Travel is Our Drug

Panama: Private Island in San Blas

This morning we woke at 4:30.  Before the sun even climbed out of bed.  We dressed, brushed our teeth and stumbled to the lobby in a sleepy daze.

We were too early for the breakfast included in our room rate, but the hotel had a nice display set out in the lobby with pastries and coffee.  I didn’t try any because I’m allergic to nuts and most had nuts, but they looked yummy.  It was definitely a nice touch to provide something for guests who can’t take advantage of the included breakfast.

We climbed into the cab and sped away to the airport, although we probably could have walked.  The airport is literally right on the other side of the mall.  It was a 5 minute, $5 cab ride.

There were very few people in the airport when we arrived, and we realized it was definitely overkill to be there an hour early – especially this early in the morning.  We checked in and dropped our bags within 5 minutes.  The security check and boarding area weren’t even open yet, so we loitered around in the lobby area.  There were two coffee shops open, very few chairs, and that was it.

About 30 minutes before our flight time, they opened sliding doors at one end of the lobby and we filed through security.  They have rules posted similar to the TSA rules, but they seemed to be pretty lax.  I made it through with a water bottle in my bag (unintentionally) with no issues.  And we didn’t have to take off shoes (yay!).

As we sat in the glass-front waiting area, overlooking the tarmac and the city, the sun slowly started making its way up to the horizon.  We couldn’t yet see the sun, but we could see the pink-and-orange glow radiating from behind the cityscape.

As we took off, the sun was sitting just above the skyline, blazing a hole through the blanket of fog over the city.

PCAirplaneSunrise

Once we passed above the layer of fog, the whole city was spread out below us with the skyline blurred in the background by the lingering fog on the ground.  It was really gorgeous.

PCAirplane

We were on a small 12-seat plane with about 8 other people.  The flight from Panama City to Playón Chico was about 45 minutes, and we left pretty close to on time – despite having read online that this flight never leaves on time.

As we started our descent, we flew over the ocean along the coast, then banked and made a huge turn toward the runway.  We zoomed over the Kuna island, covered in thatched huts, feeling as though we were grazing the rooftops, then hitting the runway on the mainland.

KunaVillageAir

When we landed, there were dozens of men out in the mangroves along the runway with machetes, chopping away at the overgrowth.  As we landed they all stopped and turned to the runway, waving and yelling.  It was a pretty awesome welcome!

KunaMenRunway

We climbed off the plane and immediately met Domi – our guide from Yandup Island Lodge – who had come to pick us up and take us by boat to the resort.  There was one other couple on the plane heading to our resort and that was it.  It was nice to be in such a small group with personalized attention from Domi.

We waited for a bit as our luggage was unloaded from the plane, along with boxes and bags full of food and other supplies for the locals.  There was little more than the airport – a concrete building with a thatched roof – and a few lawn chairs set alongside the runway.  So we had a seat and waited.

PlayonChicoAirport

As we sat and waited, Kuna locals – mostly children – ran across the bridge connecting their island to the mainland and climbed up on the concrete wall to watch the plane be unloaded and then takeoff again.

PlayonChicoAirport2

Once the plane had taken off, we crossed the runway and headed to the water.  Our transportation was a flat-bottom, canopy-covered, motor-powered boat, which looked older than it ran.

YandupBoat

We squatted down, ducked under the canopy into the boat and off we went.

PCAirportFromWater

The ride was a nice, slow pace and we stayed fairly close to the shore, so the waves weren’t bad at all.  It took maybe 10 minutes tops to motor past the Kuna island and out to the Yandup Resort private island.

YandupResortFromWater

The island is pretty small.  The resort has a dock area, a beach area with a few sun beds under thatched huts, ten thatched guest cabañas – six of which are over the water – and a central area with a tiny dive shop where you can rent snorkel gear for $2/day, a kitchen, an open-air dining area and an open-air hut over the water.

YandupIsland

YandupRestaurantOutside

We were given Cabaña 10, which was enormous, and much more secluded than the others.  The remaining nine cabañas were on the opposite side of the (small) island.  Ours stood alone between the central dining area and the boat dock.

YandupCabanaOutside

We had a Queen-size bed and three single beds, all with mosquito nets, a rustic bathroom with running water, a small table and a hanging hammock chair.

YandupRoom2

YandupRoom1

YandupBathroom

The best part, by far, was the porch that ran the entire length of the back of our cabaña with two hammocks and a rocking chair facing out into the sea.

YandupPorch

The place is definitely rustic.  There is 24/7 solar electricity, but no TV or WiFi.  There are gaps in between the floor boards so that we can see down into the water.  There are gaps in the walls.  There are large gaps between the doors and the floor.  The windows have no glass – they are just wide open to the elements.  And there are dozens of small lizards running up and down the walls.  But we love it.  It’s natural, the sea breeze feels wonderful, the view is worth not having other electronic distractions.  And I don’t mind sharing my space with the lizards as long as they don’t pull some ninja shit and jump on me from the ceiling or anything.

