The independent island society of the Kuna have succeeded in winning autonomy over their patch of Panamanian paradise, in defiance of the mainland. Richard Holledge meets them.
Surprising place, Panama.
A few minutes from the city with its shiny new 21st century skyscrapers the plane is flying over empty rainforest - fifty minutes later the flight ends on a grass strip on the water’s edge, a short walk and a boat trip to the island of Uaguinega and the tourist finds he has taken a journey into the past.
This is Kuna Yala (also known as the San Blas Islands), an autonomous state of indians who originally settled in the Darien area of Panama after fleeing Colombia in the 1600s. Life here has been carefully - and tenaciously - frozen in time.
Kuna Yala is a strip of land and string of 365 islands which stretch 320km (200 miles) along the Caribbean coast. For the tourist the lure of the islands is irresistible, particularly as there are few places to stay, keeping it untouched, uncommercial and as soothing as you could hope for, with clear seas and palm-lined beaches and always in the distance the misty ridge of the mainland mountains like a barrier to the outside world.
The few basic lodges on the islands are made of the local materials, thatched in palm with walls of bamboo and shutters which are simply planks of wood. The electricity - in the form of a 40 watt bulb - is switched on at six and off at eleven, the facilities are simple with water warmed by solar power. Food is invariably fish or lobster with tamales and plantain. And don’t expect anything as 20th century as a television - but that’s the appeal.
The Kuna indians have fought, literally, to keep things simple. In 1925 an armed group attacked the Panamanian police who had been involved in the violent suppression of Kuna cultural practices by the government and in 1930 they were granted their independence rather in the way Scotland has its own administration.
Ever since, the Kuna indians - 72,000 of them - have been determined to preserve their traditional life. The islands are tightly packed with one-roomed houses of bamboo, smoke spiralling from an open fire. Small shops sell biscuits, washing powder and tins of meat. Each island has a school and a square for basketball.
Each island has its own identity. Utupu, a stomach-turning one and a half hours through a heavy swell, demands a $4 dollar entry fee and is like a little bamboo Venice with bridges over lagoons and houses built around inlets.
No pictures are allowed unless you pay one dollar - then it’s not a problem. The men of Utupu provided a spectacular side show. Our guide took us to a yard where a tapir - a sort of pig with a long nose - had been caught. Its head sat in a washing up bowl while the hunters enthusiastically hacked its body to bloody pieces in a dug-out canoe. Well, that was the village’s supper looked after.
The biggest source of income, after the few lodges, is the sale of the traditional embroidery which enlivens the costumes of Kuna women. Known as molas, they consist of a patterned blue cotton wrapped skirt, red and yellow headscarf, arm and leg beads, gold nose rings and earrings and the many layered and finely sewn blouses with patterns of flowers, sea animals and birds. Brightly coloured leggings complete the ensemble. It is striking how few dress in western style, even when they move to Panama City - only 50 minutes away and centuries apart.
"Holidays on Kuna Yala are educational and relaxing. After battling for their freedom the Kuna indians now have autonomy over an archipelago of paradise. They live a simple life, are proud people and can come across as being reserved - until they involve you in a game of volley ball!" Rafe Stone, Product Manager