(eyeonpanama) Last year when provided the opportunity to travel to San Blas, I choose Bocas el Toro. Both were on Panama’s Caribbean shore and it seemed evident that Bocas would be more to my liking. We would be able to stay the Garden of Eden on a private island owned by an American couple with lovely rooms, modern conveniences, and a pool. In San Blas we would stay on private island, in a hut, and sans conveniences operated by Kunas. It was an easily made decision for one with my preference for comfort. I would not make the same choice today.
. It is has been a profound experience for me. An experience that I would urge any traveler to Panama to include with the belief that it will both bring you to one of the world’s most beautiful areas and introduce you to an native tribe of Panama. The Kunas are meeting the challenges of the modern world while holding on to their land and customs in spite of many unmet needs of their population. The experience of staying at one of their lodges is very accurately described as a combination of Swiss Family Robinson, National Geographic, and Robinson’s discovery of Crusoe.
The Yandup Lodge is located on one of small islands of the San Blas. The lodge is made up of 8 guests grass huts that are built out over water and connected to the shore by a bridge. Each hut has a thatched roof and with walls that are lattice work of canes. The concession to modern convenience includes a queen size bed and bathroom with sink basin, shower, and toilet (so glad). A mosquito net canopy surrounded the bed, a ceiling fan was provided, and their was a second twin bed with a floor fan near. The door opposite of the entrance led to a narrow deck with hammocks under the shade of the roof’s overhang and above the water. I was almost dizzy with glee and relief since the prospect of sleeping on the either the floor or a cot had been worrying me. This was space with its view of Caribbean and lush islands was breath-taking.
There is large hut designated for dining. The meals are prepared by the staff and are simple and healthy. We dined on fresh seafood, fruits, vegetables, and coconut rice. Our hosts were careful to ask every guest if they had any diet restrictions or food allergies and I assume would have made substitutes to accommodate. Since the meals were served at specified times, tables were arranged with place settings for the number of guests in the lodge. The meals were served by 3 wonderful ladies each wearing their native dress. We became friends with each of them, so much so that when we left we hugged and I choked back tears.
Each day the lodge provided its guests with activities that would take them to their village or to uninhabited islands. Our island guides loaded us into long narrow boats and we skimmed the water to beaches where the swimming and snorkeling were great and we were on the only humans enjoying the beach. The water was amazingly warm and clear. So clear that you can see to the bottom even in deep water. Palm trees provided us shade for those knowing their fair skin would burn with too much exposure. In a few hours, our guides brought us back to the lodge for lunch and relaxation. Later in the afternoon, we were provided the opportunity to see their village.
Our trip to the village was eye opener. This Kuna tribe lives on an island that although larger than that of the lodge, is small. Approximately 3000 men, women, and children live on the island in very crowded conditions. There is a school, a town hall, and a church. The only electricity is provided by solar panels and perhaps a private generator or two. Generally, however, the island is completely dark before ten. There are no paved streets. The houses are mainly thatched although there are a few of made of more modern materials. Children fill the streets. Playing simple games whether raining or not.
When the boats from the lodge visit, the woman hang their art work and crafts outside their doors, hoping to sell a few pieces. Children wave to greet you. Indeed one 8 year old boy came each day to meet the boat to make friends hoping we would take his picture so he would earn a $1. Young girls often carried babies, I always hoped they were siblings rather than mother and child. Large families lived in small houses. I became certain that our meals at the lodge were the best the Kuna could provide and appreciated this sharing even more and the willingness of our guides to answer our many questions.
On our second trip to the community, we were once again greeted by the same 8 year old who did not leave our group during our visit. This visit we attended a council meeting in the town hall. The Kuna are a democratic society with elected leadership. The council was considering a waste management proposal brought to them by a Spanish firm. There is grave concern about the effects of non -biodegradable materials on their lands. The elders want to do something to control this waste and are considering methods to bring it under control. Others explained to us they were concerned about the over crowding of the village, educational opportunities of their children, and preservation measures. Tourism is offering the Kuna’s opportunities that several want to be certain help not destroy this proud population or their islands.
The reverse embroidery work done by Kuna woman is unique to Panama. It is creative, detailed, and beautiful. Many of us can’t resist purchasing a few pieces during our visits. For my part I would have purchased more than dozen, but Evan is always certain to reign in his mother’s impulses. What I did buy, I could tell took hours to complete which would mean under a dollar an hour wage is earned for the modest price paid. If I were more clever I would figure out how to mount this artwork on a Miche bag form and make a mint on providing them to those who want a unique piece of art for a purse and open a new market for the Kuna.
I wish we had clear skies for our entire visit to the Yandup Lodge. We did not. It is, after-all, not the yet the end of rainy season. We instead had the thrill of tropical storms with booming thunder and crackling lighting each night. Nervously I waited for our thatched roof to either blow off or leak buckets when the pounding relentless rain hit the first night. My appreciation for native craftsmanship grew when not a single drop penetrated our roof nor any of the other guest huts. Indeed the experience became thrilling instead with sounds of thunder, hard rain, and crashing waves once the worry of being swept into the sea was calmed.
This was a vacation of a life-time. I did not need to close my eyes to imagine Balboa, pirates, or canal builders traveling to these shores. The scenery is the same. The islands dotting the sea popping up all over, the warm water of aqua blue, and dense jungle mountains almost jutting out of the sea, are all still there. I am so very glad that I did not let this second opportunity go by and urge others to visit the Yandup Lodge of the San Blas Islands in Panama. For those with more adventurous spirit than mine, there are other island lodges allowing a truer native living experience which is of great appeal to my son’s generation who can still manage to move after sleeping on the ground or a cot. Whatever your choice, you are certain to love the San Blas Islands and it natives.