Guna Tribe, Gateway Colombia’s Indigenous Mystique

Guna Tribe, Gateway Colombia’s Indigenous Mystique

The Guna are an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. They live in three politically autonomous regions of Panama and several small pueblos (villages) in Colombia. Most Guna live on small islands off the coast of Panama in the Guna Yala, better known known as the San Blas Islands.

They were one of the first indigenous ethnic groups the Spanish Conquistadors encountered in South America when they arrived on the coast of the Gulf of Uraba. Alonso de Ojeda and Vasco Nunez de Balboa explored the Colombian coast in 1500 and 1501, spending much of their time in Urava Bay, where they made contact with the Gunas.

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Today there are some 49 communities of Guna people. Each community has its own political organization, led by a saila, who is customarily both the political and religious leader. Guna families are matrilinear and matrilocal, with the groom moving to the bride’s family upon marriage. The groom then takes the last name of the bride.

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Guna people have a high incidence rate of albinism, which in turn led to the name White Indians, in the early twentieth century. In Guna philosophy, albinos were given a special place and are considered a separate race. They have the specific duty of defending the moon against a dragon that tries to eat it on occasion during a lunar eclipse. They are the only ones permitted to go out on the night of a lunar eclipse and to use specially made bows and arrows to shoot the dragon.

In Colombia, the Guna are called Tule and live in the Chocó-Darién moist forest which is one of the most humid places on earth. Malaria and parasitic diseases are as big a threat to the people living there as are the paramilitary groups who try to control the area as it is an important drug and arms route north to the United States. There are now roughly only 1,200 Guna/Tule remaining in three locations in Chocó and Antioquia.

The tranquil life of the Guna/Tule was first disrupted in 2000 – 2001 when armed groups penetrated their isolated jungle territory and went on a rampage of murder, abuse, intimidation and harassment. Many sought shelters in Panama, while others retreated further into Chocó. However, a determined core decided to stay, fearing that the tribe would never survive if they left their ancestral lands.

The Guna people are famous for their bright molas, a colorful textile art form made with the technique of appliqué and reverse appliqué. Mola panels are used to make the blouses of the Guna women’s national costume, worn daily by many Guna women.


Guna/Tule indigenous women believe that there is a strong cultural interconnection between clothing and their cultural identity. They traditionally wear gold rings on their noses or gold necklaces and decorate their arms and legs with beaded bracelets. They cover their heads and sometimes faces too, with red scarves with a yellow print. Wrap-around skirts made of a navy fabric decorated with various symbolic patterns, with blouses adorned with flowery patterns front and back called molas are standard attire.

The themes and colors used in the mola panels reflect the many interests of the Guna/Tule women and emphasize the inclusion of everyday elements in their garments. The depiction of Guna/Tule cosmology and representations of Guna/Tule life cycle events on molas also sustains community identity, even for those women who do not wear molas every day, but produce them as commercial products. In addition to the important cultural aspects of the molas, the panels also have a symbolic meaning – they are an expression of identity and resistance to colonialism.

The Guna economy is based on agriculture, fishing and garment manufacturing with a long tradition of international trade. Plantains, coconuts and fish form the core of the Guna diet, complemented by imported foods, several types of livestock and wild animal life.

Coconut and lobster are the most important exports. Migrant labor and the sale of molas are other sources of income. The Guna have a long-rooted history of mercantilism and a long-standing tradition of selling their goods through family-run venues. Most of the imports come from Colombia and are sold in small retail outlets run by the Gunas. The Guna do not levy taxes on the trading of goods and focus on economic success. This tradition of trade and self-determination is believed by many to be the main reason the Guna have been able to function so well independently compared to other indigenous peoples.

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