I should cocoa: sweet living on the San Blas islands

Panama's Kuna Indians love their centuries-old hot chocolate, said to make them happy and healthy. Danielle Demetriou tracked down the 'magic' brew on the remote and idyllic San Blas islands

Grandma Serafina stirs a murky, brown liquid. It bubbles in a metal bowl over an open fire in the corner of her dark hut. Then slowly, solemnly, she pours some into a glass bordered with faded roses - and a broad smile breaks across her wizened face as she thrusts it in my direction.

Accepting odd concoctions from strangers is an occupational hazard of travelling. But this is no ordinary liquid. This, say the experts, is an elixir for long-lasting health. It lowers blood pressure, reduces the risk of cancer, it even makes you happy. And best of all? It's chocolate.

It was my love of the dark stuff that enticed me across the Atlantic to the San Blas islands, a remote archipelago off the Caribbean coast of eastern Panama and home to the Kuna Indians. The second shortest tribe of Indians in the world after the Pygmies, the Kuna have fiercely preserved a wealth of cultural traditions after acquiring self-governing status from Panama more than eight decades ago.

But there is one custom in particular that captures the imagination of the sweet-toothed: the Kuna Indians' centuries-old tradition of consuming as much hot chocolate as is humanly possible. Breakfast, lunch, dinner - and frequently in between - it's always hot chocolate time on the San Blas islands, which has drawn numerous scientists to the region to study the health benefits of cocoa.

The latest report, published this month, found that less than one in 10 Kuna suffered from the Western scourges of diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancer. Why? Yes, you've guessed it: due to their chocolate habit.

As a self-confessed chocoholic, it seemed only right that I should hit the islands' cocoa trail to investigate these positive effects.

Our creaking 20-seater plane takes off at sunrise. The glittering skyscrapers of Panama City give way sharply to mountains of dense, green jungle cloaked in an eerie, white mist. My fellow passengers are an eye-catching bunch. All the women are in traditional dress: red headscarves, brightly embroidered tops over flowery blouses, rows of beads across their arms and legs, and a delicate black line painted along the ridge of their noses.

Less than an hour later, we make a bumpy landing on a remote airstrip that marks our arrival on Kuna territory: the Comarca de Kuna Yala region. A dark sea speckled with islands lies in front of the airport - a simple shack - and towering, moss-green mountains loom behind.

Bobbing in the sea are dozens of wooden dug-out "cayuco" canoes - the most common form of transport between islands. Horacio, a gentle-mannered man with a yellow baseball cap, throws my rucksack into his boat and we set off. Our boat passes an island crammed with endless rows of sun-bleached bamboo huts, smoke rising in a hazy swirl above the thatched roofs. Following my gaze, Horacio says: "That's Achutupo. About 1,800 people live there. We're staying on a smaller island nearby."

Our destination is Dolphin Island Lodge on tiny Isla Uaguitupo. There are 12 basic, thatched, bamboo huts with rough, wooden shutters for windows and hammocks swinging on sea-facing verandas. Sitting outside my hut, Horacio helps me get my bearings. Kuna territory consists of a mountainous mainland strip fringed with 365 sandy coral islands - "one for every day of the year". Only 40 islands are inhabited, with a total of 32,000 residents. Others are mere sandy blots.

Tourism is strictly regulated: a small number of islands are open to visits - and of these, only a few offer accommodation. Visitors cannot arrive without reservations, scuba diving is not permitted, and tourists must ask permission and pay before taking photos of the Kuna. Having outlined the rules, Horacio adds: "We are happy that tourists are coming. But we must make sure our traditions are preserved."

Soon after, I meet my guide Juan, a square-jawed man who is permanently in a rush. Explaining my interest in all things chocolate-related, he decides I'm a crazy English girl - but agrees to help. Upon arrival by boat at Achutupo, a gaggle of children rush to the ramshackle pier to greet us. I notice a number of albino children. "They are the Hijos de la Luna - children of the moon," says Juan. "They're special among the Kuna."

We stop to visit some women selling handmade "molas", the Kuna's brightly embroidered panels that adorn their traditional dress - and pretty much every hotel guest-room in Central America.

Amid the obvious poverty, there are signs of modern life. A youth in a vest and combats, CD Walkman plugged into his ears, bounces past as though he were in Brooklyn. But where is all the hot chocolate? Juan, now convinced I'm crazy, grumbles: "It's only the old people who make it today. It's much easier to buy it instant."

He leads the way to a cluster of family huts. The men sit weaving palms in the courtyard as children, chickens and cats scurry about. And leaning over an open fire in the back of a hut is Grandma Serafina, whobreaks into laughter when she realises I'd quite like a taste of hot chocolate.

