Last update: November, 2009
Kuna Indian women look almost too good to be true. In fact, some visitors to the tribal territory of San Blas, are moved to suspect that, once the tourists have gone, the Indian women will change out of their finery and catch a plane back to town.
Wrong. The San Blas woman, whether she be on her island or in the city, wears as everyday dress her appliqued Mola blouse, gold rings, long skirt, red and yellow headdress and beads or gold ornaments at neck, arm and ankle.
The San Blas islands stretch along approximately 200 miles of Panama’s Caribbean coastline. The Kuna reservation or Kuna Yala, is defined from the seaward continental shelf to the top of the jungle-clad continental divide some miles inland.
Within this territory, the Kuna Indians, people of vitality, simplicity and charm whose ancestors peopled these shores long before Columbus landed, govern themselves in a virtually autonomous society.
The pattern of their lives is simple and comfortable. They live on tiny, palm-fringed islands, hundreds of which dot the surface of the blue and emerald sea. The islands are totally free from animals or snakes and have a perfect, breeze-cooled tropical climate.
Every day, women and children literally “commute” from their village islands to the mainland in their dugout canoes or cayucos to wash and play in the river. The men either go to the mainland to cultivate corn, yucca and coconuts, or go fishing or trading around neighbouring islands.
There are 365 islands in the archipelago of which only 49 are inhabited. Many of the uninhabited islands have a “caretaker” who guards the coconut trees and their precious crop, which is the traditional livelihood of the Indians. No land is individually owned in San Blas, but the coconut trees are. Any disputes are settled within the village itself, and each village has its congress hall, a large hut where the people make their decisions. There is a Government outpost and police station on the island of Porvenir but the Police Force doesn’t do much business. The Indians largely deal with their own problems.
For all the simplicity of their lives the San Blas Indians remain very aware of their rights to their own territory and they guard their rights passionately.
The Kuna woman is especially revered, and her rites of passage are ceremoniously observed from birth to puberty. These ceremonies are among the few occasions when liquor is permitted (the local drink is chicha fuerte, a potent fermentation of maiz and sugar). There are no similar formalities for males who are more westernized in their dress, spending the working day in crop cultivation in the rainforest or in fishing and diving for crab, octopus and lobster. If you are there at the right times, watch the fishermen empty their nets with the fresh catch. Coconuts, of course, are another important source of income; until recently they were the exclusive means of barter on lively market days with the trade boat merchants bringing provisions from Panama and Colombia. Do not try to take fruit from any apparently vacant island, coconuts are closely guarded!
The Kuna family structure is matri-lineal and matri-local, one effect being that the bridegroom must live with the bride’s family and assist in augmenting his in-laws’ household finances. However, the political leaders of the virtually autonomous territory of Kuna Yala, sahilas, are nearby all men.
Visitors to the islands come to enjoy both the culture and the great natural beauty of this archipelago. Snorkelers and divers can admire the vast variety of coral, and marine life. A day on a sandy beach is an alternative. Or a nature hike in the rainforest after a voyage by canoe weaving its way through the dense vegetation, a tropical cornucopia of plants, birds and jungle creatures.
How to visit San Blas
The principal means of travel to Kuna Yala from the capital, is by daily scheduled flights from Marcos A. Gelabert Airport at Albrook. There are many airstrips throughout the archipelago. Flights leave early morning, approx 6 a.m. and in turn pick up passengers from the islands travelling back to Panama. There are no flights during the day. This means that day trips to San Blas are not feasible.
After landing at an island airstrip, a short motorized canoe or launch will take you to your destination. Several good tourist lodges are available. Reservations can be made from their offices in Panama City. You can “do it yourself” and catch an early morning flight to Porvenir (There are rustic hotels on this and neighboring islands).
By car (4x4) there is a rather challenging unpaved road from Panama City via Chepo to Carti on the coast. The road emerges from the jungle at the Carti airstrip where cayucos can be arranged for the sea voyage to local destinations.
To do it in style, charter a yacht. Trips 3-14 days are offered by San Blas Sailing • Tel: 314-1800, 6780-6959 with captains who know the Kuna Indians and the best places along the gorgeous reefs of Mauqui and Achutupu.