Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | February 5, 2013

A Tour of Narganá

N 9° 30.6′   W 78° 37.1′

Cayos Coco Bandero, Kuna Yala


Heading north along the Panamanian coast, with the mountainous jungle in the distance – some of the most remote territory we have traveled. There are no roads to this part of the world and access is by boat or small airplane to one of a few airstrips.

1/9 –  It is up to me to choose if we take a moderately rough sea day to move on or wait another week or who knows how long for a better time. With that decision-making approach, the Captain absolves himself of any responsibility if I don’t care for the sea conditions. I say let’s go. The next stop will be in the Rio Diablo area where a calm anchorage looks almost certain. The town of Narganá is supposed to be fairly advanced and we hope to find internet there.

After making our way to deep water we decide to navigate from the lower helm to reduce some of the motion. It works out okay, although Lady for some reason is very stressed out and has difficulty finding a comfortable spot. She finally plops on the sofa and seems content so we let her stay there, hoping we won’t have another accident to deal with. Little Bandit stands almost the whole way, surfer style.

Bob & I sit by the doorways on either side of the cabin watching for traffic and reefs. A Kuna panga-style ferry boat with 20 people packed aboard passes us, and we wave and smile as the small vessel pounds through the big seas. What a miserable experience that would be. Our boat must look like a luxury liner to them.

As we pass Isla Tigre, we motor into beautiful reef protected waters with many tiny islands and the seas flatten. We round the corner at Rio Diablo and see 8 cruising sailboats in the anchorage. We have arrived at the edge of the more popular part of the San Blas.

There are two Kuna towns here – Narganá and Corazón de Jesus. There is a large cell tower and red Claro satellite disks startlingly poke above most of the roofs, even the huts. There are as many regular buildings as there are of the hut variety. An extremely noisy generator runs 24/7 and we see more lights here at night than in any Kuna town so far. An airstrip on the nearby mainland hosts a small commercial airplane flight most days.


Narganá on the left and Corazon de Jesus on the right, connected by a pedestrian footbridge. There is no need for vehicular bridges. We haven’t seen a car since arriving in the San Blas.

We venture into town and early in our walking tour are greeted with “Buenas!” by a friendly man sitting at a refreshment stand. After hearing our Spanish reply, he says “Hello!” and continues the conversation in English. He asks where we are from, and we learn that Sammy is a retired teacher who was born on the island. He moved to Oklahoma at the age of 7 with his uncle who was a Baptist missionary here. He returned after college and spent 35 years on the island teaching English. He offers to walk with us and show us his village.


Sammy is not like the tour guides who have adopted us in other places hoping for a tip. He is a genuinely nice man who is excited to share his pride in his homeland and to connect with the outside world through visitors.

Our tour winds us through the wide streets of Narganá, across the foot bridge to the sister city of Corazón de Jesus, then back. We meet some of Sammy’s friends and relatives and learn more about life here. Both towns have given up many of the long-standing Kuna practices. The women don’t wear traditional mola dress and people here can pick their own spouses instead of having arranged marriages. Intermarriage with outsiders is permitted. There is a health clinic and Sammy says that modern medicine is now accepted in most villages and not in conflict with traditional Kuna beliefs.


Nargana seems less crowded than many of the Kuna settlements

There is a high school with a dormitory and students from other villages come here to study. Of the 77 graduates this year, 44 students went on to universities for higher education. There is a small prison which also serves the needs of some of the other Kuna villages. We ask what types of crime are problematic and are given examples such as stealing coconuts or doing one’s laundry too far upstream, above the point where the town’s water supply is drawn.

Several buildings have air conditioning units in the windows, including the school and the first bank we have seen in Kuna Yala – Bank of Panama. There is no ATM or way for us to get cash, only to change out large bills. Thank goodness we had paid attention to the advice to come supplied with US dollars – preferably in very small denominations – since the nearest ATM’s are in Portobello or Panama City.


The many red Claro satellites disks prove to be well utilized. Televisions are turned on in most of the buildings and people seem glued to it, both adults and children.

We visit the town cemetary with 5 graves. Precious space here is reserved for the most revered townspeople. Two Kuna leaders, an educator, a librarian, and a nun who dedicated her life to the town’s needs had received this high honor.

The town’s water piping from the mainland does not work and has been in disrepair for a year. Water must be hauled in barrels from up the Rio Diablo river by small boat. Wifi was available at the school briefly in the past but is no longer functioning. We try to find out more about how the local economy works and Sammy mentions lobstering is a popular occupation. We see many small stores, find another sim card and buy some minutes for the phone. Sammy takes us to meet the Saila, an elected official with a 4 year term, but he is out of the office at the moment. Bob would have loved to find out more about the town’s utility woes and what solutions they have considered to date.

We offer to buy Sammy a beer and stop at a couple of very quaint bar and restaurant type places. We find the town’s beer supply was decimated during the holidays. Bob cannot fathom this inventory issue. How can all the bars and restaurants run out of beer? We finally find one remaining beer for Sammy and a diet coke for Bob at the refreshment stand where we started for $1.65 for both. Bob & Sammy sit down to cool off and continue the conversation and I hit the stores.

There are two markets that sell a little fresh produce. Yeah! I find onions, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, carrots, cabbage, corn and squash. I buy a pineapple and the storekeeper kindly snaps off the green top for me, warning of “cucarachas”. Yes, I’m familiar with cucarachas. We have them back home in Florida. I consider but skip the lettuce and celery that is crawling with tiny bugs. I had very low expectations and am pleased with my finds. These items will save us from the cans for a while. I visit the baker Sammy recommends and get ten more Kuna rolls for 10 cents a piece.

We dinghy over to Federico’s house, listed in the guidebook as a garbage disposal resource and drop four bags for $4. I give him $5 and end up making an additional small contribution to a charity dinner he says he is planning for the town’s disabled children.


Federico’s services include laundry and river tours in addition to garbage disposal

Despite our proximity to the cell tower, the internet hardly functions here. Bob calls Digicel to get some assistance with our account set-up and confirms that 2G is the best we will find here in the San Blas. He discovers the best access in the middle of the night, when we are not competing with other cruisers for bandwidth. Great. It is frustrating to try to do the most basic task, like checking the weather and reading mail scans. Banking, blog and photo uploads and social networking require even greater patience and are often unsuccessful.


The big tower looked more impressive than the service it delivered

The loud generator that sounds like an airplane taking off blasts through the night. I think about how life in Anachucuna is so different and wonder whether the Narganans are really happier.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s