Nestled away on Panama's eastern Caribbean coast is the breathtakingly beautiful San Bias archipelago. 357 small islands inhabited by a proud and self-reliant group of native Americans known as the Kuna. There are daily flights to San Bias from Panama City. Tours and hotel accommodations can be easily arranged on several of the islands.
The Kuna are considerate and attentive hosts, preparing wonderful meals of lobster, crab and fish freshly harvested from the sea and guiding tourists in dugout canoes to small, uninhabited islands with gorgeous beaches and pristine coral reefs. Politically independent, the Kuna won their right to self-government in the Kuna Revolution of 1925, an historic event that San Bias celebrates every February with the local holiday of Mor Ginnid. Kuna law prohibits fishing in their waters by boats with sophisticated machinery or the taking of anything from the sea that a diver can not reach with air from his own lungs. Scuba diving is therefore not permitted, but tourists may snorkel in the reef, one of the oldest and best preserved in the world.
Visitors to San Bias will be treated to a tour of one of the 49 Kuna communities, to observe daily life at first-hand The men rise early to fish or tend their farms on the mainland, paddling off on their business in dugout canoes that are sometimes equipped with makeshift sails. Fresh crab, lobster, octopus and fish, caught with nets or spears, are exported to Panama City. On their farms, the Kuna men raise vegetables, fruits, coffee and the all-important coconut, 15 million of which are exported each year to neighboring Colombia. Coconuts can actually be used as coins in Kuna commerce and have a value of about ten US cents. A soda, which costs about 40 cents, can be purchased for four coconuts on the islands of San Bias!
Visitors will also see women at work making molas, the traditional women's garments. Molas are panels of cloth appliqué, which are sewn into the fronts and backs of blouses. Mola designs vary from the abstract and geometric to representations of birds, fish and innumerable other subjects, all different, but all distinctly Kuna. These works of art are one of Panama's best-known native crafts and can be purchased in every town of San Bias. Also available are necklaces of sea shells, and chaquiras, the bead bracelets used to adorn women's arms and legs. Visitors may also have the chance to visit a traditional Kuna house, made of palm-thatched roofs and cane walls, and observe the kitchen and sleeping quarters.
Towns on San Bias are exceptionally tidy. Public buildings include schools, health centers and the town hall, a long building with thatched roof which is the heart of each community Citizens meet daily, except Saturdays and Sundays, to discuss community affairs, as well as issues involving neighboring communities and Kuna culture in general. Town meetings are presided over by the community’s leader known as the sahila.
Beyond cultural tours and snorkeling, visitors may also accompany Kuna men to fish, of trek rainforest reserves on the mainland, where birds and other wildlife are abundant. There are hotels on the islands of Wichubwala, Nalunega, Ailigandi, Nargana, Achutupo and Carti-Sugtupu, which also provide meals for guests. Most Kuna communities have an airstrip, either on the island or the mainland nearby, and are easily accessible by light aircraft. A visit to these beautiful islands, set like jewels in the turquoise water of the Caribbean, will be one of the most memorable experiences of your visit to Panama.
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