The Comarca Kuna Yala is a fascinating and primitive region that fulfills every tourist's, yachter's, and cruiser's island fantasy. There are more than 350 picture-postcard islands and islets ringed by powdery white sand, a coral reef, and piercing turquoise water -- and most islands are populated with no more than a cluster of coconut palms. Given the pristine beauty of the region, it is the premier beach destination in Panama, but what really sets it apart is that it provides you with the opportunity to spend time with the Kuna indigenous group that lives here. The region is formerly known as the San Blas Archipelago, and although many Panamanians continue to use this moniker, it is now officially the Comarca Kuna Yala. The "Kuna Yala" means "Land of the Kuna," and a comarca is a semiautonomous province that is governed by three tribal chiefs, or caciques, with the input of dozens of regional representatives. As a semiautonomous province, the Kuna have maintained their cultural identity and integrity, and have complete control of economic matters such as tourism. For example, it is considered improper to travel with an "outside" tour company that has not requested permission from tribal chiefs. Since the colonial period, the Kuna have successfully resisted invasions by pirates, colonists, missionaries, and adventurers -- even scientists from the Smithsonian based in the comarca were given the boot after the Kuna couldn't establish what their purpose was.
There are an estimated 50,000 Kuna spread across 49 communities in the region, and scattered in areas as far away as Panama City and farther east in the Darién. Of the seven indigenous tribes in Panama, the Kuna Yala are the most visible, not only for their ubiquity but for the kaleidoscopic-colored costumes worn by the women in the tribe. Men wear western clothing, but Kuna women wear skirts and mola-appliquéd shirts in yellows and reds, head scarves, a gold ring in their septum, and usually a single black line drawn down the crest of their nose; their arms and legs are bound with tiny beads. The Kuna's livelihood depends on coconut harvesting, fishing, and subsistence farming, and on a very small scale, tourism.
The comarca extends well beyond the island region, incorporating the coastal forest on the northern slope of the San Blas Mountain Range. Because it has been allowed to remain untouched, the virgin forest is home to a species diversity not found anywhere else in Panama; if visiting the mainland jungle interests you, you'll need a local guide (your lodge can provide you with one), or you can book a trip with a company such as Xtrop.