A Guide to Visiting Panama's Indigenous Kuna Indians

Guna Yala women
Guna Yala women | © Yves Picq / WikiCommons
Brittney Schering

The beloved San Blas Islands of Panama are home to the native people known as Kuna Indians. A small, tight-knit group of indigenous people, the community is only made up of around 300,000 in total, with 50,000 living on the 49 major islands of San Blas.

The leader of the Kuna Indians in control of the islands is called a Sahila. The island known as Acuadup, which means Rock Island in the Kuna language, is home to the eldest leaders, who are the decision makers.

Guna Yala woman showcasing her molas (fabrics)

The Kuna people fish and harvest fruits for survival. They also create magnificent art, which you see on their signature clothing called Molas – beautiful, kaleidoscopic, hand-woven masterpieces.

The main language of the Kuna Indians is Kuna, though they also speak Spanish. Regular interaction with tourists helps them to speak a little English. That said, tourism and coconuts are the main sources of income for the Kuna people.

However, it’s important to know that tourists are only allowed on a few of the San Blas islands, the others are private and exclusive to the Kuna Indians.

Tourists mostly arrive to San Blas Islands by boat from Panama, and they also come in from Colombia. The major island of Chichime offers a popular hostel for tourists that offers open shelter, hammocks, food and drinks for extra cost. The local drink popular in the San Blas Islands is called the Coco Loco, which is a fresh coconut filled with rum.

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