In today’s blog post (part six of the Hotels We Love series) guest Amy tells us about a hotel she recently visited and loved.
TTL: First things first! What’s the name of this hotel that you love, where is it, and how did you end up there?
Amy: My boyfriend and I decided to visit Panama this summer after hearing that it’s a very easy place to backpack, for a number of reasons. US assistance in getting Panama to where it is today has created good infrastructure, and combined with a growing tourism sector and unbelievable landscapes, it’s really a fascinating place. We visited several places in Panama, including Panama City, David, Bocas Del Toro, Boquete, and finally the San Blas Islands.
Yandup Island is a part of the San Blas archipelago on the northeast part of Panama, very close to Colombia. There is an island for each day of the year (365 in total!) and each is owned by a different Kuna Yala family. The Kuna Yala are an indigenous people who have been given a refreshing level of protection, recognition and autonomy from the Panamanian government following a revolution in the early 20th century. The islands on the San Blas archipelago all vary, but with one look through TripAdvisor, we understood how rustic each could be. The very best rated island/hotel is Yandup, which is a five minute boat ride from the Playon Chico airport. It sits atop a coral reef.
TTL: Tell us a bit about the hotel’s location and set-up. Did you stay in a private room?
Amy: Yandup was unlike anywhere we stayed on our trip. It wasn’t the ‘budget’ sort of travel we were used to on this trip. We stayed in a private cabana, which was built using red mangrove branches. The cabana sat above the water, and had electricity from solar panels on the island (the only place in these islands with that), running water (a true luxury in San Blas) and a flushing toilet! Plus, a hammock on a wraparound deck where you could hear the waves crashing below. I thought we would never leave!
TTL: Yandup seems quite remote. How did you get there?
Amy: It was an adventure! Like I said, it was the last stop on our trip, and we were coming from Boquete. So, first, we took a 6 hour night bus from David to Panama City. We got in around 4:30am and went straight to the regional airport, which was 5 minutes away. We’d been on small planes before, but this one was tiny! There were 12 passenger seats that required we double completely over to shuffle into. We sat directly behind the pilots and watched the flight out of the front windshield. The plane ride was about 35 minutes and was truly spectacular. For the landing, we passed through two mountains and then made a sharp right turn to land on the tiny Playón Chico airport runway. There, we were met by the lodge staff member, Domi, who directed us and another couple onto the boat that would take us to Yandup Island Lodge.
TTL: How many nights did you stay, and approximately what was the price per night?
Amy: Our private cabana was $137 a night, per person, and that included lodging, three meals, and two tours each day.
TTL: So they offered tours? What kind?
Amy: There was something for everyone. Lots of the tours went to different islands in the archipelago. One day, Domi took a group from the lodge to another island, and we spent the morning on what looked like the ‘island’ option for computer screensaver- deserted, with crystal clear water leading to a white sandy beach underneath breezy palm trees. We walked, snorkeled among stingrays, barracuda, starfish, sea urchins, parrotfish, clownfish, nurse sharks and sea cucumbers, and hung on the beach for about two hours.
Another tour visited the Kuna Yala community near the air strip. Yet another tour was to the Kuna Cemetery, which is basically a collection of huts that house the graves. Each family has their own unit that they build. The units are maintained by the women in the family that go EVERY DAY to the cemetery! The walk to the cemetery went through a mini jungle, where we saw a few monkeys and beautiful views.
We also booked a morning fishing trip, where we used aprimitive “pole” to catch the fish (which was just a spool of line with a weight and snail on a hook). When you felt the tug of a fish, you had to pull the line up, hand over hand.
TTL: You mentioned the price includes three meals per day. What kind of food did they serve?
Amy: Lots of seafood. Breakfast was always simple but good. For lunches, we ate crab and fish stew, often served over mashed potatoes. One day we had langostinos, which were deliciously fresh. For dinners, we had seafood pasta, another night octopus and rice, and a third night we had a grilled octopus salad. Wine was always served at dinner, as well as Balboa beer and rum. The best part? Side orders of lobster for $10 a pound.
TTL: What made your trip especially memorable?
Amy: The tranquility. It’s different in that it’s the type of place you see when you imagine “paradise”: white sand beaches, breezy palms and crystal clear water. It has all of that, but is so much less commercial because it is not a massive lodge or resort and is amongst an indigenous tribe’s islands. The nights are so calm and relaxed…there are plenty of opportunities to lounge and snooze on the beach or in a hammock, and you just feel super mellow the whole time. We got so much sleep!
TTL: What kind of rating would you give the hotel service?
Amy: The service was pretty good; no real complaints. One time we had to change rooms due to other guests arriving, but the ladies took care of it quickly and it wasn’t really a problem at all. The dining service is very good – the Kuna Yala are there with smiles (including Dailen who is the most adorable human on the planet), happy to refill your water or talk about their lives or explain the local dishes. They stay up as late as you do, too. Overall I would give it a positive rating, maybe an 8 out of 10, only doing that because outside of the dining room there aren’t many opportunities for them to serve the guests.
TTL: Would you recommend it to friends?
Amy: Yes. If you need a place to really get calm and mellow out after an adventurous, exhausting trip through Central America, this is the place for you! Also, Panama is the kind of place that is close enough to home (San Francisco for us) to feel secure, but far enough and different enough for travelers to understand how things outside the American borders work. Its rich history and diverse peoples create a vibrant culture that we will never forget!