Planning a trip to Panama? Well, if you are looking for beautiful Caribbean clear waters, unspoilt white sandy beaches, remote villages, island living and life at a much slower place, then you MUST include the San Blas islands in your Panama Itinerary!
Following closely behind Panama City, the San Blas islands are one of the most popular destinations in Panama, attracting visitors from all around the world and often included in their Panama Itinerary. Located Northwest of Panama, the San Blas islands consist of more than 360 islands, each with their own charm; some are more party islands, whilst others feel closed off from the external world, where local communities wear traditional dress and live in wooden huts just a few feet away from the ocean.
The San Blas islands are 100% operated by the local tribe, the Kuna (also known as the Guna Yala). Around 50,000 Kuna's live on 49 of the larger San Blas islands all year round but only welcome tourists into a handful of the islands, providing food and lodging. They wear traditional dress and although they live with tourism, they hold true to their traditions. What is really interesting is that the Kuna's are matriarchal, in that it is the women who lead the community and own all of the property and they live as a democracy, holding evening meetings to discuss the days happenings as well as larger regional and nationwide meetings to talk about more prominent issues. The Kuna have their very own cultural identity, integrity, own government and even their own monetary system. Nowadays, most of their income is generated from tourism, supplemented by agriculture, fishing, and handmade artwork. The Kuna people speak their own language as well as Spanish but rarely English. If you cannot speak Spanish well enough, bring a small dictionary that helps you communicate with these lovely souls.
The San Blas islands are incredibly biodiverse and home to some amazing animals and fauna. In control of the Kuna’s, they protet their lands against the changes of tourism, and they remain relatively untouched and unspoilt ~ so please leave them as you found them and take any rubbish away with you.
Organised tour from Panama City: The best option for San Blas is to get an all exclusive package from Panama City. I can personally recommend getting the one from El Machico hostel. The tour was well organised and at a reasonable price. You will have all sorts of options ranging from 2 to 5 days according to the time you have. The tour will include transportation from Panama City to the islands which usually consists of being picked up from your accommodation in the early hours of the morning by a 4x4 jeep, being dropped off at the port (4 hour journey), where a water taxi will then take you the island that you are staying on. In total, it will take you a bit less than a half a day to get there with an organised tour. It includes all your main meals on the islands and the cherry on the cake, an afternoon tour around the islands with snorkeling in the pristine Caribbean waters. It is expensive, but it is worth it. It will cost between €216 / $250 and €390 / $450 depending on how many days you would like to stay on the islands.
Other tour operators that come highly recommended for well thought out itineraries to the San Blas islands are: San Blas Adventures and Panama Travel Unlimited. Both operate out of Panama City and have all the information you need on their website to plan your Panama and San Blas Islands itinerary.
It is really complicated to go there by yourself and it won’t be much cheaper than doing it as a package, and it will definitely take you a full day to travel. Save yourself the time and go with an organised tour. However, if you want to give it a try, find a jeep to the town of Carti, and then a boat to any of the islands.
Another great option is to arrive to the San Blas Islands directly by sailboat from Cartagena in Colombia. This journey usually takes around 4 or 5 day between Cartagena and Panama City (or visa versa), with a 3 day stop over on the San Blas Islands. If this is of interest, you will find plenty of information about this at the hostels in Cartagena / Panama City, just ask at reception. Expect to pay around €460 / $520 but prices vary considerably ~ make sure you book with a reliable agent, check the boat and try and meet the captain beforehand. What you should know however, is that it can get pretty rough at times in the open ocean ~ bring plenty of motion sickness tablets with you to avoid feeling unwell on the boat and ruining your trip. For more information, check out Panama Travel Unlimited’s website. They offer indepth information on what to expect, timetables, what to take with you and costs. They also work really closely with the Kuna community on social and environmental projects as well as sustainable tourism. They offer honest advice about what each of the tours involve and what itinerary would be best suited to your needs / time frame.
