The Guna Culture of Panama

The Guna Culture of Panama

One of the treasures of Panama is the culture of the Guna (sometimes spelled Kuna) People, an indigenous group that calls the Guna Yala province home.

The Guna Yala province includes the San Blas Islands, an archipelago off the north coast of Panama with 49 inhabited islands (and a bunch more that are uninhabited).

The Guna people are known for their tradition of decorating with colorful designs. Before the arrival of Europeans, they decorated their bodies with these intricate patterns. The missionaries that arrived encouraged them to wear more clothing, so they copied the designs onto textiles. They call them Molas.

Aren’t they beautiful? The full traditional outfit of the Guna women includes a patterned wrapped skirt, a red and yellow headscarf, a mola blouse, and jewelry. The traditional design includes geometrical patterns, but in the last 50 years or so, they have also depicted flowers, sea animals, and birds.

The Panamanian government attempted to “westernize” the Guna people at the beginning of the 20th century by prohibiting their language and customs, including their traditional dress. The Guna people fought a revolution in 1925 to regain the right to govern their own territory. That might help you understand just how much their culture and traditions mean to the Guna people.

I had the opportunity to “meet” my first Guna friend through Facebook. I have Facebook connections with many travel industry people all over the world, so I must have shown up as a friend suggestion to Elias Perez. We had several mutual friends, so I knew he was a real person and I accepted his request.

Elias grew up in Guna Yala. After high school, he moved to Panama City to study at the National University of Panama. After that, he won a scholarship to Georgetown University and lived in San Antonio, Texas, for a year while he studied education at Palo Alto College. He returned to Guna Yala to teach. He now teaches at a school on the small island of Corbiski during the week and works in the tourism industry on weekends.

Elias sent me some pictures of beautiful mola facemasks that he is selling as a fundraiser for the school where he teaches. The Guna women of the San Blas Islands make them.

I was eager to buy one of these beautiful creations. I ordered one and received it just a few days later. The craftsmanship is remarkable. I thought that my readers might also want to purchase some. Perhaps we can’t travel there right now, but we can still learn about a different culture and even buy a souvenir. 😉

They cost $25, which includes shipping. Elias ships them to a fellow Panamanian, Rosa Sheffer, who now lives in Missouri, and she takes care of the order fulfillment for him. Neither Rosa nor I receive anything. We are simply trying to help the school.

If you are interested in buying one, please text Rosa Sheffer at (314) 775-4141 and let her know. She will then text you pictures of what she currently has available. Text her back and let her know which one you want and your address. She will then give you her husband’s Venmo account name. Send the money to him via Venmo, and then Rosa will ship you a mask. Yes, this is quite an informal system, but I did test it first.

Another interesting tidbit about the Guna people is that they are among the healthiest people in the world. Their rates of heart disease and cancer are 20 times lower than ours! Scientists believe it is because they drink a lot of hot chocolate! Cocoa is rich in the micronutrient flavanol.

I asked Elias if he drinks it and he said he does. He said it gives him energy.

I decided I wanted to try it and went searching for a recipe. There is no sugar in the recipe; all the sweetness comes from bananas.

Guna Hot Chocolate

1 ¾ cup water
1 banana, cut into chunks
4 heaping teaspoons cacao powder (preferred) or cocoa powder
Dash of cinnamon
Dash of cayenne pepper

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse at the Guna culture of Panama. Please consider supporting the school on Corbiski. When you are ready to travel, if you would like to visit Panama and the beautiful San Blas Islands, please let me know. I would love to plan a trip for you to visit this remote tropical paradise.