Panama east of the Panama Canal and its immediate surroundings, is natural and wild.
The Kuna Yala
The Kuna Yala ('land of the Kuna') extends from the mountains to the Caribbean along most of eastern Panama, and includes the beautiful coral islands of the San Blas (or Kuna Yala) archipelago.
The Kuna are the largest of Panama's indigenous groups, numbering about 50,000. Their oral history traces their origins to mainland Colombia, though some ethnographers link them to Costa Rica, and some Kunas claim they came to earth by UFO. Apparently from the forest, they may have been forced by war and disease to migrate, finding haven in the early 19th century along the Caribbean coast and islands of Panama.
They established densely-housed defensive villages on some islands, from which they fish or commute to the mainland to hunt and farm the jungle. Their loyalties to Colombia after Panama's independence led to an uprising in the 1920s; protracted negotiations brought limited autonomy in 1952.
Faced with the modernities of today's Panama, the Kuna's sense of identity and culture remain very strong. With effective leadership based on frequent community meetings, they strive to safeguard their society while developing on their own path.
Men dress in western style, but most Kuna women follow the lively fashions of their communities, with strings of colourful beads wound around forearm and calf, and beaded necklaces over printed cotton tops bearing mola designs, and cotton skirts.
A good number of young Kuna attend university and pursue careers in Panama City, while supporting their home communities.
Most communities are keen to benefit from visitors to their islands, which though small are among the most beautiful in the Caribbean.
Fully half of Panama lies east of the Canal, but beyond the Canal, Panama City, and the San Blas islands, the isthmus is almost entirely wild.
The forests of Darién and its proximity to Colombia have ensured it remains one of the few true wildernesses in Central America. Low mountain ranges run behind the Caribbean coast, while ranges on the Pacific side are broken only by the Golfo de San Miguel which leads into Darién's densely forested lowlands.
Darién is brimming with wildlife and has some of the world's best birding, but its inhospitable terrain, poor communications, and proximity to Colombia mean opportunities to experience it safely are limited.
At the time of writing, we only advocate flying into the region to well-established locations, and remaining with reputable local guides throughout.
With such safeguards, Darién is a very remarkable destination for the adventurous traveller and wildlife enthusiast.