panama 2011

We wanted to get away somewhere warm and wild for two weeks, perhaps do a little kayaking, watch a few exotic birds. A friend said she’d heard that the San Blas archipelago off the Caribbean coast of Panama was perfect for paddling. San Blas is part of Kuna Yala, an autonomous tribal region, and you can only kayak there as part of an organized tour. A company called Expeditiones Tropicales seems to have a monopoly on the area. Only two customers—Meg and Bob from Washington, DC—had registered for the February trip, so we signed up as well. Including two guides, we’d make a nice small group of six.

city view

But first we spent a few days in Panama City, which surprised us with its size and modernity. The skyline is often compared to Miami’s, lots of five-star hotels and highrise condos for “investors.” We keep away from downtown, which is noisy with construction, and stay beside the canal, where you can rent bicycles and pedal along a causeway that links several offshore islands.

monkey in tree canal tour

The canal connects many different bodies of water—some natural, some artificial—and wildlife watching can be excellent. We join a tour and see howler and capuchin monkeys (the capuchins come right aboard our boat), sloths, turtles, crocodiles and many birds: frigates, pelicans, snail kites, terns, kiskadees, mangrove swallows, herons, vultures and—the highlight—a slatey-tailed trogon.

canal lock canal lock2

Of course, a tour of the canal is obligatory—and most entertaining.

island plane

After meeting our guides—Ilene, from the US, and Nemesio, from Kuna Yala— we fly to the Caribbean coast (45 minutes by Twin Otter). Kuna Yala has several tiny island airports. We land at one that serves the island town of Corazon de Jesus. Here we discover that we’ll be eight instead of six; on this tour, apparently, we also have a cook, Bemi, and a boatman (or motorista), Demi. We load our gear into a cayuco, a long, open, outboard-powered boat that will unobtrusively shadow us for the next four days. Demi and Bemi will set up our campsites, cook our meals and even tow our kayaks if we get tired or the weather is too rough. Talk about your luxury paddling!

kayaks at tigre

We boat it over to the island village of Tigre, where our ‘yaks await us. In the background you see our accommodations and bathroom. The Kuna people, who have ancestral links with South America, are fiercely protective of their independence. They live simply, in thatched huts (many with solar power). The women are famous for their textiles; the men fish and tend gardens and plantations on the mainland. Tourism is strictly regulated.

kuna musicians meg & bob & molas

In the evening the Kuna put on an amazing music and dance performance for us. The men play Andean-style bamboo pipes and leap around like satyrs; the women, by contrast, are very formal, their movements delicate and choreographed. In the other photo, Meg and Bob purchase a pile o’ molas, intricate, multi-layered cotton handicrafts that form part of the Kuna women’s traditional attire.

kayaks on beach

For the next four days we tour a series of idyllic little islands; we camp under palm trees, eat fresh fish, crab and lobster, and spend our evenings drinking wine and talking to Nemisio and Ilene about Kuna culture and politics. The paddling is mostly along the lee sides of reefs, though we do also cross a few good-sized channels. Large stingrays glide beneath us, and conch shells patrol the eelgrass beds. Pelicans are fishing everywhere. We do some snorkelling, though the reefs are quite degraded.

crab dinner lunch aboard

mangrove tunnel roughing it

One day we explore the mangroves along the mainland shore, paddling through shady tunnels and going for an inland hike. Mealtimes are alway a highlight; if we’re paddling we usually all gather on the cayuco for lunch. Meg and Bob turn out to be ideal companions: easy-going, interesting, with plenty of good travel tales. Our crew is superb.

funny face paddling to island

One day, as a special treat, Ilene and Nemesio lead us on a long walk up a river to a spot with wonderful clay, where we bathe in fresh water and get quite silly (thanks for the photo, Ilene). All too soon, though, this journey through paradise must come to an end.

old town a & k at el valle

Back in Panama City, K and I wander around the old colonial district of Casco Viejo, then finish our holiday with a trip outside the city to the picturesque highland town of El Valle. Hasta luego!