Introducing Comarca de Kuna Yala
The Comarca de Kuna Yala is a narrow, 226km-long strip on the Caribbean coast that includes the Archipiélago de San Blás, which stretches from the Golfo de San Blás to the edge of the Colombian border. The islands are home to the Kuna, who run San Blás as a comarca (autonomous region) with minimal interference from the national government. Following a violent uprising on February 25, 1925, the Kuna were granted permission to implement their own system of governance and economy while still maintaining their language, representation in the Panamanian legislature and full voting rights. Given that the Kuna have been in contact with Europeans ever since Columbus sailed along here in 1502, this has been no small achievement. Their success is the result of their remarkable tenacity and zealous efforts to preserve a traditional way of life. Today, they have one of the greatest degrees of political autonomy of any indigenous group in Latin America.
The Kuna like to say that their archipelago consists of ‘one island for every day of the year.’ In fact, there are nearly 400 islands in the chain, all small creations of sand and palms with the turquoise Caribbean lapping at their shores. While the majority of the islands are magazine-cover beauties, the Kuna choose to inhabit no more than a handful of acre-sized cays, which are packed with bamboo huts and people. Although outsiders often wonder why the Kuna choose to live in such crowded conditions, this is a testament to the incredible sense of community and identity that has allowed the Kuna to achieve their remarkable degree of independence.
Difficult access and strict limitations on visitors have invariably stemmed overdevelopment in the region, though San Blás is no longer the off-the-beaten-path tourist destination it once was. However, the archipelago continues to attract intrepid and independent travelers and it’s still fairly easy to seek out either vibrant community life or complete and total isolation.