On the palm-fringed islands of the San Blas Archipelago, off the southern Caribbean coast of Panama, live the Kuna Indians. Fiercely independent and 40,000-strong, the Kuna have long maintained and defended their traditions of fishing, farming and trading coconuts with the Colombian schooners that ply the waters.

The modern age arrived in the San Blas in the ’70s when cruise ships first began visiting. The Kuna women soon learned that the colourful mola textiles that they so dexterously created by hand to adorn their blouses were a valuable commodity. They quickly developed a mind for business, and today it is the women who make the money in many Kuna families.

While there is little in the way infrastructure for tourism, a few resourceful Kuna have developed low-key family-run resorts on some of the islands. By staying with a family, you are naturally involved in the happenings of daily life and are accepted as guests in the village.

One of these is Isla Uaguitupo, little more than a grassy knoll covered in palm tree – not far from the main island of Achutupu and the mainland, the island so small there are only a handful of families living here. Palm-thatched homes crowd one end, while Dolphin Island Lodge, consisting of native-style bungalows, and the host family fill the other.

There is little to do on Isla Uaguitupo, apart from swing lazily in a hammock reading a book, chat to travellers or watch molas being made. With deft needlework, the hands of one local woman dance over her latest mola as she bends low in the dim light of a kerosene lantern to sew. Greens, blues and bright yellows combine in a complicated series of overlaid reverse appliqué, depicting aspects of Kuna life. They are mostly geometrical designs in the molas, but the design often includes animals, flowers, plants, sea, sky, mythological scenes and even modern-day objects like aeroplanes.

Nearby Isla Achutupu is where all the action is. Palm-thatched huts sit cheek to cheek taking up every bit of available land right down to the water’s edge. A maze of laneways wind between homes. In one family hut, a Kuna man enjoys an afternoon siesta in his hammock. It’s thanks to the indigenous people of this part of the world that we have the hammock. The Kuna will not sleep in anything else, and from beams in every hut swing numerous sleeping hammocks of all sizes. Women appear from every nook and cranny bearing molas which are spread out on the ground, like stepping stones of psychedelic colour.
Many of the Kuna are no taller than 5ft (1.5m), and it is believed that they are the smallest humans after the Pygmies. With their nose rings of gold, legs and arms covered in beads and wearing traditional clothing of a zillion different colours, they are outrageously photogenic. But there’s a strict payment policy in force; if you want to take photos, be sure to ask permission first, and negotiate a price in dollars per subject up front. Those business minds won’t miss a trick.

There are 365 islands in the San Blas Archipelago in the Caribbean Sea, off the coast of Panama. Only 45 of the islands are inhabited. Aeroperlas and Turismo Aereo have several daily flights from Panama City’s Albrook Airport to the different islands. Round trip tickets from Panama City are around US$60.