You can also fly from Panama City to the San Blas Islands with Air Panama, but this will need to be booked well in advanced as the planes are only small and fill up fast. Expect to pay around €88 / $100. When booking with Air Panama to reach the San Blas islands, there are a number of airfields in the Kuna Yala region, such as: Achutupo (ACU), Corazon de Jesus (CZJ), EL Porvenir (PVE), Malatupo (MPP), Playón Chico (PYC) and Puerto Obaldía (PEU). This is a great option if you are tight on time, but getting a boat over to the islands, is a once in a lifetime experience and one I highly recommend.
On the Island, the best thing to do is to lay back, relax and enjoy the moment. You can also explore the island of Chichime ~ you can walk around the whole island in about 2 hours. Spend some time on the beach, rent some snorkeling equipment and have a dip in these crystal clear waters. From Chichime, you can also take a boat out to the natural pool, which is a spectacular experience. If you book a tour with any of the hostels in Panama City, these little trips are included in your package. The natural pool, is a long sandbank in the middle of the sea, on it you can walk, swim and discover a lot of star fish and ocean-shrooms (mushrooms that grow in the ocean). You can also go to Perro Chico another famous island, this one is really popular as there is a shipwreck just a few meters off the beach that is now home to corals and diverse marine life. It is a perfect invitation to bring your snorkeling equipment and enjoy this moment of aquatic happiness. If you are lucky you will encounter some turtles as well.
As previously mentioned, the Kuna's arrange everything for you on the islands. If you book through the tour operators mentioned in this article, you will be staying in wooden beach huts that are usually equipped with 8 beds and not much else! If you fancy some privacy, pay a couple of extra dollars to get a private hut ~ it will be in the same style as the dorm huts, but instead of being 8 of you, it will be just 2. The electricity is really limited and will only work for a few hours thanks to a generator.
There are no restaurants on the San Blas islands. Your beach-hut hosts will provide you with 3 meals a day, which is included in the accommodation. It is basic food
- For breakfast some eggs and patacon, or fried plantain banana and some fruits.
- For lunch you will get some fresh fish with rice and a salad ~ no cheese or dessert.
- For dinner it is the same, fish, rice, salad.
So, if you need a lot of food, it is essential you bring your own snacks.The main thing about San Blas is to live like the locals do and experience their way of living in paradise. If you are a beach person and your mindset is simple and open, you will have an amazing time and memories that will bring you happiness for a lifetime.
- A torch ~ there is no / limited electricity
- Water (as I said above, you can buy this from Panama City)
- Sleeping bag / Sleeping bag liner
- Bug spray and suncream
- Passport ~ the Kuna may ask to see identification if you have not booked with an organised tour
- Money for entrance taxes (unless this is included in your tour price)
- Warm / waterproof jacket for the boat ride
- Swimming gear / quick dry towel
- Battery pack for your electronics
- CASH - especially coins / small notes
- LifeStraw ~ This is an amazing accessory to have when you are trekking and a cheap alternative to buying water along the way, it also saves on buying plastic bottles and for every purchase, a child in a developing country, receives clean drinking water for 1 school year!
- Don’t expect luxury, it will be basic, and there is no electricity on the island so no way to charge your phone, and actually most of the time there is no mobile phone coverage. You might find the occasional electric generator, but they are usually only turned on for a couple of hours a day. This is the perfect place to do a much needed digital detox!
- When in Panama City, go to a big supermarket and buy a 6-liter water bottle, and some snacks. As soon as you are on the islands you will be able to buy some snacks, but there is not much variety and it will be way more expensive in comparison to the mainland.
- Expect to pay entrance tax to the islands, this is usually around $22 (€19) for tourists ($7 / €6 ) for residents of Panama.
- Take back your rubbish or any plastic waste to recycle it on the mainland. Despite the paradise, the Kuna have no way to take care of all the garbage, so they just burn it wildly. Help them keep the island clean and remember the problem of Plastic pollution.
- Another thing you should know is, that this beautiful paradise is about to disappear. You should go now before it is too late. The Kuna will be relocated because of global warming and rising sea levels in 10-15 years by the Panamanian government.