Family Hotel Review: Yandup Island Lodge, San Blas, Panama
One of the best addresses is San Blas is this remote private island home to 10 rustic cabanas and magnificent ocean views. It’s a dreamy castaway escape for both parents and children.
Best for: Robinson Crusoe wannabes (who aren’t quite ready to catch and cook their own dinner). Kids 4+ years but all ages welcome.
Reviewed by: Victoria Westmacott
Why You’ll Love It
Many websites label Yandup Island Lodge as a luxury hotel and if you weren’t familiar with San Blas you might disagree. Yet, having a private bathroom with a flush toilet and access to a restaurant is indeed a luxury when you’re in the wilds of Guna Yala (‘Land of the Guna’), as it’s known locally in Panama.
This semi-automotous province, positioned in the north-west of Panama, is governed by the Kuna (or Guna), an indigenous group of American Indians that have inhabited the area since the 1500s. The Kunas warmly welcome visitors but as part of their long-term efforts to preserve their culture they forbid any non-Kuna from permanently living or investing in land in San Blas.
As such, you won’t find any 5-star chain hotels, fancy restaurants or crowded cruise ports on this fervently protected archipelago and this lack of crowds is precisely why you’ll love it. Besides the handful of guests that occupied Yandup’s 10 cabanas, we didn’t cross paths with a single other tourist during our 4-day stay.
Privately owned (you don’t get any day-visitors here), Yandup Island Lodge is a 10 minute boat ride from a remote airstrip on the mainland (the only way to access the lodge). The island is tiny (you can walk around it in 5 minutes) and Yandup’s rustic cabanas sit at one end, either on the shore or over the water. There is no WiFi or phone coverage here (or indeed in much of San Blas) nor are there any televisions. This is an unplugged paradise where families can enjoy a screen-free break and quality time together in a picture-perfect paradise.
Why The Kids Will Love It
At first glance Yandup Island Lodge can look like a honeymoon destination suited only to couples. It turns out, however, that this is the ultimate paradise for kids too. Cabanas can accommodate families with up to four children and days are well-structured to keep even the most active of children busy.
Every morning a couple of boats shuttle guests to nearby islands for beach time, snorkelling and swimming. My only grumble would be that given the number of islands in the archipelago (350+) the beach options are somewhat limited and the snorkelling is not the best I’ve enjoyed in the area (mostly owing to the choppy seas in these parts). That said, the kids didn’t mind one bit and they had a blast combing the white sands for ‘treasures’, building sand forts and learning to snorkel. Cultural activities are offered in the afternoons, usually relating to the Kuna people (a different one is offered each day). One of the highlights for my daughter was visiting the neighbouring Kuna community and learning about their arts and crafts.
The staff are extremely friendly, always happy and fantastic with the kids. At meal times the Kuna ladies who managed the restaurant area would happily pass babies between themselves, allowing parents a much needed breather at the end of their meal. Tomas, one of the guides, took one of the older kids in our group for a little fishing trip in his dug-out canoe – an incredible experience for any child, or adult for that matter.
The children in our group ranged in age from 6-8, but we also saw families with babies, toddlers and teenagers during our stay. Without wanting to point out the obvious, Yandup Island Lodge is an unfenced, remote island and small children need supervising at all times.
There are 10 cabanas in total; six Over the Sea Cabanas and four Seafront Cabanas.
The cabanas are based upon traditional Kuna huts with palm thatched roofs and wooden floors. They are simple and rustic but very spacious and comfortable, furnished with handmade wood and bamboo furniture. Most of the rooms come with mosquito nets and all come with Queen size beds, ceiling fans, balconies, wardrobes, a terrace with hammocks and a private bathrooms. We also had a rocking chair on ours. Electricity is solar-powered which is enough for lights and charging devices but don’t count on bringing a hairdryer (and it working!)
As the island is private none of the huts have locks. If you feel more comfortable locking away valuables such as passports, bring a suitcase padlock. These are huts so forget blacking out the room. Light streams in at dawn, but this is very much an early to bed and early to rise place.
These sit on the shore facing the open sea and benefit from a welcoming sea breeze (that helps to keep the mosquitoes at bay!). Light sleepers might find the sound of the ocean more stimulating than soothing but our kids slept beautifully surrounded by white noise.
Over the Sea Cabanas
These six cabanas sit over the ocean waters and face inland. There is less of a breeze but the sound of the ocean is definitely more gentle!
Best rooms for families: The Seafront Cabanas are better suited to families with little kids. The balconies of the Over the Sea Cabanas have wide gaps and are not suited for curious toddlers! The cabanas can accommodate up to three extra beds although please note that some cabanas are (marginally) bigger than others. The larger ones are allocated to families with two or more children. Baby cots are subject to availability. The cabanas nearest the restaurant (numbers 9 & 10) are over the water.
