Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Panama: Ocean to Ocean, 11 Hours on the Canal

A Pacific-bound chemical tanker enters the Miraflores locks.  This is the view from the Miraflores Visitors Center.

I’ve always been interested in the Panama Canal – in how the United States created the country of Panama so it could build the canal, how tropical diseases were conquered so that workers could live long enough to get the job done, how the United States agreed in 1977 to turn the canal over to Panama, and, mostly, how the canal gently lifts giant ships over the continental divide. 

 Now, in 2014, the canal’s 100th year¸ Panama is trying mightily to expand it with new locks for ships that are too large for a canal designed over a century ago.  The actual anniversary will be in August. The Ancon, an American steamship, made the first official transit of the canal on August 15, 1914, though ships used in the canal’s construction had been making the transit since January of that year.  

A mid-winter vacation to Panama offered a chance to see the canal up close. A few years ago, we rented a narrow boat and traveled canals in England and northern Wales with another couple, which involved getting out and using hand cranks to  open and close gates to go up and down locks. In Panama, my wife and I booked a full transit, traveling north-northwest from the Pacific to the Caribbean, for a canal experience on a larger scale. Our excursion boat, operated by Canal and Bay Tours (click HERE for its website), offers full transits – including breakfast and lunch buffets – only on the first Saturday of each month.  Half-transits, from Panama City to Gamboa, are offered every Saturday.

5:45 a.m.  Pick up at hotel. (Click HERE for my New York Times review of our hotel, the Waldorf Astoria Panama.)
       Way too early to be awake in Panama City, we boarded a bus that was collecting people from various downtown hotels. It took us to the Amador Causeway, where my wife, Jane, and I had bicycled the day before.  The mile-and-a-half causeway, built over a century ago with rocks and soil excavated during construction of the canal, links the mainland with three small islands at the Pacific entrance to the canal. 

6:55 a.m. Board boat at an Amador Causeway marina.
      After a bit of a wait, we’re given wrist bands that identify us as full-transit passengers – about half the people starting out with us are going only halfway.  The boat is the Tuira II, with two decks of open-air seating.  Its capacity is listed at 450 passengers, but it looks as if our fellow canal enthusiasts are perhaps only half that number.  Almost all the passengers are speaking Spanish, though German, French and English can also be heard. A couple of people are carrying copies of David McCullough’s 1977 book “The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870 – 1914,” appropriate reading for this trip.
Melvyn Oller, our boat's guide.

7:40 a.m.  Boat leaves marina.
      Our bilingual guide introduces himself over the P.A. system: Melvyn Oller. He tells me later that he’s been a guide with Canal & Bay Tours for 12 years, but that it’s been eight years since he’s made a complete transit. You’d never know it from the wealth of canal statistics, trivia and other information that he has at the tip of his tongue.

7:50 a.m.  Idling in Panama Bay, waiting for a canal pilot.
     Captains do not take their own ships though the canal, not even a relatively small boat like ours. Every craft is commanded by a canal pilot. Melvyn says there are 298 canal pilots, two of whom are women. 

A canal pilot jumps onto our boat.

7:55 a.m. Canal pilot jumps from a launch onto our boat. We move into the canal channel.
     Boats do not go through the canal for free.  Fees for a one-way transit start at $800 for boats less than 50 feet.  Our 117-foot excursion boat is charged $3,200, Melvyn says, and the fees go up to at least $429,000, which he says is what the 965-foot-long, 105-foot-wide cruise ship Norwegian Pearl pays.  There are additional charges for the use of tugboats and for lines that keep ships from scraping the sides of the locks. (The lowest fee ever was 36 cents in 1928, paid by the American adventurer Richard Halliburton when he swam the canal.)   The Panama Canal Authority reports that it contributed over $1 billion to the national treasury in 2011.

We approach the Bridge of the Americas.

