The Kuna Yala women are quite hard to miss when visiting any part of Panama. Dressed in colorful attire, they are adorned with beads, bright red scarves and intricately embroidered mola blouses. Molas are a colorful textile art form made with the techniques of appliqué and reverse appliqué. They have become the most popular souvenir bought within the country, but although the design of the pieces can be quite extraordinary the history behind them and the Kuna Yala are even more so.
Guna (also known as Kuna or Cuna) is the name of the one of the indigenous populations found in Panama and in Colombia. Each community has its own political organization let by a Saila, a political and spiritual leader of the community. Today there are over 49 communities residing in the Guna Yala. Formerly known as San Blas, Guna Yala is governed by the Kuna General Congress, which is lead by three Saila Dummagan (great Sailas)
The Guna Yala is the epitome of paradise. Untouched by modern civilization these islands are the perfect destination for those who wish to unplug from the world. One of the main reasons these islands remain picturesque is due to the fact that the whole area is controlled by the Kuna Yala people.
The islands are part of the Kuna Yala Comerica, a semi autonomous region of Panama. Through out history the Kuna Yala have been portrayed as fiercely independent people. In 1925, the Kuna violently rose up against the Panamanian government in response to the government’s attempts to force the Indians to adopt Hispanic culture and forsake their own traditional customs. One thing that the government wanted to change is the Kuna’s traditional attire, which included ditching their molas.
Shrewd diplomats, the Kuna Yala struck a deal with the American military. When the Panamanian government sent military units to respond to the uprising, they had no idea that American gunboats were quietly waiting from them. Their American alliance along with their strong ties to their culture granted them the ability to negotiate their own constitution with the Panamanians and their autonomy within Panama.
Over the years, the Kuna have signed numerous different constitutions, granting them more and more autonomy over the Kuna Yala Comerica. Today, they pay no Panamian income taxes, have their own governance and police force while also controlling all development within the Kuna Yala Comerica, including the San Blas islands (known now as the Guna Yala). Panamanian authorities only intervene within the region in cases of international affairs and military defence.
Due to this autonomy there has relatively no foreign involvement within the area in regards to tourism. This means that those seeking luxury hostels and restaurants should go elsewhere. Don’t expect nice hotels, electricity or even running water. However, in exchange for roughing it, travelers will have the option of exploring some of the 380 individuals islands, some of which are only a couple of yards wide! These islands (largely uninhabited) are surrounded by white sand beaches and turquoise waters. The extra bonus? Unspoiled islands with no tourist traps or high density resorts, only pristine waters and thick green jungles ready for you to explore.
I would like to note that the situation in the Guna Yala is far from perfect. The indigenous population has achieved a certain level of autonomy but certain issues, like poverty, still plague the islands. Furthermore, the Kuna Yala are also just ONE of the indigenous populations in the country. For more info (and a great read) about the current situation in the Guna Yala click here.
Takeaway Tip: when visiting the Guna Yala, travelers should invest in a mola. These molas will probably be the cheapest in Panama (the most expensive molas will be found in Bocas). To make sure you have an authentic mola (worn first by a Kuna Yala women) check for imperfections along the edges. Expect to pay around USD $20 – $ 50 depending on the size.