The people of San Blas have preserved their colourful lifestyle, writes Brett Atkinson.

In a world where air travel has become guarded and grey, the cosmopolitan colour of Panama City's Albrook Airport is a potent reminder of how enlivening travel should be. A hopelessly tanned middle-aged gringo exudes effortless cool and gets away with wearing a Hawaiian shirt that should really be banned under several international agreements.

At the Aeroperlas check-in counter, a couple from Panama's Caribbean coast are negotiating gently in the sing-song patois of their West Indian forebears. Even in our tiny departure lounge, more than half of the passengers are wearing the wildly vibrant cloth ing of the Kuna people of northern Panama's isolated San Blas islands.

An hour later, our 20-seat plane has crossed Panama's narrow isthmus from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea. Scattered below us is the San Blas archipelago, with almost 400 islands making up the territory of Kuna Yala.

In a continent where the rights of indigenous people have been trampled since the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the fiercely independent Kuna have maintained their unique culture since moving to the region from Colombia in the 16th century. Following a successful armed up rising against Panama in 1925, the Kuna now enjoy substantial autonomy within the modern state of Panama.


After two earlier stops on post age stamp-sized islands doubling as airstrips, we touch down at Aeropuerto de Mamirupu, a flash name for what's ostensibly a grassy expanse fringed in mangroves.

A short boat ride later, we're welcomed as the only guests of Dolphin Lodge, a football field-sized island dotted with comfy bungalows and a breezy open restaurant where crayfish is an everyday dish. Our biggest challenge most days is deciding to go snorkelling before or after our seafood and cerveza-infused kips in the hammocks.

Compared to the mercenary development of other parts of Central America, tourist infra structure in the San Blas Islands is still defiantly low-key. The Kuna refuse to sell or lease any land to outside developers, and just a handful of locally-owned, rustic lodges are dotted throughout the 3000sq km making up Kuna Yala.

Despite the isolation, the Kuna are sharp business operators and we're soon roused from our hammocks to head to nearby Isla Achutupu. On offer are molas, the Kuna's traditional textiles, and uinnis, colourful beads threaded on long strings that women wear as decoration.

Surrounded by water and craft ily abandoned by our boatman, we're a hopelessly captive audience. Despite that, there's no real pressure to buy. Every few metres around the island, a selection is laid languidly upon the ground.

Designed to be fixed to the front of a blouse, molas are made using a reverse appliqué technique. Up to five pieces of material are layered, with the base layer remaining unhemmed and providing the design's background. The finishing is intricate and perfect, and we take our guide's recommendation to stand at least 2m back from the patterns to appreciate their full impact.

Most of the designs are traditional and reflect the natural surroundings of the Kuna but, in recent years, molas have also been made featuring aircraft, yachts and divers. Most are made by women, but the finest molas are crafted by the omegit, men raised as women in a tradition similar to the fa'afafine of Samoa or the fakaleiti of Tonga.

In a small hut on Isla Achutupu, a pale-blonde toddler reinforces another Kuna tradition. Because of their small gene pool, the Kuna exhibit the world's highest rate of albinism. The Kunas' legends predict that if a woman looks at the moon during pregnancy, she will give birth to an albino, known as a "child of the moon".

For every one in 200 Kuna births, it is a prophecy that comes true. For male babies, the rate is even higher. In Kuna society, the "children of the moon" are highly respected and nurtured as future leaders.

On nearby Isla Aligandi, we're welcomed by the island's head man. Wispy blond-ginger hair and a faded Yankees cap frame his gauzy pink eyes, as he carefully highlights New Zealand on a tatty wall map as evidence of our visit.

Aligandi was the centre of the Kuna revolution in 1925, and a statue of local freedom fighter Simral Colman stands resolutely in the island's dusty main plaza.

After decades of benign isolation, uncompromising and dangerous change is now having an effect on the Kuna. Colombian traders have traditionally steered their rusting boats through the islands to buy Kuna coconuts, but now the impact of Panama's southern neighbour is more malevolent.

Colombian drug traffickers regularly pilot drugs-laden speedboats — known locally as "go-fast boats" — through the archipelago en route to the urban markets of North America. The boats can carry up to two tonnes of cocaine, typically in 25kg water-tight packages.

Panamanian officials have been given several "go-even-faster-boats" in the United States Government's war on drugs, and traffickers are now forced some times to dispose of their toxic cargo in the pristine waters of San Blas. The cocaine is also sold and used locally and, on some islands, as many as half of Kuna men aged between 18 and 25 are addicts. To heighten the poverty, many Kuna men lost their jobs in 1999 when the US handed the administration of Panama Canal back to Panama.

Looking ahead, it's a tough equation. Boosting employment and wealth through eco-tourism developments like the rustic and relaxed Dolphin Lodge is going to take more than just local Kuna capital. In 1930, the Kuna were the first indigenous people of Latin America to achieve self- government.

After five centuries of living in these unspoiled waters, you really can't blame them for wanting to maintain their hard- won and precious autonomy just a little longer.

Getting there: Copa, Panama's national airline, has direct flights to Panama City from Los Angeles (six hours) and New York (four hours). Aeroperlas and Air Panama have daily flights from Panama City to the San Blas islands.

Where to stay: Dolphin Lodge is on tiny Isla Uaguinega.

Visas: New Zealanders don't need a visa to visit Panama.

Brett and Carol Atkinson paid their own way to Panama.