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Central America & Caribbean

The People Of Guna Yala

Jonathan van Bilsen



April 4, 2010

The People Of Guna Yala

As an enthusiastic traveller I have gained a tremendous respect for different cultures and their customs. From the Kikuyu people in Tanzania to the Rapanui of Easter Island, but perhaps the most impoverished I have ever encountered are the Kuna Indians of the Kuna Yala Archipelago.

Located in the Caribbean, 200 miles from Central America, the archipelago consists of 365 islands, most of which are uninhabited. Getting there from Port Perry is a bit of a challenge, but once you arrive it is as if you have been transported centuries into the past.

A shaky Twin Otter flew me to the island of Playón Chico, a small community of 3,000 inhabitants. Two men, short by our standards, met me and took my suitcase to their worn boat, tied next to the airstrip. One tug of the 15 horsepower outboard and we were off across the Caribbean to the mysterious island, which I would call home for the next three days.

It was not long before the island came into view. It was smaller than I had imagined and the thatched roofs of the sleeping huts appeared more primitive than I expected. I was greeted by two ladies dressed in the traditional, brightly coloured, molas and soon realized that they spoke little English. I spoke no Guna so hand signals had to suffice. 

I was welcomed with smiles and handshakes and was immediately escorted to a small hut on the perimeter of the island. It is important to note that the land mass was about an acre in size, with 3 huts perched on stilts at one end. I walked up a few wooden steps and entered the bamboo structure. 

To describe it as primitive would be an understatement. There were wide gaps between the poled walls and the windows and door, also made from bamboo, pivoted on a centre point and opened with a push. There were no locks and one light bulb, which was powered by a solar panel. There was a bathroom with shower and I understood there to be a generator, which provided warm water for showers… in the morning.

Around one side of the hut was a verandah, to which a hammock was tied and I immediately sank my tired body into the swaying berth, as I overlooked the azure blue waters of the Caribbean. No sooner were my eyes closing when one of the men came to fetch me for lunch.

I counted three ladies who worked on the island and lived in the village nearby. They could not do enough to ensure my stay was exceptional. Fruit tasted fresher than I have ever enjoyed and the fish must have been taken from the sea moments before it was prepared.

After lunch one of the men asked me if I wanted to visit a nearby island. I nodded and we hopped into the boat and set off. In the distance palm trees came into view, as we approached a small mound sticking out of the ocean. A white sandy beach surrounded a grassy centre and huge palm trees shaded the ground from an extremely hot sun. 

My guide dropped me and held up two fingers, as he smiled, waved and departed. I assumed he would be back to pick me up in a couple of hours and I suddenly knew what Robinson Crusoe must have experienced. Swimming in the warm water was wonderful and resting with a good book under palm trees was priceless. True to his word my guide returned and whisked me back for dinner.

He explained that they had caught langosta, which I understood to be baby lobster. Prepared in a mouthwatering way, accompanied by a glass of Pinot Gris, I enjoyed one of the finest meals I have ever experienced.

The sun set around seven and there was little to do but read and sleep. I was tired so I decided a good night’s rest would be just the thing. I made my way to my hut and checked out the mosquito net around the bed. I had not seen any flying insects since my arrival, however, a quick glance around the room brought several geckos into view. I checked the netting to make sure the bed was free from unwanted visitors.

The island where I was staying, was on the edge of a coral reef and the high waves of the Caribbean smashed loudly against the coral shores. At first I found the novelty of the noise interesting, however, it soon became deafening and would not stop. In the early hours of the morning, after having been awake most of the night, the wind picked up and the sounds grew louder.

Finally I saw the sun peek over the horizon and my sleepless night was at an end. The guide was true to his word and the shower produced hot water (after running it for 15 minutes, or so). I made my way to breakfast and enjoyed a hearty meal of bacon and eggs. I was asked if I wanted a tour of a local village, which I enthusiastically accepted. 

Another boat ride and I was surrounded by thatched roofs and dozens of children all looking for a donation. I took a few photos and handed out some coins and suddenly everyone in the village became a photographer’s model. 

One interesting sight was a number of Albino children. Several hundred years ago Albinos were considered demonic, but recently it has been decreed that they are sacred and are a result of being born under a full moon. In actual fact the infliction is due to inbreeding. 

The people were extremely friendly and spoke very little English. Recently the government has provided one solar panel per hut giving everyone a light. 

The Kuna people live simple lives. The women commute from their village to the mainland in their dugout canoes and watch over the cemetery as they wash clothes, cook meals and watch their children play. The men either go to the mainland to cultivate corn, yucca and coconuts or take watch on one of the hundreds of islands. Each island has a person responsible for the coconuts growing there and every morning that person sets out in his dug out canoe across the choppy sea, often disappearing from view between swells.

Where the men of Kuna Yala dress in western clothes the women wear traditional appliquéd Mola blouses, gold rings, long colourful skirts, red and yellow headdresses and beads or gold ornaments on their ankles and wrists. A thin, dark line is tattooed from their foreheads to the end of their noses, depending on their status and age.

For all the simplicity of their lives the Kuna Indians remain very aware of their rights to their own territory and they guard their rights passionately. They live in peace, but would not hesitate to take up arms against wrongdoers. The islands are free of snakes and animals (geckos excluded) and alcohol is only consumed during the ‘Rites of Passage’ ceremonies when women reach puberty. The Kuna Indians are people of vitality, simplicity and charm whose ancestors peopled these shores long before Columbus landed. They govern themselves in a virtually autonomous society.

When you have had enough of winter or you just want to get away from it all, consider a trip to Kuna Yala, one of the most remote areas on the planet. The 365 islands stretch along 200 miles of the Caribbean. The temperatures are hot, the people friendly and the culture unique. What could be better than sitting under a swaying palm tree leisurely reading back issues of Focus on Scugog magazine? 

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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