Encountering the Kuna Yala
“PLEASE go stay in San Blas Islands – but the smaller ones. It’s like a desert island!” said my friend, who was in Panama a few years ago.
So this fall, I went to the tiny Ina’s Island (so tiny that you can walk around it in 10 minutes), inhabited by the local Kuna People.
I so hoped it would be like the 1980s posters of pristine beaches which I hung up on my walls and fantasized about as a teen, while doing boring math’s homework.
One day, I will get there and just lay on the soft, powdery, warm sand doing nothing, the 13-year-old me told myself.
It was NOT like that:
To get there we had to squeeze into a crappy speed boat overcrowded with locals, tourists and supplies for the villages.
I got soaking wet and swallowed about 2 gallons of cold, salty sea water on the boat ride to the island.
We stayed in basic conditions in a hut, with no electricity or hot water.
Unfortunately, it was also stormy and rained most of the time.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some similarities to the teenage daydreams I had. The locals cooked us huge fresh lobsters and fish… and during the breaks between the rain, we got to snorkel and see some magical starfish.
BUT the universe had a more special, deep plan for me than sun tanning on another perfect Coconut Caribbean beach.
Instead, I was given an incredible chance, even if for a very brief time, for a first-hand encounter with a phenomenal disappearing culture.
A few interesting facts about the Kuna people of San Blas Archipelago:
Their flag looks like a reversed swastika
The swastika-based design was adopted by the Kuna in 1925. In Kuna tradition, it symbolizes the octopus that created the world, its tentacles pointing to the four cardinal points. A variation of the flag where a red ring hangs around the base of the top arm was apparently added in 1942 to “de-Nazify” the flag.
Had to find this out on Wikipedia, because was too scared to ask our host what that terrifying flag on the pole outside our hut signified.
It’s a matriarchal Society – females own the property
When I got there the local men collected the money for our stay. All the while, a young woman sat quietly, stern-faced, at the edge of the table. Once they finished, they preceded to hand the cash over to her. She re-counted it, and gave them her approval that the deal was OK by her.
San Blas Area is an autonomous territory inside Panama – the Kunas rule themselves
After forcefully revolting against Panamanian conquest of their culture the Kunas succeeded in obtaining a type of independence in 1925. They have since been left to follow their own rules and traditions in their region. Although formally a part of Panama, I essentially had to show my passport to the locals in order to be allowed into the region by them.
Being such skilled seamen I was surprised to learn they’ve only moved to these islands about 150 years ago. Some say in order to escape the Spaniard conquest, pirates and I’ve even heard a theory that they moved from the mainland to avoid the mosquitoes that were driving their mortality rates up. I was covered with mosquito bites while there so highly doubt that last theory.
I could go on and on about the Kunas. Like how the men sew their own and their boys’ clothes and the women prepare their own and their girls’ clothes; or how they have a participatory democracy rule. But if you want more info I guess you can always read online
To me, visiting Ina’s opened my mind up to other ways of living. Proving to me yet again, how diverse our world can be, just a little off the beaten track.
In a reality where some people succeeded in resisting modern suppression of their culture, maybe you and I can too, create our own world within a world, where we set our rules, independently of what the majority of society presents as a “must”.
Perhaps if we stay true and proud of our culture and who we are, we will get equal reverence from others. I saw nothing but respect shown to the Kunas by Panamanians on the mainland.
I spent 2 nights at the tiny Island of Ina, organized by San Blas Dreams Tour Operators.
At the time of publishing this post, it includes 2 Days/1 Night, round trip transport in 4×4 jeep, boat round trip and 3 Meals, from 110$ (excluding entry fee to the islands). Good value for money in my opinion.
Planning to visit to Panama? Travel with Sheila has gorgeous photos to make you book the flight there.
If you love surfing, read her full guide to the beautiful bay of Playa Venao in Panama.