8:30 a.m. We pass under the Bridge of the Americas.
      We’re cruising past the port of Balboa, with docked ships, shipping containers and cranes lining the shore, when we encounter this mile-long, four-lane bridge.  When it opened in 1962, it was the first fixed bridge over the canal, and today it’s one of only two fixed bridges.  (There’s still a moveable bridge at the Gatun locks.) The bridge’s clearance, 201 feet at high tide, sets a height limit for ships going through the canal. A third bridge is planned near the Caribbean entrance.

9:35 a.m. Approaching the Miraflores locks. We wait for a Caribbean-bound freighter to clear the first starboard lock so we can enter.
       All ships use their own power to move through the canal, even entering and leaving the locks.  We see thick cables connecting ships with locomotives, called mules, on the sides of the locks. These cables keep ships centered in the locks and away from the concrete sides; they do not pull the ships through.  There’s no way for us to know why the freighter isn’t advancing into the next lock.
Wind Spirit precedes us into a lock at Miraflores.

9:55 a.m. We head instead for the first port lock, following Wind Spirit, a sailing cruise ship out of Nassau.
       Melvyn says the pilot has been told to move to the other set of locks – all the canal’s original locks are parallel twins that operate separately, so two large ships can advance at the same time or pass each other. The canal operators try to maximize traffic in the locks to save energy and water – a full transit uses all three Pacific and all three Atlantic locks and releases 52 million gallons of fresh water to the sea – so our boat and the 440-foot Wind Spirit, one of the Windstar line’s cruising yachts, will share locks all the way through to the Caribbean.  The locks are 1,050 feet long and 110 feet wide and can handle ships up to 965 feet long and 106 feet wide.  A lot of large birds hover over the water just below the gate, the point at which the fresh water of the canal abruptly meets the salt water of the sea, sending fresh-water fish into distress and making them easy picking for egrets, herons, hawks and pelicans.
Gates close behind us so that our chamber can fill with water.

10:10 a.m.  Gates close behind us and chutes in the bottom fill the lock with water. The concrete walls appear to slide down as our boat calmly rises about 27 feet.
      We’ll be moving through fresh water from now until we leave the last lock at the Caribbean end. Our boat is not connected to the mules – guide ropes tied to the sides of the lock are used instead. As it is, we’re so close to one side of the lock that I can reach out and touch the concrete wall. Melvyn says that all the concrete walls are original and were made using Portland cement from the United States.  He also tells us that all the gates on the canal are original, made more than a century ago in Pittsburgh, though temporary gates are installed from time to time when the original gates are removed for maintenance.  Mom was right – take care of your things and they’ll last a long time.

10:21 a.m. The lock's first chamber is full and we're waiting for the gate ahead to open so we can follow Wind Star into the next chamber, which happens at 10:23.
        The gates open when the water level of our lock is the same as the level of the lock or channel we’re moving into. The gates resemble giant double doors that swing open. Closed, they from a shallow “V” shape with the point facing upstream. Watching us is a crowd at the Miraflores Visitors Center, which is a short cab ride from Panama City and which Jane and I visited a couple of days earlier.  It has great views of the locks, a good restaurant, and a three-level museum that explains the history and construction of the canal.  There’s also a distant view of new, larger locks being built to handle “New Panamax” ships.  “Panamax” is the term for the largest ships that can be handled by the original locks.  “Post-Panamax” is the term for any ship that exceeds those dimensions, and “New Panamax” is the term for ships that will fit into the new locks, which will be 1,400 feet long and 180 feet wide, allowing passage of ships 1,200 feet long and 161 feet wide. Tugs will accompany every ship into the new locks, which will recycle much of the fresh water they use.

10:50 a.m.  We leave the Miraflores Locks and enter Miraflores Lake. 
     The two locks at Miraflores have put us 54 feet above sea level.  Miraflores Lake is one of two artificial lakes created in the construction of the canal.  Ships using the new locks will take a new channel from the new three-stage Miraflores Locks to the Culebra Cut, bypassing Miraflores Lake and the Pedro Miguel Lock. 
The century-old concrete walls of the Pedro Miguel Lock are close enough for us to reach out and touch.

