Accommodations and Food
Nearly all visitors fly into El Porvenir and stay at one of the basic hotels on the surrounding islands. Hotel stays generally include all meals, transfers to and from the airstrip on El Porvenir, and daily boat trips.
These trips are generally to Achutupu or Cartí, but jungle hikes on the mainland or boat rides to the Cayos Limónes, Cayos Grullos, or the remote Cayos Holandéses are sometimes possible for an extra fee. Expect to pay at least US$150 per boat for a trip to the Holandéses.
The Hotel San Blas (cell 6538-1141 Karina I. Burgos, in Panama City; tel. 257-3310 or 257-3311; hotelsanblas [at] hotmail [dot] com, US$50 pp, including all meals and a daily boat trip), on Nalunega, is the old stalwart among the archipelago’s hotels. Sometimes known as Cabañas San Blas, it consists of 30 rooms with shared bathrooms on the southern side of Nalunega.
There are several kinds of accommodations here. The four huts right on the beach have sand floors and offer slightly more privacy, as they are a few centimeters away from their neighbors. If a breeze is more important than privacy, for the same price one can get a room in the large two-story building behind the huts. Be warned, though, that this is essentially a dormitory with cane dividers that don’t reach all the way to the very tall thatch roof.
Meals are served in a large, unadorned cement-block dining room. A few more rooms are upstairs. The ones by the terrace have a view of the sea. Avoid the one right above the kitchen.
The hotel was started decades ago by Luis Burgos, a laid-back Kuna who speaks English and Spanish, and is still owned by the Burgos family.
The rest of the island is taken up by a village of about 450 inhabitants. One of the charms of this place is staying in such close proximity to the Kuna. There’s a general store with basic supplies and several kiosks that sell sodas, cookies, beer, and such.
As with other Kuna villages, this one is none too clean, but the hotel staff rakes the sand around the hotel every day, ensuring its little patch is tidy (but not free of outhouses over the water). Rats are a fact of life on the islands, and they tend to make an appearance here more often than at some other Kuna hotels. I’ve never heard of anyone being bitten, but the rustling critters have been known to upset a good night’s sleep.
Hotel Kuna Niskua (tel. 259-3471 or 259-9136, cell 6709-4484 or 6537-3071, http://kuna-niskua.com, US$55 pp, based on double occupancy, including all meals and a daily boat tour, US$10 supplement for those traveling alone), on Wichub-Huala, is the most attractive of the simple hotels. It’s still quite basic, but it’s a tidy, well-cared-for place. The main building is concrete, but softened by intricately woven cane walls.
More rooms are on the 2nd floor of a second building, which also has a terrace strung with hammocks. There are 10 rooms with private bathrooms and 3 with shared ones. There’s no difference in price. Per person rates are US$5 less with three people in a room, US$5 more for solo travelers. The rooms in the second building (also with shared bath) are darker and offer less privacy. Most have just a single window, so try to get the corner room overlooking the water; it has more windows.
Kuna Niskua recently completed a new place, Kuna Niskua Isla Wailidup (contact Kuna Niskua, bungalows start at US$125 pp first night, US$95 after first night, including all meals and a daily boat tour), a short boat ride to the east of Wichub-Huala. Also known as Waily Lodge, it’s on pretty, uninhabited Wailydup (pronounced WHY-lee-doop), a sandy island just a few hundred meters long. It offers two rustic wood-floored, thatched-roofed cabins, each with a good double bed, private shower and flush toilet, and a little back porch overlooking the sea and nearby islands. There’s electricity at night.
The snorkeling around here is good. A sand-floored dining hall is nearby, and four more cabins are in the works. There’s nothing else on the island. The one problem with this place is the abundance of chitras (sand flies): When I was there, a nice breeze was blowing and they weren’t a problem, but I’m told that when the wind dies, they’re ferocious.
Though the location is great, prices are steep for such a simple place. The owners plan to offer packages that combine stays here and at Kuna Niskua; they might be more economical. Those not staying here can visit for US$10 per person.
There are two reasons to stay at Hotel Corbiski (cell 6708-5254, 6703-8378, or 6682-0625, tel. 257-7189, Panama City tel. 257-7189, eliasperezmartinez [at] yahoo [dot] com, www.corbiski.com, $55 pp, including all meals and a daily boat trip). The first is the owner, Elías Pérez. He’s a warm, friendly guy who speaks Spanish and quite a bit of English and has a great deal of experience as a tour guide. (He works with Ancon Expeditions in the dry season; he’s the island’s schoolteacher the rest of the year.) He can sometimes offer special trips for an extra fee, including kayak expeditions and forest hikes on the mainland. The second is the chance to live close to a Kuna family in the heart of a Kuna community.
