Trading with the Friendly Kuna People

San Blas Islands, Panama

Beautiful isolated beach

We tend to buy a few things from each San Blas Island we visit. Our small way of thanking the Kuna people for allowing us to anchor in their beautiful front yard. After over a month in these stunning islands, I have all the molas and beaded jewelry a girl could want. Mark has his own supply too. There is even a stash for family and friends. Now that our time here is coming to an end the Cream Puff crew is backtracking to a few of the islands we enjoyed the most. We are hoping to not feel compelled to add any more trinkets to the growing collection. As Chief Victor would say, I will need a bigger boat to hold it all.

The occupants of an approaching boat clues us to the items that will be offered.  If there are Kuna men it is most likely a fisherman with the catch of the day. On occasion they have sodas, beer, rum, homemade bread and even cigarettes. If there are woman in the boat they will sell handmade items such as molas, pot holders or beaded jewelry.

San Blas Islands, Panama

Handmade Flag of the Kuna Yala Islands (San Blas Islands)

San Blas Islands, Panama

Detailed stitches. One of the Kuna men pointed to our spreaders where our courtesy flags fly. The next day he returned with a Kuna Yala courtesy flag to go under our Panama flag.

I have observed a pattern while watching the Kuna people sell to boaters.  First make the sale, have the money in hand and then ask for gratis items. There are no credit cards, debit cards or ATMs on the islands. Cash is the only currency for trading Kuna to Kuna or Kuna to tourist. Just because the Kuna people live in huts it does not make them any less intelligent. When it comes to business with tourists they have it down to a science.

The height of tourist season is only six months. Time is of the essence. I picture them gathering at night in the community hut discussing what ideas work and what does not. Maybe they even discuss Cream Puff being an easy stop for a quick sale. Or maybe they have solar powered chargers keeping secreted cell phones ready to send texts about boaters traversing the islands. Who will buy fish, who will not and who has too many molas. I have time on my hands, I can muse.

After the sale some Kuna Islanders will ask for gratis items. This can be anything from a drink of water, medical supplies, sweets, coffee or even office products. If I have what they request I am happy to help or I will try to find something to substitute. I brought a supply of candy for the children and a few other items I heard are hard for them to obtain.

San Blas Islands, Panama

Hola! Hola! Fish today?

The Panamanian Balboa is evenly exchanged for the US Dollar. We were told we would need small US currency while in the San Blas Islands especially in areas away from the main towns/islands. I thought having a pocket full of twenty dollar bills would be fine. What I should have brought was a wad of tens, fives and ones. Handing over the exact amount requested works best since often the person does not have change. If the sale is $15 and all you have is a twenty, they will find something to sell you for the extra $5.

Yesterday I asked one of the Kuna men if he had avocados. He was sad that he did not have any to sell to me. Today he surprised me by returning with four avocados and a huge smile. I did not have any small bills left and inquired if he had change. The man made a circle with his finger around the top of his head and said something in Spanish about change. I understood that he would return with the change but was not sure what the circle meant. There were a few other boats around so maybe he meant he would be back after he gathered some change from other sales? To our surprise he did not stop at other boats. We watched him motor to the back of the island and return with the correct change for our transaction. Were there mason jars of money buried on the back of the island? Did he have a secret compartment in his boat that he did not want us to see where he stashed cash? It will remain a mystery.

The Kuna people are friendly  and very kind. If we say no thank you they simply smile, wish us a good day and paddle away. No harm in asking…and no pressure for us to buy. That was until we met Lisa.

San Blas Islands, Panama


Lisa and her companion motored up to Cream Puff.  I apologized to Lisa and told her we already purchased too many molas but this did not deter her. After all, she told us, she is a famous mola maker and her molas are some of the best. She is in the Bauhus Cruising Guide to Panama (the cruiser’s bible for the San Blas Islands). Lisa was not going to go away without a sale. She felt I simply had not seen the right mola in her collection yet and would soon fall in love with one. I admired her spunk and settled in for a mola presentation as I had little choice.

Lisa continued to pull out molas that I have to admit are right up there with the best we have seen. I then explained that we have been in the San Blas Islands for many weeks and are low on cash. We are saving our money for the veggie boat. This was fine, Lisa was happy to share our depleting funds with the veggie guys and asks how much I had to spare. She then offered a discount on a mola and would throw in a free avocado. What could I say but sold. With a big smile I handed over the cash. I love when someone is proud of their work and dedicated to their trade. If there is an award for persistence in the Kuna Yala Community it should go to Lisa and for that, she deserves to make a sale.

Lisa made a big impression and I will always think of her when I look at the mola that has her name proudly sewn into the seam.

Click here for a link to our previous post about and pictures of molas

San Blas Islands, Panama

From my vantage point on Cream Puff this dead palm tree looks like a dolphin

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