The Comarca of Guna Yala (San Blas) stretches from the Gulf of Guna Yala eastward to the Colombian border and is comprised of over 360 distinct islands and a relatively thin stretch of the mainland that runs along the Atlantic coast.
Most of the Guna Indians live on the mainland near river mouths or on the nearby islands, of which only 40 +/- are inhabited. Formerly a part of Colombia, the Gunas have inhabited this region of Panama for hundreds of years and were, in fact, there to greet the first European explorers to discover the Americas in the early 1500s. Despite relentless pressure and persuasion by various European explorers and later, by the Panamanian government, to adopt a more westernized lifestyle the Gunas have, for the most part, succeeded in preserving their culture and distinct way of life. While Guna history recognizes 4 distinct revolutions, it was the fourth—in February 1925—that lead to the creation of the current Comarca. Since then, the Gunas have enjoyed self-rule.
Upon arriving, the Gunas settled mostly along the coast where raw materials were abundant and accessible. However, due to malaria, yellow fever, and other tropical diseases, they found themselves seeking shelter on the small islands that dot the coastline. Still dependent on the mainland for its natural resources, frequent trips to the mainland were made in search of food, water, wood, and other necessary materials; limited only by the size of their dugout canoe. Now that the tropical diseases have been eradicated, there is a growing number of Gunas settling on the mainland, or at least on the islands closest to the mainland, rather than on the islands themselves. Once admired for their isolation and protection, the islands, due to their lack of natural resources, are becoming a less desirable option. This is particularly true for the islands situated furthest away from the mainland, most of which remain uninhabited.
A quiet, reserved, and hospitable people, the Gunas are overtly proud of their culture, and traditional, simple way of life. Transportation from island to island, or even to the mainland, is usually accomplished by hand-carved dugout canoes, often aided by large sheets that serve as sails. Under the hot, tropical sun, hours can be spent traveling from one island to another. Women spend a large portion of their day performing daily chores, which often include knitting colorful molas to sell to visiting tourists. The men pass the time fishing, tending to cocoa trees, gathering needed material, and performing other routine tasks. All in all, Gunas are accommodating, loving people, and appear determined to keep their subsistence lifestyle intact, in spite of numerous external forces, that, over time have had a dramatic impact on Guna's life.
Perhaps the most significant of these was the introduction of air travel. Once an isolated archipelago, Guna Yala now enjoys daily, flight service to any of its 10-15 airstrips that reside along the Atlantic coast. Improved accessibility has brought with it the introduction of western influences while affording Gunas the ability to visit Panama City and other areas of the country. This has had a direct and dramatic impact on daily life in Guna Yala; Gunas, like the rest of us, have taken a liking to jewelry, Walkmans, clothing, cell phones, etc. On some of the more populated islands like Porvenir and Cartí, it's not uncommon to see youth wearing sneakers, baseball caps, shorts, and t-shirts; this, in fact, is the norm, not the exception. Traditional dress is somewhat limited to the elder women with most men exhibiting no traditional dress at all.
Other western influences are clearly noticeable on the more inhabited islands: tin roofs are replacing thatched roofs, new governmental buildings, schools, and piers are constructed of cement, not wood, and outboard marine motors are replacing paddles and sails. The impact is undeniable and irreversible. leaving many of the elderly concerned. Many of the outer islands, however, have managed to preserve the traditional lifestyle so often associated with Guna Indians.
For most visitors, Porvenir serves as a gateway to Guna Yala. Located at the westernmost part of the Comarca, there are numerous islands, some of which have hotels that cater to budget and upscale travelers. Most offer simple packages, which include meals and one local tour per day to neighboring islands. There are numerous other hotels further east along the coast, however, one would have to coordinate travel to those areas. Daily flights from Panama City to Guna Yala depart 7 days a week.
The Guna Museum, located just off the water's edge on the island of Cartí, is open to the public. While most of the items in the museum (paintings, carvings, and pottery) have bilingual descriptive notes displayed below them, a 15-20 guided tour of the museum is offered and included in the cost of admission. The museum offers visitors an in-depth look into the Guna Indians culture, religion, and history, and is a worthwhile visit for anybody visiting the area.
Colorful and intricately sewn, molas are an important part of the traditional dress of Guna women. Depicting the local culture and customs of Guna Indians, and more recently western influences, molas are sewn by women in a variety of sizes, colors, and patterns, and used by Gunas to protect themselves from evil spirits. Made from store-bought fabrics and consisting of multiple layers of reverse appliqué, molas were used originally for blouses but also serve as tablecloths, mitts, wall decorations, and, of course, tourist souvenirs. Prior to obtaining fabric from seafarers and traders more than a century ago, Guna women used natural dyes to paint body tattoos.
A traditional Guna hut is square with a thatched roof and dirt floor. Mangrove wood, due to its thickness, durability, and strength, is used primarily for structural support. Thin white cane, which, along with the above-mentioned wood, is gathered on the mainland and used for walls and doors. Surprisingly, there is little, if any, bamboo used for construction purposes. The expert craftsman that they are, Gunas can, with the help of the entire community, construct homes, and community structures with surprising speed. In spite of the heavy rain, the interiors of these structures remain very dry.
The local economy is now more dependent on tourism than traditional products such as cocoa, which the Gunas trade with Colombia. In fact, very little if any new cocoa trees are harvested anymore, as its economic importance has declined over the years. With independent tourists and cruise ships now visiting the area, Gunas have adjusted their lifestyle to accommodate the ongoing changes.