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San Blas

A short 20 minutes flight from Panama City and you can experience twenty centuries back into the past when you visit the lands of the Kuna Indians, who still keep their traditional lifestyle and traditions.

Nestled away on Panama's eastern Caribbean coast is the breathtakingly beautiful San Blas archipelago. Comprised of 357 small islands inhabited by a proud and self-reliant group of native Americans known as the Kuna. 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 Blas 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 Blas will be treated to a tour of one of the 49 Kuna communities, to observe daily life. The men rise early to fish or tend their farms on the mainland or paddling off 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 for trade in Kuna commerce and have a value of about ten cents.

You 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 Blas. Also available are necklaces of sea shells, and chaquiras, the bead bracelets used to adorn women's arms and legs.

Towns on San Blas 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.

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