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.
Your blog posts are always informative and fun to read, but this one was truly terrific! Two happy adventures in Paradise! Love you guys!
Bud and Alice
Thank you, sweet friends! We hope you can both come down and see us one of these days.
John and Susan
Another well written, informative post, and a great read. We both said the same thing–gotta get to the San Blas Islands! Interesting that folks out there are bracing for the effects of climate change, while folks who can address it sit on their hands. Too bad. Thanks, Susan, keep ’em coming.
Thank you, MeBe! You’ll love the San Blas. And I wish everyone, especially the politicians, could see first-hand how climate change is really beginning to affect people. Maybe something would finally get done.
Cool post! Bummer about all the trash. Very sad.
On Wed, Sep 7, 2016 at 2:34 PM, Latitude Adjustment wrote:
> Latitude Adjustment: Two Wanderers in Panama posted: “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 ” >
Yes, it’s a very different culture but they are also connected to the environment in ways that we’re not. It’s a fascinating place.
Another great adventure! The pictures were so descriptive and beautiful. Thanks for including us in your fun!
Thank you, Mimi! Glad you enjoyed it. Tons of love!
Very enjoyable post, thank you – beautiful photographs, lots of information on so many fronts. Really sad about the garbage.
Thanks – it was a fun one to write!
I enjoyed reading about the person-to-person connections you made on your trip, especially the part about the Kuna religious beliefs. You tell a great story. I also appreciate all the pics you posted. Thanks!
Thank you! Connecting with the people is one of the true joys of travel for us 🙂
Great blog Suds!
Sent from Mariah’s iPhone
Thanks, hon 😉
Great to see your post! I was wondering how it was going out there. I want to visit there too one of these days. The photos are amazing.
Thanks, Kris 🙂
The Yandup Lodge looks amazing! I could use a few days in a place like that 😄
It must have been incredibly pristine when you sailed the San Blas in 2004. Before I joined Amandla, The Captain sailed there during the 2007, 2008, and 2009 seasons. At the time, there were 14 boats in the anchorage. Now we hear there are 100s. Still, as you say, the Kunas are amazing at preserving their culture. Sad to hear about the garbage and devestating to know these islands are falling victim of global warming.
On our first date, The Captain gave me a Mola. We have several aboard Amandla. They are stunning.
Nice! Strangely enough, we saw zero cruising sailboats in the Yandup area. It’s pretty far to the east of where we were in 2004; almost to Colombia. I guess there aren’t that many boats that make it over that far.
Good to know! Will have to stop there when we make our way ’round. Look marvelous 😍
Susan, I just got around to reading this and I agree with everything you said. I liked your lawnmower picture, zoomed into show the lawnmower is now an artificial reef, teeming with sea life…
Also I’m guessing that the San Blas, particularly the area closer to Columbia, has the darkest skies in Panama. The view of the Milky Way was fantastic!
Well, now – an artificial reef. That’s a positive way to think about our submerged lawnmower! I’m going with that 🙂
That night gazing at the Milky Way is a big memory. Spectacular, wasn’t it?