When I last visited, the rooms were basic, even by the standard of Kuna accommodations, but new cane-walled rooms over the water have been built that at least have some charm and a bit more privacy, even if they are still quite rustic. There are now a total of 12 rooms. The proximity to a Kuna village is not for everyone. Other houses are crammed nearby, as are outhouses that empty into the sea. Elías works with the guys who run Cartí Homestay, so if you have trouble reaching them or want to stay at both places, get in touch with him. Elías can also arrange land transportation to and from Panama City. This place is also sometimes known as Hospedaje Corbiski, and as with the island, is sometimes spelled “Corbisky.”
Note that, while this is a thriving Kuna community (a puberty ceremony was underway right next to the hotel when I visited), it’s a fairly modern one; expect cinderblock buildings and electricity at night.
Cabañas Ukuptupu (cell 6746-5088 or 6744-7511, tel. 293-7893, 293-8709, or 299-9011, www.ukuptupu.com, US$55 pp, including all meals and a daily boat trip) is the only thing on the rocky island of Ukuptupu, nestled between Wichub-Huala and Nalunega. The hotel, which until 1998 was a Smithsonian research facility, consists of 15 basic, but spacious, cane-and-wood rooms over shallow water, connected to each other by boardwalks. Because it’s very easy to walk off the boardwalks into the ocean, this is not a place to bring small children. The hotel completely covers the tiny island, so it’s more private and isolated than the other hotels in this region, without the pros and cons of sharing an island with a Kuna village. Service was pretty disorganized when I last visited.
Beds consist of foam mattresses in a wooden frame. Bathrooms are shared but have flush toilets. Guests take bucket baths from barrels filled with rainwater. There’s an open-air bar and a little library with battered books. The hotel has good views of the ocean and the surrounding inhabited islands. Hammocks are strung up around the place, which tends to get a nice breeze. An underwater rock corral houses the lobsters, crab, and other sea creatures guests may be offered for dinner. The elderly owner, Juan García, worked in a U.S. military mess hall for five years and speaks fluent English.
The Hotel Kikirdub (tel. 396-1223, cell 6048-3358 or 6673-8767, www.hotelkikirdub.com, US$100 pp, including all meals and daily boat trip), on a tiny islet between El Porvenir and nearby Wichub-Huala, is the first lodging in the archipelago with truly modern infrastructure. It can sleep up to 10 people in four rooms, with more on the way. Some of the rooms are in the house, but the nicest and most private one has a separate entrance with a hammock-strung terrace. All the rooms have dark wood floors and paneling, modern bathrooms, and thin mattresses. There’s electricity 6 p.m.–6 a.m.
This is the home of Enrique Garrido, formerly the president, and still a member, of Panama’s general assembly. He flies home on the weekends. Though the house is modern, traditional Kuna ways are much in evidence: When I visited, a Kuna granny was on the back porch, snoozing in a hammock. There is no beach on the island, which is not much bigger than the house itself, and the only other things on it are a thatched-roofed kitchen and bar and an artificial pond with turtles and other wild creatures. The staff is friendly. The hotel also offers day trips from Panama City, including all land and boat transport, for US$120, minimum six people, though why anyone would want to make such a long trip without staying at least one night is a mystery to me.
If all accommodations are full, the 13-room Hotel El Porvenir (cell 6692-3542 or 6718-2826, Panama City tel. 221-1397, 262-9922, or 292-4543, http://hotelporvenir.com, US$50 pp, including all meals and a daily boat tour) may have to do. Rooms here are drab, dark, and run-down, and they have worn mattresses and zero charm. The staff is friendly, though, and there are toilets and showers in the rooms, though they’re not especially clean. As the name suggests, the hotel is on the island of El Porvenir, which is also home to the area’s airstrip and some small government offices. There’s nothing else on the island, which means you’ll have plenty of peace and quiet—at least until an airplane lands, since the hotel is almost on the airstrip. The little beach here is pleasant, and the water seems much cleaner than that surrounding the crowded islands nearby. But you’ll likely feel quite isolated.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition