On palm-fringed islands off the southern Caribbean cost of Panama live the Kuna Indians who are fiercely traditional but also in touch with the modern age.
“The flight to Achutupu is now boarding,” comes the announcement over the loudspeaker and, within moments, the boarding lounge of Panama city’s Albrook airport is transformed into a swirling mass of outrageous colour. With their nose rings of gold, legs and arms covered in beads and wearing traditional clothing of a zillion different colours, a group of Kuna women are heading back to their island homes on the San Blas Archipelago after doing business in the city.
A 226 km strip of jungle-clad coastline and an entire Archipelago of white sand, palm-sprinkled islands off the southern Caribbean cost of Panama, make up the semi-autonomous territory of the San Blas Archipelago. The self-governing Kunas are fiercely independent and they have long maintained and defended their traditions; 40,000 of them live on the islands, fishing, farming and trading coconuts with the Colombian schooners that ply the waters.
The modern age arrived in the San Blas in the 70s when cruise ships first began visiting, the Kuna women soon learned that the colourful ‘molas’ that they so dexterously created by hand to adorn their blouses were a valuable commodity, they quickly developed a keen mind for business, and today, it is the women that bring home the money in many Kuna families.
The small aircraft climbs up over the rugged Continental Divide, a mountain range swathed in rainforest and now and then, I spy a primitive village hugging the bend of a snaking river. After repeated touchdowns on tiny coastal landing strips where Kina passengers disembark and others board, the plan arrives at Achutupu. One short hour is all it takes to cross the isthmus of the Americas, from one world to another.
While there is very little of an infrastructure for tourism, a few resourceful Kuna have developed low-key family-run resorts on some of the islands.
By staying with a family, you are naturally involved in the happenings of daily life and are accepted as guests in the village.
My new island home is Isla Uaguinega; barely a grassy knoll covered in palm trees just a stone’s throw from the island of Achutupu and the mainland. It is so small there are only a handful of families living here.
Their palm-thatched homes crowd one end, while Dolphin Lodge, an eco-resort consisting of a dozen comfortably appointed bungalows, and the huts of my host family fill the other.
With deft needlework, the hands of my hostess Adele dance over her latest mola as she bends low in the dim light of a kerosene lantern to sew. Greens, blues and bright yellows combine in a complicated series of overlaid reverse appliqué, depicting aspects of Kuna life. They are mostly geometrical designs in the molas, but the design often includes animals, flowers, plants, sea, sky, mythological scenes and seated by her side, i give a yelp as yet again my needle pricks a finger and Adele glances up t further instruct me.
While there is little to do on Isla Uaguinega, apart from swinging lazily in a hammock and learning to sew molas, nearby Isla Achutupu is where the action is. The following day Adele paddles me across in her dugout canoe. She explains how the Kuna still adhere to many traditions. “Like all girls, I was not given a name until I reached puberty and when that time came a party was held, my hair was cut short and my parents chose a name for me with the help of the medicine man.”
Achutupu is your typical Kuna island, where palm-thatched huts sit cheek-to-cheek taking up every bit of available land right down to the water’s edge. News spreads like wildfire in these tight confines and the village has already heard of my arrival. Women appear from every nook and cranny bearing molas, which are spread out, on the ground before me, as i walk, the path ahead is transformed into steppingstones of psychedelic colour.
Adele’s grandmother greets me, standing in the low front door of her home. The Kuna are a short race of people and it is believed that they are the smallest humans after the Pygemies. She is no taller than 5 feet and resplendent in traditional dress, wearing a blouse made with two mola panels seamed together at the sides and seamed to a yoke.
I am ushered into the dark smoky confines of her cooking hut, which is very clean, its sandy floor recently swept. A few utensils hung from low beams and a large pot filled with corn bubbles over a simple hearth fire on the ground. Next door in the main family hut, Adele’s brother is enjoying an afternoon siesta in his hammock.
It is thanks to the indigenous people of this part of the world that we have ht hammock. The Kuna will not sleep in anything else, and from beams in every hut swing numerous sleeping hammocks of all sizes.
The Kuna people are outrageously photogenic but there is a strict payment policy in force in the San Blas Archipelago. Whatever your feelings about this, be sure to ask permission first, and prepared to pay a small fee per subject. Children make great use of this law and present themselves in the most beguiling manner. My favourite is a little girl with a cheeky grin that has brought along her pet lorikeet. The two are irresistible and wrinkling her nose at her friends, she proudly pockets her green US 1$ bill.
The San Blas islands are the stuff that dreams are made of – white sandy beaches, swaying palms, coral gardens, rustic bungalows by turquoise waters with the added bonus of the colourful culture of the Kuna Indians, that is more than worth the effort to get there.
Where to stay and further information: http://www.dolphinelodgepanama.com