Panama and Kuna Yala

This item appears on page 32 of the February 2012 issue.

I took the 11-day land tour of Panama, “From the Pacific to the Caribbean,” in March ’11 with Explore! Worldwide (based in the UK, with an office in Oakland, CA; 800/715-1746). It was a good experience. The land cost was $1,670 plus a single supplement of $505. There were nine participants: four from the UK, two Canadians and three Americans. With a good background in the history and natural history of Panama, our local guide, Kenny Weeks, was excellent and accommodated our special interests as well. In addition to having a city tour, we visited the Panama Canal at Miraflores Locks, toured the Panama Canal History Museum, took a boat ride on Gatun Lake, did several walks in the highlands of Chiriquí Province, visited out-of-the-way archaeological sites and snorkeled off the Bocas del Toro Islands. All our hotels were comfortable and well located GAPA Travel (Panama City; phone 507 215 3362 or 507 6674 1123) served as the local operator for the Explore trip, and I went through them for assistance in putting together a post-tour, four-day trip to the Comarca de Kuna Yala (aka the San Blas Islands). In planning the visit, I received quotes from two other local companies, and GAPA’s itinerary was the one best tailored to my interests and the best priced. GAPA manager Andre Goatham was very professional in his correspondence. Andre also was very helpful in helping me select a lodge, since each offers different amenities and experiences. Once the money was wire-transferred, I received a timed itinerary and it was met to the letter. For $702, GAPA arranged for transfers between my Panama City hotel and Albrook (domestic) Airport plus a 50-minute flight on Air Panama to Achutupu airstrip and a four-day all-inclusive stay in one of seven over-the-water bungalows at Akwadup Lodge Eco-Resort (phone 507 396 4805 or, in the US, 213/533-2211), with two tours each day. Akwadup Lodge and Dolphin Lodge (aka Uaguinega) are owned by the same family, and profits go to their Fundación Uaguitupu, which benefits the community. Akwadup, their newer property, is three years old; Dolphin Lodge has been around for 18 years and is much better known but is showing its age. The opportunity to stay in the environment in which the Kuna Indians live was next to priceless. I visited communities on neighboring islands, traveling exclusively by boat. I ate what the Kunas eat (seafood) and had numerous opportunities to purchase molas, fabric pictures made by the women using a layered embroidery technique. Cabins at Akwadup were comfortable and had electricity (most of the time), running water (not potable), toilets on a sewer system (some other lodges had no sewer system and emptied into the ocean) and showers. I could relax in a hammock on the balcony of my bungalow or on the beach or I could do two excursions a day, including snorkeling, hiking or exploring the villages, river and sites on the mainland. Flights from Panama City’s domestic airport to the Kuna Yala airstrip were on 20-passenger Twin Otter planes with weight restrictions of 25 pounds for checked luggage and five pounds for carry-on. Some extras you should take with you — binoculars, flashlight, headlamp (if you like to read at night) and money in small denominations, as you pay extra for soft drinks, beer and bottled water. If you’re planning to visit Kuna Yala and Akwadup Lodge on a trip to Panama, I recommend doing so after your land tour; it will be the icing on the cake. ESTHER PERICA