The island of Ukupseni — or Playón Chico (“little beach”), as it’s known in Spanish — is a tiny isla off the Caribbean coast in Panama’s beautiful Guna Yala territory (formerly known as the San Blas Islands). Ukupseni has long been a draw for adventurers looking for a beautiful and remote respite. This stretch of Central America is home to the Guna, one of the seven indigenous groups of Panama. Throughout the region there are fifty-one Guna communities. Eight are on the mainland and 43 are on islands.
Ukupseni has a population of 3,000 Guna on the extremely small, 0.75-square mile island. which is only accessible by plane (one flight a day) or by four-hour boat ride. Due to its remoteness, the fishing village largely exists as it has for hundreds of years. Narrow dirt roads wind through thatch-roofed homes. Children fly kites after school through the streets. Women dressed in traditional, explosively colorful headscarves and kaleidoscopic beads sew on porches. Men fish and chop wood. Smoke from cooking fires mingles with the thick rainforest humidity and sea air.
Greenspot Travel is an a ecotourism company that arranges indigenous-minded tours, mostly in Central America. Recently, through Greenspot Travel, I stayed the Yandup Island Lodge in Panama. This modest but beautiful ecolodge, owned and operated entirely by the Guna, exists on its own island just a 10-minute boat ride from Ukupseni. The campus features 10 “over-the-water” bungalows, its own private beach and surrounding coral reefs, and terrific seafood pulled from the surrounding water. The retreat also offers a variety of half-day excursions, which include exploring deserted beaches, snorkeling, and touring mangroves, as well as visits to the Ukupseni community.
While there is much to be said for spending a day on your own island and plucking a lobster out of the sea for your dinner, what you really need to do to truly experience the area and culture is meet with the Guna people who call Ukupseni home. The Guna are a beautiful community, rich with tradition. They are believed to be the second smallest group of people in the world and were the first autonomous indigenous territory in Panama. They also have the largest per capita number of albinos globally.
In the photo gallery below you’ll find a closer look at the Guna of Ukupseni and Yandup Island Lodge.
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