Anyway – We dropped our bags in the room and headed over to the dining area for breakfast.  We weren’t sure what to expect because there is no menu here; they serve you what they have and if you don’t like it, I guess you don’t eat.  They served us each two eggs, sunny side up and five pieces of baguette-like bread.  The only drinks they served were coffee and water.  I don’t drink caffeine, so I didn’t have coffee, but the look on K’s face said it was pretty awful.  The food was pretty good, and just enough to fill me up but not overdo it.

The activities here are included in the nightly rate of the resort, they’re scheduled ahead of time by the staff each day, and they’re done as an entire group.  They post them each morning on a chalkboard in the dining area.  Today’s scheduled activities were a snorkeling trip to a private, uninhabited island at 9:30 and a trip to the Kuna village at 4:00.

With over an hour to spare before the beach trip, we went back to the room, changed into our suits, packed our beach stuff and crashed.  Hard.  I woke up with a start at 9:15 when they started blowing a conch shell to call us all down to the boat.

There were eight other people and us who ended up going, plus two guides.  The boat seemed full, but not crowded.  I’m not sure how it is when the island has more guests and they all want to go.  It took us about 10 minutes to get to the island.  We stayed pretty close to the mainland, so the water was pretty calm, and very blue.  As we approached the beach of the island, it was like something straight out of a movie – beautiful blue water, white sand, palm trees and nothing else.

PrivateIsland3

They pulled the boat up close to shore and we all hopped out into the water.  We dropped our packs on the island – which wasn’t such an easy task.  There were so many palm trees with coconuts, it was hard to find a spot where our stuff wasn’t in jeopardy of being crushed by one falling.  (Side note:  The resort doesn’t provide beach towels for guests’ use.  We never pack towels because they take up valuable pack space and weight, so we didn’t have towels.)  We quickly realized that it was going to suck with no towels – the grass on the island was pretty rough, and there was nowhere to sit but in the sand or on the stabby grass.

PrivateIsland4

Just off the shore was another small island with some thatched huts.  They must belong to Kuna but we didn’t see anyone there.  What a life, though.  With this view in your front yard.

PrivateIsland2

After dropping bags, we all headed out as a group to snorkel around the island.  We started out on the sheltered side of the side of the island.  The water was warm, fairly clear and pretty calm.  It’s a small enough island that it was possible to snorkel the perimeter in about an hour, so we started off around the island.  We didn’t see a whole lot, though – just some wavy sea grass and some bland-colored fish.  I wasn’t too impressed, and I don’t really like being in open water – especially with my face under, so once we made it to the unsheltered side of the island, I swam back in.  I dried out a bit and took some photos of the island and the group snorkeling.  K stayed out with the group and ended up seeing a reef shark and a ray.

PrivateIslandSnorkel

After the snorkeling, we had about an hour of free time on the island.  It was small enough that we couldn’t really get away from the other people, but it was still nice only having eight other people there with us.

RKPrivateIsland

Domi had brought a cooler with drinks in it for everyone, so we had a couple of Balboas on the beach and enjoyed the sun, sand and surf for a bit.  It was such a serene, beautiful view – the water breaking onto the soft sand and the rolling green mountains in the background.  And no noise pollution at all.  No other boats.  No other people.  No cars, no phones, no distractions.  Just us, a couple of cold beers and raw nature.  Some of my very favorite things in life.

PrivateIslandBalboa

PrivateIsland5

With the beers gone and our bums sandy, we had to do a little swimming to clean off.  It’s a brutal cycle – wash the sand off, walk across the beach and get covered in sand, wash off, get sandy, etc.  The water wasn’t very deep off the shore – shallow enough I could sit on the bottom, so there wasn’t much swimming to be done, but it was good for floating and relaxing.

RWaterPrivateIsland

About noon, we packed up in the boat and headed back to Yandup for lunch.  We hopped off the boat, dropped our things in the room, put on dry clothes and headed over to the dining area.  Lunch for today was fried fish.  A whole fish.  With its head still on and eyes looking at me as I ate.  I feel like I normally would have been really turned off by this, but after snorkeling and swimming, I was too tired to care.  I all but picked the bones bare.  Too bad I missed a picture of that one.

After lunch, there’s nothing to do until the evening tour.  So we headed back to the room and took up our places in the hammocks with books.  There was an awesome, warm breeze across the water, strong enough to gently rock me in my hammock.  I tore through a couple of chapters in my book, and before I knew it, I was waking up at 3:30.

At 4:30 we headed down to the dock for the Kuna village tour.  There were only six others with us on this tour.  It was really nice, again, to not feel like a part of a herd.  We headed back over toward the airport and docked our boat on the opposite side of the bridge from what we’d been on this morning at the airport.

From the water, all you can see of the island is thatched huts, a few docks and several cayukas – wooden, dug-out canoes.  The island is just stuffed with huts.  I’m really not sure where they might possibly put another one.

