Guna Yala – people who decided to leave the dry land

Colombia Panama Border Sapzurro

While traveling through San Blas we had a pleasure to meet the Guna people. Those people usually live away from the land, on the islands of San Blas archipelago. Why did they decide to leave the land and how do they get all the supplies? It’s a very interesting story.

As I mentioned in my previous post, visiting San Blas is not possible on your own. You need to rent a boat to be able to access some of the islands and you need a special Guna guide in order to visit the villages. We had a pleasure to be working with Lyly that took us to her home village and answered all of our questions.

Who are the Guna people?

Guna were indigenous people inhabiting the territory of Northern Colombia and the Darien Province of Panama at the time of the Spanish invasion. Only later they began to move to the islands, towards what is now Guna Yala. There were two reasons for that: a conflict with the Spanish and other indigenous groups and… mosquitos! The mosquito population in the jungle was so big that it wasn’t livable anymore, not to mention the illnesses spread by them. Later on, when the independent country of Panama was established, Guna Yala became part of this government. We can only imagine how unhappy the people were because of that! There was a big revolution in 1925 resulting in the Panamian government giving the Guna partial independence.

Guna people in their home

Where do they get supplies?

The easy answer is: from the land. Guna people feed mostly on fish and seafood, so whatever they can catch in the clear waters of San Blas. They can take the catch to the shore and sell it, thus making some money. Nowadays tourism is helping them with it as well. Anyway, everything from fruit, salt, spices to freshwater needs to be transported from the land. And if you look at the map, you will see that the coast on Guna territory is 100% jungle. It’s called the Darien gap, where normal people don’t go, the law doesn’t exist, the civilization is afraid to enter. Getting supplies is a challenge, that’s also why it is so important for the Guna to live together and share what they have.

Tupile village Guna Yala

Who is in charge?

Like every tribe in the world, the Gunas, as well, have a village chief. He is responsible for taking all of the decisions regarding the village, the people and the supplies. For example, when we visited Lyly’s village, our guides informed the village chief of our arrival and asked for permission. Funny story, twice during our 4-days trip the access to villages was denied. Apparently there was a big Guna Congress going on and they didn’t want to have anyone from the outside present.

Guna Life

People here have a very simple life. They are barefoot, living in small huts without any floor, sleeping in hammocks whole their life, eating what they catch. Yet, they seem happy. Children are running around, playing, women are making jewelry from the beautiful shells they can find just outside their homes, men are hunting. Everyone has something to do. Even though they don’t like tourists visiting their home (most of the little villages right off the coast of Panama are made for tourists, this is different) it was an interesting experience to spend an afternoon with them and see where they REALLY live.

Children in Tupile Guna Yala

Guna art

Guna art is becoming very popular in Panama nowadays. The raw beauty of San Blas islands attracts more and more tourists, which creates a market for all the handmade art the Kuna women create. On some islands you will be offered to buy bracelets and necklaces, but on the shore, in the center of Panama City, you can find a whole market filled with scarfs, Guna clothes, pillows, ashtrays… everything you desire, with a Kuna twist on it. The market is located along the Calle 5a, right next to Plaza de Francia.

Boy playing in the Guna village


Do not take pictures of the Guna without asking. They really don’t like it. If you ask politely, they might agree to it, but most of the time they will ask you for money, especially if they are wearing traditional clothes.

Fun fact: The Gunas have their own flag. It is a swastika. They call it Naa Ukuryaa. It symbolizes the four sides of the world or the origin from which peoples of the world emerged.

All of the pictures in this post have been made by @ginger_ttang

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