The Guna

Posted on November 17, 2018


The Guna are one of Latin America’s most recognised indigenous people. Their homeland, the San Blas Islands (Guna Yala pronounced Kuna), is semi autonomous.

Scattered across the Caribbean coast these atoll-looking homes (no coral reef as such here) make up an archipelago of more than 350 islands. Each one with its own zone (a total of 49 with different dialects among different groups.)

It’s a mission to get there. Anyone suffering motion sickness will be in hell. A four hour bumpy 4×4 journey through windy roads, littered with pot holes, cut into the thick rainforest at break next speed. Note to self: Don’t eat breakfast late!

My plane from San Salvador touched down just after 2300 and by 0030 I was unpacked and flat out, face planted into my pillow. The alarm buzzed four hours later and at 0520 I was squashed into a car along with four loud German girls and a Chinese girl sat upfront. She said nothing the entire trip other than the name of her country, when I asked where she was from.

Arriving into the territory you’re met by a military presence who check your passport and handle the money for a safe passage through. Everything is strictly controlled. There are no big developments or resorts blighting this very picturesque landscape. All the homestays are basic. Shacks with a bed. Toilets outside. No running water and electricity is sparse. I like that. A simple way to live. Proper desert island stuff. Swimming between the islands is forbidden, they are accessed only by boat and it’s always through a tour. This is how they make their cash.

If you want isolation and stunning beaches, this is for you. There isn’t anything to do here, unless you like playing volleyball. Nets are on a lot of the tourist islands. I wanted to see and meet more indigenous people other than the captains motoring our boats and the women making our lunch. We weren’t given any history or understanding of the people and their lives. I asked lots of questions, some were answered, others ignored. I was sorely disappointed. I felt like a trespasser tolerated only because I was paying my way. I didn’t feel like we were expected to integrate. It was us and them. No one else asked questions about their lives.

Modern ways are clearly infiltrating the communities. The young men drink too much beer and all want foreign girlfriends. They constantly want to be photographed with bikini wearing foreign girls. Reminds me of certain parts of East Africa.

The Guna women dress very conservatively. They wear molas (decorative textile made up of geometric patterns) on the back and front of their blouses. Not an ounce of flesh is exposed. Long skirts and leggings underneath those. Their dark skin is protected from the fierce sun, which is blinding when it bounces off the white sand.

Ironically before the Christian missionaries arrived the Guan apparently practised the art of body painting but were later persuaded to paint molas on cloth instead. The cloths are also sold as souvenirs.

Today the sight of white foreign flesh on the beaches has the young Guna men hanging around gawping. It’s all a tad grotesque to have this juxtaposition of tradition meets vulgarity. The number of butt cheeks hanging out of bikinis that resembled dental floss rather than swim wear made my eyes water never mind the Guna.

The turquoise water on this side comes from the Pacific so it’s colder. The reef was awful. No coral just rock and broken glass beer bottles everywhere. There was also less fish than what I saw in Roatán. Terrible snorkelling.

At one point three boats visited the pristine pool. It’s an island that was apparently sunk following a hurricane leaving the water around it gin-clear and the bottom of the sea bed white and sandy. It’s no deeper than 1-2m. No idea when it happened, how many people died or whether is was inhabited at the time. They didn’t answer that question either. Pffff.

One boat anchored, cranked up the pop music and started pouring cheap red wine into plastic cups for the foreign girls to drink. They stood about thigh high in the water chugging away at the paint stripper. Then twenty minutes later they were shaking their tush, giggling and dancing to the delight of the Guna men watching on. Get me out of here!!

An interesting insight into the San Blas Islands. Perhaps several nights stay away from the partying day trippers would have been a better option. But I travel in isolation, I don’t need more alone time. The islands were lovely to see but in hindsight I could have had an extra day doing something more productive.

Tomorrow I’m getting on the Panama Railway. Yet more early morning travel, this time hopefully with a bit of history thrown in.