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Guna (formerly 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 Guna reservation or Guna Yala, is defined from the seaward continental shelf to the top of the jungle-clad continental divide some miles inland.
Within this territory, the Guna 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 Guna 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 maize 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 Guna 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 Guna Yala, sahilas, are nearly 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
There are daily scheduled flights to the many airstrips of Guna Yala from Panama City’s Marcos A. Gelabert airport. Flights leave early morning, approximately 6 a.m.. There are no more flights for the rest of the day so that going by air entails overnighting, which is no problem. Charter planes and hotel reservations are available through Nativa Tours, 314-1288. Porvenir is a convenient destination since there are rustic hotels on this and nearby islands but check to see whether Air Panama has flights there since the airport was recently closed for expansion work.
Several good tourist lodges are available on islands down through the Comarca. The lodges take care of your flight, meet your plane at the strip, take you out to the island in a motorized canoe and arrange tours. One such is Yandup Island Lodge which can be reached at tel. 202-0854 or write email@example.com
San Blas can be reached by road via Chepo and across the Continental Divide. The road emerges from the jungle at the Carti airstrip where arrangements can be made for a cayuco to take you to nearby islands. The journey by road takes about two and a half hours, so a day trip is feasible. Tour agencies in Panama City can send you. One agency which specializes in the trip is PTY Safety Shuttle which offers daily tours to Carti. They will accept groups of any number including single bookings for day trips or longer stays. Tel. 261-0116 or write firstname.lastname@example.org
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 Guna Indians and the best places along the gorgeous reefs of Cayos Holandeses and Coco Bandero.