MEET THE KUNA

Before You Go

Throughout your San Blas adventure you’ll be travelling with and meeting our indigenous crew bringing you into a truly authentic experience.

After many years operating in the San Blas islands we have developed very close relationships with the local indigenous community, the Kuna. Being able to share this experience with you, and share you with them, is an integral part of our trip and it’s what really sets us apart from other companies. Let’s learn a bit about the Kuna and their culture! The official name for the area is actually Guna Yala, and the people are called Guna. However, it is still most popularly known to travelers by its former name San Blas. The Kuna originated in the north coast of Colombia. Capurgana, Sapzurro and Acandi are derivatives of the names that the Kunas gave these small towns and villages. Guna people began inhabiting the archipelago in the early 1800’s in order to protect their traditional culture from foreign encroachment The original tribe then split some moved towards the pacific coast and the others, the Kunas, moved down on to the islands. One of the main reason they Kunas moved to the islands was to avoid mosquitoes. The Europeans had brought lots of diseases such as malaria that were spreading.

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SOCIAL STRUCTURE

Before You Go

In Kuna Yala there are 49 villages, 42 of which are on islands with 7 on the mainland.

Women play a central role in the society here in Kuna Yala. Women represent the pachamama - Mother earth. Now days the women in the house will generally manage the family money. A lot our captains as soon as they get paid they go give it to their wives straight away. Most major celebrations centre around the woman. Birth of a girl, girls first period etc. Traditionally property is owned by the women and passed down through daughters. This is because the men can go to work to eat the woman need security. Homosexuality and transexuals are completely normal and accepted in Kuna Yala. On some islands they can even get married. Albinism is quite common in Kuna Yala and they are said to have very special responsibility to take care of the moon. They are the children of the moon ‘sipur’. Religion - the Kunas have their own creation story which focuses on the worship of mother earth. But inside Kuna Yala you will find lots of variations of Christianity. Catholic, Jehovah, Mormon. . .

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THE REVOLUTION

Before You Go

For centuries the Kuna battled against colonists trying to enslave them or stamp out their culture. This battle was finally won after the Kuna revolution of 1925.

How did the Kuna become autonomous? In 1925 the Colons (Panamanian colonialist) were trying to assert dominance in Kuna Yala. They established settlements and were trying suppress their culture. Traditional dress and ceremony were banned and there was no respect for Silahs (Cheifs) Kunas started to plan to fight back In the night of carnival they knew the colonists would have a party and so they were waiting. Many kunas from many communities far away were moving at night time closer to the settlements. Then once the colonist were drunk or passed out the Kunas attacked. Hundreds of colonists were killed and well as many Kuna. The Panamanian colonists planned a retaliation on the Kuna, they gathered an army and were ready to come to San Blas and wipe the Kuna out, however... The Kuna had secretly made an unofficial agreement with the United States to support them. When the Panamanians were ready to launch their attack they found several warships waiting to meet them. With this intervention the Panamanian government was forced to make a treaty with the Kuna. Every February the kunas throughout San Blas celebrate the revolution. The flag of the revolutions has nothing to do with Nazis! The red is for the blood of their ancestors, the yellow/gold for for the wealth and richness of their land and the black is for the power of the Kuna.

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LIVELIHOOD

Before You Go

Kuna traditionally sleep in hammocks in grass huts. The walls are made of cane sticks lashed to posts with a fibrous plant, and a roof of palm leaves.

Kuna are traditionally fishermen and farmers. A side from the islands the Kuna territory (comarca) stretches deep into the jungle. In traditional areas on a typical day they would get up before dawn and row their wooden dugout canoe (cayuco) to the mainland to tend to their crops for the morning, coming back around midday, and maybe going for a fish in the afternoon. Traditional Kuna cuisine is very simple. The most common dish “Tule masi” (literally meaning Kuna food) is a soup whose main ingredients are plantain and fish. It’s also very common for them to smoke fish as a way to preserve Kuna Yala is the biggest coconut plantation in the world, supplying Colombia with most of their coconuts. Coconuts are like money for the Kuna, they trade them with commercial boats coming through for other goods.

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LANGUAGE & ETYMOLOGY

Before You Go

The Kuna language is a Native American language of the Chibchan family spoken by 50,000 to 70,000 people.

Dulhe Gaya is the primary language of daily life in the comarcas, and the majority of Kuna children speak the language. Spanish is also widely used, especially in education and written documents. Although it is relatively viable, Kuna is considered an endangered language. Why do we see Kuna Yala, Guna Yala, and San Blas, when it’s all the same place? San Blas was the name given by the spanish, after the revolution the Kuna’s named their land after their people, the Guna/Kuna. The difference between Kuna and Guna apparently comes from a mistake. It was heard as a K and therefore spelt with K. Later on the Kuna said it’s not really a K but a G, as in first g of “garage”. Their name was officially changed to Guna, however that new change hasn’t stuck totally stuck. Even they often say or write Kuna, so in the end it’s ok to use either.