11:25 a.m. We reach the Pedro Miguel Lock, follow Wind Spirit into the chamber and are lifted about 31 feet.
        Pedro Miquel raises us another 31 feet, putting us 85 feet above sea level, high enough for us to cross the continental divide.

See how the mountain was carved away for the Culebra Cut.
11:45 a.m. We leave Pedro Miguel and enter the Culebra Cut. 
        This 8.5-mile section, also known as the Gaillard Cut, is too narrow in places for ships going in opposite directions to pass each other.  Trying to cut a channel through Culebra Ridge was the stopping point in the late 1800s for the French effort to build the canal.  The American accomplishment – using labor mainly from the West Indies – in dynamiting and digging the channel remains one of the world’s great feats of engineering.  The cut was lowered from 194 feet above sea level to 39 feet before it was flooded. More than 100 million cubic yards of rock and soil were removed (remember the Amador Causeway?).  Edward Berger, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Virginia, regularly takes students to Panama to study the canal and its effects on politics, economics, culture and the environment.  “Nobody ever appreciates how big the canal is, or how narrow the Culebra Cut is, until they see it in person,” he says. Steep stony hillsides still show how rock was cut in the creation of the canal.  The Culebra Cut’s channel is being deepened and widened as part of the current expansion project. 
Wind Spirit motors beneath the Centennial Bridge.

Noon. We pass under the Centennial Bridge.
     Spanning the Culebra Cut is the Centennial Bridge, completed in 2004 and named in honor of the Panama’s 1903 proclamation of independence from Colombia.  The bridge is part of the Pan-American Highway.

12:51 p.m. We meet our first Pacific-bound ship, a freighter. 
        Ships enter the canal from each end in the mornings, pass each other during the day and exit in the evenings. There are about 40 complete transits each day, roughly 20 in each direction.  We’ll see several more freighters, tankers and car carriers over the afternoon.
El Renacer prison, as seen from the canal.
12:54 p.m. We pass the penitentiary where Manuel Noriega is incarcerated.
       Melvyn tells us we can’t see the specific building at El Renacer prison, where Noriega, 80, has been serving a sentence since 2011 for human rights violations dating to his rule in Panama.  This follows almost two decades in American and French prisons. 

 12:55 p.m. We pass where the Chagres River feeds into the Culebra Cut and Gatun Lake.
     The Chagres River – born in a jungle that gets over 100 inches of rain a year – once flowed only into the Caribbean.  United States engineers built a dam to control that flow and form Gatun Lake, and created the Culebra Cut to divert some of the Chargres’s flow to the Pacific.  It’s the only river in the world whose waters flow, albeit though artificial channels and locks, into two oceans. Its flow not only keeps Gatun Lake filled, it supplies the water that makes the locks possible – and it supplies drinking water to both Colón and Panama City, the cities at each end of the canal.  For decades, there was virtually no development in the 10-mile-wide Canal Zone controlled by the United States, which had the happy effect of preserving much of the Chagres River’s watershed. 
A canal tugboat docked at Gamboa.

1 p.m. We tie up at a pier in Gamboa so the people who were doing half-transits can disembark.
      We stop at a Panama Canal Authority pier alongside several of its 36 tugboats.  Our half-transit passengers leave the boat here and immediately board buses for the return to Panama City, completely missing what makes Gamboa a popular destination.  The Gamboa Rainforest Resort, which welcomes day-trippers from Panama City, offers a variety of wildlife and birding tours, an aerial tram through a forest canopy and a variety of exhibitions on jungle creatures and plants. Of course, we miss all of this, too, seeing only the jungle’s edge from the canal

1:15 p.m. We enter Gatun Lake.
Gatun Lake accounts for 21 of the canal’s total 50 miles. When it was built, it was the world’s largest artificial lake at 164 square miles.  It’s at the same elevation – 85 feet above sea level – as the Culebra Cut. Plenty of room here for giant ships to pass each other.    
A Pacific-bound car carrier passes Barro Colorado.

