Story & Photos by Nick Cote

I am niga sipu. Between some broken Spanish and Kuna, I understand that I am being told I am a white man. On my second trip to the San Blas Islands, during an eight-month hiatus touring Central and South America, I found myself in a small communal hut sharing equal parts rum and confusion with a few Kuna locals. Whatever joke I was the butt of was obviously pretty hilarious, so as I do in any situation I don’t understand I pretend that I get it and laugh along. As I glanced around the hut, dimly lit by a single light bulb rigged to a car battery, I felt slightly uncomfortable being the center of attention. At the same time, I felt invigorated, deeply content, and completely out of my element. As serendipity would have it, I managed to graduate from gringo to guest as I eagerly kept pressing my hosts to teach me about their culture. Despite how privileged I felt to be temporarily accepted into Kuna culture, it was just that: temporary. I was still niga sipu.

Arriving in the San Blas islands is one of those rare moments when you realize that a postcard doesn’t do justice to the palm-studded, white-sand islands dotting the turquoise water. Kuna Yala, which literally means “Kuna Land,” has been home to the indigenous Kuna people for several centuries. The reserve, or comarca, stretches about 124 miles along the eastern coast of Panama and about 9 miles inland, though most of the roughly 40,000 inhabitants occupy the nearly 400 islands that make up the San Blas archipelago. Some islands have thousands of inhabitants. Some have just one.

The Kuna are considered among the most autonomous indigenous groups in the world. The rugged, mountainous terrain along their section of coastline has helped keep Kuna Yala relatively isolated from the influence of neighboring Panama.

The relationship is a special one: simultaneously, Kuna is allowed to participate in Panamanian politics while as maintaining autonomy. Still, machine gun and fatigue-clad police check passports, and Kuna elders are careful to decide which islands tourists are allowed to stay on. There are no hotels, running water, or roads anywhere on the islands. Electricity is scarce and powered by car batteries or the occasional generator. The price of a lobster is equal the price of a beer: just one dollar each. Modernity seems to have passed over Kuna Yala and time has more or less been forgotten. Life is the same as it has been for centuries, save for a few modern amenities­—and of course, tourists.

What was once a difficult, treacherous journey from Panama City to the San Blas Comarca is now streamlined into a three to four-hour trip with private operators shuttling tourists down a new gravel road in comfortable four-wheel drive vehicles. For about twenty bucks roundtrip, I crammed myself into the back of one such “Jeep” (what all land-rover type vehicles are called). Driving along makeshift roads, we bumped through gnarly mountains and rough terrain, even crossing a river. Thankfully, cars are pretty good about going through water.

Beyond the streets of Panama City, my first experience with this fiercely independent culture was in the back of a pick-up truck. I left my hostel at a moments notice, hitting the road with three strangers I met along the way, singing along to reggaeton blasting over the radio. Eventually, the cars began to fade from the road and the pavement gave way to gravel. I felt a bit disheartened at the sight of road construction, as it made our drive a bit less adventurous, and would eventually lead to crowded tour busses and sedans.

But not yet. Four-wheel drive was still necessary for a river crossing, and the Panamanian Tourism Institute still advised against undertaking the journey without a guide. As luck had it, we picked up six Kuna road workers, who in exchange for a ride helped direct us to the end of the road at which begins the boundary of the San Blas Comarca, or Kuna Yala. We were all headed to the same place: the San Blas Islands.

Culturally and politically, the Kuna people have historically resisted foreign influence. Allowing outsiders on the reserve is still a sensitive issue, and only recently has it become more culturally acceptable.

My host, Ina Robinson, the elected head of the island I stayed on, which is by no mistake named Robinson Island, is part of a growing population of future Kuna leaders who believe that a sustainable eco-tourism industry is possible. Ina, unlike many young Kuna men, had been raised by his grandfather with the understanding that tourism can play an important role in the preservation of Kuna culture while contributing to their economic prosperity. The Kuna have had to make room for visitors in order to remain economically secure—but many are wary of the growing presence of foreign businesses and outside influence.

The autonomy that the Kuna enjoy today is the result of their fierce, sometimes violent resistance to be governed by others. Ina witnessed the expulsion of one indignant American who wanted an island for himself. Initially, he had made a ten-year agreement to live on the reserve. But once he outlived his stay, his stubbornness to leave resulted in 25,000 Kuna showing up on his doorstep and burning his house down. A North American-owned hotel was burnt down in 1969, and again in 1974. A few years later, in another standoff between the hotel’s owners and the local people, one of the owners was shot in the leg and both were forced off the reserve. Needless to say, the Kuna want their culture and their territory to remain distinctly their own.

I felt like an intruder at times. It’s hard not to imagine the Kuna feeling like a tourist attraction—their lifestyle gawked at and their image plastered on postcards like a spectacle. When something so unique as the Kuna Yala are recognized, it’s hard not to tell the whole world to come see. Tourism on the comarca is only in its infancy, but I felt sickened to imagine a luxury resort swallowing up an entire island.

Having grown up in a tourist destination myself—the small town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming (adjacent to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks)—I have seen how a place can dramatically transform once it has been “discovered.” The slope I learned to ski on is now a high-end condominium development. The humility that made the locals seem friendly has given way to frustration. Their essence has been mimicked, mocked, copied, and regurgitated for everyone to gape at. An unfortunate paradox is at work here: For some places to remain enjoyable, not everyone can enjoy them.

For the Kuna, their cultural legacy will be finding a balance between maintaining a twentieth century lifestyle while being twenty-first century savvy. Keeping their doors shut to the outside world will eventually strangle their growth, but opening the floodgates will possibly dilute their identity and ravage their habitat.

The most difficult aspect for the Kuna will be finding business partners who are as invested in their cultural interests as they are. There is a lot that the modern world can teach the Kuna and a lot it can take away from them. It can offer solutions to eliminating the trash that is floating around the more crowded islands and the human waste that is dumped straight into the same ocean that is in their bread basket. As history demonstrates, the Kuna have every right to be skeptical of modern Western society, as it has tried numerous times to exploit them. Yet the Kuna must cast a weary eye toward the interests of outsiders if they wish to keep their way of life intact.

I hate goodbyes. Leaving a tropical paradise makes goodbye especially difficult. But after my stay, I knew that the San Blas Islands are more than just beautiful islands. They are a way of life for thousands of people, a way of life that scarcely exists in the modern world. The Kuna have a way of life that can at any time be paved, marketed, developed, and forgotten.