"For as long as I can remember, we've made this drink," she says. "It is good for us. But many young people buy the powder from the shops today. They can't always get hold of fresh cocoa beans. But it is not as good for you."

Accepting a small glass, I take a sip - and, a little disappointingly, it tastes like a watery mouthful of sweetened hot chocolate. Which, I suppose, is what it is.

Back at Dolphin Island, there is a sense of enforced relaxation. There is no electricity during the day, no telephone lines, no mobile phone reception and a temperamental internet service costing a crippling $5 (£3) for 15 minutes. A lazy few hours perfecting the art of hammock swinging ensues.

Dinner is an early affair. There are around a dozen other tourists - mostly elderly Americans who appear slightly stunned to have left behind their more affluent resorts for one-night excursions. I tuck into deliciously fresh lobster, not-so-fresh tinned vegetables and a beer.

After a deep sleep punctuated by the endless crashing of waves, the cocoa crusade continues with hassled Juan the following morning and a visit to the mainland. It is here that the villagers grow their fruit, vegetables and herbs. Heading inland, Juan switches the boat engine off and we punt silently along still, brown rivers.

Clambering up the banks, butterflies flit and parrots squawk as we wander through fertile pathways of avocado, lime and guava trees. Juan stops occasionally to taste a leaf, fruit or flower - and laughs loudly after an innocent-looking chilli flower causes a scorching hot tingle in my mouth. Eventually, we find what Juan is looking for - cocoa beans. "Put this in your mouth," he orders. The light-green fruit contains rows of beans covered in soft, white flesh - and, surprisingly, they are delicious to suck. Zesty and fruity.

"The beans are dried for several days before they are ground and mixed with sugar cane juice," explains Juan. "It takes a long time. I keep telling you, instant hot chocolate is easier."

The following morning, Sam - a tiny, old man with a toothless smile, a Captain Birdseye-style yellow rain mac and a giant pair of wellies - arrives to take me to stay on Dad Ibe island. As we bounce over the waves in his wooden boat, it becomes apparent that Sam is one of the happiest people in the world. Sighing cheerfully, he says: "It is important to be happy in life. I am 72 and I'm happy. My wife is happy. We love each other. We are very happy..."

Arriving at Dad Ibe in a cloud of Sam's happiness, I do a double take. The island is so small I almost miss it. It is flat and circular with three basic lodges over the sea and a handful of sloping palm trees. I imagine the odd wave washes clean over it.

There is no electricity and little running water - but the overall effect is enchanting. I snorkel happily around my new home before Sam takes me to Ailigandi, his family's island, where a three-day celebration to mark the coming of age of a young girl is taking place. Wandering through the dusty pathways of the island, Sam hands out coins and sweets to almost every child. "That was my adopted son. That was my wife's niece. That was my cousin's daughter." He is, apparently, related to everyone.

Eventually, we peer through the dried bamboo walls of the Congress House, where the Sahila - the village chief - normally presides over daily meetings. Today, however, he is drunkenly singing a song with feathers in his hair. "Everyone is drunk," Sam whispers, keen to hide me. "For three days, everyone drinks chichu, fermented sugar cane, before cutting the girl's hair to show she has become a woman."

Back on Dad Ibe, after a peaceful sunset dinner of fresh crab - and tinned vegetables - the island is shrouded in jet-black darkness. Pushing to the back of my mind fears of errant Colombian drug smugglers - common in these waters, apparently - and listening to the rhythmic thump of waves under my hut, I tumble into another deep sleep.

The following morning, Sam cheerily wakes me before sunrise to catch the plane back to Panama City. Sitting in the boat under moody pre-dawn skies, Sam (still in his beloved wellies) again waxes lyrical about his happiness - and as I marvel at his capacity for pure contentment, a question springs to mind. "Do you drink much hot chocolate, Sam?" I ask. He smiles. "I drink it from time to time. It's very good. You should try it." Maybe those scientists are on to something after all.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

The writer travelled with Reef and Rainforest (01803 866 965; www.reefandrainforest.co.uk), which offers tailor-made seven-night trips to Panama from £1,300. This includes return British Airways/ American Airlines flights from London to Panama City via Miami, four nights' full-boardon the San Blas islands, accommodation (with breakfast) in Panama City and a rainforest lodge, and transfers.

There are no direct flights between the UK and Panama; you have to fly via Europe or the US. Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com) flies via Madrid, while Continental (0845 607 6760; www.continental.com), Delta (0845 600 0950; www.delta.com) and American Airlines (08457 789 789; www.americanairlines.co.uk) fly via various North American hubs.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

MORE INFORMATION

Panama Tourism: www.visitpanama.com.

Latin American Travel Association: 020-8715 2913; www.lata.org.

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