2:30 p.m. We pass Barro Colorado, a 5,000-acre island that is home to the Smithsonian's Tropical Research station. 
What were once hills became islands when Gatun Lake filled with water.  One of these is Barro Colorado, a biological reserve administered by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.  Like Gamboa, it’s a popular daytrip out of Panama City.  There are trails to hike and an interactive loop that takes about three hours. Talk about biodiversity. The island boasts 480 species of trees, 70 kinds of bats, 384 species of birds, and so on.  From the boat, we see only its heavily wooded shore. This juxtaposition of primal wilderness, artificial waterways and giant ships intrigued one of our fellow passengers on the Tuira II.  “What I most looked forward to in the canal transit was the sense of the balance between this huge project and the landscape,” says David William Foster, a professor of Latin American studies at Arizona State.  “I’m fascinated by how the nature of the region seems to have absorbed the canal and by the sense of serenity as we traverse the man-made Gatun Lake.”
Cranes at the site of the new, larger Gatun Locks.

3:37 p.m.  We pass the new Gatun Locks Visitors' Center, which overlooks the huge construction site of the new Gatun Locks.
     The expansion project is in the news during our trip to Panama.  The contractor, a consortium of Spanish, Italian, Belgian and Panamanian companies¸ is claiming cost overruns of $1.6 billion.  The Panama Canal Authority has balked at paying that amount, and its public relations office has been cranking out press releases assuring that the expansion is still on track, even when work is temporarily halted.  The project is about two-thirds complete, and Edward Berger at the University of Virginia is optimistic about it. “The expansion will be completed, and it's fascinating and impressive work,” he says. “The vision is absolutely audacious. We drove down into the project to see the scale of the locks – it’s an astounding amount of concrete to manufacture and pour, and seeing it first-hand made a huge impact on my students.  A project like this is bound to run a little bit late, but it's exciting to think it's only a year or so from completion.”
Gigantic gates for the new locks await installation.

3:45 p.m. We enter the first of the three Gatun Locks; this time a canal tugboat and Wind Spirit are behind us in the lock. At 4:58 we leave Gatun’s third lock and enter the Caribbean.
     The three locks have taken us down 85 feet and we’re again at sea level. We pass the Caribbean entrance to the new channel that eventually will take ships to the new Gatun locks.  On the shore we see four huge gates, made in Italy,that will be used in the new locks.  These gates – 189 feet long, almost 33 feet thick, 99 feet high and 3,100 tons – will slide in and out of the canal walls. I can’t help but wonder if they will last a century or more.   
The Celebrity Equinox is too big for the original canal.

5:18 p.m.  We pass the Caribbean entrance to the new channel that will eventually take New Panamax ships to the new Gatun Locks, and by 5:50 we’re in Colón harbor.
   We dock near a cruise ship, the Celebrity Equinox, which at 1,033 feet long and 121 feet wide is too large for the current canal  but will fit comfortably in the expanded canal.  

6:15 p.m.  We dock and board buses, and by 8 p.m. we’re back at our hotel.
      We’ve been in two oceans, crossed a continental divide – and traveled between 1914 and 2014.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Panama: An Inn Where the Coffee Is Always Fresh

    Our first stay in Panama outside Panama City was on the edge of Boquete (bow-keh-TAY), a town in the northwest mountains in the shadow of Volcan Baru, the highest point in Panama.
     We didn't get to the top of the volcano -- an hours-long and steep hike -- but we're told that on clear days it has views of both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.
    We stayed at La Montana y el Valle -- The Coffee Estate Inn.  Click HERE for its website. It is on a very steeply sloping site and consists of three detached cottages, all with great views of the mountains and the valley, and a main house where the innkeepers, Barry and Jane, live. They're Canadians who have been here almost two decades.  The cottages are extremely well maintained and up to date -- a kitchenette, a sitting area with cable TV, a separate bedroom, full bath with a heated floor (the mountains can be chilly in the winter months), and a covered terrace with comfortable chairs that make the most of the view. Below are a photo of our cottage, showing the terrace, and a view of the estate taken from its woodlands and coffee trail. The larger structure is the main house. Further down the slope is one of the guest cottages.

