Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | February 10, 2013

No More Molas

N 9° 25.6′   W 78° 34.1′

Narganá, Kuna Yala


Brecieda, in traditional Kuna dress, visits our anchorage in Green Island to sell her molas. The family often comes along on mola calls. The men, who seem to speak better Spanish, often serve as the interpreter, although the ladies have the phrase “Compra mola?” (“You buy mola?”) firmly embedded in their Spanish vocabulary.

Today I said “no more molas”. I have spent over half my mola budget and we have at least another month in the San Blas. Bob says I’ve already spent the whole budget and he has a good point. Doing this type of travel has required dipping into savings and giving up a steady income. Our souvenirs so far have been limited to photographs and the courtesy flags we have collected representing all the countries we have visited. Molas, though, are so unique that even Bob had to agree that it wouldn’t be right to leave the San Blas without a mola or two aboard.

Molas evolved as a way of incorporating traditional body painting designs into clothing. They are considered an important part of Kuna culture & identity. In the early 20th century the Panamanian government tried to abolish Kuna customs, traditional dress and language. This led to the Kuna revolution in 1925, intervention by the US, and establishment of the autonomous Comarca Kuna Yala territory that exists today.

I have been fascinated with the molas and have a growing collection that represents the works of many of the villages we have visited. I’m not sure exactly what I am going to do with them – maybe make pillows or frame them – but they are a most interesting souvenir. I want to reserve enough to buy one if I meet the famous mola maker Lisa. There was also another renowned artisan that I had heard about from another cruiser. So today, it would be “no” to any inquiry. No molas today. I’m not going to waste their time and mine perusing their life’s work because the answer is “no”.

Before I am dressed Bob yells “It’s for you – another mola vendor”. Great. “Tell them ‘no, gracias’”. He doesn’t. Inquiries and vendor triage fall on my side of the chores list. I come on deck and meet Venancio from Isla Máquina known as “Moremake Tupu” in Kuna, meaning Mola Making Island. He presents his business card, something the ladies so far have not had. It states “Master Mola Maker”. Aha! I remember our friend Lena on Hobo, whom we met in Bonaire, showing me his gorgeous works. I’m not turning this one away.

I have trouble understanding him and we switch to mostly English, which he speaks pretty well. He asks about the dogs and I realize he wants to bring his wares aboard. We leash the dogs and he brings his garbage can size container of molas up the boarding stairs, cautiously scooting his chair as far away from gentle Bandit as possible. Bob looks up from his e-book and can’t ignore this transaction as he usually does. I mention that this is the gentleman pictured in the Christmas email we received from Larry & Lena. Bob pulls up the photo on his Ipad and shows Venancio that we indeed have heard of him and his molas were one of our friends cruising highlights of the past year.

Venancio is a class act and a rare male mola maker. The Kunas deserve credit for allowing one to pursue their talents instead of requiring a traditional gender-oriented work role. Vernancio is a gifted artisan. We go through his collection and he points out the details and explains the designs. Some are very intricate, some with traditional patterns and scenes, some quite original, some more decorative in nature. There is a range of price options.

We ask lots of questions and learn that Venancio spends more time in the winter season selling to private boats and cruise ship visitors and he makes molas in the slow season. He doesn’t have a shop, other than his mobile store, and he picks his destinations carefully with an eye on fuel cost and the cruise ship calendar. We won’t see him in the Coco Banderos and he rarely goes to the Holandes Cays – too far from home. Like the other mola makers, he says it takes about a month to stitch the average piece. We don’t think the mola math adds up. There must be a mola making machine hidden in some of the huts or helpers to speed along this detailed task, but they all claim the molas are carefully sewn by them by hand. From what we have read, sewing machines were introduced here in the 70’s by the Peace Corps and were quickly rejected by mola makers.

Several hundred molas later I have narrowed down my preferences to a pile of about 50, and with Bob giving me the evil eye, select two that I feel represent a nice balance between detail and art appeal from a short distance, since these may well end up framed. No large purchase discount for me, but I am pleased with the additions to our collection. Now I just need to find Lisa. Then I am done with molas.

In the afternoon here comes another ulu with three young women and two children and a large container of molas. “No, gracias, no necesito molas”. I will be firm.

Two days later, Lisa finds the Mar Azul, saving us the trip to Rio Sidra. She looks younger and more feminine than I had imagined, as according to the guidebook, she is really a he. I don’t recognize her and nearly turn her away. She offers a business card and her beautiful works show the trademark “Lisa” signature. She’s the real Lisa. Welcome aboard!

Now I surely have enough molas, perhaps enough to make a souvenir quilt. That’s it. No more molas for me. At least not today.


Adelaida from Isla Maquina shows a mola with a medicinal flower motif. Women in the traditional villages spend most of their free time stitching molas to both wear and sell.


Yaribel was a talented young mola maker we met in Chichime. Nature is a popular mola theme, particularly birds, sea creatures and plants. This mola depicts a giant crab.


The famous Lisa shows her handiwork accompanied by Edilsa, another young mola maker. Representations of Kuna life, traditional rituals and geometric designs are also frequent themes. Some artisans are very original. We have seen everything from Biblical scenes to pop characters like Mickey Mouse among their works.


A visit from Venancio, mola maker extraordinaire was a special occasion. If one only had the desire for a single serious mola viewing session, Venancio on Isla Maquina or Lisa on Rio Sidra would be good choices as they offer a large and high quality selection at fair prices. If you take the time to see what the many vendors who will approach your boat have to offer you can find some hidden treasures.


A little girl on Anachucuna dressed in a baby mola fashioned by her mother. Some of the Kuna women and girls now wear more contemporary clothing like shorts and t-shirts but this seems to be village-specific.


The reverse appliqué technique involves cutting away layers of fabric to expose the colors below and often overlays additional colors and tiny embroidery stitches. The quality is amazing and we almost never see any fraying fabric, missed stitches or ragged edges in the design. The high quality cotton material is obtained from Panama City. A common mola size is about 12 x 15 inches, although larger and smaller works are also created. I’ve been quoted prices ranging from $2 to $80 depending on the size of the work and detail involved.


Most molas are sold as single panels and occasionally an entire blouse is offered containing a mola both front and back, like this one by Anriella on Anachucuna with a crocodile motif. The blouses tend to be small as most of the ladies are tiny, and pretty thick. Can’t imagine wearing one of these in the tropical heat!



  1. They are beautiful! I’m imagining a huge wall hanging to display your treasures!

    • It’s probably a good thing we don’t have a lot of wall space on the boat or I would be tempted to buy more 🙂

  2. i like your blog…friends of mine on Blue Skies are there…give them a hello from Herman on “WhiteWing” in Georgetown, Exumas….great blogs..thanks..

    • Thanks,Herman! It’s been fun to try to share our experiences with family & friends, and we’ll probably be glad we did this in the future as a way of preserving some of our cruising memories that we otherwise might forget. We’ll keep a lookout for your friends on Blue Skies! I think I have heard that boat name on the am SSB net.

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