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Sea Stories
Panama - the Kuna Indians & Achutupu, San Blas Islands

There are so many interesting things to see in Panama. One could stay two months and still not take it all in. In December of 2007 I visited three areas - Panama City & the Canal; Achutupu in the San Blas Islands & the Kuna Indians; and the Gamboan Rain Forest & Resort.

The pictures on this page are cropped from a full size picture which gives a better perspective to what is being shown. To see a picture full size, simply click on the picture and it will appear full size in a new browser.


Click on picture to see an enlargement. Welcome to the Achutupu Airport. Achutupu is located in the San Blas Islands on the North Coast of Panama about 40 miles west of the border with Columbia. This is the entire airport except for a hole in the ground fifty away with a fence around it, which is the airport toilet.

The resort is only a few miles away by motorized canoe. Here we are loading bags and passengers for the 15 minute journey. It rained during half of the passage, but they had raincoats for us.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. Our hotel room (a palm leaf covered hut tied together piece by piece) was quite large and comfortable. There were two large new beds in it with a shower and toilet. You slept under the mosquito netting tied over the bed. The windows and doors were either opened or closed but had no screens. The strong sea breeze minimized the insect population.

The main dining room provided ample seating for the guests. The windows were always wide open to the sea and a delightful sea breeze kept the temperature perfect. The meals were fabulous - lobster every night, seafood for lunch and a complete breakfast with strong coffee and fresh juice.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. Our hut was the last one on the left, number 6. There were no locks on the doors, only a piece of wood you jammed in to keep the door closed. The purple facility to the left of our hut was the dining room.

The grounds were immaculate, like a well kept professional golf course. The cement blocks to the right of each hut is the foundation for the bathroom. The rest of the floor was bare wood.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. The Kuna Indians are excellent boat handlers, or should I say canoe handlers. They use poles, paddles, motors and sails to power their canoes, which are very seaworthy.

A group of 4 Indians are sailing out for an afternoon fishing trip in their sail powered canoe. This was the view from the dining room.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. These people were very kind and calm. You can see why, living in paradise with all of their basic needs met with a few simple chores. They were very happy unlike anyone I've run across on the 405 highway in Los Angeles.

The "back yard" of our hut fronted along a beach. It was very relaxing to lie in a hammock and feel the refreshing sea breeze. It was the most relaxing three days I have ever enjoyed.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. Each night the Kuna Indians played some of their traditional music, usually flutes and shakers. They also performed some of their traditional dances. Many of the dances involved drinking and helping their drunk husbands dance home.

They enjoyed playing their music and dancing. It was entertaining, though some of the flute tunes were very repetitive.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. It doesn't rain often in Panama, but when it rains, it rains hard. This is what makes Panama work as a host for the Panama Canal. It takes 52 million gallons of water to transit a ship through the Canal. That's a lot of rainfall when you consider the number of ships transiting the Canal each year.

The short hair along with the intricate arm and leg bracelets indicate that this Kuna Indian is married. She cared for our hut. She was always smiling.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. The canoes are handmade. There are no West Marine stores in the islands. Everything they have on board they make by hand. I have a lot of respect for their accomplishments. They carve out the interior of the canoe by burning the wood. It's quite a trick to control the fire to burn out the interior without burning a hole through the hull.

This is a chart of the area. Just to confuse everyone, North is down, not up. These islands are north of the north coast of Panama. We visited all of the islands and went up the river by canoe.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. Speaking of handmade, imagine the work involved in tying every piece of your house together with twine. This is literally how they made the huts. You can see how green twine is used to tie each member and leaf to the other to form a house. Incredible!

In spite of the huge amount of work to fabricate the hut, they used a lot of creativity in choosing different styles of wood and using different patterns to make the interior interesting. Notice the simplicity of the windows. With all the windows and doors open, the sea breeze was very comfortable.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. The hut was not without its luxuries. The shower was huge and fully tiled. A little hot water would have been appreciated. You really never get used to cold showers.

A modern toilet added to the comfort of the hut. There was also a modern sink with cold water only.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. We had more fun in this canoe. I was surprised at how sea worthy it truly is. We were out in some 3 to 4 foot seas and she handled it beautifully. We had to cross a river bar on a strong ebb tide. She navigated the bar without incident.

