Palm-lined beaches, coral-ringed islands and jungle-cloaked mountains make the San Blas Islands, Panama, 65 mi/105 km northeast of Panama City, look a lot like paradise, but the main reason for going there is to spend time with the Kuna Indians, who have managed to preserve their traditional culture.
The Kuna live crowded together in thatched huts on about 40 of the 350 islands of the archipelago and rule their own autonomous province. The Kuna women still wear long skirts, red and yellow headdresses and appliqued mola blouses in brilliant primary colors. Their faces sometimes have a black line painted from forehead to nose tip, and a gold ring is often worn through the tip of the nose. Colorful beaded bracelets cover their arms. (The Kuna are said to be the second smallest people in the world, after the pygmies of Africa.)
The Kuna travel in dugout canoes or simple sailcraft, and many of those living on the islands journey to the mainland to work harvesting coconuts, their major income source apart from tourism. Though they maintain their traditions, the Kuna are also astute businesspeople who have integrated tourism into their lives, on their own terms. They are one of the indigenous groups that the government of Panama especially likes to point to as examples of a "successful collaboration without integration."
First of all, expect to pay a small fee upon arrival at most islands. Shopping is a big part of a visit to the Kuna, with the colorful molas being the most popular item for sale. You'll see the molas hanging from clotheslines, which seem to stretch from one end of a village to the other. Used for wall hangings, pillow covers and decoration for clothing, molas cost US$10-$40. Business also comes to bear on any photos that you may want to take of the Kuna: On most islands, you'll be expected to pay US$1 for each person in the photo for each photo taken—no exceptions, and don't try to haggle.
The region's dozen or so hotels are owned and operated by the Kuna. Most are extremely basic affairs, and several have outhouse toilets over the water. If you're squeamish or fussy about lodging, consider a day excursion arranged through a tour operator in Panama City. The Coral Lodge is an exception, and offers splendid accommodations (phone 836-5434; http://www.corallodge.com); note, however, that it lies just outside the Kuna Comarca—the autonomous Kuna district that encompasses the San Blas islands and in which no foreigners may hold a stake in any business whatsoever. Small planes fly to 10 landing strips in the San Blas area. Tour operators in Panama City can arrange overnight tours. http://sanblas-islands.com.
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