The allure for many travelers of taking the Colombia-Panama sailboats is passing through the San Blas Islands. It is an exotic locale, with crystalline seas, powder-white beaches and traditional indigenous people. A real foreign landâ€”which is precisely what it is.
Welcome to Kuna Yala, an autonomous region within Panamanian territory, with the right to lay down its own laws. The official website of the Congreso General Kuna (Kuna Yala's governing body) has useful information (in Spanish) about Kuna culture, history and other aspects (www.congresogeneralkuna.com). It also details the norms of tourism and tourist behavior (www.congresogeneralkuna.com/E.Cap._xvii.htm). Some of the laws are:
- Photographs and videos of the Kuna or the community may not be taken without the permission of local authorities and individuals.
- Natural resources (including the plentiful coconuts and shells) may not be removed.
- Local authorities may search tourists.
- Tourists must respect sacred sites, cemeteries and religious rituals.
- The use or trafficking of drugs or other illegal substances is prohibited.
- People may not wear bathing suits in public streets.
- Nudity in all forms is prohibited (including skinny-dipping).
- Guides must be Kuna.
- No littering. Only biodegradable materials may be used.
Fines up to $100,000 may be levied, and the violator may be expelled from the Kuna community.
These laws are intended to preserve Kuna traditions and way of life. Nonetheless, sociologists and anthropologists have noted the impact sailboat tourism is already having on Kuna culture.
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