The anchor splashed down into the turquoise water of the San Blas Islands and as we let the breeze set the anchor, I take in the three small islets we have chosen to visit. There were a few more structures than there were the last time we visited 12 years before but otherwise all is the same. I pulled a few cold drinks from the ice box and plopped down in the cockpit with John to toast our return.
“I can’t believe we even considered skipping this,” I said as we let the stillness wash over us after our overnight passage from Cartagena. The contrast to the constant movement of our six weeks in the city was startling and in the peace of the moment I could feel the tension releasing from muscles that had been braced since leaving Cartagena. The San Blas Islands are just simply beautiful and the memories that we have of this place were worn and faded like a pair of old dungarees. Gazing out at these lush palm covered islets ringed with white and surrounded by turquoise again was dreamlike, especially after a sleepless night underway.
We have come not for nostalgia’s sake but for molas. Our daughter Allison has been on a campaign to get us to return and buy her some molas. So, here we are and the exciting thing is that I don’t even have to get in the car (or in this case the dinghy) and drive to go shopping. I just have to hang out on the boat and wait to be visited by the creators themselves, the Kuna Indians, who inhabit these islands. A mola is essentially fabric art that is traditionally used as panels in women’s blouses. Two matching molas are placed in the front and back of the blouse and it is possible to purchase a previously worn blouse with the molas included. These pieces of fabric have intricate designs that are carefully cut out, layered and then hand sewn together with the tiniest of stitches. To me, a well constructed mola is a work of art.
We sat at the Coco Bandero anchorage for two days before we had anyone visit us in their cayuca (a small dug out canoe). The woman selling her molas was dressed in the traditional way and she patiently pulled out molas from her two large plastic barrels to show me her work. It is a little mind blowing just how productive these women are. Eventually I settle on a few molas, I don’t want to buy too many because I think that there will be many more women in their cayucas coming. One more woman did come that same day, but she came only to our boat and it led me to think that the other woman must have told her that I had bought some molas. I purchased a few more from her also and a few days later we decided to move on to a busier anchorage where there might be more women selling.
Green Island was the next stop, it is a little closer to the mainland and other islands that are more densely populated. From here we had amazing views of sunsets and dramatic skies but the only other local visitor we had was the man in the veggie boat, who provides cruisers with some fresh food once a week or so. Sadly, a weather window was opening up and our time to leave the San Blas was fast approaching. We moved one more time in an effort to find some molas and luck was with us when, on the morning of our departure, Venacio arrived with three barrels full of molas. Now, in the San Blas not all molas are made by women. Some men are raised as women to help carry on the tradition and are usually transgender or homosexual. We have a framed mola made by Venacio at home and I remembered him from our previous visit. This time he was in a hurry to get to the cruise ship that was coming in so I didn’t get to take my time with the decision making process but was grateful for the opportunity to look at these colorful works of art.
These days a mola costs about twice as much as it did years ago, now a minimum of twenty and a maximum of eighty dollars. The largest change that we found in these islands was the small number of women out selling their work. I asked another cruiser who has spent years in these islands why so few women were selling? She responded that cruisers don’t buy the molas anymore. At the same time, the Kuna Indians have begun charging cruisers to anchor on top of a fee of sixty dollars for two people when you check in. The rumour mill has been churning with news about an attempt by the Kuna to charge cruisers significantly more to visit the San Blas based on the size of your boat and the length of your stay. I have heard that the Panamanian government would not allow this. For the most recent information on what is happening in Kuna Yala the best place to get up to the minute information is the Kuna Yala Facebook group. Whatever is actually going on we personally found all the local people we came in contact with to be very friendly and did not feel unwelcome.
Despite the changes, the San Blas Islands are still one of our all time favorite destinations and in my personal opinion the best of the Caribbean Islands we have visited so far. Last year we met a cruiser who has circumnavigated twice and he felt that the San Blas Islands are some of the most beautiful in the world. Once again I am filled with gratitude at having the opportunity to experience such a lovely place and gather more memories.