If you're going to Boquete, I can't imagine a better place to stay than here.  The hosts are well-informed, friendly and dedicated to their guests. The cottages are kept super clean and tidy, the grounds are manicured, the coffee is wonderful and the hosts know the area extremely well. In good years, the estate produces enough coffee for Barry and Jane to sell to guests; in bad years there's still enough for guests to have plenty of coffee to drink during their stay.

     Barry explained that they don't process the beans -- they send them out to be processed to the estate's specifications, then they're returned unroasted and Barry roasts them as needed in a small machine in the front room of his home.  (A much larger coffee plantation that fully processes its own beans is described in an earlier post on Selva Negra in Nicaragua.)  At left, the red beans are ready to be picked.  When the green beans ripen, someone will be along to pick them. Coffee harvesting is a slow, labor-intensive process.
   Freshly roasted coffee beans, a coffee grinder, a French-press pot as well as a drip coffeemaker, milk and sugar were all stocked in our kitchenette.  Late in the day, perhaps when guests are out for dinner, someone slips into the cottages and puts freshly cut fruit, banana bread and scones in the fridge for breakfast the next day.  A neat combination pop-up toaster and toaster oven warms up the breads.
    Colorful birds and flowers are omnipresent in the Boquete area.  Exotic heliconias, below, seem to grow like weeds. A tray for attracting birds was hung by our cottage's driveway.
      Boquete is something of a destination for foreign retirees and other ex-pats, so English is spoken in almost every shop, cafe and restaurant.  And there are several good restaurants -- The Rock, Mango, Big Daddy's and the Boquete Fish House were among the ones we tried.  There's also zip-lining -- which we did with Boquete Tree Trek (click HERE for its website), and loads of hiking trails.
      Getting to Boquete does not require the dare-devil driving common in much of Latin America.  We flew to David, a larger city, and picked up a rental car that the inn had helped us arrange.  The inn and the rental car desk gave us good directions for leaving David and finding the road to Boquete --  the roads are not well marked. This road, however, appeared to be newly widened and paved, making for a pleasant 50-minute drive through the mountains.  Jane at the inn had recommended the Hyundai Tuscon with an automatic transmission, which provided welcome ground clearance on the 200-or-so yards of extremely rocky road that leads to the inn's electronic gate and concrete driveway. The inn also arranged for the rental agency to retrieve the car from the inn -- when we left we did not return to David on the Pacific side but instead took a taxi to Almirante on the Atlantic side to catch a boat to Bocas del Toro and then another boat to Isla Bastimentos where we followed our stay at a coffee estate with a few days at a chocolate farm.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Panama: Chocolate Farm, Jungle Lodge

      You approach La Loma by boat -- there's literally no other way -- and at first all you can see are mangrove trees.  Then you notice a small dock sticking out beyond the mangroves, and maybe a small boat or two tied up.  Then you see the man on the dock waiting for you.  He's Henry Escudero.  He and his wife, Margaret, own and operate this small lodge.
You follow a wooden walkway, above, through the mangrove swamp and past trees, which you later learn are home to sloths, past a raised hut used to house a community volunteer and a kindergarten, and eventually you reach the main building, another raised structure that serves as the lodge's open-air dining room.  Welcome to La Loma.  Click HERE for its website. 
 So far you've been on flat ground, but there's a steep climb ahead.   Three of the lodge's four open-air huts -- rancheros, they're called -- are up a steep but well designed and well maintained trail.  I thought of it as a tenth-floor walkup, but maybe it wasn't that many steps. Henry and some of his staff members carried up our luggage and the luggage of other guests who had arrived with us on the boat from Bocas del Toro.  Going down (a short section of the path is shown below) was, of course, easier.  But still steep.  And at night, quite dark. Fortunately, Jane and I had brought our own flashlights.  
The room -- think of it as a deck with a thatched roof and some partial walls -- was lovely, with native hardwood floors and locally made furniture and glimpses of the Caribbean through the jungle canopy.  Banana trees were laden with fruit just off our deck.  The room had two double beds with the best and most convenient-to-use mosquito netting we've ever encountered -- bedside tables and both beds were within the curtains. There were two hammocks, a desk and a chair on the deck beyond the netting. Canvas-like curtains could be pulled to enclose the entire space in the event of bad weather, but while we were there what rain there was fell straight down and the curtains weren't needed.  Below, a view from within the netting.

