Print this trip dossier

Journey Latin America asks you to accept cookies for performance and social media purposes. We use cookies on our website to personalise content, evaluate website traffic and enhance performance. You can delete or restrict cookies via your web browser. To get more information about these cookies and the processing of your personal data see our Cookie Policy. Do you accept these cookies and the processing of personal data involved? Find out more

2013 and earlier

In Defence of Paradise

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

Post a comment

Other holidays you may be interested in

lake district chile

Luxury Chile: Patagonia, Chiloe and Maipo valley vineyards

Private journey

13 days from £6,872pp

Squirrel monkey

Family Ecuador and Galapagos

Private journey

13 days from £5,999pp

Machu Picchu Peru

Signature Peru and Brazil: Machu Picchu, Rio and Iguazu Falls

Private journey

13 days from £3,895pp

river pastaZA

Self-drive Ecuador: The back roads of the Andes

Private journey

10 days from £2,665pp

Other articles you may like

Browse our inspiration area of the site. It's packed with insider travel tips, Top5s, competitions, events, recipes and holiday ideas for Central and South America sure to whet your travel appetite.

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up to our twice monthly newsletter and be the first to know about our latest news, offer and competitions.

Sign up with...

Your email


Using a social account is fast and means you don't need to remember a password.

We never share your data either - see our terms & conditions

Facebook Connect

Remember, you can unsubscribe at any time.

To see how we take care of your data please review our Privacy Policy

Thanks for subscribing – we’ll be in touch!

You are not subscribed. Some error happened.

Share this Page

Social share page will open in new window

Send a friend


Page Full Path: /sitecore/content/JLA/Home/travel-inspiration/travel/in-defence-of-paradise

Page ID: {4A23BCBB-EA3D-489D-86A4-C31DB1A19C20}

Page Name: in-defence-of-paradise

Page Display Name: In Defence of Paradise

Page Template Name: T031-PapagaioBlogPost

Page Template ID: {ECC6A232-9784-4CC7-BA26-18421546B8F5}

Parent ID: {DC65CFB2-D81C-4A04-A7F8-0A1B3D88E7EB}

Parent Name: travel

Parent Display Name: Travel

Parent Template Name: T029-PapagaioCategoryListing

Parent Template ID: {4D163066-ED7E-48E6-AF31-34B6C47536CD}