Guna society is regulated by a system of highly participative democracy: every community has a casa de congreso where the onmakket, or congress, meets regularly. Each community also elects a sahila, usually a respected elder, who attends the Guna General Congress twice a year. The General Congress is the supreme political authority in Guna Yala, and in turn appoints three caciques to represent the Guna in the national government.

Colonial missionaries struggled in vain to Christianize the Guna, who cling to their own religious beliefs, based above all on the sanctity of Nan Dummad, the Great Mother, and on respect for the environment they inhabit. Though Guna men wear standard Western clothes, Guna women wear gold rings in their ears and noses and blue vertical lines painted on their foreheads; they don headscarves and bright bolts of trade cloth round their waists, their forearms and calves are bound in coloured beads and their blouses are sewn with beautiful reverse-appliqué designs known as molas.

Given that no non-Guna is permitted to own property on the islands and that tourism is a prickly issue, your status as an outsider is symbolic and your behaviour will probably be scrutinized. Cover up on the inhabited islands and cut out public displays of affection. You must ask permission from the saila (chief) to visit inhabited islands in the less touristy central and eastern islands of the comarca – ask the advice of people you meet to find a contact – and to take photographs, which are banned on some islands, as is alcohol.

In 2011 the general congress passed a law to standardize the Guna alphabet, removing the letters “p”, “t”and “k”. From that point on the area previously known as Kuna Yala was now called Guna Yala.

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