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San Blas Islands

Guna Yala - San Blas Islands

Guna Yala, formerly known as San Blas, is an indigenous provence in north-east Panama (Official Gazette of Panama). Guna Yala is commonly known for being home to indigenous group known as the 'Gunas, a traditional society of Native Americans. Most of these tropical islands are very small. Many are surrounded by coral reefs. The Caribbean islands are part of Panama, but are primarily administered by the Guna tribe.

The San Blas archipelago has 365 islands ranging in size from tiny ones with a few coconut palms to islands on which hundreds of Guna Indians live. About 50 are inhabited. The islands, off the Caribbean coast east of Colon, vary in distance from the shore from 100m to several kilometres and are strung out along the coast for over 200 km from the Gulf of San Blas to the Colombian border. The Cuna (Kuna, or Tule) are the most sophisticated and politically organized of the country’s three major groups. They run the San Blas Territory virtually on their own terms, with internal autonomy and, uniquely among Panama’s Indians, send their representative to the National Assembly. The women wear gold nose- and ear-rings, and costumes with unique designs based on local themes, geometric patterns, stylized fauna and flora, and pictorial representations of current events or political propaganda. They are outside the Panamanian tax zone and have negotiated a treaty perpetuating their long-standing trade with small craft from Colombia. Many men work on the mainland, but live on the islands.

Photographers need plenty of small change, as set price for a Cuna Indian to pose is US $1.00. Molas are one of the primary expressions of the visual arts in Cuna society. All genuine molas were created by a Cuna Indian woman as the focal point for her own dress. The Mola designs are always original and are an important way for a woman to express herself and demonstrate her talent and industry in this politically active and traditionally matriarchal society.