I’m a sucker for tropical islands. Who isn’t? I love white beaches and clear blue waters and the sight of waving palm trees makes me ridiculously happy. So when we planned our trip to Panama, I had to include a stop at one of the many Panamanian islands. Which one? That was easy. It had to be an island of the San Blas Archipelago. The San Blas are not only the poster image of a Caribbean paradise, they have something more: they’re run by the indigenous Kuna Indians, which makes a trip relaxing as well as culturally interesting.
The small Twin Otter plane soars over the Caribbean Sea. Below me are tiny specks, small islets with only a few palm trees, surrounded by coral reefs. The passengers on the plane form a curious mix of tall Western tourists and tiny Kuna Indians. The Kuna are among the smallest people in the world: only the pygmies are tinier. I marvel at the bright clothing the women are wearing. Their blouses are decorated by molas, colorful embroidered textile which is a form of art. Their arms and legs are wrapped in strings of beads, forming colorful patterns. This attire is one of the most cheerful ones I’ve ever seen.
I turn my attention back to the view outside. The specks of islets become a string of islands – they say there are 365 islands in Kuna Yala, one for every day of the year) and I can’t wait to land. With a big bump we hit the landing strip of Playon Chico, where we are being awaited by Dommy, the lovely Kuna manager of Yandup Island Lodge. The ‘airport’ (one hut and a landing strip) is surrounded by perfect islands with rows of palm trees and white beaches. This is definitely the paradise I was hoping for!
Two trips a day
When we approach the Lodge by motorized canoe, I get more excited by the second. This must be heaven on earth! And it really is. Yandup Lodge is located on a tiny island, it takes us about two minutes to walk around it. There are only ten big bungalows, each including a bathroom and a porch with a swinging hammock. The island has a small white beach, a gorgeous view at the surrounding islets and the lodge is run by a wonderful Kuna family. They serve three great meals per day and organize two daily trips. Our favourite trips were being led by either Dommy or Blanco, both great guides.
We stay at Yandup Island Lodge for three full days. And although the weather doesn’t cooperate (the Caribbean in dry season is no guarantee for sunny days), we love everything about our stay. We love how the soft wind blows through our bungalow’s windows, we love relaxing in our hammocks and we love our daily trips. The mornings are spent snorkelling at a remote location, usually accompanied by a stay on a gorgeous beach. In the afternoons we go on a more culturally orientated tour, like visiting the farmlands. To reach the farm, we have to cross the airport runway, which is being used as a playground after the last plane of the day has departed. We also explore the mangroves and go searching for sea stars and sea cucumbers with Blanco.
A visit to the town
The most interesting visit is to Playon Chico. We already sailed past the village a couple of times, which was always fascinating. The houses are built right up to the edge of the water, so we could see children playing and women doing laundry. Unfortunately, we could also see enormous piles of garbage and plastic around the islands. Playon Chico gives us a good insight in the problems the Kuna face. The poverty on the island is high and many young Kuna leave their homes for Panama City, hoping to find more opportunities. Climate change has a big impact on the islands, as does the waste problem and the illegal drug trafficking in the region (Colombia is close by!). But it’s not only problems on Kuna Yala. In Playon Chico, we also meet friendly people who form an tight knit community. The people still speak their own language and try to keep their unique culture and traditions alive. I hope they succeed!
Facts about Kuna Yala and the Kuna Indians
- Kuna Yala is an autonomous region of Panama, run by the Kuna Indians. They have their own customs and laws.
- The Kuna allow tourism only at their discretion. It’s forbidden for outsiders to operate a business in Kuna Yala.
- Each community in Kuna Yala has its own political organization, led by a Saila. He is also the political and spiritual leader of the community. He transmits songs, history and legends about the Kuna to the people, as well as running political affairs.
- Kuna families are matrilineal. The husband moves in with the bride’s family after marriage and takes her last name.
- Coconuts can be used as monetary coins in Kuna commerce.
- The Kuna are very spiritual, and believe that everything existing in the natural world possesses a positive guardian spirit. Traditional medicine is still used widely.
- Albinism occurs often among the Kuna. In their culture, albinos are considered a special race of people.
More information on www.yandupisland.com