ARCHIPELAGO SAN BLAS, Panama - The crude motorboat with my two backpacks sitting precariously at the bow eases through the royal blue Caribbean waters past tiny, uncharted islands. Heading to one of them to spend two days on the smallest island I've ever visited, I'm wondering whether two days are too much.
Then the boat docks at Isla Yandup, next to a pristine, powdery-white beach, and I'm wondering whether two days are enough.
The island is the size of a football field, sprouting wispy palm trees swaying in the wind.
Ten round, bamboo-thatched cabanas are spaced for privacy. I walk over a wooden gangplank into mine and see a queen-sized bed, a porcelain sink next to a modern shower and toilet, electric lights, and two hammocks on a veranda jutting out over the sea. I survey the island again. No bar. No shops. No cars.
I'm in Archipelago San Blas, a chain of 365 islands - all but about 40 uninhabited - dotting Panama's Caribbean coast. They belong to the Kuna, Panama's indigenous tribe, who have turned the palm tree-covered isles into beachcomber nirvanas, absent the commercialism of island resorts.
For six days on two of these islands, my biggest decisions are which hammock to read in and whether to use 15 sunscreen or 35. I eat crab legs and lobster tail, and at one point I'm one of four people on the island.
Talk about "getting away from it all." After 24 hours in San Blas, I forget what "all" means.
I've sailed past islands like these in French Polynesia, where the St. Regis Bora Bora's thatched huts perch over the South Pacific. They're similar to my cabana, which costs $500 less a night.
The Kuna rent out the Yandup cabanas starting at $95 per person, including meals and excursions to villages, other islands, and snorkeling spots. Only drinks are extra.
It's an easy journey - an hour flight from the underrated capital of Panama City to Playon Chico over jungle so thick I can't see through the bright green canopy.
Flying over the Caribbean, I see men in dugout canoes fishing for red snapper, crab, and lobster. We land on the island of Playon Chico at an airport so small the terminal looks like a one-car garage.
What do you do on an island you can circumnavigate in five minutes? Nothing. That's the point. Time in San Blas moves as slow as the tides. I read five books. I snorkel over starfish and shipwrecks. I get really tan.
But if Yandup is right out of Robinson Crusoe, my second island, Isla Kuanidup, makes Yandup look like the Maui Marriott. Still, Kuanidup, 45 miles up the chain and reachable via Panama City, must be a Kuna word for rustic.
My cabana, like the 10 others, has a sand floor. One lightbulb illuminates a 4-inch-thick foam rubber mattress, two bedsheets, and a table barely big enough for a backpack and camera.
Yet what Kuanidup lacks in comfort, it makes up in sheer beauty. The sandy beach, raked every morning, stretches around the island. Hammocks hang between palm trees. Quite a bargain at only $95 a night.
As I read in a hammock, the only sound is the gentle roll of the Caribbean over sand. There aren't enough guests to disturb the mood. Two Spaniards explore the 80-degree waters with snorkel and underwater camera. A French couple and their children look terribly French, sitting at the lone picnic table sharing a bottle of wine and cheese.
A bell rings, and we head to the dining hall - a formal term for a thatched roof over wooden tables. The food is shockingly good, considering the only ingredients seemingly available are fish and coconuts.
Kuna chefs feed us like island royalty. On a visit to a Kuna village on another island, Luis, my cherubic guide, stands on the dock holding dinner. It's a 3-pound crab with legs nearly as long as Luis'.
That night, as a warm breeze rustles the palm leaves, I attack a pile of crab legs. The cracked shell unveils a loaf of sweet crabmeat as long as a kielbasa.
The next night, the Kuna go one better: lobster with sides of rice, yucca, sweet plantains, potatoes, and coconut rice. So I wonder - who are these Kuna and how in the world did they develop this paradise?
The Kuna have lived along Panama's Caribbean coast since the 1600s. Legend has it that they were chased out of Colombia by blow-dart-wielding tribes. These days, about 40,000 of the 70,000 Kuna live in Archipelago San Blas. They have survived pirates, Spanish explorers, and the occasional adventurous tourist, thriving on fish, coconuts, and, now, tourism.
In the late 1980s, seeking income from something besides fishing and molas - intricately stitched artwork found all over Panama - the Kuna built cabanas on the islands. Until then, the few tourists stayed in far-off El Porvenir, which had a tiny airport.
The Kuna thought, "Why not build something on the islands instead of tourists going back and forth?" says Miguel Perez, the manager of Kuanidup since it opened in 1988.
Perez is a Kuna who has the presence of an island chieftain. With strong shoulders, a round face, and a full head of jet-black hair, Perez is fiercely proud of his heritage and the Kuna's business acumen.
Each island costs $10,000, Perez says, and a portion of the profits made from tourists goes back into the community. Only Kuna can own property in San Blas. About 15 to 20 islands offer rentals, ranging from the sleepy Kuanidup to Isla Senidup, the first rented island and the lone party spot. You can hear the rock music and see the tanned bodies from miles offshore.
The Kuna don't live this leisurely. On Ukup Seny, about 3,000 Kuna cram into wood dwellings squeezed so close together that from the sea the village looks like one giant tobacco leaf.
Children make up more than half the population. Respiratory disease is common, birth control nonexistent. But there is a celebration of life I haven't seen in tired villages around Asia and Africa. Children are playing basketball on concrete courts with no nets. A child who boots a penalty kick past his friend runs down the dirt alley with his forefinger aloft.
Later that night, I'm in my hammock, swinging peacefully on an 80-degree evening. Off in the distance, peeking over the jungle highlands, is the soft glow of light. Panama City is only 93 miles away.
But in Archipelago San Blas, civilization never seems very close.
Panama's dry season is mid-December to mid-April. It rains all year round in San Blas, with less rain in winter. It rains most in November and in summer, but there are many breaks of sunshine in summer.
American, Continental, Copa, Delta, United, and US Airways fly to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City from Philadelphia with one stop. The lowest recent round-trip fare was about $703. Air Panama has daily flights from Panama City-Albrook to El Porvenir (to reach Isla Kuanidup) for $37.50 one way and Playon Chico (to reach Yandup Island) for $43.50 one way. Aeroperlas also has daily flights to Playon Chico for $43.50.
The shuttle service between Tocumen and Albrook airports costs $50 for two people. Panama City, however, is well worth a one-night layover.
Isla Yandup, cabin over water from $95 per person for a triple to $140 for a single, seafront cabin from $82 per person for a single to $130 per person for a triple. Isla Kuanidup, $95 a night per person.
What to bring
Snorkel gear. The gear provided is iffy.
Sun hat. It's too warm for a raincoat. The sun hat will do for rain showers.
Books. Lots of books.
The Kuna do not like having their pictures taken. Ask permission before shooting someone and they'll expect money. A dollar is customary - U.S. money is used.
They also are a conservative people. Women cover their chests and legs, and men don't go shirtless. Do the same. They respond kindly when you know a few Kuna phrases, such as "hello" (na), "thank you" (dot nuet), "how much" (qui mani), and "goodbye" (degi malo).
- John Henderson