Monday, January 12, 2009

The stunning Caribbean and San Blas islands

San Blas was one of the better trips we have taken in Panama. Well, none of them have been bad, but we especially enjoyed the unspoiled paradise of these islands. We flew into a tiny airport called Playon Chico and were met on the runway by two Kuna Indian me. They took us and 10 other passengers on the ocean in a wide canoe, on a graceful trip through the waves to our private island named Yandup. (And don’t even try to pronounce it in English, you’ll be wrong. She still can’t get it.)

You will notice here some photos of the airport and the runway, etc. The airport consisted of a two-room cinder block building with a small fence around it. All of our unloading and checking in with our hosts was done right on the runways, which was actually kind of fun. The short runway ends at the ocean, so it is a good thing the pilots of these 15-passenger planes know what they are doing! An adventure, for sure!

First off, the Kuna people are tiny, tiny people. As in, small and short. He towered over them (see photos) and most of them measured just over half of his 6 feet four inches. Most of them are much smaller than her too. By at least a head. It made both of us feel like we were very big people, even though she is considered average height by US standards.

This tiny little island (Yandup) was the cutest little thing you have ever seen. About 200 feet across, 350 feet long. Palm trees, 10 cabanas over water, one big cabana for the dining room for the community meals, a boat dock and a small beach. Okay, a tiny beach. But I guess everything fits for the time all of us were staying. It all felt just right. The island was covered with a spongy feeling grass, something like Bermuda, but even softer, so you could walk barefoot if you really wanted to.

The cabanas were made of wood and actually each, pretty big, for just two people. Ours could have slept four if there had been enough beds. Count the two hammocks on the porch and two more would have been very comfortable. Now, the beds themselves left something to be desired, but everything else was absolutely perfect for a place that is pretty hard to get to. There was running water with an operational toilet, sink and shower (when the water was actually running, that is. It was under repair about half the time we were there).

The flight from Panama City left at 6 AM and so, we got to the airport at 5 AM, just to be sure. Each passenger is only allowed a piece of luggage that weighs up to 25 lbs. But, frankly, how much do you need for just two nights of hanging out in the tropics, snorkeling, drinking beer and relaxing? Exactly. The snorkel equipment and tequila were the heaviest things we brought. And, worth every pound, of course. There are no stores or extra supplies for sale, except for the fact that the little kitchen in the dining room sells some national beer and Coca-cola.

Happily, guests are very well-fed. Three solid meals of great-tasting Kuna cooking, including fresh fish for lunch and dinner, great fruit, and fresh salads. We enjoyed it all immensely. The little Kuna ladies that served us were dressed in tribal custom attire – colorful and conservative – and very friendly, but did not speak English. I did get a hankering for Oreos or a snack with our afternoon beer after several hours of snorkeling but I will have to remember to pack that next time, as there were none to be found on the island.

The resort is locally owned, by a foundation and appears to be self-sustaining to the area. Several Kuna men work as guides, and in operations, and the Kuna women clean and cook. Nothing is grown on the island so provisions are either purchased from other islands or brought in from Panama City.

The water is clear blue, looking identical to something you would see in a magazine, and think ‘no way’. But this is the Caribbean and a piece of it that is very rarely trodden through, and it is absolutely, stunningly beautiful.

We snorkeled off of our island and around two others and viewed some of the healthiest coral we have ever seen. Abundant, colorful fish of all sizes and shapes. Even some piranha. Tom ran into a jellyfish, and gave him plenty of room to maneuver, with no problem. We really enjoyed the ocean here. The constant sound of the waves crashing on one side of the island and lapping the other was the ultimate in relaxation.

The ocean waves breaking under our cabana wooed us into naps and to sleep at night. Except for the lights on our own little island, there was no ambient light, so the stars in the sky were unbelievable. Clear. Beautiful. We could not get enough.

She ventured out with the rest of the island tourists on an afternoon visit to the native village of Playon Chico. He felt weird about it, so stayed behind. (It turns out he had the entire island to himself for two whole hours!) It was a very respectful tour of the village, viewing some of the native structures, school, community gathering center (a village Elders meeting was in progress) and the village bazaar. She found two very pretty molas, which look like hand-sewn quilt squares with colorful patterns and scenes. Someday, perhaps we will have them made into a quilt.

Our meals were lively and fun, getting to know our 12 other fellow islanders. They were mostly American (Texas, New York, Oregon, Tennessee), with one gal from Australia and a group from Italy. Fortunately, anytime you get human beings together, drama follows, and we were not disappointed when the group from Italy was accompanied off the island by Panamanian police on the second morning we were there. There was an obvious language barrier so the show went on while the rest of us had breakfast and was accompanied by loud voices and hand waving. Of course, none of us really know what happened, but several great stories were concocted, to keep things interesting. The dining area kept several board games, and playing cards handy for residents that had the urge, and these were often in use.

All in all, we were so relaxed, and had so much fun. Our only regret was that we had not made arrangements to stay one full day longer. That is our recommendation to anyone visiting San Blas. And, oh yes, bring snacks. Other than that, it was one of our more enjoyed trips we have taken to date in Panama. But, we do not recommend it to anyone else, as we really hope it will not get busy and touristy and turn into a popular place. Perhaps the fact that foreigners (not living in Panama already) would have to fly into Panama, then fly the local airlines from the regional airport, then take a boat, is enough to keep the bulk of people away. Really, we would like to keep it all for ourselves, or at least for the next time we go.

So, enjoy the photos, but it's okay if you do not visit San Blas, as we love it so much, we want to keep it just for us! :)