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Behind you is thick, misty forest. In front of you, the sea. Moored beside a rickety wooden pier is your “taxi”— a precarious looking dugout canoe. Your destination lies a mile offshore: the mysterious Kuna island of Achutupu. Achutupu isn’t large, but is densely packed with thatched dwellings and dotted with squat palms. Smoke rises gently from a few huts. Bright flags flutter from others. Wooden canoes are anchored by small docks and inlets; others poke out from open shelters. Beyond the island energetic waves crash over a reef.


Only 49 of the 365 San Blas islands are inhabited. The majority of these are similarly packed with dwellings constructed around the frames of sturdy tree trunks, with thatched roofs, earth floors and walls of cane or bamboo. The Kunas, a native indigenous group, are accomplished mariners who have long paddled and sailed across the ocean in small dugout canoes. One of their few concessions to modern influence is the outboard motors they use for longer journeys.


Few ancient tribes have preserved their traditions as staunchly as the Kunas. Leading a coastal existence that has changed little in centuries, they survive from fishing and trading coconuts, and live virtually autonomously from the Panamanian state. The Kunas are fiercely territorial and the government consults them on all proposals, including road building, which could affect their territory.


Walking around Achutupu is surreal. All the women wear traditional dress: distinctive mola blouses constructed around patterned silk squares; rings through the nose and ear piercings; headscarves; and forearms and lower legs strapped with bright strings of beads, worn for life from a young age. Despite obvious overcrowding, islanders reserve space for a basketball court, which, along with the nearby stores, forms the hub of local life. The community governs its affairs in the large Gathering House. The Chicha House is the other important public building and is where islanders celebrate locals girls coming-of-age. Women maintain a revered status in Kuna society and reaching puberty is commemorated by a series of ancient rituals and feasts. The culmination of these is the “Long Chicha,” a drinking festival that lasts three to four days.


The Kunas are not only independent but also seem very contented. Groups of villagers chat in good humour and the sound of laughter often rings out across the island. Children greet visitors with happy cries of “Hola!” Such is the nature of these happy coastal dwellers.

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