The semi-open air restaurant faces inland and sits at the foot of a dock that extends over the island’s calmer waters to a small cabana (a former bar) that doubles as an excellent spot for a post-lunch hammock siesta.
The lodge specialises in locally caught seafood and while the meals are not Michelin starred they are very good, especially when you consider that nearly everything (besides the fish) has to be brought from the mainland. The menu is fixed and meal times are set in stone. Guests are summoned to meals by the sound of a conch shell.
A cooked Breakfast option is offered daily (usually eggs or pancakes) alongside cereal, yoghurt, filtered coffee and natural fruit juices. For Lunch, a three-course meal is provided starting with a soup followed by a fish dish and then a desert such as a cake, fruit or rice pudding. Coffee is charged as extra at lunch.
Another three-course meal is served at Dinner, usually a salad or pasta starter, a fish main course and fruit or a cake for desert. Lobster can be ordered on request. All meals are waiter served, the staff coming from the nearby Kuna village. The women wear brightly coloured traditional Kuna dress and are incredibly friendly and accommodating.
The kitchen staff at Yandup Island Lodge will do their best to accommodate any special dietary requirements, but they need advanced notice. It’s advisable to make any special requests at the time of booking, and follow up with a reminder before arriving.
Cold beer, wine, rum and whiskey are all available to purchase and guests are allowed to bring their own alcohol too. Bottles of water can be purchased and complimentary water is also available in the restaurant from a water dispenser.
Breakfast: 7am – 8.30am
Lunch: 12.30pm – 2pm
Dinner: 6.30pm – 8pm (the waitresses head home at 7.30pm!)
There is no room service.
For Kids: There is no dedicated children’s menu but most of the dishes served are child-friendly. Two highchairs are available for little kids and for babies, mashed fruit and rice / pasta dishes can be prepared. It is, however, best to give the kitchen plenty of notice if you have any special requirements.
Snacks: The restaurant is closed between lunch and dinner. A small selection of snacks (e.g. biscuits, crisps) can be bought, although we always recommend bringing your own when travelling with kids!
Activities for Parents & Kids: Guests can do as much or as little as they like on Yandup. There are plenty of places on the island to take hammock siestas and there is also a little beach area where you can take a swim. The staff are super friendly and will do their very best to accommodate everyone’s needs. Private fishing trips can also be arranged at additional cost, either from the hotel’s motorboat or from a traditional Kuna Indian canoe. Organised activities include the following:
- Morning and afternoon activities are organised at Yandup Island Lodge. Morning activities include boat trips to nearby islands where you can snorkel, swim, or simply relax. These beaches, like the one at Yandup, boast white sand and crystal clear waters. A waterfall trek (by request, only) is also offered.
- Afternoon activities include trips to a Kuna Village on a neighbouring island where you can learn about this indigenous community’s way of life and how they have preserved their unique culture. Shop for ‘molas’ (colourful appliques) and beaded jewellery that the Kuna women are famous for and pride themselves on making.
Juan, our guide, told me how he cured the arthritis in his hand using traditional Kuna methods. The local shaman advised him to cover his hand in ants and allow them to bite him until they drew blood. He agreed that it “was painful” but he’s never had a problem with arthritis since!
There are very few cultures left in this world like the Kuna’s that have been unaffected by modern development and live by the same means as they did hundreds of years ago. San Blas offers a unique and memorable experience for both parents and children.
- You may also visit a traditional Kuna cemetery, which is not as morbid as it sounds! A deep hole is dug so that the body can be laid to rest in a suspended hammock, facing east towards the open seas. They are usually buried with everyday objects that they can use in the afterworld. During the funeral ceremony, cocoa beans are burned and a local Chanter is hired to sing for 25 hours straight.
- Boat rides through the mangrove forests are also offered. Learn the importance of these small forests to the Kunas and the marine life development, not only in the Kuna reservation, but all along the Panamanian coast. During this tour you also visit an island where you can spot starfish, sea cucumbers, sea urchins and other animals.
- River Tours are a wonderful way to witness the colourful bird and marine life in the area.
- Cultural dance shows are also sometimes organised.
Morning activities generally run from 9.30am – 12pm and afternoon activities from 4pm – 5.30pm.
Extra beds, baby cots subject to availability.
At the time of writing rates were as follows:
Over the Sea Cabana: USD 195.50 per adult, per night.
Seafront Cabana: USD 170 per adult, per night.
