Posted by: rosyroadsadventures | February 23, 2013

Coming of Age on Isla Gerti

N 9° 31.19′   W 79° 03.3′

Between Isla Gerti & Isla Elsie in the Islas Robeson, Kuna Yala


Isla Gerti, home to 20 families and about 150 people

After spending 6 weeks away from the traditional Kuna villages, it was a pleasant change to come to Isla Gerti, one of the tiny Islas Robeson in the western Gulf of San Blas. We had heard about a Chicha Celebration to be held here. Sue, another cruiser, had been to this village before, and would be able to provide contacts and guidance if we wanted to participate and observe portions of the festivities. We wanted to visit the Gulf of San Blas before leaving the area, so it was a perfect opportunity.

We made the trek in the lee of the Lemmon Cays, crossed the swelly San Blas Channel, then enjoyed a smooth and scenic downwind cruise along the western mainland shore from Porvenir.  We entered the Gerti anchorage from the northern side (others recommend the southerly approach) and came close to bumping one of the small reefs that required a definitive zig-zag to navigate, more pronounced than the guidebook route indicates. Not something to attempt with the afternoon sun in your face, and we did that too.  No salvage souvenir was left for the locals, but only 1 foot of depth under the keel was cutting it close.

Anyway, the anchorage was pleasant, the villagers welcoming, and Digicel internet seems to work better than usual with proximity to the Porvenir tower. The only drawback is the nearby rivers make the water less clear for swimming and there is no good dog beach for our gals.

The Chicha Celebration, or Inna Suit is one of the most important Kuna traditions that celebrates a young woman’s coming of age. We understand there are variations from community to community in how the ritual is performed, and we only observed a small part of the activities, but will share what we learned. For those who are interested, there is a lot of information available online and in print written by those who have far more expertise in the subject than we do.

This particular celebration honored two young women, ages 16 and 17, from different families. It was a four-day long event, attended by all the residents of Isla Gerti & Isla Elsie, and many visitors from nearby villages. It reminded us of the quinceañeras fiestas for 15-year-old girls in Latin America, except that the activities were geared toward the adults and the honored girls were sequestered in a special hut. The girls’ hair would be cut as part of the ceremony, and would then be kept short in the style of the Kuna women.

The host families provided food for all the attendees for this period of time which was expensive, and often they teamed up to have joint celebrations. Each family attending was expected to contribute sugar and rice. There is a shorter version of the Inna if the host family cannot afford a 4 day celebration.

The chicha is a beverage fermented from sugar cane and a large batch is prepared for this celebration. The exact timing of the celebration depends upon when the fermentation is deemed acceptable by the designated Kuna expert on the subject. We had been told the festivities would start on the 19th, but it turned out the 20th was the designated day based on the decision of the chicha taster. Then the party would continue for 4 days. Drinking alcohol is prohibited or very limited in many of the traditional villages, but during this festival everyone is expected to imbibe to the point of drunkenness to become closer to the spirits. After the chicha was consumed, we were told that rum would be brought out on the 4th day.

Four other cruising ladies and myself went ashore the first day to participate in food preparation. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, they sounded a conch horn and all the women in the village assembled in an outdoor area where huge quantities of plantains and yucca had been gathered. We all set to work peeling these items and piling them in large tubs.

I so wish we could have photographed this scene, but we were asked to respect their wishes not to take photos of their activities. So imagine about forty Kuna ladies of all ages in colorful traditional attire sitting on logs taking on this task, assisted by five gringas who were not so skilled in plantain and yucca peeling, armed with our galley knives. The women did not speak English and spoke minimal Spanish, so our communication was mostly nonverbal. I think they found us amusing. I was the last to finish peeling the bunch of plantains in front of me while some of the Kuna ladies sat and watched. Thankfully Jean helped me expedite my job.

Amazingly, we were done in only about 15 minutes. The fruits of our labor were taken to the cooking hut and placed in 2 giant cauldrons over a wood fire. A sopa, similar to the one we had been served at Bredio’s on my birthday was in the works, and would keep the hundreds of partiers nourished for several days. There was also a large quantity of iguana, which is supposed to taste like chicken, that would be served to the dignitaries. Dried tuna, in tough, jerky-like strips, would be served to the masses.  The cooking hut would remain open 24/7 for people to get something to eat whenever they wished.

We made arrangements with Alberto, who runs a small tienda, for our contributions of rice and sugar, which cost $1.80 per couple. Alberto delivered the goods at the time of the evening Congresso meeting, along with an announcement that the “cruiseros” were making due contribution to the party. He said our participation was well received. We were told we could attend the Congresso that evening, normally a male-only event on this island, but passed since it would be conducted in Kuna and we figured we would not get too much out of it.

We were told to come the next evening as the celebration got under way. We could come in usual boaters attire, but they said it would be nice to dress up, since this was a special occasion. If we had Kuna attire that would be welcomed.


Four Kuna imposters. Sue, second from the left, is most authentic, wearing a traditional print Kuna skirt along with a mola blouse. The Kuna ladies go barefoot or sometimes wear flat thong sandals. We are lacking the many tiny beaded bands they wear on their arms and shins, and gold nose rings.

The Kuna ladies were dressed in their finest molas and traditional costumes. The men, who normally wear casual clothing similar to we boaters were also dressed in their best clothing. We were delighted when a smiling Bredio came out of a hut to welcome us. He, along with some of the other Kunas who held special roles, was decked out in long black trousers, a hot pink collared shirt, skinny black tie and black hat.


The formal attire of the Kuna men looked very much like that depicted in my birthday gift, except that the shirts were a vibrant shade of pink and accented with a black necktie

The men looked dashing in their formal costumes, which seemed to emphasize their small stature compared to ours. Bredio had a beer in hand.  The celebration was well under way. “I’m so happy” he told us, totally enjoying the break from the usual routine.

We were allowed to enter the Inna Nega, a large hut constructed specifically for this event which might only be used a couple of times a year. The men entered and sat on one side of the hut, on low benches.  The women used a separate entrance to access our designated area. People came and went, socialized, and watched while some of the leaders prepared various items for the celebration (we really didn’t understand all that we saw). Special flutes would be made for music and dancing, and we were told that at midnight a big celebration would occur. The guys got to taste the chicha, which Bob described as a sort of weak coco liquor beverage.

Bob & I made our exit shortly after sunset, thinking it best to find our dinghy through the maze of huts and the masses who were well on their way to intoxication before it got totally dark. We were surprised that the island has seemed pretty quiet since yesterday.  Perhaps most of the celebrants have passed out, which is expected. We hear occasional music, but mostly the mournful howls of the dogs on the adjacent islands whose masters have left them for several days of partying.



  1. What a great experience! Loved the picture of the Kuna imposters!

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