When my brother Lester was the Major in charge of the Salvation Army in Panama, I spent a month bouncing around this smallest country in Central America. Its neighbor, Costa Rica, is a great tourist attraction with its rainforests, volcanoes, Indians, tropical forests and beaches, but Panama has the same kind of attractions with better roads, plus the canal and a more colorful history.
A cruise ship through the Panama Canal is one way to see the country, but in doing so you miss the variety of landscapes, the hundreds of species of birds and the multitude of ethic groups. Panama has some of the world’s most beautiful and biodiverse rainforests. The meeting place of birds from North and South America, it has more bird species than the United States and Canada combined: 934. While I was there, I kept running into groups of bird watchers who had come just to add to the collection of birds they had already studied.
If you rent a car, getting around is easy, but use care around local drivers, who can be unpredictable. You’ll find the Panamanians friendly, and because the United States controlled the canal zone for so long, many speak some English. One caution: Sections of Panama City and all of Colon are considered dangerous if you’re not with a group.
Three native tribes in the country, the Kuna, Choco and Guaymi, have maintained their distance from the general culture and kept as close as possible to the lifestyle they led before the Spanish came. Originally 40 tribes — or maybe 60, sources are vague on this point — lived within the area. Most of them fell under the influence of the Spanish and became extinct or absorbed into the overall culture.
These three tribes have developed art forms that exist nowhere else, and the results of their skills are in great demand from tourists.
The Choco, who live in an area just north of Colombia, had a secret weapon, a small brightly colored frog that secretes a quick-acting poison for their arrows. Because of the thick rainforest, tribesmen were hard to track, and they acted with deadly force when found. They had a tendency to kill missionaries, and one group of 500 soldiers sent against them was defeated. Panama still doesn’t interfere with their independence, but some time after my visit, they were renamed and became the Wounaan group of Darien.
Growing in the Darien area is a palm called tagua that produces a nut that, when carved, has the consistency of ivory. The men carve these small nuts into animal forms that are brightly painted in realistic tones. In recent years, tours have been arranged to the Wounaan villages; as long as you are bargaining for their art, you no longer need to fear their poison arrows.
Farther north toward David and the Costa Rica border are the Guaymi Indians, who live on the central mountain range of Chiriqui, and mainly they work on the coffee plantations that dot the area. They have developed several art forms. One of them is "chaquiras," wide multicolored collars or beautiful beaded necklaces that are made by the men for their own adornment.
Driving toward Costa Rica, I found one of the men along the road dressed only in a loincloth and beads selling these necklaces. I bargained, and being in a contrary frame of mind, bought only one, which my wife frequently wears. I later regretted not buying more because they are so charming, and my daughters would have appreciated them.
The group most tourists meet is the Kuna tribe, which controls the San Blas Islands on the Atlantic side of the country. A number of attempts were made by the Spanish and later the Panamanians to subdue them, but because of the natives’ knowledge of the waterways and accurate use of arrows, all attempts have failed.
Locals say missionaries were embarrassed by the women going around topless and insisted they wear blouses. They provided the Kuna women with needles, thread and colored cloth and gave them sewing lessons. The women promptly turned the materials into an art form called the mola. This is "cut work stitchery," in which they begin by cutting slots and outlines of figures in the top layer of cloth, turning under the edges and allowing the color of the cloth underneath to show through. The finest of these are made of many colored layers.
Visitors to Panama found these blouses attractive and began to buy them off the Kuna women’s bodies, defeating the missionaries’ purpose. Seeing a good way to make money, the women started creating designs for sale. Selling to tourists and collectors did not change their lifestyle or morals, and they continue to be distinct from the rest of Panamanian culture.
You will find Kuna women in their gaily colored costumes, nose rings and beaded leg and armbands at markets not only in Panama City but in the smaller communities as well. The men have adopted Western-style clothing and look dull by comparison. Nowadays you can even arrange to tour the San Blas Islands without fear of being treated as an invader.