clear we don’t want to stay here on this island.  We have a free place to stay but just can’t bare the sight of violating nature at this level.  It is infinitely sad to see how indigenous people, who live with and from the sea, mistreat their so valuable environment.

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So we go to the dock to find a solution, to find a way out here and find the real marvel that San Blas is.  But it’s not going to be easy.  Every island, every rock that peaks out of the water is private property of one of the Kuna families and for that they obligate us to pay access to each one of them.  This people see us as walking dollar notes and everything is to pay here.  Transport is another problem: it seems like 45$ sounds just perfect to them, so whatever boat transport they offer (most to an island nearby) they ask us to pay 45$ a person.  We are stuck here and they know it.  We can’t ‘jump’ from island to island till the border, paying every time 45$.  The transport Angel said there would be we can’t find and staying here seems the worst option.  So sitting at the dock, watching trash floating by, sitting here without options, without ideas nor inspiration, we look sadly at each other and assure ourselves that something will pop-up.  A motorized boat is coming to the dock as we sit here defeated, gaping through the transparent water at the layer of garbage covering the sea bottom.  We can hear loud shouting from youngsters and the closer they are the more persons are at the dock to welcome them.  “Mula, Mula, Mula!”, echoes over the water surface while a big trophy proudly decorates the front of the boat.  The football team of Mulatupo is making its victory round on its way home and stops at each population to show off their 2nd place trophy.

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It is not till we realize that Mulatupo is in Caledonia (the outer south part of Kuna Yala) that we get in action.  We ask the capitan for a ride, as he has to go anyway to Mulatupo, and as expected he asks us 45$. We get it down to 40$, not really a bargain but at least it will bring us to the total other side, even almost the border.  So a very reasonable price for Kuna standards.  Till now we have seen and heard from other travellers, ‘offers’ for the same distance for 150$ in a 75Hp open vessel, which means 8-9 hours on a boat under a burning Caribbean midday sun.  With this 2x250Hp transport it takes us 3 hours and we even stop at each main island to celebrate with the team and make a short walk in the different villages.

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We can watch the women working, taking care of the household and making their mola, a typical tribal handcraft considered art by many of world’s most important art galleries.

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We observe kids sharpening their amazing fisher skills at the water border.  After a long trip we finally get to Mulatupo, yet another dumping ground where we get in contact with Atiliano, kuna of course, who is owner of an island and is willing to rent it to us.  After a long day of driving, navigating, visiting the different communities, discussing prices at each occasion and for each buy, we finally set feet on a beautiful sand beach.  The island is as big as a ten minute walk. It has a small hut on the beach to put our tent under, some cocotrees around it conveniently providing shade and green mangroves at the other side.  It is just perfect, so peaceful,… happiness invades us.

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Several days of waking up at a two person sized beach bathed in early morning sunlight with views on an intense blue ocean is our destiny, climbing cocotrees and snorkelling is our labour and at nightfall watching a firnamiento dotted with millions of stars our duty.  Far away over the mainland where the mountains rise to the sky we watch lightnings striking down or thinning out at the bottom side of the clouds.  Mighty rainfalls and deafening thunders soundtrack the night while tropical birds with their happy tunes do the morning shift.  We eat delicious bread bought at the Caledonia Island with rice, lentils and coco of course.

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For the night we arranged that Atiliano would bring us some fresh fish dish with platains and a spicy sauce so we chat about the Kuna life and culture, incomes, habits, social structure, business and future projects in the community.  The son of Atiliano takes us on a telling- story-ride with stories about sharks, big waves and other sea myths.  It is a dream not easy to wake up from, but on this island there is no chance to find a transport to Colombia.  So time to wake up…


…to be continued crossing The Darién Gap!

Our recommendations:

-The further away from San Blas, the cheaper it is to stay on an island that is not a community (at least 20$ per night accommodation/food in San Blas while we pay only 7$/night for the rent of the island in Caledonia).

-Calculate the time you wish to stay on a desolated island and buy food on the cheaper mainland (Panama City has some very cheap supermarkets)

-All the different options, contacts and prices to cross the border will be displayed in the next post.

Categories: Panama | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Renting a private island at Kuna Yala

  1. Pingback: The Healthiest People in the World - Kuna People

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