The bathroom was as open-air as the rest of the space.  One amenity that you can't count on at eco-lodges like this is hot water.  La Loma has on-demand or limitless water heaters for each hut, a great luxury. 

At right, two baby hummingbirds and their mother in a next near the dining deck.  By the time we left, the hummingbirds had left, too.

Below, nearly ripe cacao pods still on the tree.

La Loma's jungle produces more than cacao.  There are breadfruit trees, breadnut trees, different kinds of bananas, pineapples and more.   If you have never stayed at an eco-lodge or never stayed in a jungle or never slept in mosquito netting, this is where you should start.  The staff, the international volunteers (who stay here while working in educational or vocational projects with the Ngobe people on Isla Bastimentos), the food and the accommodations could not be more pleasant. Henry and Margaret have created a Shangri-La.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Panama: On the Beach at Al Natural on Isla Bastimentos

    We spent two nights here in January 2014 before moving on to Bocas del Toro and an apartment owned by the same Belgians who own Al Natural.
       Our experience at Al Natural was mixed.  We liked our hut, shown at right, on stilts above what looked as if it would be our own personal beach.  There were twin and queen-size beds, all with somewhat tattered mosquito netting.  The open-air hut spilled onto a sunny deck where swimsuits actually had a chance of drying. Comfortable chairs and chaise-longues were welcome amenities, as was the hot-water shower. There were also electric lights.  Click HERE to visit the lodge's website.

    Above, the beach in front of our hut as seen from our deck. What looked like a private beach wasn't; a seaside path linking a local community with several lodges like ours actually went just below our hut, and some people using the path used the opportunity to cut over to the beach and others continued on Al Natural's more inland path.  The people were always polite and kept moving, so we quickly got used to a bit less privacy than we expected.
     At left is Al Natural's dock and beach as seen from the loft above the dining area.
     Another slight disappointment at Al Natural was the lack of bar service.  Although it boasts what is supposed to be a full bar, it is not staffed until 7 p.m. each evening.  Beer, sodas and bottled water are available on the honor system from a cooler, but if you want a passion fruit daiquiri, you have to wait until 7 or even later if the bartender is slow setting up for the evening.  One thing that can delay him is the arrival of night monkeys, small creatures that swing into the dining structure around sunset, almost as if they've been trained to entertain guests.
    Food at Al Natural was nothing exceptional during our stay, perhaps because the Belgian chef was off those days, arriving just as we were leaving.  The two nights we were there we had the same fish -- kingfish -- although prepared different ways.
       Al Natural offers excursions to snorkeling and scuba diving sites in the area; it can provide all the gear you need for either.  The level of service at the lodge itself is, well, extremely casual, even when the Belgian owner, who is in Panama only half the year, was there. But, all in all, not a bad place to spend a couple of days.


Panama: Bocas del Toro: surfers and backpackers ... and us

We spent two nights in January 2014 in the Caribbean town of Bocas del Toro, Panama, the major town in the island group that shares its name.  It's actually on Isla Colon.  We stayed in a  studio apartment in a small dock apartment building known as M&M -- that's for Michel and Michelle Natalis, who also own the beach lodge Al Natural on nearby Isla Bastimentos.  The apartment was quite nice -- cable TV and air-conditioning, though we didn't use the later -- but noisy.  Motor boats sped by our private deck at all hours, and our fellow tenants were noisy young men with surf boards.  Sometimes they used the diving board near our deck, swimming and putting themselves at risk of being hit by one of the motor boats.  Despite the noise, this is an easy place to recommend (click HERE to visit its website).  We had the sea front studio.  This photo -- the view from the bed -- shows the deck and its hammock.

