Tropical Islands and Traditional Culture in Guna Yala, Panama
As the boat carried our group from a coastal airstrip in eastern Panama to the Yandup Island Lodge, in the autonomous territory of the Guna Indians, I admired the timeless beauty of my surroundings. A woman in colorful traditional dress glided slowly across the glistening sea in a dugout canoe powered by a lateen sail. The shore of nearby Playón Chico island was lined with Guna huts, their cane walls golden in the morning light, a few bread fruit trees towering over their thatched roofs. A dozen brown pelicans in a flying V glided across the azure sky. A school of tiny fish broke the water’s surface near the bow.
Though it was my 10th trip to Guna Yala (Land of the Guna), which covers much of Panama’s eastern Caribbean coast, I was as thrilled as ever to be there. The combination of pristine tropical islands and a remarkably well-preserved culture make a trip to Guna Yala just the kind of exhilarating experience that foreign travel should be. Granted the region’s remoteness, lack of modern amenities and rustic accommodations keep many tourists away, but their absence simply adds to the area’s charm.
The Guna chiefs prohibit outsiders from owning land, or business in their territory, so every lodge is owned and managed by a Guna family, and most are quite rustic. Yandup, which belongs to the Alvarado family, has established a new standard of comfort and service for the region, as well as commitment to making tourism benefit the community.
We disembarked on a small, grassy island shaded by coconut palms, with a tiny beach in one corner. A Guna woman in traditional dress led me to one of the nine spacious bungalows – with cane walls and thatched roofs, perched over the sea – and informed me that breakfast would be served in 10 minutes (the hardest thing about visiting Guna Yala is that flights depart Panama City at 6 a.m.). The breakfast was tasty, and since the restaurant is built over the water, it overlooks the island village of Playón Chico and the lushly forested slopes of the Serranía de San Blas towering behind it.
A Bit of History
That mountain range is one of the reasons that a trip to Guna Yala is like travelling back in time. It has kept outsiders out since the 17th century, when the Guna moved up the coast from northern Colombia into their current territory to escape Spanish colonists. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Guna chiefs formed alliances with French and English pirates, providing them safe harbor and food in exchange for protection from Spain.
They lived in relative peace until the early 20th century, when authorities from the recently founded Republic of Panama established a presence in the area, and began repressing Guna culture. The Guna rebelled in 1925, killing, or capturing all Panamanian officials in their territory in an uprising they call the Revolución de Tule. The U.S. Government, which had considerable clout in Panama in those days, sided with the Guna, so the Panamanians backed off. Subsequent negotiations led to the creation of an autonomous territory called the Comarca Guna Yala (a.k.a. Comarca de San Blas) that is governed by the elected chiefs of the Guna General Congress, in coordination with the Government of Panama.
That territory is priceless – 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of rainforest and subsistence farms, 373 kilometers (232 miles) of Caribbean coastline and the 365 San Blas Islands – but the Guna now keep outsiders at bay with the law. This has kept Guna Yala relatively unspoiled, but has disappointed countless developers who covet their idyllic islands.
Sun, Sea and Coral Reefs
After breakfast, we picked up snorkeling gear and headed out to one of the comarca’s uninhabited islands – an acre of sand covered with coconut palms and spider lilies. Only 41 islands hold Guna villages, and most of the San Blas Islands are the stuff of screen savers, with palm-lined, white-sand beaches sloping into a turquoise sea.
Unfortunately, those islands are threatened by the rising sea, driven by climate change. Water from melting mountain glaciers and polar ice caps is pouring into the oceans, while the sea’s surface waters are heating up and expanding. Scientists expect the San Blas Islands – and low-lying islands around the globe – to disappear this century, which would be a tragedy for the Guna, and a loss for the entire world.
