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Under the Guna Sun
Our night in Panama's paradise
September 10, 2023
Happy Sunday, travelers! Since I last wrote you, I’ve been to three new countries, read oh-so-many books, and moved seventeen hoursaway from my beloved Music City. I can’t wait to share it all with you—I’ll catch you up in a series of newsletters over the coming weeks. But for now, let’s go back to Easter.
As a refresher, we left off in Boquete, where Val and I hiked above the clouds in the Panamanian mountains.After three short days, we checked out of my favorite Airbnb from the Journey to 197 (so far, at least) and took the local bus to David. This time, it was a school bus with the windows rolled down. As my hair tangled with the wind rushing through our little window, I looked at my childhood friend and felt like the twenty years we’ve known one another hadn’t passed at all. School buses have that effect on people. A sunset hour on Copa and we were back where we began, in Panama City.
What came next was unlike anything we’d done before, and it was a one-time experience. We knew that going in, eyes wide open, eager to experience and cherish. The finite nature of the next two days bade me pause, called every sense to action. Soak it all in, because this moment, this place, this version of myself—all are fleeting, even more than usual.
In the quiet stillness of 4am, we woke as Panama City slumbered. There’s something magical about seeing bustling cities, vibrant and full of life, still in deep breaths of sleep in the wee hours of the morning. Our driver pulled up to our hotel in a 4x4 right as we left our suitcases with the luggage check.
Our San Blasadventure was about to begin.
After three hours of swinging back and forth in winding roads through the middle of Panama with the rise of the morning sun, we made it through the first part of hard. And by hard, I mean we saw cars pulled over on the way with people throwing up from road sickness. At least we were still on stable ground—the boat ride came next.
At the rustic dock, a man with a smile brighter than the sun walked up to us and waved. I recognized him instantly—he was none other than our Airbnb host. Yes, you read that correctly. I booked this entire adventure on Airbnb. This one, to be exact.
Our transit to San Blas, part 2, was an hourlong speedboat ride starting from a river that ultimately feeds into the Caribbean Sea. Sprays of sea water came into the boat at every turn. We were all drenched by the end, but we made the most of it. My neighbor opened his cooler and started passing around light beers—here for a good time, not a long time.
Even in our exhaustion from the 4am wakeup call, all of it melted away when the boat slowed and we were pulled to shore.
Welcome to Tubasenika.
We spent the day lounging in paradise, splitting our time between our front yard and a tiny communal beach down the path. After so much planning to get here, it felt almost anti-climactic for the main activity to be, well, being. I asked for an island paradise, and that is what I got. Any beach I see in the future will be compared to this one,for all my days.
Saturday night we slept in our hut with the door wide open to the Caribbean’s mystical breeze.The light of the moon cast a transcendent silver sheen on the water. Covered in sweat, bites from God-knows-what, sand blanketing our legs, we slept like the dead after every ounce of energy was drained from our bodies by the unrelenting rays of the sun.
Like most Southerners, I grew up in church. My Sunday best was nothing compared to the pageant affair that was Easter. All my life, I can’t remember an Easter Sunday where I actually got to rest. My day was 3 hours of church in a highly uncomfortable dress and shoes, followed by a luncheon we probably hosted, then cleaning, then homework, then breathing. Sunday is technically the day of rest in Christian tradition,but Easter itself was certainly not a day of rest for me.
As it turned out, we were in Panama this Easter Sunday. I felt a smidge of religious guilt when I realized how the dates worked out, but it was already booked and my job at this point was to make the most of it. I admitted to myself later that I secretly looked forward to an Easter where literally nothing was expected of me. Not a single thing. I didn’t have to raise a finger.
San Blas delivered.
On that glorious Sunday, we woke up to this:
Our main activity of the day was a tour to snorkel on other islands. When we stopped at an island with a restaurant, we clinked San Felipes while the waves eased up the sand like a lullaby. Life was good.
That night, we made the demanding journey back to Panama City. There was so much sand and dirt in my hair that it was stiff with the salt. Coming back to the hustle and bustle of the city at night was such a dichotomy—did we really just go to a remote island and sleep in a hut on the shore? It felt like an alternate universe. When I called Panama a country of countries, this is what I meant.
The next morning, we slept in and slowly made our way to the airport. Sun burnt and exhausted, wondering still if it was all a dream, we bade our farewell to Panama. In just eight short days, we experienced the world. If I never get to go back, I have peace. I can say, after a few years of doing this, there’s no better way to feel when the jet bridge closes and it’s time to fly away.
That night we landed in Ecuador—I’ll tell you about it soon.
Be brave and stay that way,
P.s. Before we fly to Ecuador, I’m going to send a (long overdue) book post. :-)
I was going to say fifteen, but it took seventeen to drive my SUV up here. So seventeen it is!
Its indigenous name is Guna Yala, pronounced “Kuna Yala.”
Tubasenika was the island we stayed on. There are 365 islands in Guna Yala. Some are villages, others are uninhabited. Tubasenika was a coconut farm before the Guna converted it to a tourism destination.
And Monkey Beach in the Phi Phi Islands of Thailand. That will always be number one in my eyes.
One of the most important things about San Blas is it’s very, very safe. I’d never slept with the door open to the world before, and I’ll (probably) never do it again!
Or that’s what we teach, even if it’s not a realistic practice in our lives.