Restaurants, bars, grocery stores, souvenir shops, outfitters and tour companies line Calle 3, the main street in Bocas del Toro. There's even a wine bar -- though it offers only a handful of wines by the glass.  Below, snapshots of Calle 3 and the waterfront.

There is no beach to speak of in the town of Bocas del Toro, though there are good beaches elsewhere on Isla Colon.  Surfers and sunbathers flock to Bluff Beach.  We went to Starfish Beach, which has gentler waves, usually good snorkeling (recent rains meant we had no decent snorkeling anywhere in the Caribbean), and loads of swimmers.  Our visit coincided with a bunch of people from a giant cruise ship anchored a few hundred yards offshore. Below, photos of the crowded and uncrowded parts of Starfish Beach. One photo shows the cruise ship.


Panama: Getting Away From It All

Above, the Guna community at Playon Chico, Panama. 

No, that's not some sort of Nazi flag. The one on the left is the old flag of Comarca Kuna Yala, the homeland of the indigenous Guna (pronounced KOO-nah and often spelled "Kuna") people of Darien province in Panama. It's supposed to represent interlocked arms, a symbol of community unity.  The idea is a bit more clear in the new flag, shown on the right.  The eight stars are for the eight traditional chiefs of the Guna, though we're told that there are only three chiefs at the moment.

Jane and I stayed three nights in January 2014 in the traditional eight-sided Guna hut at right.  It's at a Guna lodge called Yandup (click HERE for link) on a tiny island a short boat ride from Playon Chico.  The only way to reach this place is one flight a day on Air Panama to Playon Chico's small landing strip. Our flight from Panama City was in an eight-passenger plane (photo below) with air vents in the windows and everyone sitting immediately behind the two pilots. There are almost no roads in Darien Province.

Below, two fishermen worked the waters near our hut using a dugout canoe. One speared a squid and one caught an octopus, both popular on menus here. Octopus frequently shows up in ceviche.

Below:  Yandup has five huts that are over the water and several others on land. A large open-air dining building is also over the water.   The lodge is building a large spa hut -- bamboo and thatch, like everything else -- that will add a little luxury to what now are pretty basic services.  But, when you're in a hammock on a deck over warm Caribbean waters, how much more luxury do you need?

The walls of the huts are sections of bamboo nailed to a frame. The wind easily comes in through spaces between the pieces of bamboo. Windows have bamboo latticework but no screens and no glass. The roof overhang is sufficient to keep out rain and enough sun so that the inside stays pretty comfortable. Our hut had electric lights and fans, a double bed, one twin-size bed, a hanging chair, and a bath with a flushing toilet and a cold-water shower. Both beds had mosquito netting, which we didn't need. There were two hammocks and a rocking chair on the deck.

Meals at Yandup ("dup" means island in the Guna language) were pretty simple: pancakes or an omelet or fried eggs for breakfast, and fish or other seafood for lunch and dinner.

Guests are all entitled to two excursions a day -- a guided tour of the Guna community (no photos of this because having been told that the Guna object to being photographed, I didn't take my camera -- turns out they don't mind if you ask first and offer them a little money) , a hike to a Guna cemetery, and snorkeling trips to neighboring desert islands, such as the one below.
 Being at so remote a place can pose unexpected problems.  Jane became pretty ill on our second day, so we tried to cut our three-night visit to two, but we had missed the early-morning plane and would have to wait until the next day anyway. I thought we could arrange to have a car sent for us from Panama City, but I hadn't looked at a map.  The staff at Yandup told us that getting to the nearest road to meet a car would involve a three-hour trip in a small boat over rough seas.  So Jane toughed it out and we left as scheduled.  The plane back to Panama City was a bit larger and a little more comfortable -- it had maybe 16 seats and a center aisle.