Guna Yala — A Magical Culture You’ve Never Heard Of

A shy Kuna girl saying hello

I first heard about the San Blas Islands, also know as Guna Yala (formerly known as Kuna Yala), a few months before my departure for Latin America. I didn’t know much about Central America or even Panama. To be honest, I’m more of a get-recommended-Google-it-and-read-reviews-then-decide-that-day kinda gal. So, I got a link to a company that offered a four-day island-hopping boat tour through the islands. The website said I had to book three weeks or less before the trip; of course I waited until the last minute. “Discover the magic of the Kuna culture in indigenous villages” was all the website said about the Kunas. Little did I know how intriguing this indigenous culture would turn out to be. As soon as I stepped foot on the island, I felt the need to share what I learned.

Marcela, one of our wonderful guides. She’s spent a lot of time with the Kunas
Notice anything odd about their flag?

The first thing I noticed upon arriving in the Kuna village was their flag. Almost every house had one flying high and proud. A big yellow stripe in between two red smaller ones and…..a black swastika! It took my breath away as if I had been punched. Growing up Jewish, that symbol has always meant the worst — a dark history of Nazi Germany. But, to my surprise, I soon found out it had a completely different meaning to the people who live here.

According to the BBC News:

“In the Western world the swastika is synonymous with fascism, but it goes back thousands of years and has been used as a symbol of good fortune in almost every culture in the world.

In the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit swastika means “well-being”.

The symbol has been used by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains for millennia and is commonly assumed to be an Indian sign.

Early Western travellers to Asia were inspired by its positive and ancient associations and started using it back home. By the beginning of the 20th Century there was a huge fad for the swastika as a “benign good luck symbol.”

The Kunas adapted the symbol in 1925 and probably will never change it — why should they? Ask them about Hitler or the Holocaust and I can guarantee they’ll have no idea what you’re talking about. After learning this information, a few thoughts came to mind. First, I couldn’t imagine living in such a bubble. Secondly, hm, maybe it’s better they live so isolated from the media-saturated life I live. I mean, have you seen our presidential candidates?

I think modeling is in his future!

Fun fact: Kunas worship women! Take that USA!

Furthermore, drinking alcohol is forbidden except on certain days that celebrate a woman’s development.

“In mythology the woman represents the mother earth and therefore everything comes from her.”

The most important celebrations I learned about are:

  • Birth of a baby girl
  • When a girl hits puberty (starts menstruation cycle)
  • When a woman gets married

Kuna families are also matrilinear — which means “inheriting or determining descent through the female line” (

Simply put, the bridegroom moves to become a part of the bride’s family and the groom also takes the bride’s last name.

I like the sound of that.

Marcela with women dressed in traditional Kuna garb known as Molas, (handmade, obviously) which they are famous for. (Thanks for the photo, Marcela!)

While exploring the island, I noticed there were many young individuals that I couldn’t identify according to gender. Apparently, transgender males are something of the norm and welcomed in the Kuna villages. In a community that worships women, why would that be a bad thing? I found it interesting that in such a remote area, the people seem to be so much more advanced in LGBT situations than many developed countries. A friend raised an interesting question: “What if the girls desire to be transgender?” In that case, I have no idea. Anyway, it got me thinking that there is a lot to learn about how the world works.

These two cuties would not let Jamie put them down!
Sadly, because of climate change, this incredible and pristine deserted island is shrinking by the minute. It will be completely under water in a matter of years, if not less.

Albinos a.k.a “Moon Children”

According to McClatchy DC, demographic experts say that Kunas have the highest rate of albinism on Earth. Apparently, there is one born for every 145 Kuna births, which is insane to me because I’ve only come across a handful in my lifetime. Interesting from a genetics point-of-view.

“So it is perhaps a cruel twist of genetic fate that so many albinos dwell under a harsh tropical sun on these coral-ringed islands.”

Kuna mythology treats albinos as a special race. They believe that the Moon Children can rescue them during hurricanes, severe storms and lunar eclipses, so for this reason, Albinos are the only ones allowed outside during these times.

“Today, the albinos of Guna Yala…are generally viewed as gifted in the arts, religion and in academic pursuits, including law.”

Knowing how racism reveals its ugliness around the world, that’s something I took away as a beautiful and unique thing.

I hope one day I can return to these magical islands and really get to know the people and their way of life even more.