At the Yandup Lodge in Playón Chico, San Blas Islands last weekend, we tossed a deep question to Blanco, the manager-on-duty and host extraordinaire. What were the traditional spiritual beliefs of his people, the Kunas? He explained that they worship two deities: a mother god and a father god. No church attendance needed; people’s ability to “go up” to the mother and father gods is based on their good works and generosity in this life – a kind of Kuna karma. If you catch a lot of fish and share them with the village, that’s good. If you keep all the fish for yourself, that’s not so good. I like it.
“So what happens when you die?” That’s kind of a long story, he said, and he proceeded to describe the eight levels of ascendance into the heavenly realm – eight being a very sacred number in Kuna culture. When a person dies, he or she is suspended in a hammock with a packet of belongings that will be needed for the next seven levels. After a priest chants over the corpse for 30 hours, the departed is carried by two people, with the hammock slung from a pole, to the burial ground. The entire thing – hammock and deceased – is suspended in a deep pit but not buried with earth; the air surrounding the corpse allows the spirit to ascend to the next levels. Then the pit is covered over with planks and a mound of earth topped by an incense burner. From there, I admit I glazed over the next few levels but the gist is that the person sees all of his ancestors who throw him a big party, and then he’s dressed all in white for the trip to the eighth level to abide forever with the mother and father gods.
The Kuna (sometimes spelled Guna) people are among the oldest cultures in Panama. Of all of the indigenous groups here, it seems they’ve been the most successful at preserving their culture and carving out their autonomy from the Panamanian government. The Kuna Yala comarca (in the U.S., we’d describe a comarca as a reservation) stretches across a wide swath of the eastern Caribbean coast of Panama and includes 365 small and large islands, of which only 50 or so are inhabited. When we were here in 2004, we learned that it’s a matriarchal society because the women who sew the molas and sell them to the tourists make the most money. The men fish, farm, and gather coconuts.
So what’s a mola exactly? It’s a type of reverse appliqué tapestry in which layers of cloth are stitched together using tiny, practically invisible stitches and then the cloth is cut away to reveal the layer or layers underneath. The best molas use at least 4-5 layers of material and have incredibly intricate, geometrical designs. The Kuna women use molas as part of the blouse for their traditional dress, which also includes a sarong skirt, a head scarf, and wide windings of tiny and colorful beads on their arms and legs. Many also have gold nose rings and wear delicate gold jewelry.
In spring of 2004, John and I spent an eye-opening two weeks sailing around the San Blas Islands on our sailboat, Compañia (if you’ve been reading this blog you know that our sailing adventure was how we discovered and fell in love with Panama). Two weeks was enough time to barely scratch the surface of this amazing and multi-faceted region, but our appetites were whetted to come back someday.
Last weekend, we got our wish when we visited the Yandup Lodge, an eco-resort on a three-acre, coconut palm-studded island just off the Kuna village of Playón Chico. Together with our Boquete friends Bond and Luana McCamy, we spent two idyllic and relaxing days on the island. At a rack rate of $250 a night (it does include all meals and two excursions a day), Yandup Lodge is not exactly a bargain – but we paid less than half of that through an Oferta Simple deal (Oferta Simple is the Panama version of Groupon in the U.S.). To get there, we had a flight from David to Albrook Airport in Panama City, and then a puddle-jump in a tiny 12-seater plane to Playón Chico. The puddle-jump back to Panama City was even smaller, in an 8-seater that was at least as old as I am (ahem, 57). What an adventure!
Yandup Lodge itself is a cluster of small bamboo and palm thatch huts, some built out over the water on stilts and others on the land, with a small beach and a dining hut. Our hut was very simple and rustic, but the mosquito netting-covered bed was clean and comfortable. We were out over the water and could hear and see it, lapping below, through gaps in the floor planks. The island relies on solar panels for power, which meant the interior of our hut was always a little dark, and water is piped from the Playón Chico village for showers and washing. We were told not to drink that water, but the little bit that got in our mouths was slightly salty – probably from a leak or two in the pipe from the village. And – horror of horrors – we had to go without internet for two days!
And we absolutely loved it. The last time we felt so close to the ocean and connected to nature was onboard Compañia. The first night was especially memorable, with thunderstorms lighting up the horizon to showcase a perfectly clear sky, unencumbered by light pollution and spangled with brilliant stars and a broad swath of Milky Way. Looking into the water off our little patio, we saw brilliant sparks of bio-luminescence. Lying in bed, we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the water beneath us and the occasional rain squall drumming on the palm-frond roof.
Two things distressed us about our return to the San Blas. One was the garbage. Although the water seemed clean and clear, the large quantities of plastic bottles and other garbage floating in it was awful to see. The other sobering thought is that these islands’ days are numbered with the advance of climate change. The Panamanian and Kuna governments already have a plan for evacuating the people as the sea level rises and their homes become inundated.
Our verdict on Yandup Lodge? Decidedly rustic, especially for the price, but in a beautiful setting. Excellent food and wonderful people, especially Blanco and the sweet Kuna ladies who served our meals. Would we go back? Probably not, but that’s just because we have so many places yet to visit and so little time until our own hammock ride to the sky.