A Visit with the Native Community of Guna Yala, Panama (Photos)

Guna Yala in Panama

The island of Ukupseni — or Playón Chico (“little beach”), as it’s known in Spanish — is a tiny isla off the Caribbean coast in Panama’s beautiful Guna Yala territory (formerly known as the San Blas Islands). Ukupseni has long been a draw for adventurers looking for a beautiful and remote respite. This stretch of Central America is home to the Guna, one of the seven indigenous groups of Panama. Throughout the region there are fifty-one Guna communities. Eight are on the mainland and 43 are on islands.

Ukupseni has a population of 3,000 Guna on the extremely small, 0.75-square mile island. which is only accessible by plane (one flight a day) or by four-hour boat ride. Due to its remoteness, the fishing village largely exists as it has for hundreds of years. Narrow dirt roads wind through thatch-roofed homes. Children fly kites after school through the streets. Women dressed in traditional, explosively colorful headscarves and kaleidoscopic beads sew on porches. Men fish and chop wood. Smoke from cooking fires mingles with the thick rainforest humidity and sea air.

Greenspot Travel is an a ecotourism company that arranges indigenous-minded tours, mostly in Central America. Recently, through Greenspot Travel, I stayed the Yandup Island Lodge in Panama. This modest but beautiful ecolodge, owned and operated entirely by the Guna, exists on its own island just a 10-minute boat ride from Ukupseni. The campus features 10 “over-the-water” bungalows, its own private beach and surrounding coral reefs, and terrific seafood pulled from the surrounding water. The retreat also offers a variety of half-day excursions, which include exploring deserted beaches, snorkeling, and touring mangroves, as well as visits to the Ukupseni community.

While there is much to be said for spending a day on your own island and plucking a lobster out of the sea for your dinner, what you really need to do to truly experience the area and culture is meet with the Guna people who call Ukupseni home. The Guna are a beautiful community, rich with tradition. They are believed to be the second smallest group of people in the world and were the first autonomous indigenous territory in Panama. They also have the largest per capita number of albinos globally.

In the photo gallery below you’ll find a closer look at the Guna of Ukupseni and Yandup Island Lodge.

Guna Yala in Panama

The region of Guna Yala is an elongated territory on Panama’s Caribbean coast.

Guna Yala in Panama

Ukupseni appears to be extremely crowded. The Guna own acreage on the mainland, but prefer to live in tight groups on the islands.

Guna Yala in Panama

Guna children where uniforms to class on the mainland. They speak Guna at home and Spanish at school.

Guna Yala in Panama

A Guna elder in traditional dress keeps an eye on her grandchildren.

Guna Yala in Panama

The “over the water” bungalows at Yandup Lodge are modest and beautiful.

Guna Yala in Panama

A walkway over the reef connects the bungalows, where yoga is often done in the mornings.

Guna Yala in Panama

The sounds of a conch shell lets visitors know when meal time is ready — the only clock you need.

Guna Yala in Panama

A Kuna boy fishing in a Cayuco (traditional canoe). Each day Kuna men head out to fish for food.

Guna Yala in Panama

Sunset at Yandup Island Lodge were gorgeous. Yandup means “island of javelina” (aka peccary, or puerco de monte in Spanish).  Yanu means javelina and dup/dupu means island.

Guna Yala in Panama

Sunrise at Yandup Island Lodge. Yandup began as four sea-facing cabanas with one shared bathroom outside.

Guna Yala in Panama

The island’s lone heron hunts his breakfast, much to the delight of visitors in the dining cabana.

Guna Yala in Panama

Playón Chico is right in the center of the Guna Yala region. The nearest community is San Ignacio de Tupile on the island and Ukupa and Irgandi on the mainland.

Guna Yala in Panama

Two Guna, a dog, and a cat occupy this island and bring the coconuts to Ukupseni.

Guna Yala in Panama

Guna children enjoy playing in the water, fishing from the dock, and flying kites.

Guna Yala in Panama

A coconut farmer takes his coconuts to trade.

Guna Yala in Panama

Corn is a popular food among the Kuna.

Guna Yala in Panama

Traditional clothing has several parts: the blouse, the sabured (skirt), the musue or dunnued (head scarf), and the uinis (bracelets and adornments of arms and feet), in addition some jewelry of gold. For centuries, the Guna women did not use these traditional clothes, but rather they painted their skin for ceremonies.

Guna Yala in Panama

A Guna man cooks lobster for dinner as his wife watches from inside their house.

Guna Yala in Panama

Guna elders do not know how old they are. Birthdays were given only when Panama said that they were a requirement for employment, at which point a birth date was assigned.

Guna Yala in Panama

A local Guna woman carries a variety of mola patterns to be turned into traditional clothing.

Guna Yala in Panama

Subsistence farming takes place, but only on the mainland. Other fruits and vegetables come from other parts of Panama and Colombia.

Guna Yala in Panama

Men return to Ukupseni with bananas from the mainland.

Guna Yala in Panama

The villagers of Ukupseni hope to expand the community to the mainland. Land has been cleared next to the airport runway and the new community is anticipated by 2019.

Guna Yala in Panama

Albinism is a coveted condition and those affected (1 percent of the population) are considered “sons of the moon” by the Guna.