Central America: Roads Less Traveled

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On the Caribbean coast, 50 miles offshore—an hour by air from Managua or a boat ride away from Bluefields—are the idyllic (and mostly English-speaking) Big Corn and Little Corn islands. Fringed by sandy and quite wonderful beaches, crystal-clear waters and three pristine coral reefs, these laid-back islands are ideal for diving and snorkeling, kayaking, fresh seafood dining, and yes, just lying on a beach. The larger visitor infrastructure—including small hotels, well-equipped dive operations offering open-water and advanced courses, and golf carts for hire to go exploring—are on the 3.9-sq.-mile Big Corn Island. The best beach on this island is Picnic Beach, located on the south bay, and the best hotel is Casa Canada (casa-canada.com). Local tour operators remind us that it is wise to choose a hotel with its own restaurant or one adjoining, as well as one with its own generator should the lights go out. Boats depart from Big Corn for the 20-mile run to 1.1-sq.-mile/population 515 Little Corn Island—the boat ride and the handful of local accommodations are for those looking for a balmy, barefoot, car-free, often electricity-free place in the sun.

panama “Kuna Kingdom” is a World Apart

A short flight from Panama City, yet occupying a world of its own, are the San Blas Islands—officially Comarca Kuna Yala, the autonomous territory of the Kuna Indians—whose women folk are dazzling in their gold nose rings, beaded arm ankle bracelets and blouses fashioned with a decorative appliqued art called molas, world-renowned symbols of Kuna culture and one of the most recognized images of Panama. Travelers can watch molas in the making on location, one of the many unique aspects of experiencing the islands’ indigenous lifestyle. However, other top rewards of a San Blas sojourn are swimming off white sand beaches, snorkeling along pristine coral reefs, kayaking from island to island, swinging in a hammock, enjoying coconut cocktails and lots of fresh fish, and joining the islanders in their motorized cayucos (dugout canoes) that travel to different settlements scattered across the archipelago.

Access to the San Blas Islands is by boat or by air from Panama City’s domestic Albrook Airport, where, on checking in, you know you’re headed for an off-the-beaten-path place when both you and your baggage are weighed in before boarding the small aircraft that skims over mist-shrouded rainforest to various island landing strips. In planning and booking a San Blas stay, almost everyone needs an expert who knows Panama. For instance, not all islands have daily services, and lodgings are limited and rustic—some more so than others. Like all businesses in San Blas, lodges are owned and operated by the Kuna, and common to all lodges are: no hot water, limited hours for electricity, and room rates inclusive of meals, with drinks paid separately and in cash. In fact, this Kuna world is a cash only society, although luckily the national currency is the U.S. dollar.

While the western islands are closest to Panama City, the more upscale lodges are in the eastern islands. For example, consider flying from Panama City to Actutupu, the main airstrip for these isles, and transfer a short distance by cayuco to the Dolphin Island Lodge (uaguinega.com), which occupies most of tiny Uaguitupo Island (a.k.a. Uaguinega). Reserve a “jr. suite” cabin with ocean views and terrace, hardwood floor, private bathroom with flush toilets and cold showers, 24-hour solar-powered electricity; the bar and Bohio Restaurant are seaside. Note: This is the only San Blas lodge with Internet service. Room rates come with all-inclusive meal plan and a full touring menu: beach outings, snorkeling trips, birdwatching tours on the mainland, and visits to traditional Kuna communities, including the house of the Sahilas (Kuna chiefs) where community decisions are made.

Overall, the best time to be on the San Blas Islands is May to November. However, the best sailing season is from December to April, and San Blas Sailing (sanblassailing.com) has a fleet of sailboats for up to eight passengers who sail on mini-trips (three to six nights) and longer trips of 14 days. The company’s crewed fleet is available for shared or charter sailings, departing from Corazon de Jesus, a small peninsula with an airstrip.

The best snorkeling season is in the summer, and the best snorkeling is on the Cayos Holandeses, a cluster of deserted isles in the western San Blas islands. While scuba diving in not permitted in Comarca Kuna Yala, lying just outside the western boundary of the territory is U.S.-owned Coral Lodge (corallodge.com), a truly deluxe resort where spacious (650 sq. ft.) overwater bungalows come with jacuzzi tubs with ocean views, glass-floor sitting room, and 180-degree views from hammock-furnished balconies. One specialty activity here is superb scuba diving along the pristine Baja Escribano Reef, three miles offshore. Non-divers enjoy mangrove-canal kayaking, trekking, horseback riding and fishing. And the San Blas Islands are a 30-minute boat trip away.