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The Comarca of Guna Yala (San Blas) stretches from the Gulf of Guna Yala eastward to the Colombian border. It is comprised of a relatively thin strip of the mainland along the Atlantic coast and over 360 distinct islands.
Most of the Guna Indians live on the mainland near river mouths or on nearby islands, of which only 40 +/- are inhabited. Formerly a part of Colombia, the Gunas have inhabited this region of Panama for hundreds of years and were, in fact, there to greet the first European explorers. Despite relentless pressure and persuasion by various European explorers, and later, by the Panamanian government—to adopt a more westernized lifestyle—the Gunas have, for the most part, succeeded in preserving their culture and distinct way of life. While Guna's history recognizes 4 distinct revolutions, it was the fourth—in February 1925—that lead to the creation of the current Comarca. Since then, the Gunas have enjoyed self-rule.
Upon arriving, the Gunas settled mostly along the coast where raw materials were abundant and accessible. However, due to malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases, they found themselves seeking shelter on the small islands that dot the coastline. Still dependent on the mainland for its natural resources, frequent trips to the mainland were made in search of food, water, wood, and other necessary materials. Now that tropical diseases have been eradicated, a growing number of Gunas are settling on the mainland. Once admired for their isolation and protection, the islands, due to their lack of natural resources, are a less desirable option. This is particularly true for the islands that reside furthest away from the mainland, the majority of which remain uninhabited.
A quiet, reserved, and hospitable people, the Gunas are overtly proud of their culture, and traditional, simple way of life. Transportation from island to island, and even to the mainland, is most often accomplished by hand-carved dugout canoes aided by large sheets that serve as sails. Under the hot, tropical sun, hours can be spent traveling from one island to another. Women spend a large portion of their day performing daily chores, which include knitting colorful molas. Men pass their time fishing, tending to cocoa trees, gathering needed material, and performing other routine tasks. All in all, Gunas are accommodating, loving people, and appear determined to keep their subsistence lifestyle intact, despite numerous external forces, that, over time have had a dramatic impact on Guna's life.
Perhaps the most significant of these was the introduction of air travel. Once an isolated archipelago, Guna Yala now enjoys daily flight service to many of its 10-15 airstrips that reside along the Atlantic coast. Improved accessibility has brought with it the introduction of western influences while affording Gunas the ability to visit Panama City and other areas. This has had a direct and dramatic impact on daily life in Guna Yala. Gunas, like the rest of us, have taken a liking to jewelry, cell phones, etc. On the more densely populated islands like Porvenir and Cartí, it is commonplace to see youth wearing sneakers, baseball caps, shorts, and t-shirts. Traditional dress is somewhat limited to the elder women, with most men exhibiting no traditional dress at all.
Other western influences are noticeable on the more inhabited islands. Tin roofs have replaced thatched roofs; new governmental buildings, schools, and piers are constructed of cement, not wood; and outboard marine motors are replacing paddles and sails. The impact is undeniable and irreversible, leaving many of the elderly concerned. Many of the outer islands, however, have managed to preserve the traditional lifestyle so often associated with Guna Indians.
For most visitors, Porvenir serves as a gateway to Guna Yala. Located in the westernmost part of the Comarca, numerous hotels cater to budget and upscale travelers. Most offer simple packages, which include meals and tours to neighboring islands. Daily flights from Panama City to Guna Yala depart from Albrook Airport.
The Guna Museum, located just off the water's edge on the island of Cartí, is open to the public. While most of the items in the museum, e.g., paintings, carvings, and pottery, have bilingual descriptive notes displayed below them, a 15-20 guided tour of the museum is offered and included in the cost of admission. The museum offers visitors an in-depth look into the Guna Indians' culture, religion, and history, and is a worthwhile visit for anybody visiting the area.
A traditional Guna hut is square, consisting of a thatched roof and dirt floor. Mangrove wood, due to its thickness, durability, and strength, is used primarily for structural support. Thin white cane, which, along with the above-mentioned wood, is gathered on the mainland and used for walls and doors. Surprisingly, there is little, if any, bamboo used for construction purposes. The expert craftsman that they are, Gunas, with help, can construct homes and community structures with surprising speed. Despite periods of heavy rain, the interiors of these structures remain dry.
The local economy is now more dependent on tourism than traditional products such as cocoa, which the Gunas trade with Colombia. Few, if any, cocoa trees are harvested anymore, as their economic importance has declined over the years. With independent tourists and cruise ships visiting the area, Gunas have adjusted their lifestyle to accommodate the ongoing changes.
Air Panama has regularly scheduled flights to Guna Yala's El Porvenir, Playón Chico, Achutupo, Ogobsucum, Mulatupo, and Puerto Obaldia airstrips that depart from Albrook Airport. If you wish to travel by land, we recommend you speak with a travel agency or hotel in Guna Yala for assistance in coordinating your travel. An overland trip includes a 2.5-hour drive to the coastal city of Carti, and then a water taxi ride to your final destination. There is no public transportation to Guna Yala. The total cost of your trip should not exceed $50-$60. Because Guna Yala is an autonomous zone, be sure you bring your passport with you as you will need it to enter.
Colorful and intricately sewn, molas are an important part of the traditional dress of Guna women. Depicting local culture and customs, and more recently western influences, molas are sewn in a variety of sizes, colors, and patterns. Made from store-bought fabrics and consisting of multiple layers of reverse appliqué, molas are commonly used for dress, tablecloths, mitts, wall decorations, and, of course, tourist souvenirs. Before obtaining fabric from seafarers and traders more than a century ago, Guna women used natural dyes.