That morning, however, the San Blas Islands looked like an untouched paradise. Red sea stars dotted the pale green sea grass in the shallows near the beach, and small waves broke over a reef 50 feet off shore, where dozens of species of corals and sponges populate a submarine garden. I swam out to that reef with one of the guides, and spent more than an hour admiring the angelfish, wrasses and countless other species that live amidst the coral heads. Sea fans swayed to the rhythm of the waves, a school of minnows glittered in the sunlight, and a hawksbill turtle disappeared into the dark blue depths as we approached. At one point, I swam alongside a large eagle ray, until it left me behind with a few flaps of its spotted wings.
After a few hours of island life, we returned to Yandup for a lunch of fresh fish, rice and vegetables. I then retired to the hammock on the porch of my bungalow, and admired the view of sea and verdant mountains. I was about to slip into a siesta when I heard the sound of a conch bugle, which meant it was time for our tour of Playón Chico village.
A stroll through a Guna village is like stepping back in time, but for the cell phones and radios. Our guide led us through a maze of pathways lined with the cane walls of traditional Guna homes, with a few cement-block buildings scattered here and there – the clinic, a school, a store. Children played in the sandy streets, men chatted on stoops, and Guna women passed us in psychedelic outfits.
One of the most spectacular things about Guna Yala is the traditional dress of its women, which includes a bright-colored skirt and scarf, hand-stitched molas (fabric pictures) worn on their blouses, and intricate beadwork on their calves and forearms. That exotic costume evokes India, whereas their paradisiacal islands are right out of the South Pacific, yet Guna Yala is just a few hours from Miami, and less than an hour by small plane from the skyscrapers of Panama City.
Our guide stopped at the Casa de la Cultura, a massive thatched hall found near the center of every Guna community. Villagers gather there on certain nights to listen to the sahilas (chiefs) sing ancient songs – which tell the history and legends of the Guna – from their seats in hammocks.
On the island’s main street, dozens of women had set up tables in front of their homes to sell handicrafts – beadwork, carved wooden figures, shells. A group of dancers performed a traditional Guna folkdance – rhythmically hopping back and forth while playing panpipes and maracas – for tips. Hundreds of colorful molas were hung in front of the cane walls in hopes of enticing the foreign shoppers.
Molas are one of Panama's most popular souvenirs, and are sometimes sewn into shoulder bags and clothing, or framed to hang on walls. All Guna women sew molas, both to wear and sell, and they provide one of the main sources of income for people on the islands, along with the sale of coconuts and lobster. Unfortunately, the limited economic options in Guna Yala have led tens of thousands to abandon their island paradise – perhaps half the Guna population – and move to Panama City and other parts of the country to find jobs. Those “expat” Gunas send money to their relatives on the islands, which helps keep the local economy afloat.
Elijio Alvarado, owner of the Yandup Island Lodge, says that his goal is to show that tourism can be a positive force for the development of Guna communities. He explains that in addition to the 15 local people who work at the lodge, dozens of families sell molas and other handicrafts to its guests, whereas others sell produce, or seafood to the lodge’s restaurant.
A sociologist who spent years helping Panama’s indigenous nations to defend their territorial rights, Alvarado now wants to help the community he grew up in. His children run the lodge, which allows him to organize community projects, such as one to help Playón Chico improve its garbage management by teaching people to separate their trash, and send recyclables to Panama City. With support from a Spanish organization, he helped the local school start a computer center, and he is promoting the creation of a museum of Guna culture there. “I want Yandup to be a model of cultural and ecological tourism,” said Alvarado. “For me, the only reason to have a business like this is to support the community and strengthen Guna culture.”
Yandup Island Lodge (www.yandupisland.com, tel. 507/202-0854) is located near Playón Chico, approximately 150 kilometers (90 miles) northeast of Panama City. Accommodation is in wooden bungalows with private baths and solar-powered lights. All meals, tours and the use of snorkeling equipment are included in the rates.
Getting there: Most travelers arrive from Panama City via a 50-minute flight in a small plane to a coastal airstrip (www.flyairpanama.com), where the lodge’s guides meet guests. An alternative trip by jeep and boat takes about six hours. Yandup Island Lodge can arrange transportation. Most major U.S. airlines have daily flights to Panama City, which has an array of hotels and attractions (www.visitpanama.com).