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A Traveler’s Diary: Day Trip to San Blas
By Will Irvine
The sun was still in hiding as my friends and I topped off our second cup of coffee and started
our one-day road trip to the San Blas Islands. Visiting San Blas, with its archipelago of 365 islands
and unspoiled indigenous culture was a lifelong dream and within hours we would be there.
The reservation stretches 373 kilometers - 232 miles - along the northeastern coast of Panama
and into the neighboring Colombian mountains and is home to the Kuna Indians, the most
recognized of the five native Indian tribes in Panama.
The soaring terrain couldn’t match our mounting anticipation as we climbed through the Panamanian jungle and reached 900 meters - almost 3,000 feet - before we began descending to the coast. It was here we caught our first glimpse of the Archipelago of San Blas, where white shores met transparent water that blended into shades of bright turquoise and deep green.
As we arrived at the Karti Airport, a group of local kids eagerly guided us to a parking place and watched with unconcealed interest as we exited the car. The local soccer game continued and we looked around with feigned confidence as we oriented ourselves to the area.
Suddenly, a thin, dark-haired man materialized at our side and offered his services as a tour guide. Forty-nine of the 365 islands are filled with bustling Kuna communities, and the remaining islands are uninhabited. Our Panamanian guide recommended three islands for our day trip - Karti Sugtuppu, which is the island where he lives, Icotuppu Island, which means Needle Island and Arituppu Island, or Iguana Island in the local Kuna language. Ever-resourceful guide secured our transportation – a thin wooden boat called a Cayuco – and we were off. Within 15 minutes we were in Karti.
Karti Sugtuppu Island is one of the most populated and developed islands in the archipelago. While maintaining their indigenous culture is of utmost importance to the tribe, they value a working infrastructure. The island boasts a school, police station, church, bakery, restaurant and a pay phone.
During our tour, we were introduced to many of the natives, none more interesting than our six-year-old translator and the 96-year-old island historian who told us the legend of how Karti Sugtuppu was named. According to our storyteller, Spanish explorers marveled at the ease with which the Indians navigated under water. They believed they were amphibian in nature because they could survive underwater for extended periods while diving for fish. They also thought that they mesmerized the fish with music from a flute made from pelican bones. The name Karti Sugtuppu derived from this, with Kar, meaning flute, Ti, meaning river, Sugga, meaning crab, and Tuppu, meaning island.
The women were dressed in Molas, a historical symbol of the Kuna culture in which vibrant layers of fabric are interwoven to create geometric figures. Molas cloths evolved from a time when the Kuna people painted figures of the sun and stars on their bodies to represent colorful visions of human and animal figures. The colorful tapestries distinguish the Kuna women from other indigenous cultures. The richly colored beads, called winnis, are tied around their wrists and calves to protect them from dark spirits. Bright red scarves wrap their heads and a thin black line is drawn vertically down their noses, where a small gold ring completes the look.
Many of the women greeted our cameras with smiles and offered us handmade crafts, while more conservative women crouched in the shadows to avoid the camera’s lens. Since we knew the Kuna people could be reluctant to pose for photos, we requested permission from each person before photographing them or their children.
The financial crisis currently affecting the U.S. with the strong dependency many countries in Latin America have with the United States, is beginning to influence the economies in this area. Panama has marked a slowdown in the growth of certain sectors, example construction. The Torrijos administration in an effort to slow the threat of recession has launched initiatives. One such initiative is a the Financial Stimulus Program. The plan to inject $840 million into the local economy. A host of business leaders are worried about this upcoming crisis. Their aim to this problem is optimism, and well so due to the strength of GDP. Banking sectors are analyzing the problem and are expecting that the guarantees, that the Financial Stimulus Program can be preserved. The National Bank of Panama shall put the first $400 million at the disposal of the financial system, with an interest rate of 5% for long term loans.
Copyright© 2011, Pan Am Publishing S.A., Republic of Panama