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ECONOMY

Before You Go

The income of the kunas come mainly from coconuts, seafood and tourism.

Kuna Yala is the world's biggest coconut plantation! Most of this islands that you see on our way are actually little Kuna farms used to cultivate coconuts which they sell to boats coming from colombia. The boats buy coconuts and sell their products to the kunas. This trades is very important to the kunas meaning they don’t need to go to the city to buy products, however, on the other hand they became dependent on these boats. Seafood is another main income for the kunas. In the villages there are many fishman whose only source of income for their family is to sell lobsters, octopus, crabs and squids. Almost everyday planes depart carrying seafood to sell in panama city. Agriculture in Kuna Yala is different in each area. In carti area farming is for their own consumption and partly to sell to tourists. Towards the southern end of San Blas agriculture is still mainly for their own consumption. Most of the families have land they farm on the mainland producing food for themselves. Often they they grow more than they need, in which case they trade between the families. Tourism has become a big source of income for the Kuna in certain areas. Mostly in the northern end near Cartí where many or most families make their living directly or indirectly from tourism. San Blas Adventures brings the only regular tourism to some of the middle and southern islands, helping to spread some of the benefits of this industry to other parts of San Blas.

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POLITICS

Before You Go

Kuna Yala is an autonomous area inside the country of Panama.

The Kunas have their own law and govern themselves. This is a very unique situation. No other Indigenous group in all of Latin America has been returned this right. The General Kuna Congress(Onmaked Nega) is the main political institute that rules the comarca of Kuna Yala. They create the main laws for the territory and deal with the Panamanian government to resolve issues. The Panamanian government have a representative in the Kuna congress as the Kunas have a representative in the Panamanian parliament. The General Congress is composed by 3 caciques, the sahilas and voceros of each community. In their meetings they mainly discuss education, economy and sanitary conditions in kuna yala and how to improve them. Every island has a Local Kuna congress in charge of organising the community and dealing with local and family issues. Sahilas (cheifs) are the figures that represent and steer the local congress. They are elected by the people from the community, that make their choice based on the wisdom, the importance and the maturity of the candidate. A sahila is not a boss of the village, they are who the community elect to make good decisions for them. Each local congress has their own law but it is always in accordance with the general kuna congress laws. Most of the local laws are about how to organise the collective work in the village and establishing behaviors and fines for bad conducts. The kunas have a strong sense of independency and community. All the collective issues are decided in meetings with all people from the village. Issues such as the work to collect supplies for ceremonies or new houses or buildings. The contributions of each individual on the work is mandatory, otherwise you need to pay a fine. Kunas don’t have taxes between them. The only taxes they have are for foreigners. So, where does the income of the villages come from? Partly from taxes on tourism, partly from the fines when people break the law. The way this money is used is decided according to their priorities defined in regular meetings. Foreigners (Wagas) cannot own land or islands in Kuna yala. It is forbidden for a Kuna to make any kind of negotiation with them. If a foreigner marries a kuna he or she will be allowed to live in Kuna Yala but will not have rights to own property.

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MARRIAGE

Before You Go

Tradition marriages were arranged, the groom is taken by surprise and thrown in a hammock!

When a Kuna gets married the man would traditionally take the woman’s second name. They would not meet until the wedding day when the girls family goes to the boys house to bring him to be married (drag him if need be) Once he arrives he is put in a hammock where he awaits his bride. The girl is waiting hidden from the boy, she is brought out and put in the hammock on top of him. They are then swung together in the hammock whilst voceros chant and sing traditional wedding song Once the song is finished they are married!

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Journey Through the San Blas Islands

San Blas Adventures is the ultimate specialist travel company, providing guests with a completely unique way to experience the stunning San Blas Islands whilst travelling from Panama to Colombia or from Colombia to Panama. San Blas Adventures takes groups of peoples on an adventure through the San Blas Islands, starting either in Panama or Colombia.

We believe in giving you an island experience, not a boat experience, so we spend most of our time on the islands, showing off the beautiful beaches, villages, and meeting the local people. This means you’ll see as much of the San Blas archipelago as possible as you journey between Panama and Colombia.

San Blas Adventures is the ultimate specialist travel company, providing guests with a completely unique way to experience the stunning San Blas Islands whilst travelling from Panama to Colombia or from Colombia to Panama. San Blas Adventures takes groups of peoples on an adventure through the San Blas Islands, starting either in Panama or Colombia.

We believe in giving...

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