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Princess Cruises Discovery....


Although Panama is best known for its famous canal, the engineering marvel is not exactly something that cruisers can bring home with them to remember their crossing.  The next best souvenir? A colorful mola made by Panama's colorful Kuna Indians.

A mola (which means "blouse" in the Kuna language) is fashioned of brightly colored pieces of cotton fabric layered on top of on another. Artisans make cuts through the layers to form various designs and then sew the pieces together with tiny stitches.

But this simple explanation is just the beginning of a story about a unique culture and the people who keep it alive with their artistry.

The southernmost country in Central American, Panama emerged from the sea some four million years ago, forming a land bridge between North and South America as well as the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The bridge is a narrow one, less than 30 miles wide at one point. It's not surprising then that shippers long have wanted a canal here.

Engineers had proposed a canal as early as the 1500s and many nations attempted without success to construct one. After the United States completed the project, the first ship sailed through the manmade wonder on August 15, 1914.

The canal's opening changed the face of shipping - and Panama. The United States controlled the canal for most of the century. Then on December 31, 1999, Panama assumed ownership. Today, you'll still find U.S. influences throughout the country, but Panama won't fail to impress you with its own culture, and nowhere is it more colorful than in the San Blas Islands.

The Comarca de San Blas is an autonomous part of Panama that runs about 140 miles along the Caribbean coastline, east from Colon Province to Columbia. There are close to 400 islands in the chain, but only about 40 are inhabited by Kunas.

Many of the islands are idyllic oases of sand and palm trees, surrounded by crystal-clear water that’s ideal for snorkeling. Reefs to the north and east protect the islands from crashing waves, which adds to their serene ambiance.

No one knows for sure when the Kunas arrived in the San Blas Islands, which they call Kuna Yala. Some scholars think that Kunas greeted Spanish Explorers in the early 1500s: the words for "canoe" and "corn" used by natives are the same that Kunas use today. Kuna oral tradition has it that the Indians came from Columbia after the 16th century to escape the poison darts of warring tribes.

However they got to the San Blas Islands, the Kunas have thrived ever since. Approximately 32,000 Kunas live in the islands, 8,000 live on the coastal mainland and 30,000 live in other parts of the country.

Kunas are communal and prefer to live in bamboo huts on just a cluster of islands, instead of spreading out among the many more that are available. The Indians, who have governed themselves since the 1920s, have the right to vote and send two representatives to Panama’s legislature.

Even so, some aspects of the culture still seem relatively primitive. Until the late 1990s, for example, the main form of currency was the coconut. No Kunas are happy to accept dollars from mola-buying tourists, but they still use coconuts to barter with Colombian traders for clothing, coffee, milk, and other staples.

Most Kuna men wear Western-style clothes, but women adorn themselves much as their ancestors did, favoring a long blouse that features one or more molas, and a colorful cloth wrapped around their waists to fashion a sort of skirt. Completing the ensemble is a colorful head scarf, multiple necklaces, bracelets, and rings, and a gold ring through the nose. Women also often wrap their legs from knee to ankle with beautiful strands of beads called wini (also available for sale).

Cruise ship passengers should respect the conservative culture of the Kunas. Short shorts and bikini tops are viewed as inappropriate attire in Kuna villages. And don't snap photos without asking or, in many cases, paying (typically, $1 per shot).

Follow these simple guidelines and you'll be welcomed by the Kunas. In fact, you may end up getting a better deal on those molas that catch your eye!


Purchasing a mola (most visitors purchase several) is one of the highlights of any visit to Panama. From small, simple prints you can frame to elaborate jackets, pot holders, and other items, you're sure to find several molas that interest you.

There are hundreds of styles from which to choose. Quality counts, but motif is highest on most buyers' lists. Subjects range widely, but fish, turtles, dolphins, and other marine motifs are popular with Kuna women, who begin learning to make molas around the age of five. Other popular motifs include Kuna deities, legends, ceremonies, and simple geometric patterns, as well as animals, canoes, and even modern icons - including cartoon characters like Batman!

“Visitors shouldn’t see their use of modern images as some sort of sell-out," says Mari Lyn Salvador, editor of The Art of Being Kuna. "Instead, it’s their way of observing and using current patterns and details in their art”.

Prices of molas may range from as little as $1 to $20 or more, depending on size and quality. And, as Salvador notes, mola sales help to provide economic independence for Kuna women and their families.

Molas also will help you to bring some color into your life and the lives of loved ones back home.  Whether you're looking for a colorful piece of art to mount on your office wall or a holiday gift for that hard-to-please mother-in-law, you're sure to find just the right mola when you visit Panama’s Kuna Indians.


Shopping for molas is a great way to spend an hour or two in Panama.  It's also an opportunity to explore a culture unlike your own. Most molas are displayed on a clothesline strung between two bamboo poles or simply tacked up on the wall of a hut. How do you find the mola that's right for you? Look for:

*Fine, neatly spaced stitches that closely match the color of the cloth so that they are barely visible.

*Cutouts that are smooth and sewing that follows the curves of the cut.

*Outline strips that are uniform in width, with no frayed edges.

*Bright colors and designs that are pleasing to your eye.  This is, after all, your souvenir. Pick a mola you really love!