Ten round, bamboo-thatched cabanas are strategically placed for privacy. I walk over a wooden gangplank into mine and see a queen-size bed, a porcelain sink next to a modern shower and two hammocks on a veranda right over the sea underneath me. I survey the island again. No bar. No shops. No transportation.
I’m in Archipelago San Blas, a chain of 365 islands that stretch like grains of sugar along Panama’s Caribbean coast. They are the property of the Kuna, Panama’s indigenous tribe who have turned a string of miniscule, palm-tree covered isles into heavenly beachcomber nirvanas void of the commercialism of island resorts.
For six days over two islands in July, the biggest decision I make is what hammock to read in and whether it’s time for 15 SPF sunscreen or 35. I eat crab legs and lobster tail and at one point am one of four people on an entire island.
You’ve heard of getting away from it all? After 24 hours on San Blas, I forget what “all” means.
***These aren’t unique. I’ve sailed past the St. Regis Bora Bora, French Polynesia’s honeymoon huts that hang over the South Pacific. They’re similar to my cabana on Yandup – and cost $500 more a night.
The Kuna rent out the Yandup cabanas for $100 per person, all meals and two excursions a day included. Only drinks are extra.
It’s an easy journey. A 40-minute, $37 flight from the underrated capital of Panama City flies over jungle so thick I can’t see through the bright green canopy.
As we hover over the Caribbean, I see fishermen in tiny dugout canoes searching for red snapper, crab and lobster. I land on Playon Chico at an island airport so small the building looks like a one-car garage.
Most of the San Blas islands are uninhabited. Nearly all look right out of a Far Side cartoon with nothing but white sand and palm trees. No structures. Nothing.
I keep thinking I’ll see a scraggly man in cutoffs writing a note to put in a bottle and asking the island’s other inhabitant, stewing nearby, “Is there one or two L’s in cannibalism?”
What do you do on an island you can circumnavigate in five minutes? Nothing. That’s the point. Time in San Blas moves as slowly as the tides. I read five books. I snorkel over starfish and shipwrecks. I get real tan.
But if Yandup is right out of Robinson Crusoe, my second island, Isla Kuanidup, makes Yandup look like the Maui Marriott. Located about 45 miles up the chain but only reachable via Panama City, Kuanidup must be a Kuna word for “rustic.”
My cabana, like the 10 others, has a sand floor. One light bulb illuminates a four-inch foam rubber mattress, two bed sheets and a table barely big enough for one backpack and a camera.
The three communal bathrooms are in a blue-painted cement blockade with water dribbling out of a shower pipe like tea from a kettle.
Yet what Kuanidup loses in comfort, for $95 a night it makes up for in sheer beauty. The sandy beach, raked every morning for everything from driftwood to small rocks, stretches around the island. Hammocks are pulled between perfectly placed palm trees. Some provide maximum shade; others provide maximum sunlight.
As I read in a hammock, the only sound I hear is the gentle roll of the Caribbean over the sand. There aren’t enough guests to disturb the mood. Two Spanish men explore the 80-degree waters with snorkel and underwater camera. A French couple and their children look terribly French, sitting at the lone picnic table sharing a bottle of wine and fromage.
A bell rings and we head to the dining hall, a formal term for a thatched roof over wooden tables. The food in San Blas is shockingly good considering the only food seemingly available is fish and coconuts.
With specifically trained Kuna chefs, San Blas manages to feed us like island royalty. On a visit to a Kuna village, I see Luis, my cherubic guide, standing on the dock holding up dinner. It’s a 3-pound crab with legs nearly as long as Luis’.
That night, as a warm breeze whistles through the palm leaves, I attack a pile of crab legs. The cracked shell unveils a loaf of sweet crabmeat as long as a kielbasa sausage.
The next night, the Kuna do me one better, feeding me lobster with sides of rice, yucca, sweet plantains, potatoes and coconut rice. So I wonder: Who are these Kuna and how in the world did they develop this paradise?
***According to oral tradition, the Kuna have lived along Panama’s Caribbean shore since the 1600s, allegedly chased out of Colombia by blow-dart-wielding rival tribes. About 40,000 of the 70,000 live on San Blas. They have survived pirates, explorers and the occasional adventurous tourist to thrive on the strength of fish, coconuts and, now, tourism.
In the late 1980s, seeking an income stream from something besides fishing and molas, the intricately stitched artwork you find all over Panama, the Kuna built cabanas on the islands. Until then, the few tourists who visited them stayed in far-off El Porvenir where a tiny airport stood.
“They thought, why not build something on the islands instead of tourists going back and forth, back and forth?” said Miguel Perez, the manager of Kuanidup since it opened in 1988.
Perez is a Kuna who has the presence of an island chieftain. With strong shoulders under a round face and a full head of jet black hair, Perez is fiercely proud of his heritage and the Kuna’s business acumen.
Each island costs $10,000, Perez says, and a portion of the money the managers make goes back into the community. Only Kuna can own property in San Blas. About 15-20 islands offer rentals, ranging from the sleepy Kuanidup to Isla Senidup, the first rented island and lone party island. You can hear the rock music and see the tanned bikinied bodies from miles off shore.
The Kuna don’t live this leisurely. I visit two villages and on Ukup Seny about 3,000 Kuna are crammed into wood dwellings so close together, from sea the village looks like one giant tobacco leaf.
More than half the population is children. Respiratory disease is common, birth control non-existent. But there is a celebration of life I didn’t see in tired villages around Asia and Africa. I see children playing basketball on cement courts with no nets. It’s World Cup time and a child who boots a penalty kick past his friend into an alley runs down the dirt path with his forefinger aloft.
Later that night, I’m in my hammock, swinging peacefully on an 80-degree evening. Off in the distance, peeking over the jungle highlands, I see a soft glow of light. Panama City is only 93 miles away.
But in Archipelago San Blas, civilization never seems very close.