If you are seeking a getaway travel destination that allows you to unplug from society and temporarily hide from the world, you may get lucky and find Yandup Lodge in the Playon Chico area of San Blas Islands, Panama. The lodge has no WIFI signal and you can forget about getting any sort of cell phone service. In fact, there are no roads going to the Playon Chico area. You’ll have to take a small single propeller plane to a small airstrip where lodge employees will be waiting to collect you and your luggage. The flight only takes about 45 minutes from Panama City. Then, take a 20 minute boat ride to the small island lodge. The island is small, about the size of a Walmart parking lot.
There are ten cabanas with five over the water. If you are seeking privacy this is the place for you. Unfortunately, this comes at a cost with no other restaurants or bars in the area. The lodge menu consists of all sea food except for eggs in the morning. They can provide vegetarian or other meats if you give them notice. Also, don’t go looking for special amenities at this lodge. They try to keep the standards of the Kuna traditions and the accommodations are minimal. The lodge is owned by a Kuna family and all the employees are from the Playon Chico village. The water in your room is piped from a waterfall and it isn’t drinkable. You can buy bottled water and refill it from a cooler in the restaurant for consumption. At 6:45 p.m. the staff leaves for the village and the lodge populations diminishes to the guest and the lodge manager. The only sound on the island is the lapping of the waves. My favorite thing to do on my over-the-water cabana was to lie in the hammock and take naps.
The lodge includes two daily excursions that are optional, you could always choose to stay on the island and bathe on its small beach, rent a kayak, snorkel off its shore, or relax in your hammock. I think you will want to choose to do the excursion for the most part.
The one I most looked forward to was the visit to the village in Playon Chico, a densely populated island of 3,000 people. I love learning about other cultures, especially old cultures, and the Kuna (or Guna) tribe fits that description. The Kuna once used coconuts as their form of currency and cling to their old ways even today. Panama once tried to force these people to conform to Catholicism and bring them into the modern era. The Kuna rebelled and a civil war broke out and it ended in 1925 with the Kuna gaining their independence as they would refer to it. Officially, they are semi-autonomous in which they govern themselves and the territory but are still a part of the country of Panama. February 15th, we visited to the village and we were able to witness their independence parade as they marched around the small island community, some with wooden guns. They started the festivities with a ceremonial dance in front of the communal meeting-house and it also ends at this same point. If you are looking to take hundreds of photos during the visit, be aware that you need permission from the person you are shooting. They will also expect a dollar for the photo so take some singles with you when you visit. Taking photos of the dance and parade was a little tricky. Who’s permission do you get and do you need to pay all of them a dollar? Luckily, a man approached our group, I’m assuming an elder statesman of the tribe, and said we could take photos of the ceremonies with an unspecified contribution. The dance was about to end so I quickly gave him $5 and took as many photos as I could before it ended.
Another tour is a waterfall hike on the mainland. You’ll take a boat to the airstrip and walk along the runway into the hillside. You’ll walk along the trail used by the Kuna people to access their farms. The hike will pass two hillside ridges and has three creek crossings so dress accordingly for this 3 hour hike, round trip. Make sure you put on some mosquito repellant and prepare for a humid hike in the jungle. The waterfall is small but does provide a very refreshing swim, just be careful as the rocks are very slippery. Also, take a short walk above the first waterfall to see the 2nd fall.
Another popular excursion is to the many beaches that dot the other nearby islands. The waters here are amazing and the beaches are, for the most part, untouched. These islands are protected by the Kuna and are an eco tourists dream. During my visit in February, it was a bit windy and the seas were choppy so snorkeling wasn’t at its optimum but the beaches and turquoise waters were still amazing. I was told the month of October is the best time to visit the area for calm conditions.
Two other excursions that I passed on were the boat ride through the mangroves and a short hike to the cemetery. The mangroves weren’t appealing to me since there wasn’t much wildlife in them to view. And I’ve visited some amazing mangroves in the past, with crocodiles and monkeys, so I stayed and enjoyed the island. I skipped the cemetery hike since the wind had died down that day after 3 days of brisk winds and I was eager to take my drone out for some dramatic video of the area. And, let’s face it, a cemetery doesn’t sound like fun.
If you plan on visiting, I would recommend not booking your international flight on the same day as your morning flight from Playon Chico to Panama City. The weather can deter the small planes from flying to the area but from firsthand knowledge, your flight can be delayed for hours without notice. Air Panama doesn’t seem to put this route on their priority list. Two 10-seat planes arrive in the morning only, so book your flight well ahead of time. The day of my departure, my flight was delayed for 90 minutes as the plane scheduled to pick us up was rerouted to another airport to pick up other passengers. The day before, one of the planes had mechanical issues and required a part. Passengers were told that another plane would be routed to the airport to pick them up. Noon had come and the passengers scheduled to depart at 7 a.m. were still waiting for the replacement plane so the lodge ferried them back to the island and served them lunch and were making plans for them to stay overnight, just in case. They eventually departed at 3 p.m.
The lodge doesn’t provide many amenities in the way of western comforts but that’s part of the appeal. You can enjoy the complete silence of the island and the pristine ecological surroundings of the area. The staff is excellent and the guides will always be by your side even if your flight is delayed, they will wait with you. It’s a special place where you can unplug from society and see a relatively untouched portion of the world. If you’re an intrepid traveler you’ll definitely want to visit.