Kuna handwork makes a soft sell

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NEW YORK -- Beyond the canal, one of the most recognized images of Panama is the mola, the applique that adorns the everyday dress of the Kuna Indians who inhabit the San Blas Islands.

Clients shopping in Panama City will find this handwork everywhere, fashioned into items from pocketbooks to pillows.

Clients cruising through the Panama Canal will anchor off the islands where the Kuna paddle out in boats to sell their molas or greet shore excursionists with their crafts on landings.

Clients opting for overnight stays will have a bit of time to watch molas being made and select from among the finest.

They also will have time to swim, snorkel and dive or just swing in a hammock.

The San Blas form an archipelago of roughly 365 islands, ranging in size from desert islets with a few coconut palms to some 50 inhabited islands, as a chain stretching along the northeast Caribbean coast.

The Kuna are autonomous, self-governing people -- each community has its own chief -- who live independently within the Republic of Panama.

Although Spanish is widely spoken, the Kuna have their own language. The men fish and farm produce on their mainland plantations; the women not only wear gold nose rings and earrings but fashion their daily dress with handworked molas, whose designs are based on geometric patterns, stylized fauna and flora and often pictorial representations of current events or political propaganda.

Although staying in the San Blas Islands -- and it's a shame not to stay a night or two -- is no grand resort experience, it is the essential island experience.

Top of the line in lodgings in the islands are the Kwadule Eco-lodge, with several cabanas built over the sea, and the Iskardup Eco-resort, with 14 comfortable bamboo cabanas; both have private facilities and dining/bar areas.

No matter where clients overnight in the islands, they will be going from airport landing strips to their hotels by dugout canoe, which also is the transport method for interisland excursions and Kuna kids going to school.

Daily flights leave from Panama City's domestic airport for El Porvenir, the islands' biggest airport; however, charters are available to this and other San Blas Islands.

Scheduled flights operate early-morning only, making it difficult to make single-day excursions to San Blas, unless by charter.

Making advance arrangements in the islands through a U.S. tour company or Panama-based ground operator is close to essential; avoid booking into the islands in the rainy months of June, July and August.

For additional information, contact the Panama Tourism Institute (IPAT) at (800) 231-0568 or visit the IPAT Web site at www.ipat.gob.pa.

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