KunaVillageFromWater

The Kuna ask that you don’t take photos that include people while on the island to help preserve their privacy.  Of course, there is an exception to that rule, and that’s if you offer $1 to the person whose photo you are taking.  That means aaaallllll of the adorable little kids in the village run up yelling, “¡Hola! ¡Hola!” and giving you their biggest, cheesiest smiles and best poses.  It really was cute, but overwhelming!

When we first stepped off the boat, we were in front of the police station.  There were several officers outside on the dock, dressed in camouflage and strapped with automatic weapons.  I’m not really sure what kind of dangers exist out here that require guns, and I didn’t ask.  I assume drug trafficking because of the proximity to Colombia, but who knows.

Just behind the police station was a basketball court and a playground, both overflowing with people.  Basketball is a huge sport for the Kuna, so the court was very busy.  The playground was crawling with small kids, screaming and laughing, and not a single adult in sight.  Such a different mentality and culture from what we’re used to.  It’s nice to see another place where kids can play so carefree from the stress and fears we face in the US.

From here, we split down a side road – really just a dirt path – back into the residential part of the island.  Domi told us there are 3,000 Kuna on the island, and I can believe it.  This place was literally bursting at its seams.  What I couldn’t believe is that only 60 of those 3,000 – according to Domi – are adults.  Each family has 6-8 kids, on average.  That’s crazy to me!  But explains all the little ones.

KunaVillage1

We did come upon one hut that was being built.  Maybe on the last bit of real estate left.  There was a frame up and a hammock out front.  Domi explained to us that the hammock is a huge part of the Kuna culture.  The hammock is where the adults sleep, where babies are conceived, a part of the marriage ceremony, and the last thing the Kunas are wrapped in when they die.

KunaVillage2

Every so often, in between the pods of huts, there was a dirt path down to the water with a couple of cayukas.  No need to lock them up.  Apparently no one steals here either.

KunaVillage3

As we neared the end of the island and rounded a corner, we came upon a tiny little girl – maybe 3 years old – and her dad, obviously just coming back from fishing.  She was carrying a squid on a hook nearly as big as she was, and dragging a crab behind her on a string.  It was so funny to see.  I happily paid her $1 for her photo.  And then had a dozen kids follow me up the main road cheesing and posing trying to get their dollar.

KunaVillageLittleGirl

We turned up the main road and entered a sea of people.  There were several little “shops” along the road where women were selling beautiful, pieced-together molas, gorgeous jewelry made with beads and coconuts, bags, earrings, and lots of other things.  We bought a beautiful butterfly mola from Domi’s wife, as well as a couple of beaded bracelets and a coconut shell decoration to use as our Christmas ornament souvenir.  All for $30.  Not too bad!

KunaMola

We stopped at a convenience store for a couple of bottles of water, and one of the guys in our group bought some candy to hand out to the kids.  Holy crap, what a scene!  He had kids running up smiling, posing, walking on their hands, showing off their soccer skills, etc., etc.  It was hilarious.  And awesome.  They were SO happy.

Our last stop was the church.  This part Domi explained in Spanish and I didn’t catch all of it.  I think he told us that it is used for multiple religions now.  The main religion is Catholicism, but Baptist and others are starting to come in as well.  The church was a large, concrete building with a cross towering over the island.  There was a woman outside collecting donations to help restore the church, as it’s not in the greatest shape.

KunaChurch

Overall, the tour was fun.  It was really interesting to see how the Kuna live their day-to-day life, but I felt as if we didn’t really get much of an explanation of the culture.  For a free tour, I suppose I shouldn’t complain.  I would have liked to hear more about the rituals and customs of the people, though.

We headed back to Yandup just as the sun started going down.  We got a really nice view of the sun sinking into the ocean behind a giant wall of clouds and the fluffy clouds reflected in the water as we pulled up to the dock.

YandupSunset

We had an hour before dinner time, so I beelined it back to my hammock and read a bit before dinner.  I could really get used to this lifestyle!

YandupHammock

For dinner tonight, we had something that resembled cat food with fried plantains.  The cat food was a hodgepodge of fish and seafood diced up in a sauce.

YandupCatFoodDinner

I’m not crazy about seafood in the first place, and not having any say in what kind of food I eat isn’t my ideal situation.  But I really like to try my best to do as the locals do when we travel, so I ate it.  Also because I didn’t really have any other option than to be hungry.  On the other hand, the banana cake they served for dessert was heavenly.  I could have eaten about six pieces of it!

After dinner, we came back to the room.  We had a few lizards on the bed, so we chased them all off, climbed into bed – well, more like onto bed.  It’s way too hot a humid here to sleep under blankets.  We’ve read for a bit, and now it’s time for bed.  At 8:30.  Partly because we’re horribly exhausted from waking up so early this morning, and partly because there’s nothing else to stimulate us and keep us awake here.  It’s nice.  And so relaxing.

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