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We ended our ten days in Panama with a visit to the idyllic and remote San Blas Islands off the southeastern coast of the country. The islands--also known as the Kuna Yala--are a group of over 360 picture-perfect white-sand islands the dot the Caribbean waters along Panama's coastline.
Strung across the emerald sea and blessed with snow-white sand, most of these islands are so small that they consist of nothing but a few coconut trees and perhaps a fisherman's shack or two.
The picturesque islands are so stunning that one would expect them to be overrun with tourists. Yet, most of the islands stand untouched, save for a lopsided reed shack inhabited by a Kuna family.
The Comerca de San Blas is a semi-autonomous region of Panama that is governed by the Kuna--an indigenous group known for their colorful colorful dress and for their intricately embroidered textiles called molas. The Kuna have a long history of resistance toward western influences. Many regard them as one of the most fiercely independent ethnic groups in the world.
|Traditional Panamanian Molas|
During the beginning of the twentieth century, Panama's government attempted to suppress the unique and colorful Kuna culture. It tried to ban the Kuna from wearing their traditional dress and attempted to dissolve their religious practices. Yet, the indigenous group faced the government with bitter resistance and revolted in what became known as the Tule Revolution of 1925.
After the Kuna rebellion in 1925, the Panamanian government granted the ethnic group semi-autonomy of the San Blas Islands. This autonomy gave the Kuna the ability to create their own internal laws and policies under the jurisdiction of Panama's government.
The relative inaccessibility of the islands is due in part to their isolation from mainland Panama and in part to the fact that the Kuna people have tightly controlled the influx of visitors. The Kuna people have fought fiercely to protect their land from foreign investments and influence and, thus, all lodging and transportation must be organized from within the community.
As a result, there are no foreign-owned resort chains on the islands. Nor are there expat-run guesthouses or hostels. In fact, the only way to visit the San Blas Islands and stay overnight, is to participate in a homestay or to sleep in a tent or reed shack set up by a member of the Kuna tribe.
|Reed Shack, San Blas|
The story of the Kuna is an indigenous success story and staying on an island with a local family can be a window into the daily life of this fascinating culture. In a world where indigenous voices have often been suppressed or squandered for political and economic gains, it was refreshing to visit a place where the native people had such control over their own destinies.
And for us, as tourists, it was comforting to know that the money we spent while on the islands was falling directly into the hands of the community.
In a world where "getting away from it all" often means trapping oneself in an all-inclusive resort and remaining as disconnected as possible from the local population, it was wonderful to go somewhere that was both so culturally enriching and so utterly beautiful.