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Cuna de Vida– luxury in the jungles of Panama


El Capitan is what they call him.

To me, he has more of a Chinaman’s look with his spindly hank of dark goatee.

El Capitan navigates the boat that my husband and I board from a small commercial pier at a nowhere place in Panama called Santa Isabel. Within spitting distance, on a ridge of sand that edges the Caribbean, a set of vultures do a clumsy bunny hop, wicked serrated wings flapping. They drag and fight and skulk over a dead fish, not minding our presence.

 The sea ahead is rough and thick with debris, the color of a leatherback turtle.

El Captain’s beard swings, a metronome to the discordant thump of waves. 

Everything is okay.


 In my actuality he is Hemingway’s brave Capitan! A tried and true seaman, he is firm behind the wheel of the 21-foot cruiser, bare feet planted as the boat strides the surf, his face pitted against the grey ruin of the sea. I noticed that the glass in the boat’s front dash windows is gone and my heart does a crazy dance and lands in my mouth.

Cuna de Vida, when will we arrive?

I hear myself foolishly yelling “grande” each time the craft mounts a large wave so I focus hard on El Captain’s hypnotic goatee.

And now I should explain: It is my birthday trip.

My husband Robert is taking me where I asked to go—to the middle of nowhere.

Cuna de Vida, six thatch cabins perched like storks in the azure Caribbean Sea. A small eco resort of great interest to spoiled travelers wanting to immerse in solitude, culture, beauty and fine cuisine.  

The seas at Cuna de Vida, between an eco park in Kuna Yala and the famed San Blas Islands, are lauded for their placid and serene clarity.

But not today!

 It is December 8, 2010 the day after the Panama Canal closed for the first time in 21 years. Historic flooding caused by rainfall forced more than a thousand Panamanians in close-by Colon to evacuate.   It is the first time the canal has closed due to weather since it opened in 1914. Of interest to the setting is that thelast time the canal closed was also in early December, in 1989, when U.S. troops invaded to oust Manuel Noriega.

I think about that historic coincidence to take my mind off the waves.

 I wonder  again if I have made a mistake with my wish.

And then I see Cuna de Vida, thatched roofs glinting gold in a molten lead sky.  

I take my eyes off El Captain and admire the shore, its jungle and mangroves near.

It is like gazing into an emerald.


 I hear the raucous hooting of a howler monkey; I notice the fine ebony silhouette of a heron high stepping across a pale scarf of beach.


At last the hairy human metronome slows and we are thrown by one last champion wave to the resort pier.   We are in the middle of nowhere but…

There are people waiting to welcome us.

Among the smiling faces there is a brown woman.

She is culturally resplendent; her tiny waist wrapped in a mola, the hand appliquéd textile the region is famous for.  Her bare skin is coiled, ankles and wrists, with colored beads.

She is from an ancient people, she is a Kuna Indian from the nearby San Blas Islands; one of a mere 50,000 left on our planet. She balances a tray set with welcoming gifts: purple orchids and fresh young coconut water drinks in the shell.

Cuna de Vida (cradle of life). The meaning is clear.

I marvel at my exotic surroundings:  mangroves, birds, lazy flitting butterflies, indigenous peoples, emerald canopied rainforests.  The thought that I have made a mistake in choosing my birthday gift are gone.

The boat trip fades…

We have arrived at Cuna de Vida and the grey seas and rough waves are replaced by 3D Technicolor scenery, shy laughter and come hither bird calls.  


Ways of Escape:

For flights and hotels call Wiep Burgraef at Incentive Travel
1 888 921 8131

Book at least three days at Cuna de Vida. It is a once in a lifetime experience.
The  setting and accommodation are the ultimate for nature lovers, It  is luxurious with only six very private over water suites that have Jacuzzi baths and 360 degree water views.
The cooking is high cuisine and menus are by renowned hotelier and Chef Extraordinaire Andre Niederhauser. Service is personal and caring.with talented manager/chef Ian Whittgreen seeing to guests every whim.

(If you are worried about getting there and by unlucky happenchance (twice in a lifetime)  the famed Panama Canal is closed due to rough weather in the next hundred or longer years the entrepreneurial Niederhauser has purchased a float plane and Capi’s goatee will no longer entertain arriving and departing guests with its swing.