I was looking forward to sailing a canoe, but was rained out the afternoon I was scheduled. This is one picture you should definitely enlarge to see a picture of a man and his very trusting dog out to sea in a sail powered canoe.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. Going up a lush jungle river in an old canoe reminded me a lot of the African Queen. We had much better luck than Bogart.

When you think about it, this seems like a very good way to make a living, paddling up the river and collecting bananas and wood. I'm not sure if he is selling them, or if this is just his contribution to feed the community. It does beat the hell out of fighting traffic every morning and evening on the interstates.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. These Indians were towing a net behind their boat, but I'm not sure exactly what they were trying to catch. He has a yellow bucket between his knees full of his catch, whatever it is. I don't know if it is to sell or if it is just their contribution to feeding the tribe.

They had a few water problems while we were there, lasting only a few hours twice. I believe these Indians were collecting "fresh" water in the river to help resolve some of their supply issues. Must have been my long cold showers. Incidentally, power boats were not allowed further upriver than this point to preserve the quality of the water.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. We saw plenty of Panamanian wildlife from this African Queen like canoe ride.

Originally, I really wanted to stay in a hut like these, built out over the water. However, our huts had so much charm and the Indians we were with were so kind and the food so good, that I'm glad we stayed on Dolphin Island.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. Solar panels on the roofs of each of these over the water huts combine new technology with old world charm. These were actually a little too modern for the setting. I wonder if they had hot water.

When your world revolves around living around water and in canoes on the water, you learn to swim at an early age. I never saw an Indian in a life jacket; though they did provide life jackets for us foreigners.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. Although I really like the concept of a hut built over the water, I found these huts to be a little too commercial. The finish was more professional and lacked the personal touch of hard hand labour.

Even the walls were more regimented, with no cracks in them to let the sea breeze pass through. Notice the different style of mosquito netting. This poster bed frame is much more effective than the tent style we used. Again, it was fun doing it the old fashioned way.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. These are Christmas trees in Achutupu. I should have asked if this was based on religious belief or not, but did not. I really did not notice any religious practices in any of the major faiths. I suspect this is more a celebration of the holiday season, but I am not sure.

Pretty much anything goes on the tree, which is not a fir or Scott pine. Crepe paper and other personal symbols were all fair game.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. This was our favorite. She took very good care of us while we were on the island especially at meal times. She always smiled, except for the picture.

After three days and nights with our new friends, it was back to "civilization", by canoe and small airplane. I wish I knew what the white flag over the airport meant. I guess it meant that there were passengers waiting to board the plane. If the plane was empty and no flag was up, they probably didn't bother to land.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

Click on picture to see an enlargement. The fellow in the red cap seemed to hold the most "power" or should I say respect. He is the medicine man, there are no hospitals nearby. His son is the chef at the island resort. My guess is that he master minded the resort, but I am speculating.

We are loading bags and passengers for the return flight to the City of Panama. After I returned to the States I heard that one of these airplanes had crashed in the jungle and what a miracle it was that a 12 year old girl found her way through the Panamanian jungle and survived. I'm glad I didn't hear that story before the trip!

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. To say that the runway was small would be an understatement. You know it is small when the pilots make the sign of the cross before starting the take off roll.

This shows the airport as we were taking off. In the background you can make out the community of Achutupu. We enjoyed our time immensely there and were very sad to leave.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. This is the Ailignndi Community of Kuna Indians. We visited this island on one of our canoe adventures. From the air, it appears more modern than Achutupu. You could not see any of the more modern looking homes and only few of the larger buildings from the canoe.

The skyline of the City of Panama really surprised me. I was not expecting so much development. This shows the large number of high rises. It also shows oil dripping along the side of the engine cowling.

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Click on picture to see an enlargement. You can see from the Bridge of the Americas on the far left, through Casco Viejo in the center to the left, to modern Panama on the right. It is a huge city.

An aerial view of the Bridge of the Americas shows it connecting Central America to South America as it spans the Panama Canal. I don't know what the V shaped structures to the left in front of the bridge and to the right behind the bridge are. They look some kind of runaway boat stop, but I've never seen anything like them before.

Click on picture to see an enlargement.

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