Children: 0-3 years FREE. 4-11 years $69.55 per child per night. 12 and older are charged as adults.
* Panamanian taxes included. Community taxes: (to be paid in cash upon arrival) Adults: $ 10.00 per person, only once. Children: $ 6.00 per person, only once.
Package includes: Lodging, breakfast, lunch and dinner, bottled water with meals, two daily tours, guide, transportation between Playon Chico airport and Yandup.
Not included: Airplane ticket, community taxes ($10.0 per adult / $6.00 per child), drinks (on sale in the island), snorkelling equipment, special and/or additional tours, lobster.
Please note that rates are subject to change, contact the hotel directly for a quote based on your family’s requirements.
When to go:
Panama has a tropical maritime climate with two distinct seasons: the dry, ‘summer’ season (mid December to April) and the rainy, ‘winter’ season (May to December). Rainfall tends to come in short, heavy downpours and builds momentum as the rainy season progresses. Temperatures remain fairly constant all year round with an average temperature of around 27C. Humidity is high all year round.
Panama, including the San Blas islands, is located outside the Atlantic hurricane area. Some believe that the dry season is the best time to visit San Blas, however we don’t necessarily agree. Although there is very little rain during this period it does coincide with the arrival of strong trade winds. This can make the sea very choppy in parts and underwater visibility is significantly reduced. One advantage of these winds is that mosquitos are less of an issue.
In short, San Blas is a year-round tourist destination!
Location & Travel:
Yandup is located in the middle of San Blas, or the Guna Yala as it’s known locally, an archipelago that stretches some 226km off Panama’s Caribbean’s coast towards Colombia.
Yandup can only be accessed by plane as it is too far from a road to be reached (safely) by car and then boat. Air Panama (airpanama.com; +507 316 9000) offers daily 1 hour flights from Panama City to Playon Chico. Guests are greeted on this remote airstrip by Yandup staff who help transfer them by boat (approx. 10 mins) to the hotel.
Things to Bring:
- Do make sure you well prepared, particularly if you are travelling with babies and small children who need nappies, baby formula etc. A basic first aid kid is advisable, although there is a small medical centre in the Kuna Village.
- During the dry season the trade winds can be strong and the kids may want a lightweight jumper after their swim.
- If you are planning on participating in some of the inland tours, bring long trousers and walking shoes particularly if visiting during the rainy season when it can be wet and muddy and the jungle full of mosquitos!
- Reduce plastic waste and bring your own water bottles. The restaurant has a water dispenser.
- The sun is strong! Bring hats, UV Rash shirts, sunglasses, plenty of sunblock and after-sun cream.
- Beach/swimming shoes to protect little feet from sharp rocks and corals.
- Snorkelling kit (Yandup does have a few items that guests can rent, subject to availability).
- Lifejackets for kids. Although Yandup does have a couple of lifejackets for kids, it’s worth bringing your own if you have space for them.
- Alcohol. Although the bar is fairly well stocked, if you have a favourite tipple or are celebrating a special event, you might like to bring your own.
- Beach mats. The grass on some of the islands (including Yandup) tends to be quite coarse. We recommend bringing a thick beach or yoga mat to lie on.
- Bug repellent and after-bite cream!!
- The Kunas charge tourists $1 for every photograph you take of them. Bring small change!
Yandup Island Lodge – Video Clips
The #menu @yanduplodge is fixed but with advanced notice they can accommodate special dietary requirements for you or your children. Here is a little taster of what to expect. Our full #hotelreview for Yandup Island Lodge will be uploaded to globetotting.com soon. #panama #sanblas #yandup #familytravel #travelwithkids #familyhotelreview #hotelsforfamilies #travel #food #hotelmenu #hotel #bringthekids #instafood #foodie #flipagram made with @flipagram. A video posted by globetotting.com (@globetotting) on
#VIDEO: Flying in a 7 seater plane (‘a lawnmower with wings’ as my husband accurately described it) to #SanBlas #Panama. The experience was both thrilling and terrifying! -vw #AirPanama #FamilyTravel #Travelwithkids #Caribbean #Travel #plane #airport #playonchico #traveltuesday #whiteknuckles #goopgetaway A video posted by globetotting.com (@globetotting) on
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Contact The Hotel
For more information or to make a booking enquiry, visit the hotel’s own website by following the link below:
Reviewer’s Top Tips!
1) Book your flight to Playon Chico well in advance.
2) The Kunas charge tourists $1 for every photograph you take of them. Photographers should bring small change!
3) If you use a Kindle for reading, don’t forget to download your books to the device beforehand. Remember there is no WiFi at Yandup or anywhere near it! (See Recommended Reading under the above tab, Travel Info)