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Visiting Nalunega island in San Blas

On our second day on Hierba, San Blas islands in Panama, we had a free morning again at the beach and then our guide for the next few hours, Loni, took us to Nalunega. San Blas islands are divided into smaller groups of islands and Nalunega forms part of Porvenir islands.

After a 30 minute breezy boat ride from Hierba we arrived in the Snapper island (nalu - snapper and nega - island), home to around 500 inhabitants. We were greeted by local kids selling souvenirs and also a group of older gentlemen drinking coffee in the shade and reading newspapers (the newspapers on Nalunega also have half-naked women on the last page :D )


Loni, the proud father of 3, believes there are 369 islands in San Blas, and not 365 like everyone else say. Being the third cacique of Nalunega island, Loni explained us:

”To become a cacique, you need to study for 5 years, be knowledgeable, responsible and local people have to trust you because it’s them who vote for cacique. One can remain working as a cacique until he dies or he can quit if he wishes so.”

Some Kuna women and kids were walking around us when we were trying to hide in the shade as far as possible from the unbearable heat.

For some of us in the group it was the first time to see the traditional clothing of the Kunas (I saw them already before in Panama capital.) Loni saw the odd face reaction of some, and felt the urge of giving us more details:

”Kuna women wear paint of life and paint their nose with the fruit from jagua tree when they reach their 15th birthday.”

”Why?” a younger girl asks.

”You modern women wear make-up. This painting is a sort of make-up for them too. It is at that time when they cut their hair short and wear it short for the rest of their lives. It comes with their nose and ears pierced. Kuna women are also famous for their beads on calves which is another sign showing they can get married already, they are adult. After marriage, the family always lives with her parents (not the guy’s parents).”


The village feels very dusty and hot, the grey palm leaf thatched houses are put into life just due to the freshly washed clothes of all sizes outside of each house, and molas, the famous hand-made Kuna souvenirs – colourful geometric and animal designs on clothes, dresses, purses, bags etc.


Kunas molas Nalunega San Blas Panama (8) Kunas molas Nalunega San Blas Panama (9) Kunas molas Nalunega San Blas Panama (10) Nalunega San Blas Panama (9) Nalunega San Blas Panama (31)


After all the kids we want to take photos of shout at us probably the only English expression they know and also the most useful one – ”one dollar, one dollar”, we put our cameras down and Loni walks us to his house.


”Look, this is our pet” Loni comes with a green parrot. ”You can take photos with him on your hand. Once you are done, come on in.”


I love to enter the house of mess. If my mum ever told me my room was messy, I should show her these photos as inside the house there was simply what I would call everything everywhere. All the possible colours, sizes and shapes of different things, clothes drying up and a few hammocks.


”We do not like your modern beds, they are so uncomfortable. We still sleep in hammocks, better for the back and bones.”


Nalunega San Blas Panama (20) Nalunega San Blas Panama (22) Nalunega San Blas Panama (23) Nalunega San Blas Panama (24) Nalunega San Blas Panama (25)


Walking around some small souvenir shops, I pulled off some information about the island from Loni.


Facts about Nalunega:


  • A primary school and the first 3 years of secondary school can be found on Nalunega island while the other years of the high school and the University can be attended only on the mainland.
  • There’s no cemetery in Nalunega, so when someone dies they are buried on the mainland still within Kuna province, not on the islands.
  • probably the biggest best looking buildings on nalunega is the Congress building that takes care of different kinds of issues. However, there’s no prison on Nalunega which means that if something bad happens, the criminals have to go to the mainland.
  • Females celebrate first their 7th birthday and then their 15th when they are kind of ready for marriage. The rule on Nalunega is you have to spend life with just one partner. If you want to divorce, you can, but to marry again you would need to leave the island and get married on a different island.
  • Once palm trees die on the San Blas islands, the Kunas start planting other fruit. We saw for example some grapefruit trees growing in between the houses on Nalunega.


Nalunega San Blas Panama (13) Nalunega San Blas Panama (37)


Nalunega Museum

After a short walk around, Loni took us to the museum owned by a local fisherman. The funniest thing was that the owner was not there and they could not find the keys so Loni with another guy went to look for a machete to open the lock for us to get in.


”Well, the entrance fee you have to pay to get into the museum will pay the owner for another lock” we all laugh at the ridiculous way of getting in. These things happen only on San Blas.


I wonder if we will be put into the mainland prison later on for breaking into the museum. It’s not just the way of entering the museum, but also what we find inside that makes it one of the most interesting ones I’ve been to.


Flip flops found in the sea are used for the museum floor and plastic bottles for the walls. Paintings and wood carvings done by the fisherman owner and wooden pieces resembling animals are on display.


Nalunega San Blas Panama (32) Nalunega San Blas Panama (33) Nalunega San Blas Panama (34) Nalunega San Blas Panama (35) Nalunega San Blas Panama (36)


Our visit to Nalunega island is finished at a local shop where guys get beer supply for the night.


We leave Nalunega island with the nice saying by Mahatma Gandhi I saw in the shop:

”Clients are our boss in here.”


Nalunega San Blas Panama (38) Nalunega San Blas Panama (39)


My friend’s experience with the Kunas was completely different though and less touristy.


My trip to Nalunega island in San Blas was a press trip organized by Cacique Cruiser as part of Adventure and Spa project. Many thanks to Loni, Dickey, Breno and Sandra.


***It took me 4 hours to write this post.


  1. Siobhan, I am so happy to help you with any more tips about Panama, just let me know ;)

  2. Panama! I’m going in 2 weeks. So glad I found your blog xx

  3. Comment@ Jeremy:
    I know, me too. It’s so interesting to learn about different lifestyle than the one we have.

  4. Such unique cultures in the San Blas Islands … always love hearing about new ones!


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