The San Blas islands, otherwise known as Kuna Yala, are an archipelago of over 350 islands dotting the northeast coastline of Panama. Many of the islands are uninhabited and some are less than an acre in area with just a couple of coconut trees garnishing them in the surrounding Caribbean water.
Kuna Yala is inhabited by the Kuna, a fascinating people who are purported to be the second shortest people in the world. Most of them live together on a few of the larger islands, crammed together in bamboo huts on top of the white, compacted coral. Kuna women dress in colorful attire: beads, scarves, and blouses decorated with molas. Molas are small, brightly colored tapestries sewn by the Kuna women and they are one of the most recognizable pieces of artisan craft associated with Panama.
Kuna governments are patriarchal, with sailas presiding over districts and three caciques, or chiefs, representing their entire homeland. Sailas and caciques alike have studied the oral history of the Kuna religion and have the task of passing that tradition on to younger generations. At the same time, the sailas assign everyday tasks and make all government decisions. Frequently, the sailas get together with the community in a large government house to debate community projects.
The Kuna are known for being shrewd business people. Each year they fix the price on coconuts within their reservation and sell many of them to neighboring Colombia. They’ll often oblige tourists a photo, but charge them a dollar. They also charge a dollar for each island visited within Kuna Yala. Kunas are very proud of their culture, and a sign within the government house in Carti displays this with the phrase “The people who lose their culture lose their soul” in English, Spanish and Kuna.
Kuna people are reported to have the highest incidence of albinism in the world. According to Kuna legend, the albino people are called “moon children” and are given the responsibility of shooting arrows at the full moon. Since the moon controls the tide, and Kuna people live on small atolls, they’ve interpreted the presence of albinos as a gift from the gods to protect them from rising tides.