Far from city stresses and strains, the San Blas Islands of Panama have an interesting indigenous culture, white sandy beaches and an increasingly eco-friendly approach to tourism
The journey to the San Blas Islands starts by boarding an 18-passenger twin-propeller aeroplane that requires you to crouch low as you walk to your seat (unless you are a Kuna Indian, of course). I suggest grabbing a front seat right behind the pilots so you can enjoy the view from the flight deck - one of the few times you'll be able to see what transpires up there.
A quick one-hour Air Panama flight over the rainforest from Panama City brings you out over a coastline full of little island villages. Delays and extra stops at different islands are expected on Air Panama. No worries: grab the camera and snap away - the views are amazing. Each landing strip is an adventure. Some seem too short, others are surrounded by water and one even butts up to the mountain (don’t worry - the plane is suppose to veer that much).
On landing, the plane is welcomed by waving children and local villagers in brightly-colored dress. Air Panama acts as the San Blas Islands' Fed Ex service; at each stop you pick up packages (mail, food, kids) or drop off packages (mail, food, kids). This only takes 10 minutes and the pilots become mail-carriers, cashiers and guardians in that time.
Yandup Island Lodge
Arriving at the Playon Chico airstrip, you find the Yandup Island Lodge’s staff, typically in yellow shirts, waiting to carry your bags to a long-tail boat for the 10-minute ride across the sea. Hopping in the boat is the beginning of a few days of being out of touch. There are no phones, cable television or internet service on Yandup Island. But isn’t that what you want?
Yandup Island Lodge is the size of a football field, lush and green, with eight lodging huts (six of them over the sea) and one main eating-and-gathering hut. The island is practically self-sufficient and eco-friendly. The huts share a small water supply and electricity is turned off after sundown. The lodge grows vegetables on a neighbouring island to accompany the lunches and dinners of fish, caught daily by local fisherman. If you can’t live without the yummy foods of home, pack a small bag of chocolate, crisps and sweets to help break up the fish diet.
Many of the guidebooks say that you are unable to purchase wine and beer while staying in the San Blas Islands, but Yandup Island Lodge does sell wine and beer. However, pack your own stash if you wish to drink in your room.
Accommodation in the sea-view huts is basic and clean. Beds are draped in mosquito-netting and bedside tables are lit by lanterns provided when you check in - quite romantic. Sit in the wooden rocker or hammock and listen to the small waves lapping onto the shore or right below your hut. This makes for a soothing backdrop to taking a nap or reading a book.
There is a small white sand beach on the island; however, most sunbathing and snorkelling takes place on the daily trips to neighbouring islands, led by Yandup Island Lodge staff. Sample adventures include:
* Snorkelling trip: a 30-minute boat ride past neighbouring islands to one or more deserted islands, where you can explore, relax on white sandy beaches or snorkel in the turquoise sea.
* Village/cultural tour: a visit to the village of Playon Chico to see how the Kuna Indians live. You can buy hand-made souvenirs, learn about village trade or visit the village’s must-see hill cemetery.
* Mangrove tour: a spider-web of branches creates an alleyway for boats, and the Yandup Island guides explain how the Kuna Indians survive in their environment.
The lodge is family-owned and operated, with extremely attentive staff who enjoy sharing their culture with guests, intereracting with them during late-night card or board games, fishing for squid off the deck without fishing poles or taking late-night boat fishing trips.
A 10-minute boat ride from Playon Chico and Yandup Island Lodge is Sapibenega Lodge, known as the set location for the TV show Survivor. Accommodation here is a bit more expensive than Yandup because of its notoriety and its full eco-friendliness; this is one of the first lodges in the San Blas Islands to implement solar electricity.
Playon Chico is the main village, where most of the fishermen and lodge-workers live with their families in one- or two-room huts. For a village of less than a few square miles there are more churches than you could imagine. The village lives off tourism - beware: kids charge for a picture, but they are adorable.
Many of the families share community toilets propped over the sea and use the sea to discard their rubbish. The owners of Yandup Island Lodge, who grew up in Playon Chico are teaching locals to recycle plastic materials to decrease the pollution of the sea. The islands for swimming and snorkelling are typically far enough away from Playon Chico that you will not encounter the rubbish.
If relaxing while learning about a new culture is for you, take that short flight from Panama City to the San Blas Islands - you won’t regret it.