Panama’s Archipelago San Blas is life in a Far Side cartoon
By John Henderson
Special to The Philadelphia Inquirer
ARCHIPELAGO SAN BLAS, Panama – The canoe with my two backpacks sitting precariously at the bow motors through the royal blue Caribbean Sea. I’m cruising past miniscule, uninhabited islands not even charted on maps, and I’m heading to one of them. I’m spending two days on the smallest island I’ve ever visited and wondering if two days are too much.
Then the boat docks at Isla Yandup, and I’m wondering if two days are too few.
Next to the tiny dock is an impossibly perfect beach 150 feet long with powdery white sand that looks cleaned by groundskeepers at Augusta National. The island is the size of a 400-meter track and covered with wispy palm trees swaying in the wind.
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. 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 belong to 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 sunscreen or 35. I eat crab legs and lobster tail and at one point am one of four people on an 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 – 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 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 only 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 slow 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 45 miles up the chain and 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 a backpack and camera.
Yet what Kuanidup loses in comfort, for $95 a night it makes up for in sheer beauty. The sandy beach, raked every morning, stretches around the island. Hammocks are pulled between palm trees.
As I read in a hammock, the only sound I hear is the gentle roll of the Caribbean over sand. There aren’t enough guests to disturb the mood. Two Spaniards 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 is shockingly good considering the only food seemingly available is fish and coconuts.
With trained Kuna chefs, San Blas feeds us like island royalty. On a visit to a Kuna village, I see Luis, my cherubic guide, standing on the dock holding 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 go one better: 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 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 fish, coconuts and, now, tourism.
In the late 1980s, seeking income 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 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?” 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, 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 made 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 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 tight, 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. 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.
(Here is the link to my story that appeared in The Miami Herald with apologies for the chopped first paragraph.)